WASHINGTON -- On the reconstruction of Iraq, everybody is a genius. Every pundit, every ex-official and, of course, every Democrat knows exactly how it should have been done. Everybody would have had Iraq up and running by now, and as safe as downtown Singapore. Everybody, that is, except the Bush administration which, in its arrogance and stupidity, has so botched the occupation that it is ``in danger of losing the peace'' -- so sayeth John Kerry, echoing Howard Dean, Ted Kennedy and many others down the Democratic food chain.
A bit of perspective, gentlemen. What we came upon in Iraq was a country that had just emerged from terror and totalitarianism -- largely physically intact (as a result of an unprecedented precision military campaign) but decaying because of the neglect and abuse of the gangsters who had run it for over 30 years.
It was as if, when the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, we had somehow found ourselves in Moscow in charge of the place. The critics are complaining that we are six months into Iraq's reconstruction and it has not been reconstructed. The Russians are 12 years into their reconstruction and they still are not even close to success.
Yes, the administration has made mistakes, indeed two very large ones. But it pays to understand how and why they were made.
Error No. 1 was the appointment of Jay Garner to run the reconstruction. The reason he was chosen was his success in rescuing the Kurds after the calamity of their failed 1991 anti-Saddam uprising.
Figuring that the Iraq war would be bloody, difficult and destructive, we expected a similar humanitarian crisis -- hunger, epidemics and refugees. These were perfectly reasonable assumptions. The problem was that none of these crises materialized. There was no lack of food, no health disaster and, amazingly, no refugees (a tribute to the Iraqis' trust in America's intentions and humanity).
Garner was the right guy in the wrong place. There were other jobs to do and Garner could not do them well. This error cost us a month, a crucial month.
His successor, L. Paul Bremer, has done remarkably well. Consider the task he faces. He has had to rule on privatization, the nature of the currency, the establishment of a central bank, the structure of the oil industry. And these are just the economics questions. Daily, he has had to make political, infrastructure, security, religious and ethnic decisions that will profoundly affect Iraq's future. In the United States, any one of these decisions would take months of deliberation, hearings and arguments. Bremer has to make them within hours or days. The re-emergence of life and structure in a country that six months ago had no civil society at all is testimony to his success.
His major mistake was disbanding the army. And even this judgment should be rendered with a bit of humility. At the time, it seemed the right thing to do. In the Middle East, a major obstacle to democracy has always been the military: military power, military autonomy, military coups. Keeping Saddam's army risked the worst possible outcome: a future return to power of a Baathist army. For the long-run health of the new Iraq, it made eminent sense to abolish the army and start over.
The problem is you only get to the long run if you make it through the short run. And the challenge in the short run is putting down Sunni-Triangle resistance. Had we retained the old army, we might have had ready-made military units suitable at least for guarding stationary targets such as oil pipelines, thus relieving coalition troops to go after the enemy. Moreover, dissolution of the Baathist army released a large population of unemployed, disgruntled and weapons-trained young men. Some are undoubtedly shooting at our troops. We have now backtracked a bit, pursuing a less radical de-Baathification for the New Iraq Army.
These mistakes were serious, but have they cost us the peace? The media cover the sabotage of the oil pipelines. This is perfectly reasonable. It is news and it produces dramatic pictures. But the undramatic story is that Iraq is producing over 1.6 million barrels a day, more than three-quarters of 2002 production levels. Last week OPEC unexpectedly cut its production quotas -- boosting oil prices and rattling world markets. Why? Because it sees Iraqi oil production coming on line and seriously threatening world prices. Pictures show the sabotage story; OPEC has already acted on the production story.
Losing the peace? No matter what anyone says now, that question will only be answered at the endpoint. If in a year or two we are able to leave behind a stable, friendly government, we will have succeeded. If not, we will have failed. And all the geniuses will be vindicated.