Thursday, September 27, 2007

Counterfactuals and Iraq

My uncle sent along an interview in the Harvard Business School Alumni Magazine with Ali Allawi. Allawi, an Iraqi who came out of exile to take important government posts in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam, makes for an interesting interview because he, George Bush, and Paul Bremer were all graduates of Harvard's Business School.
When did you realize that the American presence in Iraq was going off-track?
The lightbulb went off when I began to meet the officials and advisers who were attached to my first ministry, and I discovered the varying qualities of those people. Before I went back to Iraq, I spent a lot of time reading about the occupations of Germany and Japan so that I could compare and contrast the team that was being assembled in Baghdad with those who went in after the defeat of Germany and Japan. And the quality was just not there.

He certainly understands many aspects of the situation in a way I will never attain. Many of pronouncements about what the US should have done after the overthrow sound very plausible. I do not possess the foreign policy knowledge to counter his general arguments. Thus I grant outright that what Allawi thinks would have been better could well be so.

As I have noted before, however, I am pretty good at seeing the weaknesses in reasoning. Assistant Village Idiots are most useful when they look at a bit of reasoning and say "I don't see how you get from there to there."

Several things trouble me about his reasoning, nonetheless. It could have been nipped in the bud if the United States had handed over administration of the country to the Iraqi opposition. The Americans could have come in, overthrown the regime, spent maybe a few weeks looking for weapons of mass destruction, and then pulled out like they did in Kuwait. And If the Americans pulled out tomorrow, I don’t think much would change. Maybe the Iraqi military would fall under the control of the Shia-Islamist parties, something that the United States is now trying to stop, but not very successfully. Simple counterfactuals such as those strike me as inherently implausible. "If only we had done this one simple thing..." "If only the ambassador had held his teacup like this..." They might well have been better, but to lightly claim that a single change would have fixed pretty much everything is the epitome of hindsight bias. If we had bought the Chevy instead of the Ford, we might not have had electrical problems, but we might have had brake problems instead. Historical counterfactuals notoriously underestimate problems.

Secondly, I get a little twinge-y when a Shia thinks that turning things over to the (largely Shia) opposition is such a great idea. The suggestion may not be sly or agenda-driven, or even particularly prejudiced on his part. He may be a remarkably openminded and tolerant gentleman with no particular animus against the Sunnis. But little red flags go up in the back of my mind: on what basis does he think this would work?

Allawi doesn't say, and gives scant attention to possible downsides.

As I noted, the man knows far more than I ever will about Iraq and its governing. But in your own field of work, how often do you find that the people who have simple solutions to past problems are all that good at solving future ones? Where I work, those people are often the greatest barriers to success.

If he had stuck with claiming "this would probably have worked better, for reasons a, b, c" I would have been more persuaded.


Der Hahn said...

I have a similar feeling about most counter-factual 20/20 hindsight prescriptions. Though each assumes the single 'but for' tweak would bring about massive changes, if you look deep enough inside you'll see that they are assuming an arc of events pretty much like what happened, just with a 'better' outcome.

Off the top of my head, a shorter occupation would have given both Syria and Iran greater influence and more opportunities for interference. The generally fair and comprehensive elections would be, IMO, unlike without US military presence. Like you, I am suspicious that we wouldn't have seen a greater and earlier Shia uprising and that Allawi doesn't see this as a bad thing. We would have had more problems with Turkey and the Kurds in the north.

I'm also dismayed at his comments about the 'quality' of the Baghdad team. Given that the occupations of Germany and Japan went really surprisingly well, the inevitable cast of fumblers and rouges among the men who advised those governments are getting an undeserved glow. He's also ignoring how thoroughly we defeated and destroyed those two countries compared to Iraq, in both a physical and human sense, and how much we forced them, especially Japan, into our mold. I think we've given the Iraqi people much more say in how they would organize themselves.

Oh, and these counterfactuals are a good example of the 'single independent actor' bias I spoke about earlier. Nobody talks about how any of the various factions in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey, or some of our European 'allies' could have done *one little thing* that would make the situation jusss peachy.

Anonymous said...

Remember the old childhood's tale about the mice and the cat? and the solution was to bell the cat? Only problem was who was going to do it and how...
Simple solutions are rarely simple, and even more rarely, easy.

Maybe one of the reasons the muslims of the middle east wanted us out of there so fast was because they wanted to retain the idea of the terrible immoral westerners. There was - and probably still is - a lack of trust that lies at the heart of the problem. The actions of our military - both good and bad - will stay in the minds and hearts of the people for decades to come, and particularly the children. One photo that stays in my mind is a street scene with a soldier, his rifle at the ready, focussed on some particular point, with three youngsters _hiding_ behind him, looking in the same direction. You better believe that years down the road, those kids will remember the US soldier with good feelings, and a certain amount of trust that will stay no matter what they are told by someone who is trying to demonize us. That sort of trust takes time, and I think that in the long run, maybe our time spent over there may turn to our benefit.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Y'know, I'm starting to compete with Eric Scheie for best commenters.

GraniteDad said...

Yeah, but where's copithorne when you need him? I could use a good off-topic comment about you want Iraqi babies to die because you aren't a real Christian. We haven't had one in a few months, and every one makes my week brighter.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Y'know how he mentioned coming from Gilford? I wonder if he went to Sant Bani for HS? It would fit. I'm going to ask around. Copithorne is a real surname, but there's no guarantee that it's his. C-thorne might be a nom de nette.

I wonder how it is we are sure he's male? I'm guessing halfway between us in age.

GraniteDad said...

I like to pretend he's Uncle Dave