The Atlantic Monthly | January/February 2004
Blind Into Baghdad
The U.S. occupation of Iraq is a debacle not because the government
did no planning but because a vast amount of expert planning was
willfully ignored by the people in charge. The inside story of a
by James Fallows
On a Friday afternoon last November, I met Douglas Feith in his office
at the Pentagon to discuss what has happened in Iraq. Feith's title is
undersecretary of defense for policy, which places him, along with
several other undersecretaries, just below Secretary of Defense Donald
Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz in the Pentagon's
hierarchy. Informally he is seen in Washington as "Wolfowitz's
Wolfowitz"-that is, as a deputy who has a wide range of
responsibilities but is clearly identified with one particular policy.
That policy is bringing regime change to Iraq-a goal that both
Wolfowitz and Feith strongly advocated through the 1990s. To opponents
of the war in Iraq, Feith is one of several shadowy, Rasputinlike
figures who are shaping U.S. policy. He is seen much the way enemies
of the Clinton Administration saw Hillary Clinton. Others associated
with the Bush Administration who are seen this way include the
consultant Richard Perle; Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the chief of staff
for Vice President Dick Cheney; and the Vice President himself. What
these officials have in common is their presumably great private
influence and-even in the case of the Vice President-their limited
public visibility and accountability.
In person Douglas Feith is nothing like Rasputin. Between a Reagan-era
stint in the Pentagon and his current job he was a Washington lawyer
for fifteen years, and he answered my questions with a lawyer's
affability in the face of presumed disagreement. I could be biased in
Feith's favor, because he was the most senior Administration official
who granted my request for an interview about postwar Iraq. Like
Donald Rumsfeld, Feith acts and sounds younger than many others of his
age (fifty). But distinctly unlike Rumsfeld at a press conference,
Feith in this interview did not seem at all arrogant or testy. His
replies were relatively candid and unforced, in contrast to the angry
or relentlessly on-message responses that have become standard from
senior Administration officials. He acknowledged what was "becoming
the conventional wisdom" about the Administration's failure to plan
adequately for events after the fall of Baghdad, and then
explained-with animation, dramatic pauses, and gestures-why he thought
it was wrong.
Feith offered a number of specific illustrations of what he considered
underappreciated successes. Some were familiar -the oil wells weren't
on fire, Iraqis didn't starve or flee-but others were less so. For
instance, he described the Administration's careful effort to replace
old Iraqi dinars, which carried Saddam Hussein's image ("It's
interesting how important that is, and it ties into the whole issue of
whether people think that Saddam might be coming back"), with a new
form of currency, without causing a run on the currency.
But mainly he challenged the premise of most critics: that the
Administration could have done a better job of preparing for the
consequences of victory. When I asked what had gone better than
expected, and what had gone worse, he said, "We don't exactly deal in
'expectations.' Expectations are too close to 'predictions.' We're not
comfortable with predictions. It is one of the big strategic premises
of the work that we do."
The limits of future knowledge, Feith said, were of special importance
to Rumsfeld, "who is death to predictions." "His big strategic theme
is uncertainty," Feith said. "The need to deal strategically with
uncertainty. The inability to predict the future. The limits on our
knowledge and the limits on our intelligence."
In practice, Feith said, this meant being ready for whatever proved to
be the situation in postwar Iraq. "You will not find a single piece of
paper ... If anybody ever went through all of our records-and someday
some people will, presumably-nobody will find a single piece of paper
that says, 'Mr. Secretary or Mr. President, let us tell you what
postwar Iraq is going to look like, and here is what we need plans
for.' If you tried that, you would get thrown out of Rumsfeld's office
so fast-if you ever went in there and said, 'Let me tell you what
something's going to look like in the future,' you wouldn't get to
your next sentence!"
"This is an important point," he said, "because of this issue of What
did we believe? ... The common line is, nobody planned for security
because Ahmed Chalabi told us that everything was going to be swell."
Chalabi, the exiled leader of the Iraqi National Congress, has often
been blamed for making rosy predictions about the ease of governing
postwar Iraq. "So we predicted that everything was going to be swell,
and we didn't plan for things not being swell." Here Feith paused for
a few seconds, raised his hands with both palms up, and put on a "Can
you believe it?" expression. "I mean-one would really have to be a
simpleton. And whatever people think of me, how can anybody think that
Don Rumsfeld is that dumb? He's so evidently not that dumb, that how
can people write things like that?" He sounded amazed rather than angry.
No one contends that Donald Rumsfeld, or Paul Wolfowitz, or Douglas
Feith, or the Administration as a whole is dumb. The wisdom of their
preparations for the aftermath of military victory in Iraq is the
question. Feith's argument was a less defensive-sounding version of
the Administration's general response to criticisms of its postwar
policy: Life is uncertain, especially when the lid comes off a
long-tyrannized society. American planners did about as well as anyone
could in preparing for the unforeseeable. Anyone who says otherwise is
indulging in lazy, unfair second-guessing. "The notion that there was
a memo that was once written, that if we had only listened to that
memo, all would be well in Iraq, is so preposterous," Feith told me.
The notion of a single memo's changing history is indeed farfetched.
The idea that a substantial body of knowledge could have improved
postwar prospects is not. The Administration could not have known
everything about what it would find in Iraq. But it could have-and
should have-done far more than it did.
Almost everything, good and bad, that has happened in Iraq since the
fall of Saddam Hussein's regime was the subject of extensive pre-war
discussion and analysis. This is particularly true of what have proved
to be the harshest realities for the United States since the fall of
Baghdad: that occupying the country is much more difficult than
conquering it; that a breakdown in public order can jeopardize every
other goal; that the ambition of patiently nurturing a new democracy
is at odds with the desire to turn control over to the Iraqis quickly
and get U.S. troops out; that the Sunni center of the country is the
main security problem; that with each passing day Americans risk being
seen less as liberators and more as occupiers, and targets.
All this, and much more, was laid out in detail and in writing long
before the U.S. government made the final decision to attack. Even now
the collective efforts at planning by the CIA, the State Department,
the Army and the Marine Corps, the United States Agency for
International Development, and a wide variety of other groups inside
and outside the government are underappreciated by the public. The one
pre-war effort that has received substantial recent attention, the
State Department's Future of Iraq project, produced thousands of pages
of findings, barely one paragraph of which has until now been quoted
in the press. The Administration will be admired in retrospect for how
much knowledge it created about the challenge it was taking on. U.S.
government predictions about postwar Iraq's problems have proved as
accurate as the assessments of pre-war Iraq's strategic threat have
But the Administration will be condemned for what it did with what was
known. The problems the United States has encountered are precisely
the ones its own expert agencies warned against. Exactly what went
wrong with the occupation will be studied for years-or should be. The
missteps of the first half year in Iraq are as significant as other
classic and carefully examined failures in foreign policy, including
John Kennedy's handling of the Bay of Pigs invasion, in 1961, and
Lyndon Johnson's decision to escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam, in
1965. The United States withstood those previous failures, and it will
withstand this one. Having taken over Iraq and captured Saddam
Hussein, it has no moral or practical choice other than to see out the
occupation and to help rebuild and democratize the country. But its
missteps have come at a heavy cost. And the ongoing financial,
diplomatic, and human cost of the Iraq occupation is the more grievous
in light of advance warnings the government had.
Before September 11, 2001: The Early Days
Concern about Saddam Hussein pre-dated the 9/11 attacks and even the
inauguration of George W. Bush. In 1998 Congress passed and President
Bill Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, which declared that "it
should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove
the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power." During the 2000
presidential campaign Al Gore promised to support groups working to
unseat Saddam Hussein. In the week before Bush took office, Nicholas
Lemann reported in The New Yorker that "the idea of overthrowing
Saddam is not an idle fantasy-or, if it is, it's one that has lately
occupied the minds of many American officials, including people close
to George W. Bush." But the intellectual case for regime change,
argued during the Clinton years by some Democrats and notably by Paul
Wolfowitz, then the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced
International Studies, shifted clearly toward operational planning
after the destruction of the World Trade Center.
For much of the public this case for war against Iraq rested on an
assumed connection (though this was never demonstrated, and was
officially disavowed by the President) between Saddam Hussein's regime
and the terrorist hijackers. Within the government the case was
equally compelling but different. September 11 had shown that the
United States was newly vulnerable; to protect itself it had to fight
terrorists at their source; and because Saddam Hussein's regime was
the leading potential source of future "state-sponsored" terrorism, it
had become an active threat, whether or not it played any role in
9/11. The very next day, September 12, 2001, James Woolsey, who had
been Clinton's first CIA director, told me that no matter who proved
to be responsible for this attack, the solution had to include
removing Saddam Hussein, because he was so likely to be involved next
time. A military planner inside the Pentagon later told me that on
September 13 his group was asked to draw up scenarios for an assault
on Iraq, not just Afghanistan.
Soon after becoming the Army Chief of Staff, in 1999, General Eric
Shinseki had begun ordering war-game exercises to judge strategies and
manpower needs for possible combat in Iraq. This was not because he
assumed a war was imminent. He thought that the greater Caspian Sea
region, including Iraq, would present a uniquely difficult challenge
for U.S. troops, because of its geography and political tensions.
After 9/11, Army war games involving Iraq began in earnest.
In his first State of the Union address, on January 29, 2002,
President Bush said that Iraq, Iran, and North Korea were an "axis of
evil" that threatened world peace. "By seeking weapons of mass
destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could
provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their
hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the
By the time of this speech efforts were afoot not simply to remove
Saddam Hussein but also to imagine what Iraq would be like when he was
gone. In late October of 2001, while the U.S. military was conducting
its rout of the Taliban from Afghanistan, the State Department had
quietly begun its planning for the aftermath of a "transition" in
Iraq. At about the time of the "axis of evil" speech, working groups
within the department were putting together a list of postwar jobs and
topics to be considered, and possible groups of experts to work on them.
One Year Before the War: The "Future of Iraq"
Thus was born the Future of Iraq project, whose existence is by now
well known, but whose findings and potential impact have rarely been
reported and examined. The State Department first publicly mentioned
the project in March of 2002, when it quietly announced the lineup of
the working groups. At the time, media attention was overwhelmingly
directed toward Afghanistan, where Operation Anaconda, the
half-successful effort to kill or capture al-Qaeda and Taliban
fighters, was under way.
For several months before announcing the project the State Department
had been attempting to coordinate the efforts of the many fractious
Iraqi exile organizations. The Future of Iraq project held the
potential for harnessing, and perhaps even harmonizing, the expertise
available from the exile groups.
It was also in keeping with a surprisingly well established U.S.
government tradition of preparing for postwar duties before there was
a clear idea of when fighting would begin, let alone when it would
end. Before the United States entered World War II, teams at the Army
War College were studying what went right and wrong when American
doughboys occupied Germany after World War I. Within months of the
attack on Pearl Harbor a School of Military Government had been
created, at the University of Virginia, to plan for the occupation of
both Germany and Japan. In 1995, while U.S. negotiators, led by
Richard Holbrooke, were still working at the Dayton peace talks to end
the war in the Balkans, World Bank representatives were on hand to
arrange loans for the new regimes.
Contemplating postwar plans posed a problem for those who, like many
in the State Department, were skeptical of the need for war. Were they
making a war more likely if they prepared for its aftermath? Thomas
Warrick, the State Department official who directed the Future of Iraq
project, was considered to be in the antiwar camp. But according to
associates, he explained the importance of preparing for war by
saying, "I'm nervous that they're actually going to do it-and the day
after they'll turn to us and ask, 'Now what?'" So he pushed ahead with
the project, setting up numerous conferences and drafting sessions
that would bring together teams of exiles-among them Kanan Makiya, the
author of the influential anti-Saddam book Republic of Fear, first
published in 1989. A small number of "international advisers," mainly
from the United States, were also assigned to the teams. Eventually
there would be seventeen working groups, designed systematically to
cover what would be needed to rebuild the political and economic
infrastructure of the country. "Democratic Principles and Procedures"
was the name of one of the groups, which was assigned to suggest the
legal framework for a new government; Makiya would write much of its
report. The "Transitional Justice" group was supposed to work on
reparations, amnesty, and de-Baathification laws. Groups studying
economic matters included "Public Finance," "Oil and Energy," and
"Water, Agriculture and Environment."
In May of 2002 Congress authorized $5 million to fund the project's
studies. In the flurry of news from Afghanistan the project went
unnoticed in the press until June, when the State Department announced
that the first meetings would take place in July. "The role of the
U.S. government and State Department is to see what the Iraqis and
Iraqi-Americans want," Warrick said at a conference on June 1, 2002.
"The impetus for change comes from [Iraqis], not us. This is the job
of Iraqis inside and outside."
That same day President Bush delivered a graduation speech at West
Point, giving a first look at the doctrine of pre-emptive war. He told
the cadets, to cheers, "Our security will require all Americans to be
forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for pre-emptive action when
necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives." Later in the
summer the doctrine was elaborated in a new National Security
Strategy, which explained that since "rogue states" could not be
contained or deterred, they needed to be destroyed before they could
Whenever National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was interviewed
that summer, she talked mainly about the thinking behind the new
policy. When Vice President Dick Cheney was interviewed, he talked
mainly about Saddam Hussein's defiance of international law. But when
Secretary of State Colin Powell was interviewed, he constantly
stressed the value of an international approach to the problem and the
need to give UN arms inspectors adequate time to do their job.
War with Iraq was not inevitable at this point, but it seemed more and
more likely. Daily conversation in Washington, which usually reverts
to "So, who do you think will be the next President?," switched
instead to "So, when do you think we're going to war?"
It was in these circumstances that the Future of Iraq project's
working groups deliberated. Most of the meetings were in Washington.
Some were in London, and one session, in early September, took place
in Surrey, where representatives of a dozen mutually suspicious exile
groups discussed prospects for democratic coexistence when Saddam
Hussein was gone. (Along with Chalabi's INC the meeting included
several rival Kurdish groups, Assyrian and Turkomen organizations, the
Iraqi Constitutional Monarchy Movement, and others.)
The project did not overcome all the tensions among its members, and
the results of its deliberations were uneven. Three of its intended
working groups never actually met-including, ominously, "Preserving
Iraq's Cultural Heritage." The "Education" group finally produced a
report only six pages long, in contrast to many hundreds of pages from
most others. Some recommendations were quirky or reflected the tastes
of the individual participants who drafted them. A report titled "Free
Media" proposed that all Iraqi journalists be taken out of the country
for a month-long re-education process: "Those who 'get it' go back as
reporters; others would be retired or reassigned." A group that was
considering ways of informing Iraq about the realities of democracy
mentioned Baywatch and Leave It to Beaver as information sources that
had given Iraqis an imprecise understanding of American society. It
recommended that a new film, Colonial America: Life in a Theocracy, be
shot, noting, "The Puritan experiments provide amazing parallels with
current Moslem fundamentalism. The ultimate failures of these US
experiments can also be vividly illustrated-witch trials, intolerance,
But whatever may have been unrealistic or factional about these
efforts, even more of what the project created was impressive. The
final report consisted of thirteen volumes of recommendations on
specific topics, plus a one-volume summary and overview. These I have
read-and I read them several months into the occupation, when it was
unfairly easy to judge how well the forecast was standing up. (Several
hundred of the 2,500 pages were in Arabic, which sped up the reading
process.) The report was labeled "For Official Use Only"-an
administrative term that implies confidentiality but has no legal
significance. The State Department held the report closely until, last
fall, it agreed to congressional requests to turn over the findings.
Most of the project's judgments look good in retrospect-and virtually
all reveal a touching earnestness about working out the details of
reconstructing a society. For instance, one of the thickest volumes
considered the corruption endemic in Iraqi life and laid out
strategies for coping with it. (These included a new "Iraqi Government
Code of Ethics," which began, "Honesty, integrity, and fairness are
the fundamental values for the people of Iraq.") The overview volume,
which appears to have been composed as a series of PowerPoint charts,
said that the United States was undertaking this effort because, among
other things, "detailed public planning" conveys U.S. government
"seriousness" and the message that the U.S. government "wants to learn
from past regime change experiences."
For their part, the Iraqi participants emphasized several points that
ran through all the working groups' reports. A recurring theme was the
urgency of restoring electricity and water supplies as soon as
possible after regime change. The first item in the list of
recommendations from the "Water, Agriculture and Environment" group
read, "Fundamental importance of clean water supplies for Iraqis
immediately after transition. Key to coalition/community relations."
One of the groups making economic recommendations wrote, "Stressed
importance of getting electrical grid up and running immediately-key
to water systems, jobs. Could go a long way to determining Iraqis'
attitudes toward Coalition forces."
A second theme was the need to plan carefully for the handling and
demobilization of Iraq's very sizable military. On the one hand, a
functioning army would be necessary for public order and, once
coalition forces withdrew, for the country's defense. ("Our vision of
the future is to build a democratic civil society. In order to make
this vision a reality, we need to have an army that can work alongside
this new society.") On the other hand, a large number of Saddam's
henchmen would have to be removed. The trick would be to get rid of
the leaders without needlessly alienating the ordinary troops-or
leaving them without income. One group wrote, "All combatants who are
included in the demobilization process must be assured by their
leaders and the new government of their legal rights and that new
prospects for work and education will be provided by the new system."
Toward this end it laid out a series of steps the occupation
authorities should take in the "disarmament, demobilization, and
reintegration" process. Another group, in a paper on democratic
principles, warned, "The decommissioning of hundreds of thousands of
trained military personnel that [a rapid purge] implies could create
Next the working groups emphasized how disorderly Iraq would be soon
after liberation, and how difficult it would be to get the country on
the path to democracy-though that was where it had to go. "The removal
of Saddam's regime will provide a power vacuum and create popular
anxieties about the viability of all Iraqi institutions," a paper on
rebuilding civil society said. "The traumatic and disruptive events
attendant to the regime change will affect all Iraqis, both Saddam's
conspirators and the general populace." Another report warned more
explicitly that "the period immediately after regime change might
offer these criminals the opportunity to engage in acts of killing,
plunder and looting." In the short term the occupying forces would
have to prevent disorder. In the long term, according to a report
written by Kanan Makiya, they would need to recognize that "the extent
of the Iraqi totalitarian state, its absolute power and control
exercised from Baghdad, not to mention the terror used to enforce
compliance, cannot be overestimated in their impact on the Iraqi
psyche and the attendant feeling of fear, weakness, and shame." Makiya
continued, "These conditions and circumstances do not provide a strong
foundation on which to build new institutions and a modern nation
Each of the preceding themes would seem to imply a long, difficult
U.S. commitment in Iraq. America should view its involvement in Iraq,
the summary report said, not as it had Afghanistan, which was left to
stew in lightly supervised warlordism, but as it had Germany and
Japan, which were rebuilt over many years. But nearly every working
group stressed one other point: the military occupation itself had to
be brief. "Note: Military government idea did not go down well," one
chart in the summary volume said. The "Oil and Energy" group presented
a "key concept": "Iraqis do not work for American contractors;
Americans are seen assisting Iraqis."
Americans are often irritated by the illogic of "resentful dependence"
by weaker states. South Koreans, for example, complain bitterly about
U.S. soldiers in their country but would complain all the more
bitterly if the soldiers were removed. The authors of the Future of
Iraq report could by those standards also be accused of illogical
thinking, in wanting U.S. support but not wanting U.S. control.
Moreover, many of the project's members had a bias that prefigured an
important source of postwar tension: they were exiles who considered
themselves the likeliest beneficiaries if the United States
transferred power to Iraqis quickly-even though, precisely because of
their exile, they had no obvious base of support within Iraq.
To skip ahead in the story: As chaos increased in Baghdad last summer,
the chief U.S. administrator, L. Paul "Jerry" Bremer, wrestled
constantly with a variant of this exile paradox. The Iraqi Governing
Council, whose twenty-five members were chosen by Americans, was
supposed to do only the preparatory work for an elected Iraqi
government. But the greater the pressure on Bremer for
"Iraqification," the more tempted he was to give in to the council's
demand that he simply put it in charge without waiting for an
election. More than a year earlier, long before combat began, the
explicit recommendations and implicit lessons of the Future of Iraq
project had given the U.S. government a very good idea of what
political conflicts it could expect in Iraq.
Ten Months Before the War: War Games and Warnings
As combat slowed in Afghanistan and the teams of the Future of Iraq
project continued their deliberations, the U.S. government put itself
on a wartime footing. In late May the CIA had begun what would become
a long series of war-game exercises, to think through the best- and
worst-case scenarios after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. According
to a person familiar with the process, one recurring theme in the
exercises was the risk of civil disorder after the fall of Baghdad.
The exercises explored how to find and secure the weapons of mass
destruction that were then assumed to be in and around Baghdad, and
indicated that the hardest task would be finding and protecting
scientists who knew about the weapons before they could be killed by
the regime as it was going down.
The CIA also considered whether a new Iraqi government could be put
together through a process like the Bonn conference, which was then
being used to devise a post-Taliban regime for Afghanistan. At the
Bonn conference representatives of rival political and ethic groups
agreed on the terms that established Hamid Karzai as the new Afghan
President. The CIA believed that rivalries in Iraq were so deep, and
the political culture so shallow, that a similarly quick transfer of
sovereignty would only invite chaos.
Representatives from the Defense Department were among those who
participated in the first of these CIA war-game sessions. When their
Pentagon superiors at the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD)
found out about this, in early summer, the representatives were
reprimanded and told not to participate further. "OSD" is Washington
shorthand, used frequently in discussions about the origins of Iraq
war plans, and it usually refers to strong guidance from Rumsfeld,
Wolfowitz, Feith, and one of Feith's deputies, William Luti. Their
displeasure over the CIA exercise was an early illustration of a view
that became stronger throughout 2002: that postwar planning was an
impediment to war.
Because detailed thought about the postwar situation meant facing
costs and potential problems, and thus weakened the case for launching
a "war of choice" (the Washington term for a war not waged in
immediate self-defense), it could be seen as an "antiwar" undertaking.
The knowledge that U.S. soldiers would still be in Germany and Japan
sixty-plus years after Pearl Harbor would obviously not have changed
the decision to enter World War II, and in theory the Bush
Administration could have presented the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in
a similar way: as a job that had to be done, even though it might
saddle Americans with costs and a military presence for decades to
come. Everyone can think of moments when Bush or Rumsfeld has reminded
the nation that this would be a long-term challenge. But during the
months when the Administration was making its case for the
war-successfully to Congress, less so to the United Nations-it acted
as if the long run should be thought about only later on.
On July 31, 2002, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee invited a
panel of experts to discuss the case for war against Iraq. On August 1
it heard from other experts about the likely "day after" consequences
of military victory. Senator Joseph Biden, a Democrat from Delaware,
was then the chairman of the committee. That first day Biden said that
the threat of WMD might force him to vote in favor of the war (as he
ultimately did). But he worried that if the United States invaded
without full allied support, "we may very well radicalize the rest of
the world, we may pick up a bill that's $70 billion, $80 billion, we
may have to have extensive commitment of U.S. forces for an extended
period of time in Iraq."
Phebe Marr, an Iraq scholar retired from the National Defense
University, told the committee that the United States "should assume
that it cannot get the results it wants on the cheap" from regime
change. "It must be prepared to put some troops on the ground,
advisers to help create new institutions, and above all, time and
effort in the future to see the project through to a satisfactory end.
If the United States is not willing to do so, it had best rethink the
project." Rend Rahim Francke, an Iraqi exile serving on the Future of
Iraq project (and now the ambassador from Iraq to the United States),
said that "the system of public security will break down, because
there will be no functioning police force, no civil service, and no
justice system" on the first day after the fighting. "There will be a
vacuum of political authority and administrative authority," she said.
"The infrastructure of vital sectors will have to be restored. An
adequate police force must be trained and equipped as quickly as
possible. And the economy will have to be jump-started from not only
stagnation but devastation." Other witnesses discussed the need to
commit U.S. troops for many years-but to begin turning constitutional
authority over to the Iraqis within six months. The upshot of the
hearings was an emphasis on the short-term importance of security, the
medium-term challenge of maintaining control while transferring
sovereignty to the Iraqis, and the long-term reality of commitments
and costs. All the experts agreed that what came after the fall of
Baghdad would be harder for the United States than what came before.
Six Months Before the War: Getting Serious
One week before Labor Day, while President Bush was at his ranch in
Texas, Vice President Cheney gave a speech at a Veterans of Foreign
Wars convention in Nashville. "There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein
now has weapons of mass destruction [and that he will use them]
against our friends, against our allies, and against us," Cheney said.
Time was running out, he concluded, for America to remove this threat.
A few days later CNN quoted a source "intimately familiar with [Colin]
Powell's thinking" as saying that Powell was still insistent on the
need for allied support and would oppose any war in which the United
States would "go it alone ... as if it doesn't give a damn" about
other nations' views. Just after Labor Day, Powell apparently won a
battle inside the Administration and persuaded Bush to take the U.S.
case to the United Nations. On September 12 Bush addressed the UN
General Assembly and urged it to insist on Iraqi compliance with its
previous resolutions concerning disarmament.
Before the war the Administration exercised remarkable "message
discipline" about financial projections. When asked how much the war
might cost, officials said that so many things were uncertain,
starting with whether there would even be a war, that there was no
responsible way to make an estimate. In part this reflected Rumsfeld's
emphasis on the unknowability of the future. It was also politically
essential, in delaying the time when the Administration had to argue
that regime change in Iraq was worth a specific number of billions of
In September, Lawrence Lindsay, then the chief White House economic
adviser, broke discipline. He was asked by The Wall Street Journal how
much a war and its aftermath might cost. He replied that it might end
up at one to two percent of the gross domestic product, which would
mean $100 billion to $200 billion. Lindsay added that he thought the
cost of not going to war could conceivably be greater-but that didn't
placate his critics within the Administration. The Administration was
further annoyed by a report a few days later from Democrats on the
House Budget Committee, which estimated the cost of the war at $48
billion to $93 billion. Lindsay was widely criticized in "background"
comments from Administration officials, and by the end of the year he
had been forced to resign. His comment "made it clear Larry just
didn't get it," an unnamed Administration official told The Washington
Post when Lindsay left. Lindsay's example could hardly have encouraged
others in the Administration to be forthcoming with financial
projections. Indeed, no one who remained in the Administration offered
a plausible cost estimate until months after the war began.
In September the United States Agency for International Development
began to think in earnest about its postwar responsibilities in Iraq.
It was the natural contact for nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs,
from the United States and other countries that were concerned with
relief efforts in Iraq.
USAID's administrator, Andrew Natsios, came to the assignment with a
complex set of experiences and instincts. He started his career, in
the 1970s, as a Republican state legislator in Massachusetts, and
before the Bush Administration he had been the administrator of the
state's "Big Dig," the largest public-works effort ever in the
country. Before the Big Dig, Natsios spent five years as an executive
at a major humanitarian NGO called World Vision. He also served in the
Persian Gulf during the 1991 Gulf War, as an Army Reserve officer. By
background he was the Administration official best prepared to
anticipate the combination of wartime and postwar obligations in Iraq.
At any given moment USAID is drawing up contingency plans for
countries that might soon need help. "I actually have a list, which I
will not show you," Natsios told me in the fall, "of countries where
there may not be American troops soon, but they could fall apart-and
if they do, what we could do for them." By mid-September of 2002, six
months before the official beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom,
Natsios had additional teams working on plans for Iraq.
Representatives of about a dozen relief organizations and NGOs were
gathering each week at USAID headquarters for routine coordination
meetings. Iraq occupied more and more of their time through 2002. On
October 10, one day before Congress voted to authorize the war, the
meetings were recast as the Iraq Working Group.
Five Months Before the War: Occupiers or Liberators?
The weekly meetings at USAID quickly settled into a pattern. The
representatives of the NGOs would say, "We've dealt with situations
like this before, and we know what to expect." The U.S. government
representatives would either say nothing or else reply, No, this time
it will be different.
From Atlantic Unbound:
Sage, Ink: "History Lessons" (September 26, 2002)
A cartoon by Sage Stossel. The NGOs had experience dealing with a
reality that has not fully sunk in for most of the American
public. In the nearly three decades since U.S. troops left
Vietnam, the American military has fought only two wars as most
people understand the term: the two against Saddam Hussein's
Iraq. But through the past thirty years U.S. troops have almost
continuously been involved in combat somewhere. Because those
engagements-in Grenada, Lebanon, Panama, Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia,
Kosovo, Afghanistan, and elsewhere-have no obvious connection
with one another, politicians and the public usually discuss them
as stand-alone cases. Each one seems an aberration from the
"real" wars the military is set up to fight.
To the NGO world, these and other modern wars (like the ones in
Africa) are not the exception but the new norm: brutal localized
encounters that destroy the existing political order and create a need
for long-term international supervision and support. Within the U.S.
military almost no one welcomes this reality, but many recognize that
peacekeeping, policing, and, yes, nation-building are now the expected
military tasks. The military has gotten used to working alongside the
NGOs-and the NGOs were ready with a checklist of things to worry about
once the regime had fallen.
An even larger question about historical precedent began to surface.
When Administration officials talked about models for what would
happen in Iraq, they almost always referred to the lasting success in
Japan and Germany-or else to countries of the former Soviet bloc in
Eastern Europe. (A civilian adviser who went to Baghdad early in the
occupation recalls looking at his fellow passengers on the military
transport plane. The ones who weren't asleep or flipping through
magazines were reading books about Japan or Germany, not about the
Arab world. "That was not a good sign," he told me.) If one thought of
Iraq as Poland, or as the former East Germany, or as the former
Czechoslovakia, or as almost any part of the onetime Soviet empire in
Eastern Europe other than Romania, one would naturally conclude that
regime change in itself would set the country well along the path
toward recovery. These countries were fine once their repressive
leaders were removed; so might Iraq well be. And if the former
Yugoslavia indicated darker possibilities, that could be explained as
yet another failure of Clinton-era foreign policy.
Many NGO representatives assumed that postwar recovery would not be so
automatic, and that they should begin working on preparations before
the combat began. "At the beginning our main message was the need for
access," I was told by Sandra Mitchell, the vice-president of the
International Rescue Committee, who attended the USAID meetings.
Because of U.S. sanctions against Iraq, it was illegal for American
humanitarian organizations to operate there. (Journalists were about
the only category of Americans who would not get in trouble with their
own government by traveling to and spending money in Iraq.) "Our
initial messages were like those in any potential crisis situation,"
Mitchell said, "but the reason we were so insistent in this case was
the precarious situation that already existed in Iraq. The internal
infrastructure was shot, and you couldn't easily swing in resources
from neighboring countries, like in the Balkans." The NGOs therefore
asked, as a first step, for a presidential directive exempting them
from the sanctions. They were told to expect an answer to this request
by December. That deadline passed with no ruling. By early last year
the NGOs felt that it was too dangerous to go to Iraq, and the
Administration feared that if they went they might be used as
hostages. No directive was ever issued.
Through the fall and winter of 2002 the International Rescue
Committee, Refugees International, InterAction, and other groups that
met with USAID kept warning about one likely postwar problem that, as
it turned out, Iraq avoided-a mass flow of refugees-and another that
was exactly as bad as everyone warned: the lawlessness and looting of
the "day after" in Baghdad. The Bush Administration would later point
to the absence of refugees as a sign of the occupation's underreported
success. This achievement was, indeed, due in part to a success: the
speed and precision of the military campaign itself. But the absence
of refugees was also a sign of a profound failure: the mistaken
estimates of Iraq's WMD threat. All pre-war scenarios involving huge
movements of refugees began with the assumption that Saddam Hussein
would use chemical or biological weapons against U.S. troops or his
own Kurdish or Shiite populations-and that either the fact or the fear
of such assaults would force terrified Iraqis to evacuate.
The power vacuum that led to looting was disastrous. "The looting was
not a surprise," Sandra Mitchell told me. "It should not have come as
a surprise. Anyone who has witnessed the fall of a regime while
another force is coming in on a temporary basis knows that looting is
standard procedure. In Iraq there were very strong signals that this
could be the period of greatest concern for humanitarian response."
One lesson of postwar reconstruction through the 1990s was that even a
short period of disorder could have long-lasting effects.
The meetings at USAID gave the veterans of international relief
operations a way to register their concerns. The problem was that they
heard so little back. "The people in front of us were very
well-meaning," says Joel Charny, who represented Refugees
International at the meetings. "And in fairness, they were on such a
short leash. But the dialogue was one-way. We would tell them stuff,
and they would nod and say, Everything's under control. To me it was
like the old four-corners offense in basketball. They were there to
just dribble out the clock but be able to say they'd consulted with us."
And again the question arose of whether what lay ahead in Iraq would
be similar to the other "small wars" of the previous decade-plus or
something new. If it was similar, the NGOs had their checklists ready.
These included, significantly, the obligations placed on any
"occupying power" by the Fourth Geneva Convention, which was signed in
1949 and is mainly a commonsense list of duties-from protecting
hospitals to minimizing postwar reprisals-that a victorious army must
carry out. "But we were corrected when we raised this point," Sandra
Mitchell says. "The American troops would be 'liberators' rather than
'occupiers,' so the obligations did not apply. Our point was not to
pass judgment on the military action but to describe the
From the archives:
"Four-star Generalists" (October 1999)
Military history pierces the philosophical fog that often surrounds
the other humanities. By Robert D. Kaplan
In the same mid-October week that the Senate approved the war
resolution, a team from the Strategic Studies Institute at the Army
War College, in Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, began a
postwar-planning exercise. Even more explicitly than the NGOs, the
Army team insisted that America's military past, reaching back to its
conquest of the Philippines, in 1898, would be a useful guide to its
future duties in Iraq. As a rule, professional soldiers spend more
time thinking and talking about history than other people do; past
battles are the only real evidence about doctrine and equipment. The
institute-in essence, the War College's think tank-was charged with
reviewing recent occupations to help the Army "best address the
requirements that will necessarily follow operational victory in a war
with Iraq," as the institute's director later said in a foreword to
the team's report. "As the possibility of war with Iraq looms on the
horizon, it is important to look beyond the conflict to the challenges
of occupying the country."
The study's principal authors were Conrad Crane, who graduated from
West Point in the early 1970s and taught there as a history professor
through the 1990s, and Andrew Terrill, an Army Reserve officer and a
strategic-studies professor. With a team of other researchers, which
included representatives from the Army and the joint staff as well as
other government agencies and think tanks, they began high-speed work
on a set of detailed recommendations about postwar priorities. The
Army War College report was also connected to a pre-war struggle with
yet another profound postwar consequence: the fight within the
Pentagon, between the civilian leadership in OSD and the generals
running the Army, over the size and composition of the force that
would conquer Iraq.
Four Months Before the War: The Battle in the Pentagon
On November 5, 2002, the Republicans regained control of the Senate
and increased their majority in the House in national midterm
elections. On November 8 the UN Security Council voted 15-0 in favor
of Resolution 1441, threatening Iraq with "serious consequences" if it
could not prove that it had abandoned its weapons programs.
Just before 9/11 Donald Rumsfeld had been thought of as standing on a
banana peel. The newspapers were full of leaked anonymous complaints
from military officials who thought that his efforts to streamline and
"transform" the Pentagon were unrealistic and damaging. But with his
dramatic metamorphosis from embattled Secretary of Defense to
triumphant Secretary of War, Rumsfeld's reputation outside the
Administration and his influence within it rose. He was operating from
a position of great power when, in November, he decided to "cut the TPFDD."
"Tipfid" is how people in the military pronounce the acronym for
"time-phased force and deployment data," but what it really means to
the armed forces, in particular the Army, is a way of doing business
that is methodical, careful, and sure. The TPFDD for Iraq was an
unbelievably complex master plan governing which forces would go
where, when, and with what equipment, on which planes or ships, so
that everything would be coordinated and ready at the time of attack.
One reason it took the military six months to get set for each of its
wars against Iraq, a comparatively pitiful foe, was the thoroughness
of TPFDD planning. To its supporters, this approach is old-school in
the best sense: if you fight, you really fight. To its detractors,
this approach is simply old-ponderous, inefficient, and, although they
don't dare call it cowardly, risk-averse at the least.
A streamlined approach had proved successful in Afghanistan, at least
for a while, as a relatively small U.S. force left much of the ground
fighting to the Northern Alliance. In the longer run the American
strategy created complications for Afghanistan, because the victorious
Northern Alliance leaders were newly legitimized as warlords. Donald
Rumsfeld was one member of the Administration who seemed still to
share the pre-9/11 suspicion about the risks of nation-building, and
so didn't much care about the postwar consequences of a relatively
small invasion force. (His deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, was more open to
the challenge of rebuilding Iraq, but he would never undercut or
disobey Rumsfeld.) In November, Rumsfeld began working through the
TPFDD, with the goal of paring the force planned for Iraq to its
leanest, lightest acceptable level.
The war games run by the Army and the Pentagon's joint staff had led
to very high projected troop levels. The Army's recommendation was for
an invasion force 400,000 strong, made up of as many Americans as
necessary and as many allied troops as possible. "All the numbers we
were coming up with were quite large," Thomas White, a retired general
(and former Enron executive) who was the Secretary of the Army during
the war, told me recently. But Rumsfeld's idea of the right force size
was more like 75,000. The Army and the military's joint leadership
moderated their requests in putting together the TPFDD, but Rumsfeld
began challenging the force numbers in detail. When combat began,
slightly more than 200,000 U.S. soldiers were massed around Iraq.
"In what I came to think of as Secretary Rumsfeld's style," an Army
official who was involved in the process told me recently, "he didn't
directly say no but asked a lot of hard questions about the plan and
sent us away without approval. He would ask questions that delayed the
activation of units, because he didn't think the planned flow was
right. Our people came back with the understanding that their numbers
were far too big and they should be thinking more along the lines of
Afghanistan"-that is, plan for a light, mobile attack featuring
Special Forces soldiers. Another participant described Rumsfeld as
looking line by line at the deployments proposed in the TPFDD and
saying, "Can't we do this with one company?" or "Shouldn't we get rid
of this unit?" Making detailed, last-minute adjustments to the TPFDD
was, in the Army's view, like pulling cogs at random out of a machine.
According to an observer, "The generals would say, Sir, these changes
will ripple back to every railhead and every company."
The longer-term problem involved what would happen after Baghdad fell,
as it inevitably would. This was distinctly an Army rather than a
general military concern. "Where's the Air Force now?" an Army officer
asked rhetorically last fall. "They're back on their bases-and they're
better off, since they don't need to patrol the 'no-fly' zones [in
northern and southern Iraq, which U.S. warplanes had patrolled since
the end of the Gulf War]. The Navy's gone, and most of the Marines
have been pulled back. It's the Army holding the sack of shit." A
related concern involved what a long-term commitment to Iraq would do
to the Army's "ops tempo," or pace of operations-especially if Reserve
and National Guard members, who had no expectations of long-term
foreign service when they signed up, were posted in Iraq for months or
The military's fundamental argument for building up what Rumsfeld
considered a wastefully large force is that it would be even more
useful after Baghdad fell than during actual combat. The first few
days or weeks after the fighting, in this view, were crucial in
setting long-term expectations. Civilians would see that they could
expect a rapid return to order, and would behave accordingly-or they
would see the opposite. This was the "shock and awe" that really
mattered, in the Army's view: the ability to make clear who was in
charge. "Insights from successful occupations suggest that it is best
to go in real heavy and then draw down fast," Conrad Crane, of the
Army War College, told me. That is, a larger force would be necessary
during and immediately after the war, but might mean a much smaller
occupation presence six months later.
"We're in Baghdad, the regime is toppled-what's next?" Thomas White
told me, recounting discussions before the war. One of the strongest
advocates of a larger force was General Eric Shinseki, the Army Chief
of Staff. White said, "Guys like Shinseki, who had been in Bosnia
[where he supervised the NATO force], been in Kosovo, started running
the numbers and said, 'Let's assume the world is linear.' For five
million Bosnians we had two hundred thousand people to watch over
them. Now we have twenty-five million Iraqis to worry about, spread
out over a state the size of California. How many people is this going
to take?" The heart of the Army's argument was that with too few
soldiers, the United States would win the war only to be trapped in an
untenable position during the occupation.
A note of personal rancor complicated these discussions, as it did
many disagreements over postwar plans. In our interview Douglas Feith
played this down-maintaining that press reports had exaggerated the
degree of quarreling and division inside the Administration. These
reports, he said, mainly reflected the experience of lower-level
officials, who were embroiled in one specific policy area and "might
find themselves pretty much always at odds with their counterparts
from another agency." Higher up, where one might be "fighting with
someone on one issue but allied with them on something else,"
relations were more collegial. Perhaps so. But there was no concealing
the hostility within the Pentagon between most uniformed leaders,
especially in the Army, and the civilians in OSD.
Donald Rumsfeld viewed Shinseki as a symbol of uncooperative,
old-style thinking, and had in the past gone out of his way to
humiliate him. In the spring of 2002, fourteen months before the
scheduled end of Shinseki's term, Rumsfeld announced who his successor
would be; such an announcement, which converts the incumbent into a
lame duck, usually comes at the last minute. The action was one of
several calculated insults.
From the archives:
"Abizaid of Arabia" (December 2003)
General John Abizaid has driven big changes in the American
military. Now, as he commands U.S. forces in the Middle East, his
ideas are being put to the test. By Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. From
OSD's point of view, Shinseki and many of his colleagues were
dragging their feet. From the Army's point of view, OSD was being
reckless about the way it was committing troops and high-handed in
disregarding the military's professional advice. One man who was
then working in the Pentagon told me of walking down a hallway a
few months before the war and seeing Army General John Abizaid
standing outside a door. Abizaid, who after the war succeeded
Tommy Franks as commander of the Central Command, or CENTCOM, was
then the director of the Joint Staff-the highest uniformed
position in the Pentagon apart from the Joint Chiefs. A planning
meeting for Iraq operations was under way. OSD officials told him
he could not take part.
The military-civilian difference finally turned on the question of
which would be harder: winning the war or maintaining the peace.
According to Thomas White and several others, OSD acted as if the war
itself would pose the real challenge. As White put it, "The planning
assumptions were that the people would realize they were liberated,
they would be happy that we were there, so it would take a much
smaller force to secure the peace than it did to win the war. The
resistance would principally be the remnants of the Baath Party, but
they would go away fairly rapidly. And, critically, if we didn't
damage the infrastructure in our military operation, as we didn't, the
restart of the country could be done fairly rapidly." The first
assumption was clearly expressed by Cheney three days before the war
began, in an exchange with Tim Russert on Meet the Press:
RUSSERT: If your analysis is not correct, and we're not treated as
liberators but as conquerors, and the Iraqis begin to resist,
particularly in Baghdad, do you think the American people are prepared
for a long, costly, and bloody battle with significant American
CHENEY: Well, I don't think it's likely to unfold that way, Tim,
because I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators ...
The read we get on the people of Iraq is there is no question but what
they want to get rid of Saddam Hussein and they will welcome as
liberators the United States when we come to do that. Through the
1990s Marine General Anthony Zinni, who preceded Tommy Franks as
CENTCOM commander, had done war-gaming for a possible invasion of
Iraq. His exercises involved a much larger U.S. force than the one
that actually attacked last year. "They were very proud that they
didn't have the kind of numbers my plan had called for," Zinni told
me, referring to Rumsfeld and Cheney. "The reason we had those two
extra divisions was the security situation. Revenge killings, crime,
chaos-this was all foreseeable."
Thomas White agrees. Because of reasoning like Cheney's, "we went in
with the minimum force to accomplish the military objectives, which
was a straightforward task, never really in question," he told me.
"And then we immediately found ourselves shorthanded in the aftermath.
We sat there and watched people dismantle and run off with the
Three Months Before the War
In the beginning of December, Iraq submitted its 12,000-page
declaration to the UN Security Council contending that it had no
remaining WMD stores. Near the end of December, President Bush
authorized the dispatch of more than 200,000 U.S. soldiers to the
There had still been few or no estimates of the war's cost from the
Administration-only contentions that projections like Lawrence
Lindsay's were too high. When pressed on this point, Administration
officials repeatedly said that with so many uncertainties, they could
not possibly estimate the cost. But early in December, just before
Lindsay was forced out, The New York Review of Books published an
article by William Nordhaus titled "Iraq: The Economic Consequences of
War," which included carefully considered estimates. Nordhaus, an
economist at Yale, had served on Jimmy Carter's Council of Economic
Advisers; the article was excerpted from a much longer economic paper
he had prepared. His range of estimates was enormous, depending on how
long the war lasted and what its impact on the world economy proved to
be. Nordhaus calculated that over the course of a decade the direct
and indirect costs of the war to the United States could be as low as
$121 billion or as high as $1.6 trillion. This was a more
thoroughgoing approach than the congressional budget committees had
taken, but it was similar in its overall outlook. Nordhaus told me
recently that he thinks he should have increased all his estimates to
account for the "opportunity costs" of stationing soldiers in
Iraq-that is, if they are assigned to Iraq, they're not available for
deployment somewhere else.
On the last day of December, Mitch Daniels, the director of the Office
of Management and Budget, told The New York Times that the war might
cost $50 billion to $60 billion. He had to backtrack immediately, his
spokesman stressing that "it is impossible to know what any military
campaign would ultimately cost." The spokesman explained Daniels's
mistake by saying, "The only cost estimate we know of in this arena is
the Persian Gulf War, and that was a sixty-billion-dollar event."
Daniels would leave the Administration, of his own volition, five
In the immediate run-up to the war the Administration still insisted
that the costs were unforeseeable. "Fundamentally, we have no idea
what is needed unless and until we get there on the ground," Paul
Wolfowitz told the House Budget Committee on February 27, with combat
less than three weeks away. "This delicate moment-when we are
assembling a coalition, when we are mobilizing people inside Iraq and
throughout the region to help us in the event of war, and when we are
still trying, through the United Nations and by other means, to
achieve a peaceful solution without war-is not a good time to publish
highly suspect numerical estimates and have them drive our declaratory
Wolfowitz's stonewalling that day was in keeping with the policy of
all senior Administration officials. Until many months after combat
had begun, they refused to hazard even the vaguest approximation of
what financial costs it might involve. Shinseki, so often at odds with
OSD, contemplated taking a different course. He was scheduled to
testify, with Thomas White, before the Senate Appropriations Committee
on March 19, which turned out to be the first day of actual combat. In
a routine prep session before the hearing he asked his assistants what
he should say about how much the operations in Iraq were going to
cost. "Well, it's impossible to predict," a briefer began, reminding
him of the official line.
Shinseki cut him off. "We don't know everything," he said, and then he
went through a list of the many things the military already did know.
"We know how many troops are there now, and the projected numbers. We
know how much it costs to feed them every day. We know how much it
cost to send the force there. We know what we have spent already to
prepare the force and how much it would cost to bring them back. We
have estimates of how much fuel and ammunition we would use per day of
operations." In short, anyone who actually wanted to make an estimate
had plenty of information on hand.
At this point Jerry Sinn, a three-star general in charge of the Army's
budget, said that in fact he had worked up some numbers-and he named a
figure, for the Army's likely costs, in the tens of billions of
dollars. But when Senator Byron Dorgan, of North Dakota, asked
Shinseki at hearings on March 19 how much the war just beginning would
cost, Shinseki was loyally vague ("Any potential discussion about what
an operation in Iraq or any follow-on probably is undefined at this
When Administration officials stopped being vague, they started being
unrealistic. On March 27, eight days into combat, members of the House
Appropriations Committee asked Paul Wolfowitz for a figure. He told
them that whatever it was, Iraq's oil supplies would keep it low.
"There's a lot of money to pay for this," he said. "It doesn't have to
be U.S. taxpayer money. We are dealing with a country that can really
finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon." On April 23
Andrew Natsios, of USAID, told an incredulous Ted Koppel, on
Nightline, that the total cost to America of reconstructing Iraq would
be $1.7 billion. Koppel shot back, "I mean, when you talk about
one-point-seven, you're not suggesting that the rebuilding of Iraq is
gonna be done for one-point-seven billion dollars?" Natsios was clear:
"Well, in terms of the American taxpayers' contribution, I do; this is
it for the U.S. The rest of the rebuilding of Iraq will be done by
other countries who have already made pledges ... But the American
part of this will be one-point-seven billion dollars. We have no plans
for any further-on funding for this." Only in September did President
Bush make his request for a supplemental appropriation of $87 billion
for operations in Iraq.
Planning for the postwar period intensified in December. The Council
on Foreign Relations, working with the Baker Institute for Public
Policy, at Rice University, convened a working group on "guiding
principles for U.S. post-war conflict policy in Iraq." Leslie Gelb,
then the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said that the
group would take no position for or against the war. But its report,
which was prepared late in January of last year, said that "U.S. and
coalition military units will need to pivot quickly from combat to
peacekeeping operations in order to prevent post-conflict Iraq from
descending into anarchy." The report continued, "Without an initial
and broad-based commitment to law and order, the logic of
score-settling and revenge-taking will reduce Iraq to chaos."
The momentum toward war put officials at the United Nations and other
international organizations in a difficult position. On the one hand,
they had to be ready for what was coming; on the other, it was awkward
to be seen discussing the impending takeover of one of their member
states by another. "Off-the-record meetings were happening in every
bar in New York," one senior UN official told me in the fall. An
American delegation that included Pentagon representatives went to
Rome in December for a confidential meeting with officials of the UN's
World Food Programme, to discuss possible food needs after combat in Iraq.
As The Wall Street Journal later reported, the meeting was
uncomfortable for both sides: the Americans had to tell the WFP
officials, as one of them recalled, "It is looking most probable you
are going to witness one of the largest military engagements since the
Second World War." This was hyperbole (Korea? Vietnam?), but it helped
to convince the WFP that relief preparations should begin.
On December 11 an ice storm hit the Mid-Atlantic states. For Conrad
Crane and his associates at the Army War College, deep in their crash
effort to prepare their report on postwar Army challenges, this was a
blessing. "The storm worked out perfectly," Crane told me afterward.
"We were all on the post, there was no place anyone could go, we
basically had the whole place to ourselves."
By the end of the month the War College team had assembled a draft of
its report, called "Reconstructing Iraq: Insights, Challenges, and
Missions for Military Forces in a Post-Conflict Scenario." It was not
classified, and can be found through the Army War College's Web site.
The War College report has three sections. The first is a review of
twentieth-century occupations-from the major efforts in Japan and
Germany to the smaller and more recent ones in Haiti, Panama, and the
Balkans. The purpose of the review is to identify common situations
that occupiers might face in Iraq. The discussion of Germany, for
instance, includes a detailed account of how U.S. occupiers
"de-Nazified" the country without totally dismantling its bureaucracy
or excluding everyone who had held a position of responsibility. (The
main tool was a Fragebogen, or questionnaire, about each person's past
activities, which groups of anti-Nazi Germans and Allied investigators
reviewed and based decisions on.)
The second section of the report is an assessment of the specific
problems likely to arise in Iraq, given its ethnic and regional
tensions and the impact of decades of Baathist rule. Most Iraqis would
welcome the end of Saddam Hussein's tyranny, it said. Nonetheless,
Long-term gratitude is unlikely and suspicion of U.S. motives will
increase as the occupation continues. A force initially viewed as
liberators can rapidly be relegated to the status of invaders should
an unwelcome occupation continue for a prolonged time. Occupation
problems may be especially acute if the United States must implement
the bulk of the occupation itself rather than turn these duties over
to a postwar international force. If these views about the risk of
disorder and the short welcome that Americans would enjoy sound
familiar, that is because every organization that looked seriously
into the situation sounded the same note.
The last and most distinctive part of the War College report is its
"Mission Matrix"-a 135-item checklist of what tasks would have to be
done right after the war and by whom. About a quarter of these were
"critical tasks" for which the military would have to be prepared long
before it reached Baghdad: securing the borders so that foreign
terrorists would not slip in (as they in fact did), locating and
destroying WMD supplies, protecting religious sites, performing police
and security functions, and so on. The matrix was intended to lay out
a phased shift of responsibilities, over months or years, from a
mainly U.S. occupation force to international organizations and,
finally, to sovereign Iraqis. By the end of December copies of the War
College report were being circulated throughout the Army.
According to the standard military model, warfare unfolds through four
phases: "deterrence and engagement," "seize the initiative," "decisive
operations," and "post-conflict." Reality is never divided quite that
neatly, of course, but the War College report stressed that Phase IV
"post-conflict" planning absolutely had to start as early as possible,
well before Phase III "decisive operations"-the war itself. But
neither the Army nor the other services moved very far past Phase III
thinking. "All the A-Team guys wanted to be in on Phase III, and the
B-team guys were put on Phase IV," one man involved in Phase IV told
me. Frederick Barton, of the Center for Strategic and International
Studies, who was involved in postwar efforts in Haiti, Rwanda, and
elsewhere, put it differently. "If you went to the Pentagon before the
war, all the concentration was on the war," he said. "If you went
there during the war, all the concentration was on the war. And if you
went there after the war, they'd say, 'That's Jerry Bremer's job.'"
Still, the War College report confirmed what the Army leadership
already suspected: that its real challenges would begin when it took
control of Baghdad.
Two Months Before the War
On January 27, 2003, the chief UN weapons inspector, Hans Blix,
reported that "Iraq appears not to have come to a genuine acceptance,
not even today, of the disarmament that was demanded of it."
Twenty-four hours later, in his State of the Union address, President
Bush said that the United States was still hoping for UN endorsement
of an action against Iraq-but would not be limited by the absence of one.
Increasingly the question in Washington about war was When? Those
arguing for delay said that it would make everything easier. Perhaps
Saddam Hussein would die. Perhaps he would flee or be overthrown.
Perhaps the UN inspectors would find his weapons, or determine
conclusively that they no longer existed. Perhaps the United States
would have time to assemble, if not a broad alliance for the battle
itself, at least support for reconstruction and occupation, so that
U.S. soldiers and taxpayers would not be left with the entire job.
Even if the responsibility were to be wholly America's, each passing
month would mean more time to plan the peace as thoroughly as the war:
to train civil-affairs units (which specialize in peacekeeping rather
than combat), and to hire Arabic-speakers. Indeed, several months into
the U.S. occupation a confidential Army "lessons learned" study said
that the "lack of competent interpreters" throughout Iraq had "impeded
operations." Most of the "military linguists" who were operating in
Iraq, the study said, "basically [had] the ability to tell the
difference between a burro and a burrito."
Those arguing against delay said that the mere passage of time
wouldn't do any good and would bring various risks. The world had
already waited twelve years since the Gulf War for Saddam Hussein to
disarm. Congress had already voted to endorse the war. The Security
Council had already shown its resolve. The troops were already on
their way. Each passing day, in this view, was a day in which Saddam
Hussein might deploy his weapons of terror.
Early in January the National Intelligence Council, at the CIA, ran a
two-day exercise on postwar problems. Pentagon representatives were
still forbidden by OSD to attend. The exercise covered issues similar
to those addressed in the Future of Iraq and Army War College
reports-and, indeed, to those considered by the Council on Foreign
Relations and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: political
reconstruction, public order, border control, humanitarian problems,
finding and securing WMD.
On January 15 the humanitarian groups that had been meeting at USAID
asked for a meeting with Donald Rumsfeld or Paul Wolfowitz. They never
got one. At an earlier meeting, according to a participant, they had
been told, "The President has already spent an hour on the
humanitarian issues." The most senior Pentagon official to meet with
them was Joseph Collins, a deputy assistant secretary of defense. The
representatives of the NGOs were generally the most senior and
experienced figures from each organization; the government
representatives were not of the same stature. "Without naming names,
the people we met were not real decision-makers," Joel Charny says.
On January 24 a group of archaeologists and scholars went to the
Pentagon to brief Collins and other officials about the most important
historic sites in Iraq, so that they could be spared in bombing.
Thanks to precision targeting, the sites would indeed survive combat.
Many, of course, were pillaged almost immediately afterward.
On January 30 the International Rescue Committee, which had been
participating in the weekly Iraq Working Group sessions, publicly
warned that a breakdown of law and order was likely unless the
victorious U.S. forces acted immediately, with martial law if
necessary, to prevent it. A week later Refugees International issued a
At the end of January, Sam Gardiner entered the picture. Gardiner is a
retired Air Force colonel who taught for years at the National War
College in Washington. His specialty is war gaming, and through the
1990s he was involved once or twice a year in major simulations
involving an attack on Baghdad. In the late 1990s Gardiner had been a
visiting scholar at the Swedish National Defense University, where he
studied the effects of the bombing of Serbia's electrical grid. The
big discovery was how long it took to get the system up and running
again, after even a precise and limited attack. "Decapitation" attacks
on a regime, like the one planned for Iraq, routinely begin with
disabling the electrical grid. Gardiner warned that this Phase III
step could cause big Phase IV problems.
Late in 2002 Gardiner had put together what he called a "net
assessment" of how Iraq would look after a successful U.S. attack. His
intended audience, in government, would recognize the designation as
droll. "Net assessment" is a familiar term for a CIA-style
intelligence analysis, but Gardiner also meant it to reflect the
unusual origin of his data: none of it was classified, and all of it
came from the Internet. Through the power of search engines Gardiner
was able to assemble what in other days would have seemed like a
secret inside look at Iraq's infrastructure. He found electricity
diagrams for the pumps used at Iraq's main water stations; he listed
replacement parts for the most vulnerable elements of the electrical
grid. He produced a scheme showing the elements of the system that
would be easiest to attack but then quickest to repair. As it
happened, damage to the electrical grid was a major postwar problem.
Despite the precision of the bombing campaign, by mid-April wartime
damage and immediate postwar looting had reduced Baghdad's power
supply to one fifth its pre-war level, according to an internal
Pentagon study. In mid-July the grid would be back to only half its
pre-war level, working on a three-hours-on, three-hours-off schedule.
On January 19 Gardiner presented his net assessment, with information
about Iraq's water, sewage, and public-health systems as well as its
electrical grid, at an unclassified forum held by the RAND
Corporation, in Washington. Two days later he presented it privately
to Zalmay Khalilzad. Khalilzad was a former RAND analyst who had
joined the Bush Administration's National Security Council and before
the war was named the President's "special envoy and
ambassador-at-large for Free Iraqis." (He has recently become the U.S.
ambassador to Afghanistan.) Gardiner told me recently that Khalilzad
was sobered by what he heard, and gave Gardiner a list of other people
in the government who should certainly be shown the assessment. In the
next few weeks Gardiner presented his findings to Bear McConnell, the
USAID official in charge of foreign disaster relief, and Michael Dunn,
an Air Force general who had once been Gardiner's student and worked
with the Joint Chiefs of Staff as acting director for strategic plans
and policy. A scheduled briefing with Joseph Collins, who was becoming
the Pentagon's point man for postwar planning, was canceled at the
last minute, after a description of Gardiner's report appeared in
Inside the Pentagon, an influential newsletter.
The closer the nation came to war, the more the Administration seemed
to view people like Gardiner as virtual Frenchmen-that is, softies who
would always find some excuse to oppose the war. In one sense they
were right. "It became clear that what I was really arguing was that
we had to delay the war," Gardiner told me. "I was saying, 'We aren't
ready, and in just six or eight weeks there is no way to get ready for
everything we need to do.'" (The first bombs fell on Baghdad eight
weeks after Gardiner's meeting with Khalilzad.) "Everyone was very
interested and very polite and said I should talk to other people,"
Gardiner said. "But they had that 'Stalingrad stare'-people who had
been doing stuff under pressure for too long and hadn't had enough
sleep. You want to shake them and say, 'Are you really with me?'"
From Atlantic Unbound:
Sage, Ink: "Party Politics" (May 7, 2003)
A cartoon by Sage Stossel. At the regular meeting of the Iraq
Working Group on January 29, the NGO representatives discussed a
recent piece of vital news. The Administration had chosen a leader
for all postwar efforts in Iraq: Jay M. Garner, a retired
three-star Army general who had worked successfully with the Kurds
at the end of the Gulf War. The NGO representatives had no fault
to find with the choice of Garner, but they were concerned,
because his organization would be a subunit of the Pentagon rather
than an independent operation or part of a civilian agency. "We
had been pushing constantly to have reconstruction authority based
in the State Department," Joel Charny told me. He and his
colleagues were told by Wendy Chamberlin, a former ambassador to
Pakistan who had become USAID's assistant administrator for the
area including Iraq, that the NGOs should view Garner's
appointment as a victory. After all, Garner was a civilian, and
his office would draw representatives from across the government.
"We said, 'C'mon, Wendy, his office is in the Pentagon!'" Charny
says. Jim Bishop, a former U.S. ambassador who now works for
InterAction, pointed out that the NGOs, like the U.S. government,
were still hoping that other governments might help to fund
humanitarian efforts. Bishop asked rhetorically, "Who from the
international community is going to fund reconstruction run
through the Pentagon?"
From Atlantic Unbound:
Sage, Ink: "Civics Lesson" (April 16, 2003)
A cartoon by Sage Stossel. Garner assembled a team and immediately
went to work. What happened to him in the next two months is the
best-chronicled part of the postwar fiasco. He started from
scratch, trying to familiarize himself with what the rest of the
government had already done. On February 21 he convened a two-day
meeting of diplomats, soldiers, academics, and development
experts, who gathered at the National Defense University to
discuss postwar plans. "The messiah could not have organized a
sufficient relief and reconstruction or humanitarian effort in
that short a time," a former CIA analyst named Judith Yaphe said
after attending the meeting, according to Mark Fineman, Doyle
McManus, and Robin Wright, of the Los Angeles Times. (Fineman died
of a heart attack last fall, while reporting from Baghdad.) Garner
was also affected by tension between OSD and the rest of the
government. Garner had heard about the Future of Iraq project,
although Rumsfeld had told him not to waste his time reading it.
Nonetheless, he decided to bring its director, Thomas Warrick,
onto his planning team. Garner, who clearly does not intend to be
the fall guy for postwar problems in Baghdad, told me last fall
that Rumsfeld had asked him to kick Warrick off his staff. In an
interview with the BBC last November, Garner confirmed details of
the firing that had earlier been published in Newsweek. According
to Garner, Rumsfeld asked him, "Jay, have you got a guy named
Warrick on your team?" "I said, 'Yes, I do.' He said, 'Well, I've
got to ask you to remove him.' I said, 'I don't want to remove
him; he's too valuable.' But he said, 'This came to me from such a
high level that I can't overturn it, and I've just got to ask you
to remove Mr. Warrick.'" Newsweek's conclusion was that the man
giving the instructions was Vice President Cheney.
From the archives:
"The Mind of George W. Bush" (April 2003)
What are Bush's gifts and limitations as a decision-maker? The
author, a journalist and a historian, speaks to people who have
known the President for many years, and concludes that Bush's
greatest strength is clarity of vision. The unknown quantity?
Imagination. By Richard Brookhiser
From Atlantic Unbound:
Interviews: "What Makes W. Tick?" (March 11, 2003)
The historian and journalist Richard Brookhiser weighs in on
George W. Bush-his management style, his mean streak, his
religiosity, and his recovery from alcoholism. This is the place
to note that in several months of interviews I never once heard
someone say "We took this step because the President indicated..."
or "The President really wanted ..." Instead I heard "Rumsfeld
wanted," "Powell thought," "The Vice President pushed," "Bremer
asked," and so on. One need only compare this with any discussion
of foreign policy in Reagan's or Clinton's Administration-or
Nixon's, or Kennedy's, or Johnson's, or most others-to sense how
unusual is the absence of the President as prime mover. The other
conspicuously absent figure was Condoleezza Rice, even after she
was supposedly put in charge of coordinating Administration policy
on Iraq, last October. It is possible that the President's
confidants are so discreet that they have kept all his decisions
and instructions secret. But that would run counter to the
fundamental nature of bureaucratic Washington, where people cite a
President's authority whenever they possibly can ("The President
feels strongly about this, so ...").
To me, the more likely inference is that Bush took a strong overall
position-fighting terrorism is this generation's challenge-and then
was exposed to only a narrow range of options worked out by the
contending forces within his Administration. If this interpretation
proves to be right, and if Bush did in fact wish to know more, then
blame will fall on those whose responsibility it was to present him
with the widest range of choices: Cheney and Rice.
One Month Before the War
On February 14 Hans Blix reaffirmed to the United Nations his view
that Iraq had decided to cooperate with inspectors. The division
separating the United States and Britain from France, Germany, and
Russia became stark. On February 15 antiwar demonstrators massed in
major cities around the world: a million in Madrid, more than a
million in Rome, and a million or more in London, the largest
demonstration in Britain's history.
On February 21 Tony Blair joined George Bush at Camp David, to
underscore their joint determination to remove the threat from Iraq.
Three Weeks Before the War
As the war drew near, the dispute about how to conduct it became
public. On February 25 the Senate Armed Services Committee summoned
all four Chiefs of Staff to answer questions about the war-and its
aftermath. The crucial exchange began with a question from the ranking
Democrat, Carl Levin. He asked Eric Shinseki, the Army Chief of Staff,
how many soldiers would be required not to defeat Iraq but to occupy
it. Well aware that he was at odds with his civilian superiors at the
Pentagon, Shinseki at first deflected the question. "In specific
numbers," he said, "I would have to rely on combatant commanders'
exact requirements. But I think ..." and he trailed off.
"How about a range?" Levin asked. Shinseki replied-and recapitulated
the argument he had made to Rumsfeld. I would say that what's been
mobilized to this point, something on the order of several hundred
thousand soldiers, are probably, you know, a figure that would be
We're talking about post-hostilities control over a piece of geography
that's fairly significant, with the kinds of ethnic tensions that
could lead to other problems. And so, it takes significant ground
force presence to maintain safe and secure environment to ensure that
the people are fed, that water is distributed, all the normal
responsibilities that go along with administering a situation like
this. Two days later Paul Wolfowitz appeared before the House Budget
Committee. He began working through his prepared statement about the
Pentagon's budget request and then asked permission to "digress for a
moment" and respond to recent commentary, "some of it quite
outlandish, about what our postwar requirements might be in Iraq."
Everyone knew he meant Shinseki's remarks.
"I am reluctant to try to predict anything about what the cost of a
possible conflict in Iraq would be," Wolfowitz said, "or what the
possible cost of reconstructing and stabilizing that country
afterwards might be." This was more than reluctance-it was the
Administration's consistent policy before the war. "But some of the
higher-end predictions that we have been hearing recently, such as the
notion that it will take several hundred thousand U.S. troops to
provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq, are wildly off the mark."
This was as direct a rebuke of a military leader by his civilian
superior as the United States had seen in fifty years. Wolfowitz
offered a variety of incidental reasons why his views were so
different from those he alluded to: "I would expect that even
countries like France will have a strong interest in assisting Iraq's
reconstruction," and "We can't be sure that the Iraqi people will
welcome us as liberators ... [but] I am reasonably certain that they
will greet us as liberators, and that will help us to keep
requirements down." His fundamental point was this: "It's hard to
conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in
post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to
secure the surrender of Saddam's security forces and his army. Hard to
None of the government working groups that had seriously looked into
the question had simply "imagined" that occupying Iraq would be more
difficult than defeating it. They had presented years' worth of
experience suggesting that this would be the central reality of the
undertaking. Wolfowitz either didn't notice this evidence or chose to
disbelieve it. What David Halberstam said of Robert McNamara in The
Best and the Brightest is true of those at OSD as well: they were
brilliant, and they were fools.
Two Weeks Before the War
At the beginning of March, Andrew Natsios won a little-noticed but
crucial battle. Because the United States had not yet officially
decided whether to go to war, Natsios had not been able to persuade
the Office of Management and Budget to set aside the money that USAID
would need for immediate postwar efforts in Iraq. The battle was the
more intense because Natsios, unlike his counterparts at the State
Department, was both privately and publicly supportive of the case for
war. Just before combat he was able to arrange an emergency $200
million grant from USAID to the World Food Programme. This money could
be used to buy food immediately for Iraqi relief operations-and it
helped to ensure that there were no postwar food shortages.
One Week Before the War
On March 13 humanitarian organizations had gathered at USAID
headquarters for what was effectively the last meeting of the Iraq
Working Group. Wendy Chamberlin, the senior USAID official present,
discussed the impending war in terms that several participants noted,
wrote down, and later mentioned to me. "It's going to be very quick,"
she said, referring to the actual war. "We're going to meet their
immediate needs. We're going to turn it over to the Iraqis. And we're
going to be out within the year."
On March 17 the United States, Britain, and Spain announced that they
would abandon their attempt to get a second Security Council vote in
favor of the war, and President Bush gave Saddam Hussein an ultimatum:
leave the country within forty-eight hours or suffer the consequences.
On March 19 the first bombs fell on Baghdad.
On April 9 U.S. forces took Baghdad. On April 14 the Pentagon
announced that most of the fighting was over. On May 1 President Bush
declared that combat operations were at an end. By then looting had
gone on in Baghdad for several weeks. "When the United States entered
Baghdad on April 9, it entered a city largely undamaged by a carefully
executed military campaign," Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador
to Croatia, told a congressional committee in June. "However, in the
three weeks following the U.S. takeover, unchecked looting effectively
gutted every important public institution in the city-with the notable
exception of the oil ministry." On April 11, when asked why U.S.
soldiers were not stopping the looting, Donald Rumsfeld said,
"Freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and
commit crimes and do bad things. They're also free to live their lives
and do wonderful things, and that's what's going to happen here."
This was a moment, as when he tore up the TPFDD, that Rumsfeld crossed
a line. His embrace of "uncertainty" became a reckless evasion of
responsibility. He had only disdain for "predictions," yes, and no one
could have forecast every circumstance of postwar Baghdad. But
virtually everyone who had thought about the issue had warned about
the risk of looting. U.S. soldiers could have prevented it-and would
have, if so instructed.
The looting spread, destroying the infrastructure that had survived
the war and creating the expectation of future chaos. "There is this
kind of magic moment, which you can't imagine until you see it," an
American civilian who was in Baghdad during the looting told me.
"People are used to someone being in charge, and when they realize no
one is, the fabric rips."
On May 6 the Administration announced that Bremer would be the new
U.S. administrator in Iraq. Two weeks into that job Bremer disbanded
the Iraqi army and other parts of the Baathist security structure.
If the failure to stop the looting was a major sin of omission,
sending the Iraqi soldiers home was, in the view of nearly everyone
except those who made the decision, a catastrophic error of
commission. There were two arguments for taking this step. First, the
army had "already disbanded itself," as Douglas Feith put it to
me-soldiers had melted away, with their weapons. Second, the army had
been an integral part of the Sunni-dominated Baathist security
structure. Leaving it intact would be the wrong symbol for the new
Iraq-especially for the Shiites, whom the army had oppressed. "These
actions are part of a robust campaign to show the Iraqi people that
the Saddam regime is gone, and will never return," a statement from
Bremer's office said.
The case against wholesale dissolution of the army, rather than a
selective purge at the top, was that it created an instant enemy
class: hundreds of thousands of men who still had their weapons but no
longer had a paycheck or a place to go each day. Manpower that could
have helped on security patrols became part of the security threat.
Studies from the Army War College, the Future of Iraq project, and the
Center for Strategic and International Studies, to name a few, had all
considered exactly this problem and suggested ways of removing the
noxious leadership while retaining the ordinary troops. They had all
warned strongly against disbanding the Iraqi army. The Army War
College, for example, said in its report, "To tear apart the Army in
the war's aftermath could lead to the destruction of one of the only
forces for unity within the society."
"This is not something that was dreamed up by somebody at the last
minute," Walter Slocombe-who held Feith's job, undersecretary of
defense for policy, during the Clinton Administration, and who is now
a security adviser on Bremer's team-told Peter Slevin, of The
Washington Post, last November. He said that he had discussed the plan
with Wolfowitz at least once and with Feith several times, including
the day before the order was given. "The critical point," he told
Slevin, "was that nobody argued that we shouldn't do this." No one,
that is, the Administration listened to.
ere is the hardest question: How could the Administration have thought
that it was safe to proceed in blithe indifference to the warnings of
nearly everyone with operational experience in modern military
occupations? Saying that the Administration considered this a truly
urgent "war of necessity" doesn't explain the indifference. Even if it
feared that Iraq might give terrorists fearsome weapons at any moment,
it could still have thought more carefully about the day after the
war. World War II was a war of absolute necessity, and the United
States still found time for detailed occupation planning.
The President must have known that however bright the scenarios, the
reality of Iraq eighteen months after the war would affect his
re-election. The political risk was enormous and obvious.
Administration officials must have believed not only that the war was
necessary but also that a successful occupation would not require any
more forethought than they gave it.
It will be years before we fully understand how intelligent people
convinced themselves of this. My guess is that three factors will be
important parts of the explanation.
One is the panache of Donald Rumsfeld. He was near the zenith of his
influence as the war was planned. His emphasis on the vagaries of life
was all the more appealing within his circle because of his jauntiness
and verve. But he was not careful about remembering his practical
obligations. Precisely because he could not foresee all hazards, he
should have been more zealous about avoiding the ones that were
evident-the big and obvious ones the rest of the government tried to
point out to him.
A second is the triumphalism of the Administration. In the twenty-five
years since Ronald Reagan's rise, political conservatives have changed
position in a way they have not fully recognized. Reagan's arrival
marked the end of a half century of Democrat-dominated government in
Washington. Yes, there has been one Democratic President since Reagan,
and eventually there will be others. But as a rule the Republicans are
now in command. Older Republicans-those who came of age in the 1960s
and 1970s, those who are now in power in the Administration-have not
fully adjusted to this reality. They still feel like embattled
insurgents, as if the liberals were in the driver's seat. They
recognize their electoral strength but feel that in the battle of
ideology their main task is to puncture fatuous liberal ideas.
The consequence is that Republicans are less used to exposing their
own ideas to challenges than they should be. Today's liberals know
there is a challenge to every aspect of their world view. All they
have to do is turn on the radio. Today's conservatives are more likely
to think that any contrary ideas are leftovers from the tired 1960s,
much as liberals of the Kennedy era thought that conservatives were in
thrall to Herbert Hoover. In addition, the conservatives'
understanding of modern history makes them think that their instincts
are likely to be right and that their critics will be proved wrong.
Europeans scorned Ronald Reagan, and the United Nations feared him,
but in the end the Soviet Union was gone. So for reasons of personal,
political, and intellectual history, it is understandable that members
of this Administration could proceed down one path in defiance of
mounting evidence of its perils. The Democrats had similar destructive
self-confidence in the 1960s, when they did their most grandiose Great
The third factor is the nature of the President himself. Leadership is
always a balance between making large choices and being aware of
details. George W. Bush has an obvious preference for large choices.
This gave him his chance for greatness after the September 11 attacks.
But his lack of curiosity about significant details may be his fatal
weakness. When the decisions of the past eighteen months are assessed
and judged, the Administration will be found wanting for its
carelessness. Because of warnings it chose to ignore, it squandered
American prestige, fortune, and lives.
James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. His
Atlantic cover story "The Fifty-first State?" (November 2002), about
postwar Iraq, won the National Magazine Award for Public Interest.
2004 by The Atlantic Monthly Group.
The Atlantic Monthly; January/February 2004;
Blind Into Baghdad; Volume 293, No. 1; 53-74.