America Has a Brilliant Strategy for Iraq: Muddle Through

Never has the United States lost an engagement as quickly and decisively as it is now losing its campaign to pacify and rebuild Iraq. Never has an administration proceeded with so little competence and planning. Postwar Iraq is not just a disaster in the making. It is a disaster already made.

So one would have thought from many of the commentaries and press reports in August—a dismal month for the occupation, scarred by two devastating terrorist bombings—and on into September, when things went better. A quick online search produces a cascade of articles with headlines such as "A Nightmare in Iraq," "U.S. Sinking in Iraq Quagmire," "'Logic' of Occupation Points to More Trouble." All of which is mild compared to some of what I hear from friends and acquaintances, especially the Democrats.

The alleged rush to war was nothing compared to the rush to judgment after the war. Why the pre-emptive pessimism? For reasons good, bad, and invisible—the invisible being the most important.

The good reason for gloom is that there is much to be gloomy about: incessant attacks, porous borders, Sunni hostility, spotty electricity, high Iraqi unemployment, high U.S. costs, diplomatic isolation, a strained U.S. military, a skeddadling United Nations.

Consistently, however, observers—including some I know personally and trust—return from Iraq reporting that the picture up close is better than the images in the media. Michael O'Hanlon, a Brookings Institution military analyst who is no pushover for the Bush administration, recently came back saying that the quality of the work being done in Iraq by American forces is "stunning."

If the future in Iraq looks dismal, someone forgot to tell the Iraqis. A poll by the Gallup Organization found Iraqis saying, by a 2-to-1 ratio, that Saddam Hussein's ouster was worth the subsequent hardships. A plurality told Gallup (a month ago, when the poll was taken) that Iraq was worse off than before the invasion, but two-thirds expected Iraq to be better off in five years than before the invasion, and only 8 percent expected it to be worse off.

The Bush administration reports that "virtually all" major Iraqi hospitals and universities have been reopened, and hundreds of schools have been rebuilt. As of late September, American fatalities (just over 300), although too numerous, were still only slightly higher than the 293 lost in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

The bad reasons for viewing this mixed but by no means disastrous situation as a nightmare, a quagmire, or a failure have to do with the fact that a lot of people—some Europeans, some doves, some partisans—want President Bush or America or both to fail. Partly that is a result of rancor and opportunism, but it also inheres in a pre-emptive engagement. A war to prevent war is bound to be controversial, and this one created a constituency against itself.

Still, it is not too hard to filter out the biases of the Democrats (and Republicans), or of The New York Times (and Fox News). Harder to spot, and thus more blinding, are several less-visible biases.

Bad-news bias. In a September 22 Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Ga., accused the news media of "hurting our chances" in Iraq by "dwelling on the mistakes, the ambushes, the soldiers killed, the wounded," without also reporting "the progress made daily, the good news." He had a point, though not quite the point he thought he had.

We journalists sometimes say, self-mockingly, that only bad news is good news as far as we're concerned. We are well aware that every day, in every big city, a million cars traverse a million intersections safely while we report on the one ugly wreck. Contrary to popular belief, we do not relish being Bad News Bears. News is what is exceptional and what requires immediate attention, and often that means emergency, misfortune, or an unpleasant surprise. Chasing ambulances instead of school buses is not normally bias at all; it is sound news judgment.

However, Iraq right now is not normal. After 30 years of Saddam, three wars, economic isolation, and now a foreign invasion and a guerrilla insurgency, normalcy in Iraq is abnormal. For a change, school buses really are bigger news than ambulances. Journalists, however, have not been able to reorient their vision. Most of the Western media are covering Baghdad as if it were Detroit, where crime is news and calm is not.

Their sin is not so much partisanship as lousy news judgment—which, under the circumstances, is probably harder to forgive. Conservative critics are (I hope) mostly wrong about the media's motives but mostly right about the result: bias that magnifies setbacks and overlooks accomplishments.

Hindsight bias. Assemble a group and ask them if kids should be allowed to play baseball on a field adjoining some houses. Explain that the kids generally play carefully, fences have been installed (but not high enough to block the neighbors' views), and there is no other field nearby. Many will say, "Play ball!"

Now assemble the same group and give them exactly the same facts, but add that a baseball recently flew through a neighbor's plate-glass window and put out a little girl's eye. In hindsight, many people now estimate the risks as much higher and want higher fences or no baseball.

Fair enough; the second group had the benefit of experience. That isn't bias, it's learning. But wait. Ask the hindsighted group whether they themselves would have foreseen the danger, and they will generally say yes—even though the correct answer is generally no. They will blame the boys and the authorities for negligence. That is what psychologists call hindsight bias: the translation of what I know today into what you should have foreseen yesterday.

Iraq is ridden with hindsight bias. For instance, the Bush administration should have—must have—seen the gaps in its prewar intelligence (they are pretty evident now). And the notion that the occupation could be run with a few divisions -- how naive was that? And wasn't it obvious that the military would need to patrol the streets from the day the war ended?

Hindsight bias raises false expectations and nurtures conspiracy theories. Perhaps worst, it leads to ricocheting errors as people look backward through distorted lenses and then overcompensate looking ahead.

War critics who today revel in hindsight bias might do well to recall an earlier instance: the claim that the first President Bush's failure to march to Baghdad and unseat Saddam was a gross error. It was not. In early 1991, the smart money was on Saddam's soon being toppled, and the first Bush wanted to avoid precisely the sort of ugly occupation that the second Bush now finds himself conducting. The second war grew partly from hindsight bias in evaluations of the first.

Planning bias. Again and again, critics charge the government with having no plan or strategy. Whenever the Pentagon or administration changes course, they charge it with having planned poorly. Headlines speak of events "out of control" in Iraq.

More than just hindsight bias is at work here. Many people, particularly the sophisticated sort, hate messiness. They like to know that smart managers are in charge, figuring out everything. Surprises are defeats.

In truth, the planning mind-set is exactly wrong for Iraq. Anything might have happened after the war: a flood of refugees, a cholera pandemic, a civil war—or, for that matter, the discovery of an advanced nuclear program. The fact that the Bush administration keeps adjusting its course, often contravening its own plans or preferences, is a hopeful sign. The administration's decisions to raise rather than reduce troop levels, to ask for $87 billion that it never planned on needing, to go looking for help from the United Nations—all this suggests not that the Iraq effort is failing but that the administration is more flexible than its rhetoric.

Only trial and error, otherwise known as muddling through, can work in Iraq. There is no other way. Muddling through is not pretty, but never underestimate America's genius for it. Abraham Lincoln and George Washington never enjoyed the luxury of planning, but they were two of the finest muddlers-through the world has ever known, and they did all right.

Whether Bush will prove a gifted muddler is at present unclear, to say the least. Bush might be a better president if he took fewer risks. But risk-takers must be judged by their results.

The 2004 election could not be better timed. In a year's time, Americans will know a lot more about the outcome in Iraq, and Bush will be held to account. With Saddam toppled less than six months ago, however, a rush to judgment today reflects badly not on Bush's vision, but on his critics'. Hindsight, after all, is not 20-20.