MUDDLING THROUGH IN IRAQ
Jonathan Rauch writes,
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.
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.”
He goes on to detail some of these successes.
Rauch’s explanation for the divergence between the reality and the reportage is plausible:
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. . . . 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. . . . 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.
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.
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.