The Washington Times

The second-guessing of the Bush administration over Iraq has been a part of the background noise since, really, the start of major combat operations, if not indeed before. Shouldn’t the United States have done more to try to secure a northern invasion route into Iraq out of Turkey? Did U.S. forces move too quickly into Iraq, leaving their supply lines dangerously exposed as they became bogged down in a sandstorm?

I haven’t much been a party to this second-guessing. The reason is not that I have never held an opinion contrary to a decision the administration has reached. Far from it. But I will say this: I was and remain in essential sympathy with the administration’s Iraq policy, having supported the removal of Saddam Hussein and the effort to rebuild Iraq as a stable, decent, peaceful, democratic state. The Americans who are chiefly responsible for achieving this outcome – which is to say, apart from the Iraqi people themselves – or for failing to achieve it, are the officials of the Bush administration who set themselves the task in the first place. So I am “for” them.

In much the same way, I was “for” the Clinton administration officials who made the decision to stop Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo by using NATO military power. Those, too, were trying times for the people conducting the war. I am glad that whatever second-guessing I entertained at that time I kept pretty much to myself – rather than venting it in what could only be construed as an assault on the intelligence, competence and integrity of the very people who had taken it upon themselves to try to bring about an outcome I myself desired and for which I had been an advocate. So I think one should remain on the side of the people who have the real-world task of advancing one’s side, often against considerable opposition.

I certainly can understand why others might prefer the moral perfection of the private universes they are cultivating, the ones in which their policy preferences had carried the day and had, of course, and sans doubt, yielded perfect outcomes. But I am not especially interested in these private universes. I think they mainly tell us more than I want to know about the people who respond to our real concern, in today’s case what’s happening in Iraq, with the desire to create them.

Second-guessing has the intention and sometimes the effect of underscoring a distinction between policy “in principle” and policy “as applied.” Thus, in more than a few private universes currently under construction, our difficulties in Iraq are the product of A] bad choices that B] could have been good choices that C] were or could have been known as good choices at the time the choice had to be made. Thus, the blame goes to those who have made the [notional] bad choices. The policy “as applied” was so bad it ruined a policy that was “in principle” good.

So basically what we have here is the comparison of a happy world that does not exist [but that supposedly would have, had good choices been made] with the real world, whose deficiencies are attributable chiefly to bad choices made. It’s not exactly a great challenge to get the ideal to come out ahead.

To be sure, the possibility of better or worse choices is highly relevant to the what-if questions historians sometimes ask. The problem is that they are conjectural: We have access to knowledge about all the consequences [good and bad] of decisions actually taken but nothing about the real-world effects of different decisions. And it’s hard to know how much of what’s bad in the here and now is the product of a particular bad decision and how much has other causes – or rather, it’s all too easy to attribute all that’s bad to a particular decision or set of decisions.

I am prepared to assume [provisionally] that historians make a good-faith effort to take this problem of knowing into account and to approach what-if questions with subtlety and nuance. I am not, for some reason, prepared to make that assumption about most of the administration’s “as applied” second-guessers.

Recall the outraged second-guessing concerning the failure to stop the looting in Baghdad a year ago. I certainly agree that that was a mistake – although stopping the looting might have entailed shooting a few of the looters, which I suspect [for some reason] would then have brought a round of second-guessing about overreaction. But does anyone really think our situation in Iraq at the present moment has a thing to do with the looting policy?

The people with the greatest incentive for the Iraq endeavor to succeed – except, again, the Iraqis, but that’s the question – are the people who took us there in the first place and the people working the problem on their behalf. They also, as it happens, have the best information about what’s happening. Whether or not they succeed strikes me more as a question of whether success is “in principle” possible than of policy “as applied.”