The destroyed remains of Iraqi tanks and other armored vehicles litter an Iraqi military complex west of Diwaniyah
As the tanks and armored personnel carriers of the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Mechanized Infantry Division drove down Highway 8 into Baghdad on April 7, 2003, Colonel Dave Perkins kept his eyes peeled for trouble. When the invasion of Iraq had been launched three weeks earlier, the endgame had always been a bit unclear, with Baghdad in particular looming as a problem. Coalition forces needed to take the city in order to oust Saddam Hussein, but nobody wanted extended urban combat. So the plan was for the attackers to race to the outskirts of the city, establish a cordon around it, and then launch a series of probes to test Iraqi defenses. Two days earlier, Perkins had led the first such probe, called a “Thunder Run,” successfully taking a battalion of Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles through western Baghdad and back out to Saddam International Airport. Now he was going in again, with a larger force and more ambition.
Major General Buford Blount, the 3rd ID’s commander, and his boss, Lieutenant General William Scott Wallace, the commander of the V Corps, thought the second Thunder Run was going to be like the first—an armed reconnaissance raid into and out of the city. But Perkins wanted to do more if he could, and so when he met only moderate resistance, he kept moving forward. “When Col. Perkins got to the second intersection,” Wallace later recalled, “he took a right turn and headed straight downtown. Now I don’t think he was disobeying orders; I think he was taking advantage of the situation that was presented to him on the battlefield. . . . And Gen. Blount and I talked very shortly on the radio, and we said, ‘Roger, let’s let it go.’ ”1 Braving intense fire, Perkins made it all the way to the center of the city, and soon images of American soldiers walking through Saddam’s palaces in the heart of the Iraqi capital were being broadcast around the world on CNN.
When Perkins, Blount, and Wallace decided it would be no more difficult for the force to stay downtown than to go back to its base, the fight for the city took a great leap forward. Two days later, on April 9, helped by Marines from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, a crowd of Iraqis triumphantly pulled down a massive statue of Saddam in Firdos Square, hitting it with shoes and dragging its detached head through the streets. Sporadic fighting would continue for several more days, but to the world at large, Baghdad had fallen.
Saddam was a larger-than-life tyrant, a megalomaniac running a police state along the lines of Stalinist Russia. He had so dominated and brutalized his country that when his regime was finally toppled, waves of conflicting emotions—joy, grief, hope, fear—raced through the Iraqi population. “I’m 49, but I never lived a single day. Only now will I start living!” shouted one of the Iraqis pulling down the statue. “Touch me, touch me, tell me that this is real,” sobbed another man, standing outside the burning headquarters of Iraq’s National Olympic Committee, a notorious torture chamber and charnel house run by Saddam’s sadistic son Uday. “Tell me that the nightmare is really over.”
Thanks to careful and creative planning, the invasion had actually caused very little damage. The speed of the attackers and the rapid collapse of the defenders may have helped ensure that many potential problems, from the destruction of oil fields and civilian infrastructure to massive flows of refugees, did not arise.4 But once the regime fell, swarms of human locusts proceeded to wreak the havoc that combat had not.
The coalition had invaded with a relatively small force, privileging speed over mass and precision over bluntness. Expecting to find a working state in place, the Americans had intended to remove its upper echelons while using the lower ones to run the country, turning control over to friendly Iraqis as soon as possible and leaving almost as fast as they had come. But with Saddam gone, the Iraqi state disintegrated and its personnel vanished into the heat and dust. Realizing that there was no one to stop them, the looters grew bolder by the hour, moving from Saddam’s palaces and ministries to lucrative targets in the private sector to anything and everything at large.
When British forces liberated Basra on April 5, looters had followed in their wake. “No more Baath. No more Fedayeen. Just thieves, Ali Babas,” locals proclaimed. The same thing happened when U.S. forces liberated Baghdad and other cities across the country. Anarchy reigned: factories, offices, hospitals, museums, libraries, and private homes were sacked and burned, with even the plumbing and wiring stripped out to be sold as scrap. There were far too few American soldiers around to maintain order, and those that were present mostly stood by and did nothing, lacking instructions to intervene. “Our job as U.S. Marines is not to act as a constabulary force,” said a spokesman for the troops who had helped pull down Saddam’s statue. (Making matters worse—at least in terms of local perceptions of American intentions—the Marines did indeed secure and protect one local institution right from the start: the oil ministry.)
Back in Washington, Bush administration officials claimed media coverage of the chaos was overblown, even misguided. “The images you are seeing on television . . . over and over and over,” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told reporters on April 11,
it’s the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase, and you see it 20 times, and you think, “My goodness, were there that many vases? Is it possible there were that many vases in the whole country?” . . . I picked up a newspaper today and I couldn’t believe it. I read eight headlines that talked about chaos, violence, unrest. And it just was Henny Penny—“the sky is falling.” . . . Stuff happens. . . . Freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things, and that’s what’s going to happen here.
Yet this was in fact the moment when the coalition began to lose Iraq. Occupation officials later calculated that the monetary cost of the looting came to several billion dollars, and the destruction crippled attempts to get the country up and running. “But the physical damage was less catastrophic than those effects that couldn’t be quantified. Iraq’s first experience of freedom was chaos and violence; the arrival of the Americans brought an end to the certainty of political terror and at the same time unleashed new, less certain fears.”
Summing up his feelings a week after Dave Perkins’s second Thunder Run, one Shiite leader in Baghdad put it this way: “The situation of Iraqis is as if one eye is crying and one eye is laughing.” Another resident commented, “Saddam Hussein has ended, and he’s gone. But nobody knows what’s ahead. They just don’t know. . . . We’re like sheep. The shepherd’s gone and everybody goes in their own direction.” He thought for a moment, then added: “When will the Americans put an end to the looting?”
A dozen years after trouncing the Iraqi army in battle only to stumble blindly into postwar turmoil, the United States did it again. The disorder that began in April 2003 continued; liberation turned into occupation; local uncertainty turned into insurgency and then civil war. Four long years after the fall of Saddam’s statue in Firdos Square, a new and better-resourced American strategy managed to build on some positive local trends and stabilize the situation, so that by the end of the decade Iraq had pulled back from the brink and gained a chance at a better future. But even then nothing was guaranteed, as low-level violence and political turmoil continued.
How could this happen? How could the strongest power in modern history, fighting a rematch against a much lesser opponent at a time and place of its own choosing, find itself yet again woefully unprepared for the aftermath?
The perversity of such an outcome belies simple explanations, which is why neither the George W. Bush administration’s most passionate defenders nor its most passionate critics are good guides to the case. The problems that emerged after Saddam’s ouster cannot be written off as random “acts of god.” They were entirely predictable, and indeed were repeatedly predicted by many people inside and outside the government. This makes the failure to plan carefully for avoiding or at least mitigating them an act of gross negligence, whatever else about the war may have gone well. Yet the Bush administration itself was one of the casualties of its blunders: the postwar mess in Iraq blackened the reputations of almost everybody involved, helped cost the president’s party control of Congress in 2006, and contributed to Bush’s leaving office with the lowest approval ratings in history. If it was all some nefarious self-interested conspiracy, it was a bafflingly inept one.
The true story is more complex, with several elements required to explain how events played out as they did. The decision to go to war was driven by the psychological impact of 9/11 on key administration officials, together with their preexisting beliefs about the dangers Saddam posed. The administration’s scorn for “nation-building,” meanwhile, led it to believe that postwar commitments could be kept limited without ill effect. A dysfunctional national security decisionmaking process allowed the operation to proceed without serious questioning of heroically optimistic assumptions or proper contingency planning. And the combination of American hegemony and the trauma of 9/11 removed any significant foreign or domestic check on the administration’s actions.
With their tight focus on the views of senior administration officials, existing accounts of American policy have tended to ignore the interplay of active and permissive causes—of motivation and opportunity—that shaped U.S. behavior. Certainly the ideas and actions of a few individuals on the Bush team were crucial. Had the Florida vote count controversy gone the other way and Al Gore been named president instead of George W. Bush in 2000, the United States would not have gone to war against Iraq in 2003. And it might not have done so even with Bush as president, had senior posts in the administration been filled differently. That said, however, even the “actually existing” Bush team would not have been able to develop and execute the policies it did had it confronted more serious countervailing pressures.
Much has been made of the Bush administration’s beliefs about Saddam’s prohibited weapons programs, commitment to democracy promotion, and pursuit of “regime change” in Iraq. But all those were established U.S. policy, carried over whole from the Clinton administration before. What changed and made the Iraq War possible were not American goals or ideals themselves, but rather beliefs about how they should be pursued, along with the structural context within which policymakers acted. International primacy removed limits imposed by the world at large, and the 9/11 attacks swept away limits imposed by the domestic political system. The factor that allowed the Bush doctrine to pass from idea into policy, in other words, was lack of constraint. The administration’s leading figures found themselves with extraordinary freedom of action and decided to use it to the fullest. Unfortunately, as the secretary of defense noted, free people are free to make mistakes—which Rumsfeld and his colleagues did in spades, with consequences that are still being paid for today.
THE ROAD TO WAR
During the decade following the liberation of Kuwait, a lot happened in the Persian Gulf but little changed. As the presidency passed from Bush père to Bill Clinton to Bush fils, the United States retained the regional policies and posture that had been set in place after the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. Substantial U.S. forces stayed in the area, chiefly on remote bases in Saudi Arabia. They enforced no-fly zones and other restrictions on Saddam’s Iraq, kept a wary eye on the Islamic Republic of Iran, and protected the oil-rich countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council from both of their menacing northern neighbors. The Clinton administration christened this approach “dual containment,” and it was repeatedly attacked for its costs, risks, and general failure to do more than kick the can down the road. But the Gulf continued to be one of the world’s most strategically important regions and all the other ways of securing it appeared even more problematic, so the policy continued.
As the new millennium dawned, however, three separate trends began to gather steam. In the United States, hawks argued that a tyranny as terrible and dangerous as Saddam’s called for a policy response more ambitious than mere containment. This view was enshrined in the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act (ILA), which declared, “It should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime.”
In Iraq, meanwhile, Saddam was increasingly successful in slipping out of his shackles and evading the various sanctions and restrictions that had been placed on him following the Gulf War. He manipulated the United Nations’ oil-for-food program to keep revenue flowing into his pockets, cut deals with friendly powers for a variety of prohibited items, and kicked U.N. weapons inspectors out of the country. These actions led even supporters of containment to worry that it would be increasingly difficult to keep Saddam “in his box” for long.
And in the Middle East at large, finally, radical Sunni Islamism gained adherents and standing as a serious ideological alternative to the American-sponsored regional order. Groups such as al Qaeda exhorted their followers to attack both the “near enemy” (secular authoritarian regimes in countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia) and the “far enemy” (the United States). The presence of infidel troops on the sacred soil of Saudi Arabia, the humanitarian disaster caused by the sanctions against Iraq, and continued American support for Israel fueled Islamist anger and made the United States an increasingly hated target—particularly as the “apostate” regimes in the Arab world proved more difficult to topple than expected. These three trends converged in September 2001, setting the stage for the U.S. invasion of Iraq a year and a half later.
During the Clinton administration, both political appointees and members of the national security bureaucracies viewed Iraq and Islamist terrorism as largely distinct problems. Saddam’s regime was indeed a state sponsor of terrorism, they reasoned, but terrorism was one of the lesser threats Iraq posed to U.S. interests—and Iraq was one of the lesser sources of international terrorism. Despite a sense that containment was deteriorating, moreover, the Clinton team showed no real desire to change its fundamentally defensive and reactive Iraq policy. Clinton signed the ILA only because he felt it would be politically damaging not to, and throughout his term regime change in Iraq constituted a hope rather than a serious objective. In contrast, Clinton officials grew ever more worried about al Qaeda, to the point where they concentrated heavily on it in their transition briefings to the George W. Bush team in early 2001.
But the incoming administration had those priorities reversed. Many of its officials believed Iraq was a serious problem that was getting worse, and many were less seized with the supposed dangers posed by al Qaeda—not least because they saw terrorism as driven by states rather than nonstate actors. During their first months in office, accordingly, senior Bush officials met several times to try to toughen Iraq policy while effectively putting the Islamist terrorist threat on a back burner.
The 9/11 attacks changed all that, yanking the fight against al Qaeda to the forefront of the administration’s agenda. Once it was clear that al Qaeda had carried out the attacks and that the Taliban would not give the group up, the Bush administration launched an invasion of Afghanistan, increased its focus on homeland security, and stepped up diplomatic, intelligence, and military activities as part of a global campaign against violent radical Islamists. The administration also went beyond this, however, defining its “war on terror” expansively to include actors and issues unrelated to 9/11—with Iraq foremost among them.
In late November 2001, soon after the fall of Kabul, Bush told Rumsfeld to order Centcom commander General Tommy Franks to start preparing plans for a war with Iraq. Just after Christmas, Franks briefed Bush and the National Security Council on the war planning and was given instructions to continue. Over the next six months, the war plans were increasingly elaborated and other groundwork for a conflict laid. Senior administration officials never actually debated whether to go to war, and the president did not issue formal orders to do so until much later, but by midsummer 2002, U.S. policy had essentially shifted from “no war with Iraq unless Saddam provokes one” to “war with Iraq in early 2003 unless Saddam capitulates.” As Richard Haass, then the State Department’s director of policy planning, records,
By late spring and summer 2002 . . . it was Iraq that was increasingly dominating interagency deliberations and the attention of senior officials. . . . I got the chance in early July to question Condi directly during one of our regular sessions in her West Wing office. . . . I told her I was worried [an] Iraq [war] would come to dominate the administration’s foreign policy and that it would prove far more difficult to do and yield far less in the way of dividends than its advocates advertised. She brushed away my concerns, saying the president had made up his mind.
Others with comparable access came to the same conclusion. On July 23, 2002, British prime minister Tony Blair, Bush’s closest ally, discussed Iraq policy with his senior advisers. According to the minutes of the session (the so-called “Downing Street Memo”), the head of Britain’s foreign intelligence service “reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable.”
During the first week of August 1990, George H. W. Bush had set in motion a policy that would lead to war unless Saddam abandoned his occupation of Kuwait. From that point on, a military conflict was the default outcome unless something came along to deflect it. During the first half of 2002, his son came to a comparable position, and from the summer on only a complete behavioral change on Saddam’s part would have headed off a second U.S.-Iraq conflict.