Did the Bush Administration Take History into Account Before Attacking Iraq? What Woodward's Book Suggests

News Abroad

A thorough review of Bob Woodward's account of the Iraq War, State of Denial, suggests that the Bush administration rarely thought to consult historians or to consider how history might shape the outcome. These, according to Woodward, are the limited number of occasions when they did.

Run-Up to War

To help shape the administration's response to 9/11 Paul Wolfowitz gamely assembled an outside group of pundits and scholars to "tackle the biggest questions."

WELL INTO THE AFGHANISTAN bombing campaign, Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, called an old friend, Christopher DeMuth, the longtime president of the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative Washington think tank. Just before coming to the Pentagon, Wolfowitz had been the dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, known as SAIS. AEI and SAIS, just blocks from each other, were the forum for lots of intellectual cross-pollination.

The U.S. government, especially the Pentagon, is incapable of producing the kinds of ideas and strategy needed to deal with a crisis of the magnitude of 9/11, Wolfowitz told DeMuth. He needed to reach outside to tackle the biggest questions. Who are the terrorists? Where did this come from? How does it relate to Islamic history, the history of the Mid- 'i dIe East, and contemporary Middle East tensions? What are we up against here?

Wolfowitz said he was thinking along the lines of Bletchley Park, the team of mathematicians and cryptologists the British set up during World War II to break the ULTRA German communications code. Could DeMuth quickly put together a skilled group to produce a report for the president, Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld, Rice and Tenet?

Asking a think tank if it would be willing to strategize for the top policy-makers in a time of extraordinary crisis was like asking General Motors if they would be willing to sell a million more cars. DeMuth, a smooth, debonair lawyer trained at the University of Chicago Law School and expert on government regulation, readily agreed. AEI was practically the intellectual farm team and retirement home for Washington conservatives. ...

DeMuth recruited a dozen people. He later said they agreed to serve only"if I promised it would all be kept secret." Included in the group were Bernard Lewis, a Cheney favorite and a scholar of Islam who had written extensively on Middle Eastern tensions with the West; Mark Palmer, a former U.S. ambassador to Hungary ' who specialized in dictatorships; Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International and a Newsweek columnist; Fouad Ajami, director of the Middle East Studies Program at SAIS; James Q. Wilson, a professor and specialist in human morality and crime; and Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA Middle East expert. Rumsfeld assigned his consultant and general fix-it man, Steve Herbits, to participate.

On Thursday night, November 29, 2001, DeMuth assembled the group at a secure conference center in Virginia for a weekend of discussion. They passed around some of the participants' various writings. DeMuth was surprised at the consensus among his group. He stayed up late Sunday night distilling their thoughts into a seven-page, single-spaced document, called"Delta of Terrorism.""Delta" was used in the sense of the mouth of a river from which everything flowed.

In an interview, DeMuth declined to provide a copy of"Delta of Terrorism," but he agreed to describe its conclusions."What we saw on 9/11 and the less dramatic attacks of the '90s like the USS Cole" --which killed 17 Navy sailors --"manifest that a war was going on within Islam--across the region. It was a deep problem, and 9/11 was not an isolated action that called for policing and crime fighting."

It was a different kind of terrorism than the 1970s version, with locally disaffected groups such as the Red Brigades in Italy. Overall, the report concluded, the United States was likely 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." The Baath Party, controlled by Saddam Hussein, had ruled Iraq since 1968."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.

Jay Garner's Mission

Just six weeks before the start of the Iraq War General Jay Garner was selected by Donald Rumsfeld to oversee the occupation of Iraq following the end of major combat operations. Rumsfeld told Woodward he envisioned the Iraq War would end the same way the Afghanistan War had, with the installation of a transition government and the early exit of American forces. Garner told Woodward that he thought he had been given a nearly impossible task. Six weeks simply wasn't long enough to prepare. He also complained that he had been given meager resources. On the eve of the war he had just 150 people on his staff. Garner thought this was inadequate considering that he was going to be in charge of a country of 25 million.

To help him he recruited Gordon Rudd, a "retired army colonel who had been the official military historian for Project Comfort in 1991." Project Comfort gave Kurds in northern Iraq food and aid after the end of the Persian Gulf War. Garner ran the operation. His success in 1991 led to his selection in 2003 as the head of postwar Iraq.

Rudd had a Ph.D. in history and lived near the Marine Corps Base at Quantico, Virginia, where he was a professor at the command and staff college. Working for Garner, he would hit the road about 5am each day to beat the snarled Virginia traffic to the Pentagon, work as many as 14 hours a day, and basically let the assignment take over his life."Gordon," Garner called out to him in a Pentagon hallway."Write me a paper on what we should do with the Iraqi army."

Rudd took a day, went to the library, and read everything he could find about what the U.S. had done with the German and Japanese armies at the end of World War II. He also researched how the U.S. had used its own military during the New Deal, developing things such as the Civilian Conservation Corps. He wrote a paper theorizing that if the Iraqi army had armor and artillery units, it must also have engineering and maintenance units. That meant it must have military schools--an engineering school, a transportation school, maybe even a medical school.

What they should do, he wrote, was run the Iraqi infantry units through schools that taught specific reconstruction tasks--mine-clearing school, or explosive-ordnance-disposal school.

But Rudd soon found out that nobody knew where the Iraqi military schools were, which meant it was almost impossible to put together a practical plan. He worked with an Army intelligence colonel and put in requests for more information to the DIA and the CIA, but the response they got back was simply,"We just don't know."

Signs of Chaos

Garner, stationed during the war in Kuwait, wanted to get to Baghdad as soon as American troops subdued the city. But Rumsfeld repeatedly delayed his departure. This struck National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice as wrong-headed.

RICE THOUGHT GARNER was sitting in Kuwait too long. All the important things--running the government, getting the ministries up and running in Iraq--were not getting done. She understood that Iraq had a pretty good civil service, and she assumed it would still be there. But several days into the war, she received reports that the government workers, including oil workers, could not be found. "What do you mean you can't find the oil workers?" she asked.

There was a brittleness in the country, she concluded. As a Soviet expert she had studied what happens to totalitarian systems when they collapse. She recalled reading about the 1953 death of Joseph Stalin. For five weeks the Soviet Union ceased to function. Nobody could do anything because everybody counted on direction from the very top. Iraq seemed to have cratered in the same way or worse. But history predicted it would be temporary. In the end, she was confident, order would reassert itself, as had happened in the old USSR.

Garner was replaced in May by Paul Bremer, whom the Bush administration thought would offer more robust leadership. Garner had wanted to be out of a job by June. Bremer, by contrast, saw himself as Douglas MacArthur. Garner was appalled by Bremer's actions. Upon his return to the states he told Rumsfeld that Bremer had made three disastrous mistakes: 1. disbanding the Iraqi army. 2. de-Baathification. and 3. dissolving the Iraqi governing group Garner had painstakingly assembled.

Bush called in Garner to pay his thanks for his service. Garner declined to tell Bush what he really thought of Bremer's leadership. Why? "I didn't work for the president," Garner told Woodward. "I worked for Rumsfeld. I'm a military guy." He left Bush thinking that Bremer was doing a terrific job.

As the signs of chaos increased in 2003 and 2004 Rice grew concerned, but never lost faith:

IN THE RARE MOMENTS Rice had time to read, she read about the Founding Fathers to remind herself that the United States of America should never have come into being. In particular, she was affected by David McCullough's 1776, about the darkest times of the American Revolution. General George Washington wrote a private letter to his brother in which he reflected on the contrast between his public demeanor and knowledge of the dire circumstances."Many of my difficulties and distresses were of so peculiar a cast that in order to conceal them from the enemy, I was obliged to conceal them from my friends, indeed from my own army," Washington wrote,"thereby subjecting my conduct to interpretations unfavorable to my character."

Rice maintained to colleagues that neither she nor the president felt any equivalent distress."Tough sledding," she said, but Bush had told her,"I see the path on Iraq."

After the 2004 election Bush replaced Colin Powell with Rice. In early 2005 elections were held in Iraq at the insistence of Grand Ayatollah Sistani. Rice and Bush were encouraged by the astonishing sight of millions of voters with purple painted fingers. But the election did not stop the attacks of the insurgents. It was at this point that Rice brought in a historian as a principal advisor:

Rice hired Philip Zelikow, an old friend, as the counselor to the State Department, a powerful but little-known top post that would leave him free to undertake special assignments for her. Zelikow, 50, a lawyer with a Ph.D. in history, headed the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, which studied the modern presidencies. He and Rice had co-authored a 1995 book, Germany Unified and Europe Transformed, the only book former President Bush and Brent Scowcroft said they used in writing their memoir. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union had left Rice and Zelikow optimistic. It was possible to get foreign policy right.

Zelikow, who could be taken for a well-groomed banker, had also co-authored books on the Cuban Missile Crisis, and served on the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Most recently he had been the executive director of the 9/11 Commission, forcing Rice to testify in public and raising serious questions about the administration's pre-9/11 response to al Qaeda. He had also supervised the writing and editing of the final 9/11 Commission report, a widely praised best-seller with exhaustive, groundbreaking details about the origins, planning and execution of the attacks. Rice dispatched Zelikow and a small team to Iraq. She needed ground truth, a full detailed report from someone she trusted. Zelikow had a license to go anywhere and ask any question.

Zelikow reported that despite the expenditure of billions of dollars and the sacrifice of thousands of lives, both Iraqi and American, Iraq was a "failed state." Over the next two years Rice repeatedly sent Zelikow back to Iraq. Each time he came back with grim news. After his third trip he reported that there was a thirty percent chance of a catastrophic failure, though there was a slim chance of success.

What did success mean? Rice was scheduled to testify in October 2005 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She borrowed extensively from a memo Zelikow wrote in September in which he defined success as the neutralization of the insurgency, the establishment of a stable and somewhat democratic Iraq. "But her planned testimony lacked a cohesive, understandable, headline-grabbing summary."

Zelikow had been reading A Better War, a 1999 book by Lewis Sorley about a" clear and hold" strategy that Sorley claimed had led to some success in the Vietnam War after the"search and destroy" strategy had been discarded.

In Zelikow's view," clear and hold" was not enough. It needed another pillar that was positive, more declarative. Holding was too passive. He came up with the notion of" clear, hold and build." Rice made it the centerpiece of her testimony before the Senate committee on Wednesday, October 19. It was the first time any senior administration official had come to the committee in more than a year and a half specifically to talk about Iraq. She told the senators,"Our political-military strategy has to be to clear, hold and build: to clear areas from insurgent control, to hold them securely and to build durable Iraqi institutions."

Much of this was a military mission, and Rumsfeld was furious.


Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld was impatient when anybody brought up analogies with Vietnam. So was President Bush. His father's National Security Advisor , however, worried that Vietnam was in fact an apt analogy, as he confided in the fall of 2005:

[Brent Scowcroft] concluded that the administration was doing the unthinkable, repeating the mistakes of Vietnam. Few people knew more about Vietnam than Scowcroft, who had worked on Vietnam for Presidents Nixon and Ford. He felt there was even less of a chance of building an Iraqi army that would fight than there had been three decades earlier when they were trying to build up the South Vietnamese army, which had existed as a powerful, even almost autonomous force in Vietnam its own right. In Iraq, the armies were all connected one way or another to the Shiites, the Sunnis or the Kurds. It was a political catastrophe.

One of Bush's outside advisors ironically was Henry Kissinger, Scowcroft's old boss. According to Woodward, Kissinger saw Vice President Dick Cheney every month or two and frequently talked directly with President Bush. His advice: Victory was essential. As he wrote in an op ed in the Washington Post in August 2005, "Victory over the insurgency is the only meaningful exit strategy."

Kissinger told Rice [on a visit in 2005] that in Vietnam they didn't have the time, focus, energy or support at home to get the politics in place. That's why it collapsed like a house of cards. He urged that the Bush administration get the politics right, both in Iraq and on the home front. Partially withdrawing troops had its own dangers. Even entertaining the idea of withdrawing troops could create momentum for an exit that was less than victory.

Kissinger had given the same advice in a famous memo to Richard Nixon in September 1969. In this "salted peanuts" memo, Kissinger warned that the "withdrawal of U.S. troops will become like salted peanuts to the American public; the more U.S. troops come home, the more will be demanded."

"For Kissinger," Woodward writes, "Iraq was the Vietnam sequel." What had happened in Vietnam was that the public and the military had lost their will to win. Rice believed that Bush didn't need to be warned about the loss of will. He believed by instinct that that was what was essential.

In September 2005 the White House approved its 35 page "Strategy for Victory" (which was delayed for publication by Katrina). The document rested on the work of a political scientist steeped in the lessons of Vietnam (as we reported on HNN).

In June 2005, [NSC Advisor Stephen] Hadley had recruited Peter Feaver, 43, a Duke University professor of political science and Navy Reserve officer who had worked on the Clinton NSC, to the NSC staff. Feaver had studied the impact of war on public opinion and concluded that the public was more tolerant of combat losses than politicians or senior military officers. He felt that Clinton came close to almost questioning his authority as commander in chief to order someone to his death. This had cascaded down so that the political and military leadership during his presidency had virtually no tolerance for casualties.

Feaver's survey work suggested that the public would tolerate casualties if they believed the war policy was reasonable, aimed at winning.

In the spring of 2006 President Bush expressed frustration that the Iraqis couldn't agree on a prime minister. For months the members of parliament squabbled without being able to reach an agreement. Bush complained to Andrew Card, his chief of staff:

Where's the leader? Where's George Washington? Where's Thomas Jefferson? Where's John Adams, for crying out loud? He didn't even have much of a personality.


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    More Comments:

    omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

    Not to praise them in any way all said anti occupations established law and order in the countries they occupied; that is certain re India and France, I do not know about Mexico!
    In Iraq the USA intentionally destroyed all the underpinnings and tools of law and order consciously bringing in lawlessness, chaos and the rule of death squdas, US and Israeli intelligence led and financed gangs of quislings and not to forget their own paramilitary contractors and subcontractors.
    Neither England nor Germany wanted to dismember their victims; the USA DID and DOES!

    omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

    "to assert that it was and is the deliberate policy of the U.S. to create anarchy and dismember Iraq not only flies in the face of evidence, it defies logic. "
    It is the naked truth; the USA ultimate goal, was,still is: to dismember Iraq as all evidence points to 1)empower Israel in the ME balance of power and 2)for easier control of oil resources.
    How do you expect any nation with marked internal differences and disputes to be held together without an army and solid security organizations? While the occupier is , to say the least ,reluctant to "patrol".
    To contend that that is possible flies in the face of elementary common sense.

    omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

    The cabal of and in the Bush/Wolfowitz administration that instigated the conquest of Iraq and led the USA in the early stages of the conquest had one and only one prime goal: to detroy Iraq ,through chaos and ultimayely dismemberment, to the greater benefit of Israel.
    Note when, at what stage, did Perle and Wolfowitz did leave the administration !
    Cost , both human and financial, was never a source of serious worry to them since, any way, it would be borne solely by the USA!

    DeWayne Edward Benson - 11/9/2006

    The brain trust "Office of Special Plans" had one objective in mind, the gathering or cherry-picking of manufactured intelligence that would fool and mislead everyone into a pre-emptive war.

    This war had been in planning stages as far back as 1991-2, this was when CIA agents (wasn't Cheney Pentagon head at the time) were sent into Iraq as United Nations Weapons Inspectors.

    This also being a time that the CIA paramilitary and Pentagon became undistinguishable from one another.

    In other words, the OSP (some call Cabal) had one directive and objective, Iraq war.

    Hans Vought - 11/3/2006

    I do not think that stupidity and deliberate failure are the only options to consider here, and I do not believe either one can be seriously considered. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is a logical fallacy. One must take into account that everyone's actions usually have unintended consequences. The current mess in Iraq is the result of the decisions and actions not only of the Bush administration, but also those of Iraqis and other nations and nationals. Empires in the past have often misjudged situations and acted in misguided ways. There is no need to weave sinister conspiracy theories here, and serious and thoughtful scholars avoid conspiracy theories like the plague.

    Arnold Shcherban - 11/2/2006

    The number of the so-called "mistakes"
    or "miscalculations" related not jsut to Iraq, but to the entire concept of the US foreign policy made by this administration (and the previous ones) is too big to justify the terminology of "error". Here only two conclusions are possible: the administration(s) and its well-known socio-economic base is either outright stupid or acted deliberately to created all the failures (that it seems currently only the White House considers as successes).
    I don't think any serious observer will even consider the former conclusion, but many serious and insightful analysts actually tend to agree about the latter one.

    Arnold Shcherban - 11/2/2006

    You won't find new blood within the dead body - existing double-bagged American plutocracy. This country needs the radical economic and political power remake: the new body
    created not by elite, but by wide masses, grass roots. We have to restore the democracy's original meaning that have been hidden here from the general public for more than half a century by now.
    Otherwise, read my lips: the current system sustained will lead the world to a WWIII.

    Hans Vought - 11/2/2006

    The U.S. decision to disband the Iraqi army & "de-Baathify" Iraq proved to be unfortunate, to say the least. However, to assert that it was and is the deliberate policy of the U.S. to create anarchy and dismember Iraq not only flies in the face of evidence, it defies logic. The U.S. is trying to hold together Iraq, rather than divide it (in other words, the opposite of what the U.S. tried to do in Vietnam). The goal - which may never be reached - is to create a stable, united Iraq as an ally.

    John Chapman - 11/2/2006

    “Did the Bush Administration Take History into Account Before Attacking Iraq?” No. I think Bush-team once said, ´watch us make history´ or something to that effect. They seem to have studied up on the Middle East and then examined the Nazi analogy more closely after they saw their plans weren’t working out; ad hoc adjustment of failures with political spin and blaming others. Amazingly, Bush still says he has a plan for victory and that the Dems don’t. Republicans, Democrats, it makes no difference who’s babbling, nobody has a viable plan. What does Bush mean by “victory” anyway? His “plan” petered out shortly he declared victory and performed his song and dance routine on the aircraft carrier. So today, conveniently, “victory” has acquired another meaning.

    Then Bush became frustrated over Iraqis not agreeing on a prime minister… saying, ”Where's the leader? Where's George Washington? Thomas Jefferson?”, OUR leader’s wise remark revealed he had no idea that history is not supposed repeat itself exactly when you try to install a democracy in the Middle East. This guy and his cronies are 4.0 failures and would never admit they need to rethink their foreign policy. Why is Kissinger, that Jurassic old hag of an idea maker, even in the picture: advising to get the politics (bullshit) right first with the American people? Does he still believe in the flawed concept of total war and total victory? We need new blood and ideas for American foreign policy.

    DeWayne Edward Benson - 11/1/2006

    The OSP-cabal established by Cheney/Rumsfeld within the Pentagon did little more than most empire strategist's, they stacked the data(any) that would be needed. And as old empire's of the past, planned on financing their operation using patriot's of the home front and increasing treasury from conquered territory (oil).

    Brain trust in this case apt, perhaps kept as we later learned in to tight a truss't.

    Charles S Young - 10/30/2006

    Spain conquered the Aztecs because the Aztecs were decimated by disease, and because all their enemies allied with Spain. Cortez lost his first battle to take what is now Mexico City. It succeeded later after the epidemics.

    And there is not always a Vichy force available. The U.S. hasn't found one in Iraq; it's Vichy in Vietnam was an abject failure.

    Sometimes occupations work, sometimes they don't, due to particularities of the time and place. The fact that it worked one place does not mean it will work in another. The data we have from Iraq is that it's a towering failure and will only get worse, like the Soviets in Afghanistan.

    Mike Schoenberg - 10/30/2006

    As for the English and India I'm pretty sure that technology had a large part to do with it. As for the Germans and the French, the French are one people, not 3 distinct groups fighting each other. With Iraq we have the insurgents with sometimes better weapons that we have or rather we are playing catch up to those we thought had nothing. Todays New York Times has a piece on how we are still losing weapons to the Black Market. It won't be easy at all as long as we think of them as a nation.

    James W Loewen - 10/30/2006

    Let's start at the beginning ... of European history in this hemisphere. How did Spain, with a few hundred men, conquer Mexico, with millions? By removing the Aztec leadership (hated by many Mexicans) and substituting Spanish (not better, but the Mexicans didn't know that for a while). How did the British, with at first only a few thousand (and at most 50,000) subdue India, with >300,000,000? By governing through the existing structure. How did Germany govern France in the 1940s? Through the French police, local leadership, and imposed Vichy government. Controlling Iraq is not rocket science. Nor is it Germany in the summer of 1945, when the USSR, US, and Britain had millions of troops in the country. Our Iraq occupation shows a complete disregard of every successful occupation of the last 500 years!