The Unbuilding of Iraq: PERFECT STORM: Wrongheaded Assumptions. Ideological Blinders. Weak Intelligence, Missteps, Poor Coordination and Bad Luck. How Team Bush's Reconstruction Efforts Went off the Rails from Day One

By Barry, John; Thomas, Evan | Newsweek, October 6, 2003 | Go to article overview

The Unbuilding of Iraq: PERFECT STORM: Wrongheaded Assumptions. Ideological Blinders. Weak Intelligence, Missteps, Poor Coordination and Bad Luck. How Team Bush's Reconstruction Efforts Went off the Rails from Day One


Barry, John, Thomas, Evan, Newsweek


Byline: John Barry and Evan Thomas

The Iraq war had yet to begin, but some nasty fighting was already going on back in Washington between the Department of Defense and the Department of State. Last February, retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner was trying to put together a team of experts to rebuild Iraq after the war was over, and his list included 20 State Department officials. The day before he was supposed to leave for the region, Garner got a call from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who ordered him to cut 16 of the 20 State officials from his roster. It seems that the State Department people were deemed to be Arabist apologists, or squishy about the United Nations, or in some way politically incorrect to the right-wing ideologues at the White House or the neocons in the office of the Secretary of Defense. The vetting process "got so bad that even doctors sent to restore medical services had to be anti-abortion," recalled one of Garner's team. Finally, Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to stand up for his troops and stop Rumsfeld's meddling. "I can take hostages, too," Powell warned the secretary of Defense. "How hard do you want to play this thing?"

Pretty hard. Powell lost, as he often does in the councils of the Bush war cabinet, and Rumsfeld had his way. Only one of the 16 State officials was restored to Garner's reconstruction team. It was a petty triumph, but emblematic of Rumsfeld's dominating, sometimes overbearing style. Rumsfeld was not a rogue elephant. In much of what he did, Rumsfeld himself was following orders. The hidden hand of the White House (read: Vice President Dick Cheney) was decisive in many of the behind-the-scenes struggles over postwar policymaking in Iraq. But President George W. Bush put the Defense Department in charge of both invading Iraq and rebuilding it after the war. Since 9/11, the secretary of Defense has been a brilliant war leader. Yet when it comes to making peace, he has been guilty of almost willful denial. His deep reluctance to use the American military for "peacekeeping" and "nation-building"--he scorns the very terms--threatens to wrest defeat from the jaws of victory in Iraq.

Rumsfeld (like his boss, President Bush) continues to be unapologetic. Last week, on The Washington Post's op-ed page, he wrote of the "solid progress" being made in Iraq--building a 56,000-man Iraqi defense force, steps toward self-government--and suggested strongly that the critics would be proved wrong. Maybe. But almost six months after their "liberation," the Iraqis are still short of power (both electrical and electoral) and jobs, and the guerrilla war continues to claim an American soldier or two on almost a daily basis. Inside and outside the U.S. government, knowledgeable experts worry that Iraq is nearing a tipping point--that rising terrorism and resentment of America could bring real chaos or civil war.

How did we get in this mess? NEWSWEEK interviews with top government officials involved in the planning and execution of the reconstruction of Iraq point to a "perfect storm" of mistakes and bad luck: wrongheaded assumptions, ideological blinders, weak intelligence and poor coordination by White House national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice. Much of the damage was done at the outset--in the first days after the war, when political infighting and wishful thinking prevented the United States from taking control of a bad situation that was turning worse.

It's not that the Bush administration failed to plan for the reconstruction of Iraq. In August 2002 Bush decided that Saddam had to go, by force if necessary. Soon after Labor Day, the White House set up an elaborate network of --nine teams studying how to cope with potential humanitarian crises during and after the war and how to remake postwar Iraq into a peaceful democracy. There was widespread recognition of the difficulty of the task. By mid-January, President Bush was given a sober, realistic PowerPoint presentation (made available to NEWSWEEK ) on postwar reconstruction that included a warning that Iraq's economy could collapse, creating widespread starvation and unrest. …

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