In Fiasco, Thomas Ricks says the war on Iraq and subsequent occupation was ill-conceived, incompetently planned and poorly executed.  I have no quarrel with that.  What dismays me is that anyone expected any different.  All wars are full of incompetence, mendacity, fear, and lies.  War is big government, authoritarianism, central planning, command and control, and bureaucracy in its most naked form and on the largest scale.  The Pentagon is the Post Office with nuclear weapons.

If this war has been worse on these scores than others, and I have my doubts, we can at least be thankful that the scale of death and destruction has been smaller.  At the Battle of the Somme there were a million casualties and 300,000 deaths over the course of a few months.  If we remember previous wars more fondly this is only because those wars we won.  Incompetent planning and poor execution are not fatal so long as the other side plans and executes yet more incompetently. 

Is this a suggestion to put the current war in context?  Not at all. It is suggestion to put government in context.


"The Pentagon is the Post Office with nuclear weapons."

I've always wondered why more people don't see this. Perhaps, it might be worse, as one of the aims of military training is to rebuild people that join it into authortarian-loving semi-automatons. While this may be necessary in some way to run the military, it may not result in an ideal mix of personality types that is necessary for democratic freedom.

"Is this a suggestion to put the current war in context? Not at all. It is suggestion to put government in context." You must have noticed that war is in many ways, anti-economic. Its a throwing up of the hands, saying something like "We cannot come to a contract. Your terms are unacceptable. And I must have this."

It is truly the ultimate expression of bad government. I don't think it tarnishes all government, but it should stand as a 'worst case scenario'

This war looks particularly fiasco-ish because unlike the World Wars, in which both sides were vast incompetent bureaucracies of slaughter, in this war only one side is. The insurgency is demonstrating non-bureaucratic warfare to us -- warfighting by actual individual intiative, unconstrained by central planning and its associated rigidities and ineffiencies, but contrained by price and other such market signals. It's horrifying, it's inhumane, and it can hold its own against a vastly bigger opponent.

Unless the centrally-planned war machine can retool itself into something more efficient -- and lacking market price signals you can be sure that it can't -- we can expect it to keep spending billions to keep up with its opponents expenditures of mere thousands. Unsurprisingly, private military contractors (mercenaries with better branding) are filling in the gaps in a lot of places; expect to see more of that.

The initial military campaign was successful, wasn't it? The subsequent occupation has been a tragedy, however. Why? Perhaps the occupation government was too soft? Maybe a harsh dictatorship should have been imposed rather than a weak democracy? I don't even pretend to know. Just hypotheses.

The military has the most straightforward task in government

Sometimes it does, and when it does it usually does pretty well. But if you think that the military's current 'occupation' task in Iraq is straightforward, you haven't been paying attention.

After Kuwait was liberated we were able and willing to return the country to its people. There was no possibility of an insurgency or guerrilla warfare in Kuwait in the aftermath of the conflict. The Kuwaitis dealt harshly with anyone who collaborated with Sadam.

Amazingly the US was able to collect enough money from Japan, Germany, and Kuwait to pay for the war. According to some reports we turned a profit of several billion.

Had the US employed similar tactics in this war (adequate forces and an immediate turnover of the country to prepared Iraqis) the outcome might have been much better. Notably, Jay Garner attempted to transfer power to the Iraqis and hold fast, free elections.

However, the neocon/libertarian fanatics inside the Bush administration had other ideas. They insisted on turning Iraq into a free-market paradise irrespective of Iraqi feelings on the subject. Jay Garner was fired and replaced by Paul Bremer who promptly cancelled elections (already scheduled) and tried to turn libertarian fantasies into facts on the ground. "Fiasco" is a nice way of describing the consequences.

A useful point is the role of Open Borders ideologues in the Iraqi disaster. Grover Norquist (Jack Abramhoff's buddy) apparently was deeply involved. Max Boot has been a consistent cheerleader for war and mass immigration. See the links below.

My overall thesis is this. Only a administration crazy enough to think that Iraq, of all places, could be turned into a model free market liberal democracy, would ever delude itself into thinking that mass third world immigration could ever be beneficial.
See the links below. Palast may be a flake. However, his quotes of Jay Garner are dead on.

Alex Tabarrok: It's true that people tend to put a vaguely warm fuzzy gloss on all past wars, even notably nasty stupid ones (occupation of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, anyone?), but I think there's more to it than that. Few remember WWI very fondly, even those who delight in the centralized economic control that it helped usher in. Romanticization is helped quite a lot when a war is seen as something we couldn't easily avoid, a brave necessity even if a costly one. WWII more warmly remembered than WWI, Korea than Vietnam...

Peter Schaeffer: Whether or not it would've been crazy to try to turn Iraq into a free market model, that doesn't seem to be what the occupation has actually done; the economy doesn't seem to be especially free. It is sufficiently underreported that I mostly see the symptoms rather than the causes, but for example, note the occasional reports of things like shooting incidents occurring in queues for gasoline. It's not hard to guess back from the queues to the cause, price controls on gas; but I, at least, had to read a number of queue stories before I finally found a story which mentioned yup, price controls on gas. (Given people's critiques of microeconomics and homo economicus, it's fairly amusing when reasoning backwards from simple-minded micro turns out to be a more reliable guide than news stories. And given the appeals of invasion/occupation supporters to historical analogies to WWII and post-WWII occupations, I'd've hoped that even if the occupiers refused to learn from the Wirtschaftswunder, some pundits would remind them; but in a world where Wikipedia's entry doesn't mention Erhard's repeal of price controls, perhaps that's too much to ask.)

From CNN today:

"Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said Wednesday he foresees Iraqi forces taking over security in all 18 Iraqi provinces by the end of the year."

Is it really the time to scream FIASCO????????????

An interesting question with regards to this issue is, whether private contractors actually are more efficient planners and executers of wars and if they are, whether the outcome would be better if wars were left to the markets?

Given the many externalities of wars, one could argue for some level of government intervention in order for marginal cost and marginal benefit to align, but given the inefficiency of the governmental system the market would also be given a role.

The suggestion Milton Friedman proposes for Iraq oil is what was tried in
Russia. It ended up with a few individuals - institutions -- buying
the shares at rock bottom prices and the entire oil
industry being owned by a few firms. It provided
essentially no gain to the bulk of the population
originally issued the shares.

It may or may not be the best way to privatize, but
I do not think the results are what he, or you, have in mind.

Alex said:
"Incompetent planning and poor execution are not fatal so long as the other side plans and executes yet more incompetently."

This applies to *any* group conflict, not just governmental ones. Business, sports, etc.

According to the Wikipedia page, there were about 310,000 men killed or missing.

Spencer raise an interesting example of privatization in Russia. Perhaps the shares could be contractually tied to property. This would also be a good idea to the extent that oil production, refining, etc. create externailities to air, water, land, etc.

Thanks to Dave Barnes for pointing out my error regarding casualties versus deaths. For the record, I have corrected.

cb wrote: "After a year and a half of reading blogs, I've decided that you know-it-alls waste my time by crowding out the commenters that can actually add something to the conversation. To hell will giving voice to the common man, you're all freakin' emotionally needy idiots."

To me this appears to be mostly ad hominem; to me, calling people "emotionally needy idiots" IS a waste of time. Maybe you should engage in some introspection.

Furthermore, I don't see that "crowding out" is a real problem here because if you want to post a comment, you post it. If the Marginal Revolution (MR)announced a quota on the number of postings per topic then you might have a beef, but I know of no such policy by the MR.

I don't know that 'crowding out' is a problem per se but a series of poor posts can certainly deter more interesting participants from joining. I doubt that anyone would disagree that a lively and informative discussion encourages more of the same... I think that Dr. Cowen's limiting discussion to particular posts has prevented some all but certain brush-fires from starting. (see recent post on wage discrimination) I would say that MR is an example of where sometimes more participation (or democracy if you must) is not always better.


Theory Y was so unreliable that a Theory Z was created. It wasn't robust either.

For an interesting book on the revolving door that DOES typify managment theory see
a book entitled "The Witchdoctors" by two fellows who wrote for The Economist.


Distributing shares in Iraq’s national oil company to the Iraqi people was/is a fairly reasonable idea. It might have even worked if it was devised by Iraqi leaders and supported by the Iraqi people. As a scheme imposed by the US it would have been doomed from the outset.

After the US determined that *all* Iraqis were implacably opposed to any privatization of the oil industry, the US adopted a very sane oil policy. We made the oil ministry the first department of the Iraqi government returned to full Iraqi control. Other than providing practical assistance (fixing refineries and the like), the US has prudently stayed out of the oil industry in Iraq.

Indeed, the US is hated in Iraq for many things, some quite legitimate, others less so. However, accusations that we are stealing Iraq’s oil are not heard all that frequently. By conscientiously avoiding participation in oil, the US has defused a deadly issue.

Bill Newman,

Most of the free market stuff fell by the wayside as the situation on the ground deteriorated. Bremer came to realize that essentially every Iraqi opposed his schemes and imposing them would only lead to greater opposition. The one exception I know of, was/is a low tariff, free trade policy. For all of Iraq’s miseries, the shops are generally full. If you have any money, goods can be purchased.

It is hard to tell if living standards have improved or fallen. Certainly, water, power, and gasoline are *much* scarcer than they were under Sadam. Both increased demand and supply failures are responsible. Non-elite government employees are vastly better paid know than they were before (20x roughly).

Ironically, a well paid (by Iraqi standards) public sector is one of the few obvious successes of the last three years. Brought to you by right-wing Republicans.

If the 4th ID(?) was where it was supposed to be instead of on ships and 3-4
weeks late (thank you our "good friends and historical allies the froggies"
and Turkey) there's an argument to be made it might have been smoother.

While I'm defending the US Post Office, let me defend the British in WWI too. I do think they were pretty mediocre, as armies go, but they had a record of accomplishment and innovation that any business enterprise would be hard-pressed to match.

First, they expanded roughly 20-fold in 2 years, from something like 100,000 troops to 2 million. Second, they made tremendous advances in technology and tactics in a short time: vast improvements in airplanes and their use, the introduction of tanks and poison gas, vastly expanding the use of machine guns, numerous innovations in artillery tactics such as the creeping barrage and the hurricane barrage, to name just some of the best-known. They were hardly a hide-bound, static bureaucracy.

Oh, and the Battle of the Somme is defensible too, as a way to take the pressure off the French at Verdun.

Bruce Hall: "You are confusing incompetence with limited capabilities. Historically, unless one side had an overwhelming force and vast resources, conflicts could wipe out significant portions of both sides."

A very good point. For example, in WWII, the USA had to *build* a modern Army from not much, leaping forward a generation of war. The USA also had to drastically expand a navy, as well as modernize it.

The Iraq War, OTOH, was a war of choice, conducted by a large, rich country against a small, weak, trashed country. It was conducted with a lot of prep time (from 9/12/2001 onward). The performance of the administration should be judged accordingly. In addition, the administration was given a large amount of common-sense advice, by people with relevant experience, clearly drawing on relevant history. They ignored it, because that contradicted their glorious vision of a cakewalk followed by domino's toppling across the Middle East. For that, they are justifiably to be held responsible.

"Alex Tabbarok speaks" AKA "another libertarian blogger explains why the Iraq War confirms his ideology rulez."

Just out of curiosity Jim, what would a fiasco in Iraq have looked like?

'I don't get this post at all. Am I the only one who thinks the Post Office does a great job? If they don't, why not? There's plenty of competition.'

It is against the law to compete with the Post Office in the delivery of First Class mail.

I will agree with you that the scenario you describe would have been a disaster but because Iraq did not posses large stockpiles of chemical weapons and our soldiers did possess chemical weapon training it is an unlikely scenario. Let me be more precise, given the actual situation faced by our military, which plausible decisions, if handled in a different but reasonable manner, would have led to a significantly worse outcome?

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