First of all, our gratitude to Douglas Ollivant for his service.
Second, read the whole essay Peter links below. A fine piece—if anything, too brief, because no-one provides good reporting or analysis on Iraq these days.
Third, the basic point Ollivant is making about regime-change, and what we’ve learned the hard way about it, is correct. Myself and others who expected and hoped that the Iraqis’ assumed a) comparative socio-economic sophistication, b) gratitude to America, and most of all, c) hatred of the tyranny they experienced under Saddam, would together outweigh their cultural/historical impediments to orderly and democratic government were WRONG.
Fourth, there is a problem with the way Ollivant has framed things. What were the non-regime-change options w/ Iraq, if you thought, as Bush did, that we had to act because he had and was increasing his stores of serious WMDs? And if you knew, as Bush did, that no sanctions-regime would suffice to stop this? (Im talking shorthand herethere were other reasons aplenty, as spelled out in Douglas Feiths War and Decision. )
They were a) live with a WMD-armed Hussein regime, b) attack Hussein’s forces, weakening them, but leave him in power, c) decapitation—go in, kill Saddam, leave promptly with the assumption that his son or other Baathist elements will take power. (A stronger version of this, which killed or imprisoned the entire inner circle and most top Baathists, would amount to “dynasty change,” but because it would assume the emergence of another strongman, likely from the ranks of Baathist officers, it would not be regime change.)
These options were so awful as to be impossible to choose, and incidentally, we now know that c) was virtually impossible—by the time we captured Saddam, the state-of-nature chaos would have already been unleashed upon Iraqi society.
And how would options b) and c) have sat with the American people at the time? No one asks this question.
Another option (d) sometimes discussed is the “put a strongman of our choosing in power plan. The ultimate hope is that our horse would eventually emerge as a “liberalizing autocrat,” a strongman who could transition society in a direction to make it ready for law-abiding LIBERAL democracy. But do note, this would have been regime change. Any strongman we helped prop up would either have to base his power on Sunni dominance or upon a new coalition of Shia, anti-Baath Sunnis, and Kurds. And even a “liberalizing” strongman with an “ex-Baathist” Sunni base would be regime change to the extent he was serious about bringing about rule-of-law and liberalizing reforms.
As best as I can tell, these are the choices Bush and his advisers faced. Those with non-arm-chair knowledge like Ollivant are invited to assess their validity.
In retrospect, I think (d) would have been better. I do not, however, claim to know that Bush would have survived the 2004 election had he chosen this route. And, here’s the key point, certainly (d) would have been Regime Change. Which does mean it could easily have unleashed as much chaos and civil war or more, had it not worked—had we bet on the wrong horse. And how our troops would have felt about kicking one dictator out for another, hopefully better sort, I do not even want to think about.
So this is the problem: Ollivant wants to talk as if a neat choice for or against Regime Change was strategically and politically possible for Bush. And there are plenty of others who have often talked as if there were some alternative to Regime Change other than leave the Baathists in power. No-one calls them pro-Baathists, and no-one should; whereas in spirit, those who still support the basic Bush rationale for war are called “pro-DISASTER.” That was never fair, and now, Iraq is not a disaster anyhow.
Fifth and finally: which is better, going into the state of nature, or remaining locked under tyranny? Plato’s account of the slavish/tyrannical soul-type cultivated in the population by a tyrant would suggest that a darker vision of human failure than Hobbes’ nightmare is possible: perpetual tyranny, with only dynasty changes possible for a population utterly debased in soul. Indeed, such tyranny is but the war of all against all made slow-motion and orderly, unleashing its damage more against the moral fiber of mankind than against its actual flesh. Dead and devilish souls instead of dead bodies. And a rapid fall into an actual war of all against all possible at any moment, since once the yoke is lifted from souls trained to be tyrannical, their apparent passivity is revealed for what it is, and they devour one another.
Plato and Jefferson, and I think the average American, are united in thinking it is better for a society to go through the fire of revolution than to remain under tyranny. Not at all that this is a choice that American foreign policy ought to normally consider with respect to other societies, but I hold the Iraq situation did force it upon us. Once Bush concluded he had to attack, he HAD to make a regime choice.
So I remain for the decision in favor of Regime Change in Iraq, in the sense I’ve described. I am chastened enough to now think we ought to have rolled the dice on option (d) rather than what we did try, but that is easy for me to say. We move on in a world in which we do not get to see how that option would have worked or failed in Iraq, and in American politics.
We also, I insist upon reminding everyone, move on in world in which we do not get to see how the Hussein dynasty would have developed. Or what it would have developed, weapons-wise, terror-wise, and war-wise.
Hindsight that blocks out the live options at the time, that blocks out what are now the counterfactuals, is oh so cozy. Like an arm-chair. And that comment is NOT for Ollivant, who put his life on the line for the sake of serving our nation’s democratically-arrived-at decision, a decision he surely had reservations about, to try Regime Change.