Elusive Competence

Aug 19th, 2007 | By | Category: Public Service

Last night I got around to watching No End in Sight, the interesting if flawed documentary on the unraveling of the Iraq war.

The pieces the documentary presents are nothing new: A rush to war, minimal plans for the aftermath, too few troops, no martial law, looting, imperial rule, de-Ba’athification, disbanding of the Iraqi military, the construction of the Green Zone, and the bombing of the UN compound.

I was never fond of this war. It’s one thing to engage in an imperial war for conquest — could you honestly expect something else from Bush and Co? — but to be grossly incompetent while doing so is shocking. As an American, it’s easy to take for granted the competence of the many (many MANY) civil servants implementing good and bad policies. Few other civilizations in history have been as competent as ours; organization is our real strength, far beyond our military power. Where were all the capable people during the Iraq war (and later in the aftermath of Katrina)?

No End in Sight is at its most insightful when showing that everyone — the soldiers, the American public, the Iraqi citizens and even the Iraqi military — were anticipating, expecting, and demanding American competence. The initial exuberance of the Iraqi public after the invasion was almost entirely from anticipating the well developed plans for stabilizing and rebuilding the country; the Iraqi military could not wait to receive carefully crafted orders. The US government took two years to plan the eventual occupation of Germany; the planning for Iraq started sixty days before the invasion.

Even with terribly short time frame, little staff, few Arabic speakers and a next to impossible task, the plans came. Enact martial law to prevent looting. Quickly involve the former Iraqi military to help out the (too few) troops used for the invasion. Reach out to community groups to start some grass-roots democratization. Quickly rehire the technocrat Ba’athists to keep the country running. And so on. As one of the leaders of this group stated, there are five hundred ways to do an occupation wrong, and only two or three to do it right

What happened was the tragedy. The competent people, the serious people, the interested people were ignored, overridden, replaced or fired. Fresh college graduates — with impeccable political credentials but little else — were put in charge. Ridiculous edicts were enforced from above. What followed was inevitable.

So today, the four years after the UN compound was bombed, let’s think of all the brave, the smart, the hardworking and the ignored civil servants who attempted to save us.