The War on Terror: A Classic Planning Disaster

Certainly one of the biggest government planning disasters of the last decade was the so-called War on Terror. Given the tragedy of 9/11, a government response was certainly called for, but the way it was handled by the Bush administration was poorly conceived from the very beginning.

Start with name: “war on terror.” Instead of treating the terrorists as criminals, we treated them as enemy soldiers, which carries with it the assumption that they work for another country. That was completely untrue, which led to all sorts of mistaken policies.

Then there was the attempt to capture Bin Laden, who supposedly planned the 9/11 attacks. While John Kerry claims that the Bush administration missed its opportunity to catch or kill him, not everyone is convinced. Still, it is clear that the administration completely lost interest in Bin Laden in its eagerness to attack Iraq.

The Antiplanner personally considers the war in Iraq to be immoral: the United States should not attack other countries, even preemptively. But whether you agreed with it or not, it was a planning disaster, being based on delusional premises.

First, Rumsfelt totally ignored the Powell Doctrine, making the same mistake we made in Viet Nam of assuming that our superior technology would overwhelm guerilla fighters. The resulting “delusional plan” produced the military equivalent of “cost overruns” — more money, more casualties, and more time than originally projected.

Second, administration planners made no provision at all for the historic rivalries between Shi’a and Sunni, assuming instead that all Iraqis would great Americans as “liberators.” This intelligence failure underscores the intelligence mistakes — or lies — regarding weapons of mass destruction and supposed links between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. The administration thus engaged in the classic megaproject behaviors of optimism bias and strategic misrepresentation.

The good news is that the later surge was more-or-less successful. Yet Iraq remains a dysfunctional country, and even if it ever becomes a peaceful, working nation, we have to ask whether it was worth the 100,000 (or more) Iraqi civilian deaths or the roughly 4,300 American deaths (plus hundreds more soldiers from other nations).

On top of that is the financial cost, which for Iraq and Afghanistan combined have so far totaled close to $1 trillion — and will be much more when the long-term costs of health care for war veterans is included. If the terrorists’ goal was to disrupt our economy by making us overreact, then the sad fact is that they accomplished that goal and so weakened us — or we weakened ourselves– that they arguably won the war.

Remember the beginning of the decade, when the United States was the economic powerhouse of the world, when Europe was struggling to catch up, when the almighty dollar truly was almighty? Now a euro is worth $1.50 or more, our economy was in a shambles even before the mortgage crisis, and our official national debt (currently $12.2 trillion) is fast approaching our GDP (currently $14.2 trillion) — more than at any time since the end of World War II. This does not bode well for the future, and much of the blame can be laid on the government officials who planned the war on terror.


10 thoughts on “The War on Terror: A Classic Planning Disaster

  1. Andy Stahl


    The “war on terror” is a fine example of how hard it is to tell the difference between incompetent vs. malevolent/corrupt government. Your essay focuses on incompetence. An alternative hypothesis is that key officials knew exactly what they were doing and their plan was executed to perfection. That plan was to financially enrich certain special interests to which these officials were connected.

    Malevolence is often thought to require active conspiracy, of which most thoughtful people are skeptical. However, I have seen true government malevolence that thrives, without active conspiracy, because a critical mass of bureaucrats benefits from the same evil behavior. That behavior can be motivated by a shared ideology or simply a shared interest in protecting their own jobs and budgets.

    As the AP well knows, to understand government behavior, follow the money. Doing so in the “war on terror” is a good argument for malevolence over incompetence.

  2. Andy

    This could have been an intelligent post by the Antiplanner if he could step back and objectively look at the issue as a planning issue. But obviously the Antiplanner has too many emotions built up over this. Maybe somebody will write a good analysis of what the events mean to the subject of planning.

    While the phrase “war on terror” or “war on terrorists” has many problems, is there a better term? Treating them as soldiers has problems, but treating them as criminals has many more problems. The most obvious example is that the criminal justice system is worthless to dissuade people from killing themselves while they blow up innocent people — they ain’t worried about jail time.

  3. msetty

    Nothing will stop determined suicide bombers except vigilance. But terrorists who survive a successful attack should be treated as mass murders, if they are captured.

  4. Dan

    I’m not sure I know a single planner who thought the fear campaign and politicization of every little thing had 1. anything to do with formal planning and 2. anything other than demagoguery and rule by fear behind it.

    It was politics, not planning.

    I’m not even sure I can characterize this as ‘nice try’. Maybe within a narrow ideological framework that has no basis in reality, but not here on the ground.


  5. the highwayman

    Dan said: It was politics, not planning.

    THWM: Well that can almost be one in the same, where political agenda/policy trumps “planning”.

    That’s what makes Karlock a “planner” and why I call O’Toole “The Autoplanner”.

    Then again the purpose of this blog is to attack railroads & transit.

    Much like Larry Craig’s mens room escapes, mean while attacking Bill Clinton or like Glenn Beck praising Thomas Paine, mean while attacking Social Security.

  6. chipdouglas

    I am a free marketeer and recent Marine veteran, but I always found it odd how other free market advocates could get behind the whole reconstruction effort in Iraq.

    The same people who were against Keynesian infrastructure spending projects and stimulus packages, who recognized that you can’t create and sustain economic development via transfers of capital — that means Africa, for all the bleeding heart Robin Hood philanthropists — were attracted to just these policies so long as the money went abroad.

  7. the highwayman

    There’s no such thing as a free lunch or a free market, you can’t get something for nothing.

    Now if you want to talk about having a fair market or an open market, then sure.

  8. Dan

    chip, this old airman likes the direction of your thinking, and you must remember colonialism and the moral imperative of justice even in the face of exploitation for capital and resources.

    Not that we actually do anything more than throw a few grains of rice out the limo window at the beggars we created, but still.


  9. Dan

    Scott, what grade are you in? 8th? 9th?

    Isn’t here some ‘tween Libertarian blog more suited to your cognitive development, in order to best avoid embarrassing yourself?


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