OTB 2003 Revisited

A blast from the past.

The look back at Fred Kaplan’s premature exuberance over the victory in Iraq prompted me to go back at my own contemporary analysis. April 2003 was near the very beginning of my blogging venture; indeed, I hit my three-month milestone on the last day of that month and moved from Blogspot to this domain earlier in the month.

The stroll down memory lane is amusing in that, while there are indications of what the blog would become, the early version of the blog was 1) much more prolific than today’s, with me cranking out a dozen or most posts most days; 2) much more InstaPundit-like, with most posts containing links and one-liners rather than excerpts and analysis; and 3) much snarkier. Oh, and very excited about the “game” of blogging, including being blogrolled and moving up the rankings of the old TTLB Ecosystem.

In terms of my analysis of the Iraq War—the impending initiation of which finally caused me to launch the blog to begin with—I was both more skeptical than Kaplan of the long-term success of the project but shared his sense that we had “won.” Indeed, I’m surprised how certain I was at this point that the war was won given that I had been an ardent opponent to invading Iraq in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and had only reluctantly been persuaded that it was necessary to ensure that Saddam didn’t get his hands on a nuke. While I had pushed back in the run-up to the war to the notion that those who opposed the war were “objectively on the other side,” it seemed obvious at this point that we had achieved victory and done so with even more ease than the biggest cheerleaders had promised.

Working backward (until the advent of magazine-style layouts, one characteristic of blogs was the reverse chronological nature; the archival structure retains that)

  • On April 30 (“Changing Regimes Like Socks“) I pushed back on a WSJ op-ed calling for North Korea to be next.
  • On April 29 (“Defense Transformation“) I sided with Michael O’Hanlon in tamping down expectations for Don Rumsfeld’s overhaul of our force structure
  • On April 28 (“Instant Democracy“) I had no reaction at all to news that an international conference was being set up to decide the future governing structure of Iraq. I should have had a reaction!
  • In “Democratic Authoritarianism?” I was only slightly skeptical of Daniel Pipes’s suggestion that Iraq be ruled by a “democratically-elected strongman.”
  • On April 27 (“WMD Not the Point“) I gave kudos to Tom Friedman for his magnanimity about our victory in a war he opposed. Yeah.
  • On April 26 (“Iranians Moving In?“) I was mildly dismissive of reports that the Iranian government had “dispatched ‘organized elements’ to Iraq in a bid to influence the creation of an Islamist system” and applauded Rumsfeld’s vow that an ayatollah-type regime would not govern Iraq. While the reports were indeed overblown in terms of regime type, most of us certainly underplayed Iranian influence. (Although, in fairness, even in that post I acknowledged that any democratic system would be Shia-led and thus more friendly to Iran.)
  • On April 25 (“Wonders of War“) I pronounced myself “hopeful but, characteristically, skeptical” of claims that our win in Iraq would radically improve our standing with the people of the Arab world.
  • On April 20 (“Running an Empire“) I noted that “Gideon Rose believes there’s more to intervention than fighting wars and that we’re not doing a very good job of administering what he terms our ‘de facto empire'” and agreed that we need to get better at it.
  • On April 19 (“Well Begun“) I observed “Bill Kristol says The era of American weakness and doubt in response to terrorism is over” and snarked “If so, I hope its demise is more permanent than that of the era of big government, which sure seems to have returned in spades.” Heh. Indeed.
  • On April 16 (“You Know It’s Over When“) I passed along Jeff Jarvis’s observation that the networks are taking down their “War in Iraq” banners.
  • On April 15 (“Cakewalk II?“) I passed along Kaplan’s suggestion that Syria’s military was weaker than the one we’d just defeated next door and noted “while Syria’s conventional forces are old and unskilled even by Iraqi standards, their chemical weapons cache is much more menacing.”
  • In “Removing the Terror Masters,” I passed along without pushback Michael Ledeen’s suggestion that the regimes in Iran and Syria could be toppled without us military intervention because, “Our most potent weapons are the peoples of Syria and Iran, and they are primed, loaded and ready to fire. We should now pull the political lanyards and unleash democratic revolution on the terror masters in Damascus and Tehran.” Just wow.
  • On April 14 (“Major Combat Has Ended“) I simply linked to a report proclaiming the then-obvious fact that the war was all but over.
  • That was preceded by “Wrapping It Up” which declared, in its entirety, “Now that Saddam’s hometown has fallen, the end of the military phase of this operation should be near.”
  • And in “Syria Next?” I was observed, “It does appear that the US is stepping up pressure against Syria. After an annoyingly long period of apprently doing nothing, President Bush’s ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’ rhetoric may be turning into policy.”
  • In “Media Coverage of the War,” I shared Howie Kurtz’s observation that media embeds helped build an atmosphere of trust between the press and the military leadership and shared some actual analysis of how things had changed since the antagonism of Vietnam.
  • On April 12 (“No Cakewalk“) I posted, “Philip Gordon and Michael O’Hanlon say this has been No Easy Victory, taking direct aim at Ken Adelman’s assertions to the contrary. It seems to me this is indeed a semantic debate. By any reasonable standard of comparison, this has indeed been a major victory achieved with extremely light losses in both American soldiers and Iraqi civilians.”
  • On April 11 (“When Did They Get So Good?“) I linked to the Kaplan piece that prompted all of this and offered some thoughts that hold up about defense transformation and the move toward Joint culture. But, again, I took at face value the notion that we’d won an easy victory.
  • In “First Day of Freedom,” I pass along a giddy note from an Iraqi citizen reflecting on life without Saddam.
  • In “1989 Redux,” I noted that “Daniel Henninger believes that the ouster of Saddam will bring changes to the Middle East comparable to those the fall of the Berlin Wall brought to Eastern Europe” and push back: “Of course, the fall of the Berlin Wall also was followed rapidly by the implosion of the Soviet Union and the resultant sea change in international relations. It therefore strikes me as unlikely that 1989 and 2003 are comparable. This is a good start but, in and of itself, isn’t going to lead to a total reordering of the Arab world unless followed by a dramatic shift in the US foreign policy of the last several decades.”
  • On April 10 (“Big Win For Bush“) I pass along Howard Fineman’s observation that President Bush gambled big and won big in Iraq and dunking on the war skeptics. While the fears of the lampooned retired generals—that Tommy Franks took too few troops and would get bloodied by the Iraqi Army—were half wrong, they seemed entirely wrong at the time. My closing observation “Fineman positively gushes over Bush’s leadership style, although worries that his propensity to take risks could backfire at some point” is rather droll in hindsight.

There’s quite a bit more where that came from but, again, I was incredibly prolific in those early days and finishing out the month would take another hour or so. But I’ve achieved my initial purpose by seeing where my thinking was around the time of Kaplan’s piece—which, again, I linked to uncritically in real time.

I have frequently gone back to the first month’s (January 31-February 28, 2003) archives and my analysis of both the foreign and domestic policy debates hold up much better. But, rather clearly, the general mood in mid-to-late April 2003 was rather giddy around the rapidity of regime change and the initial burst of freedom for the Iraqi people. I don’t think of Kaplan or Fineman, for example, as right-wingers or neocons. And, indeed, several liberal commenters are linked around this time conceding that they were wrong.

In hindsight, of course, the Iraq War skeptics were right. But most were right for the wrong reasons. That is, while everyone says now that they foresaw the insurgency and the difficulty of establishing a functional democracy, most of the anti-war predictions were focused on the difficulty of the initial invasion itself. Few people in either camp were focusing in late 2002 and early 2003 on the challenges of governance.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Iraq War, Middle East, OTB History, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. JohnMcC says:

    “Few people…were focusing…on the challenges of governance.”

    But why should they have focused on governance? The voice of the free Iraqi people were going to be heard. They’d have traffic circles and stock markets!

    GOP governing philosophy then and now is that ‘freedom’ will spontaneously erupt when the heavy hand of government is removed.

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Few people in either camp were focusing in late 2002 and early 2003 on the challenges of governance.

    I was against invading in Iraq just as I was against the Afghan adventure for this exact reason. We don’t do the “hard part” well. In fact, we don’t do it at all.

    Time after time after time we try to remake the world in our image with out ever wondering whether or not somebody else wants to be like us. Hint: they don’t.

    Hubris, thy name is America.

  3. gVOR08 says:

    @JohnMcC: I remember reading a story about the Iraqi stock market. The Iraqis were ready to restart trading early. The Coalition Provisional Authority, in their zeal to remake Iraq as a free market paradise, had put some idiot Republican loyalist kid in charge and he insisted they had to wait until they had a computerized trading system in place. The Iraqis protested they knew how to run a market with a paper system. The kid insisted they had to buy the system and terminals he’d selected before they could do anything. I don’t recall if his system worked or they had to replace it.

  4. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Going another direction totally and noting that I didn’t use the internet for anything other than email and an online class I was taking in 2003, I needed to look up what TTLB stood for. The first entry for it was for a Korean Cartoon show called Tayo the Little Bus (which may be worth a look up on YouTube for cartoon fans BTW).

    With some refinements, I eventually arrived at the name of the blog ecosystem as… The Truth Laid Bear


    I was absolutely positive that a story more interesting than “the guy who created the system couldn’t spell,” but on further consideration, I’m not so sure anymore. Historians? (Really, really old historians, that is.)

  5. James Joyner says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: It was a pun. His nom de blog was NZ Bear.

  6. ImProPer says:

    Thank for this. A big gift for those that want to learn what the past has to teach us, are blogs with a history, and a sincere group of contributors.
    A quick look in my Google bookmarks, I can see that, a) OTB, has the dubious honor of being my first bookmark, and b) I first discovered it in March 2010. Documented time-lines are great tools, and one of the diamonds in the rough of the internet.
    Being able to go back in time and observing
    the zeitgeist in real time, as our all to frequent farces begin, then play out, will hopefully be of use to us, and the following generations. (We’ve long surpassed the tragedy phase).
    20 years after 9/11 we are hopefully disillusioned, and open to the reality that a military such as ours is, as well as it should be, but a force of utter destruction, and should be the second to the last resort to deal with those that would harm us. That the only way we ever “win” in other sovereign countries is through good diplomacy, impeded these days by our current infatuation with narcissists, and demagogues.
    In light of this somber anniversary, and these humbling political times, I hope we can learn from our mistakes, and transition more into an influencer, rather than an enforcer, on the world stage.