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In The New Yorker

Peter J Boyer's "Downfall: How Donald Rumsfeld reformed the Army and lost Iraq" is the indispensable read in this week's New Yorker. For one thing, it explains that much of what now looks like incompetent leadership was in fact the sad consequence of crossed wires and contrary agendas. The Defense Department, flogged on by neoconservative officials and advisors, planned to crown the capture of Baghdad with the imposition of a provisional Iraqi government (remember Ahmad Chalabi?). Then American forces would leave. The State Department would have nothing to do with this scheme, and argued persuasively for the establishment of the Coalition Provisional Authority, which would be administered by an American proconsul until some sort of legitimate Iraqi constitution had been adopted by Iraqis. So American forces did not leave Iraq. On the contrary, they stood by while the one outcome for which they had not been trained engulfed the country: insurgency.

If there is a single worst decision in all this mess, it is probably Paul Bremer's decision to discharge all Baathist soldiers and officials. As Mr Boyer writes, "In effect, half a million men, many with guns, were sent into the streets." But the arrival of a "huge instant bureaucracy" within the Green Zone signaled to Iraqis that the Americans were in Baghdad for the long haul. Because this had never been part of the Defense plan, and because our military had never been trained to do what amounted to police work, the American presence was as ineffective as it was disliked. 

Mr Boyer also traces the career of Andrew Marshall, a military thinker who has spearheaded what is called the "Revolution in Military Affairs. One gathers that Secretary Rumsfeld spent more time implementing aspects of the RMA overhaul - shifting troops, reducing costs - than worrying about Iraq. Without actually saying so, the piece suggests that Mr Rumsfeld might well have thought it reasonable to regard Iraq as someone else's problem: his problem was to bring the armed forces up to speed. And this he is credited with having accomplished, largely by exploiting the war to railroad through a host of micromanaging changes. (How this meshes with unarmored troops in Iraq escapes me.)

The lesson for leaders to draw from this sad chapter of American history is that a leadership's insistence on a united front and foreclosure of dissent is the royal road to disaster. Had the argument between State and Defense been conducted in the open, more conservative Americans might have been reluctant to support the war.

Donald Rumsfeld's protracted attempt to convince anyone who would listen that Iraq had not succumbed to insurgency is frighteningly remarkable, worthy of a tragic hero.


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