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The Mess

For two months, the Coalition and the Mahdi Army fought pitched battles around Shiite Islam’s holiest shrines. Iraq’s senior Shiite clerics and politicians, all of whom saw al-Sadr as a threat, assured Bremer of their support and did nothing to help him. Iraq’s Shiites were the prime beneficiary of Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, but America’s stock in Iraq had fallen so low that only Iraq’s Kurds were prepared to stand with the United States against al-Sadr. By May 2004, al-Sadr’s insurgency so disrupted US supply lines in Iraq that Bremer considered ordering food rationing for the thousands of Americans working in Baghdad’s highly fortified Green Zone. A year after liberating Iraq, the world’s only superpower was finding it difficult to feed the Americans in charge of the occupation.

Today, Moqtada al-Sadr controls one of the largest factions within the victorious United Iraq Alliance (UIA), the coalition of Shiite religious parties that won the December 2005 national elections. Nor is he the only member of the Alliance likely to side with Iran if war comes. SCIRI—the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq—is Iraq’s largest political party. It was founded in Tehran in 1982, and its name gives an accurate idea of its politics. The Iranians also created, trained, and apparently still fund SCIRI’s military wing, the Badr Corps, which has over 12,000 troops. Iraq’s interior minister, Bayan Jabr, is the former head of the Badr Corps, whose members he has helped place throughout Iraq’s national police. Dawa, the third major element in the UIA, also has close relations with Iran.

With the US Army vastly overextended in Iraq and Iran’s friends in power in Baghdad, the Iranians apparently feel confident that the United States will take no action to stop them if they try to make a nuclear weapon. This is only one little-noticed consequence of America’s failure in Iraq. We invaded Iraq to protect ourselves against nonexistent WMDs and to promote democracy. Democracy in Iraq brought to power Iran’s allies, who are in a position to ignite an uprising against American troops that would make the current problems with the Sunni insurgency seem insignificant. Iran, in effect, holds the US hostage in Iraq, and as a consequence we have no good military or nonmilitary options in dealing with the problem of Iran’s nuclear facilities. Unlike the 1979 hostage crisis, we did this to ourselves.

In his State of the Union address, President Bush told his Iraq critics, “Hindsight is not wisdom and second-guessing is not a strategy.” His comments are understandable. Much of the Iraq fiasco can be directly attributed to Bush’s shortcomings as a leader. Having decided to invade Iraq, he failed to make sure there was adequate planning for the postwar period. He never settled bitter policy disputes among his principal aides over how postwar Iraq would be governed; and he allowed competing elements of his administration to pursue diametrically opposed policies at nearly the same time. He used jobs in the Coalition Provisional Authority to reward political loyalists who lacked professional competence, regional expertise, language skills, and, in some cases, common sense. Most serious of all, he conducted his Iraq policy with an arrogance not matched by political will or military power.

These shortcomings have led directly to the current dilemmas of the US both in Iraq and with Iran. Unless the President and his team—abetted by some oversight from Congress—are capable of examining the causes of failure in Iraq, it is hard to believe he will be able to manage the far more serious problem with Iran.

Two books, George Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate and L. Paul Bremer’s My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope, written with Malcolm McConnell, are essential for those who want to understand what went wrong. Packer’s book is written with great clarity and draws on his experience as one of The New Yorker‘s more perceptive reporters. He is clearly a thorough and careful notetaker. As a result, the people he writes about—Washington neoconservatives, CPA bureaucrats, and ordinary Iraqis whose lives were turned upside down by decisions made elsewhere—speak to the reader in their own voices. In analyzing the war, Packer begins with the ideologies that shaped its architects’ thinking and then brilliantly describes the unrealistic assumptions and bureaucratic maneuvering that resulted in the US taking over Iraq with no plan for its postwar administration. Bremer, as his title suggests, does not believe that the occupation was a complete disaster. He provides a briskly written account of an eventful year, assigning most of the blame to others, notably Donald Rumsfeld, General Ricardo Sanchez, and the members of the Iraqi Governing Council whom he appointed. The value of his book lies in his often inadvertent revelations of failure.

2.

In late April 2003, Donald Rumsfeld contacted L. Paul Bremer III, known as Jerry, to ask if he would be interested in becoming Iraq’s postwar administrator. Bremer, a former career diplomat, had been Henry Kissinger’s special assistant, ambassador at large for counterterrorism in the Reagan administration, and ambassador to the Netherlands before leaving government in 1989 to become managing director for Kissinger Associates. Although he did not know Bush before, the two men immediately got on well, partly thanks to their shared interest in physical exercise. Even while representing an international coalition in Baghdad, Bremer was careful to emphasize his partisan credentials; he told George Packer in his Green Zone office that he was “a bedrock Republican.” (This struck me as odd to tell a reporter, since in my view a US ambassador represents the entire US, not one political party.) Bremer had a reputation as a good manager, and many thought that if he had a successful record in Baghdad, he had a chance to be secretary of state in a second Bush administration.

Bremer knew nothing about Iraq. He had never been there, did not speak Arabic, had no experience in dealing with a country emerging from war, and had never been involved in “nation-building.” During the two weeks he was given to get ready, he recruited a senior staff including several retired ambassadors, a former assistant secretary of state for administration, and a high-powered Republican Washington lobbyist. Only one of his recruits had any background in the region.

Bremer flew into Baghdad on May 12. While it was not literally true that “Baghdad was burning” on that day, as the first sentence of his book suggests, the previous month had been catastrophic. US forces took Baghdad on April 9. Contrary to the optimistic expectations of the war’s planners, the Iraqi police and government did not remain on duty, ready to report to the Americans. They vanished.

This left the way open to looters, who stripped every significant public institution in Baghdad—with the exception of the US-protected Oil Ministry—of whatever they could carry away and set many on fire. Without orders or plans, the US occupation forces simply watched. The looting probably doomed the occupation before it started. With the ministries destroyed, the government could not function. The looting so much damaged the electrical system and other infrastructure that essential government services were not restored for most of the occupation period. This in turn provoked anger at Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority and helped foster the growth of the insurgency. As Iraqis watched their capital being destroyed, many concluded either that the United States was too weak to prevent the looting or that it was so evil as to want Iraq destroyed, or both. If the US was weak, then resistance could succeed. If it was evil, resistance was imperative.

The chaos on the ground in Iraq was matched by chaos within the Bush administration in Washington. President Bush decided on war with Iraq shortly after September 11, and from late 2001 planning for the war was underway. But the President never addressed the big issues of how postwar Iraq would be governed. Would the United States run a prolonged occupation as it had done with Germany and Japan? Would it hand over power to a provisional Iraqi government? If so, who would be in that government? What would be done about the Iraqi military and the Baath Party?

In the absence of leadership from the President, as Packer shows, factions within the administration pursued their own policies. Within the Pentagon, Rumsfeld assigned postwar planning to the Office of Special Plans, which reported to Undersecretary for Policy Douglas Feith. Packer nicely captures the strangeness of some of the people involved: Feith, whom General Tommy Franks famously called “the fucking stupidest guy on the face of the earth”; Feith’s deputy Bill Luti, who once called Franks’s predecessor General Anthony Zinni a traitor for doubting the wisdom of the Iraq war; and F. Michael Maloof, who set out to confirm his predetermined belief in a connection between Saddam and al-Qaeda, and eventually had his security clearance revoked. Packer writes that General Franks, the overall commander for the Iraq war, was prohibited from seeking Zinni’s advice. Zinni’s plan for a comprehensive occupation of Iraq—including providing security with US forces—was put aside as too pessimistic. Presumably this meant his plan would require too many troops to do too much. Packer is devastating about Franks, a tyrant toward his own staff who failed to challenge Rumsfeld’s optimistic assumptions that postwar security would not be an issue. Nor did Franks initiate planning for postwar operations, Phase IV, which was a political hot potato. Packer writes: “When an officer at a Centcom meeting raised the question of Phase IV planning, Franks said, ‘Mr. Wolfowitz is taking care of that.’” Packer gives a particularly incisive picture of Wolfowitz, who bears a heavy responsibility—precisely because he was by far the brightest of the war’s architects—for the failure to prepare for the postwar chaos. As Packer demonstrates, Wolfowitz promoted the invasion of an Iraq that existed only in his imagination:

Paul Wolfowitz was the intellectual architect of the war. He made the case for war with more passion and eloquence than anyone else in the administration, often speaking publicly about the nature of Baathist tyranny and the stifled talents of the Iraqi people that were just waiting to be set free. Listening to him, you sometimes felt that he had dozens of close Iraqi friends and perhaps even a few distant cousins in Baghdad and Basra. He once told an interviewer who asked whether democracy in Iraq might lead to Islamist rule, “Look, fifty percent of the Arab world are women. Most of those women do not want to live in a theocratic state. The other fifty percent are men. I know a lot of them. I don’t think they want to live in a theocratic state.”…

For him Iraq was personal. He didn’t seem driven by other agendas: Military transformation and shoring up the Likud Party and screwing the Democrats were not his obsessions. He wasn’t a religious ideologue possessed by eschatological visions of remaking biblical lands. He was the closest thing to a liberal in the group. He had been pursuing this white whale for years, and he had everything to lose if Iraq went wrong. Why, then, did he find it all [i.e., the realities of Iraq] so hard to imagine?

Whether he agreed with the war plan or not, Wolfowitz was not about to go up against his hugely powerful boss on the subject Rumsfeld jealously owned. Wolfowitz was a true believer, but he was also a bureaucratic survivor of many administrations, and when it mattered he was more than capable of bowing to political reality. In the late 1990s, when regime change in Iraq became his signature issue, Wolfowitz lined up behind the flimsy idea of overthrowing Saddam with a few thousand followers of Ahmad Chalabi, because he understood that the public had no interest in committing large numbers of American troops to the cause. And now that America was about to go to war and finish the job that Wolfowitz had long felt had been left incomplete in 1991, he accepted the terms: light force, little commitment in the postwar. He told the public again and again that the reconstruction would be cheap, that it could be paid for by Iraqi oil revenues. He said this in the face of expert advice from oil company executives who knew the state of Iraq’s neglected oil facilities…. The administration systematically kept forecasts of the war’s true cost from the public and, by the insidious effects of airtight groupthink, from itself. This would be historic transformation on the cheap. Wolfowitz as much as anyone else was responsible.

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