Answer 2. The occupation, handicapped by the unilateral and ill-considered basis for regime-change, was mismanaged because it was badly planned by the wrong people, poorly improvised, and driven by inappropriate assumptions.

Only stranded platoons of neo-conservatives now claim that the occupation went well after May 2003. What is true is that the military war was won quickly, efficiently, and effectively, i.e. with minimal collateral damage, both to civilians and property, and with generally disciplined compliance with the laws of war. But subsequent policy appeared almost designed to provoke resistance and fragmentation in Arab Iraq.

What went wrong? Insufficient troops (including those with policing capabilities) were deployed in Arab Iraq to win the peace, despite pre-war advice. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s doctrines on how to fight modern war proved quite effective, but not as recipes for peace. Planning for the occupation was led by the Pentagon, whose forte is not state-building, and whose senior officials behaved arrogantly, learning little from U.S. interventions in the 1990s. It was presumed that Saddam’s elite supporters would collapse, but that many institutions, especially the police, would remain intact. The complete loss of policing control and the spree of looting—abetted by Saddam’s release of criminals—created a Hobbesian problem of disorder that was widely foreseen and could have been pre-empted. The rapid dissolution of the B‘ath party and the Iraqi Army, coupled with a failure to take steps to render their leadership structures ineffective or to collect weapons, created significant numbers able to resist the occupation—and engage in crime. Insufficient troops and police meant that neither internal security nor effective sealing of the borders were achieved—thus aiding spoiling activities across the Syrian, Iranian, and Saudi borders, and inviting an influx of wahhabists.

Risibly, the invasion’s planners had assumed that the occupation of oil-rich Iraq would quickly become self-financing. The subsequent financial realities led to panicked budgetary requests to Congress and delays in organizing vital local expenditures that could have consolidated support for regime-change within Arab Iraq.

If there ever was a coherent plan, its executors changed it quickly: Ambassador L. Paul Bremer replaced General Jay Garner. Bremer was a more authoritative and authoritarian figure, but his improvisations lacked panache. The planned time-span of occupation rapidly ranged from indeterminate, to two years, to one year, with the abolition of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in June 2004. This itself generated uncertainty that encouraged resistance, and threatened to undermine the one major achievement of Bremer’s tenure, the negotiation of the Transitional Administrative Lawx. Furthermore, the governance of the CPA was frequently dreadful: the pathologies of contractors and privatized security personnel are worth books in themselves; the rapid rotation of the best U.S. officers on the ground was utterly counter-productive, from both a military and a political perspective; U.N. oil-for-food funds authorized for Kurdistan were appropriated by the CPA. The CPA, nicely satirized as Can’t Provide Anything, initially presided over a chaotic mess in Arab Iraq, and ended by creating a climate in which torture was practiced by authorized U.S. personnel in Saddam’s dungeons in Abu Ghraib—to the shame of decent Americans everywhere.

It was hubris to declare “Mission Accomplished” in May 2003, and it was folly one year later to oscillate between determined coercion and appeasement in the treatment of al-Sadr’s Mahdi army in Kufa, Najaf, and Baghdad. It was bizarre to decide to be ruthless toward B‘athists dug inside Faluja, a key base for the organization of suicide-bombings, and then to retreat under media heat, enabling at least one critical journalist to write (in exaggeration), “A year after Bush declared major combat in Iraq over, insurgents have their own capital in Faluja.”xi In the end, the CPA’s most successful achievement was to leave two days ahead of schedule.

Westerners and Arabs who opposed the war generally regard the new interim government as stooges. A typical academic summation of this orthodoxy derides “a supposedly sovereign interim government,” treats the transfer of sovereignty as “another election ploy” by the Bush administration, and accuses the Americans and the interim government of preparing “a show trial in Baghdad” of Saddamxii. When Western academics are keener to look out for Saddam’s human rights than to constructively support the new government of Iraq, we can be certain that the occupation has not succeeded with non-American public opinion.

In fact, the occupation could not go well because the administration never resolved whether it was intent simply on removing Saddam and organizing a quick exit, or on the comprehensive democratic reconstruction of Iraq, which implied a careful and judicious long-haul intervention, part of a wider proclaimed program to facilitate the democratization of the Middle East. The resultant confusion compromised both strategies: Iraq got a Rumwolf, half of Rumsfeld, and half of Wolfowitz.

So my second uneasy answer is that more or less everything could have been done better, especially in security, economic, and institutional planning. Order needed to be established with overwhelming numbers (the Powell doctrine applied to post-conflicts). Interim constitutional renewal should have been more openly made rather than driven in secret by Ambassador Bremer. Effective regime-changes are neither cheap nor easy. The coalition missed its opening political moments of opportunity; failed to build properly on the goodwill especially available among Kurds and Shi‘a Arabs to create a robust governing coalition; and allowed crushed pockets of resistance to reform. Counterinsurgency policy was not coherently married to constitutional rebuilding and political reconstruction, and U.S. foreign policy in the rest of the Middle East remains an easy target for critics within and outside the Arab worldxiii.

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2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 08/27/04

FEATURE: Hard Questions, Uneasy Answers
By Brendan O'Leary
Illustration by Anastasia Vasilakis

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x See Brendan O’Leary, ‘Two Cheers for the Transitional Law of Iraq’. The Pennsylvania Gazette (May-June 2004).

xi Patrick Cockburn. “Diary”. London Review of Books, July 22, 2004, 34-5. The notion of a ‘capital’ implies Iraqi nationalist unity in the resistance, which I do not credit. Mostly Sunni Ba‘thists and al-Sadr’s (Iran-sponsored) Shi‘a are not natural bedfellows.

xii Michael Byers, “Alleged War Criminals”. London Review of Books, 22 July 2004, 30-1

xiii Disarray is, I think, a far more accurate portrait than the claim in much of the Arab media and some of the western left that a re colonization of Iraq was, and is, underway, cf. Tariq Ali, Bush in Babylon: The Re-Colonization of Iraq (Verso, 2004)