David Brooks has a great column today which is too important to be available for non-subscribers. He recounts how many distant pundits saw immediately the problems in the invasion almost as soon as it started. Rumsfeld and Franks didn't, which is why, in Bush's house of mirrors, one was given the Medal of Freedom and the other is still in office, refusing to concede any errors. The worries the rest of us had were specifically the insufficient troops and emerging guerrilla resistance in the first days of armed conflict on the ground. Since I've been beating myself up lately for getting things wrong before the war, I went back to my own archives to see what I was thinking in March 2003. I was worried, but still gung-ho. The tone of my comments about the anti-war crowd is hubristic and occasionally cringe-inducing, to be honest (although it remains a matter of historical fact that some on the anti-Bush left clearly wanted the war to fail solely to attack the president). Still, I was clearly rattled by the emerging reality, even from my distant perch, even in the first few days. Some money quotes:
"The question, to my mind, is who these resisters really are. Senior Saddamites who know they could get killed when power shifts? Islamist terrorists? Opportunists? Regular soldiers? It's extremely hard to tell; and it certainly helps reveal the difficulties ahead for governing a country where such units can melt away into residential neighborhoods.
Do we have enough troops in time for the final battle? Have we gone too fast too soon? Those seem reasonable concerns to me, although I'm not qualified to take a side in the argument. But it is not too unreasonable to worry that with one northern front denied us, we need overwhelming force to smash through to Baghdad quickly enough. Do we have enough? And do we have enough humanitarian follow-through available soon enough to build support in the South?"
A day later, my concerns were deepening:
"It seems to me that we may have under-estimated the psychological effect of president George H. W. Bush's brutal betrayal of the Iraqi people in 1991, at the behest of the U.N. No wonder Iraqis are still skittish about Americans and fearful that this interlude may end. The allied strategy of simply skirting past major cities also means that Saddam's henchmen may still be in control there, and so feelings are still deeply skeptical, mixed or shrouded. I also think that we hawks might have under-estimated the Iraqis' sense of national violation at being invaded - despite their hatred of Saddam."
Two days later, I was still fretting, while providing material on the other side of the argument:
"The Shi'a population in the South is still not sure of an allied victory. It seems we under-estimated their skittishness about an allied war - due in large part to their understandably bitter feelings at being betrayed in 1991. If we had more overwhelming force in the region, that may have been less of a problem. But it appears we don't, for reasons of logistics and Turks but also of war planning."
By March 27, I was beating myself up again:
"It may also be true that some of us have again under-estimated something: the power of a totalitarian cult over its enforcers. The guys fighting us are the equivalent of the SS. We're invading a milder version of Nazi Germany - only after eleven years of relative peace. These guys have barely been softened up at all. Why did conservative hawks like me not believe our own rhetoric about the horrors of totalitarianism? The point about such systems, as Orwell showed, is not just their brittleness and evil, but their success in indoctrinating and marshalling the shock troops. I'm chagrined at my own optimism in this regard. I should not have been surprised by the ferocity of the elite's defense of itself."
By March 31, I had come to the same conclusion that Francis Fukuyama was to assert three years later:
"The experience of the collapse of the Soviet Union perhaps lulled us into over-confidence."
The point is not to exonerate myself. I was too confident before the war, trusted the Bush amdinistration far too much and was too scornful of the opposition's bias to hear some of their substantive arguments. But I was quickly adjusting to reality. The point is: if even I could see this, why couldn't Rumsfeld or Bush? Or Franks?
Of course, there were some even more optimistic than the president or me. I wasn't the person who declared: "This war is going to be over in a flash." That was Bill Clinton, the man whose formal 1998 policy of regime change in Iraq was finally being implemented.