Anyone seeking to understand what has become the central conundrum of the Iraq war—how it is that so many highly accomplished, experienced, and intelligent officials came together to make such monumental, consequential, and, above all, obvious mistakes, mistakes that much of the government knew very well at the time were mistakes—must see beyond what seems to be a simple rhetoric of self-justification and follow it where it leads: toward the War of Imagination that senior officials decided to fight in the spring and summer of 2002 and to whose image they clung long after reality had taken a sharply separate turn. In that War of Imagination victory was to be decisive, overwhelming, evincing a terrible power—enough to wipe out the disgrace of September 11 and remake the threatening world. In State of Denial, Woodward recounts how Michael Gerson, at the time Bush’s chief speechwriter, asked Henry Kissinger why he had supported the Iraq war:
“Because Afghanistan wasn’t enough,” Kissinger answered. In the conflict with radical Islam, he said, they want to humiliate us. “And we need to humiliate them.” The American response to 9/11 had essentially to be more than proportionate—on a larger scale than simply invading Afghanistan and overthrowing the Taliban. Something else was essential. The Iraq war was essential to send a larger message, “in order to make a point that we’re not going to live in this world that they want for us.”
For anyone who hasn’t the time (or the stomach) for Bob Woodward’s State of Denial, Danner’s essay provides an excellent crib. He picks out the pivotal moment in the narrative.
Consider, for example, this striking but typical discussion in the White House in April 2003 just as the Iraq occupation, the vital first step in President Bush’s plan “to transform the Middle East,” was getting underway. American forces are in Baghdad but the capital is engulfed by a wave of looting and disorder, with General Tommy Franks’s troops standing by. The man in charge of the occupation, Lt. Gen. (ret.) Jay Garner, has just arrived “in-country.” Secretary of State Colin Powell has come to the Oval Office to discuss the occupation with the President, who is joined by Condoleezza Rice, then his national security adviser. Powell began, writes Woodward, by raising “the question of unity of command” in Iraq:
There are two chains of command, Powell told the president. Garner reports to Rumsfeld and Franks reports to Rumsfeld.
The president looked surprised.
“That’s not right,” Rice said. “That’s not right.”
Powell thought Rice could at times be pretty sure of herself, but he was pretty sure he was right. “Yes, it is,” Powell insisted.
“Wait a minute,” Bush interrupted, taking Rice’s side. “That doesn’t sound right.”
Rice got up and went to her office to check. When she came back, Powell thought she looked a little sheepish. “That’s right,” she said.
What might [George] Kennan, the consummate diplomatic professional, have thought of such a discussion between president, secretary of state, and national security adviser, had he lived to read of it? He would have grasped its implications instantly, as the President and his national security adviser apparently did not. Which leads to Powell’s patient—too patient—explanation to the President:
…You have to understand that when you have two chains of command and you don’t have a common superior in the theater, it means that every little half-assed fight they have out there, if they can’t work it out, comes out to one place to be resolved. And that’s in the Pentagon. Not in the NSC or the State Department, but in the Pentagon.
The kernel of an answer to what is the most painful and intractable question about the Iraq war—how could US officials repeatedly and consistently make such ill-advised and improbably stupid decisions, beginning with their lack of planning for “the postwar”— can be found in this little chamber play in the Oval Office, and in the fact that at least two thirds of the cast seem wholly incapable of comprehending the script. In Woodward’s account, Rice, who was then the official responsible for coordinating the national security bureaucracies of the US government, found what was being said “a rather theoretical discussion,” somehow managing to miss the fact that she and the National Security Council she headed had been cut out of decision-making on the Iraq war—and cut out, further, in favor of an official, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, who, if we are to believe Woodward, did not bother even to return her telephone calls….
Of course hindsight is a wonderful thing, but the clear import of Woodward’s narrative is that people on the ground in Iraq knew that what they were being ordered to do (by Rumsfeld, who was running the show from the Pentagon) would have catastrophic consequences. The first blunder was “Coalition Provisional Authority Order Number 1—De-Baathification of Iraqi Society,” an order to remove immediately from their posts all “full members” of the Baath Party. These were to be banned from working in any government job. In every ministry the top three levels of managers would be investigated for crimes. The CIA chief on the ground said:
“If you put this out, you’re going to drive between 30,000 and 50,000 Baathists underground before nightfall,” Charlie said…. “You will put 50,000 people on the street, underground and mad at Americans.” And these 50,000 were the most powerful, well-connected elites from all walks of life.
The second blunder was Coalition Provisional Authority Order number 2, which required disbanding the Iraqi ministries of Defense and Interior, the entire Iraqi military, and all of Saddam’s bodyguard and special paramilitary organizations:
Garner was stunned. The de-Baathification order was dumb, but this was a disaster. Garner had told the president and the whole National Security Council explicitly that they planned to use the Iraqi military—at least 200,000 to 300,000 troops—as the backbone of the corps to rebuild the country and provide security. And he’d been giving regular secure video reports to Rumsfeld and Washington on the plan.
Garner woke up the next day (May 17), says Woodward, reflecting that “the US now had at least 350,000 more enemies than it had the day before—the 50,000 Baathists [and] the 300,000 officially unemployed soldiers”.
The stupidity, ignorance and incompetence of the Bush administration in relation to Iraq beggars belief.
Danner opens his essay with a quote from George Kennan, the architect of the policy of containing the Soviet Union, and a wise old bird. On September 26, 2002, sitting in a nursing home in Washington, he said: “Today, if we went into Iraq, like the president would like us to do, you know where you begin. You never know where you are going to end.” Which in turns brings up another thought: compared with Kennan, Truman, Acheson, General George Marshall, Attlee and the other architects of the post-war world, Bush, Rice, Rumsfeld, Cheney and Blair look like one-dimensional halfwits.