//Mending the Historical Record of the Iraq War Part III: Jumping the Track
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Mending the Historical Record of the Iraq War Part III: Jumping the Track

After September 11, 2001 some American analysts obsessed over a possible Iraq-jihadi terrorist connection, despite the lack of hard intelligence evidence to support it, and that is in large part how the tentative logic of a war (discussed in Part II) jumped the tracks and got entangled in politics, personalities, and other intellectual poisons that helped create the kinetic disaster that commenced in March 2003.

Some reasoned that the absence of evidence for such a connection was not tantamount to evidence of absence–another Rumsfeldian locution, for those who may not remember. That the CIA had missed much and messed up as much in its checkered past was undeniably true. Specifically in the Iraqi case, the CIA had significantly underestimated Iraqi progress to date as of 1991. So some set about investigating possibilities perhaps overlooked. So far, nothing is wrong with this picture.

One such person was a Harvard Ph.D. and former U.S. Naval War College instructor named Laurie Mylroie. The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Dr. Mylroie was convinced, long before September 11, 2001, that Iraqi intelligence had been responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. She also believed that the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in April 1995 was the work of Iraqi intelligence. She believed that all anti-American terrorist scheming was part of a stealth Iraqi revenge campaign for its humiliation in 1991.

I knew Laurie fairly well. For a short time, near the beginning of my era of commuting weekly between Philadelphia and Washington when I worked as Executive Editor of The National Interest, I rented space from Laurie in the bottom floor of her house in the Cleveland Park area of Washington, DC. In the evenings when she was home–which was not very often–and I was downstairs reading or trying to sleep, sometimes she would mutter aloud to herself about Saddam and stomp the floor for fear and concern about the dangers she foresaw.

Her motives were not in question: She really believed she had the key to prevent massive damage not only to the United States, but also to Israel. She believed, quite admirably, that she had a moral obligation to do all she could to stave off the deaths of more innocents at the hands of Arab tyrants and terrorists.

As we discussed all this from time to time, but over time her manner became increasingly obsessive–especially during the interregnum between September 11 and the start of the Iraq war in March 2003. She increasingly brooked no dissent from her friends. Enemies, of course, would spurn her as expected. But friends had to accept every postulate; critiques were not welcome. Her absolute certainty triggered an alarm in me.

But I did not automatically dismiss her arguments just because her personality sometimes exhibited volcanic qualities. Indeed, at my suggestion The National Interest had published an essay of hers in the Winter 1995/96 issue, the first publication outlining her general thesis, concentrating on the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The editor of The National Interest, Owen Harries, told me that plausibility was not proof, and I agreed. But I replied that as editors we were not endorsing her argument, merely airing it for general consideration and critique. I reminded Owen that he had often run essays he did not agree with–including the most famous one the magazine ever published–because they evoked useful conversations, and some, perhaps not incidentally, boosted magazine subscriptions. So he gave his blessing.  

Do I regret bringing that essay to the pages of The National Interest some five years before September 11, 2001? No; the reasons that led me to want to broaden the public discussion then, long before the September 11 attacks changed the context, are as sound now as they were then.

Neither did former CIA Director James Woolsey, whom I knew as well, dismiss Mylroie. Woolsey wrote a blurb for Mylroie’s 2000 book A Study of Revenge. But above all, Paul Wolfowitz became an admirer of Mylroie’s efforts. When Wolfowitz became Deputy Secretary of Defense in January 2001, he carried Mylroie’s speculations to high places–and of course the September 11 attacks put the entire matter in a new and more portentous perspective.

Mylroie and Wolfowitz both worried particularly, more than did the typical analyst, about what the Iraqi threat could mean to Israel as well as to the United States. Wolfowitz’s father came from Poland after World War I, thirty later than most America-bound émigré Jews from that region, and all of his family on his father’s side perished in the Holocaust. Try to imagine the grip of a fear that Iraqi missile attacks on Israel in a new war would, unlike the Scud attacks that all but paralyzed the country during the 1991 war, would carry poison gas–not meaningfully different from the Zyklon-B gas used at Auschwitz. It is a mistake to underestimate the depth of that wound and the power of that trauma to shape the perceptions, and fears, of Jews to this day. It is not something that could possibly vanish in a single generation, or even two or three.

Laurie was an assiduous and creative researcher with a prodigious work ethic. For example, when it came to the Oklahoma City case, she had somehow obtained Terry Nichol’s phone records. The records revealed a series of unexplained calls to the Philippines in the period before the bombing. An Iraqi Embassy and intelligence station existed in the Philippines at that time; indeed, the connection between Iraq and the Philippines, including the insurrectionist Muslim-majority island of Mindanao, went back to the 13th century, as part of a network of monsoon winds-enabled commerce. Laurie wondered if Iraqi intelligence was aiding the Moro Liberation Front as a means to afflict a U.S. ally and gain access to possible terrorist targets in the Philippines. Though still lacking any evidence, it was not, in my view, an idle line of speculation.

Soon after I learned the truth about trial lawyers and Federal prosecutors, at least in the United States. They do not seek the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, as we say in the Anglo-American legal tradition. They seek to reveal as much evidence as it takes to win their case, and to ignore or suppress information that might confuse or complicate the decision processes of typical jurors. Hence in the trial of Terry Nichols no effort was made to explain the Philippine connection. (The chief Federal prosecutor in that case was none other than current Attorney General Merrick Garland.) The prosecution never raised it, though it was likely aware, and certainly it was the last thing the defense attorneys–more likely unaware–would have done.

It turned out, almost for certain, that Laurie was a textbook case of confirmation bias at work. She bent every datum and speculation to her theory of surreptitious Iraqi skullduggery. After September 11, 2001 her certainty became absolute as the stakes sharply escalated. All the same, her basic thesis was plausible and, in the light of the stakes had she been right, it was worth pursuing. After all, many quirky people have proved to be geniuses in the end.

But she wasn’t right, and the pursuit of the Iraqi-jihadi connection, once brought into the inner sancta of the Pentagon, led to further claims Laurie never researched or mooted that lacked evidence and bespoke even less plausibility: the Niger yellowcake claims; supposed meetings in Prague between Iraqi agents and jihadi kingpins; other parochial money-making tales from “Curveball” and a few other minor informants; and so on.

But it does not follow logically–and never did–that the existence of a few outlandish claims, and one or two over-the-top speeches by Vice-President Cheney, proved that Administration principals were lying all along, as though members of some nefarious cabal, about the WMD-related intelligence. (A good bit more on that in Part IV….)

The reality was more complex than that. The key to understanding it is to recognize that what was going, essentially, was a battle within the high precincts of the Administration to win George W. Bush’s mind. As part of that battle to persuade the President to decide for war, and sooner than later, a plausible logic became encrusted with speculation, twisted narratives, and no shortage of wishful thinking. It also spawned a few efforts that, had they not been reined in, might have produced a rogue sequel to the Iran-Contra Affair of Reagan Administration days.[1] 

In short, the Administration’s high-level decision process came ever closer to jumping the track as the September 2001-March 2003 interregnum grew ever longer, and no one blew the whistle to stop the coming train wreck. That, ultimately, was the President’s responsibility, for everyone in the Executive Branch works for him, since he (and the Vice-President, who doesn’t count much) is the only member of the Executive Branch to be elected. That matters in a democracy: Authority and responsibility both abide with the consent of governed, as represented in a fairly elected President. But Bush’s indecisiveness, and especially his inexperience–another one of those factors almost never mentioned in the conventional accounts– came to play here as well.

Unlike his father, who had been a congressman, UN Ambassador, CIA Director and Vice-President, George W. Bush came to Oval Office with little experience of high-level Federal government decision-making. He had been Governor of Texas, but he had never served in Congress or at any level in the foreign and national security bureaucracy. Standing before such figures as Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Powell it was natural that Bush doubted his own mastery of the portentous topics he had to pass judgment on. It is no wonder that he temporized when the advice he got from his chief advisers differed so sharply.

Indeed, so much “senior official” time was devoted to amassing supposed evidence of an immediate Iraqi threat to persuade Bush to go to war that too little time went into actually planning for a war and its aftermath. The State Department, as is well known, did detailed planning of the broad political and diplomatic implications of a war, but many senior DOD officials saw that effort not as objective analysis but as a ploy to persuade President Bush to “just say no”, at least for the time being.

Apparently, too, the civilians at DOD, as well as many uniformed staff, thought that the sanctioned and much depleted Iraqi military would be a pushover. They did not misread the military balance; they did worse that that: They misread the country.

It is not incidental that knowledge of Iraq within the U.S. government was thin. Why? Because diplomatic relations had been severed in 1968 with the rise of the Ba’ath after the June 1967 war, so knowledge of the country became a dead-end for foreign services officers and intelligence professionals, since no significant promotions were on offer in that line of specialization. Iraq was for many years out of sight–since no U.S. official of any rank ever went there on business–and so was out of mind. This is yet another point rarely if ever mentioned in conventional accounts of the war.

In the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, a fine outfit despite its being much smaller than the CIA and other U.S. intelligence community conglomerations, just one person followed Iraq: Steve Grummon. He knew a fair bit, but I, as someone who had taught the international politics of the Middle East at Penn, and who had read everything in English on Iraq, knew at least as much. And I was just a Policy Planning-associated speechwriter!!

Worse, almost no one at a high level seemed interested in Iraqi society, history, ethnography, or culture. At the time this willful obliviousness reminded me of Vietnam, and of a famous, much older rhyme attributed to Hilaire Belloc: “Whatever happens, we have got; The Maxim gun, and they have not.” In other words, our power is vastly superior, so the enemy will die–and die quickly–regardless of his culture, history or beliefs. Hence, why bother learning about them?

Last on this point, U.S. intelligence organisations have long been biased against open-source information. That is understandable for organisations like the Defence Intelligence Agency, whose job is to collect and disseminate information that is of direct near-term use to warfighters. It is much less forgivable a bias for the CIA. So the sort of thing I and other scholars knew–history, culture, literature–CIA analysts did not necessarily know very much about.

In any event, the actual war plan, such as it came to be, was little short of inane: a “shock and awe” effort at war’s beginning to kill Saddam and the Ba’athi elite, to install Ahmed Chalabi and his exiled minor minions in their place, and then to get out of the place as fast as possible.

It didn’t work and never could have worked under any imaginable circumstances, and there was no Plan B. Proof of the latter resides in the fact that no agency of the U.S. Government planned for or budgeted for a protracted occupation of Iraq. No one wanted any such thing, certainly not the State Department, and not the White House or the Defence Department either. The greatest irony of the whole pathetic mess was that, nevertheless, that’s what we ended up with. Having shattered the country and dissolved both the Ba’ath Party and the Iraqi Army, thus creating the ideal formula for an uprising, we left ourselves with only two choices:  mediate a civil war among parties whose interests we could only guess at and with whom we had little to no rapport, or not mediate a civil war and leave Iraq’s implosion to menace the entire region. Under duress, we chose the former.

Please allow a further personal note that skips ahead to 2004, but that illustrates well the institutional knowledge deficit in the U.S. government about Iraq. Certain things that happened during the course of the occupation surprised senior officials. To augment the knowledge of INR at the State Department, I got permission to convene from time to time at Main State (meaning the main State Department building at 22nd and C Streets, Northwest) small panels of outside experts on Iraq to aid our general, and sometimes more specific, understanding.

The participants in these panels were not all U.S. nationals, and while no classified information was involved in them, we asked the participants not to discuss or mention these sessions in public, and we promised not to mention them either. We wanted the participants to feel safe and secure enough to be frank with us. We put a particular question to each group, without explaining why that question–for being more explicit might have compromised intelligence information. Afterwards I summarized the proceedings in a note for Secretary Powell.

One of these questions concerned the ambush of a convoy in an Iraqi town called Samarra. After sovereignty was returned to Iraq by the Coalition Provisional Authority on June 30, 2004, the U.S. government cooperated with the Iraqis in distributing around the country new bank notes, postage stamps, and other official documents. The money, stamps, and other documents were transported in armoured convoys accompanied by small contingents of U.S. Marines. No incidents occurred with conveys headed to Baghdad, Basra, and other localities, even Tikrit. But in Samarra an ambush erupted, and the Marines overreacted by shooting up the town pretty bad. So the question was, why Samarra and not any other Iraqi city or town? American experts, civilian and military alike, apparently did not know.

I had an inkling of the answer from my reading of Iraqi history, but our expert panel nailed it in less than five minutes. Samarra had been the capital of the regional governate going back to Ottoman times, but after the Ba’ath took over Saddam Hussein in due course had the capital shifted to his hometown of Tikrit. With the shift went a lot of jobs and money, away from Samarra. This caused no little bad blood between the two groups.

The Tikritis, once dominant over Iraq’s government and military, had developed calculatedly mixed relations with the as-Samarra. Saddam made some of his Sunni cousins generals and Ba’ath Party functionaries, and then occasionally jailed or shot some along with selected other members of the clan. This was how Saddam kept potential challengers on their toes. If one of the as-Samarra clan leaders got out of line, or if Saddam only imagined he had gotten out of line, perhaps based on a lie spread by a personal adversary, he was not above having that person’s daughter or niece dragged away to one of the regime’s infamous rape rooms.

Not surprisingly, then, when the Tikritis started the uprising against the occupation, the as-Samarra were reluctant to join. So the Tikritis staged a firefight in the town, suspecting the Marines would overreact, kill some of the as-Samarra folk, and thus drive the as-Samarra into the fight looking for payback. That is exactly what happened.

The takeaway: The government’s intelligence apparatus was at a loss to understand this because its members lacked metis, a Greek word meaning intuitive awareness of one’s own home turf, social as well as physical. The panel members I brought together had, in a word, metis.

That, in turn, is why I suggested that the State Department hire an expert on political Islam, someone with another kind of much-needed metis. The State Department has people who knew the subject well; Assistant Secretary David Satterfield, for example, whom I had gone to see in his 6th floor office, told me of a Foreign Service Officer serving in Tunis who was such an expert. The problem was, he pointed out shrewdly, it was no one’s defined job, and in a bureaucracy when some area of interest is no one’s job, it usually doesn’t get done regardless of the talent available.

Secretary Powell liked the idea, and so told me to go do it. “Me, sir?” I answered, incredulous at his order; “I’m just a speechwriter.” “Your idea, your responsibility” he replied, smiled, and turned to other tasks. That’s how I brought Ahmed H. al-Rahim, an Iraqi-born expert on medieval Islamic philosophy who had spent many years in Lebanon, into the State Department. It took Diplomatic Security more than six months to clear Ahmed to work at State, even though he already had a temporary DOD clearance–the absence of much security clearance coordination in the Interagency is another story for another time, perhaps–but he finally did come on board. He did a lot of good.

Secretary Rumsfeld considered the Afghan campaign to vindicate his vision of creating a smaller, sleeker, less costly (hence easier to sustain politically) and more lethal U.S. way of war. Indeed, his efforts to reform DOD before the September 11 attacks had alienated so many senior officers that his job tenure had become uncertain. But after just 426 U.S. troops–some with laser pointers on horseback to direct U.S. airpower!–and very effective local allies in the form of the Northern Alliance led by Ahmed Shah Massoud, did the trick in Afghanistan, a jubilant and confident Rumsfeld went looking for the next opportunity to vindicate his vision. To him, Chalabi was Iraq’s Northern Alliance; shock-and-awe was the sequel to the massively successful airpower clobbering of the Taliban. He did not look too closely into the details.

When Secretary Powell and others sought to demonstrate the speciousness of the comparison, they just deepened the existing enmity with DOD and got cut out of the decision loop. When then-Policy Planning Director Richard Haass went to see Condi at Powell’s direction to sort rumours he had heard about Iraq, Condi cut Haass off even before his mouth fully opened and said, “Save your breath, Richard; the decision to go to war has already been made.” In other words, the decision for war was made without a Principals’ Committee meeting. The pro-war party had convinced Bush in the end to go ahead, but Bush, “the decider”, lacked the chops to inform his own Secretary of State face to face.

At that point, Powell had a decision to make:  resign, or stay and try and guide the decision for war into the paths most likely to cause the least harm. Powell concluded that if he resigned, his most likely replacement would be Wolfowitz, and he didn’t see how that would relieve the situation. Wolfowitz certainly wanted to be Secretary of State.  In the transition period jockeying, Wolfowitz was initially slotted to be Powell’s Deputy, and Richard Armitage Rumsfeld’s Deputy. But Powell was not enthusiastic about Wolfowitz on account of earlier differences, so he got his friend Armitage for a Deputy, knowing that Armitage could actually manage a large bureaucracy, and that Wolfowitz could likely not.

Wolfowitz proved this at DOD, having always been far more interested in policy than management–traditionally the Deputy’s main responsibility. This made sense to me, too: Paul had been my Dean when I taught at SAIS-Johns Hopkins in the mid-1990s, and it was clear to all concerned that management was not his forte. One day, talking in his office just the two of us, I speculated that one day he might become CIA Director or Defence Secretary. And at that his arms rose at his sides, and with palms up he softly replied, “But Adam, why not Secretary of State?”

So Powell spoke to Bush in the residence and told him that he would stick with him on the condition that Bush allow him to try to internationalise the effort, to recreate insofar as possible the multilateral coalition that had fought and won Desert Storm in 1991 when his father was President. Powell wanted to limit the diplomatic damage within the alliance structure, for he, unlike some others, kept American grand strategy and the health of its key instruments always in mind. Bush agreed.

Powell got UNSCR 1441, which provided justification in internal law for military action. That was, or should have been, enough. But others on the Security Council insisted on a second, activating resolution. Powell thought he had that second resolution set up as well, only to be sandbagged by the French Foreign Minister, Dominique Villepin, at the last minute. Even though a second resolution was not necessary in strict legal terms, the fact that it failed carried far more power in political terms.

Though a very minor and marginal figure, I tried in my own small way to contribute to the effort to internationalise the war to limit the damage it was doing. At one point I recommended to Secretary Powell that the “charity” model for reconstructing Iraq, scheduled to go forward at a September 2003 donors’ conference in Madrid, be either replaced or joined to a “joint stock company” model. These donor conferences never produced the bulk of the aid pledged or created much serious concern for progress, I argued. But giving European and Asian companies and governments a financial stake in the reconstruction of Iraq through loans to be repaid at competitive interest rates out of future Iraqi oil revenues–and lucrative contracts for European and Asian businesses to do much of the work on the ground–would work a lot better.

Powell understood, but he told me that it was “too late to turn the building around.” On top of that came an announcement from Wolfowitz, out of the blue as far as we knew, that contracts for Iraqi reconstruction would be denied to countries that had opposed U.S. policy in Iraq. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture the reaction at 22nd and C Street.

Meanwhile, Rumsfeld used to doodle at Principles Committee meetings about Iraq. He didn’t care about Iraq as such any more than he cared about democracy promotion. He cared about American power and reputation, and how to advance both. That was his job as he saw it; it wasn’t telling the President what he should do. And that is why in Bush’s memoir he commends Rumsfeld for having respected the chain of command.[2] He makes no similar remark about Vice-President Cheney, and the discerning reader can hardly miss the point.

For Rumsfeld Iraq was an opportunity, not a cause. He supported Cheney’s effort to persuade the President to go to war because Cheney was his advocate and protector in the Administration. It was Rumsfeld, indeed, who first hired Cheney into the Executive Branch during the Nixon Administration, and Rumsfeld had been Defence Secretary under President Ford before Cheney had the job under George H.W. Bush. This is what I meant earlier when I spoke of the power of personalities and relationships, and how they interact in government during crises and not.

But Rumsfeld refused to get the U.S. military bogged down in Iraq. He refused, for example, to enmesh DOD in prisoner interrogations despite the existence of the capability within the military police and prison system (more on that in Part V). He refused to support a larger ground force. He therefore long resisted seeing the insurgency for what it was, calling it the work of some regime dead-enders who needed mere mopping up. When he sent General Jay Garner to Iraq after the end of the initial, brief combat phase, he told him in-and-out in six weeks, and he meant it. When Paul Bremer became head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S. Government having foolishly broken the skein of Iraqi sovereignty, he was ordered to report to both Rumsfeld and the President; but Rumsfeld didn’t really want to talk to him, thus subtly shifting the onus for the burgeoning mess off of his own shoulders and onto the White House’s.

So Rumsfeld went along with Cheney, Wolfowitz and the others in the march to war, but he told his generals to make it clean, quick, and light, as it had been in Afghanistan. When that approach foundered, he passed the responsibility for whatever bad was happening onto someone else. That included Powell and Armitage at the State Department.

As already teased up in part II, one rationale for the Iraq War–flipping Iraq from enemy to proxy so as to squeeze Iran from both sides–was never articulated publicly. And the sad irony is that this rationale, cogent but very ambitious, would have collided head-on with Rumsfeld’s vision had it been accorded a higher status in the Principals’ minds and planning process.

Alas, we’ll never know what might have happened had the United States sought the brass ring in Iraq, gone, in other words, for the Big Snow. Instead, the Iraq War went forward as an operationally flawed mess on behalf of lesser goals, on a timetable geared not to actual threats but to the American political calendar, via an internal decision process that was a model of how not to make major decisions, and it was marred by not one but two major intelligence failures that doomed the entire policy.

Two major intelligence failures, not just one? What were they, then? Next time……patience, please.

[1] See George Tenet’s memoir, At the Center of the Storm (HarperCollins, 2007), pp. 311-14.

[2] Bush, Decision Points (Crown, 2010), p. 92.

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