Chapter 6 The Iraq War: American Decision-Making



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Wall Street Journal on September 15, 2002 that the “upper bound” of the costs would be between $100 billion and $200 billion.155
In the public debate, more realistic estimates of the cost of the war were also being made. Yale University economist William Nordhaus published a widely discussed article in December 2002 that estimated the costs of war at between $120 billion, under the most favorable circumstances, and $1.6 trillion, under the most unfavorable circumstances.156 The Council on Foreign Relations study of post-war Iraq referenced above warned that, even if no oil facilities were damaged, Iraq’s total oil revenues would likely average between $10 billion and $12 billion, certainly far less than would be needed to finance the country’s reconstruction.157
With so much evidence available calling into question their rosy scenarios about post-Saddam Iraq, why did the senior policymakers of the Bush Administration not plan for a more difficult and extended post-war occupation? As was the case with WMD and the al-Qaeda link, the most plausible explanation is a combination of cognitive bias and political expediency. With most of the Administration set on war against Iraq shortly after 9/11, senior officials would be disposed psychologically to welcome scenarios which painted a picture of a relatively easy post-war transition. If deposing Saddam Hussein was essential in the new strategic context, any projection that emphasized the costs and difficulties of that policy would be discounted. Once a decision is made, decision-makers tend to look for information and analysis that will bolster their choice and to reject information and analysis that calls their decision into question. They can even accept as fact scenarios which are most unlikely. President Bush, in January 2003, when it was increasingly clear that the war would not have a United Nations imprimatur, reportedly told a group of Iraqi exiles that “a humanitarian army is going to follow our army into Iraq,” looking to NSA Rice for confirmation of that fact, which she provided.158 Even during the war, in April 2003, the White House was still planning on significant numbers of foreign forces, including from the Arab world, to take part in post-war stabilization.159 Assumptions of an easy post-war transition also fit very well into Secretary Rumsfeld’s new vision for a US military that would not be bogged down with long-term tasks of nation-building. Rumsfeld and those who shared this vision would thus be particularly resistant to more pessimistic analysis of post-war Iraq. Moreover, they could point to the relatively successful, relatively easy and relatively cheap model of regime change (or so it appeared at the time) which they had just accomplished in Afghanistan, as Secretary Rumsfeld did in his February 2003 speech mentioned above.
Once the Administration was set on war, it did not have much difficulty in finding supporting evidence and supportive analogies for its view about the ease with which the United States could transition to a stable post-Saddam Iraqi government. That supporting evidence bolstered it in its rejection of more pessimistic, and more accurate, projections of what post-war Iraq would require from the US. I have no doubt that senior Administration officials were sincere in their beliefs. It is inconceivable, given the political capital that they invested, that they would have deliberately chosen not to plan for contingencies that they believed likely. The Administration did prepare for a number of ugly post-war eventualities – chemical and biological weapons attacks by Iraqi forces, oil field fires, massive refugee movements – that they believed likely. Those preparations were costly, and raised fears about the negative consequences that war might bring. Those costs and fears did not deter the Administration from preparing for them.
Undoubtedly it was politically convenient to sell the war to the American people as one that would be easy and cheap. That convenience undoubtedly bolstered the strength with which many of the Administration’s policymakers held on to their rosy scenarios about post-war Iraq. But it is hard to escape the conclusion that they really believed that it would be easy, and that they believed this because they thought that deposing Saddam Hussein was absolutely necessary for American security. Those sincere beliefs led them to ignore the abundant warning signs, both in the government and in the public debate, that post-war Iraq would be much different than they thought. It was a tragic example of wishful thinking, and a textbook example of bad policymaking. That these rosy scenarios were held so sincerely by those making the decisions does not mitigate their responsibility for ignoring the contrary evidence and sending American forces into Iraq with no realistic plan for the post-war transition.

e) Politicization of Iraq intelligence
I have made the case that it was reasonable for the American intelligence community and American policymakers to conclude that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons. I further argued that it was much less reasonable for American policymakers to conclude that Iraq was an imminent nuclear threat, that Iraq had operational ties to al-Qaeda and that the post-war transition in Iraq would be short and easy. To what extent can these latter errors be attributed to the politicization of the intelligence process?
It is absolutely clear that Bush Administration officials took an active role in pushing the intelligence community to find the kind of evidence and do the kind of analysis that the Administration wanted to have. Analyses that called into question the Administration’s case for war were clearly not welcome. However, the extent to which this pressure from above affected the intelligence process is much less apparent. The community, despite political pressures, did not produce analysis that fit the Administration’s case on either the terrorism or the post-war Iraq issues. In these cases, the Administration went outside the normal channels to establish its own intelligence and operational offices, in the Pentagon, to provide support for its arguments. On chemical and biological weapons, the community did not have to be pressed by its political masters. It had already come to the conclusion, before 9/11, that Iraq possessed these kinds of weapons. Were there contrary views on chemical and biological weapons, they might have been squelched. However, there is no evidence that such contrary views existed. The one area where political pressure can be argued to have affected the intelligence process is on Iraqi nuclear capability, and even there it is not clear how much effect it had.
The real politicization of intelligence was in the way that the Administration used intelligence product in making its case for war, and in the way it staffed those parts of the government dealing with Iraq. The exaggerations in the public statements on both the nuclear issue and the al-Qaeda link by Administration officials were clearly efforts to mobilize public opinion in favor of war. The establishment of special bureaus in the office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy to find an Iraq-al-Qaeda link and to plan for post-war Iraq was clearly an effort by neoconservative ideologues to undercut established bureaucratic channels and monopolize control over these issues. These steps had real and damaging consequences for the American administration of Iraq after the fall of Saddam, but it is hard to argue that they had much effect on the war decision itself. They were the result of the decision to target Iraq, not the cause.160
“The analysts who worked Iraqi weapons issues universally agreed that in no instance did political pressure cause them to skew or alter any of their analytical judgments.”161 This conclusion, reached by the Silberman-Robb Commission, is the basis of Bush Administration claims that it did not exert undue pressure on the intelligence community. It is supported by a more informal, internal CIA investigation of its performance on the Iraq WMD issue.162 However, the Silberman-Robb Commission also found that the community was working “in an environment that did not encourage skepticism about the conventional wisdom” regarding Iraqi WMD.163 That environment was created not only by the community’s past mistakes on Iraq, in the sense that it did not want to underestimate Iraqi capabilities as it had both before and after the Gulf War, but also by the intense interest demonstrated by top Administration officials in the answers it was generating. According to a member of his staff, Vice President Cheney paid “approximately 10” visits to the CIA during 2002 to speak directly with analysts working on Iraq issues. One Agency analyst remarked, on the question of politicization, “they don’t have to tell us to do that – we know what they want.”164 A number of experienced intelligence analysts pointed to the practice of Administration policymakers persistently questioning intelligence reports that did not correspond with their beliefs about Iraq and requesting repeated re-examinations of questions whose original answers they did not like as constituting, in their totality, political pressure on the community.165
The pressure was real. But its effects seem to have been limited. Both Paul Pillar, the national intelligence officer on the Middle East, and Richard Kerr, the former CIA official who conducted an in-house investigation of the Iraq intelligence failures, while complaining of Administration political pressure, both echoed the Silberman-Robb Commission finding that community analysts did not alter their substantive findings in the face of this pressure. Pillar has written that on WMD “there was indeed a broad consensus that such programs existed.” He was particularly critical of Administration pressure on the community to find a Saddam-al-Qaeda link, which it refused to do.166 Kerr said that despite the pressures from above, “analysts’ judgments were consistent over a long period of time, and reasonable, he thought, given the limited information available.”167
It was not so much what the intelligence community said that reflected politicization, as what it did not say. The battle over Iraq’s nuclear program within the community, detailed above, was settled by a bureaucratic compromise based on an inherent contradiction: the CIA accepted evidence rejected by the Department of Energy and the Department of Energy accepted evidence rejected by the CIA. Yet this illogical conclusion was allowed to stand. By the time the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraqi WMD was being prepared, in the fall of 2002, many in the community had concluded that war with Iraq was inevitable, and that attempting to question the evidence for Iraqi WMD was futile. One Department of Energy analyst involved in composing the NIE told the Silbermann-Robb Commission: “DOE didn’t want to come out before the war and say [Iraq] wasn’t reconstituting.”168 There is no evidence that the community reassessed its judgments about Iraqi WMD in light of reports coming out of UNMOVIC, after the return of UN inspectors to Iraq in November 2002, that there was no evidence of on-going Iraqi WMD programs. Robert Jervis judges this a “significant failing” on the part of the community, and attributes it to the fact that “it was clear to the [intelligence community] that the US and the UK were committed to overthrowing Saddam and that any re-evaluations would be unacceptable.”169
The political pressure from above undoubtedly, in Jervis’ words, “created (and probably was designed to create) an atmosphere that was not conducive to critical analysis and that encouraged judgments of excessive certainty and eroded subtleties and nuances.”170 But there is no evidence that there were serious doubts present in the community on Iraqi possession of chemical and biological weapons. While there were differences of opinion about nuclear evidence and about how long it might take Iraq to develop a nuclear capability, all the major bureaucratic players, except the State Department, agreed that “Baghdad started reconstituting its nuclear program about the time that UNSCOM inspectors departed – December 1998.”171 On the al-Qaeda link, the community forthrightly opposed the Administration’s preferred conclusion, indicating that political pressure could be resisted by the intelligence agencies. In the end, the nuances of the analysis did not matter that much, as the political leaders had already decided that Saddam had to go.
The more serious effects of politicization of intelligence on Iraq were in the Administration’s use of that intelligence to justify the war and in its post-war planning. There is no doubt that the President and leading figures in the Administration “cherry-picked” the intelligence in order to present the most lurid and frightening case about Iraqi capabilities and intentions, particularly on the nuclear and terrorist issue.172 When Vice President Cheney told the Veterans of Foreign Wars in August 2002 that “many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons soon,” he did not talk about the differences of opinion within the intelligence community about the quality of the evidence for that belief, nor did he mention the State Department’s alternative view. When NSA Rice said on September 8, 2002 that “we do not want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” she did not subsequently mention that the October 2002 NIE on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction stated “Baghdad for now appears to be drawing the line short of conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or WMD against the United States.”173 When President Bush used the same image in a speech in Cincinnati on October 7, 2002, he also neglected to mention the NIE’s more nuanced judgments. When Secretary of State Powell spoke before the United Nations Security Council in February 2003 of the “sinister nexus” between Iraq and al-Qaeda, he did not reveal that his own intelligence agencies had not found any substantive and operational relationship between the two parties. When President Bush said in his January 2003 State of the Union address that Iraq “sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” he did not acknowledge that his own Secretary of State found the evidence for that assertion so weak that he left it out of his United Nations presentation just a few days later. The Administration used bits and pieces of intelligence to build public support for a war that it had much earlier decided must be fought. In that sense, it “politicized” intelligence in the most egregious way.
The other extremely damaging consequence of the political uses of intelligence, and the political fights over the assumptions about post-war Iraq, was the monopolization of post-war planning (such as it was) by the civilians around Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. On January 20, 2003 President Bush assigned responsibility for post-war Iraq to the Pentagon.174 The responsible official was Undersecretary for Policy Douglas Feith, in whose office a recently formed “Office of Special Plans” had already been working on the issue, based upon the assumptions about post-war Iraq discussed above. Pentagon officials experienced in other post-conflict situations were excluded from the process. One Defense Department official told George Packer that “the senior leadership at the Pentagon was very worried about the realities of the postconflict phase being known, because if you are Feith or if you are Wolfowitz, your primary concern is to achieve the war.”175 Feith’s office also made a point of discouraging participation by the Defense Department in planning exercises conducted elsewhere in the government. Defense officials who participated in a May 2002 war-gaming exercise on Iraq sponsored by the CIA were reprimanded by their superiors and told not to participate in similar meetings.176
Feith’s team was particularly concerned to block the efforts by those involved in the State Department’s Future of Iraq Project from playing a role in post-war Iraq. The State Department projected that the reconstruction tasks would be much more complicated, time-consuming and expensive than the prevailing assumptions in Rumsfeld’s office and the White House. Moreover, the Iraqi exiles involved in the State Department planning exercise were seen as rivals to Ahmad Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress, which had the patronage of the Pentagon civilians.177 The bureaucratic rivalry was so great that when retired General Jay Garner, the head of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs (the first American occupation authority in Iraq, predecessor of the Coalition Provisional Authority), petitioned to have Tom Warrick, the State Department official who coordinated the Future of Iraq Project, included on his staff, he was refused. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld told him to remove Warrick from his team, saying “I’ve gotten this from such a high level I can’t turn it down.” Garner enlisted Secretary of State Powell in an effort to get Warrick reinstated, but Powell was unable to do so.178 When asked whether he or anyone else at the Pentagon had blocked Warrick’s appointment, Feith replied, “I never met the guy. I wouldn’t know him if he walked in the room.”179
The fact that the Defense Department’s senior official on post-war Iraq had never met the head of the State Department’s planning effort on the same issue speaks volumes about the politicization of Iraq issues in the bureaucracy. Normal channels of interagency consultation and cooperation completely broke down in the lead-up to the war. The need to protect the assumptions held by senior Bush Administration officials about the nature of the conflict and the character of post-Saddam Iraq from any challenge, either from within or outside the government, led to a planning process that ignored expert advice and the evidence of the past, both the Iraqi past and recent post-conflict cases elsewhere. The costs of such politicized choices quickly became apparent after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, as Iraqi realities overwhelmed the American occupation authority.
A War for Democracy?
As it became increasingly clear after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime that Iraq was not the WMD threat that the Bush Administration had contended, Administration officials put much more public emphasis on the importance of Iraq’s democratic transformation as a major goal of the war. This transition was portrayed as the first step in the region-wide spread of democracy, and thus an essential part of the war on terrorism. A more democratic Middle East, the Bush Administration argued, would allow opposition groups to play a constructive and public role, not suppress them and push them toward terrorism. A more democratic Middle East would also not have governments that sought to deflect their publics’ anger toward the United States. A more democratic Middle East, in short, would not produce anti-American terrorism.180 Some of its critics contend that the Administration came to this emphasis on a democratic Middle East only after the war, to deflect attention from the intelligence failures on Iraqi WMD. It was a post-hoc pretext for war, not a real Administration goal.
The evidence points to a different conclusion. It is clear that the Administration’s post-9/11 focus on Iraq began with the nexus of WMD, anti-Americanism and support for terrorist groups which the Bush Doctrine declared intolerable. It was the WMD-terrorism connection that brought President Bush, Vice-President Cheney and NSA Rice around to the position of those in the Administration who had wanted to target Iraq for some time. However, as the build-up to war with Iraq progressed, the Administration adopted a more expansive view of the benefits which would redound from Saddam’s removal. Defeating Iraq would change not only the strategic picture of the Middle East, it would also change its political balance. Opponents of the United States would think more than once about challenging it, lest they face the same fate as Saddam. A democratic Iraq would be a force for change throughout the region, positive change for the United States.181 President Bush emphasized this element of American war goals in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute on the eve of the war, on February 26, 2003: “The world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values, because stable and free nations do not breed the ideologies of murder. They encourage the peaceful pursuit of a better life. And there are hopeful signs of a desire for freedom in the Middle East. A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region.”182
This emphasis on democracy promotion in the Middle East was a new turn for President Bush and many others in his Administration. However, one of the Administration’s main advocates for removing Saddam Hussein from power, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, had been a strong advocate of democracy promotion more generally for some time.183 He had pushed for a democratic transition in Iraq throughout the Clinton years, championing Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress as the vehicles for such a transformation. Wolfowitz’s vision of the strategic benefits of regime change in Iraq was not tied to the purported WMD threat posed by Saddam. Commenting on the Administration’s emphasis on WMD in its public case for war, he said: “For bureaucratic reasons we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on.”184 A number of prominent neo-conservatives outside the Administration also strongly advocated the beneficial effects of a democratic regime change in Iraq for American interests in the region as a whole.185
The first sign that the Bush Administration was re-evaluating the role democracy promotion should play in its post-9/11 Middle East policy came in the Arab-Israeli arena. Reversing a long-standing American inclination to ignore the domestic arrangements of Arab states and groups as long as they were willing to negotiate with Israel, in June 2002 President Bush said that the United States would deal only with a new, democratic Palestinian leadership, not with Yasir Arafat. Once the Palestinians had moved toward democracy, Bush said, the United States would support the creation of a Palestinian state.186 On August 29, 2002 President Bush signed a planning document outlining the broad goals of the war against Iraq, one of which was to aid the Iraqis in building “a society based on moderation, pluralism and democracy.”187 This democratic turn came to be reflected even in the public arguments for war of Administration officials not associated with the neo-conservative view of the world. Vice President Cheney, in his August 26, 2002 address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Nashville, certainly emphasized the WMD threat from Iraq as the centerpiece of the American case for war. But he brought his remarks to a close by invoking not threats, but the promise of a new Middle East: “In the Middle East, where so many have known only poverty and oppression, terror and tyranny, we look to the day when people can live in freedom and dignity. And the young can grow up free of the conditions that breed despair, hatred and violence.”188 President Bush’s February 2003 speech, as war was approaching, represented the culmination of this development inside the Administration, staking American interests in the region as much on the spread of democracy as on the elimination of WMD and terrorist threats.
This new emphasis on democracy promotion was the outgrowth of the Administration’s struggle to come to grips with the causes of the 9/11 attacks and the appropriate American response. Those attacks were so calamitous for the United States that they must have deeply rooted causes, this line of thought held. Something so huge could not come from superficial political complaints about American policy in the region, nor simply from a stateless band of cross-national terrorists like al-Qaeda. Rather, it emerged from a civilizational crisis in the Muslim Middle East, and only policies that addressed the deep roots of that crisis could remove the terrorist threat to the United States.189 The American quest for regional stability in past decades had simply allowed this crisis to fester. Dictatorship exacerbated this crisis; only democracy could help resolve it. Moreover, there was a firm belief in the Administration (challenged by the intelligence community, as discussed above) that Iraq was a fertile ground for such a democratic transition.190 Democracy promotion, at least in Iraq, it was assumed, would be relatively easy and trouble-free. If it would not be hard to establish an Iraqi democracy, if in fact the “default option” in a post-Saddam Iraq would be a democracy, then why should the United States not encourage that outcome?
That much of the democracy talk coming out of Washington in the lead-up to and immediately following the war concentrated (after Iraq) on Iran and Syria, the other major Middle Eastern states identified by neoconservatives as anti-American, indicates that there were strategic as well as ideological rationales behind the democracy push. But the two impulses were complementary for the Bush Administration.191 Policymakers saw regional transformation as a necessity, as the regional status-quo produced 9/11.192 As Thomas Ricks put it: “Stability wasn’t their
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