On criticizing mistakes
Can you imagine any large and complex enterprise - and I’m talking enormously large and extremely complex, involving millions of people and a process of far-reaching change - in which those trying to carry it through don’t make mistakes? No, nor can I. My question is prompted by an interview with Paul Wolfowitz which appears in the current issue of Atlantic Monthly (subscription only - an edited version appeared in the Sunday Times last weekend but seems not to be available online). Amongst much else, Wolfowitz says the following:
People start by deciding what is a mistake that we made… It’s based on their desire to say ‘I told you so,’ or ‘We were right.’ So you start from ‘The mistake was not enough troops,’ or ‘The mistake was not enough UN resolutions,’ or ‘The mistake was not enough State Department people,’ or ‘The mistake was not enough electricity.’ And if that’s the mistake, then you analyze from the mistake to who’s at fault. I can go through the list. Most of the things that are suggested as mistakes didn’t happen at all. The notion that we didn’t pay attention to the State Department plan - that’s baloney. The notion that we didn’t have the State Department play a role - there were many of them!.. The State Department itself opposed the recommendation of the Future of Iraq Project to recognize a provisional Iraqi government from day one. Then there are the allegations that we didn’t flood the place with troops, and we disbanded the Iraqi army.
I post this excerpt from the interview, not in order to discuss what have been the more or what the less serious mistakes made in Iraq. On some of the matters mentioned by Wolfowitz, I don’t feel I have a close enough knowledge to know the answer. But reading this interview brought something home to me. It brought home to me that I have never seen, in all the voluminous discussion since the liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s rule, anything from the anti-war camp (perhaps I just haven’t read widely enough) that made a distinction between mistakes and avoidable mistakes, or mistakes and culpable mistakes. Plainly what happened at Abu Ghraib was culpable and was worse than a mistake. But on the sundry other matters, unless you have a distinction between avoidable and culpable mistakes and other kinds of mistake, including for example mistakes understandable in the circumstances, unless you allow that some of the mistakes may have been due to the scope and nature of the undertaking itself, it suggests one of two things: either that the undertaking could have been carried out altogether smoothly and unproblematically; or that the criticism of mistakes is motivated more by an impulse to oppose than by a desire for the undertaking to succeed.
You pays your money and you takes your choice.
Here’s something else Paul Wolfowitz says:
[F]rom day one there was never any intention among the five thousand or ten thousand or fifteen thousand hard-core to do anything but continue fighting us. Saddam didn’t leave Baghdad declaring surrender. He left Baghdad saying ‘We are going to continue to fight, and we are going to continue funding resistance up until December.’ He still calls himself the president of Iraq. His cronies still have hundreds of millions of dollars, we think, in bank accounts in Syria and Lebanon and maybe in Jordan. It’s as though the Nazis after their defeat still controlled Nuremberg, and had bank accounts in Switzerland and sanctuary in Switzerland and some cooperation from another country like Iran.
[T]he heart of the problem is that thirty-five years of raping and murdering and torturing in that country created a hard core that is incredibly brutal…
That sets up another either/or.