Via Brad DeLong, we find this description of Drew Erdmann’s ’88 role in the Iraq War.

In “The Assassins’ Gate,” his chronicle of the Iraq war, George Packer tells the tale of Drew Erdmann, a young American official in Baghdad. Erdmann, a recent Harvard Ph.D. in history, finds himself rereading Marc Bloch’s classic firsthand account of the fall of France in 1940, “Strange Defeat.” He was particularly drawn to a few lines. “The ABC of our profession,” Bloch wrote, “is to avoid . . . large abstract terms in order to try to discover behind them the only concrete realities, which are human beings.” The story of America in Iraq is one of abstract ideas and concrete realities. “Between them,” Packer says, “lies a distance even greater than the 8,000 miles from Washington to Baghdad.”

Packer recounts the prewar discussions in the State Department’s “Future of Iraq Project,” which produced an enormous document outlining the political challenges in governing Iraq. He describes Drew Erdmann’s memo, written for Colin Powell, analyzing previous postwar reconstructions in the 20th century. Erdmann’s conclusion was that success depended on two factors, establishing security and having international support. These internal documents were mirrored by several important think-tank studies that all made similar points, specifically on the need for large-scale forces to maintain security. One would think that this Hobbesian message – that order is the first requisite of civilization – would appeal to conservatives. In fact all of this careful planning and thinking was ignored or dismissed.

“The Iraq war was always winnable,” Packer writes, “it still is. For this very reason, the recklessness of its authors is hard to forgive.” But it is not just recklessness. The book that Drew Erdmann should have been reading in Iraq was not “Strange Defeat” but his dissertation adviser Ernest May’s recent emendation to it, “Strange Victory.” In it, May explains that the fall of France was not inevitable at all. It happened because the French made some key misjudgments. Presciently, May argues that “Western democracies today exhibit many of the same characteristics that France and Britain did in 1938-40 – arrogance, a strong disinclination to risk life in battle, heavy reliance on technology as a substitute and governmental procedures poorly designed for anticipating or coping with ingenious challenges from the comparatively weak.” Above all, he emphasizes the fatal cost of arrogance, closing his book with the injunction of Oliver Cromwell in 1650 to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” No one in the Bush administration ever did, and so we are where we are in Iraq.

See here and here for previous EphBlog Erdmann coverage. Does anyone know where we can find a copy of Erdmann’s memo?

There is much more on Erdmann in this New Yorker article by Packer. Unbeknownst to me, Erdmann is clearly one of the key characters in Packer’s book. The article deserves an entry of its own. It ends with:

In our last conversation in Washington, Drew Erdmann said that it made no sense to claim any certainty about how Iraq will emerge from this ordeal. “I’m very cautious about dealing with anyone talking about Iraq who’s absolutely sure one way or the other,” he said.

Before we parted, I asked Erdmann how he would define success in Iraq. His answer was humbler than the official “End State” declaration that had been affixed to his office wall in Baghdad. Still, given the concrete realities of what is now happening in Iraq, it was enormously ambitious.

“Success will be if there’s a private sphere where they have some real choice in what they do with their lives, and a public sphere where they can have some control over their destiny and the state doesn’t visit arbitrary violence on them,” he said. “This means some type of democracy. It won’t be Jeffersonian democracy, with farmers plowing the godforsaken sands outside of Nasiriya. Some would say, ‘That’s modest.’ But it isn’t. It will be huge. And it’ll be something uniquely Iraqi. They don’t have to love us, or even like us–why should they? We liberated them, but the fact that we had to do it adds to the trauma of coming out of decades of totalitarian rule. It’s difficult for us. We look at ourselves and say, ‘We have really good motives and try to do the right thing and why don’t people appreciate it?’ That’s an American thing. Few Iraqis are ever going to step forward and say, ‘I really love the C.P.A.’ They’ll have to live here long after we’re gone. They have legitimate interests, and we shouldn’t treat them as children–they’re not. If in five or ten years they can look back on this period and believe that they’re better off, then things will be O.K. We’ll be able to move beyond this period to where things are normal between the United States and Iraq.” He paused and shrugged. “In a way, success will be if the Iraqis don’t hate us.”

Wouldn’t it be amazing if Erdmann, an alum who has both studied history and lived it, were a professor at Williams?

Silly you. The Williams faculty does not have a spot for a white man like Erdmann who studies diplomatic history.

Facebooktwitter
Print  •  Email