Yglesias Award Nominee


"I think the regime change policy established under Bill Clinton was the right policy. I think taking Saddam seriously after 9/11 was the right policy. But, of the many arguments in favor of toppling Saddam in 2001-2002 one of the most important — in my mind and, I believe, in the mind of many others — was that toppling the Iraq domino and standing-up a stable, democratically inclined government was supposed to be comparatively easy. The demonstration-effect argument has not panned out.

I believe we're in for a long war on terror. I believe the Iraq war was — and is — part of the war on terror. But resources — political, economic, military, diplomatic etc — are finite. And, I find it hard to believe that if we knew everything we know now back then we would have agreed to allocate them in the same way. Of course you can pile counter-factual upon counter-factual. If we had that sort of perfect knowledge back then we would have handled the initial looting differently. We would have done all sorts of things differently. Fine, fine. But that's basically my point. I'm all for being on offense. But I think in retrospect we called the wrong play. But simply because you called the wrong play doesn't mean you walk off the field," - Jonah Goldberg, yesterday.

It's hard to disagree with him. I'm well into the Woodward book now and what's striking is how many people in the government warned very clearly that this was not going to be easy - and they were ignored or fired or lost traction in internal fighting. The interesting question - unanswerable but also essential to ask - is obvious, and has been wrestled with elsewhere. Was this project always doomed or did the execution doom it? I'm still struggling with that question. Woodward's evidence suggests that the incompetence and recklessness - almost carelessness - at the top was so staggering that historians will have a hard time separating out the variables for failure. But it doesn't mean it was ever "comparatively easy." I made the dumb error of thinking that the administration would never leap into such a scenario with no real plan for the aftermath. I made the error of believing these people had even a minimal sense of responsibility. My only defense is that I have tried to avoid that error ever since.

(Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty.)