Mourning After: How They Screwed It Up

Kenneth M Pollack
Kenneth M Pollack Former Brookings Expert, Resident Scholar - AEI

June 28, 2004

Reprinted by permission of The New Republic, (Issue date: 6/28/04, Issue: 4,667).

Bill Galston is one helluva debater. In the fall of 2002, well before the invasion of Iraq, I faced Bill—a University of Maryland professor and a former colleague of mine in the Clinton administration—in a public debate, and he kicked my rhetorical ass. He did it by holding up a copy of my book, The Threatening Storm, and saying to the audience, “If we were going to get Ken Pollack’s war, I could be persuaded to support it. But we are not going to get Ken Pollack’s war; we are going to get George Bush’s war, and that is a war I will not support.” Bill’s words haunted me throughout the run-up to the invasion. Several months ago, I sent him a note conceding that he had been right.

The primary cause of our current problems in Iraq is the reckless, and often foolish, manner in which this administration has waged the war and the reconstruction. For that reason, when I think back to the prewar debate, the thought that nags at me most is that I, too, should have foreseen what Bill Galston did—that the Bush administration would not fight the war properly. It looms in my thinking as something that probably could have been known before the war and that, had I recognized it, might have led me down a different intellectual path.

The absence of an aggressive, threatening Iraqi WMD program was just as significant as the administration’s mishandling of the occupation. But, for all of the reasons I laid out in an article in the January 2004 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, it would have been extremely difficult to recognize this before the war. Although it is commonplace for people to come forth after the fact and insist they had known all along, the truth is that very, very few of those claiming “I told you so” actually did. There was a consensus among the governments of the world and a virtual consensus among the experts about the basic threat from Iraq; the great debate was over whether a war was necessary to remedy it. Few claimed that Iraq had no WMD programs, many of those who did seemed to have been discredited in some way or another, and they argued with less evidence than could be mustered in support of the mainstream position.

Other aspects of my rationale for why a war would ultimately be necessary—just not when and how the Bush administration waged it—have been borne out by the course of events. The human rights argument was always an important element of my thinking, and the revelations of mass starvation throughout the Shia south and mass graves throughout the country have substantiated at least this aspect of the argument.

Similarly, Saddam again proved himself to be exactly the kind of dangerous decision-maker that I, and other Iraq experts, feared would make him difficult to deter if he were to acquire nuclear weapons. Here I want to take issue with an assertion that Tom Friedman has made—that, since Saddam was not known to be suicidal, he could have been deterred, even if he were to acquire nuclear weapons. While I have the utmost respect for Tom, I think this point is ahistorical at best. The annals of warfare abound with leaders who embarked on foreign policy adventures they did not believe would result in their own destruction—political or literal—but that did. Napoleon did not think he was committing suicide when he invaded Russia, but he was. Hannibal did not think he was committing suicide when he attacked Rome, but he was. Not even Hitler thought he was committing suicide when he launched World War II, but he was. There is a long, long list of other examples.

Saddam himself had embarked on a number of monstrously risky foreign policy adventures during his 30-plus years in power—many of which could easily have proved suicidal and were seen as such even by the sycophants who comprised his inner circle. The fact that they did not lead to his fall was mostly dumb luck. Over the last year, the debriefings of senior Iraqi officials captured during the invasion have revealed that, even with roughly 100,000 ground troops massed on the Iraqi border, Saddam convinced himself that the United States would never actually launch a war and, therefore, he could continue to play games with weapons inspectors. But, this time, Saddam’s luck finally ran out and his reckless and delusional risk-taking resulted in his own (political, at least) suicide.

Which is why my own thinking keeps coming back to that debate in the fall of 2002. Bill Galston was right on the money. The issue with which I constantly wrestle is whether I, too, should have foreseen that this administration would not do the job right.

To some extent, I had actually been expecting Bill’s objection. Before my book was published, I asked Foreign Affairs Managing Editor Gideon Rose to critique the manuscript, and he warned me that the key question I might some day have to answer was whether I would still support a war fought without all the preparations I considered essential. Half of the argument of my book is devoted to the importance of going to war the right way (for example, by dealing with Al Qaeda and the war on terrorism first, restarting the Arab-Israeli peace process, building a large multinational coalition, employing at least 250,000 troops, and being ready to make a full commitment to what I expected would inevitably be a long and difficult process of reconstruction afterward). Gideon astutely observed that I might have to decide whether the war was still worth fighting if we were only going to do it the wrong way.

So, thanks to Gideon’s caution, I was ready with a rejoinder to Bill that night. I said it was up to the American people to ensure that the Bush administration fought the war the right way. I even had evidence to back up my point. I noted that, although in the spring of 2002, Bush officials had insisted that they did not need the blessings of either Congress or the United Nations to invade Iraq, thanks to strong popular pressure, President Bush had chosen to seek out a congressional resolution of support and to go back to the United Nations to secure international sanction.

It wasn’t a bad answer. In the fall of 2002, it was possible to believe that the administration would fight the war responsibly, and there was plenty of time to attend to all of the preconditions I had laid out in my book. But, even then, I harbored the fear that Bill was right and the Bush administration would not handle the war properly. Although the administration’s policy in Afghanistan was still evolving, there were ominous signs that Bush officials were going to walk away from that problem as quickly as they could. Likewise, statements by some senior administration officials regarding Iraq suggested a rash determination to topple Saddam with little regard for the potential costs and risks—for example, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Woflowitz’s dismissal of Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki’s prescient estimate that we would need “several hundred thousand soldiers” to secure Iraq. I feared that, if they persevered in that approach, then, as I had warned in my book, a war with Iraq would create as many problems as it solved.

I still have great difficulty fathoming why the administration chose not to fight the war the right way. I remain convinced that, while reconstruction was never guaranteed to succeed, the current mess we now find ourselves in is largely, if not entirely, a product of the administration’s determination to do things the wrong way.

Why did they try to fight the war (and do the reconstruction) on the cheap? Why attack with only four divisions of ground troops when roughly another four were available—and were all deployed to Iraq within the following year (albeit only to relieve the invasion force)? Why did the administration seem to go out of its way to alienate so many of our allies and devote so little time to the U.N. process? Rumsfeld’s quips about “old Europe” and not needing the British to fight the war seemed deliberately calculated to frighten off potential allies. Why, too, did they dismiss all of the preparations for postwar reconstruction performed by the Department of State, USAID, the intelligence community, the uniformed services, and a host of other agencies, and instead follow Ahmed Chalabi’s siren song? It would have been one thing if none of that work had ever been carried out. But, as someone who participated in many of those exercises, I know that much good planning was available and was discarded by those in the Pentagon charged with reconstruction.

These questions are among the great mysteries of the war. At present, I suspect that the answers lie in a combination of factors: The “transformationists” in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (probably including the secretary himself) wanted to prove that a big Army was unnecessary; the president’s political minders probably wanted to keep the war small and inexpensive to make it more palatable to the American public; and the administration’s “regime changers” wanted to demonstrate that toppling rogue regimes could be accomplished cheaply and easily to make it possible to go after others.

I still do not believe it was obvious (or even inevitable) that the administration would act so recklessly. The past record of many of the Bush principals suggested the opposite—a key element in my own thinking whenever I pondered Bill Galston’s charge. Secretary of State Colin Powell was famous for a doctrine that insisted that the United States fight wars only in a highly conservative fashion—with all of the resources at the disposal of the country and all of the support that could possibly be mustered. And, in the fall of 2002 and winter of 2003, after the president decided to go back to the United Nations, Powell again seemed to be playing a major role in steering Iraq policy. When Cheney was secretary of defense, he was famous for having told (not asked) General Norman Schwarzkopf that he was getting another 250,000 troops to fight the Gulf war. Indeed, many members of the Bush foreign policy team had served in the George H.W. Bush administration, which had done a magnificent job enlisting the support of the United Nations at a time when the United Nations was not considered a useful vehicle for building a war coalition. That administration had also done everything possible to ensure the kind of broad coalition of European, Asian, and Arab allies that we needed this time as well.

In addition to reversing course in the fall of 2002 to seek both a congressional resolution authorizing the use of force and a new U.N. resolution, this Bush administration had also taken other steps that initially demonstrated a willingness to fight the war the right way. In particular, many in the administration had once supported Ahmed Chalabi’s hare-brained scheme to send a few thousand lightly armed Iraqi oppositionists into Iraq, backed by nothing but U.S. air power, to try to take down Saddam’s regime. But, when war suddenly became a real prospect, they dumped this nonsense and instead opted for a realistic invasion plan relying on a large American ground force—albeit one not big enough to handle postwar reconstruction.

The willingness of members of the Bush administration to abandon their past records of prudence and match Saddam’s reckless and delusional behavior with their own may have been the most important element missing from my own thinking about the war. By the time the war began, I recognized that they had not taken most of the precautionary measures I had recommended (although, even then, I did not realize the extent to which they had simply dismissed all the postwar planning done by agencies other than the Pentagon), and I was already anguished over the war.

Today, even knowing what I do about our mistaken assessment of Iraq’s WMD and our mistaken decisions about postwar reconstruction, I remain deeply torn about the decision to invade Iraq. At this moment, there are still positives to be weighed against the growing negatives. But, as I warned beforehand, I suspect history will judge that decision based principally upon whether reconstruction succeeds or fails. If it fails—and Iraq and the region are plunged into chaos—as current trends threaten, then it will be hard for anyone to justify the war.