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.
—George F. Kennan,September 26, 20021

I ask you, sir, what is the American army doing inside Iraq?… Saddam’s story has been finished for close to three years.
—President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran to Mike Wallace on Sixty Minutes, August 13, 2006-

In the ruined city of Fallujah, its pale tan buildings pulverized by Marine artillery in the two great assaults of this long war (the aborted attack of March 2004 and then the bloody, triumphant al-Fajr (The Dawn) campaign of the following November), behind the lines of giant sandbags and concrete T-walls and barbed wire that surrounded the tiny beleaguered American outpost there, I sat in my body armor and Kevlar helmet and thought of George F. Kennan. Not the grand old man of American diplomacy, the ninety-eight-year-old Father of Containment who, listening to the war drums beat from a Washington nursing home in the fall of 2002, had uttered the prophetic words above. I was thinking of an earlier Kennan, the brilliant and ambitious young diplomat who during the late 1920s and 1930s had gazed out on the crumbling European order from Tallinn and Berlin and Prague and read the signs of the coming world conflict.

For there in the bunkered Civil-Military Operations Center (known as the C-Moc) in downtown Fallujah, where a few score Marines and a handful of civilians subsisted in a broken-down bunkered building without running water or fresh food, I met young Kennan’s reincarnation in the person of a junior State Department official: a bright, aggressive young man who spent his twenty-hour days rumbling down the ruined streets in body armor and helmet with his reluctant Marine escorts, meeting with local Iraqi officials, and writing tart cables back to Baghdad or Washington telling his bosses the truth of what was happening on the ground, however reluctant they might be to hear it. This young diplomat was resourceful and brilliant and indefatigable, and as I watched him joking and arguing with the local sheikhs and politicos and technocrats—who were meeting, as they were forced to do, in the American bunker—I thought of the indomitable young Kennan of the interwar years, and of how, if the American effort in Iraq could ever be made to “work,” only undaunted and farseeing young men like this one, his spiritual successor, could make it happen.

This was October 2005, on the eve of the nationwide referendum on Iraq’s proposed constitution, and I had come to Fallujah, the heart of rebellious Anbar province, to see whether the Sunnis could gather the political strength to vote it down. In a provision originally insisted on by the Kurds, a provision that typified an American-designed political process that had been intended to unify the country but that instead had helped pull it inexorably apart, the proposed constitution could be rejected if, in three of Iraq’s eighteen provinces, more than two in three Iraqis coming to the polls voted no. During the first post-Saddam election the previous January, the televised extravaganza of “waving purple fingers” which had become perhaps the most celebrated of the many promised “turning points” of this long war, the Sunnis had boycotted the polls. This time, after Herculean efforts of persuasion and negotiation by the American ambassador, most Sunnis were expected to vote. What would draw them, though—or such anyway was the common wisdom—was the chance not to affirm the constitution but to doom it, and the political process along with it.

And so as I sat after midnight on the eve of the vote, scribbling in my notebook in the dimly lit C-Moc bunker as the young diplomat explained to me the intricacies of the politics of the battered city, I was pleased to see him suddenly lean forward and, with quick glances to either side, offer me a confidence. “You know, tomorrow you are going to be surprised,” he told me, speaking softly. “Everybody is going to be surprised. People here are not only going to vote. People here—a great many people here—are going to vote yes.”

I was stunned. That the Sunnis would actually come out to support the constitution would be an astonishing turnabout and, for the American effort in Iraq, an enormously positive one; for it would mean that despite the escalating violence on the ground, especially here in Anbar, Iraq was in fact moving toward a rough political consensus. It would mean that beneath the bloody landscape of suicide bombings and assassinations and roadside bombs a common idea about politics and compromise was taking shape. It would mean that what had come to seem a misbegotten political process that charted and even worsened the growing divisions among Iraqis had actually become the avenue for bringing them together. It would mean there might be hope.


I took the young diplomat’s words as an invaluable bit of inside wisdom from the American who knew this ground better than any other, and I kept them in mind a few hours later as I traveled from polling place to polling place in that city of rubble, listening as the Fallujans told me of their anger at the Americans and the “Iranians” (as they called the leading Shiite politicians) and of their hatred for the constitution that they believed was meant to divide and thus destroy Iraq. I pondered the diplomat’s words that evening, when I realized that in a long day of interviews I’d not met a single Iraqi who would admit to voting for the constitution. And I thought of his words again several days later when it was confirmed that in Anbar province—where the most knowledgeable, experienced, indefatigable American had confided to me what he had plainly ardently believed, that on the critical vote on the constitution “a great many people would vote yes”—that in Anbar ninety-seven out of every hundred Iraqis who voted had voted no. With all his contacts and commitment, with all his energy and brilliance, on the most basic and critical issue of politics on the ground he had been entirely, catastrophically wrong.


“You know where you begin. You never know where you are going to end.” The ninety-eight-year-old George F. Kennan, sitting in the Washington nursing home as the war came on, knew from eight decades of experience to focus first of all on the problem of what we know and what we don’t know. You know, though you spend your endless, frustrating days speaking to Iraqis, lobbying them, arguing with them, that in a country torn by a brutal and complicated war those Iraqis perforce are drawn from a small and special subset of the population: Iraqis who are willing to risk their lives by meeting with and talking to Americans. Which is to say, very often, Iraqis who depend on the Americans not only for their livelihoods but for their survival. You know that the information these Iraqis draw on is similarly limited, and that what they convey is itself selected, to a greater or lesser extent, to please their interlocutor. But though you know that much of your information comes from a thin, inherently biased slice of Iraqi politics and Iraqi life, hundreds of conversations during those grueling twenty-hour days eventually lead you to think, must lead you to think, that you are coming to understand what’s happening in this immensely complicated, violent place. You come to believe you know. And so often, even about the largest things, you do not know.

As this precious stream of flickering knowledge travels “up the chain” from those on the shell-pocked, dangerous ground collecting it to those in Washington offices ultimately making decisions based upon it, the problem of what we really know intensifies, acquiring a fierce complexity. Policymakers, peering second-, third-, fourth-hand into a twilight world, must learn a patient, humble skepticism. Or else, confronted with an ambiguous reality they do not like, they turn away, ignoring the shadowy, shifting landscape and forcing their eyes stubbornly toward their own ideological light. Unable to find clarity, they impose it. Consider, for example, these words of Donald H. Rumsfeld, speaking about the Iraq war on November 9, two days after the election and the day after President Bush fired him:

It is very clear that the major combat operations were an enormous success. It’s clear that in Phase Two of this, it has not been going well enough or fast enough.2

Such analyses are not uncommon from Pentagon civilians; thus Dov Zakheim, a former Rumsfeld aide, to a television interviewer later that evening:

People will debate the second part, the second phase of what happened in Iraq. Very few are arguing that the military victory in the first phase was anything but an outright success.3

Three years and eight months after the Iraq war began, the secretary of defense and his allies see in Iraq not one war but two. One is the Real Iraq War—the “outright success” that only very few would deny, the war in which American forces were “greeted as liberators,” according to the famous prediction of Dick Cheney which the Vice President doggedly insists was in fact proved true: “true within the context of the battle against the Saddam Hussein regime and his forces. That went very quickly.”4 It is “within this context” that the former secretary of defense and the Vice President see America’s current war in Iraq as in fact comprising a brief, dramatic, and “enormously successful” war of a few weeks’ duration leading to a decisive victory, and then…what? Well, whatever we are in now: a Phase Two, a “postwar phase” (as Bob Woodward sometimes calls it) which has lasted three and a half years and continues. In the first, successful, Real Iraq War, 140 Americans died. In the postwar phase 2,700 Americans have died—and counting. What is happening now in Iraq is not in fact a war at all but a phase, a non-war, something unnamed, unconceptualized—unplanned.


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.”

Though to anyone familiar with Kissinger’s “realist” rhetoric of power and credibility his analysis will come as no surprise, Gerson, the deeply religious idealist who composed Bush’s most soaring music about “ending tyranny” and “ridding the world of evil,” seems mildly disappointed: Kissinger “viewed Iraq purely in the context of power politics. It was not idealism. He didn’t seem to connect with Bush’s goal of promoting democracy.”

Gerson, of course, was author of what would come to be called the Bush Doctrine, a neoconservative paean to democracy that maintains that “the realistic interests of America would now be served by fidelity to American ideals, especially democracy.” Others in the administration, however, plainly did “connect” with Kissinger’s stark realism: Donald Rumsfeld, for example, who Ron Suskind depicts, in The One Percent Doctrine, struggling with other officials in spring 2002 to cope with various terrifying warnings of impending attacks on the United States:

All these reports helped fuel Rumsfeld’s sense of futility as to America’s ability to stop the spread of destructive weapons and keep them from terrorists. That futility was the fuel that drove the plans to invade Iraq… as soon as possible.

Cheney’s ideas about how “our reaction” would shape behavior—whatever the evidence showed—were expressed in an off-the-record meeting Rumsfeld had with NATO defense chiefs in Brussels on June 6. According to an outline for his speech, the secretary told those assembled that “absolute proof cannot be a precondition for action.”

The primary impetus for invading Iraq, according to those attending NSC briefings on the Gulf in this period, was to make an example of Hussein, to create a demonstration model to guide the behavior of anyone with the temerity to acquire destructive weapons or, in any way, flout the authority of the United States.

In the great, multicolored braid of reasons and justifications leading to the Iraq war one might call this “the realist strand,” and though the shape of the reasoning might seem to Gerson to stand as far from “democracy building” and “ending tyranny” as “power politics” does from “idealism,” the distance is wholly illusory, dependent on an ideological clarity that was never present. In fact, the two chains of reasoning looped and intersected, leading inexorably to a common desire for a particular action—confronting Saddam Hussein and Iraq—that had been the subject of the administration’s first National Security Council meeting, in January 2001, and that had been pushed to the fore again by Defense Department officials in the first “war cabinet” meeting after the September 11 attacks.

Woodward describes a report commissioned by Paul Wolfowitz, then deputy secretary of defense, intended to produce “the kinds of ideas and strategy needed to deal with a crisis of the magnitude of 9/11.” After the attacks, Wolfowitz talked to his friend Christopher DeMuth, president of the American Enterprise Institute, who gathered together a group of intellectuals and academics for a series of discussions that came to be known as “Bletchley II” (after the World War II think tank of mathematicians and cryptographers set up at Bletchley Park).5 Out of these discussions, Woodward tells us, DeMuth drafted an influential report, entitled “Delta of Terrorism,” which concluded, in the author’s paraphrase, that “the United States was in for a two-generation battle with radical Islam”:

“The general analysis was that Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where most of the hijackers came from, were the key, but the problems there are intractable. Iran is more important, where they were confident and successful in setting up a radical government.” But Iran was similarly difficult to envision dealing with, he said.

But Saddam Hussein was different, weaker, more vulnerable. DeMuth said they had concluded that “Baathism is an Arab form of fascism transplanted to Iraq.”…

“We concluded that a confrontation with Saddam was inevitable. He was a gathering threat—the most menacing, active and unavoidable threat. We agreed that Saddam would have to leave the scene before the problem would be addressed.” That was the only way to transform the region.

According to Woodward, this report had “a strong impact on President Bush, causing him to focus on the ‘malignancy’ of the Middle East”—and the need to act to excise it, beginning with an attack on Iraq that would not only serve, in its devastating rapidity and effectiveness, as a “demonstration model” to deter anyone thinking to threaten the United States but would begin a process of “democratic transformation” that would quickly spread throughout the region. The geopolitical thinking animating this “democratic domino theory” could be plainly discerned before the war, as I wrote five months before US Army tanks crossed the border into Iraq:

Behind the notion that an American intervention will make of Iraq “the first Arab democracy,” as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz put it, lies a project of great ambition. It envisions a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq—secular, middle-class, urbanized, rich with oil—that will replace the autocracy of Saudi Arabia as the key American ally in the Persian Gulf, allowing the withdrawal of United States troops from the kingdom. The presence of a victorious American Army in Iraq would then serve as a powerful boost to moderate elements in neighboring Iran, hastening that critical country’s evolution away from the mullahs and toward a more moderate course. Such an evolution in Tehran would lead to a withdrawal of Iranian support for Hezbollah and other radical groups, thereby isolating Syria and reducing pressure on Israel. This undercutting of radicals on Israel’s northern borders and within the West Bank and Gaza would spell the definitive end of Yasir Arafat and lead eventually to a favorable solution of the Arab-Israeli problem.

This is a vision of great sweep and imagination: comprehensive, prophetic, evangelical. In its ambitions, it is wholly foreign to the modesty of containment, the ideology of a status-quo power that lay at the heart of American strategy for half a century. It means to remake the world, to offer to a political threat a political answer. It represents a great step on the road toward President Bush’s ultimate vision of “freedom’s triumph over all its age-old foes.”6

It represented as well a breathtaking gamble, for if the victory in Iraq was to achieve what was expected—which is to say, “humiliate” the forces of radical Islam and reestablish American prestige and credibility; serve as a “demonstration model” to ward off attacks from any rogue state that might threaten the United States, either directly or by supplying weapons of mass destruction to terrorists; and transform the Middle East by sending a “democratic tsunami” cascading from Tehran to Gaza—if the Iraq war was to achieve this, victory must be rapid, decisive, overwhelming.

Only Donald Rumsfeld’s transformed military—a light, quick, lean force dependent on overwhelming firepower directed precisely by high technology and with very few “boots on the ground”—could make this happen, or so he and his planners thought. Victory would be quick and awe-inspiring; in a few months the Americans, all but a handful of them, would be gone: only the effect of the “demonstration model,” and the cascading consequences in the neighboring states, would remain. The use of devastating military power would begin the process but once begun the transformation would roll forward, carried out by forces of the same thrilling “democratic revolution” that had erupted on the streets of Prague and Budapest and East Berlin more than a decade before, and indeed on the streets of Kabul the previous year. Here was an evangelical vision of geopolitical redemption.


Thus the War of Imagination draped all the complications and contradictions of the history and politics of a war-torn, brutalized society in an ideologically driven vision of a perfect future. Small wonder that its creators, faced with grim reality, have been so loathe to part with it. Since the first thrilling night of shock and awe, reported with breathless enthusiasm by the American television networks, the Iraq war has had at least two histories, that of the war itself and that of the American perception of it. As the months passed and the number of attacks in Iraq grew, the gap between those two histories opened wider and wider.7 And finally, for most Americans, the War of Imagination—built of nationalistic excitement and ideological hubris and administration pronouncements about “spreading democracy” and “greetings with sweets and flowers,” and then about “dead-enders” and “turning points,” and finally about “staying the course” and refusing “to cut and run”—began, under the pressure of nearly three thousand American dead and perhaps a hundred thousand or more dead Iraqis, to give way to grim reality.

The election of November 7, 2006, marks the moment when the War of Imagination decisively gave way to the war on the ground and when officials throughout the American government, not least the President himself, were forced to recognize and acknowledge a reality that much of the American public had discerned months or years before. The ideological canopy now has lifted. The study groups are at their work. Americans have come to know what they do not know. If confronted with that simple question the smiling President Ahmadinejad of Iran put to Mike Wallace last August—“I ask you, sir, what is the American Army doing inside Iraq?”—how many Americans could offer a clear and convincing answer?

As the war drags on and alternatives fall away and American and Iraqi deaths mount, we seem to know less and less, certainly about “where we are going to end.” Thus we arrive at our present therapeutic moment—the moment of “solutions,” brought on by the recognition, three and a half years on, that we have no idea how to “end” Phase Two. This is now a matter for James A. Baker’s Iraq Study Group and the military’s “strategic review team” and the new Democratic committee chairmen who will offer, to a chastened president who admits he thought “we would do all right” in the elections, the “new ideas” he now professes to welcome.8 However quickly the discussion now moves to the geopolitical hydraulics, to weighing partition against partial withdrawal against regional conferences and contact groups and all the rest, the truth is that none of these proposals, alone or in combination, will end the war anytime soon.

It bears noticing that Kennan himself, having predicted that we will never know where we are going to end in Iraq, lived to see disproved, before his death at the age of 101 last March, what even he, no innocent, had taken as a given: that “you know where you begin.” For as the war’s presumed ending—constructed from carefully crafted images of triumph, of dictators’ statues cast down and presidents striding forcefully across aircraft carrier decks—has flickered and vanished, receding into the just-out-of-grasp future (“a decision for the next president,” the pre-election President Bush had said), the war’s beginning has likewise melted away, the original rationale obscured in a darkening welter of shifting intelligence, ideological controversy, and conflicting claims, all of it hemmed in now on all sides by the mounting dead.


Out of this maelstrom, how does one fix now on “how we began” in Iraq? One might do worse than the National Security Presidential Directive entitled “Iraq: Goals, Objectives and Strategy,” the top-secret statement of American purpose intended to guide all the departments and agencies of the government, signed by President George W. Bush on August 29, 2002:

US goal: Free Iraq in order to eliminate Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, their means of delivery and associated programs, to prevent Iraq from breaking out of containment and becoming a more dangerous threat to the region and beyond.

End Iraqi threats to its neighbors, to stop the Iraqi government’s tyrannizing of its own population, to cut Iraqi links to and sponsorship of international terrorism, to maintain Iraq’s unity and territorial integrity. And liberate the Iraqi people from tyranny, and assist them in creating a society based on moderation, pluralism and democracy….

Objectives: To conduct policy in a fashion that minimizes the chance of a WMD attack against the United States, US field forces, our allies and friends. To minimize the danger of regional instabilities. To deter Iran and Syria from helping Iraq. And to minimize disruption in international oil markets.

This secret document, disclosed by Bob Woodward, is presumably the plainest, least ideological statement of what American officials thought the country they led would be trying to achieve in the coming war.9 The words have now a sad and antique air, as if scrawled on yellowed parchment and decipherable only by a historian skilled in the customs and peculiarities of a far-off time and place. What can we say now, as we look at the Iraq of November 2006, about these official goals and objectives of the Iraq war?

The famous weapons of mass destruction are gone, most of them probably fifteen years gone, and their absence has likely damaged the United States and its power—the power, deployed daily, that depends on the authority of words and pronouncements and not directly or solely on force of arms—more severely than their presence ever could have. While no doubt convinced that Iraq had at least some chemical and biological weapons, Bush administration officials, like the cop framing a guilty man, vastly exaggerated the evidence and in so doing—and even as they refused to allow UN inspectors to examine and weigh that evidence—they severely undermined the credibility of the United States, the credibility of its intelligence agencies, and the support for the war and US policy among Americans, among Muslims, and around the world.

The containment of Iraq, threatened only in the realm of policymakers’ imaginations before the war, has been breached. The country’s “threat to the region,” with jihadis flowing from neighboring Sunni powers into Anbar and Baghdad and Iranian intelligence agents flowing into the Shia south, is growing daily, with the ultimate worst-case future, the confused and blackened landscape of a regional sectarian war, already standing clearly visible on the horizon as a possible consequence of an escalating conflict.

Though Saddam stands convicted of mass murder and condemned to death, and though an elected and ineffectual government deliberates within the Green Zone, it is hard to argue that the “tyrannizing” of the Iraqi population beyond its walls has not worsened. Every day on average a hundred or more Iraqis die from the violence of an increasingly complicated civil war. Sunnis attack Shia with bombs of every description—suicide bombers and car bombs and bicycle bombs and motorcycle bombs—and they maintain the pace of terror at an unprecedented, almost unimaginable rate. In the last six months alone Baghdad has endured 488 “terror-related bombings,” an average of nearly three a day.10

Shia leaders respond with death squads, whose members, drawn from party militias and often allied with the Ministry of Interior and the Iraqi police, have by now tortured and assassinated thousands of Sunnis. As Iraqis do their shopping or say their prayers they are blown to pieces by suicide bombers. As they drive through the cities in broad daylight they are pulled from their cars by armed men at roadblocks who behead them or shoot them in the back of the neck. As they sit at home at night they are kidnapped by men in police or army uniforms who load them in the trunks of their cars and carry them off to secret places to be tortured and executed, their bound and headless bodies to be found during the following days in fields or dumps or by the roadside. These bodies, examined by United Nations officials in the Baghdad morgue,

often bear signs of severe torture including acid-induced injuries and burns caused by chemical substances, missing skin, broken bones (back, hands and legs), missing eyes, missing teeth and wounds caused by power drills or nails.11

As Iraqis know well, the power drills and nails were a favorite of Saddam’s torturers—though now, according to a United Nations expert on torture, “the situation is so bad many people say it is worse than it has been in the times of Saddam Hussein.”12 The level of carnage is difficult to comprehend. According to official figures published by the United Nations, which certainly understate the case, 6,599 Iraqis were murdered in July and August alone. Estimates of the number of Iraqi civilians killed during the war range from a conservative 52,000, by the Web site Iraq Body Count, to 655,000 by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, with the Iraqi Health Minister recently announcing a cumulative total of 150,000.13

As for the country’s links to international terrorism, we might look to the official consensus of the American intelligence agencies issued in April 2006 that “the Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives” and that “the Iraq conflict has become the ’cause celebre’ for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.”14 The Bush administration’s fears about Iraq’s possible collaboration with terror groups, largely conjectural, have since Sadam’s fall attained a terrible reality.

Iraq’s “unity and territorial integrity,” meantime, has become the central issue, as the war becomes increasingly sectarian, cities and regions are “ethnically cleansed,” and the Shia have pushed through a law, in the face of bitter Sunni opposition, making possible the autonomy of the South, the culmination of a political process that, beginning with the first vote boycotted by Sunnis, has served to worsen sectarian conflict.

The central question of how power and resources should be divided in Iraq and what the country should look like, a question that was going to be settled peacefully by the nascent political institutions of the “first Arab democracy,” has become the critical political issue dividing Kurd from Sunni and Sunni from Shia, and also dividing the sectarian political coalitions themselves. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the leader of the “unity government,” on whom President Bush repeatedly calls to “dismantle the militias,” is in fact dependent for his own political survival on Moqtada al-Sadr, the creator and leader of the largest militia, the Mahdi Army. Indeed, the two most important militias are controlled by the two most powerful parties in parliament.

Increasingly the “unity government” itself, quarreling vituperatively within the Green Zone, serves as an impotent echo of the savage warfare raging beyond the walls. The partitioning of Iraq is now openly advocated by many—including such prominent American politicians as Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—desperate to find “a solution,” however illusory, to the war, anything that will allow the Americans to withdraw, while avoiding any admission of defeat.


Kennan’s problem of knowing “where you are going to end” begins, as he knew well, on the ground; but it does not end there. Information obtained by dedicated but deeply fallible humans travels from places like Fallujah by cable and e-mail and word of mouth into the vast four-mile-square bunker of the Green Zone, with its half-dozen concentric layers of concrete blast walls and sandbags and barbed wire, and from there to the great sprawling labyrinth of the Washington national security bureaucracy, up through the thousands of competing staffers in the layers of bureaus and agencies and eventually to the highly driven people at the tops of the organizational pyramids: the people who, it is said, “make the decisions.” In the best managed of administrations there exists, between those on the ground who listen and learn and those in the offices who debate and decide, a great deal of bureaucratic “noise.” And this, alas, as so many accounts of decision-making on the war make all too clear, was not the best managed of administrations. Indeed, its top officials, talented and experienced as many of them were, seem to have willingly collaborated, for reasons of ego or ambition or ideological hubris, in making themselves collectively blind.

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 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.

The Iraq occupation would have all the weaknesses of two chains of command, weaknesses that would become all too apparent in a matter of days, when Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez, the junior three-star in the entire Army, replaced General Franks and L. Paul Bremer replaced Garner, leaving the occupation in the hands of two officials who despised one another and hardly spoke. And both chains would end not in the White House but in the Pentagon, a vast bureaucracy not known for the delicate political touch that would be needed to carry out an occupation of this degree of complexity.

We hear again the patient explanation of Powell—whose fate in the Bush administration seems to have been to play the role of Cassandra, uttering grim prophecies destined to be ignored as reliably as they were to be proved true—letting Woodward (but this time not the President) know of his certainty that “the Pentagon wouldn’t resolve the conflicts because Wolfowitz and Feith were running their own little games and had their own agenda to promote Chalabi.”

The name of Ahmad Chalabi, the brilliant, charming, cunning impresario of the Iraqi exile community, evokes memories of disasters past and, from the Pentagon point of view, of dreams dashed: the king to be who was, alas, never crowned. He is an irresistible character and has served as the off-screen villain in the telling of many an Iraq war melodrama, with particular attention to his part in helping to supply intelligence to various willing recipients within the US government, bolstering the case that Iraq had significant stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. In fact, however, Chalabi had a much more consequential role, that of the Pentagon’s ruler-to-be, the solution to that vexing question of what to do about “the postwar.”

Inherent in the War of Imagination were certain rather obvious contradictions: Donald Rumsfeld’s dream of a “demonstration model” war of quick, overwhelming victory did not foresee an extended occupation—on the contrary, the defense secretary abjured, publicly and vociferously, any notion that his troops would be used for “nation-building.” Rumsfeld’s war envisioned rapid victory and rapid departure. Wolfowitz and the other Pentagon neoconservatives, on the other hand, imagined a “democratic transformation,” a thoroughgoing social revolution that would take a Baathist Party–run autocracy, complete with a Baathist-led army and vast domestic spying and security services, and transform it into a functioning democratic polity—without the participation of former Baathist officials.

How to resolve this contradiction? The answer, for the Pentagon, seems to have amounted to one word: Chalabi. “When it came to Iraq,” James Risen writes in State of War,

the Pentagon believed it had the silver bullet it needed to avoid messy nation building—a provisional government in exile, built around Chalabi, could be established and then brought in to Baghdad after the invasion.

This so-called “turnkey operation” seems to have appeared to be the perfect compromise plan: Chalabi was Shiite, as were most Iraqis, but he was also a secularist who had lived in the West for nearly fifty years and was close to many of the Pentagon civilians. Alas, there was one problem: the confirmed idealist in the White House “was adamant that the United States not be seen as putting its thumb on the scales” of the nascent Iraqi democracy. Chalabi, for all his immense popularity in the Pentagon and in the Vice President’s office, would not be installed as president of Iraq.

Though “Bush’s commitment to democracy was laudable,” as Risen observes, his awkward intervention “was not really the answer to the question of postwar planning.” He goes on:

Once Bush quashed the Pentagon’s plans, the administration failed to develop any acceptable alternative…. Instead, once the Pentagon realized the president wasn’t going to let them install Chalabi, the Pentagon leadership did virtually nothing. After Chalabi, there was no Plan B.

An unnamed White House official describes to Risen the Laurel-and-Hardy consequences within the government of the President’s attachment to the idea of democratic elections in Iraq:

Part of the reason the planning for post-Saddam Iraq was so nonexistent was that the State Department had been saying if you invade, you have to plan for the postwar. And DOD said, no you don’t. You can set up a provisional government in exile around Chalabi. DOD had a stupid plan, but they had a plan. But if you don’t do that plan, and you don’t make the Pentagon work with State to develop something else, then you go to war with no plan.


Anyone wanting to answer the question of “how we began” in Iraq has to confront the monumental fact that the United States, the most powerful country in the world, invaded Iraq with no particular and specific idea of what it was going to do there, and then must try to explain how this could have happened. In his account Woodward resists the lure of Chalabi but not the temptation of melodrama, instead choosing, with typically impeccable political timing, to place Donald Rumsfeld in the role of mustache-twirling villain, a choice that most of the country, in the wake of the elections and the secretary’s instant fall from power, seems happy to embrace. And the secretary, truculent, arrogant, vain, has shown himself perfectly willing to play his part in this familiar Washington morality tale, setting himself up for the predictable fall by spending hours at the podium before fawning reporters and their television cameras during and after the invasion.

The Fall of Rumsfeld gives pace and drive to Woodward’s narrative. No doubt this will please readers, who find themselves increasingly outraged at the almost unbelievable failures in planning and execution, rewarding them with a bracing wave of schadenfreude when the inevitable defenestration finally takes place—outside the frame of the book but wholly predictable from its storyline. Indeed, the fact of State of Denial’s publication a month before the election, complete with the usual national television interviews and other attendant publicity, was not the least of the signs that the knives were out and glinting and that the secretary’s days were numbered.

Irresistible as Rumsfeld is, however, the story of the Iraq war disaster springs less from his brow than from that of an inexperienced and rigidly self-assured president who managed to fashion, with the help of a powerful vice-president, a strikingly disfigured process of governing. Woodward, much more interested in character and personal rivalry than government bureaus and hierarchies, refers to this process broadly as “the interagency,” as in “Rice said the interagency was broken.” He means the governing apparatus set up by the National Security Act of 1947, which gathered the government’s major security officials—secretaries of state, defense, and treasury, attorney general, director of national intelligence, among others—into the National Security Council, and gave to the president a special assistant for national security affairs (commonly known as the national security adviser) and a staff to manage, coordinate, and control it. Through the national security council and the “deputies committee” and other subsidiary bodies linking the various government departments at lower levels, information and policy guidance are supposed to work their way up from bureaucracy to president, and his decisions to work their way down. Ron Suskind, who has been closely studying the inner workings of the Bush administration since his revealing piece about Karl Rove and John Dilulio in 2003 and his book on Paul O’Neill the following year,15 observes that “the interagency” not only serves to convey information and decisions but also is intended to perform a more basic function:

Sober due diligence, with an eye for the way previous administrations have thought through a standard array of challenges facing the United States, creates, in fact, a kind of check on executive power and prerogative.

This is precisely what the President didn’t want, particularly after September 11; deeply distrustful of the bureaucracy, desirous of quick, decisive action, impatient with bureaucrats and policy intellectuals, the President wanted to act. Suskind writes:

For George W. Bush, there had been an evolution on such matters—from the early, pre-9/11 President, who had little grasp of foreign affairs and made few major decisions in that realm; to the post-9/11 President, who met America’s foreign challenges with decisiveness born of a brand of preternatural, faith-based, self-generated certainty. The policy process, in fact, never changed much. Issues argued, often vociferously, at the level of deputies and principals rarely seemed to go upstream in their fullest form to the President’s desk; and, if they did, it was often after Bush seemed to have already made up his mind based on what was so often cited as his “instinct” or “gut.”

Woodward tends to blame “the broken policy process” on the relative strength of personalities gathered around the cabinet table: the power and ruthlessness of Rumsfeld, the legendary “bureaucratic infighter”; the weakness of Rice, the very function and purpose of whose job, to let the President both benefit from and control the bureaucracy, was in effect eviscerated. Suskind, more convincingly, argues that Bush and Cheney constructed precisely the government they wanted: centralized, highly secretive, its clean, direct lines of decision unencumbered by information or consultation. “There was never any policy process to break, by Condi or anyone else,” Richard Armitage, the former deputy secretary of state, remarks to Suskind. “There was never one from the start. Bush didn’t want one, for whatever reason.” Suskind suggests why in an acute analysis of personality and leadership:

Of the many reasons the President moved in this direction, the most telling may stem from George Bush’s belief in his own certainty and, especially after 9/11, his need to protect the capacity to will such certainty in the face of daunting complexity. His view of right and wrong, and of righteous actions—such as attacking evil or spreading “God’s gift” of democracy—were undercut by the kind of traditional, shades-of-gray analysis that has been a staple of most presidents’ diets. This President’s traditional day began with Bible reading at dawn, a workout, breakfast, and the briefings of foreign and domestic threats…. The hard, complex analysis, in this model, would often be a thin offering, passed through the filters of Cheney or Rice, or not presented at all.

…This granted certain unique advantages to Bush. With fewer people privy to actual decisions, tighter confidentiality could be preserved, reducing leaks. Swift decisions—either preempting detailed deliberation or ignoring it—could move immediately to implementation, speeding the pace of execution and emphasizing the hows rather than the more complex whys.

What Bush knew before, or during, a key decision remained largely a mystery. Only a tiny group—Cheney, Rice, Card, Rove, Tenet, Rumsfeld—could break this seal.

To the rest of the government, of course, this “mystery” must have been excruciating to endure; Suskind describes how many of those in the “foreign policy establishment” found themselves “befuddled” by the way the traditional policy process was viewed not only as unproductive but “perilous.” Information, that is, could slow decision-making; indeed, when it had to do with a bold and risky venture like the Iraq war, information and discussion—an airing, say, of the precise obstacles facing a “democratic transition” conducted with a handful of troops—could paralyze it. If the sober consideration of history and facts stood in the way of bold action then it would be the history and the facts that would be discarded. The risk of doing nothing, the risk, that is, of the status quo, justified acting. Given the grim facts on the ground—the likelihood of a future terrorist attack from the “malignant” Middle East, the impossibility of entirely protecting the country from it—better to embrace the unknown. Better, that is, to act in the cause of “constructive instability”—a wonderfully evocative phrase, which, as Suskind writes, was

the term used by various senior officials in regard to Iraq—a term with roots in pre-9/11 ideas among neoconservatives about the need for a new, muscular, unbounded American posture; and outgrowths that swiftly took shape after the attacks made everything prior to 9/11 easily relegated to dusty history.

The past—along with old-style deliberations based on cause and effect or on agreed-upon precedents—didn’t much matter; nor did those with knowledge and prevailing policy studies, of agreements between nations, or of long-standing arrangements defining the global landscape.

What mattered, by default, was the President’s “instinct” to guide America across the fresh, post-9/11 terrain—a style of leadership that could be rendered within tiny, confidential circles.

America, unbound, was duly led by a President, unbound.

It is that “duly led,” of course, that is the question. Information, history, and all the other attributes of a deliberative policy may inhibit action but they do so by weighing and calculating risk. Dispensing with them has no consequences only if you accept the proposition that the Iraq war so clearly disproves: that bold action must always make us safer.


So there would be no President Chalabi. Unfortunately, the President, who thought of himself, Woodward says, “as the calcium in the backbone” of the US government, having banned Chalabi’s ascension, neither offered an alternative plan nor forced the government he led to agree on one. Nor did Secretary Rumsfeld, who knew only that he wanted a quick victory and a quick departure. To underline the point, soon after the US invasion the secretary sent his special assistant, Larry DiRita, to the Kuwait City Hilton to brief the tiny, miserable, understaffed, and underfunded team led by the retired General Garner which was preparing to fly to a chaotic Baghdad to “take control of the transition.” Here is DiRita’s “Hilton Speech” as quoted to Woodward by an army colonel, Paul Hughes:

“We went into the Balkans and Bosnia and Kosovo and we’re still in them…. We’re probably going to wind up in Afghanistan for a long time because the Department of State can’t do its job right. Because they keep screwing things up, the Department of Defense winds up being stuck at these places. We’re not going to let this happen in Iraq.”

The reaction was generally, Whoa! Does this guy even realize that half the people in the room are from the State Department?

DiRita went on, as Hughes recalled: “By the end of August we’re going to have 25,000 to 30,000 troops left in Iraq.”

DiRita spoke these words as, a few hundred miles away, Baghdad and the other major cities of Iraq were taken up in a thoroughgoing riot of looting and pillage—of government ministries, universities and hospitals, power stations and factories—that would virtually destroy the country’s infrastructure, and with it much of the respect Iraqis might have had for American competence. The uncontrolled violence engulfed Iraq’s capital and major cities for weeks as American troops—140,000 or more—mainly sat on their tanks, looking on. If attaining true political authority depends on securing a monopoly on legitimate violence, then the Americans would never achieve it in Iraq. There were precious few troops to impose order, and hardly any military police. No one gave the order to arrest or shoot looters or otherwise take control of the streets. Official Pentagon intentions at this time seem to have been precisely what the secretary of defense’s special assistant said they were: to have all but 25,000 or so of those troops out of Iraq in five months or less.

How then to secure the country, which was already in a state of escalating chaos? Most of the ministries had been looted and burned and what government there was consisted of the handful of Iraqi officials who Garner’s small team had managed to coax into returning to work. In keeping with the general approach of quick victory, quick departure, Garner had briefed the President and his advisers before leaving Washington, emphasizing his plan to dismiss only the most senior and personally culpable Baathists from the government and also to make use of the Iraqi army to rebuild and, eventually, keep order.

Within weeks of that meeting in the Kuwait Hilton, L. Paul Bremer arrived in Baghdad, replacing Garner, who had been fired after less than a month in Iraq. On Bremer’s first full day “in-country,” in Woodward’s telling, one of Garner’s officials ran up to her now–lame duck boss and thrust a paper into his hand:

“Have you read this?” she asked.

“No,” Garner replied. “I don’t know what the hell you’ve got there.”

“It’s a de-Baathification policy,” she said, handing him a two-page document.

The document was Bremer’s “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.

“We can’t do this,” Garner said. He still envisioned what he had told Rumsfeld would be a “gentle de-Baathification”—eliminating only the number one Baathist and personnel directors in each ministry. “It’s too deep,” he added.

Garner headed immediately to Bremer’s office, where the new occupation leader was just settling in, and on the way ran into the CIA chief of station, referred to here as Charlie.

“Have you read this?” Garner asked.

“That’s why I’m over here,” Charlie said.

“Let’s go see Bremer.” The two men got in to see the new administrator of Iraq around 1 PM. “Jerry, this is too deep,” Garner said. “Give Charlie and I about an hour. We’ll sit down with this. We’ll do the pros and cons and then we’ll get on the telephone with Rumsfeld and soften it a bit.”

“Absolutely not,” Bremer said. “Those are my instructions and I intend to execute them.”

Garner, who will shortly be going home, sees he’s making little headway and appeals to the CIA man, who “had been station chief in other Middle East countries,” asking him what will happen if the order is issued.

“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.

“I told you,” Bremer said, looking at Charlie. “I have my instructions and I have to implement this.”

The chain of command, as we know, goes through Rumsfeld, and Garner gets on the phone and appeals to the secretary of defense, who tells him—and this will be a leitmotif in Woodward’s book—that the matter is out of his hands:

“This is not coming from this building,” [Rumsfeld] replied. “That came from somewhere else.”

Garner presumed that meant the White House, NSC or Cheney. According to other participants, however, the de-Baathification order was purely a Pentagon creation. Telling Garner it came from somewhere else, though, had the advantage for Rumsfeld of ending the argument.

Such tactics are presumably what mark Rumsfeld as a “skilled bureaucratic infighter,” the description that has followed him through his career in government like a Homeric epithet. In fact, according to Bremer, he had received those orders at the Pentagon a few days before from Douglas Feith, Rumsfeld’s undersecretary for policy. In Bremer’s telling, Feith gave him the draft order, emphasizing “the political importance of the decree”:

We’ve got to show all the Iraqis that we’re serious about building a New Iraq. And that means that Saddam’s instruments of repression have no role in that new nation.16

The following day, Bremer’s second in Iraq, the hapless Garner was handed another draft order. This, Woodward tells us, was Order Number 2, 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.

An American colonel and a number of CIA officers had been meeting regularly with Iraqi officers in order to reconstitute the army. They had lists of soldiers, had promised emergency payments. “The former Iraqi military,” according to Garner, “was making more and more overtures, just waiting to come back in some form.” Again, Garner rushed off to see Bremer:

“We have always made plans to bring the army back,” he insisted. This new plan was just coming out of the blue, subverting months of work.

“Well, the plans have changed,” Bremer replied. “The thought is that we don’t want the residuals of the old army. We want a new and fresh army.”

“Jerry, you can get rid of an army in a day, but it takes years to build one.”

Again Bremer tells Garner that he has his orders. The discussion attains a certain unintended comedy when the proconsuls go on to discuss the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, which Bremer has also announced he will abolish:

“You can’t get rid of the Ministry of the Interior,” Garner said.

“Why not?”

“You just made a speech yesterday and told everybody how important the police force is.”

“It is important.”

“All the police are in the Ministry of the Interior,” Garner said. “If you put this out, they’ll all go home today.”

On hearing this bit of information, we are told, Bremer looked “surprised”—an expression similar, no doubt, to Rice’s when she and the President learned from the secretary of state that the civilian occupation authority would not be reporting to the White House but to the Pentagon. Unfortunately, within the Pentagon there coexisted at least two visions of what the occupation of Iraq was to be: the quick victory, quick departure view of Rumsfeld, and the broader, ideologically driven democratic transformation of Iraqi society championed by the neoconservatives. The two views had uneasily intersected, for a time, in the alluring person of Ahmad Chalabi, who seemed to make both visions possible. With a Chalabi coronation taken off the table by President Bush, however, determined officials with a direct line to Bremer were transforming the Iraq adventure into a long-term, highly ambitious occupation. Presumably as Garner woke up on May 17, 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,” he could take satisfaction in having managed, by his last-minute efforts, to persuade Bremer to “excise the Ministry of Interior from the draft so the police could stay.”


One can make arguments for a “deep de-Baathification” of Iraq. One can make arguments also for dismantling the Iraqi army. It is hard, though, to make an argument that such steps did not stand in dramatic and irresolvable contradiction to the Pentagon’s plan to withdraw all but 30,000 American troops from Iraq within a few months. With no Iraqi army, with all Baath Party members thrown out of the ministries and the agencies of government, with all of Saddam’s formidable security forces summarily sacked—and with all of these forces transformed into sworn enemies of the American occupation—who precisely was going to keep order in Iraq? And who was going to build that “new and fresh army” that Bremer was talking about?

These questions loom so large and are so obvious that one feels that they must have some answer, even if an unconvincing one. The simple fact is that these two enormously significant steps—launching a “deep de-Baathification” of the government and dissolving the Iraqi army—together with Bremer’s decision, taken also during his first days, to downgrade to that of a figurehead the status of the group of Iraqi politicians known as the Iraqi Governing Council, transformed what had been the Pentagon’s plan for a quick victory and quick departure into a long-running and open-ended occupation that would perforce involve the establishment of a new Iraqi army.

The political implications within Iraq were incalculable, for the de-Baathification and the dissolution of the army both appeared to the Sunnis to be declarations of open warfare against them, convincing many that they would be judged not by standards of individual conduct but by the fact of their membership in a group—judged not according to what they had done but according to who they were. This in itself undermined what hope there was to create the sine qua non of a stable democracy: a loyal opposition, which is to say an opposition that believes enough in the fairness of the system that it will renounce violence. “You Americans, you know,” as a young Sunni had told me in October 2003, when the insurgency was already in full flower, “you have created your enemies here.”

It is unlikely that the Pentagon’s vision of a rapid departure ever could have worked, Bremer or no Bremer. What is striking, however, is the way that the most momentous of decisions were taken in the most shockingly haphazard ways, with the power in the hands of a few Pentagon civilians who knew little of Iraq or the region, the expertise of the rest of the government almost wholly excluded, and the President and his highest officials looking on.

In the event, the Bush administration seems to have worked hard to turn Kennan’s problem of knowing the facts on its head: the systemic failures in Iraq resulted in large part from an almost willful determination to cut off those in the government who knew anything from those who made the decisions. Woodward tells us, for example, that Stephen Hadley, then Rice’s deputy and now her successor,

first learned of the orders on de-Baathification and disbanding the military as Bremer announced them to Iraq and to the world. They hadn’t been touched by the formal interagency process and as far as Hadley knew there was no imprimatur from the White House. Rice also had not been consulted. It hadn’t come back to Washington or the NSC for a decision….

One NSC lawyer had been shown drafts of the policies to de-Baathify Iraq and disband the military—but that was only to give a legal opinion. The policymakers never saw the drafts, never had a chance to say whether they thought they were good ideas or even to point out that they were radical departures from what had earlier been planned and briefed to the president.

As for the uniformed military, the men who were responsible for securing Iraq and whose job would thus be dramatically affected both by de-Baathification and by the dissolution of the Iraqi army, they were given no chance to speak on either question. Woodward writes:

General Myers, the principal military adviser to Bush, Rumsfeld and the NSC, wasn’t even consulted on the disbanding of the Iraqi military. It was presented as a fait accompli.

“We’re not going to just sit here and second-guess everything he does,” Rumsfeld told Myers at one point, referring to Bremer’s decisions.

“I didn’t get a vote on it,” Myers told a colleague, “but I can see where Ambassador Bremer might have thought this is reasonable.”

Since it is the cashiered Iraqi troops who, broke, angry, and humiliated (“Why do you Americans punish us, when we did not fight?” as one ex-soldier demanded of me that October), would within days be killing Myers’s soldiers with sniper fire and the first improvised explosive devices, one has to regard the general’s expressed forbearance as uncommonly generous.

At the time, the civilians in the Pentagon had attained their greatest power and prestige. Rumsfeld’s daily press conferences were broadcast live over the cable news channels, with an appreciative audience of journalists chortling at the secretary’s jokes on national television. No one then seems to have questioned what Woodward calls his “distrust of the interagency.” Instead, Woodward writes,

from April 2003 on, the constant drumbeat that Hadley heard coming out of the Pentagon had been “This is Don Rumsfeld’s thing, and we’re going to do the interagency in Baghdad. Let Jerry run it.”

“Jerry,” it might be said at this point, seems a well-meaning man, but he had never run anything larger than the United States embassy in the Netherlands, where he served as ambassador. He spoke no Arabic and knew little of the Middle East and nothing of Iraq. He had had nothing to do with the meager and inadequate planning the Pentagon had done for “the postwar” and indeed had had only a few days’ preparation before being flown to Baghdad. He apparently never saw the extensive plans the State Department had drawn up for the postwar period. And as would become evident as the occupation wore on and he became more independent of the Pentagon civilians, he had no particular qualifications to make and implement decisions of such magnitude, decisions that would certainly prolong the American occupation and would ultimately do much to doom it. For Rumsfeld, however, Bremer’s supposed independence in Baghdad has had its uses:

Rumsfeld later said he would be surprised if Wolfowitz or Feith gave Bremer the de-Baathification and army orders. He said he did not recall an NSC meeting on the subject. Of Bremer, Rumsfeld said, “I talked to him only rarely…”

It is impossible to believe, even in this administration, that Bremer decided on his own, on his second day in Baghdad, to dissolve the Iraqi army, and it is unlikely that Rumsfeld’s own involvement in a matter of such magnitude would have slipped the defense secretary’s mind. To the “skilled bureaucratic infighter,” however, especially one with little or no oversight from president or Congress, what Woodward calls “the rubber-glove syndrome—the tendency not to leave his fingerprints on decisions”—can prove useful in avoiding responsibility for wreckage caused—for a time, anyway. It cannot, however, prevent the consequences on the ground and, in Iraq, it has not.


Nearly four years into the Iraq war, as we enter the Time of Proposed Solutions, the consequences of those early decisions define the bloody landscape. By dismissing and humiliating the soldiers and officers of the Iraqi army our leaders, in effect, did much to recruit the insurgency. By bringing far too few troops to secure Saddam’s enormous arms depots they armed it. By bringing too few to keep order they presided over the looting and overwhelming violence and social disintegration that provided the insurgency such fertile soil. By blithely purging tens of thousands of the country’s Baathist elite, whatever their deeds, and by establishing a muscle-bound and inept American occupation without an “Iraqi face,” they created an increasing resentment among Iraqis that fostered the insurgency and encouraged people to shelter it. And by providing too few troops to secure Iraq’s borders they helped supply its forces with an unending number of Sunni Islamic extremists from neighboring states. It was the foreign Islamists’ strategy above all to promote their jihadist cause by provoking a sectarian civil war in Iraq; by failing to prevent their attacks and to protect the Shia who became their targets, the US leaders have allowed them to succeed.

To Americans now, the hour appears very late in Iraq. Deeply weary of a war that early on lost its reason for being, most Americans want nothing more than to be shown a way out. The President and his counselors, even in the weeks before the election, had begun redefining the idea of victory, dramatically downgrading the goals that were set out in the National Security Presidential Directive of August 2002. Thus Vice President Cheney, asked the week before the election about an “exit strategy” from Iraq, declared that “we’re not looking for an exit strategy. We’re looking for victory” but then went on to offer a rather modest definition:

Victory will be the day when the Iraqis solve their political problems and are up and running with respect to their own government, and when they’re able to provide for their own security.17

This was before Americans had gone to the polls and overwhelmingly condemned the administration’s Iraq policies—with the result that, as one comedian put it, “on Tuesday night, in an ironic turnaround, Iraq brought regime change to the US.”18 On the day after the election the President, stripped of his majorities in Congress, came forward to offer a still more modest definition: Victory would mean producing in Iraq “a government that can defend, govern and sustain itself.”19

In fact, even these modest words have come to seem ambitious, and perhaps unrealistic. As I write, Operation Together Forward, the joint effort by American and Iraqi forces to secure the city of Baghdad, has failed. The American commander in the capital, faced with a 26 percent increase in attacks during the operation, declared the results “disappointing,” an on-the-record use of direct language that a year ago would have been inconceivable coming from a senior US officer.

Operation Together Forward was not only to have demonstrated that the Iraqis were now “able to defend themselves,” as the President said, but to have made it possible for “the unity government to make the difficult decisions necessary to unite the country.” The operation was intended to blunt the power of Sunni insurgents and thus clear the way for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to lend his support to disarming and eliminating the Shia militias that are responsible for much of the death-squad killing in Baghdad. Unfortunately, the militias—in particular, the Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization—remain a vital part of the unity government’s political infrastructure. This inconvenient but fundamental political fact renders much of the Bush administration’s rhetoric about its present strategy in Iraq almost nonsensical. The evident contradiction between policy and reality, and the angry reactions by al-Maliki to efforts by the US military to rein in the militias by launching raids into Sadr City, have stirred rumors, in Baghdad and Washington, of a possible post-election coup d’état to replace Maliki with a “government of national salvation.” It is hard to know what such a government, whether led by Ayad Allawi, a longtime Washington favorite who was briefly interim prime minister (and who derided the possibility of coming to power by a coup), or some other “strongman,” might accomplish, or whether any gains in security could outweigh the political costs of conniving in the overthrow of a government that, however ineffectual it is, Iraqis elected. The establishment of that government stands ever more starkly as one of the few (if ambiguous) accomplishments remaining from the original program for Iraq.

To Americans the Iraq war seems to have entered its third and final act. Though the plans and ideas now will come apace, all of them directed toward answering a single, dominant question—How do we get out of Iraq?—none is likely to supply a means of departure that does not carry a very high cost. The present “sense of an ending” about Iraq has its roots more in American weariness and frustration than any real prospect of finding a “solution” or “exit strategy” that won’t, in its consequences, be seen for what it is: a de facto acknowledgment of a failed and even catastrophic policy.

Only the week before the election, President Bush warned an interviewer about the consequences of an American defeat in Iraq:

The terrorists…have clearly said they want a safe haven from which to launch attacks against America, a safe haven from which to topple moderate governments in the Middle East, a safe haven from which to spread their jihadist point of view, which is that there are no freedoms in the world; we will dictate to you how you think…. I can conceivably see a world in which radicals and extremists control oil. And they would say to the West: You either abandon Israel, for example, or we’re going to run the price of oil up. Or withdraw….20

A few days after the Republican defeat at the polls, the President’s chief of staff, Josh Bolten, discussing the Iraqi government, put the matter in even starker terms:

We need to treat them as a sovereign government. But we also need to give them the support they need to succeed because the alternative for the United States, I believe, is truly disastrous…. We could leave behind an Iraq that is a failed state, a haven for terrorism, a real threat to the United States and to the region. That’s just not an acceptable outcome.21

We are well down the road toward this dark vision, a wave of threatening instability that stands as the precise opposite of the Bush administration’s “democratic tsunami,” the wave of liberalizing revolution that American power, through the invasion of Iraq, was to set loose throughout the Middle East. The chances of accomplishing such change within Iraq itself, let alone across the complicated landscape of the entire region, were always very small. Saddam Hussein and the autocracy he ruled were the product of a dysfunctional politics, not the cause of it. Reform of such a politics was always going to be a task of incalculable complexity. Faced with such complexity, and determined to have their war and their democratic revolution, the President and his counselors looked away. Confronted with great difficulties, their answer was to blind themselves to them and put their faith in ideology and hope—in the dream of a welcoming landscape, magically transformed. The evangelical vision may have made the sense of threat after September 11 easier to bear but it did not change the risks and the reality on the ground. The result is that the wave of change the President and his officials were so determined to set in course by unleashing American military power may well turn out to be precisely the wave of Islamic radicalism that they had hoped to prevent.

In the coming weeks we will hear much talk of “exit strategies” and “proposed solutions.” All such “solutions,” though, are certain to come with heavy political costs, costs the President may consider more difficult to bear than those of doggedly “staying the course” for the remainder of his term. George W. Bush, who ran for president vowing a “humble” foreign policy, could not have predicted this. Kennan said it in October 2002:

Anyone who has ever studied the history of American diplomacy, especially military diplomacy, knows that you might start in a war with certain things on your mind as a purpose of what you are doing, but in the end, you found yourself fighting for entirely different things that you had never thought of before. In other words, war has a momentum of its own and it carries you away from all thoughtful intentions when you get into it.

If we are indeed in the third act—as I will take up in a future article—then it may well be that this final act will prove to be very long and very painful. You may or may not know where you begin. You never know where you are going to end.

—November 16, 2006

This Issue

December 21, 2006