Anatomy of a National Security Fiasco: The George W. Bush Administration, Iraq, and Groupthink

By Henderson, Phillip G. | Humanitas, Spring-Fall 2018 | Go to article overview

Anatomy of a National Security Fiasco: The George W. Bush Administration, Iraq, and Groupthink


Henderson, Phillip G., Humanitas


These were people who were selectively picking and then emphasizing pieces of intelligence, I believe, in order to support their larger purpose, which was to bring in a way that they thought possible, to bring democracy to Iraq, and through Iraq to transform the Middle East. I thought that was far-fetched. I didn't think it was going to happen, but that was their real purpose. They thought that this was going to be a transforming event in history. My frustration is that there was never a national security decisionmaking process in the administration where people such as me really had a chance to take that on.  Richard Haass, Director of Policy Planning at the State Department 2001-2003, Interview with Chris Matthews on "Hardball," May 6, 2009 

In February 2002, one year before the U.S. military intervention in Iraq began, neoconservative writer Ken Adelman predicted that demolishing Saddam Hussein's regime and liberating Iraq would be a "cakewalk." (1) At a town hall meeting at the American air base in Aviano, Italy, on February 7, 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld added that, if force were to be used in Iraq, the war "could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months." (2) On October 31, 2010, nearly eight years after the U.S. military intervention in Iraq commenced, the Iraq War seemingly came to an end for the United States. Saying it was "time to turn the page," President Barack Obama declared in a nationally televised address: "Tonight, I am announcing that the American combat mission in Iraq has ended." (3)

The cost of the war was far greater than policymakers expected.

In the intervening seven and a half years, the "cakewalk" that Adelman predicted had resulted in the loss of 4,487 U.S. troops and the wounding of over 32,223 others--20% with serious brain or spinal injuries. (4) The cost of the war, at its peak, reached $10 billion per month with the total cost of the war estimated at $806 billion, through fiscal year 2011, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS). (5) In 2013, the Costs of War project of the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University put the total cost of the Iraq War at $1.7 trillion, over double the earlier CRS estimate, with an additional $490 billion in benefits owed to war veterans. (6)

According to an April 2008 National Defense University study titled Choosing War: The Decision to Invade Iraq and its Aftermath, Iraqi civilian casualties by fall 2007 were estimated to have reached 82,000, with over 7,500 Iraqi soldiers and police officers killed. (7) The National Defense University (NDU), an arm of the Pentagon, estimated that 15% of Iraqis had become refugees or displaced persons. A central finding of the 2008 NDU study was that "U.S. efforts in Iraq were hobbled by a set of faulty assumptions and a flawed planning effort." (8) The NDU study stated: "Measured in blood and treasure, the war in Iraq has achieved the status of a major war and a major debacle." (9)

Bush's insular advisory meetings were heavily influenced by Rumsfeld and Cheney.

It is an understatement to say that the American intervention in Iraq in 2003 will have broad and decisive implications for how the administration of former President George W. Bush will be evaluated by historians. The observations of many former Bush administration insiders, including the Director of Policy Planning at the State Department Richard Haass, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, and White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, among others, raise important questions on the extent to which decision-making on Iraq was being driven by a flawed process and inaccurate predispositions. Lawrence Wilkerson, who served for 27 months as Secretary of State Colin Powell's top aide at the State Department, has stated that, in reality, there were two decision-making processes at work within the administration. The traditional National Security Council was used sparingly, and mostly for show. …

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