A Few Words on Iraq

I have been not writing on Iraq lately, for three reasons. First, the news these days mostly speaks for itself. Second, there is a flood of good commentary, by people who know the country, including those actually on the scene. A distant observer can have little to add. Third, I was mostly right about all this when it mattered: before the war began.

But Paul Wolfowitz’s appearance before the Senate on May 18 prompts a short comment. Wolfowitz told the Foreign Relations Committee:

I would say of all the things that were underestimated, the one that almost no one that I know of predicted, with the exception of a retired Marine colonel named Gary Anderson who wrote this in a op-ed piece in the Post, I believe it was April 2nd of last year, was to properly estimate the resilience of the regime that had abused this country for 35 years; … that they would have hundreds of millions of dollars in bank accounts in neighboring countries to support those operations; that the old Iraqi intelligence service, which had so much blood on its hands…

But the real killers who number in the thousands were much tougher people I think than anyone imagined. … They’re bringing in foreign fighters, as they did in the early stages of the war. And they may not be good in large-scale open battle, but they seem to have a dangerous capability for urban guerrilla tactics, and that’s what we’re up against.

Excuse me? I’m an idiot economist in Texas. A truly distant observer. I’ve never been to Iraq. I never served in the military nor have I ever worked for the CIA. I don’t have a security clearance. But when an old friend—Gary Hart—asked me for some thoughts back in November 2002, here’s what I wrote:

It is important to approach this issue practically—which is to say, from an economic standpoint. One way is to point out that while the impending war on Iraq may prove to be fairly easy (though possibly not, as your friend William Lind argues), the post-war occupation is certainly going to be ugly. Iraq is a huge country. The oil fields, the cities and the port will need to be protected. The protectors will need to be protected. Saddam has 150,000 secret police who will not physically disappear. There is a large Shi’a population with whom our relations could deteriorate quickly if their leaders don’t like our rule. Worst of all there is Al Qaeda. They are not in Iraq right now, but they will be. And they will find plenty of fresh targets in occupied Iraq. Algeria comes to mind; does anyone remember? …

Once we have invaded, getting out again is not going to be easy. On the contrary, it will be very easy for Al Qaeda and others to guarantee just enough turmoil to ensure that it is never quite safe to leave. The choice will therefore become one of staying and bleeding, or of accepting an ignominious retreat–think the Israelis from South Lebanon but on a much larger scale. People need to understand that a decision to invade Iraq is, in effect, a decision to establish what will be, for practical purposes, a permanent zone of occupation there. …

Empire is an economic system. But it is a system that works only in the presence of an overwhelming advantage of force, a general acquiescence of the regional leadership, large local security forces, and an absence of determined opposition. The British held India because, and only so long as, they enjoyed these advantages. In the Sudan, the matter was already different as early as the 1880s. The outcome against the Mahdists at Omdurman was as it was only because, as Hillaire Belloc put it: “Whatever happens, we have got/ The Maxim Gun, and they have not.”

But in modern conditions the correlation of forces does not lie with the imperial power. Explosives, mines, booby traps, rockets and similar weapons of resistance are too cheap and too effective. We will certainly face determined opposition in Iraq, sooner or later and possibly sooner, once the euphoria following the overthrow of Saddam wears off and as our other enemies get a chance to get into the game. The same will be increasingly true of our position elsewhere in the Middle East. In the face of determined opposition, empire has costs that no modern democracy can sustain—and certainly not the United States with our attachment to peacetime prosperity and abhorrence of body bags.

I knew this, five months before we invaded Iraq (and yes, I’ve cited it before). And when we were at the gates of Baghdad, I wrote in these pages:

The fact remains that Iraq is presently governed by a very effective armed gang, numbering in the scores of thousands. It will therefore continue to offer stiff resistance first to occupation and later to reconstruction, until that gang is destroyed, root and branch, by a far superior force. And, it is now clear, the application of that force, if it can succeed at all, must entail a horrific level of violence.

Paul Wolfowitz is an academic, like me. Unlike me he is an actual specialist in international affairs. He should know the history of British India and the Sudan. He should know elementary facts about modern Iraq. If I knew these things, how is it possible that Paul Wolfowitz did not?

Perhaps he is lying. In which case, he willfully acted against the security interests of the United States, and is now trying to cover up that fact.

And the other possibility is that the government, for which he speaks, is incompetent. Bankrupt. Null and void for every practical purpose. Unworthy of respect, deference, or loyalty.

In either case, this government must be replaced, completely and utterly. It should be replaced by people with two elementary virtues. First, they must be dedicated to the actual security interests of the United States. And second, they must be able to think. Beyond that, it almost doesn’t matter what their politics are.

James K. Galbraith teaches at the LBJ School.

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Published at 12:00 am CST