The decision by George W. Bush to go to war against Iraq in March 2003 has been a point of discussion for over a decade now. This article examines in some detail the policy and decision-making process of the Bush administration during the year leading to the war as well as during the war against Iraq that has left a lasting impact on the country.
Prior to the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, there is no evidence in public record indicating that the President had made a decision on war against Iraq. However, the attacks changed the strategic outlook of the President. He accepted the arguments of some of the people in his administration that he had not paid particular attention to earlier. He agreed that a military campaign was required to unseat the then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to further the American interest in the context of the ‘war on terrorism’. Once that decision was made, the administration tried to find evidence on Iraqi WMD and the country’s ties to Al-Qaeda to justify the decision, willfully ignoring the complexity and ambiguity in many of the war scenarios. The administration gathered arguments to bolster the decision with less than rigorous regard for their factual accuracy to get the buy in from the Congress and the public.
Unlike many of the other major decisions that were made by this administration in relatively short time periods, the decision to invade Iraq was made over the course of a year. However, it seems that President Bush had made up his mind sometime early in year 2002, but the members of his administration slowly became aware of the decision over the course of the year. During his address to the Congress through the State of the Union message on January 29, 2002, President Bush announced the decision with a high-level generality by including Iraq, Iran, and North Korea in what he called ‘axis of evil’. During the speech, President Bush declared: ‘I will not wait on events while dangers gather. I will not stand by as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons’. In April of the same year, responding to a question from a British reporter, the President said: ‘I made up my mind that Saddam needs to go’.
Over the course of the year, there are numerous instances in which senior officials in the administration have expressed their reservations about going to war. In one well publicized case, the then State Department Director of Policy and Planning Richard Haass (who had worked on Middle East issues for the President) asked Condoleezza Rice point-blank whether it was beneficial to put Iraq point and center at that time given everything else that was going on. To this Rice replied that ‘the decision’s been made, don’t waste your breath’.
The administration also ignored the expertise of the then Secretary of State, Colin Powell. As the informal author of what has come to be known as the ‘Powell Doctrine’, Powell had already outlined a very restrictive set of circumstances for the use of American force abroad: a) It must be massive and aimed at gaining a clear military victory. b) It should have decisive public and Congressional support. c) There should be a clear exit strategy. Given this, it was very hard to see how the Iraq war could fit into the Powell Doctrine. In fact, it was Powell who reached out to Rice to set up a meeting with the President to discuss the implications of the war and to explain his reservations. Powell argued that the war would destabilize the whole Middle East and the United States would be seen as a hostile force by the Muslim world and that the invasion would tie down most of the army and the United States would be responsible for the wellbeing of twenty-five million people post war. However, his arguments were unable to sway the President.
The relative informality of decision making is evident at every turn. Paul Pillar, the then National Intelligence for the Near East and South Asia commented on ‘the absence of any identifiable process for making the decision to go to war – at least no process visible at the time’. He further mentioned that ‘there was no meeting, no policy-options paper, no showdown in the Situation Room when the wisdom of going to war was debated or the decision to do so was made’. Though, there were a lot of meetings on the tactical and operational decisions, there is no public evidence of a meeting where the entire NSC came together to discuss all the strategic or alternate options in the decision to invade Iraq.
In addition to the lack of discussions, the President also chose to ignore clear indications of absence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. A report by UNMOVIC (The United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission) to the UN Security Council on January 27, 2003 stated that it had found no evidence of a revived nuclear program in Iraq. Despite these findings and multiple reports to the contrary, President Bush in his State of the Union address in January 28, 2003 stated that the administration had strong evidence of Iraq’s nuclear ambitions.
The most damaging assumptions however were not about the Iraq’s weapons or it’s ties to al-Qaeda but about what Iraq would look like after the fall of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The incorrect assumptions about the weapons and terrorist ties led to the decision to go to war but the assumptions about a rosy post-war situation where the United States would be able to help build a stable government within a few months, led to a messy situation which forced the United States into a long, and expensive occupation. The situation was further exacerbated by some questionable decision-making post the war leading to chaos in Iraq.
The administration planned to fight a different war than the one that was fought by the United States in Iraq in 1991. The United States would focus its might against the regime and its security forces, rather than destroying Iraqi infrastructure. As Condoleezza Rice told the New York Times in 2004: ‘the concept was that we would defeat the army, but the institutions would hold, everything from ministries to police forces. You need to be able to bring new leadership, but we were going to keep the body in place’. This was a key assumption for a successful and peaceful post-war transition. However, all that changed when President Bush appointed Paul Bremer the sole authority in Iraq during an informal lunch.
Bremer made two key decisions that seriously threatened the success of United States in Iraq. The first of the two decision was to ban all senior members of the Baath party from serving in the government, and to remove the top three layers of all government ministries even if they were not senior members of the Baath party which included as many as 85,000 people who Bremer believed were ‘true believers’ of the Saddam regime. However, the problem was that these people were the mid-level technocrats who ran the transportation, electrical, education and communication infrastructure of Iraq among many other things. Thus, the decision was hugely unpopular and contributed to significant resentment in the Iraqi population against the US occupation.
The second decision made by Bremer was even more significant in the context of post-war situations. On May 23, 2003, Bremer, against the advice of Army and professional planner, issued an order to dissolve the Iraqi Security Forces. This forced more than half a million out of jobs and many of these were trained professional soldiers. As one US officer stationed in Baghdad during this time mentioned: ‘When they disbanded the military, and announced we were occupiers – that was it. Every moderate, every person that had leaned toward us, was furious’. This order, more than any other, upset the military commanders who had not been consulted and who had all along planned to use the Iraqi army to help stabilize Iraq after the war. In addition, many of the decisions made by Bremer were inconsistent with the undertakings at the UN to promote ‘the right of the Iraqi people freely to determine their own political future’.
As with many other orders in this administration, it is not entirely clear if the order was approved by the administration, with major participants trying to deflect responsibility from themselves. When Roger Draper, the biographer for President Bush, asked him about the decision, he replied: ‘Well, the policy was to keep the army intact. Didn’t happen’. It seems that Paul Bremer took President Bush’s no questions during NSC meeting as no objection to the order and proceeded forward with it.
All the above point to a very hierarchical and top-down decision-making structure in the Bush administration. Not only that, the voices and opinions of many people who were in a position to advice the President based on their previous experience and skillset, were ignored. In many cases, these people (for example Powell) were not even consulted till it was too late. Even in the rare cases where they were able to make their voice heard, the decisions were made which were contrary to the consensus.
Also, in some cases, the decision-making process seems very casual. The decision to disband the Iraqi army was made without following proper protocol (going by what is publicly known) and seems to contradict all the assumptions that the United States made going into the war.
In addition, the President made many of the decisions by himself, choosing to ignore the advice of his staff and in a few cases, not even trying to bring together his staff members to deliberate on the wisdom of the decision. The decision to go to war was never discussed in a formal NSC meeting, as was the case with many other decisions.
However, one can also make the case that the administration really believed that winning would be easy, that Iraq had WMDs, that capturing Saddam Hussein was absolutely necessary to prevent further attacks and that the post-war scenarios would go as planned. But given all the information that we have explored in this paper, listening to the dissent within the administration may have exposed the President to the flaws in his current solution, to any alternate situations and may even have led to a completely different outcome than the one we have today.