How did we arrive at this heinous, insuperable mess in Iraq? More precisely, how did the U.S. ended up on the hook, all but alone, for dealing with the disaster in Iraq? These questions have been answered, mostly, with question-begging partisan platitudes. On the left, these platitudes consist of claims that Bush's recklessness pushed us into a war that was illegitimate from the start. On the right, when the disaster is even acknowledged (as it increasingly is), the answer has been to ventilate mightly about alleged Parisian perfidy.
While both of these answers contain an element of truth, each alone fails to constitute a complete answer to the question of how we ended up in Iraq, by ourselves and increasingly desperate straits. What follows is an attempt to construct a first draft of how historians may explain how the U.S. ended up in this situation.
Great Power Consensus-Making in the 1990s
To begin this explanation, we need to go back to the geopolitical situation that emerged in the wake of the Cold War. Over the course of the 1990s, it became increasingly apparent that international terrorism and state failure were the primary strategic challenges facing the Great Powers, the United States in particular. The bombings of the World Trade Center in 1993, the African embassies in 1998, and the U.S.S. Cole in 2000 underscored the terrorist threat. And the Balkans, Central and West Africa, Timor, Somalia and Afghanistan exemplified the problem of state failure.
The policy response to these crises by the Great Powers—and here I am thinking of the permanent members of the Security Council, as well as sometimes the European Union collective or the NATO political command structure—emerged fitfully over the course of the 1990s, not through the exposition of foreign policy doctrine, but rather through de facto arrangements and a series of consistent patterns.
This emergent policy pattern may be described as one of "do nothing until there is Great Power consensus." The principle was quite straight-forward: as a crisis unfolded, the Great Powers would bicker and struggle among themselves to reach a consensus on what was to be done. Until that consensus was reached, nothing would happen. While this manner of approaching post-Cold War conflicts gave the impression of foreign ministers fiddling while Srebrenica or Kigali burned, it did have the advantage of preventing conflicts in small states from, 1914-style, precipitating conflicts between the Great Powers.
This consensus-seeking approach had an additional benefit. If things turned out to be more difficult in the post-conflict situation than anticipated, the solidarity among the Great Powers created by the initially painful process of consensus-building tended to stiffen collective resolve about long-term commitments—the notable instance being Bosnia and Kosovo, where tens of thousands of U.N. and NATO forces remain in situ, keeping the peace and (we may hope) building institutions.
The Internationalist Division of War Labor
When the Great Powers did manage to reach consensus on what to do about a given crisis, moreover, the way the chose to implement policy in the 1990s was remarkably consistent: the United States would lead a military campaign, with some support from Britain, while the post-conflict situation would be handed off to the U.N. or EU, with post-conflict funding supplied by a somewhat wider group.
This division of labor made sense given the relative skills and proclivities of the different powers. On the one hand, the U.S. military had developed such a technology lead that its allies could no longer effectively contribute to U.S. combat modalities. On the other hand, handing off peacekeeping duties to international agencies allowed the U.S. to avoid long non-combat commitments of American armed forces that were increasingly specializing in a very rarified (and expensive) form of combat.
This division of labor also made sense in terms of the domestic politics of the Great Powers. Whereas the U.S. public warmed to a muscular, martial self-image but disliked long foreign entanglements, European publics preferred to imagine their military engagements as warm and fuzzy efforts to improve the quotidian experience of civilians. Each of these military policies reflected internal political projects on both side of the Atlantic: the Americans wanted bounded engagements where they could kick ass and get out, while the Europeans liked the idea of their military being part of a wider, long-term project of institution-building.
"Transformation" Assumes the 1990s Division of Labor
When George Bush assumed office in 2001, he inherited this manner of conflict-confrontation. In the Pentagon, Don Rumsfeld set about engaging in what he called "Transformation," an effort to make the entire preponderance of American military might capable of engaging in operations which a generation ago would have been the purview of the Special Forces: a highly technologized style of combat, heavily reliant on remote sensing, and capable of extremely accurate application of overwhelming force.
While the bulk of the commentary on Rumsfeld's efforts at Transformation have focused on how it denigrated the traditional full-frontal applications of military force, what has been less remarked on is that Transformation also completely shunted aside any focus on specialization in training the military to manage post-conflict situations. The unstated but crucial underpinning of the success of Transformation as a military doctrine was the assumption that someone else would manage the post-conflict situations created by the application of American military force. The policy success of Transformation, in other words, depended heavily on the American military being used only in a political context in which American policy-makers had ensured that other institutions or groups would manage the clean-up. Shutting down the Army War College's Peacekeeping Institute -- the nation-building and post-conflict studies group -- was emblematic of how Rumsfeld was thinking about the increasingly specialized role of the American military. Ironically, Transformation can thus be said to have made the United States actually far more dependent on our Allies.
The immediate response of the European Great Powers to the September 2001 attacks in New York and Washington was to declare solidarity with the United States, with NATO invoking Article V, the collective self-defense clause, for the first time. The internationally shared horror about 9-11, and the fact that the Taliban was unrepentant about housing its planners, relieved the Bush regime from having to do the "hard work" of international consensus building. International leaders (and publics) might be uncomfortable with Bush's evangelically-inspired intonations, might disliked the brutal simplifying of the "Axis of Evil" concept, and were positively appalled by his use of the word "crusade" to describe the U.S.'s approach to spreading democracy. But despite these caveats, none of the Great Powers dissented from the right of the U.S. to wage the war in Afghanistan.
Thus it was that the Great Powers, without serious discussion, agreed to run the campaign against the Taliban according the 1990s playbook: the U.S. would lead the military assault, committing itself to staying on the sharp end of the combat situations; after the fall of the Taliban in November 2001, the U.N. and the E.U. would send in peacekeeping forces to manage the post-conflict situation.
Had Bush's exuberance for military force as the means by which to pursue the campaign against Islamist terrorists ended with the victory over the Taliban (as almost certainly would have happened under a President Gore), we might still find ourselves in the decision-making world of the 1990s. But as we all know, Bush had no intention of stopping with the Taliban. Instead, almost a year to the day after September 11, the Bush regime's National Security Strategy promulgated the infamous "doctrine of preemption," or more accurately, doctrine of preventive war. It was this doctrine that would rupture in the Osama-and-Taliban-forged international consensus, setting the stage for America's current devastating solitude in Iraq. (For more on the "preemption" concept, check out this Brookings report.)
In this doctrine, the Bush regime set out the right of the United States to wage war whenever and wherever it reached the conclusion that it was necessary to do so, without the need to consult with international agencies. The doctrine furthermore stated not just that immediate (or even medium-range) security threats would constitute sufficient grounds for military action, but also that an active project of promoting democracy might well also constitute grounds for the application of American military force. Most importantly, the Bush Doctrine suggested that the threat matrix facing the world was so severe, and often so reliant on covertly-gathered intelligence, that in many cases there might be no time for diplomatic consensus building. The doctrine was one of action, not talk.
Whatever merits one may or may not ascribe to the Bush Doctrine's assessment of the threat matrix facing the United States, what is absolutely clear is that the doctrine of preemption, combined with the right of the U.S. to make unilateral decisions about which wars to fight, put the Europeans and international nation-building agencies in a pickle. If it was one thing to agree with the U.S. on a de facto division of labor for resolving international crises, it was another thing altogether for the U.S. to arrogate to itself the sole right to pick the fights, and still expect to have others come in and do the clean-up work. The Bush doctrine assumed that the Americans would have the unilateral right to pick the battles, while the international agencies and foreign peacekeepers were expected to fall into line to do their usual 1990s post-conflict tasks.
For the Europeans, the Bush Doctrine sounded like the U.S. arrogating the right to commit its allies' troops to conflicts (or rather, to post-conflicts), without the need for the U.S. to consult with those allies in advance. Just as the U.S. would never given any other country the right to commit (or not commit) our troops somewhere, several of the other Great Powers had no intention of letting the U.S.'s claim of a similar right stand.
Putting the Bush Doctrine to the Test in Iraq
The very first test case after the promulgation of the Bush Doctrine that brought the issue to a head. Not only did the Europeans did not want to allow the Bush regime to set a precedent legitimating the Bush Doctrine, but a shattered post-totalitarian Iraq was in any event a mess the Europeans did not want responsibility for cleaning up.
Even as the Europeans, led by France, insisted on this point through the winter of 2002-2003, Bush began to mass American troops for an invasion of Iraq. At Colin Powell's behest, Bush in fact pursued a less unilateralist approach to diplomacy than his doctrine might have suggested, continuously keeping up the pressure at the U.N. to have the Security Council explicitly authorize an American-led invasion of Iraq.
It was apparent all winter, however, that the French would veto such a vote. But the Bush regime kept up the U.N. efforts with the hope that, if they at least gained a majority vote of the Security Council, then that would be enough to claim international moral legitimacy for the invasion. (An additional reason for pursuing this ruse was that, had it been successful, it would have had the salutary benefit of de facto stripping the other Great Powers of their Security Council veto.) But when the final political push in the U.N. came in February-March 2003, it became apparent that the Bush regime was going to fail to get even a bare majority of the U.N. Security Council to explicitly authorize the pending War in Iraq. Though the American right-wing establishment singled out French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin, as the chief organizer of the opposition to the war, the humiliating fact was that the Bush regime, despite bribes and threats, had failed to convince even close allies and neighbors like Canada or Mexico to vote its way.
The "Pottery Barn" Rule
And so, as we all know, the American invasion of Iraq, Gulf War II, ensued, without the support – though, it must be clearly noted, also without the active opposition – of other Great Powers (Britain excepted). Essentially, the result of the winter 2003 Security Council dickering was that Old Europeans said to the Americans: go ahead and invade, but postwar Iraq will be your problem now, not ours. Thus was born what Colin Powell called "the Pottery Barn rule," which he explained to the President meant that "If you break it, you own it." Whereas previously, when American military might had broken something (like the Taliban or Serbian nationalist will), the U.N. ended up owning it, in the case of Iraq case, it was going to be all America, all the time. As the proverb goes, be careful what you wish for.
The problem was, however, that the U.S. military had over the course of the 1990s ceased to be designed (if, indeed, it ever was designed) to deal with post-conflict situations - a tendency only exacerbated by Rumsfeld's push for Transformation. On the contrary, the U.S. military had systematically deemphasized any effort to develop institutional competency in post-conflict management and institution-building. The American military had not led a nation-building project anywhere since the Somalia disaster of the early 1990s, and instead had come to expect that it could outsource post-conflict management to the Europeans and the U.N.
In the heat of the initial phase of the war, however, none of this was top of mind. Instead, the American military focused on the task at hand, a task for which it had become orders of magnitude better than anything before seen in history. The initial course of the military campaign was, to no one's great surprise, a smashing success. In six weeks or so the U.S. ran roughshod over the (admittedly defanged) Iraqi military. Some mistakes may have been made, like not properly securing ammo and weapons dumps, but overall the military earned the plaudits Bush bestowed it aboard the aircraft carrier in San Diego in May 2003: the Mission, in purely military terms, had certainly been Accomplished. At first blush, it seemed like a dramatic vindication of both the Bush Doctrine, and Rumsfeld's Transformation.
Ignoring the Dependency between Means and Ends
Then the postwar reality began to set in. While the major combat operations might have been successfully concluded, we still needed to build a nation (or, more properly, a democratic state) in Iraq, and unfortunately, the guys we usually invited in to do that part of the job had turned down the invitation. Everything from the get-go about the way the postwar situation was handled was, in retrospect, a complete disaster. Which was hardly a surprise, given that complete amateurs the Bush regime put in charge. We might have the most amazing army in the world for fighting wars, but for nation-building the American army was second-rate at best, and the civilian free-market ideologues were even worse.
Imagine if a Hollywood producer had spent a huge amount of money to bring an all-star cast to film in a remote location, only to discover that the people in he was expecting to building the sets and cook the meals and manage the trailers hadn't signed their contract, and weren't showing up. Of course, that would only cost the producer a few tens of millions of dollars. In the case of the Iraq war, Bush's decision to "go into production" without the full competencies required to succeed was about to cost hundreds of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives.
Of course, Bush chose to ignore this dependency, and to go into the fight without the capacities necessary to succeed -- capacities which, much to his current chagrin, were only available in consultation with his allies.
At the root of the insuperability of the current conflict is thus the fact that the process of military Transformation is fundamentally at odds with the insistence of the Bush regime on diplomatic unilateralism – our Transformed army is simply not designed to take on the holistic nation-building requirements implied by "going it alone." In short, Rumsfeld's Transformed military is not a suitable vehicle for the solo 21st century imperial projects that the likes of Bill Kristol, Max Boot, or Niall Ferguson yearn for. A military suited for such projects would have to be one equally (perhaps more) adept at various kinds of post-conflict stabilization, as at actually hard-toothed fighting.
Many commentators, especially on the right, have excoriated Rumsfeld for saying that, "You go to war with the army you have" – and rightly so, since as head of the DoD, he is responsible for "the army we have." But at the same time, the Commander-in-Chief has to be held responsible for not engaging us in conflicts for which our military is ill-suited. In other words, he should not get us involved in conflicts in which nation-building would be part of the requirement imposed on the Transformed U.S. army. With his Texas-style diplomacy, Bush failed to rally the relevant Allies (that is, the Allies with nation-building expertise), but then decided to go to war anyway. Political leaders who choose to fight wars they cannot win deserve the blame for the losses.
Pace Niall Ferguson, and more akin to Robert Nye's "soft power" thesis, the U.S. does not have an army suited for imperial adventures abroad. The stupidity of the war in Iraq is that this was actually a known fact, a fact that had been produced by design, on the assumption that the internationalist division of labor from the 1990s would hold. Bush thought he could keep the division of labor, which had been built into the battle strategy of the American army itself, but jettison the diplomatic aspect of it. Hence the mess in Iraq.