Of all the people now entitled to Schadenfreude we should give special consideration to Anatol Lieven. In September 2002 he wrote an article in the LRB, which has been at the back of my mind ever since. His foresight was just about 20/20. To reread him now is like watching the one man in a shooting booth at the funfair whose rifle hasn’t been bent by the management.
The most surprising thing about the Bush Administration’s plan to invade Iraq is not that it is destructive of international order; or wicked, when we consider the role the US (and Britain) have played, and continue to play, in the Middle East; or opposed by the great majority of the international community; or seemingly contrary to some of the basic needs of the war against terrorism. It is all of these things, but they are of no great concern to the hardline nationalists in the Administration.
… The most surprising thing about the push for war is that it is so profoundly reckless. If I had to put money on it, I’d say that the odds on quick success in destroying the Iraqi regime may be as high as 5/1 or more, given US military superiority, the vile nature of Saddam Hussein’s rule, the unreliability of Baghdad’s missiles, and the deep divisions in the Arab world. But at first sight, the longer-term gains for the US look pretty limited, whereas the consequences of failure would be catastrophic.
We haven’t, yet, reached the long-term consequences he foresaw:
A general Middle Eastern conflagration and the collapse of more pro-Western Arab states would lose us the war against terrorism, doom untold thousands of Western civilians to death in coming decades, and plunge the world economy into depression.
Yet there is hope, I suppose, in the paragraph that immediately followed:
These risks are not only to American (and British) lives and interests, but to the political future of the Administration. If the war goes badly wrong, it will be more generally excoriated than any within living memory, and its members will be finished politically – finished for good. If no other fear moved these people, you’d have thought this one would.
But this is a limited and unsatisfying hope. To consign to oblivion or even jail the people who led us itno this mess won’t get us out of it. It’s merely a preliminary to the long and painful efforts to undo the damage, which have no guarantee of success.
Like everyone else, Lieven underestimated the speed at which the occupation would turn sour, and the astonishing incompetence of the Bremer régime. But that turns out, in retrospect, to have been the one entirely novel feature of the Iraqi war. Can there ever have been an army, an occupying power, less competent at its stated aim? There are some things you can’t predict just by studying the past.