Dispatches From Iraq, Woven Into Fresh History

Ivo H. Daalder
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO

January 5, 2004

Review of Todd S. Purdum’s book, A Time of Our Choosing.

Last year was the Year of Iraq. It was the year America’s overwhelming military might ousted and ultimately captured Saddam Hussein. The butcher of Baghdad is behind bars, awaiting trial for crimes against the Iraqi people and humanity.

It was also the year America took responsibility for the largest nation-building effort since the end of World War II. That effort, as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld admitted, has turned into a “long, hard slog.” And it has come with considerable costs — more than 3,100 American casualties (including more than 400 killed), over $150 billion in taxpayers’ money, and a commitment expected to last years, if not decades.

The war and its aftermath are sure to produce a spate of books analyzing every possible angle of the decision to go to war, the conduct of the military campaign and the consequences of the war. “A Time of Our Choosing,” by Todd S. Purdum and the staff members of The New York Times, is the first book to try to cover the entire episode.

Based largely on reporting that appeared in The Times or informed articles published there, this book provides a useful and comprehensive narrative of the Iraq saga during the last year. Mr. Purdum, a correspondent in the Washington bureau of The Times, briefly discusses the run up to the war, including America’s 12-year confrontation with Mr. Hussein’s Iraq, the impact of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States and the president, the diplomacy that preceded the war, and the Bush administration’s failure to gain international backing for the use of force. Half the book is devoted to the three weeks that separated the first attack on Baghdad and the toppling of Mr. Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square. The book concludes with a short discussion of some of the war’s major consequences, for Iraq and for America’s standing in the world.

The great strength of this book is Mr. Purdum’s astute ability to pull together the varied reporting for The Times into a single whole. This is very much the work of a single writer. But Mr. Purdum’s reliance on reporting by The Times to tell this tale is also one of the book’s main weaknesses. The basic material on which he draws is the daily reporting that was sent to New York from around the world. These individual reports provide snapshots of events at a particular time and place and by necessity lack the context that distance in time and space can provide.

While Mr. Purdum has done a superb job stitching the reports together into a coherent narrative, he has not provided much of the analysis that could have put this story into its proper context.

The Iraq war has left many pressing questions, ones that this book sometimes raises but mostly fails to answer. One set of questions is: why this war at this time? As the book’s title suggests, and as Richard N. Haass — a top State Department hand until June — has argued, this was a war of choice, not of necessity. How did we get to this choice? What alternatives were considered and why were they abandoned? Was the choice well thought out, especially when it came to the consequences of this war?

Questions like these are all the more pressing now that we know that the main public justification for the war — Mr. Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction and the possibility that he might use them or transfer them to Al Qaeda — has been found wanting. No chemical, biological or nuclear weapons have been found. And none of the professed links with Al Qaeda have been substantiated. As Mr. Purdum notes, top Al Qaeda leaders in United States custody have told their interrogators that Osama bin Laden and his aides considered, then rejected, linking up with Mr. Hussein. What explains this extraordinary disconnect between prewar statements and postwar reality? How much of the intelligence was wrong and why? How much were the facts exaggerated, and by whom?

A third set of questions concerns the war’s aftermath. The Bush administration took the nation to war, but its plans for the postwar period were woefully deficient. It ignored warnings from senior military and other officials as well as from significant members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, about the difficulties that would confront all of us once Mr. Hussein was toppled. It deliberately played down the likely costs and chastised those, like Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the Army chief of staff at the time, who warned that the number of troops needed in Iraq was larger than the number being deployed. What accounts for these failures?

In the months and years to come, these and other questions will be examined and debated in great detail. “A Time of Our Choosing” provides much of the background needed for this debate. But for the main arguments — let alone their resolution — the reader will have to look elsewhere.