Iraq Policy Derailed by U.S. Infighting over Chalabi

Second of a two-part interview

The Road to Insurgency

Douglas Feith spoke with Steve Inskeep about the role of civilian administrator Paul Bremer.

Part One of This Report

Plans for establishing a new Iraqi government were complicated by the role of Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi and his troubled relationships with various U.S. agencies, a former Bush administration official says.

"Antagonism to him actually wound up having a major effect on the shaping of U.S. policy," says Douglas Feith, an architect of the war in Iraq.

The perception of the U.S. presence in Iraq as an occupying force rather than as a liberating force also helped pave the way for a homegrown insurgency, says Feith, a former undersecretary of defense for policy and author of a new book, War and Decision.

Feith says that Chalabi had a "longstanding bad relationship" with the CIA and several people at the State Department. What's more, he explains, the State Department and the National Security Council were at odds over how to deal with him.

"I did not ever try to push Chalabi as the leader of Iraq," Feith tells Steve Inskeep. He says that both of the officials responsible for the political transition in Iraq — retired Army Lieutenant General Jay Garner and civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer — also testified that they were never told to "anoint" Chalabi.

Feith says that in early 2002 Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage called for a political conference to discuss establishing a post-Saddam Hussein Iraqi government. But Armitage, Feith says, did not invite Chalabi — a policy decision that was at odds with the NSC and the White House, which didn't want the U.S. engaged in cherry-picking Iraqi political leaders.

Lack of consistency in handling the U.S. relationship with Chalabi also made it more difficult to engage Iraqis in both political and military planning.

"Looking back, we had serious problems in Iraq, but 14 months later – after we had run the country as an occupying power — we had a full blown insurgency," Feith says. "I think the idea of setting ourselves up as the occupying power for over a year was a mistake, and I think it helped stimulate many Iraqis to believe that they had to fight us to get us out of the country."

Excerpt: 'War and Decision'

'War and Decision'

The 'Parade of Horribles'

Rumsfeld resolved to give the President a comprehensive list of possible calamities in the event of military action against Iraq. The decision on war was pending, and Rumsfeld, of course, would be associated with it. Weighing risks had naturally been part of the policy-making and planning processes on Iraq all along, but Rumsfeld thought it would be valuable to review all together the major problems we could anticipate, to get them in writing and air them with the President and the National Security Council— well before irrevocable decisions were made. No one asked him to do this, but an exercise of this kind was an important check on the assumptions underlying our planning (1).

Rumsfeld had shown me a version of this list back in August, and I had given him some written comments in response. Now, in mid-October, Rumsfeld called a "drop everything" meeting with Wolfowitz, Myers, Pace, and me. As we sat down at his office conference table, Rumsfeld handed each of us the draft of his list of possible problems and disasters, which had been substantially revised since the August version. Highlighting roughly twenty items, it made for grim reading.

After letting the four of us absorb it for a minute or two, the Secretary asked us to sharpen the list, add to it, or otherwise improve it. We spent more than two hours in intense discussion reworking the paper. To relieve some of the tension inherent in the task, I began referring to the memo as the "Parade of Horribles." By the time we finished with our revisions, it had grown by another ten items or so.

The ultimate version of the Parade of Horribles memo was dated October 15, 2002. Its key political warnings can be summarized as follows:

• The United States might fail to win support from the United Nations and from important other countries, which could make it harder to get international cooperation on Iraq and other issues in the future. We might fail here by not properly answering the question: If the United States preempts in one country, will it do so in other countries, too?

• The war could trigger problems throughout the region: It could widen into an Arab-Israeli war; Syria and Iran could help our enemies in Iraq; Turkey could intervene on its own; friendly governments in the region could become destabilized.

• The United States could become so absorbed in its Iraq effort that we pay inadequate attention to other serious problems—including other proliferation and terrorism problems. Other countries in the Middle East and elsewhere might try to exploit our preoccupation to do things harmful to us and our friends.

• The war could cause more harm and entail greater costs than expected, including possibly a disruption in oil supplies to world markets.

• Post-Saddam stabilization and reconstruction efforts by the United States could take not two to four years, but eight to ten years, absorbing U.S. leadership, military, and financial resources.

• Terrorist networks could improve their recruiting and fundraising as a result of our being depicted as anti-Muslim.

• Iraq could experience ethnic strife among Kurds, Sunnis, and Shia.

Most of these dangers, Rumsfeld noted, would become more likely and more severe with a longer war, underlining the tactical importance of speed and surprise (2). This was one of the factors arguing for a smaller force.

In addition, the memo included these three notable items:

• "US could fail to find WMD on the ground in Iraq and be unpersuasive to the world."

• "World reaction against preemption or 'anticipatory self-defense' could inhibit US ability to engage [in cooperation with other countries] in the future."

• "US could fail to manage post-Saddam Hussein Iraq successfully, with the result that it could fracture into two or three pieces, to the detriment of the Middle East...."

This was a serious and disturbing memo. The concerns it listed included military, diplomatic, and economic matters. The list was more wide-ranging and hard-hitting than any warning I saw from State or the CIA— even though their leaders are widely viewed as the Administration's voices of caution on the war. Even so, this memo did not anticipate postregime violence of the type that we have encountered in the insurgency—an effort organized, financed, and directed largely by former Baathist officials, in strategic alliance with al Qaida fighters and other foreign "holy warriors."

Rumsfeld distributed the Parade of Horribles memo at a National Security Council meeting and discussed the items one by one. (That meeting was "principals only"—I was not present.)

One of the standard accusations made against the Pentagon's leadership (and other Administration officials who supported the President's war policy) was that we "cherry-picked" intelligence. The term implies that we tried to manipulate the President by highlighting bits of information that argued for war while obscuring or hiding other material. The fact is that Pentagon officials were not in a position to cherry-pick. We did not control the flow of intelligence to the President; he received it daily, directly, and voluminously from the CIA.

But, more important, Rumsfeld and his team did not operate that way. The Parade of Horribles memo was typical of how we viewed our responsibility to advise the President. Had we worried that our views required protection from inconvenient facts, we would not have embraced those views in the first place. Our strategy in interagency debates was to put forward our own ideas together with countervailing thoughts. We often heard the comment that we set out the case against our own ideas more compellingly than our opponents did. We figured if we showed how our analysis withstood strong criticism, we could be more effective—not to mention more honorable—than if we tried to keep the President in the dark about relevant facts or analyses. Our approach, as reflected in this important memo, was precisely the reverse of cherry-picking.

Beyond its influence on the rest of the Administration, the work on this list helped guide our own Iraq planning efforts. For example, when the Joint Staff briefed the Principals Committee two months before the war, its presentation of "Some Potential Post-War Challenges" mapped more than a dozen issues of concern, many of them rooted in Rumsfeld's memo. In particular, the list of dangers sharpened our appreciation of the value of tactical surprise and of maximizing the speed of major combat operations. A number of the potential calamities—humanitarian crises, Saddam's destruction of Iraq's oil fields, regional instability, and terrorism by Iraqi agents against the United States, for example—were likelier to happen, and to be more severe, if the fighting to overthrow Saddam were prolonged.

The fact that we anticipated various problems, of course, did not mean the Defense Department or the Administration could avert them all. Even the best planning cannot ensure a problem-free war. Nevertheless, it's fair to ask whether the department and the Administration took the exercise seriously enough and performed all the practical follow-up work that was called for. This is a subject that deserves comprehensive review, building on the several "lessons learned" studies that have already been done by the Joint Staff, the Joint Forces Command, and other military organizations.

(1) Rumsfeld noted at the end of the memo that it would have been possible, of course, to write a similar memo listing the dangers involved in leaving Saddam in power.

(2) Speed and surprise did indeed prove important: Our troops found that Iraq's bridges and oil fields had been prepared for demolition—but the wiring had fortunately not been completed.

Excerpted from War and Decision. Copyright 2008 by Douglas J. Feith. Reproduced with permission from HarperCollins Publishers.

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