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.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. markus says:

    “muddling through”?
    I’m sorry, but this is the saddest excuse for bad post-war planning I’ve heard so far. Kicking the can further down the road, because we’ve got to wait and see whether Bush II is a “gifted muddler”? We already know troop numbers, population reaction and time-scale of the occupation were misjudged badly, the suspected WMD sites were not seized and protected immediately.
    The “planning mind-set is exactly wrong for Iraq”? What utter BS. First off the wealth of possibilities is the best reason for having a plan for most possibilities, but apparently there was next to no plan-B at all. Second, how can having a plan ever in any conceivable universe be the wrong mind-set? It can’t. What can be and often is wrong is rigidly sticking to a plan.

  2. Paul says:

    He missed one:

    The “Bush is the Devil” bias.

    It can not be dismissed that a large number of commenters people in the country are willing to have the U.S. lose in Iraq if that means political death to George Bush.

    It is freaking pathetic that they are now hoping for disaster to strike the United States because they have a lust for political power.

  3. Paul says:

    DARN- The board ate my strike tag, “commenters” was supposed to be stricken thru.

    And before I could even hit post, markus proved me right.

  4. markus says:

    Are you capable of mindreading Paul? If so I regret to inform you that you’ve read someone else’s mind.
    Seriously, how do you deduce from my lengthy complaint about the poor post war planning that I want the US to lose in Iraq to get Bush out of office? Wouldn’t I be happy with the poor planning in that case as it increases the chances of failure?
    I’ll assume, that you are not actually a ignorant asshole and that you did not mean to lump me with those “they” of whom you say “It is freaking pathetic that they are now hoping for disaster to strike the United States because they have a lust for political power.” (Care to point out who “they” are?).
    I’ll suppose you were merely saying that I view the situation in Iraq as worse than it is because I don’t like Bush. (Good to have that clarified.) Well, for one, I was addressing specific wrong assumptions and not to the situation in Iraq. If you have any evidence that these assumptions were not made or that they were correct I’d be surprised to hear it, but please don’t hesitate. Second, I criticised Rauch’s praise of muddling for stating that not having a plan is better than having a plan, all other things being equal. That statement is obviously BS and again my criticism is unrelated to the situation in Iraq.
    So I wonder how you -incorrectly- conclude my view of the situation in Iraq from my comment? Mindreading, sloppy thinking or your own bias (or some other body part) getting in the way?
    For the record, I’m hoping Iraq becomes a stable democracy, I wish my own country were more able and willing to help out and I think the situation is not as bad as press reports indicate, but still worse than it should and could be. Frankly, I’m troubled, mostly because of that DoD report I read over a month ago, which spoke of a window of opportunity of about three months.
    I also hope Americans don’t re-elect Bush, but then again, if everything is going well in Iraq a year from now I think Bush deserves to be re-elected on foreign policy grounds.

  5. SwampWoman says:

    I read the comments about the government having “no plan” in Iraq, or the “plan isn’t extensive enough” or “the plan does not cover every eventuality in complete detail” and laugh to myself. I think about my first business plan, and the great detail and research I put into it.

    Maybe other folks have had different outcomes, but my business plan had to be readjusted frequently due to changes in competition, technology, economic conditions, and variables such as storm damage. I suppose I could have stubbornly stuck to “The Plan” and ignored the information coming in when I had actual “customers”, but “The Plan” got readjusted in a hurry in the real world. And this is in a place where the infrastructure is intact and there isn’t a war going on.

    I have never seen a big project that, no matter how well planned and executed, hasn’t had to have several revisions. (And I have seen a few where the principals refused to accept reality and insisted on their original concept, which could not work.)

    In a situation such as Iraq, I would have broad outlines of Things To Be Accomplished and hand it over to the folks on the ground, who would be in the best position to determine what the most important steps, in order, were. What may seem important to a governmental representative thousands of miles away may have no relevance whatsoever to better the life of Iraqi citizens that have been terrorized for 30 years.

    I’m sure that if you have specialized information on, say, water treatment facilities, you would be welcome to write out a plan specifying the exact details (down to cost and fittings of equipment) and send it in to the government. They would probably be happy to have it. Of course, none of that specialized knowledge may be applicable to Iraq.

    In the meantime, perhaps I’ll let the government know that I’m a sheep grower in the south and, if the Iraqis have any trouble with alligators snatching the sheep, my knowledge is at their disposal.

  6. SwampWoman says:

    I read the comments about the government having “no plan” in Iraq, or the “plan isn’t extensive enough” or “the plan does not cover every eventuality in complete detail” and laugh to myself. I think about my first business plan, and the great detail and research I put into it.

    Maybe other folks have had different outcomes, but my business plan had to be readjusted frequently due to changes in competition, technology, economic conditions, and variables such as storm damage. I suppose I could have stubbornly stuck to “The Plan” and ignored the information coming in when I had actual “customers”, but “The Plan” got readjusted in a hurry in the real world. And this is in a place where the infrastructure is intact and there isn’t a war going on.

    I have never seen a big project that, no matter how well planned and executed, hasn’t had to have several revisions. (And I have seen a few where the principals refused to accept reality and insisted on their original concept, which could not work.)

    In a situation such as Iraq, I would have broad outlines of Things To Be Accomplished and hand it over to the folks on the ground, who would be in the best position to determine what the most important steps, in order, were. What may seem important to a governmental representative thousands of miles away may have no relevance whatsoever to better the life of Iraqi citizens that have been terrorized for 30 years.

    I’m sure that if you have specialized information on, say, water treatment facilities, you would be welcome to write out a plan specifying the exact details (down to cost and fittings of equipment) and send it in to the government. They would probably be happy to have it. Of course, none of that specialized knowledge may be applicable to Iraq.

    In the meantime, perhaps I’ll let the government know that I’m a sheep grower in the south and, if the Iraqis have any trouble with alligators snatching the sheep, my knowledge is at their disposal.

  7. Swampwoman says:

    Ooops, sorry about the double post. Thought the first one did not go through.

  8. Paul says:

    (Care to point out who “they” are?).

    Tell ya what Markus…

    Read the comments on this board and at poliblog. If you can’t figure out who the hate spewing “sacrifice America to Damn George Bush” crowd is, then I can’t help you.

    I thought you qualified to be in that crowd. Personally, I have tired of trying to use reason or debate those people as they avoid fact logic and reason at all costs.

    Therefor in the future I’ll just call them what they are. They are hate filled losers who are so wantonly, pathetically partisan that they will be complicit with a tragedy befalling America if it means George Bush suffers. [I am big partisan but they get moronic with it.]

    To be honest I have tired of dealing with this crowd. I no longer want to play of the game of reading all your posts and either A) proving you are in the group or B) giving you an apology for overshooting my target.

    If you think you are not in the group OK fine. “They” know who they are.

    Paul

    And Markus if you really are not in the group, I guess you could consider this a pseudo apology. However it is not an official apology because all these people CLAIM they are wonderful loyal American what would NEVER want anything bad to happen to further their political aims. They lie about other things too.

    So if in your heart of heart of hearts you really do wish the best for this country even if that means Bush gets reelected, then this is an apology. If you are a hate filled vermin that think anything is OK as long as George Bush dies then you can blow it out your ear.

    Fair enough?

  9. Thomas J. Jackson says:

    Marcus:
    How many years dod it take to rebuild and rehabilitate Germany and Japan following WWII? Would you have described American efforts in Germany in the same fashion as you have described American efforts in Iraq after how many months? In Germany were Nazi supporters inflitrate in from Switzerland and France, channeling arms, money and troops? I think its clear which camp you are in.

  10. Rauch is just lovely; he has amazing insights in almost every essay.

    I think some aren’t quite getting the poetic license implied in the world “muddling.” If you don’t see what he’s driving at, please substitute something less blunt, like “having a flexible plan that will allow you to respond to changing conditions with maximum dexterity.”

  11. markus says:

    @Paul: apology accepted, glad we sorted that out.
    @Thomas: as far as I know no American soldier was killed by the remaining Nazis after WW2. An while I do think the analogy is useful to remind oneself not to expect quick success I don’t think it is particularly useful beyond that one point because the two situations are not that similar, YMMV.
    That aside what camp are you referring to? I clarified my position above, if there is anything else you’d like to know just ask, don’t mindread.
    @LM Attila: thanks for clarifying what Rauch himself was obviously too dumb to make clear. Probably because he did not mean it: In truth, the planning mind-set is exactly wrong for Iraq….Only trial and error, otherwise known as muddling through, can work in Iraq.. Trial and error is _not_ “having a flexible plan”, it is having _no_ plan. And this is precisely the point. In his -presumably partisan- zeal to exonerate the administration and de-fang the justified criticism of the poor post-war planning Rauch has to go one step too far and argue for “trial and error”. Had he said the plan merely has to be flexible, I would have agreed completely. Too bad Rauch -and apparently you, too- had to suspend his capability for rational thought for what I assume are partisan purposes.

  12. Paul says:

    @Thomas: as far as I know no American soldier was killed by the remaining Nazis after WW2.

    THEN YOU REALLY NEED TO FREAKING LEARN HISTORY

    GAWD! How can people be some freaking ignorant but be SO confident in their knowledge. Pick up a freaking book.

  13. Paul says:

    Markus-

    When you have no understanding of the task at hand how the hell are you qualified to judge someone else’s performance of the job????

    You obviously have no clue how this measures on a historical perspective. You have no clue how things worked when we did this in the past.

    Yet you can claim to be so much smarter than the President of the United States and the collective knowledge of his entire team.

    The entire war AND REBUILDING has been the most successful efforts of this type in the history of mankind.

    Rather than impress anyone with your arguments you confirmed my worst suspicions. You know nothing about which you speak but will bash Bush because, well, he is Bush.

    Learn a little history, put things into perspective and come back.

    Opinions are fine.

    Spin coupled with complete ignorance is worthless.

    Paul

  14. markus says:

    According to America’s Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq, a new study by former Ambassador James Dobbins, who had a lead role in the Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo reconstruction efforts, and a team of RAND Corporation researchers, the total number of post-conflict American combat casualties in Germany—and Japan, Haiti, and the two Balkan cases—was zero.
    http://slate.msn.com/id/2087768/

    who needs to learn freaking history now?
    as to understanding the job at hand or me being cleverer than Bush (the latter certainly is a tempting comparison), I can very well understand that e.g. experts knew before the war that Iraq’s oil wouldn’t be sufficient to pay for reconstruction, that Bush et al. however nonetheless either believed it or lied: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/10/05/international/middleeast/05OIL.html?hp
    I’ll make the charitable assumption that they were mistaken.

  15. Paul says:

    OK, I guess the guy on Slate was right and my father who was an officer there at the time and had his best fried kill is wrong. (I’ve heard the story since I was about 10.)

    And you obviously did not follow the link on Slate or you would have seen that the Slate guy got it wrong.

    The exact source YOU cite proves you wrong.

    Besides are you really dumb enough to argue an absolute? Anytime a guy says three countries were rebuilt without a single causality, you should have known better.

    But arguing with you and using fact, logic or reason is worthless therefore this is over. Bush is the Devil

    I knew you were one of them.

    See ya.

    Paul

  16. markus says:

    The exact source YOU cite proves you wrong.
    How so? Check the report:
    Germany, Japan, Bosnia, and Kosovo had no postconflict combat deaths.Chapter 9, p.153

    Since you don’t back up your allegation I assume your a lying idiot. Ok, you might be merely reading impaired or your IQ might be above 70 so you’re not technically an idiot. Same difference.

    As to arguing an absolute, I’ll invite you to take a look at your own comments and apply the suggestion. I do however agree that they study cited above may have missed some deaths, however weighting that against the ignorance you put on display when asking me to “FREAKING LEARN HISTORY” because I’m “freaking ignorant” and “obviously have no clue how this measures on a historical perspective.” I feel you’re doing a poor job at covering said ignorance up. Tell you what, I’ll agree the number wasn’t zero when you agree that it is you who needs to learn “freaking history”.

    Next comes the last refugee of the ignorant and scoundrels, the “it is worthless to argue with someone who provides arguments and uses logic”. If you weren’t such a pathetic moron, you’d have pointed out any flaws in my logic or provided an argument of your own instead of wild assertions.

    That’s it, thanks for your attention, it’s nice to have met someone who gives meaning to the “new facism” charge, and yes, you hereby are entitled to invoke Godwin’s law to stave of cognitive dissonance.