Issue of 2006-04-03, Posted 2006-03-27
After the fall of Baghdad, three years ago, the United States military began a secret investigation of the decision-making within Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. The study, carried out by the U.S. Joint Forces Command, drew on captured documents and interviews with former Baath Party officials and Iraqi military officers, and when it was completed, last year, it was delivered to President Bush. The full work remains classified, but “Cobra II,” a recently published book about the early phases of the war, by the Times reporter Michael Gordon and Lieutenant General Bernard Trainor, has disclosed parts of the study, and the Pentagon has released declassified sections, which Foreign Affairs has posted on its Web site. Reading them, it is easy to imagine why the Administration might resist publication of the full study. The extracts describe how the Iraq invasion, more than any other war in American history, was a construct of delusion. Frustratingly, however, we now understand much more about the textures of fantasy in Saddam’s palaces in early 2003 than we do about the self-delusions then prevalent in the West Wing.
The study portrays the Iraqi President as a fading adversary who felt boxed in by sanctions and political pressure. Saddam’s former generals and civilian aides—such as his principal secretary, Lieutenant General Abed Hamid Mahmoud, and the former Iraqi foreign minister, Tariq Aziz—describe their old boss as a Lear-like figure, a confused despot in the enervating twilight of a ruthless career: unable to think straight, dependent upon his two lunatic and incompetent sons, and increasingly reliant on bluff and bluster to remain in power. Saddam lay awake at night worrying about knotty problems, and later issued memos based on the dreams he had when he drifted into sleep. As the invasion approached, he so feared a coup that he refused to allow his generals to prepare seriously for war. Instead, he endorsed a plan for the defense of Baghdad that essentially instructed his generals to talk with no one, think rousing thoughts, and await further orders. The generals knew that to question their leader or his sons was suicide, so they just saluted. “We’re doing great!” the Minister of Defense wrote to his field commanders on April 6th, as Baghdad fell.
Nor did this sham mask any plan to foil the invasion by launching a guerrilla war. There has long been speculation that the insurgency, which has so far taken more than twenty-three hundred American lives, might have been seeded in part by clandestine prewar cell formations or arms distributions. In fact, according to the study, there was no such preparation by Saddam or any of his generals, not even as the regime’s “world crumbled around it”; the insurgency was an unplanned, evolving response to the political failings and humiliations of the occupation.
As for weapons of mass destruction, there were none, but Saddam could not bring himself to admit it, because he feared a loss of prestige and, in particular, that Iran might take advantage of his weakness—a conclusion also sketched earlier by the C.I.A.-supervised Iraq Survey Group. He did not tell even his most senior generals that he had no W.M.D. until just before the invasion. They were appalled, and some thought he might be lying, because, they later told their interrogators, the American government insisted that Iraq did have such weapons. Saddam “found it impossible to abandon the illusion of having W.M.D.,” the study says. The Bush war cabinet, of course, clung to the same illusion, and a kind of mutually reinforcing trance took hold between the two leaderships as the invasion neared.
When the opposing armies finally crashed into each other in the desert, the professional officers fighting the war had in common a rich disdain for the self-styled strategists who had sent them into battle. Gordon and Trainor’s extensive interviews with the Army and Marine generals and colonels who commanded the invasion show that they had almost as little faith in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his aides as their Iraqi counterparts had in Saddam and his sons. Indeed, the American officers featured in “Cobra II” are remarkably open about the war’s many errors of conception and execution. Of course, they do not seem to believe that any of the big mistakes were their fault—they blame the C.I.A. for repeatedly getting the battlefield intelligence wrong, and they blame Rumsfeld and his pliant subordinates for sending them to occupy Iraq with a force of inadequate size. The Army and the Marines have paid an extraordinarily high price for the war’s compounding blunders, and, presumably, the officers are speaking candidly now not just to settle scores but to avoid such bungling in the future.
As usual, this transparency and self-reflection does not extend to the White House. Bush and Cheney—even with their approval ratings at historic lows and with Iraq veering toward open civil war—and their staffs still apparently find it impossible to admit error. In the week marking the third anniversary of the invasion, the Bush Administration delivered a portfolio of speeches and op-ed essays that seem even more arid and isolated than usual. (The President kept repeating his claim that he had a “strategy for victory,” but he sounded as if he were reading texts from 2004 that his staff had forgotten to clear from his desk.) At the same time, the White House reissued a national-security strategy doctrine that blandly reaffirmed Bush’s intent to “act pre-emptively,” should he see the need, as if there were not a reason in the world to reconsider his assumptions.
The President and the members of his war cabinet now routinely wave at the horizon and speak about the long arc of history’s judgment—many years or decades must pass, they suggest, before the overthrow of Saddam and its impact on the Middle East can be properly evaluated. This is not only an evasion; it is bad historiography. Particularly in free societies, botched or unnecessary military invasions are almost always recognized as mistakes by the public and the professional military soon after they happen, and are rarely vindicated by time. This was true of the Boer War, Suez, and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and it will be true of Iraq. At best, when enough time has passed, and the human toll is not so palpable, we may come to think of the invasion, and its tragicomedy of missing weapons, as just another imperial folly, the way we now remember the Spanish-American War or the doomed British invasions of Afghanistan. But that will take a very long time, and it will never pass as vindication.
- - - Steve Coll
April 04, 2006
Posted by Mike at 4/04/2006