Sunday, September 17, 2006

"Early U.S. Missteps in the Green Zone"

Read the article "Ties to GOP Trumped Know-How Among Staff Sent to Rebuild Iraq" by Rajiv Chandrasekaran in The Washington Post of September 17, 2006.

This article tells part of the story of appointment of political ideologues to key possitions in Iraq's Coalition Provisional Authority and the disasterous repercussions of those appointments.

The U.S. Institute for Peace Oral Histories Project on the Iraq Experience has dozens of surprisingly frank interviews with people who served in or with the CPA, many of which tell the same sad story.

"Knowledge" is a funny concept. As Will Rogers said, "it's not what you don't know that hurts you, it's what you do know that ain't so." I might suggest another line:
It's not what you don't know that hurts you, its what you don't understand."
I think it is quite clear that the CPA officials didn't understand the situation they faced, and didn't understand the repercussions that their actions would have.

You may think you know something because
* of the evidence supporting that thing,
* it is a logical consequence of theory, or
* it is part of your ideology.
If knowledge is based on evidence, then it can be improved with more or more credible evidence. Dependence on evidence based knowledge requires the holder to be willing to change his mind, and to consider the degree of credance to attach to that knowledge.

In the case of Iraq in 2004, there was not much time for reevaluating knowledge or gaining new evidence.

It should also be said that knowledge and understanding can be gained by experience or by study. Study is great for explicit knowledge, but experience is needed to gain tacit knowledge.

Who wants to be treated for a serious and complex medical problem by someone who has finished the classroom portion of medical school, but who has not been through the clinical training and internship? Sending a 24 year old real estate salesman to rebuild the Iraqi stock market, as apparently was actually done, is a comparable approach to dealing with a serious and complex problem. The Iraqi PhD stock broker, who eventually headed the Board of Directors of the Stock Exchange, may well have thought the U.S. was mad to make him take orders from so unprepared a person.

It occurs to me that people who disagree but who create knowledge and understanding based on evidence and theory -- gained through experiment, experience, and study -- can resolve differences through the application of reason. People who disagree but who base base knowledge and understanding on ideology have little recourse to reason.

It seems that story after story is coming out of Iraq to suggest a fundamental problem. The United States government and its key decision makers did not have adequate knowledge nor understanding of Iraqi culture and society. As a result:
* They overstated the risk that was posed of Iraqi control of weapons of mass destruction, and of its relations with terrorist organizations.
* While they correctly estimated that the Coalition military forces could quickly overcome the Iraqi military, they underestimated the degree of paramilitary resistance that would occur, and gravely underestimated the degree of civil disturbance that would occur after the the fall of the Iraqi government (and the size of the military force that would be required to contain the looting and killing).
* They apparently made a significant error in disbanding the Iraqi army and police, and barring all people with Baath party backgrounds from positions of authority.
* They overestimated the ability of the CPA to rebuild Iraqi infrastructure, and they did not understand the drastic economic distress that they were unleasing on the country. And
* They did not predict the insurgency that would result from this combination of factors.
We too often consider governments as if they were people. A government may well act as though it lacks knowledge and understanding not because it does not have access to such knowledge and understanding, but rather because it does not bring the knowledge it actually holds to bear on the critical decisions that it makes. In the case of Iraq, there is a case to be made that the United States had allowed itself to lack enough people with enough knowledge and understanding of Iraq. But the WP article and many other sources are suggesting that the more important problem was that it failed to bring the appropriate knowledge and understanding that existed in the military, the State Department and its advisors, and the development community to bear on the Iraq decisions. Rather people who shared a neo-Conservative ideology recruited ideologically compatible people without reference to other qualifications to whom to delegate decision making responsibility, and as a result ideology was substituted wholesale for the knowledge and understanding that had been gained in decades of post-conflice situations, in decades of development asssistance, and in centuries of international relations.

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