Category Archives: Middle East

What I got wrong about the Iraq war

I was going to write this a while back, but here it is. I was on the fence about it at the time, but history did not to wait for me to reach a position.

What I was wrong about with regard to Iraq (2003 assumptions)

  • I thought we would have over 10,000 military deaths by this point.
  • I thought the war would take about a year of heavy fighting.
  • I thought it would be over after that year
  • I thought the Sunni-Shia split would not play out as it has, rather that it would stay at or around the 2004 level
  • I thought we would have much more negative blowback – for all of the shouting and protests, not much has really happened on that front
  • I thought we would have found at least chemical weapons (in large quantities)
  • I did not think that Kurdistan would turn out as well as it has
  • I thought Turkey would have intervened in some form by now
  • I thought al Qaida would have benefited more, it seems that they have been hurt (in terms of their ideological appeal) by the Iraq war (more on that later)
  • I did not think that we would still have this many troops (fighting) at this point.
  • I thought that there would be much more conventional combat, and much less of this gang warfare
  • I thought that the Iraqis would have scored at least three major wins (surprise attacks in some fashion) in the scores of battles that have happened since the war began. They don’t seem to have won any against American troops.

Tdaxp on winners and losers in a war with Iran

Dan Tdaxp has a very good post on the winners and losers of a purely punitive (i.e. we don’t occupy) attack on Iran. It’s well worth reading.

One thin that is not mentioned is that a take-down of Iran would create sizable about of Indian country, it would also be contiguous with the other large patch of Indian country, i.e. Afghanistan. I have no meaningful speculation on what would ensue from that.

Now that I think about it, “Land Ocean” might be a better way to refer to large lawless areas.

Current Iraq thoughts

To update my many readers of my thoughts on Iraq, here they are.

Short and Medium Term Recommendation:

  • Accept the fact that a multi-ethnic democracy with strong group loyalties and a medium to high population density that has no overriding equalizer, (i.e. a market economy, strong religion, nation of uprooted immigrants, cult like leader, animosity towards some other country or religion etc) is a very bloody affair.
  • Let the country break apart into a very loose confederation, – There will probably be one to 3 Shia distinct regions in the South, 6-12 distinct Sunni regions and one distinct Kurdish region. Withdraw to the friendly areas, i.e. Kurdistan and probably a couple of Sunni areas and let the various sides fight it out. They’re doing this anyway and there is no need for American troops to get caught in the crossfire.
  • Accept the fact that there will be massive ethnic cleansing with the above option, much is happening already. Do as much as possible within some give time frame, say 10 months to let the ethnic cleansing be as bloodless as possible and not verge into genocide. This is going to happen anyway, many lives could be saved if we do it on our terms.
  • Drop the 60s idealism (called nation-building/neoconservatism, or whatever baby boomer term you want to label it) and admit that what is happening in Iraq IS democracy, it’s just bloody and ugly. Diversity only works if no one cares about the differences between people. Primary loyalties are primary.
  • I think Robert Kaplan thought of this first, but the proper metaphors for the current Middle East is not WWII, but the Barbary Pirates and the Indian Wars. I.E. it’s time to think small, and act small. Also, let the military get back to what it’s good at, i.e. killing people and breaking things.
  • Reward our friends and punish our enemies, but above all, be clear in our foreign policy. We would be well served by coming off of our high horse (bringing democracy, enlightenment, etc) and admitting that we’re in pursuit of our own interest, just like everyone else. We’ve long believed our own hype about our own greatness. While largely true domestically (thank you founding fathers and your division of power) it is much less true internationally due to the way our system is set up. Most of the good things we do are diffused in the form of trade and a myriad of private charities. It’s time to say less and to behave much more predictably. Cross cultural communication is hard enough without adding nuance and tone into the equation.

Long Term Recommendations

  • Get out. The Coase theorem applies to the Middle East just like everywhere else. We’re buying our oil now and we’ll be buying it in the future. And contrary to popular belief, it will be less important in the future. Plus, it’s quite likely the Kurds will be very pro-western and peaceful. Their primary loyalty is not divided and it’s not against us.
  • Be honest in our dealing with Israel – we don’t have that many common interests, but we are friends – it’s less like the US and the USSR in WWII and more like the US and Japan in the present day (excepting North Korea)

Consequences of The Above

  • Lots of blood will be shed – but it will be shed anyway. The key is minimizing it
  • People will be uprooted and new vendettas will be started that will last for centuries.
  • The Sunni and the Shia factions of the Middle East will have a battleground to fight their proxy wars, much like the Nazis and the Soviets had a battleground in the Spanish Civil War. Then again, they have that now.
  • American troops will be used in raids and attacks in the loose confederation of what we’ll still call Iraq.
  • Turkey will be quite angry – but that is manageable and can be minimized by the use of carrots and sticks.

I’ll have my post on what I was right and wrong about (regarding Iraq that is) later.


Put very succinctly

From the Ethical Spectacle

However, I suspect that the real reason we haven’t gone after Bin Laden is because we know he is living in the lawless part of Pakistan near the Afghan border, where the resurgent Taliban are also based. This has rapidly become a new rogue state, not really under any kind of Pakistani military or political control. In addition, Al Qaeda and the Taliban are allegedly sheltered and supported by renegade elements of Pakistani intelligence who originally worked with them on the anti-Soviet effort and haven’t given them up in the post-9/11 world.

If this part of Pakistan had been a completely independent state, it would have made a lot of sense to invade it instead of Iraq (I believe we don’t have a large enough military to do both). I suspect that the reason we can’t do this is that the minute US troops land on Pakistani territory (even such independent and lawless territory) there would be a huge popular uprising in Pakistan, overthrowing our nominal ally the weak dictator-president Musharraf. The result of the incursion would be to drive a huge country with nuclear weapons over to the other side, giving Al Qaeda a large powerful playground instead of a small weak one.

More Iraq

One oft-repeated trope about Iraq is that Iran and Syria don’t have any interest in an unstable Iraq. Why? While I’m sure that is not their ideal situation, I’m sure that a vibrant pro-Western democracy would be worse in their opinion.

Also the possible strategy of doubling down (a “troop surge”) is doomed to failure. The Iranians and Syrians can trade off lives and money at a very favorable ratio to them for the foreseeable future.

However this is a moot point. Enough highly motivated factions are in Iraq to make the eventual breakup a certainty. What we should be doing is facilitating the breakup instead of denying it.

Aspects of the conventional wisdom

  • Oil is the lifeblood of the Global Economy – I remember paying 94 cents a gallon in October of 2001, to $3.05 this summer, to $1.98 today (yes I realize that the price of oil does not track gas exactly, but it’s close). Given that the economy of the oil consuming world has growing mildly (Europe), moderately (the US), and highly (China and India), it would seem that this is simply not true, or if true, not meaningful.
  • The invasion of Iraq will turn the Muslim world against the US. Given that it’s been three and a half years, and all of the opposition is still based in Iraq (with some degree of foreign investment in people and capital) this would seem not to be meaningful.


It escapes me how anyone expects the “Rock for Darfur” campaign to do any good. The conflict in Darfur is an ethnic and territorial war that isn’t based on any sort of historical misunderstanding or trivial difference. It’s also true that anything the US or any major power would do would wind up looking like Iraq. The duke of Wellington’s adage “For a great power there are no small wars” is being proven true everywhere.

So then what? Another adage “If a problem seems insolvable, enlarge it”. In this case, don’t act as a great power, or more specifically, use small powers, like private military companies, like Blackwater et. al. The money could be raised privately, they’re relatively cheap by military standards, and it wouldn’t require a massive US commitment.

There are massive legal and oversight problems involved with using PMCs, but using private means for what are essentially humanitarian efforts seems far better in every way than making a national commitment.