WHEN THE BEST IS NOT ENOUGH. Excellent, a chance to tread over some more Iraq/incompetence terrain. Kevin Drum writes:

Actually, not everyone seems to have realized this. In fact, it's a point of considerable controversy, isn't it? Sam Rosenfeld and Matt Yglesias made the opposite point explicitly in "The Incompetence Dodge," arguing that "administrative bungling is simply not the root source of America�s failure in Iraq." I made the same argument myself a couple of years ago, though I remain sort of ambivalent about it, largely because of stories like Babylon by Bus. If you're operating at 80% efficiency and your plan doesn't work, it probably means the plan was just plain bad. But if you're operating at 20% efficiency, it seems at least plausible that better execution could have produced success. It may be that democratization by force is a chimera, but the level of incompetence in Iraq has been so monumental that it seems almost impossible to draw any enduring conclusions from our experience there.

In response, I have two different kinds of points. One is that, in a sense, occupation of Iraq has gone much better than it's sometimes given credit for. The other, paradoxically, is that it's gone much worse than is often presupposed by discussions on this topic. On the first point, my argument is fairly brief: When globe-straddling hegemon A invades-and-conquers medium-sized postcolonial nation B, installs a proconsul to administer it, and begins governing it in a structurally colonial manner one might well think this would produce a nationalist backlash such that B's majority group began to wage war aimed at liberating the country from foreign occupation. Many war skeptics anticipated just such an occurrence before the war and, in fact, this is what seemed to be happening during Muqtada al-Sadr's Spring 2004 insurgency. Ultimately, though, that risk proved fairly ephemeral, which was all to the good. Instead, we have an alienated and rebellious minority. A lot of the incompetence narrative speaks to Bushian decisions that created the problem we have -- Sunni Arab insurgency -- but fails to consider the possibility that policy alternatives (in particular, not disbanding the Iraqi Army and not proscribing the Baath Party) that could have prevented this might have created an even worse problem -- Shiite insurgency.

The flipside of this is that we're really, really, really far from the goal of creating a stable, pluralistic democracy in Iraq. From a lot of Iraq-related talk you hear, you'd think the primary reason countries aren't democracies is that they're beset by violent guerilla insurgencies, that they lack hyper-competent domestic security forces, or that they've never held elections. Step back and think about it, though, and this is clearly mistaken. In terms of assessing the prospects of coercive democratization, the whole insurgency is in many ways a distraction from the irrealism of the task. Wave a magic insurgency-vanishing wand tomorrow and Iraq isn't a liberal democracy, it's going to be a typical petrokleptocracy equipped with a ruling elite loath to abandon power and the security forces at its disposal to stay in charge. Democratic transition is really, really hard, especially for countries well-endowed with natural resources. The precedents of, say, Venezuela, Russia, and Nigeria aren't really encouraging, nor is the regional cast of characters -- forget the "axis of evil" and look at Egypt, Jordan, and Qatar.

Or, for that matter, look at the better-executed state-building endeavors of the Clinton years. In Bosnia we managed to stop people from killing each other, but there's no kind of pluralistic democracy there. Nor is there one in Kosovo, where we managed to stop Serbs from killing Albanians, but can't stop Albanians from killing Serbs. Haiti? Somalia? This isn't to say that intervention is useless -- we achieved some very useful things in the Balkans. But it's simply the case that nobody, anywhere, knows how to export the rule of law and the other things we would have had to do to achieve the post-hoc democratization goals of the Iraq War. Bush is inept, but at the same time the task is just really, really, really hard. I don't want to say it's impossible because, hey, anything's possible. I do, however, want to say that we lack any reliable methods that have a reasonable chance of success and that it's both unwise and immoral to launch wars whose aims you don't have good reason to believe you can accomplish.

--Matthew Yglesias

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