The Price of Fantasy

The invasion and occupation of Iraq was essentially conceived by academics, people with PhDs or JDs and names like Paul Wolfowitz, Michael Rubin, Douglas Feith, Fouad Ajami, Victor Davis Hanson and many others well known to us all. These are people who have spent much of their lives considering, debating, and seeking to create grand strategies – elegant solutions for complicated problems – to solve the world’s most pressing issues, and since the early 1990’s they had strongly advocated a grand strategy for countering the threat of radical Islam in the Middle East.
They assumed (correctly in my view) the growth of radical violent anti-Western Islam was driven by two powerful forces; the status quo of failed governance in the Arab and Islamic world and the festering Israeli-Palestinian issue. They concluded the only means for countering those negative forces was the expansion of democracy in heart of the Middle East, by force if necessary. When surveying the potential options to use US power to create a democratic revolution they quickly realized there was only one feasible choice – Iraq.
Like most grand strategies, it looked good on paper. Led by a brutal dictatorial regime, shunned by the world, oppressive of its people, threatening to its neighbors, likely in possession of weapons of mass destruction, but possessing a large, multi-ethnic, educated populace and located in the very heart of the Arab-Islamic world, Iraq was the perfect test case for imposed democracy. The case was clear – black and white. It would be a “cake walk” – a “slam-dunk.” But there is a problem with grand strategies; their grandeur is often brought into question by troubling, little realities.

Concepts or theories of “national interest require one to perceive the world with undistorted clarity and even anticipate second- and third-order effects of policies.” Michael Roskin

It is clear the designers of the now failed Iraq policy were sure they perceived the World, the Middle East, and Iraq, with undistorted clarity. Unfortunately, their clear perception was based on a macro-level analysis that did not consider the micro-level ethno-cultural-religious realities of the region. They were so enamored by the parsimony of their great idea they refused to listen when confronted by those who really did understand the implications of attempting regime change in Iraq.
In order to anticipate second- and third-order effects one must have a detailed understanding of the subtleties of the region in which the strategy is to be applied. When confronted by those with such understanding the intellectuals refused to allow their “undistorted clarity” to be obscured by details. They scoffed at the warnings of people like Pat Lang, and Tony Zinni who told them Iraq would likely become “ungovernable” after Saddam. They ridiculed Gen Shinseki when he suggested several hundred thousand US military personnel would be required to stabilize a post-Saddam Iraq.
They labeled the experts “obstructionists” because their common sense advice, based on years of on the ground experience, was ruining an otherwise beautiful theory. Unfortunately, they prevailed in the policy debate and we’re stuck in Iraq. I pray history does not forgive them for their arrogance. It is certainly not the first time the world has suffered greatly for the arrogance of dilettantes ensconced in ivory towers. In his classic treatise on the 1st World War E.H. Carr specifically addressed the danger of theory unchecked by reality:

“For the intellectual the general principle was simple and straight-forward; the alleged difficulties of applying it were due to obstruction by the experts.”

Dale Davis

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11 Responses to The Price of Fantasy

  1. Some Guy says:

    Excellent post. This kind of willfull dismissal of unpleasant facts, at the level of theory, involves the creation of “inconceivables” — and yes, the Shawn Wallace character from the Princess Bride movies is an apt version of this. Within a given theory, or system of thought on a larger scale, certain possibilities are excluded; in fact it is their exclusion that gives a theory its apparent strength.
    In this case, Bush has repeatedly asked, agog, “How could anyone say we are better off with Saddam in power” The grand theory you mention presumes it is not possible that an invasion in the name of democracy could produce a regional and global insecurity that is worse than a delusional dictator with fantasies of WMD. And while we watch, the “inconievable” does not mean what Bush thinks it means.
    And the really nasty part about such inconvievable possibilities is they usually lie right at the fatal flaw in a sweeping idea.
    To see clearly, one must be willing to have one’s theory falsified. Not unlike the contretemps over ID and evolution, if you remove the necessity of being able to be wrong, judgment is gone and only abstract faith in one’s beautful theory is left.

  2. BostonGemini says:

    That was an excellent post. And an astute comment by Some Guy. It seems to me that we (the US) have a pattern of intervention in foreign affairs that results in a situation far worse than the original scenario. This keeps repeating, and yet we don’t learn. It drives me crazy — except in dire situations of genocide, etc., the US doesn’t have a right to meddle in the governmental affairs of other countries. They have a right to self determination. The more I learn of US history, the clearer this pattern becomes. For example, we support authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, and then are puzzled by the campaign of hatred against the US. A good recent example of unjust intervention is Venezuala. So far Chavez has held on, but what right does the US have to fund/orchestrate a coup, sabotage the oil industry, and lead the recall attempt?

  3. RJJ says:

    please, comments on and clarification of this?,,1072-1731547,00.html
    Iraqis are and have been aware of this, I assume?
    It appears the fantasists DO do some forward planning, after all. Those were not hastily improvised.
    potential second- and third-order effects?
    To the naive non-wonk it seems as if the blowback from this could keep things stirred up in the ME (and clamped down at home in the name of security) till after the icecaps melt.
    Is that their goal?
    Is there a Muse who inspires clusterf***s ?????

  4. Dale R. Davis says:

    I think anyone who believes it was always the secret plan of the Neo-Cons to keep the Middle East in complete disarray is giving them way too much credit. These are idealists who believe Democracy is the solution to the world’s problems and that it can be spread at the point of a gun.
    Despite their academic credentials they are not clever enough to have orchestrated the current chaos for some Machivellian purpose. Further, a careful analysis shows the US is substantially weakened – not strengthened – by the status quo in Iraq.

  5. RJJ says:

    My post started as a query and degenerated into a rant.
    “Is that their goal?” sholuld have had a cue.
    Robert McNamara has been, if not redeemed, at least eclipsed.

  6. RJJ says:

    EDIT: the software removes pointy bracket delimited text. The above line S/B:
    “Is that their goal? should have had a [bitter sarcasm] cue.

  7. RJJ says:

    “These are idealists who believe Democracy is the solution to the world’s problems and that it can be spread at the point of a gun.”
    But that is too simple: they had the pillage plans all wrapped up and ready to go.

  8. BostonGemini says:

    I’ve read and think they actually believed privatizing all the industries would solve all problems. They expected the forces of a free market to just get rolling, pick up momentum, and turn the whole of Iraq into a nation full of free market business and consumers, malls and western ideals.

  9. ismoot says:

    I believe you are right, and the money was nice as it worked out. pl

  10. DSK says:

    “The invasion and occupation of Iraq was essentially conceived by academics.”
    Nice comment, what it leaves out is the fact that people in the know stood by and let it happen.
    One of the things that perplexes me to this day is the lack of discussion of what took place during the first Gulf War–another conflict promoted with the farce of “liberating” and “freeing” the people of Kuwait.
    I happened to have been an Intelligence Analyst doing strike planning and Bomb Damage Assessment for the Air Force at Centcom Headquarters in McDill, A.F.B., in Tampa Florida. Despite the utter incompetance of the Army and Marine Corps personnel with whom I had the displeasure of working, (The Army Master Sergeant in charge of the section actually identified 12 Japanese Mitsubishi F-1 fighters on the tarmac of one airfield) we actually succeeded in destroying virtually everything of military value that Mr. Hussein possessed.
    So, don’t give me that bull that Mr. Powell, then Gen. Powell, was fed faulty information to give to the UN. He saw the same satellite photos that I did. Mr. Hussein finished the war incapable of fighting any conflicts in the region.
    Where was old “Stormin’ Norman?” Where was anyone to say, “Hey, Saddam never had an Air Force or a Missile program that was a threat to us. Moreover, what he did have, we destroyed already.”
    Maybe they were still hiding in shame and did not want to be reminded of what they did there. I counted bodies on the “Road of Death.” That was no military target, it was a shooting gallery attacking fleeing looters, men, women, and children and its no hyperbole to call it a war crime.
    As far as I’m concerned, I think the whole military establishment is to be blamed, not just a handful of “academics” and “too-stupid-to-be-president.”

  11. Pat Lang says:

    I generally share your opinions in this. I have the added advantage of having been in charge of briefing those you are displeased with at the time using the same pictures. you are correct. It is clear that Saddam was never much of a threat to the US. To others, yes, but not to us.
    “people in the know stood by and let it happen.” I would dispute that. These guys were determined not to listen to anyone who knew anything.
    You can’t count the leaders of the national intelligence agencies. They are politicians not intelligence officers. pl

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