Interesting reading about the Iraq War

Here are some recent articles I found of interest about our Middle East wars. Please share in the comments links to anything you found of interest.

“The morning after”, Abu Muqawama (10 April 2008) — Excerpt:

So Petraeus and Crocker both got slapped around a bit by both houses of Congress, and honestly, the whole affair left a bad taste in Abu Muqawama’s mouth: a) it’s not their policy they’re trying to implement in Iraq and b) these two guys with a very limited scope of responsibility were constantly asked about American strategy writ large.

“What about Afghanistan?!”
“I dunno, I’m in charge of Iraq.”

“What about the welfare of the ground forces?!”
“I dunno, I’m in charge of Iraq.”

“What about Osama bin Laden?!”
“Is he in Iraq?”

“Why haven’t we secured our ports?”
“Well, it’s been tough to do from Baghdad, but we’ll get on it.”

Iraq: Dark Shadows of Things to Come“, Wayne White, Middle East Institute (3 April 2008) — Excerpt:

Sunni & Shia Affairs The Nuri al Maliki government’s failure to defeat Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Basra is yet another indication that beneath the widely acclaimed “success” of the surge is a country largely bereft of the legitimate governance required for genuine stability. Iran’s intermediary role between Maliki and Sadr suggests that what passes for an Iraqi central government is, in fact, little more than another actor on an Iraqi political scene still badly fragmented along factional lines.

… The popular appeal of the brash, anti-American and nationalistic young cleric among vast numbers of downtrodden Shi’a has been powerful. It may now exceed that of other more established movements such as that of leading rival Abdul Aziz al-Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI).

Although little-discussed, this episode also undermines the myth of the successful surge. S adr’s Mahdi Army was not especially strong in Basra until the surge into Baghdad in early 2007 caused thousands of Sadr’s fighters to redeploy to southern Iraq, effectively out of reach of US forces, in order to wait out the surge. This major reverse for the Iraqi central government is partly an adverse consequence of the surge.

Lost in Iraq“, Matthew Yglesias (9 April 2008) — Excepts:

I first came around to the “set a deadline” point of view in late 2004. In the 3 three years since that strategy was rejected, basically every single bad consequence (ethnic cleansing, civil war, Iranian influence, al-Qaeda propaganda gains) that I was warned would follow from leaving happened even though we stayed.

There’s no sense in looking at a complicated, unpredictable situation that crucially depends on dozens of variables outside of our control and simply assuming that all potential ills will flow from U.S. military withdrawal and all potential goods will flow from a continued presence.

Comment by vanya:

Iraq may be a mess and a disaster, but as far as people in DC, or anywhere in elite America, are concerned it’s just not that bad. The Kagans of the world are not getting killed, their sons and daughters aren’t at risk. Yes, the war’s expensive but America’s a rich place and if large parts of our infrastructure collapse in 20 years no one will connect that to Iraq. There is, and this is the tragedy, seemingly no downside for the Kagans, the Liebermans, the Feiths of the world to keep doubling down, tripling down, quadrupling down on Iraq.

Comment by Steve:

One problem with making a good decision about Iraq is that at an intuitive level, people greatly overvalue losses as compared with potential gains. The late Amos Tversky and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman labelled this phenomenon “loss aversion“. That makes it a tough sell to people that it is a good idea to cut our losses even when logic dictates that we should.

Petraeus Overplays His Hand“, Phillip Carter, blogging at the Washington Post (9 April 2008) — Carter is a vet, served in Iraq, and attorney working with defense issues. Excerpt:

“The reality is, it is hard in Iraq.” That statement by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker pretty much sums up what he and Gen. David Petraeus presented to Congress yesterday. Iraq is hard, but we are making headway; victory is possible, if we only persevere.

Except that in making this pitch, Petraeus and Crocker overplayed their hand. T hey overstated the threat posed by al-Qaeda in Iraq in an effort to justify the mission — a mindset that has generated a deeply flawed strategy. They also overplayed the surge’s success — downplaying or discounting factors that likely did more to create today’s improved security conditions. While their “Anaconda” strategy looks cool on a PowerPoint slide, it confuses the issues of control and influence, putting too much stock in America’s ability to engineer success in Iraq.

And, perhaps most tellingly, the two men made the case for perseverance without placing Iraq in the context of vital U.S. national interests, offering only apocalyptic predictions of what would happen if we don’t stay the course.

According to Petraeus and Crocker, the real threats in Iraq are al-Qaeda and other sinister forces originating in Iran and elsewhere. Blame for all of Iraq’s bloodshed lies with these parties. It makes for a neat narrative. It’s also wrong.

The vast majority of Iraqi violence over the past five years has been caused

  1. by ethno-sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites;
  2. intra-sectarian fighting amongst Sunnis and Shiites;
  3. fighting over scarce resources (oil, fuel, water, food, control over ministries with responsibility for the same); and
  4. fighting by Iraq’s homegrown Sunni insurgency and homegrown Shiite militias.

AQI has played an important role as catalyst and spoiler — stoking the fires of sectarian violence (as with the 2006 mosque bombing in Samarra), and keeping them going whenever peace threatened to emerge. But that is a supporting role, and it is a mistake to cast AQI in the lead role and to characterize U.S. efforts in Iraq as a counterinsurgency against AQI.

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling). Or tell us what you believe to be worthwhile reading for this weekend.

For more information about the Iraq War

  1. Archive of links to articles about the Iraq War — My articles, and links to several by Niall Ferguson.
  2. Our Goals and Benchmarks for the Expedition to Iraq

5 thoughts on “Interesting reading about the Iraq War

  1. Wow. I just found and read Michael Ledeen’s weblog. I’m betting Iran will “take the blame” for the eventual failure of the surge: “The Continuing Iran-American War“, Michael Leeden at Faster, Please (5 April 2008).
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    Fabius Maximus: I love these guys that write as if they were at the right hand of God. So precise, so confident, so unlike any actual expert. Note these gems — no sources cited, perhaps speaking ex cathedra:

    “The Shi’ite militias and al Qaeda in are also closely tied to Iran.”

    “All this attention to Moqtadah is at odds with his actual behavior: he long since abandoned the battlefield. Missing from Iraq for many months, he recently resurfaced with the surprising announcement that he had gone to Iran to devote himself to religious. The Iranians had fired him, and they restructured the Mahdi Army into smaller, more autonomous groups. The recent violence came from the new units, headed by Iranian officers, agents, and recruits who, Tehran hoped, are not well known to Coalition and Iraqi military intelligence.”

  2. Wow. Just wow. Steve cites loss aversion as the primary reason we seek to continue to suffer losses. The children is learning, aren’t they?
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    Fabius Maximus: Steve is quite right. It is well studied how people will continue to make losing gambles in an attempt to get even. The loss is not psychologically recognized until one gives up (loss recognition); until then it is just a temporary misfortune. This dynamic turns small errors into horrible losses (e.g., WWI), and leads us to ignore altnerative uses of the money.

  3. Lebanon’s Daily Star has a a nice editorial, “Ignorance is reinforcing America’s failed project in Iraq” (11 April):

    Over the last few days, in the heart of Washington’s beltway, American lawmakers have been actively engaged in a game of make-believe. During a series of special hearings, the men and women of the US Congress were being briefed on the “progress” of their country’s five-year-long war in Iraq. The assessments that they heard were replete with warnings – all couched in newly invented terminology – about shadowy threats from things like “special groups,” “criminal militia elements” and an alleged Iranian “Lebanization strategy.” But the members of Congress were not briefed about the negative consequences that their own presence and bad decisions have had on the country for the last five years…

  4. as so often Juan Cole has more insight, “Bush Abdicates to Generals on Iraq” (11 April 2008):

    “War turns Republics into dictatorships. The logic is actually quite simple. The Constitution says that the Congress is responsible for declaring war. But in 2002 Congress turned that responsibility over to Bush, gutting the constitution and allowing the American Right to start referring to him not as president but as ‘commander in chief’ (that is a function of the civilian presidency, not a title.)

    “Now Bush has now turned over the decision-making about the course of the Iraq War to Gen. David Petraeus. So Congress abdicated to Bush. Bush has abdicated to the generals in the field.

    “That is not a Republic. That is a military dictatorship achieved not by coup but by moral laziness.

    “Ironically, what officers like Petraeus need from Bush is not deference but vigorous leadership in the political realm. Bush needs to intervene to work for political reconciliation in Iraq if Petraeus’s military achievements are to bear fruit…..”
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    Fabius Maximus replies: You are kidding, right? To call this is a military dictatorship is absurd. I suggest Prof Cole either adjust his meds or read about real military dictatorships. The is no evidence for most of the above.

  5. My bad, FM, thanks for the correction. Seems I mistook jargon for English. I read “loss avoidance” as actions taken to avoid loss, not as delusional denial of losses already incurred. Eventually perhaps we can make language a complete impediment to communication.
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    Fabius Maximus: Professional terminology — aka jargon — results from the growth of knowledge. I embed links to Wikipedia (as for “loss avoidance” above) to provide easy definitions for such things.

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