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Acting upon knowledge is different from its gathering

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Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, "Wolfowitz's Wolfowitz," have advocated regime change in Iraq throughout the 1990s. Feith now acknowledges yet disagrees with the growing "conventional wisdom" about the Administration's failure to adequately plan for postwar events, offering what I feel to be weak arguments:

  • Oil wells not on fire (but their pipelines and compressor stations are bombed)
  • Iraqis have not starved or fled (omitting the fact that the wealthier middle class have and others cannot)
  • Replacement of old Iraqi dinars, containing Saddam’s image, with a new currency without causing a currency run (who needs Saddam back with the Sunni/Ba’athist insurgency now in progress - could you live on the difference?)

If one is speaking of scenario planning per se (which can never end, often results in analysis paralysis, and usually misses the scenario that delivers the payload), I agree with Feith’s shying away from expectations and predictions. And while many make fun of Rumsfeld’s knowns and unknowns, notably the ‘unknown unknowns, I agree there as well. And I am sympathetic to Feith’s comments on the limits of future knowledge, implying a need to be ready for any eventuality of the Iraqi postwar landscape:

"[Rumsfeld] is death to predictions." "His big strategic theme is uncertainty"… The need to deal strategically with uncertainty. The inability to predict the future. The limits on our knowledge and the limits on our intelligence."

The alternative to scenario planning is to understand the key actors and processes at play, how they might interact (without locking into "the" prediction), especially in a region and culture so different from our own and one in which our own cultural assumptions could lead to under or overrating events, good and bad. (See the Berlin Wisdom Model.) In the light of the current situation, I am both buoyed and appalled that:

Almost everything, good and bad, that has happened in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime was the subject of extensive pre-war discussion and analysis. This is particularly true of what have proved to be the harshest realities for the United States since the fall of Baghdad: that occupying the country is much more difficult than conquering it; that a breakdown in public order can jeopardize every other goal; that the ambition of patiently nurturing a new democracy is at odds with the desire to turn control over to the Iraqis quickly and get U.S. troops out; that the Sunni center of the country is the main security problem; that with each passing day Americans risk being seen less as liberators and more as occupiers, and targets.

All this, and much more, was laid out in detail and in writing long before the U.S. government made the final decision to attack. Even now the collective efforts at planning by the CIA, the State Department, the Army and the Marine Corps, the United States Agency for International Development, and a wide variety of other groups inside and outside the government are underappreciated by the public. The one pre-war effort that has received substantial recent attention, the State Department's Future of Iraq project, produced thousands of pages of findings, barely one paragraph of which has until now been quoted in the press. The Administration will be admired in retrospect for how much knowledge it created about the challenge it was taking on. U.S. government predictions about postwar Iraq's problems have proved as accurate as the assessments of pre-war Iraq's strategic threat have proved flawed.

Acting upon knowledge is different from its gathering. Fallows ranks the "missteps of the first half year in Iraq" with the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and the 1965 escalated involvement in Vietnam. I cannot think of a similar one, unless one includes the ROK-DPRK impasse on the Korean peninsula, also a work in progress:

The problems the United States has encountered are precisely the ones its own expert agencies warned against.

Having broken the pot, we’ve no choice but to attempt reassembly, yet our:

missteps have come at a heavy cost. And the ongoing financial, diplomatic, and human cost of the Iraq occupation is the more grievous in light of advance warnings the government had.

Part 3

Gordon Housworth



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