September 1, 2003

· Politics

In some quarters, using the word “quagmire” to describe the emerging position of the U.S. in Iraq provokes yells of rage, snarklets of glibness, or even reasoned objections. It’s fair to say that optimists like the OxBloggers have convincingly rebutted the main comparisons that have been made to Vietnam. The United States isn’t going to be losing about a hundred troops a week in an ongoing war of attrition against a dug-in enemy with strong local support. But there are other ways to get stuck in the mud.

John McCain’s recent piece in the Washington Post calls for an urgent injection of military and civil personnel devoted to rebuilding Iraq:

[Ambassador L. Paul Bremer’s] operation is nearly broke, and he admits Iraq will need “tens of billions” of dollars for reconstruction next year alone. … [C]ontrary to administration assurances, our military force levels are obviously inadequate. A visitor quickly learns in conversations with U.S. military personnel that we need to deploy at least another division. … as well as a significant increase in civilian experts in development and democracy-building.

More troops now, more money now, and nation-building for the long haul. This is the emerging consensus across much of the political spectrum, left and right. We’ve come a long way from the arguments used to justify the war, which had very little to say about long-term commitments of this sort. The new view, in essence, is that now we’ve invaded we need to follow through. There’s a lot to be said for this. Trying to clean up after yourself is clearly more responsible than installing a puppet government and bailing out as fast as you can. The domestic goal is to get the public used to the idea. McCain speaks freely of billions of dollars in the short term and a “generational commitment” for the long run, frankly acknowledging that the U.S. will be stuck in Iraq for years.

He justifies this commitment in two ways. First, he articulates the Domino Theory of Democratization, saying that

Iraq’s transformation into a progressive Arab state could set the region … on a new course in which democratic expression and economic prosperity, … define a modernity in the Muslim world that does not express itself in ways that threaten its people or other nations.

For this reason, “America’s mission in Iraq is too important to fail.” I find the new domino theory about as convincing as the old one. More important, any policy that is “too important to fail” risks becoming a self-justifying sinkhole, as Billmon recently argued:

In the end, policy mistakes—particularly big ones—tend to produce a kind of circular reasoning—in which those in charge try to justify the policy by citing the need to avoid, at all costs, the failure of the policy.

McCain’s second line of argument fits Billmon’s diagnosis. “Let there be no doubt,” he says,

Iraq remains the central battle in the war on terror. We must succeed in Iraq because every bad actor in the Middle East … has a stake in our failure. They know Iraq’s transformation would be a grave and perhaps fatal setback to them.

Now that the U.S. is entrenched in Iraq, it must stay because to withdraw would be to give a victory to “every bad actor in the Middle East.” Iraq is where the war on terror is being fought. But of course it’s being fought there because that’s where the U.S. has chosen to put its soldiers. Which is why it must stay. Around and around we go. That is the logic of a quagmire, and it makes the analogy to Vietnam clearer. There, it wasn’t the sheer number of casualties lost in the jungles or troops fragging their commanders or anti-draft protests at home that were at the root of problem. It was that the U.S.’s presence in the region was, by way of arguments about nation-building there and face-saving here, the very reason for further escalation.

The U.S.’s day-to-day problems in Iraq may end up resembling Northern Ireland rather than Vietnam: car bombings, political assassinations, a general effort by terrorists to violently undermine civil society and resist the occupying power. The cost in terms of soldiers’ lives would be much lower than in Vietnam, but if there’s no viable way to extricate yourself the feeling of the situation may be much the same. Putting the emphasis on the political logic of involvement in Iraq seems to me to be the most plausible way of making the “Quagmire Case.” Involvement there is self-justifying and there’s no clear way to get out of the loop.

The way to argue against it is to say there are predictable changes to Iraqi society that would trigger a withdrawal. Hence the appeals to post-WWII Europe. I’m not convinced by this comparison, but others are welcome to make the case for it. My questions to them are the same ones I was asking back in March: Since WWII, how many autocratic or totalitarian countries have been invaded by a democracy, had the bad guys deposed, and a stable democratic regime installed? And how does this number compare to the number of invasions or other interventions that resulted in puppet governments, friendly autocrats, messy long-term military occupations, or outright disasters?

There’s some irony—but maybe also some hope—in how the official position on Iraq has evolved. As it has moved away from dealing directly with Al-Qaeda and towards reconstructing the entire political economy of the Middle-East, the administration’s actions have inevitably begun to imply an analysis of terrorism focused on root-causes. In the wake of the September 11th attacks, any talk of root causes was dismissed as watery left-wing handwringing. Terrorists were simply evil and there was no point in thinking about their origins any further. Now the official view is that the way to eliminate terrorism is to turn countries that produce them into capitalist democracies. If there is a realistic exit strategy from Iraq, it may depend on having believable measures of terrorism’s root-causes. It’ll be interesting to see the people who sneered at the very idea of thinking in those terms eventually pointing to such measures as evidence of the success of their policies.

All Posts by Date · All Posts by Category


I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



To receive updates from this site, you can subscribe to the  RSS feed of all updates to the site in an RSS feed reader