Semi-Daily Journal Archive

The Blogspot archive of the weblog of J. Bradford DeLong, Professor of Economics and Chair of the PEIS major at U.C. Berkeley, a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Treasury.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Norm Geras: Failure in Iraq

Norm Geras says: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa:

normblog: Failure in Iraq: Too many people have died in Iraq and too many people are dying there - and this is to say nothing of the wider social disaster that has overtaken the country, the numbers of the dead aside.

The above is not intended as a comment on the latest Lancet report.... I'm put off by expressions of scepticism [of the Lancet report] of a form to suggest that while 600,000?+ deaths is not a credible figure there is some lower, though still very high, figure about which supporters of the war could feel relaxed. The situation has passed that point, whatever it might be thought to be. Too many have died and too many are dying.

Saying this, I do not intend, either, to imply that the battle in Iraq is lost, and that all hope of salvaging a half-way decent, or even just not totally disastrous, outcome should be abandoned. I fear this may be so, but am unwilling to give up hope.... I am also not, therefore, signalling agreement with those who say that there is now nothing for it but to pull US and British forces out of Iraq.... Still, there have been too many deaths; there has been too much other suffering. It has lately become clear to me - and this predates publication of the second Lancet report - that, whatever should now happen in Iraq, the war that I've supported has failed according to one benchmark of which I'm in a position to be completely certain.

That is, had I been able to foresee, in January and February 2003, that the war would have the results it has actually had in the numbers of Iraqis killed and the numbers now daily dying, with the country (more than three years down the line) on the very threshold of civil war if not already across that threshold, I would not have felt able to support the war and I would not have supported it.... [T]he war has failed. Had I foreseen a failure of this magnitude, I would have withheld my support. Even then, I would not have been able to bring myself to oppose the war. As I have said two or three times before, nothing on earth could have induced me to march or otherwise campaign for a course of action that would have saved the Baathist regime. But I would have stood aside....

Were we therefore wrong to support the war, those of us who did?.... Only if the disaster was always foreseeable as the most likely outcome would I be convinced of it. I'm aware, of course, that there are opponents of the war who claim it always was foreseeable, but there are other impulses at work there than a detached estimate of probabilities, and amongst these has been a desire not to dwell too closely on how bad things had been in Iraq.... Sometimes there is a justification for opposing tyranny and barbarism whatever the cost.... Even so, I am bound to acknowledge that, though I never expected an easy sequel in Iraq, much less a 'cakewalk', I did not anticipate a failure on this scale, and had I done so, I would have withheld support for the war without giving my voice to the opposition to it.

I would certainly agree that the Bush administration has been a much greater disaster than even I imagined. But what warrant did anybody have in the spring of 2003 for ignoring the fact that the Bush administration had already proven to be a disaster? I return again and again to Daniel Davies's pre-Iraq war question:

D-squared Digest -- FOR bigger pies and shorter hours and AGAINST more or less everything else: I find myself with a few spare minutes and make the mistake of reading Thomas Friedman again. His conclusion after a long, dull and witless ramble about the introduction of "democracy" to Iraq (just what the Gulf region needs, more puppet states) reads "If [it is] done right, the Middle East will never be the same. If done wrong, the world will never be the same". There's not much you can say to that except "shut up you silly man". But it does inspire in me the desire for a competition; can anyone, particularly the rather more Bush-friendly recent arrivals to the board, give me one single example of something with the following three characteristics:

  1. It is a policy initiative of the current Bush administration
  2. It was significant enough in scale that I'd have heard of it (at a pinch, that I should have heard of it)
  3. It wasn't in some important way completely fucked up during the execution.

It's just that I literally can't think what possible evidence Friedman might be going on in his tacit assumption that the introduction of democracy to Iraq (if it is attempted at all) will be executed well rather than badly. Worst piece of counterfactual speculation by Friedman since the day he pondered the question "If I grew a moustache well, I would look distinguished and stylish; if I grew one badly, I'd look like a pillock".

I would genuinely like to understand Norm Geras's thinking: what had the Bush administration done between its inauguration and March 2003 to give him such confidence in its competence?

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