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.”