by Robert Herold & r & With a chest full of medals, eyes straight ahead, Col. Nathan Sassaman, pictured on the cover of the current issue of The New York Times Magazine, looks every bit the part of "West Point's finest." But the article isn't about his triumph; it's about his failure. "What the War Did to Colonel Sassaman" is the lead-in line to the poignant story about how Sassaman's career was ruined "one night on a bridge in Samarra."
The bare facts are these: As a lieutenant colonel, Sassaman commanded 800 troops fighting insurgents in the middle of the Sunni triangle. Frustrated by insurgent attacks, Sassaman, who first tried to win trust and support -- he even organized soccer games between his troops and Iraqis -- resorted to new tactics. He became more violent; his interrogation methods, more harsh. Iraqis who did not cooperate were often thrown into the very cold Tigris River. One dark night, his troops threw two suspects into the river, and while some remain convinced that the death was faked, days later a body was found. Sassaman's men were blamed. Sassaman, however, did not report the details of that night on the bridge. Later the truth came out and he had to come clean. He was given a reprimand. The troops involved went to jail. Sassaman's military career was over.
Moving beyond the bare facts, an even more troubling picture emerges. Early on, Sassaman had complained that he knew too little about "nation-building" -- the mission he found himself charged with. Nation-building, of course, is not something you can pull off a shelf, as if it were a commodity, a rational process with a beginning, middle and end. Why did Sassaman believe this mission could be accomplished?
Enter the neo-cons, who brought America into Iraq in the first place. Their arguments carried a kind of Wilsonian optimism regarding the compelling case for democracy and the rosy prospects of nation-building, along with a less-acknowledged agenda of regional stability and access to oil. What exactly was the basis for their optimism?
For those of us who matriculated through graduate political science programs during the '60s (as did Paul Wolfowitz and the rest of the neo-con whiz geezers), this question remains unanswered. After all, as noted in their book The Right Nation, authors John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge observe that these early "neo-conservatives" were the first intellectuals to break ranks with the earlier Progressives, those "men of good hope," who so dominated the New Deal. Study after study produced during this period drew attention not so much to government successes but to surprising outcomes caused by governmental intervention. From public housing that actually worsened social dysfunction, to urban renewal that made money for developers while destroying neighborhoods and countless great old buildings, to the Highway Trust Fund that was all about -- well, highways, rather than transportation, these writers and students of public policy were the first to call attention to the "limits of public policy."
These intellectuals made the study of "unintended consequences" a necessary part of the policy-making process. It was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, at the time serving in the Nixon administration, who perhaps most succinctly summed up the new criticism through his famous (or infamous) memorandum in which he suggested that perhaps in the face of all the urban unrest, much of which was attributed to the unintended consequences of governmental programs, the administration might consider a period of "benign neglect."
It's a long way from this critical way of viewing the prospect of policy to the "mission accomplished" mentality that has dominated in Iraq from day one. And Micklethwait and Wooldridge do ask the obvious question: "Why should government be any more omnipotent when it is wearing a military uniform in far-off Iraq?"
One thing is certain: Because the neo-con advocates of invading Iraq failed to rigorously follow their own analytic paradigm, Sassaman and many others like him have been turned into road kill. After all, Sassaman had arrived in Iraq imbued with the fervor of those early public housing advocates -- the same ones who, only a decade later, were lamenting their failure to fix things. For certain, Sassaman hit Iraq unaware of the "limits of public policy."
All this puts me in mind of the eulogy for the late Senator and former Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, written by the godfather of modern American conservatism, William F. Buckley Jr. It seems that the liberal's liberal, Humphrey, and Mr. National Review, Buckley, were sitting together on a transcontinental flight. The movie was on, and both were watching it. Then, a glitch. The projector just shut off. For the duration of the flight, Humphrey, ever the optimist, stood in the aisle and tried to fix the darn thing. He didn't succeed, but, wrote Buckley, impressed by his ever-ebullient friend, boy, did he try!
Buckley decided that Humphrey's actions revealed something important about the difference between conservatives and liberals. The former live with an acceptance of limitations; the latter think that every problem can be fixed.
How the world turns, with neo-cons deciding that fixing the most broken part of the planet only takes a daily affirmation.
I suppose the question does become, had that plane enough fuel to stay aloft indefinitely, could Humphrey have ever managed to fix the projector?
More to the point, however, unlike all the Nathan Sassamans in Iraq, neither Hubert nor Bill had all that much to lose, either way.