from the past

LI likes to go through the early years, sometimes, to see what we got right and what we got wrong. This post, from 2003, right after Bush's first request for an 80 billion dollar supplemental for the war, got one thing very wrong: under the influence of the Gulf war, we really figured that the U.S. would try to squeeze back the money for the Gulf War II. Otherwise, the combinations look pretty good.

“Monday, September 08, 2003

All right. Let's do a review. The war was supposed to bring some benefits. There would be costs, there would be benefits. Now we have a better picture of both, and we have a sense of how -- from the American perspective -- they are defined. One of the great benefits of the war was the bringing down of Saddam H. The cost, in human lives and in dollars, hasn't yet been toted up -- on the Iraqi side it may never be -- but as of today we have some feel for it.

So, the Bush administration has defined the ultimate benefit in Iraq in terms of several abstractions and one pre-war claim. The pre-war claim is that Iraqi oil will pay for the war and the American contribution to Iraq. In other words, we are spending about 150-200 billion dollars on Iraq, but we will receive that money back. The abstractions can be boiled down to: a democratic, American friendly country. Like Iran under the Shah, only with elections.

Given these baselines, we can come up with combinations of possible outcomes, assign them probabilities, and ask which one will give us both 1) the greatest benefit and 2) the best odds.

I can think of five basic combinations.

1. American troops withdraw. We leave behind a stable, American friendly democracy, that pays America back its 200 billion dollars, with interest, in a timely matter.

2. American troops withdraw. The government that is left behind is less friendly to America than Kuwait, but more friendly than Iran. It is, however, stable, and has certain democratic aspects. The 200 billion dollars is not paid back.

3. American troops leave. The American friendly democracy that is left behind tries to repay the American debt, causing a nation wide rebellion. It is overthrown by a government that is hostile to America.

4. American troops leave. Iraq is riven with conflict. The 200 billion dollars is gone. The conflict lasts for a long time, is destabilizing, and no side in it is openly pro-American.

5. American troops don't leave, but have to stay indefinitely, due to conflict. Another 100 billion dollars is spent on Iraq, but the nation is riven with conflict. Casualties mount. No stability, no democracy, and increasing harm to American forces.

One can argue that there are innumerable subsets. There are. But I imagine each one simply enriches the detail of one or another item on this list.

The problem with the Bush solution is simple. It bets everything on 1. Myself, I think one has about the same chance as Dennis Kucinich has of being the next US president.

The second option is much more possible. But humans drive their own history -- it will definitely be made impossible the more Bush bets on 1. The other three options are progressively worse for American interests. And for Iraq.

So, rationally, for our 150-200 billion dollars -- money we are not going to see again -- I'd say the reasonable thing to do is to take 2 as a scenario and try to improve it. That means ... well, it means handing power over to the Iraqi cabinet, and letting Bremer tell rotary clubs in Indiana all about his splendid plan for an Iraqi constitution. It means getting real about the money -- this money isn't coming back. It means letting the Iraqis decide what kind of economy they want -- from the contractors they hire to repair oil wells to the market system they are comfortable with. Of course, the "Iraqis" don't operate in isolation. But we should certainly not get into a situation in which there is a puppet Iraqi elite that simply obeys Americans, and thus abruptly abridges its shelf life. The commentary I've read about Iraq is truly odd -- it is as if nobody even thinks about what happens when the Americans withdraw. The Americans are not going to enforce a permanent solution to the Iraq problem -- period. The arguments are all about the chaos that will ensue if we withdraw right now, and how we have to do this, and how we have to do that... But by the force of things (ah, Lucretian phrase!) the Iraqis are the ones who will be there when the Americans are long gone. The american exit strategy better be shaped with that reality in mind.”