On April 11 of last year, just after U.S. forces took Baghdad, I warned that the Bush administration had a "pattern of conquest followed by malign neglect," and that the same was likely to happen in Iraq. I'm sorry to say those worries proved justified.
It's now widely accepted that the administration "failed dismally to prepare for the security and nation building missions in Iraq," to quote Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies — not heretofore known as a Bush basher. Just as experts on peacekeeping predicted before the war, the invading force was grossly inadequate to maintain postwar security. And this problem was compounded by a chain of blunders: doing nothing to stop the postwar looting, disbanding the Iraqi Army, canceling local elections, appointing an interim council dominated by exiles with no political base and excluding important domestic groups.
The lesson of the last few weeks is that the occupation has never recovered from those early errors. The insurgency, which began during those early months of chaos, has spread. Iraqi security forces have walked off their jobs, or turned against us. Attacks on convoys have multiplied, major roads have been closed, and reconstruction has slowed where it hasn't stopped. Deteriorating security prevents progress, lack of progress feeds popular disillusionment, and disillusionment feeds the insurgency.
Why was it predictable that Iraq would go wrong? The squandered victory in Afghanistan was an obvious precedent. But the character flaws in the Bush administration that led to the present crisis were fully visible in the months that followed 9/11.
It quickly became apparent that President Bush, while willing to spend vast sums on the military, wasn't willing to spend enough on security. And 9/11 didn't shake the administration's fanatical commitment to privatization and outsourcing, in which free-market ideology is inextricably mixed with eagerness to protect and reward corporate friends.
Sure enough, the administration was unprepared for predictable security problems in Iraq, but moved quickly — in violation of international law — to impose its economic vision. Last month Jay Garner, the first U.S. administrator of Iraq, told the BBC that he was sacked in part because he wanted to hold quick elections. His superiors wanted to privatize Iraqi industries first — as part of a plan that, according to Mr. Garner, was drawn up in late 2001.
Meanwhile, the administration handed out contracts without competitive bidding or even minimal oversight. It also systematically blocked proposals to have Congressional auditors oversee spending, or to impose severe penalties for fraud.
Cronyism and corruption are major factors in Iraq's downward spiral. This week the public radio program "Marketplace" is running a series titled "The Spoils of War," which documents a level of corruption in Iraq worse than even harsh critics had suspected. The waste of money, though it may run into the billions, is arguably the least of it — though military expenses are now $4.7 billion a month. The administration, true to form, is trying to hide the need for more money until after the election; Mr. Cordesman predicts that Iraq will need "in excess of $50-70 billion a year for probably two fiscal years."
More important, the "Marketplace" report confirms what is being widely reported: that the common view in Iraq is that members of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council are using their positions to enrich themselves, and that U.S. companies are doing the same. President Bush's idealistic language may be persuasive to Americans, but many Iraqis see U.S. forces as there to back a corrupt regime, not democracy.
Now what? There's a growing sense of foreboding, even panic, about Iraq among national security experts. "This is an extremely uncertain struggle," says Mr. Cordesman, who, to his credit, also says the unsayable: we may not be able to "stay the course." But yesterday Condoleezza Rice gave Republican lawmakers what Senator Rick Santorum called "a very upbeat report."
That's very bad news. The mess in Iraq was created by officials who believed what they wanted to believe, and ignored awkward facts. It seems they have learned nothing.
Originally published in The New York Times, 4.23.04