Foresight Was 20/20

By Jackson Diehl

Washington Post
Monday, January 5, 2004; Page A17

"Almost all the studies recommended that the United States try to avoid the political trouble it now has by handing control over Iraq, or at least its political transition, to the United Nations, and by exercising its influence indirectly." -- Jackson Diehl
[A proposition that will sound familiar to Dennis Kucinich supporters. -- N.J., Jan. 5, 2004]

The Bush administration has been hammered for failing to anticipate or plan for the many problems of postwar Iraq or to set aside the money to pay for them. Its spokesmen insist, as they did before the war, that there was no way of knowing in advance what challenges might come up and what it might take to meet them.
Yet, looking back at what Washington's foreign policy community expected from an intervention in Iraq, it's striking how much of the trouble the U.S. mission now faces was accurately and publicly predicted.

On my desk is a pile of more than a dozen studies and pieces of congressional testimony on the likely conditions of postwar Iraq, prepared before the invasion by think tanks of the left, center and right, by task forces of veteran diplomats and area experts, and by freelancing academics.

The degree of consensus was remarkable: Iraq's reconstruction would be long and costly, violence was likely and goodwill toward the United States probably wouldn't last for long.

Who could have foreseen the Sunni insurgency that is slowly bleeding U.S. forces? Well, for one, Amatzia Baram, a well-known expert on Iraq. In a paper included in a survey published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in September 2002, Baram predicted that "U.S. soldiers would represent an ideal target for underground Baath cells, al Qaeda terrorists, Shiite fundamentalists. The United States, he concluded, "would be on the horns of a dilemma. If it evacuated its military forces soon after toppling Saddam, it would be unable to ensure the new regime's stability. If U.S. troops remained in Iraqi cities, however, they would be in harm's way."

Phoebe Marr, another leading specialist on Iraq, also warned of a nationalist backlash. In six months or a year, she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee 10 days before the war, "some opposition [will] surface." She added: "This presents us with a dilemma, and we will have to make tradeoffs. To get real political and social change -- a constitutional regime, for example -- will take time. But the longer we stay, the more we risk generating national resentment and opposition."

The resistance might not now be so great, of course, if the occupation administration had not dissolved the Iraqi army -- an error that several of the pre-war studies warned against.

"The army could serve as a guarantor of peace and stability," said one commission chaired by former ambassadors Edward P. Djerejian and Frank G. Wisner. "The army ought to be downsized and revamped . . . but this ought to be done gradually and without deliberately humiliating its members," counseled the International Crisis Group.

Nor, it turns out, was it so hard to predict how much the war would cost or how many troops might be needed. A Council on Foreign Relations task force report cited a range of 75,000 to 200,000 U.S. soldiers; there are 130,000 there now. Former State Department official James Dobbins stressed in a footnote that "this is not a commitment America alone can long sustain." As for costs, most of the independent estimates fell between $100 billion and $200 billion; William D. Nordhaus of Yale published a widely quoted study predicting direct costs of $150 billion to $740 billion over 10 years. So far, the Bush administration has committed to spend more than $160 billion in the first two years.

It's not that these predictions weren't heard inside the administration; some were echoed by the State Department's own postwar Iraq project. But the small group of Pentagon civilians who monopolized control over the occupation chose to ignore the expert opinion -- they were more swayed by Iraqi exiles, who insisted the country could be rapidly transformed if only existing institutions, such as the army, were completely dismantled. L. Paul Bremer, who took charge of the Coalition Provisional Authority in June, confessed that until his appointment he had been absorbed by his private-sector career and hadn't read most of the Iraq studies.

It's not too late to listen to some of the advice. The most serious problems foreseen by the experts have not yet materialized but may do so this year. One is the drive of the Kurdish leadership to acquire more territory and autonomy than the rest of Iraq can tolerate, which could touch off a civil war or foreign intervention. Another is the danger that an Iraqi provisional government will be created too quickly, causing it to be perceived as a U.S. puppet. Summing up the Washington Institute's collection of papers, Patrick Clawson observed that Iraq's history suggests that its first governments will be subject to serial violent challenges, and that pro-Western leaders won't survive unless they are defended by American troops.

Almost all the studies recommended that the United States try to avoid the political trouble it now has by handing control over Iraq, or at least its political transition, to the United Nations, and by exercising its influence indirectly. At the same time, they warned against a speedy departure. "While moving the process along as quickly as possible, the United States must not be limited by self-imposed timelines but rather should adopt an objectives-based approach," said Djerejian and Wisner. The administration ignored that first piece of advice, to its great cost. If it is to avoid disaster in 2004, it had best remember the second.

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