Monday, August 25, 2003

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Explaining Bush's thinking on Iraq

Bush's approach to statebuilding in Iraq genuinely puzzles Kevin Drum :

Bush's conduct toward Iraq continues to be something that I just shake my head over. He lost my support before the war because I eventually became convinced that he wasn't serious about postwar reconstruction. After the war, it became clear that my suspicions were well grounded and that virtually no serious postwar planning had been done. And now, his continuing refusal to admit that we need more troops in Iraq or to make any effort to rally the country behind the time and money it will take to do the job right is simply inexplicable.

Obviously he realizes that failure in Iraq would be an enormous blow both to the U.S. and to the war on terrorism. And he — or his advisors, at any rate — must realize that we can't do it with the troops and funding we have in place now. There's just too much contrary evidence for him not to realize that.

So what is he doing?

I point Kevin to this Richard Brookshier profile on George W. Bush's decisionmaking style from the March 2003 Atlantic Monthly. Reading the artivle, it's clear that answer to Kevin's question gets to Bush's greatest strength as a leader -- and potentially his greatest weakness.

On foreign policy issues, Bush will stick to policy positions even in the face of considerable public criticism. This served him very well in the Afghanistan war, when skeptics questioned the wisdom of attacking so soon after 9/11, and called for more boots on the ground when the initial bombing campaign seemed to produce meager results. The administration stayed the course on this, and was ultimately vindicated.

The same thing is taking place in Iraq. The administration has clearly decided that the only way it will accept greater multilateral support in Iraq is on U.S. terms and not U.N. terms. Given the U.N.'s management of its own security, I don't blame them.

As I've said before, I think the U.S. needs more troops in country. However, I could be wrong. The jury in the blogosphere is still out (see Adesnik vs. Yglesias). Bush has clearly decided that this is not necessary in the long term, and he'll take his lumps about it in the short term. If he's right -- and I hope he is right -- it will be a true demonstration of leadership.

The problem is that the ability to stay the course in the face of public criticism can often morph into pig-headedness about refusing to recognize the error of one's ways. Bush has been right about a lot of the political gambles he has taken during his presidency -- pulling out of the the ABM treaty, the Afghan war, pushing for big tax cuts. A constant record of success makes it more difficult for somone to admit that they need to change course.


UPDATE: Atrios and others seem to believe that I was suggesting that there was considerable opposition to attacking Afghanistan. As the section of this post that Atrios actually quoted should have made clear, and as one of his commenters points out, that was not my implication. My implication was that there was criticism regarding the timing (not waiting until Spring 2002) and tactics (using more conventional army forces) of the Afghan campaign. And there certainly was a point in early November 2001 when some started to criticize those decisions are ill-considered, inspiring Andrew Sullivan's Von Hoffman awards.

Hope that clears thing up.

posted by Dan on 08.25.03 at 10:17 AM


Bush has been right about a lot of the political gambles he has taken during his presidency -- pulling out of the the ABM treaty, the Afghan war, pushing for big tax cuts.

It's far from clear that he's right about pulling out of the ABM treaty and pushing for big tax cuts. Sure he's gotten away with it politically so far, but that doesn't mean that he's right about it. Next year's deficit is going to be how big? $500 billion? Do we have a plan to ever get it back under control?

As for the Afghan War, was that really a gamble? I don't recall much opposition, other than the usual suspects who'll protest anything.

But these are minor quibbles. The bigger issue is that he has a tough time admitting he's wrong. And for good reason: anytime he lets down his guard, the press smells blood (c.f. the sixteen-words episode) It's a situation that rewards pig-headness. Expect to see more.

posted by: uh_clem on 08.25.03 at 10:17 AM [permalink]

If he's right -- and I hope he is right -- it will be a true demonstration of leadership.

Since when is winning a poor gamble a true demonstration of leadership? The Bush team went into this on the assumption of the best case scenario in the post-war reconstruction and was woefully unprepared for anything less. They have put us in a position with a much higher risk of failure than was prudent or necessary.

posted by: Michael Jones on 08.25.03 at 10:17 AM [permalink]

I agree. Politically Bush has gotten away with the things Dan mentions, but the tax cuts are surely a long term disaster, and Afghanistan isn't looking that good right now either. "Long term" means 4-5 years, not 1 or 2.

I also agree that stubbornness is one of Bush's key personality characteristics, and that this can be both good and bad. In this case, I think it's drifted pretty clearly into "bad" territory.

posted by: Kevin Drum on 08.25.03 at 10:17 AM [permalink]

Afghanistan is obviously a work in progress, but the fact cannot be denied that conditions are improving and the Karzai government is increasingly stable.

Kevin, in what possible way can Afghanistan not be considered a success? Perhaps progress hasn't been as dramatic as you would like, but the country is no longer a terrorist safe haven, soccer stadiums are being used for soccer again instead of public executions, and women are regaining some basic human rights.

I look at Afghanistan and see basically good developments. That isn't to say that warlordism isn't still a problem, that the Karzai government isn't still weak, that heroin production isn't a real concern -- but things have to be kept in perspective.

When you say that Afghanistan "isn't looking that good right now," are you comparing the country to what it was like under the Taliban -- or to something else?

I'm puzzled by the irony here. In Afghanistan, we intervened on a small scale by helping a domestic faction -- and have largely left the Afghans to work out most of the details. Liberals have been complaining that we've "abandoned" the country and we need to do much more and put more boots on the ground. It's "Bush's fault" that the country isn't in better shape.

These same people then turn around and complain that the large American presence in Iraq is causing resentment of us as "occupiers." Having your cake and eating it too is one of the benefits of being in the opposition -- you don't need to be consistent in your theories.

posted by: Ryan Booth on 08.25.03 at 10:17 AM [permalink]

I should clarify that the last two paragraphs of my previous comment apply to liberal generally and not specifically to Kevin Drum -- I don't want them to be taken the wrong way.

posted by: Ryan Booth on 08.25.03 at 10:17 AM [permalink]

Where on earth did you see criticism of George Bush's decision to attack Afghanistan? The press was overwhelmingly behind this; members of Congress were overwhelmingly behind this; the public was overwhelmingly behind this; even foreign governments and the foreign press were behind this. The only people that weren't were the usual suspects on the extreme left.

As for the tax cuts, we're going to be paying for those for years. They were as big an economic mistake as any president has made in the past few decades. We're fast approaching the retirement of the baby boomers and the money just isn't going to be there. Add to that the effects of the record-breaking deficits on the economy and you're talking serious financial trouble down the road.

Sorry, but I just don't buy this.

posted by: PaulB on 08.25.03 at 10:17 AM [permalink]

Ryan wrote: "Kevin, in what possible way can Afghanistan not be considered a success?"

It's not clear that Karzai has control of anything more than a single city. The rest of Afghanistan is mostly under the control of the warlords. As long as this holds true, Afghanistan's long-term recovery is going to be slowed, even halted.

Outside of that one city, it's not clear that women have regained any basic human rights or that any of the other benefits you cite are taking place. The Taliban is regrouping and appears to be engaging in the first phase of the very kind of guerilla war that ended up driving out the Soviet Union.

Just as in Iraq, the United States has not allocated sufficient force or money to the project of rebuilding Afghanistan. Wherein lies the inconsistency in pointing this out?

posted by: PaulB on 08.25.03 at 10:17 AM [permalink]

let's be realistic, there was no significant opposition to the war in afghanistan. the anti-war movement was small, almost non-existent, and marginalized. it did not pick up large scale support both in the u.s. and abroad until the was in iraq was on the table. bush's decision to attack afghanistan was not an example of "staying the course" in the face of any significant opposition.

nor was he ultimately vindicated. afghanistan today is a mess. the karzai government controls less, not more, of afghanistan today than it did a year ago. karzai's brother issued a statement 3 months ago decrying the fact that things are rapidly deteriorating and no one seems to care. the taliban are not only back but they have regained control of an entire provence. aside from a few in kabul, virtually every school for girls that opened after the taliban's fall is no longer operating today. the real test will be elections next year, if they actually occur when scheduled (i predict they will be delayed). meanwhile the deaths and wounds of americans stationed there are getting even less coverage then the casualties coming out of iraq.

to say the country is "no longer a haven for terrorists" as mr. booth did above, is a joke. where exactly does he think osama bin laden is today? the bush administration, for one, believe he is in afghanistan. al qaeda was routed briefly in 2002 from afghanistan, but i don't think anyone believes they don't have a presence there today.

also afghanistan can't really be held up as vindication of the bush admin's plan to use small numbers of american forces. the number of american troops in afghanistan are quietly increasing, not decreasing. today, there are twice as many american troops in afghanistan as there were at the height of the fighting against the taliban. (10,000 vs. 5,000)

posted by: upyernoz on 08.25.03 at 10:17 AM [permalink]

I amended the post, but to repeat -- I was not implying that the decision to attack Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11 was unpopular -- but the timing and tactics did prompt a fair degree of criticism by early November 2001.

posted by: Dan Drezner on 08.25.03 at 10:17 AM [permalink]

to say the country is "no longer a haven for terrorists" as mr. booth did above, is a joke. where exactly does he think osama bin laden is today? the bush administration, for one, believe he is in afghanistan. al qaeda was routed briefly in 2002 from afghanistan, but i don't think anyone believes they don't have a presence there today.

I stated that "the country is no longer a terrorist safe haven." Do you think that these people feel safe? Do you think that they can effectively plan attacks on Americans? I doubt that many people would equate a life of running every day to stay alive with a "safe haven."

I certainly do not doubt an Al-Queda presence in Afghanistan. I also do not doubt an Al-Queda presence in the United States. Neither country, however, qualifies as a safe haven.

I did notice today that the administration has decided to do more in Afghanistan, which is great -- but what we are talking about here is improving a fundamentally good outcome.

"Just as in Iraq, the United States has not allocated sufficient force or money to the project of rebuilding Afghanistan. Wherein lies the inconsistency in pointing this out?"

Since when are we not devoting enough money to rebuilding Iraq? I haven't heard that argument before. We're actually spending very large amounts of money to rebuild that country. I'll grant you that we don't really have enough troops in either country, but that's simply a factor of our military being too small -- something that's hard to blame on the Bush administration.

posted by: Ryan Booth on 08.25.03 at 10:17 AM [permalink]

One has to assume that the Bush Administration's decisions to bomb Afghanistan and to remove Hussein from power in Iraq wer not poll driven in order to follow your logic.

posted by: counsellor on 08.25.03 at 10:17 AM [permalink]

Since when are we not devoting enough money to rebuilding Iraq? I haven't heard that argument before.

Check out Bill Kristol's piece in The Weekly Standard:

"It is simply unconscionable that debilitating power shortages persist in Iraq, turning Iraqi public opinion against the United States. This is one of those problems that can be solved with enough money. And yet the money has not been made available. This is just the most disturbing example of a general pattern. "

posted by: Michael Jones on 08.25.03 at 10:17 AM [permalink]

"to say the country is "no longer a haven for terrorists" as mr. booth did above, is a joke. where exactly does he think osama bin laden is today? "

Dead. Its growing increasingly likely that OBL is dead and has been for some time. If the man cant so much as produce a video tape in a year and a half, how likely is it that he is alive? Imagine the boost it would give terrorists worldwide to see evidence of him at this point. The so called 'tapes' proported to last be OBL were dubbed forgeries by an independant lab. Its politically useful for Bush to act as if OBL is alive, it is equally useful for Bush's opponents. Buy realistically, the guys dead.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 08.25.03 at 10:17 AM [permalink]

Thanks for the link, Michael. I had somehow missed Kristol's article. Unfortunately, I disagree with him. No matter how much money you have, you simply can't phone in an order for a power plant and ask FedEx to deliver it the next day -- it takes time. Our problems restoring power (besides the sabotage, of course) stem from a "misunderestimating" of how badly the infrastructure was damaged from years of Saddam's neglect. To Paul Bremer's credit, he is clearly devoting sufficient resources to do the job:

Bremer reeled off a list of accomplishments including millions spent on repairing power stations, water plants, sewage facilities and irrigation projects across Iraq. One thousand new schools have been built, five million textbooks will be distributed to Iraqi children when they return to school, he noted. All 2,400 hospitals in the country are now operational. [snip] And coalition officials say they will restore Iraq's electrical capacity to its pre-war levels by the end of September.

All the reports I've seen from Iraq have said that (aside from power and gasoline supplies) the reconstruction is making great progress (note that I'm considering reconstruction separately from security). I'd love to see any other reports of our not spending enough money in Iraq.

posted by: Ryan Booth on 08.25.03 at 10:17 AM [permalink]

Afghanistan a mess? Seems to me that things have been going fairly well there -- and I note Dan's post on this very subject last month. In fact, Dan posted about a report that Afghanistan's wheat harvest was set to be the best in 20 years. Well, here's an update on that:

"Afghanistan sets record for cereal harvest but many still need food aid – UN report
14 August – Afghanistan will reap its largest cereal harvest on record this year thanks to good rainfall and better access to seeds and fertilizers, but many households will still need humanitarian assistance as they continue to suffer the impact of a severe drought and two decades of civil strife, two UN food agencies reported today.

“We knew the harvest would be large this year but this breaks all records,” said Henri Josserand, head of the Global Early Warning System of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which carried out a joint survey with the World Food Programme (WFP). “We are looking at a crop that will be 50 per cent larger than last year’s.”

According to the report, the bumper crop of 5.37 million tons of cereals is also the result of Afghan farmers planting more wheat. The overall area planted with rainfed wheat has increased by more than 77 per cent from the previous year. A successful locust control campaign in the north of the country was also beneficial.

The abundant harvest means that Afghanistan’s import requirement for the marketing year of July 2003 to June 2004 will only be about 400,000 tons, only about a quarter of last year’s needs."

Well, I think that reducing the need for food imports by 75% in one year is PRETTY GOOD PROGRESS!

posted by: Al on 08.25.03 at 10:17 AM [permalink]

Here again we see the usual line repeated, that Bush's prosecution of the war in Afghanistan was a fine success.

In fact, it was incompetent, and in the most obvious way: it failed to capture or kill Osama or his major lieutenants.

And it is obvious HOW this failure came about: Bush stubbornly and stupidly refused to put enough loyal American boots on the ground to control the situation. Thus, Osama and his merry men had a very easy time of it escaping from Tora Bora. Given that Omar had ALREADY escaped some time before from the grasp of American forces or their proxies, one would think that a man capable of the smallest amount of reflection and flexibility would have seen to it that the same would NOT happen to the even bigger prey of Osama. But no: Bush could not, would not, change his mind.

In reality ANY American President would OF COURSE have easily defeated the Taliban; it would only have been less trouble, and more rapid if more American troops were placed in large numbers on the ground -- after all, how could it be harder with more troops?

The Afghanistan war, while it is touted as Bush's great victory, is a testament to his singular incompetence.

posted by: frankly0 on 08.25.03 at 10:17 AM [permalink]

Your examples of Bush's successful gambles are very debatable. Afghanistan's been discussed at length here, so I'll just say a word or two about the other:

The jury will be out on the ABM treaty for years. The risk posed by, at least as presented by Bush's opposition, is of sparking a new cold war with China and/or whatever hostile states develop nuclear technology down the line. This is something we won't and can't know for quite a long while. Just because it hasn't cost Bush anything in two short years doesn't prove it was a succesful gamble.

As for tax cuts, there is no evidence that they are a significant part of what little recovery has happened, and leading economists are split down the middle as to whether they even *can* help. It's a far cry from a clearly "correct" decision.

My point is not to prove that Bush was wrong in both cases (though I personally believe he was). Only to demonstrate, as it were, reasonable doubt. I'm arguing that your claim "Bush has been right about a lot of the political gambles..." is quite a stretch, when the effects of those gambles are, at best, unclear.

posted by: IdahoEv on 08.25.03 at 10:17 AM [permalink]

The need to label everything a universal success or failure is problematic. In reality life could certainly be better in Afganistan and Iraq, and it could also be worse. Life is better in parts of Afganistan and Iraq than it is in others.

Solutions for these nations are more likely to be found at the micro-level than at some high-level pronouncement, "throw more troops at the problem." But, it is into this environment (which he has certainly played a hand in creating) that Bush is forced to make decisions. It seems he caught between the rock of events and accounts of life in Iraq that demand more resources or at least attention and the hard place of not wanting to seem weak or indecisive on any issues.

The change in Bush in the last three years is highlighted in a different context in an article in the NYT today about his compassion agenda. Bush is quoted by a minister as saying while President-elect, "I don't understand how poor people think," ...calling himself "a white Republican guy who doesn't get it, but I'd like to." This GWB is one who appears willing to change, be honest, and take a risk of violating his no-shades of gray view of the world. But it seems that Bush has disappeared.

posted by: Rich on 08.25.03 at 10:17 AM [permalink]

My cynical guess is that the current Republican administration is delaying placing more troops in Iraq because the increased costs and lives in the next year may be an issue that will cost them the 2004 election. They'd rather make those decisions when they are sure they will be in power after 2004, to prevent the democrats from being able to say "we told you it would be bigger than they told you it would be!" In delaying the decision, it also becomes a huge 2004 issue, and possibly overshadows the economy.

posted by: Peter Lawrence on 08.25.03 at 10:17 AM [permalink]

First, as to the matter of George Bush standing tall and staying the course, here are three ABC News polls from Oct., Nov., and Dec of 2001. This is the era of the 90% approval rating, so the poll evidence of serious public skepticsm is not conclusive (well, it is, but I am in denial).

So ignore the polls! I vividly remember the "Afghanistan quagmire" story by Johnny Apple on the front page of the NY Times from Nov 2001. (Ooops, it was a Happy Halloween story). And now I am having too much fun - timely, yet timeless wisdom from Ms. Dowd!

I recall, as I presume Dr. D does, that there was a stretch in early November where people questioned whether the bombing could be effective (more troops!), whether we could bomb during Ramadan (Nov 16 to Dec 16), and whether we would be bogged down until spring. However, the dam burst, so for flavor, here is a John Leo "quagmire backlash" piece from Nov. 19.

Last April, as in Nov. 2001, polls did not capture the fickle mood of the commentariat. Only the experts were smart enough to panic - fortunately, Bush, Rumsfeld, and the rest of us were stupid. And still are!

However, in a bit of a change of direction, please join me in gawking for a moment at the Dec 20 poll - where the heck was the Christmas spirit?

I excerpt:

Dec. 20 — Despite the collapse of Taliban and al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan, most Americans believe the toughest work in the war on terrorism is yet to come. And most set a high standard for success: They want not only Osama bin Laden's capture, but the toppling of Iraq's Saddam Hussein. doesn't end there — 61 percent also say the war won't be a success unless the United States ousts Saddam, long a bugaboo in U.S. public opinion. More, 72 percent, support U.S. military action against Iraq to achieve that aim.

Looks like the public was not exactly waiting for the "16 words".

posted by: Tom Maguire on 08.25.03 at 10:17 AM [permalink]

First, count me among those who think that the examples of the ABM treaty and the tax cut as 'successes' are not good. They are evidence of Bush's ability to proceed through considerable opposition...
The tax cuts are a particuarly poor choice IMO. Certainly, if one believes that tax cuts are good, then this tax cut was good. But the economy certainly hasn't made clear progress because of them, so the idea that this 'leadership' was clearly vindicated by the results doesn't work.

If the Afghan 'criticism' was about timing and methodology, it also fails to meet the criteria of being a 'success', in the sense that the critics' apparently alternative (delaying a few months and sending in more ground troops) may or may not have been more effective than what Bush actually did.

The problem is that the ability to stay the course in the face of public criticism can often morph into pig-headedness about refusing to recognize the error of one's ways.

My initial reaction to this was: they are actually the same thing, judged post facto. If withdrawing from the ABM treaty creates trouble down the road then WHAMMO- pig-headedness.

But, after consideration, I think there may be a distinction that can be made beforehand. If the criticisms are being understood and explicitly addressed, then it's more likely to be the former. If not, then the latter.

In which case, I think we have to judge Bush's leadership style as being more the latter. For example, the administration apparently did a poor job of post-war planning, despite all of the critics who harped on that very point (both within & outside of the government). He saw the course through not because he understood things more fully than his critics, but because he was just sure that he was right.

And, just as a well-thought-out risk can sometimes fail (and still have been a good decision), Bush's leadership is often poor, even when (as, arguably, in Afghanistan) the results aren't terrible.


posted by: Carleton Wu on 08.25.03 at 10:17 AM [permalink]

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