On a stone gray December morning in 2011, Nuri Kamal al- Maliki arrived at the White House for a meeting with President Barack Obama. The Iraqi prime minister had maintained his grip on power atop a government that was more an ongoing collision of ambitions than a well- oiled machine. The furious sectarian bloodletting in Baghdad that had come close to pushing the country into civil war; the belated American military surge that had tamped down the violence; the Iranian- sponsored attacks; uprisings by rival Shiite parties; the Al- Qaeda bombings: Maliki had maneuvered through it all.
But now the Iraqi prime minister and the American president were about to enter uncharted waters, more than eight years after the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. To shore up Iraq's still-shaky military and maintain a modicum of stability, American diplomats had spent much of the summer pursuing an agreement that would have enabled the United States to keep several thousand American troops in the country to train Iraq's armed forces, protect its skies, and conduct joint counterterrorism operations, only to have the negotiations sputter to a halt. The collapsed talks had been a casualty of rising Iraqi nationalism, backroom machinations by Iraqi politicians, and a deep ambivalence about continued American military involvement in Iraq on the part of President Obama and his inner circle as they approached the election season at home.
The result was that for the first time since the March 2003 invasion Iraq would be without U.S. troops. The departure of the last of them was just days away. While American and Iraqi military officers nervously eyed the risks ahead, both leaders had pronounced themselves to be satisfied with the outcome. Maliki's visit to Washington, in fact, had been cast by the White House as a celebration of the new normal: a sovereign Iraq that was putatively on the path to democracy and capable of providing for itself. After a brief photo op in the Oval Office, which Obama appeared to enjoy and Maliki to endure, the two sides engaged in a closed- door discussion about the way ahead. The president urged the prime minister not to release a notorious Hezbollah militant whom the Americans had captured in Iraq and handed over to Iraq's wobbly judicial system. The question of how to respond to the violent crackdown in Syria was a point of contention, but the two leaders affirmed Iraq's plan to proceed with a multibillion- dollar purchase of American F- 16s.
After the discussions were done, Maliki and Obama jointly faced the press. Maliki led Iraq's most inclusive government, Obama asserted. His country's economy was projected to grow faster than China's and the violence that had once wracked the country was at a record low. In an event that would symbolize Iraq's reemergence in the club of Middle East nations, Baghdad, for the first time in two decades, would host a summit of the Arab League in March. "People throughout the region will see a new Iraq that's determining its own destiny — a country in which people from different religious sects and ethnicities can resolve their differences peacefully through the democratic process," Obama added. "A new day is upon us."
Within a week, Iraqi tanks were parked near the residences of the nation's leading Sunni politicians, the government's lone Sunni vice president had dodged arrest by taking refuge in Kurdistan, and American officials were working overtime to try to head off more detentions, the collapse of the cross- sectarian coalition, and perhaps even another bloody round of sectarian strife. Was this just another bump in the road, a political uproar that could be contained, if not defused, with a few high- level phone calls from Washington? Or was it the start of a new chapter of authoritarian rule that the United States had inadvertently put into place?
The United States had stormed into Iraq in 2003 with extravagant hopes but little understanding. Four years later, it had pulled Iraq back from the precipice of civil war at enormous cost. Generals had been fired and hired. The American military had rediscovered counterinsurgency. Struggling to decipher the labyrinth of sect, religion, and tribe, American commanders and diplomats had cut deals with an assortment of politicians, clerics, militia leaders, and even insurgents. But after the loss of nearly 4,500 American troops and many more Iraqi lives, and the expenditure of more than $800 billion, just what sort of Iraq was the United States military leaving behind?
In the United States' tangled involvement in the Middle East, Iraq had morphed from an expedient partner to an adversary, and, finally, a titanic project to establish a democratic beachhead in Mesopotamia. Seized with the mission of containing the new theocracy in Tehran, President Ronald Reagan had seen Iraq primarily as a means of containing Iranian power, so much so that during the Iran- Iraq War, he dispatched an envoy — Donald Rumsfeld — to nurture ties with Saddam Hussein, a partnership which eventually included sharing American intelligence on Iranian military positions. Reagan's successor as president, George H. W. Bush, had expanded the policy, calculating that an Iraq weary from eight years of war with Iran would see enough advantage in a pragmatic relationship with Washington to temper its regional ambitions. Even when his strategy collapsed ignominiously with Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, the White House had envisioned nothing so bold as the democratization of Iraq. The goal of the Gulf War, the president confided to Turkey's ambassador in a declassified transcript, was to loosen Saddam's grip on power in the hope that the Sunni- dominated Baath Party and the Iraqi military would topple the Iraqi dictator. The empowerment of Iraq's Shiite majority, an impoverished and long-suppressed group about whom the American government knew little, was decidedly not part of the plan.
Bill Clinton's election had signaled more of the same. In early 1993, Clinton suggested that he was prepared for a fresh start with Baghdad, expounding famously that even a dictator like Saddam was capable of a "deathbed conversion." Under pressure from the right and following an intelligence assessment that Saddam's regime had conspired to assassinate his predecessor, however, Clinton stiffened his stance. On October 31, 1998, as a weakened Bill Clinton faced the threat of impeachment as a result of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he signed the Iraq Liberation Act, a Republican- inspired piece of legislation that formally committed the United States to a policy of regime change and the emergence of a democratic government in Iraq, a measure the White House saw no profit in vetoing but had little intention of fully implementing.
One of the most telling explorations of the challenges involved in remaking Iraq was carried out during Clinton's tenure by the Central Command, or CENTCOM, the United States military headquarters that had responsibility for the Middle East. After Saddam rescinded his fitful cooperation with United Nations weapons inspectors in December 1998, Clinton ordered four days of air strikes on suspected weapons of mass destruction sites. (Only after the 2003 invasion did a CIA- sponsored investigation establish that Iraq's chemical, biological, and nuclear programs had been shelved by late 1998, making the raid the first major American military operation conducted against Iraq on the basis of erroneous intelligence. The intelligence failure would be repeated in gargantuan proportions by Clinton's Republican successor more than four years later.)
After picking up reports through the Polish embassy in Baghdad that the strikes might have shaken Saddam's regime, General Anthony Zinni, who led CENTCOM, began to worry what he would do if the despot's government collapsed and he was saddled with the mission of occupying the country and advancing the Liberation Act's democratic agenda. Zinni did not think there would be much left to work with if the United States military had to go in. Saddam's regime and the governmental apparatus it controlled, Zinni confided to Laurence Pope, his foreign policy adviser, would likely fall apart like a cheap suit.
To examine the problem, Zinni convened a classified exercise in the McLean, Virginia, office of Booz Allen, a Pentagon contractor. The war game, which was held in June 1999, involved more than seventy officials from the National Security Council, the Defense Department, the CIA, and other agencies. Saddam had often employed the metaphor of a river crossing to extol Iraq's supposed march toward a better future and to celebrate his own revolutionary exploits, which, lore had it, included a dramatic swim across the Tigris. So the command's intelligence experts recommended that the war game be dubbed "Desert Crossing," calculating somewhat naively that the name would unnerve Saddam if news of the secret exercise somehow leaked.
But it was the Desert Crossing participants themselves who were unnerved by the magnitude of the task before them. The refashioning of Iraq presented daunting challenges at every turn. If a new group of Iraqis grabbed power — the exercise described this as the "inside- out" approach — policymakers in Washington would be confronted with the fact that they might know precious little about the new leadership, let alone how the United States might attempt to influence it. American officials knew some of the exiles who had taken up residence in London but hardly the Iranian- based or Syrian- based contingents. And any new government that was likely to rise out of the ashes was bound to include Iraqis who had endured Saddam's rule as well. When it came to the welter of Iraq's tribes, underground parties, and mid- level bureaucrats the country was a virtual black hole. The "inside- out" strategy would relieve the United States of the burden of trying to secure and reorganize Iraq, but Washington could not be sure just which Iraqis would push their way to the top of the heap. If on the other hand the American military moved in and occupied Iraq — the "outside- in" approach, modeled after the American experience administering postwar Japan under General Douglas MacArthur — the United States could determine what political institutions should be established, who should run them, and arrange for elections to be held, according to democratic principles imported from Washington. But the price would be the deployment of hundreds of thousands of troops, the commitment of billions of dollars, and, perhaps more importantly, the will to see the project through some difficult days. "A change in regime does not guarantee stability," the after- action report of the exercise dryly noted. Nor would the establishment of a democracy necessarily bring stability to the region. There would be threats galore — to the east, theocratic Iran; to the south, the Saudi kingdom and other autocratic Arab states, not to mention Islamist terrorist groups — who would be eager to snuff out the democratic experiment before the contagion spread. "The presence of a government that may be more representative (i.e. democratic) in its decision- making functions than any of its neighbors may invite the conduct of subversive activities in Iraq," the report added. "Neighboring regimes will also be concerned with all catalyzing effect on their own pro- democracy movements. In a sense, a western- style democracy may not engender long- term stability without considerable stabilization, preparation, and long- term sustainment."
Since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the American desideratum had, implicitly or explicitly, been regime change. Yet if the moment finally came, Washington would face a choice between a speedy process the United States would be at pains to control and an externally imposed solution that would require extraordinary patience and resources, and which even then would not be assured of success. The removal of Saddam would surely open the door to political change in Iraq, but with unprotected borders, the possibility of looting, sectarian strife, and bare- knuckled power struggles, Iraq might also become a veritable Pandora's box. If push came to shove, Martin Indyk, the assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs during the Clinton administration and a participant in the Desert Crossing exercise, concluded that the wisest approach would be to opt for minimal American commitment in a region of the world that appeared to offer more peril than promise. "We had very little intelligence on what exactly was going on in Iraq," he recalled. "So the idea was to take what you had in there and build on it, the inside- out model. There was no discussion about democratization or elections. That was simply not on the agenda. We were not democratic crusaders in the Clinton administration, especially when it came to the Middle East."
George W. Bush saw things differently. While his predecessors considered the occupation of Iraq to be a debilitating snare, Bush viewed it as a strategic opportunity and even a moral crusade. The president and his aides had been caught short by the September 11 terrorist attacks. Missile defense, military competition with China, the pursuit of high- tech weaponry, and the nation's defense overall — these had been the pressing security issues in the early months of his administration.
But after the terrorist strikes in New York and Washington and the administration's improvised campaign in Afghanistan to topple the Taliban for their role in harboring Al- Qaeda, Bush had searched for a doctrine that would confer a larger meaning on the fight against terrorists. Iraq would be the second phase in the administration's self- described "War on Terror." Washington would resolve, once and for all, its anxiety over Iraq's suspected WMD programs and frustration with Saddam's persistent efforts to punch a hole in the economic sanctions. The demonstration of American power would strengthen the United States' position in the Middle East, recruit a new Iraqi ally in the fight against extremism, and send a message to Iran, Syria, and other miscreants in the region about the risks of pursuing WMD.
Reflecting a new "freedom agenda," the United States would join the ideological struggle for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world by implanting a democracy in the heart of the Middle East. The bold vision was outlined in August 2002 in a classified document that Bush had signed six months before the invasion. Blandly titled "Iraq: Goals, Objectives and Strategy," the document proclaimed that the United States would midwife a new Iraq whose society would be "based on moderation, pluralism, and democracy." With his reversal of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the president's father had vowed to preserve international norms against the forces of chaos; this new president would upset the established order to spread the gospel of freedom. The philosophical differences between the two Bush administrations emerged when Condoleezza Rice, the younger Bush's national security adviser, sat down with Brent Scowcroft, her former mentor and counter- part in the administration of the elder Bush. Over dinner at 1789, a swank Georgetown restaurant, Rice revealed her goal of bringing democracy to Saddam Hussein's Iraq. "I said, 'Condi, it's just not going to happen,' " Scowcroft recalled. " 'You can't build democracy that way.' She said, 'Oh yes you can.' "
As the clock ticked down on the invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley convened a meeting of the Deputies Committee, a panel of sub- cabinet- level officials, to ponder the vexing question of how the United States might respond if a band of Iraqi generals took matters into their own hands. "The question came up: What if a group of generals sent us a message that they were willing to topple Saddam if we promised to support them?" recalled Hadley. "Would it be sufficient if they said they would not do anything that troubled the U.S.?" The answer the officials settled on, and which Hadley dutifully reported to his boss, was that the United States would be content to let the generals do the dirty work of disposing of Saddam on two conditions: the United States would be allowed to retrieve the presumed stocks of WMD and the United Nations would be allowed to supervise elections and the transition to a democratic government. Absent those steps American forces would still march in.
Zinni, who had conducted the Desert Crossing exercise and had retired from the military in 2000, publicly opposed the invasion. But, concluding that the war was all but inevitable, Zinni was prepared to fly to Tampa to advise his successor at CENTCOM, Tommy Franks, about the need to face up to the challenges of dealing with the failed state that might well follow the American invasion. That plan was thwarted when the Pentagon blocked the trip. The Bush administration never studied Desert Crossing. Yet more than any other president, Bush keenly experienced the vicissitudes of the "inside- out" and "outside- in" options.
"There were two conflicting concepts at play for some time for what we would do after liberation," recalled Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan- born senior NSC staff member for Iraq and the highest- ranking Muslim in the Bush administration. "One idea was that we could form a government very quickly, à la Afghanistan. The competing narrative was 'No, we will govern ourselves for a while and transition ministries to the Iraqis as they get ready to take over responsibility. The Iraqi political exiles and some from inside will be appointed as advisers to us.' "
Khalilzad was very much in the first camp, as was, initially, the president himself. Bush had campaigned for the White House as a skeptic of the sort of nation-building the Clinton administration had undertaken in the Balkans, and the Bush administration's early months in Afghanistan had reinforced its belief that regime change could be carried out without a major commitment to reconstruction or lingering deployments. "He repeatedly said in meetings, 'We need to give this to the Iraqis as quickly as possible to form a government,' " said Khalilzad, who was responsible for taking the official notes of the president's meetings on Iraq. Rice, Bush's loyal national security adviser, was also fully on board.
The American- led invasion force would pry Saddam's followers from the levers of power, snap enlightened technocrats into place, and quickly hand over responsibility to the new Iraqi authorities, who would be made up of exiles and internal players recruited after Saddam's fall. The changes in Iraq (and eventually the broader Middle East) that followed would be more like the sweeping transformation of Eastern Europe in 1989 than the prolonged and costly rebuilding of Germany after the Second World War. An oppressive, authoritarian regime would be removed, the liberated masses would breathe a sigh of relief, and new officials would grab hold of the levers of power and administer the new state.
Khalilzad, who had played an important behind- the- scenes role in the deliberations that elevated Hamid Karzai to power in Afghanistan after the Taliban were toppled, served as Bush's envoy to the Iraqi opposition. With one regime change already under his belt, Khalilzad would oversee the caucusing over the sort of government that should take over after Saddam was ousted, which began in London before the dictator was toppled.
The closest Khalilzad would come to fulfilling his vision involved a helter- skelter episode during the early days of the American- led invasion in 2003, when American troops, to their surprise, encountered stiff opposition from the Fedayeen Saddam and the dictator's other paramilitary forces. The White House had dispatched Khalilzad to Ankara to keep the pressure on the Turks not to intervene in northern Iraq. Late one night, as he was holed up in a hotel in Ankara, he was woken up by a phone call from an agitated John Abizaid, the deputy head of CENTCOM, who wanted Khalilzad to slam his political plan into fast- forward. Abizaid, an American general of Lebanese descent, had been convinced from the start that American troops would be an "antibody" in Iraqi society and had been looking for a way to put an Iraqi face on the American military campaign since its inception. Barking instructions, Abizaid told Khalilzad that he needed to round up the Iraqi exiles and bring them straightaway to Umm Qasr, the ramshackle port city at the southern tip of Iraq, so they could immediately stand up a new government. The Iraqi resistance to the American liberators was greater than anticipated and Abizaid was convinced that it was because they did not want to surrender to the Americans.
Khalilzad said that he needed to be sure the new government included not only exiles but also Iraqis in the country, and he was uncertain as to whom among them to invite. Abizaid brushed this consideration aside. "Those are goddamn details," the general bellowed. "It's about American lives. Today, this morning, it was discussed at an NSC meeting. The president has asked me to tell you this." Several days later, the American military juggernaut resumed its advance to Baghdad and White House interest in an Umm Qasr–based government vanished as quickly as it had materialized. Still, Khalilzad believed his strategy to quickly stand up a new Iraqi authority was on track and convened meetings with Iraqi exiles, sheikhs, and other leaders near Nasiriyah and, after Saddam was toppled, in Baghdad.
Khalilzad's partner in those early meetings was Jay Garner, a retired three- star Army general with a background in air defense whose formative experience in Iraq was a humanitarian effort to help the Kurds in the wake of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. As the head of the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), Garner expected mainly more of the same. The mission was to cope with the expected flood of refugees and the oil field fires the Americans feared Saddam's henchmen would set, avert famine, and, in general, deal with the short- term dislocations that would be endured by what was presumed to be a largely grateful population. In keeping with his mandate, Garner planned to administer the country by assigning advisers to the government's ministries, which he projected would be intact; remove only senior members of the Baath Party; and quickly recall the Iraqi Army, which had dispersed in the face of the American- led onslaught, to help rebuild and secure the country — an approach endorsed by Bush himself in a March 12 National Security Council meeting and energetically supported by David McKiernan, the three- star general who led the land war command that oversaw the invasion.
Soon after American forces reached Baghdad, there were intimations that the White House thought the hardest part of the mission had been accomplished. During the first weeks of the occupation, Richard Armitage, the powerfully built deputy secretary of state and confidant of Secretary of State Colin Powell, received a call on the Red Phone that connected him to the White House. Stephen Hadley, Bush's assiduous deputy national security adviser who was known for always being prepared for anything the president might ask of him, wanted to know how the Pentagon had organized the victory parade for American forces following the 1991 Desert Storm campaign to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Armitage discussed the call with Powell, who thought the question was odd and never got back to the White House.
The civilians were not alone in thinking the main fight was over. On April 16, just a week after Baghdad fell, General Tommy Franks, the CENTCOM commander, told his subordinates that some form of Iraqi government would be functioning in thirty to sixty days. Franks's position was evident a few days later when General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called Franks at his forward headquarters in Qatar, to let him know that he might need to defer his retirement from the military while the Pentagon sorted out some important personnel decisions, including who would serve as the next head of the Army and who would look after Iraq. "More than out of the question," Franks shouted, according to notes of the conversation taken by a military aide. "Not going home? Buttfuck me." It was not necessary, Franks added, to have the CENTCOM chief "doing three- star work." As far as Franks was concerned, the heavy lifting had been done. When it came to finding a new Army chief of staff, Franks said that the only way he would consider such a post was if Rumsfeld promoted him to five stars and made him General of the Army, a rank that had not existed since Omar Bradley. Myers rode out the outburst — he would later observe that Franks had "taken his pack off" — and by early July, John Abizaid had taken the reins from Franks at CENTCOM. It had always been envisaged that a former governor or ambassador would assume the lead role for the American mission in Iraq after Garner's ORHA had several months to address the country's humanitarian problems. But Iraq's infrastructure was in shambles after years of mismanagement and United Nations sanctions. Much of the middle class was gone.
With the looting of Baghdad's ministries and the collapse of the fragile electrical grid after the toppling of the regime, the once seemingly all-powerful state had, much as Zinni forecast, fallen apart like a cheap suit. Seeking to bring order to the chaos of the occupation, the Bush administration decided to expedite the transition. On April 30, just two weeks after he arrived in Baghdad, Garner learned that he and his team were to be supplanted. L. Paul "Jerry" Bremer III was to take over the civilian mission.
Bremer had an impressive set of Washington credentials. During the span of his State Department career, he had worked for Henry Kissinger, led the department's counterterrorism bureau, and lately overseen a blue- ribbon commission on fighting terrorism. He was an amateur chef, a serious jogger, a faithful convert to Roman Catholicism, and looked a decade younger than his sixty- two years, but he had never served in the Middle East. For a White House wary of old Middle East hands — shades of Desert Crossing — who saw nothing but difficulties in carrying out Bush's project to bring democracy to Mesopotamia, that was not a minus. When Bremer was first interviewed by Bush for his Iraq post, he passed on a message from his wife, Francine, her favorite passage from the president's State of the Union address: "The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world. It is God's gift to mankind." Bush smiled and shook Bremer's hand, convincedthat he had the right man.
From The Endgame by Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor. Copyright 2012 by Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon.