Uncurious George Home Page

Uncurious George

Issues | Citations | Links | About us

Preparing for Postwar Iraq

The Bush administration launched the war in Iraq based on the assumption that the postwar occupation would require less resources than taking military control of Iraq. The CIA, the State Department, and numerous international development organizations all advised that the occupation ("winning the peace") would require far more resources that winning the war. With adequate U.S. preparation, the looting could have been averted and the return to full Iraqi administration could have been accomplished more quickly and at lower cost.

James Fallows documents this story in a 16,000-word article Blind into Baghdad in The Atlantic, January/February 2004.

Sixteen thousand words is long, but that's how long it takes to document the extreme overconfidence on the part of a few key members of the Bush administration and the mistakes they made in the face of mountains of advice. The problem was not only uncurious George W. Bush. The problem was also uncurious Dick Cheney, uncurious Donald Rumsfeld, uncurious Paul Wolfowitz, and uncurious Paul Bremer.

Let's let Fallows tell the story.

Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz: Don't waste time planning the occupation

Ten Months Before the War: War Games and Warnings

As combat slowed in Afghanistan and the teams of the Future of Iraq project continued their deliberations, the U.S. government put itself on a wartime footing. In late May [2002] the CIA had begun what would become a long series of war-game exercises, to think through the best- and worst-case scenarios after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. According to a person familiar with the process, one recurring theme in the exercises was the risk of civil disorder after the fall of Baghdad. The exercises explored how to find and secure the weapons of mass destruction that were then assumed to be in and around Baghdad, and indicated that the hardest task would be finding and protecting scientists who knew about the weapons before they could be killed by the regime as it was going down.

The CIA also considered whether a new Iraqi government could be put together through a process like the Bonn conference, which was then being used to devise a post-Taliban regime for Afghanistan. At the Bonn conference representatives of rival political and ethic groups agreed on the terms that established Hamid Karzai as the new Afghan President. The CIA believed that rivalries in Iraq were so deep, and the political culture so shallow, that a similarly quick transfer of sovereignty would only invite chaos.

Representatives from the Defense Department were among those who participated in the first of these CIA war-game sessions. When their Pentagon superiors at the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) found out about this, in early summer, the representatives were reprimanded and told not to participate further. "OSD" is Washington shorthand, used frequently in discussions about the origins of Iraq war plans, and it usually refers to strong guidance from Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith, and one of Feith's deputies, William Luti. Their displeasure over the CIA exercise was an early illustration of a view that became stronger throughout 2002: that postwar planning was an impediment to war.

Bush administration: maintain discipline, don't speak of war costs

In September [2002], Lawrence Lindsay, then the chief White House economic adviser, broke discipline. He was asked by The Wall Street Journal how much a war and its aftermath might cost. He replied that it might end up at one to two percent of the gross domestic product, which would mean $100 billion to $200 billion. Lindsay added that he thought the cost of not going to war could conceivably be greater—but that didn't placate his critics within the Administration. The Administration was further annoyed by a report a few days later from Democrats on the House Budget Committee, which estimated the cost of the war at $48 billion to $93 billion. Lindsay was widely criticized in "background" comments from Administration officials, and by the end of the year he had been forced to resign. His comment "made it clear Larry just didn't get it," an unnamed Administration official told The Washington Post when Lindsay left. Lindsay's example could hardly have encouraged others in the Administration to be forthcoming with financial projections. Indeed, no one who remained in the Administration offered a plausible cost estimate until months after the war began.

When the unnamed official said that Lindsay didn't get it, he meant that Lindsay failed the discipline of silence on costs. But it was actually the Bush administration that "didn't get it" — "it" being the need to be honest with itself, and with the American people, about the costs of war and postwar operations.

Ignore predictions of a power vacuum

Through the fall and winter of 2002 the International Rescue Committee, Refugees International, InterAction, and other groups that met with USAID kept warning about one likely postwar problem that, as it turned out, Iraq avoided—a mass flow of refugees—and another that was exactly as bad as everyone warned: the lawlessness and looting of the "day after" in Baghdad. The Bush Administration would later point to the absence of refugees as a sign of the occupation's underreported success. This achievement was, indeed, due in part to a success: the speed and precision of the military campaign itself. But the absence of refugees was also a sign of a profound failure: the mistaken estimates of Iraq's WMD threat. All pre-war scenarios involving huge movements of refugees began with the assumption that Saddam Hussein would use chemical or biological weapons against U.S. troops or his own Kurdish or Shiite populations—and that either the fact or the fear of such assaults would force terrified Iraqis to evacuate.

The power vacuum that led to looting was disastrous. "The looting was not a surprise," Sandra Mitchell [vice-president of the International Rescue Committee] told me. "It should not have come as a surprise. Anyone who has witnessed the fall of a regime while another force is coming in on a temporary basis knows that looting is standard procedure. In Iraq there were very strong signals that this could be the period of greatest concern for humanitarian response." One lesson of postwar reconstruction through the 1990s was that even a short period of disorder could have long-lasting effects.

Ignore war-gaming analysis showing the need for larger U.S. forces

Through the 1990s Marine General Anthony Zinni, who preceded Tommy Franks as CENTCOM commander, had done war-gaming for a possible invasion of Iraq. His exercises involved a much larger U.S. force than the one that actually attacked last year. "They were very proud that they didn't have the kind of numbers my plan had called for," Zinni told me, referring to Rumsfeld and Cheney. "The reason we had those two extra divisions was the security situation. Revenge killings, crime, chaos—this was all foreseeable."

Thomas White agrees. Because of reasoning like Cheney's, "we went in with the minimum force to accomplish the military objectives, which was a straightforward task, never really in question," he told me. "And then we immediately found ourselves shorthanded in the aftermath. We sat there and watched people dismantle and run off with the country, basically."

Ignore warnings of looting
Fire anyone who dares to think about the future of Iraq

On January 24 [2003] a group of archaeologists and scholars went to the Pentagon to brief [Joseph] Collins [a deputy assistant secretary of defense] and other officials about the most important historic sites in Iraq, so that they could be spared in bombing. Thanks to precision targeting, the sites would indeed survive combat. Many, of course, were pillaged almost immediately afterward.

On January 30 the International Rescue Committee, which had been participating in the weekly Iraq Working Group sessions, publicly warned that a breakdown of law and order was likely unless the victorious U.S. forces acted immediately, with martial law if necessary, to prevent it. A week later Refugees International issued a similar warning.

At the regular meeting of the Iraq Working Group on January 29, the NGO representatives discussed a recent piece of vital news. The Administration had chosen a leader for all postwar efforts in Iraq: Jay M. Garner, a retired three-star Army general who had worked successfully with the Kurds at the end of the Gulf War. . . .

Garner assembled a team and immediately went to work. What happened to him in the next two months is the best-chronicled part of the postwar fiasco. He started from scratch, trying to familiarize himself with what the rest of the government had already done. On February 21 he convened a two-day meeting of diplomats, soldiers, academics, and development experts, who gathered at the National Defense University to discuss postwar plans. "The messiah could not have organized a sufficient relief and reconstruction or humanitarian effort in that short a time," a former CIA analyst named Judith Yaphe said after attending the meeting, according to Mark Fineman, Doyle McManus, and Robin Wright, of the Los Angeles Times. (Fineman died of a heart attack last fall, while reporting from Baghdad.) Garner was also affected by tension between OSD and the rest of the government. Garner had heard about the Future of Iraq project, although Rumsfeld had told him not to waste his time reading it. Nonetheless, he decided to bring its director, Thomas Warrick, onto his planning team. Garner, who clearly does not intend to be the fall guy for postwar problems in Baghdad, told me last fall that Rumsfeld had asked him to kick Warrick off his staff. In an interview with the BBC last November, Garner confirmed details of the firing that had earlier been published in Newsweek. According to Garner, Rumsfeld asked him, "Jay, have you got a guy named Warrick on your team?" "I said, 'Yes, I do.' He said, 'Well, I've got to ask you to remove him.' I said, 'I don't want to remove him; he's too valuable.' But he said, 'This came to me from such a high level that I can't overturn it, and I've just got to ask you to remove Mr. Warrick.'" Newsweek's conclusion was that the man giving the instructions was Vice President Cheney.

Bush asleep; Rumsfeld, Powell, Cheney, and Bremer in charge

This is the place to note that in several months of interviews I never once heard someone say "We took this step because the President indicated ..." or "The President really wanted ..." Instead I heard "Rumsfeld wanted," "Powell thought," "The Vice President pushed," "Bremer asked," and so on. One need only compare this with any discussion of foreign policy in Reagan's or Clinton's Administration—or Nixon's, or Kennedy's, or Johnson's, or most others—to sense how unusual is the absence of the President as prime mover. The other conspicuously absent figure was Condoleezza Rice, even after she was supposedly put in charge of coordinating Administration policy on Iraq, last October [2002]. It is possible that the President's confidants are so discreet that they have kept all his decisions and instructions secret. But that would run counter to the fundamental nature of bureaucratic Washington, where people cite a President's authority whenever they possibly can ("The President feels strongly about this, so ...").

To me, the more likely inference is that Bush took a strong overall position—fighting terrorism is this generation's challenge—and then was exposed to only a narrow range of options worked out by the contending forces within his Administration. If this interpretation proves to be right, and if Bush did in fact wish to know more, then blame will fall on those whose responsibility it was to present him with the widest range of choices: Cheney and Rice.

Mr. Bush selected the members of his administration, they report to him, and they serve at his pleasure. If Uncurious George Bush over-delegated responsibility, that's nobody's fault but his own.

Suppress analyses showing high costs and high manpower requirements

As the war drew near, the dispute about how to conduct it became public. On February 25 the Senate Armed Services Committee summoned all four Chiefs of Staff to answer questions about the war—and its aftermath. The crucial exchange began with a question from the ranking Democrat, Carl Levin. He asked Eric Shinseki, the Army Chief of Staff, how many soldiers would be required not to defeat Iraq but to occupy it. Well aware that he was at odds with his civilian superiors at the Pentagon, Shinseki at first deflected the question. "In specific numbers," he said, "I would have to rely on combatant commanders' exact requirements. But I think ..." and he trailed off.

"How about a range?" Levin asked. Shinseki replied—and recapitulated the argument he had made to Rumsfeld.
I would say that what's been mobilized to this point, something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers, are probably, you know, a figure that would be required.

We're talking about post-hostilities control over a piece of geography that's fairly significant, with the kinds of ethnic tensions that could lead to other problems. And so, it takes significant ground force presence to maintain safe and secure environment to ensure that the people are fed, that water is distributed, all the normal responsibilities that go along with administering a situation like this.
Two days later Paul Wolfowitz appeared before the House Budget Committee. He began working through his prepared statement about the Pentagon's budget request and then asked permission to "digress for a moment" and respond to recent commentary, "some of it quite outlandish, about what our postwar requirements might be in Iraq." Everyone knew he meant Shinseki's remarks.

"I am reluctant to try to predict anything about what the cost of a possible conflict in Iraq would be," Wolfowitz said, "or what the possible cost of reconstructing and stabilizing that country afterwards might be." This was more than reluctance—it was the Administration's consistent policy before the war. "But some of the higher-end predictions that we have been hearing recently, such as the notion that it will take several hundred thousand U.S. troops to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq, are wildly off the mark."

This was as direct a rebuke of a military leader by his civilian superior as the United States had seen in fifty years. Wolfowitz offered a variety of incidental reasons why his views were so different from those he alluded to: "I would expect that even countries like France will have a strong interest in assisting Iraq's reconstruction," and "We can't be sure that the Iraqi people will welcome us as liberators ... [but] I am reasonably certain that they will greet us as liberators, and that will help us to keep requirements down." His fundamental point was this: "It's hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam's security forces and his army. Hard to imagine."

None of the government working groups that had seriously looked into the question had simply "imagined" that occupying Iraq would be more difficult than defeating it. They had presented years' worth of experience suggesting that this would be the central reality of the undertaking. Wolfowitz either didn't notice this evidence or chose to disbelieve it. What David Halberstam said of Robert McNamara in The Best and the Brightest is true of those at OSD as well: they were brilliant, and they were fools.

Ignore advice not to dismantle the Iraqi army

On May 6 the Administration announced that Bremer would be the new U.S. administrator in Iraq. Two weeks into that job Bremer disbanded the Iraqi army and other parts of the Baathist security structure.

If the failure to stop the looting was a major sin of omission, sending the Iraqi soldiers home was, in the view of nearly everyone except those who made the decision, a catastrophic error of commission. . . .

The case against wholesale dissolution of the army, rather than a selective purge at the top, was that it created an instant enemy class: hundreds of thousands of men who still had their weapons but no longer had a paycheck or a place to go each day. Manpower that could have helped on security patrols became part of the security threat. Studies from the Army War College, the Future of Iraq project, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, to name a few, had all considered exactly this problem and suggested ways of removing the noxious leadership while retaining the ordinary troops. They had all warned strongly against disbanding the Iraqi army. The Army War College, for example, said in its report, "To tear apart the Army in the war's aftermath could lead to the destruction of one of the only forces for unity within the society."

"This is not something that was dreamed up by somebody at the last minute," Walter Slocombe—who held Feith's job, undersecretary of defense for policy, during the Clinton Administration, and who is now a security adviser on Bremer's team—told Peter Slevin, of The Washington Post, last November. He said that he had discussed the plan with Wolfowitz at least once and with Feith several times, including the day before the order was given. "The critical point," he told Slevin, "was that nobody argued that we shouldn't do this." No one, that is, the Administration listened to.

[Note: According to an article in a November 2003 Newsweek, the Bremer said Dubya Was Responsible for Disbanding Iraqi Army; the order to disband came from Uncurious George Bush.]

Fallows' conclusion: Uncurious George's failure of leadership

Leadership is always a balance between making large choices and being aware of details. George W. Bush has an obvious preference for large choices. This gave him his chance for greatness after the September 11 attacks. But his lack of curiosity about significant details may be his fatal weakness. When the decisions of the past eighteen months are assessed and judged, the Administration will be found wanting for its carelessness. Because of warnings it chose to ignore, it squandered American prestige, fortune, and lives.

Further reading

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Columnist: What Went Wrong?
Published: April 23, 2004