September 03, 2004


The most "convincing" defense of the bungled Iraq occupation was always the idea that no one could have predicted the chaos that ensued. (See Mac Owens here.) Or at least it was convincing until James Fallows stomped it into the ground by showing how the administration ignored the State Department's well-researched "Future of Iraq" project. And now Peter Galbraith gets in a few kicks of his own:

It appears that Bremer never realized that his decrees would not legally outlast the occupation. It was a rookie's mistake caused, as with so many other CPA failures, by the lack of expertise on the part of his staff. The TAL was largely the responsibility of two of Bremer's assistants (dubbed "the west wingers"), one an extremely capable but relatively junior Foreign Service officer and the other a young political appointee from the Pentagon's stable of neoconservative nation-builders. Imbued with grand ideas such as remaking the Iraqi judiciary with a US-style Supreme Court, they apparently neglected to consult an international lawyer.

The Bush administration's recruitment of staff for the CPA is one of the great scandals of the American occupation, although it has so far received little attention from the press. Republican political connections counted for far more than professional competence, relevant international experience, or knowledge of Iraq. In May, The Washington Post ran an account of three young people recruited for service in the CPA by e-mail, without interviews, security clearances, or relevant experience. They ended up responsible for spending Iraq's budget; because they knew little about the country or about financial procedures, they did so slowly. The failure to spend money was of course the source of enormous frustration to jobless Iraqis and undoubtedly produced recruits for the insurgency.

Right-- you can't predict much if you shelve all the experts. Michael Schuerer touches on this problem more pointedly in Imperial Hubris -- revealing a government-wide abhorrence towards expertise. Analysts who devote a career towards a single topic get passed over for promotion, while generalists -- officials who bounce from field to field, renaissance men -- get plunked into cushy leadership spots. But it's not like you can expect wide-ranging pundit-types to run an occupation. In the case of Iraq, local expertise -- about Shiite politics, Kurdish ambitions, international law, religious protocol -- is pretty much the alpha and omega here.

In an unrelated note, who recommended the fire sale of Iraqi assets during the occupation? The privatization schemes (Juan Cole calls it "Polish-style shock therapy") flouted international law, pissed off Iraqis, and generally weakened the social fabric. This shouldn't have been hard to predict -- notable economists from Stiglitz to free-traders like Jagdish Bhagwati have warned against too-quick privatization and relaxing capital controls. (In a really unrelated note, it's hard to think of a more dangerous error than the confusion of trade liberalization with institutional liberalization.)

Oh, right, and Galbraith plugs his "loose federation" plan once more. Not sure what to say -- it's still a dodgy idea. The main problem isn't that Turkey will bust loose and attack Northern Kurdistan (though I think the underreported division between the KDP and PUK would come into play here). As long as Turkey's primping for an EU spot, and as long as the alternative is an Islamist or failed state, you have to think that Erdogan will let independent Kurdistan do its own thing, under some sort of agreed anti-insurgency framework. And the whole Kirkuk issue can probably be resolved gently. No, the real problem is that the Sunni and Shiite areas don't divide quite so neatly. The Sunnis still haven't formed any sort of significant post-Baath political order (apart from the marginalized Iraqi Islamic Party and the shadowy Muslim brotherhood), which augurs well for further violence. And when that happens, enter Riyadh and Tehran, stage south and west.

On the other hand, seeing as how the Kurds are sort of leaning towards independence anyways, especially with Barzani and Talabani back from Baghdad -- and will lean further if it ever comes up for referendum, a partition might ease in an otherwise painful inevitable. It all comes down to what the experts think -- wherever they are.

-- Brad Plumer 8:56 PM || ||