(Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney)
In reassessing the results of the Iraq War one thing is clear, the United States made a terrible error invading Saddam Hussein’s kingdom in 2003. If one looks objectively at the current state of the Middle East one can honestly conclude that the ultimate victor was Iran. Iraq was a state that was held together by an authoritarian regime that dealt with Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. Once the war brought “shock and awe,” or devastation the country split apart into civil war eventually allowing Iran to ally with Shiite forces and influence its government, fostered the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), contributed to the Syrian civil war, reinforced Turkey’s goal of destroying the Kurds, and diminished the American presence and reputation in the region. One could argue that looking back after fifteen years that the mess that was created has pushed Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, particularly the United Arab Emirates closer to Israel as they have a common enemy in Iran, but that analysis does not undo a disastrous war. The war itself is the subject of an excellent new book by Robert Draper, a writer at large for the New York Times, entitled TO START A WAR: HOW THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION TOOK AMERICA INTO IRAQ.
The book is a detailed overview of how the United States wounded by the 9/11 attacks sought revenge against the Taliban in Afghanistan for harboring al-Qaeda, but not satiated despite destroying the Taliban, the Bush administration almost immediately sought further retribution against Saddam Hussein who they tried to link the attacks on the World Trade Center. The decision making process that is presented is often convoluted and mired in a fantasy world of polluted intelligence as men like Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Defense Secretary, Doug Feith, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, I. Lewis Scooter Libby, Cheney’s Chief of Staff, and ultimately President Bush pushed the United States into war against Iraq. What emerges are CIA and other intelligence analysts bending and twisting intelligence to fit their preconceived notions to create an acceptable causus belli against Iraq. There are a number of heroes in this process who tried to stop the roller coaster of bad intelligence and personal vendettas, but in the end, they failed leading to the most disastrous war in American history. A war we are still paying for.
Draper leaves no stone unturned as he pieces together almost every aspect of the decision making process that led to war. Relying on over 300 interviews of the participants in the process, newly released documentation, command of the memoirs and secondary material, and his own experience in the region, Draper has written the most complete study of the Bush administration’s drive towards war. Draper traces the ideological and emotional development of the participants, some of which longed to finish off the Gulf War of 1991 that they believed was incomplete, others who possessed a visceral hatred of Saddam Hussein, and others who saw an opportunity to foster a revolt that in the end would bring about American control of Iraqi oil.
The picture that emerges is a cabal led by Cheney and Rumsfeld who would accept nothing less than the removal of Saddam; a National Security Advisor, Condi Rice who was in over her head in dealing with bureaucratic infighting; Colin Powell, a Secretary of State who opposed the neo-cons in their push for war, but remained the loyal soldier; CIA Director George Tenet, a Clinton hold over trying to prove his loyalty though he seems to have known better, and a president who thrived on his “gut,” a version of human emotion and anger for an Iraqi attempt at assassinating his father. All of these characters are flawed but each had an agenda which they refused to take no for an answer.
What is clear from Draper’s presentation is that before 9/11, despite repeated warnings from Richard Clarke and the intelligence community the Bush administration did not take the terrorist threat seriously with people like Wolfowitz arguing that CIA analysts were giving Osama Bin-Laden too much credit. The administration ignored a combined CIA-FBI brief of August 6, 2001 warning that “Bin-Laden Determined to Strike in the U.S.” Once the attack took place the US responded with Operation Enduring Freedom on October 7, 2001 and in a short time 27 of 30 Afghani provinces were liberated from the Taliban. As the situation in Kabul was evolving, Rumsfeld was already switching the Pentagon’s focus to Iraq. Bush, now saw himself as a wartime leader with a newly found cause and for the first time in his career equated his situation with other wartime Presidents. By January 2002 American assets were already being transferred to Iraq.
As the narrative evolves it is obvious that Bush’s national security team is one on dysfunction with back biting, disagreements, and power grabs. It is clear that Rumsfeld and Cheney who pushed for war disliked and disagreed with Powell, who wanted to work through the United Nations. Powell reciprocated his feelings toward them and their cohorts, Wolfowitz, Feith, and Libby. Draper offers a number of chapters on these principle players and delves into their belief systems and their role in developing war plans to overthrow Saddam. The specific evidence that decision making relied upon was fourfold. First, a senior al-Qaeda operative, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi was captured by the United States and after failing to reveal anything of value he was turned over to the Egyptians for further interrogation. After being coerced by the Egyptians Al-Libi would confess that two al-Qaeda recruits had been sent to Baghdad in 12/2001 to be trained in building and deploying chemical and biological weapons. Later this “evidence” was deemed to be a fabrication by the CIA and DIA. Second, supposedly on April 9, 2001, one of the 9/11 hijackers, Mohamed Atta met with an Iraqi diplomat in Prague, however after careful vetting this too turned out to be false. Third was Rafid Ahmed al-Takari, nicknamed “curveball” by German intelligence claimed to be an Iraqi chemical engineer at a plant that designed more than 6 mobile biological labs. Fourth, Cheney believed that Saddam had agreed to purchase 500 tons of yellow cake uranium per year from the government of Niger. Former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, the spouse of CIA analyst Valerie Plame was sent to investigate, and he concluded there was no substance to the charge.
The dysfunction in planning for war is obvious when Bush inquired if there was a National Intelligence Estimate for the proposed invasion. Tenet responded there was none, and he had 19 days to create one a process that normally took between four months to a year to compile. The result was a NIE that played fast and loose with intelligence and it pulled in anything that remotely was credible to make its case for war. The problem according to Draper is that Bush had decided in August 2002 to go to war, and the NIE of October 1, 2002 had to come up with a justification for Bush’s decision. The final NIE consisted of badly outdated intelligence which was often fabricated. This is not the only example of a threadbare approach to intelligence. Once Powell, because of his gravitas and reputation was chosen to address the United Nations on February 5, 2003, a speech designed to augment a coalition and the support of the international body the die was already cast. The problem was that the evidence that Powell used in his speech, i.e., curveball and other improbable theories provoked disdain from certain American allies and the Arab world in general. Powell plays an important role in Draper’s narrative as he conjectures what might have occurred if the Secretary of State had refused to go along with the push toward war. However, as many other authors have offered, Powell was a military man whose loyalty was to the chain of command, so he was coopted. In the end the neocons were hell bent on war and regime change and Powell’s reputation visa vie Cheney, Libby, Feith and Wolfowitz there was probably little else he could do.
If planning for war was disjointed, planning for post-war Iraq was a disaster. Rumsfeld argued “we don’t do windows,“ meaning nation building. The Pentagon refused to make serious plans once Saddam was overthrown. Cheney and his people argued that the Iraqi people would greet American soldiers as heroes and with a minimum of American aid could oversee their own adoption of democracy. On the other hand, Powell and his staff argued that an occupation force would be needed probably for two to three years. A number of sketchy characters from the Iraqi exile community emerges, particularly Ahmad Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress who had not been in Iraq for decades whose machinations behind the scenes finally led to Bush’s refusal to support him as Iraq’s version of “Hamid Karzai.” The lack of American planning or arrogance would foster a complete disaster once the American occupation was created.
If one wonders why Draper’s book should be read now Joshua Geltzer argues that it clear that “he exposes the key points about the relationship among the American president, the executive branch he leads and the intelligence he receives that burn as fiercely today as they did almost two decades ago.”* From the evidence that Draper offers the decision for war rested with George W. Bush. As the self-styled “decider” it was Bush as president not his cabinet and other minions who bare the ultimate responsibility for war and what occurred after the fighting ended. Obviously, the politicization of intelligence played a major role in Bush’s decision making. Draper’s account is extremely important , it is one “to study not just to understand a war whose repercussions loom large given the Americans, Iraqis and others who ‘eve perished – and given the through-line from Bush’s decision to the continuing American presence in Iraq and the persistent threat from terrorists there and in Syria in the wake of the US invasion.”*
It should come as no surprise that regime change is a dangerous undertaking. All one has to do is look at Libya and Iraq. As President Trump contemplates through his tweets about regime change in Iran, perhaps he should read Draper’s narrative before he makes a decision that would be disastrous for the American people.
*Joshua Geltzer, “Behind the Iraq War, a Story of Influence, Intelligence and Presidential Power,” Washington Post, August 21, 2020.
(Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush, and Dick Cheney)