Things to Consider: Iraq War at 20 | Charles Duelfer

Things to Consider: Iraq War at 20

Everyone (and their dog) is writing/commenting about the Iraq war 20 years later.  I doubt more accuracy is achieved in these tales after 20 years.  Everyone seems to think they were central to events.  Some of them were.[1]   

My perspective was also partial, but also unique in important ways–see endnote.[i]  I won’t repeat my previous observations, but simply make a ten points for those considering the spate of new stories and revelations being promoted.

  • Don’t ignore the context of events at the time, and the mindsets that existed from the preceding experiences at key decision points.

President Bush was still very new to the office when 9-11 happened.  He had been inaugurated just eight months earlier.  The Administration was not even fully in place and the United States homeland was attacked.  Fighter aircraft were on constant patrol over Washington because there was expectation of a follow-on attack by Al Qaeda (and recall on 10 September few Americans had heard of Al-Qaeda—but they had heard of Saddam Hussein).  

  • Who should a president believe?   

The intelligence community?  Maybe, but they certainly have gotten things wrong in the past.  The national security team?  What do they know really?  And they disagree in fundamental ways.  Do you listen to other world leaders?  They have their own spin and may be completely wrong.  Iraqi oppositionists?  They may sound knowledgeable, but they haven’t been in Iraq in decades.  The UN weapons inspectors (UNSCOM)? They were in Iraq for many years, but couldn’t verify that Saddam disarmed…or not.  Their work left severe doubts especially given Saddam’s lengthy track record of deceit.  Saddam himself gave contradictory statements.  He professed compliance at times, but also blustered that he had more capabilities.[2]  Bush and Saddam shared the same problem that all leaders have—Who do you believe?   

  •  Intelligence was extremely limited after 1998.

Once the UN inspection team departed Iraq in December 1998, the US was left virtually blind.  While inspectors would not confirm the disposition of Iraq’s full WMD programs, they nevertheless provided a continuous presence that limited uncertainty.  The intelligence community still had to make assessments…but based on less data and growing uncertainty. Moreover, the stories of dubious defectors could not be checked by having inspectors on the ground.  Fabricators got a much better hearing than they deserved.

  • Erring on the side of caution.

When the stakes are high, intelligence organizations tend to be conservative.  After 9-11, the security threat was not hypothetical.  The notional threats that had been discussed since the demise of the Soviet Union tended to be regional and distant from the US.  But 9-11 brought death and destruction to Americans at home. There was no tolerance for that risk.  

  • “I told you so…”

Bear in mind when you hear the next, “I told you so”, even if the actor really did, so what?  Why should a top-level decision maker believe them or me?  There are always plenty of “experts” who warn of pending threats.  If a flying saucer landed on the south lawn of the White House this afternoon, I am confident someone in the bloated intelligence community (17 separate agencies spending roughly $80-100 billion/year) will have written some piece of paper predicting such an event.  And just as certainly, the day after, Congress will demand hearings to investigate why the Administration did not listen to the poor ignored officer who could see what the rest of us did not.  BTW, Wall Street suffers the same problem.  I am sure someone will have predicted the Silicon Valley Bank crunch.  Why did we not listen?

  • Saddam wondered if US intelligence was possibly correct.

Saddam and those around him, had occasional doubts about whether WMD was retained in Iraq.  At one point, reacting to the strength of US WMD accusations, he asked his top advisors (at a Revolutionary Command Council meeting) whether there was something they weren’t telling him about Iraq WMD?  

  • TV Experts

Experts in think tanks, universities, etc., all derive stature by being in the media.  Just look at their resumes.  They list the various media outlets on which they have appeared. (I have been guilty of this.) If they are on some television or other media, does that imply credibility?  Or do they just generate clicks?  Being controversial and of deep conviction is better for media, than nuance.   Being good on TV is a separate talent from Iraq expertise.  Cable networks particularly tend to sustain their preferred narrative. When Iraq (or anything else) is hot, their bookers need to fill time and their talking heads may know no more than what they read in their morning internet feed.   

  • Iraq was a hard target.

Access to Iraq was very limited. It was like North Korea is today.  Remember, Iraq did not have internet (except for a few senior officials). The data that came out of Iraq was limited and therefore the bits that did emerge often received out of proportion attention. The outsized role of bogus defectors like the one dubbed “Curveball” illustrates the problem.  Judgements were made on very little real new data. [3]

  • Iraq did have WMD–and used it.

What was incontrovertible was that Saddam did have WMD in the past.   Saddam countered Iranian “human wave attacks” with chemical weapons—sarin and mustard agents.  He used 101,000 chemical munitions in the war with Iran.  Arguably WMD saved his regime.  Later, in the 1991 Iraq war, Saddam was of the view that one reason the US military did not go to Baghdad after expelling Iraq from Kuwait was the deterrent value of his WMD.  Why wouldn’t he retain the stuff?  He’d be crazy not to…or so one might think. While UNSCOM dogmatically uncovered virtually all his WMD between 1991 and 1998, we did not know how successful we were.  There were serious unanswered, unverifiable elements.

  •  Diminishing flexibility as military prepares. 

The political decision to prepare a military option to bolster a diplomatic solution is seductive. However, military preparations acquire their own momentum and before too long become virtually unstoppable.  Once the military is instructed to begin to put in place a capability to achieve regime change by force huge things start to move.  Tanks, munitions, repair and maintenance facilities, fuel, aircraft support and spares parts, hospitals, search and rescue capabilities etc., take months to deploy forward.  It is a massive undertaking and once in place, cannot be held in abeyance or the capability begins to decay.  The notion of putting all that military capacity in place and then wait “to give diplomacy a chance” is unfortunately impossible.  “Use it or lose it” takes over.  What may begin as an option to increase diplomatic leverage for a peaceful solution gradually becomes a factor that makes a peaceful outcome almost impossible.  Somewhere in the Iraq build-up there was a “point of no return”.  Unless, or course, if Saddam left.  That was his choice. 

So, before quickly concluding that you know Iraq was a huge avoidable mistake, take a moment to consider the circumstances at the time and whether a different decision would have been possible.  It is also worth considering whether regime change could have been done differently.  But that’s a separate series of questions.  Suffice to say here, the US government is not good at brain surgery.  My view has been:  If a president wants something done, he/she better want it done very very badly because it may be done very very badly.       

[1] I put my own perspectives in a book (no dog was involved) in 2010 (Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq).  I was also responsible for the Iraq Survey Group’s comprehensive report on Iraq WMD (so-called Duelfer Report) issued a month before the November 2004 presidential elections.  That report has stood the test of time. 

[2] Later in detention Saddam said these comments were aimed at Iran. He assumed the US, with its great (expensive anyway) intelligence system, must really know the truth. 

[3] The fact that the intelligence assessments relied on such limited information and was such low confidence should have been emphasized.  This was one of the terrible faults in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). It’s now on-line and worth reading to see how you would react to that intelligence judgment.

[i] My involvement with Iraq began in 1982 and continued to 2005. I never considered myself an expert on Iraq—I don’t speak Arabic.  However, I was a State Department political-military officer during the 1980’s involved in US relations in that sphere during the Iran-Iraq war.  From 1993-2000, I was the Deputy Executive Chairman of UNSCOM, the UN weapons inspection organization established after the 1991 Iraq war to eliminate Iraq’s WMD and establish a monitoring system sufficient to ensure programs were not restarted—even after sanctions were lifted.  Because the US had no embassy in Baghdad during the 1990’s and Iraq was a hostile environment to Americans, I was one of the few Americans in regular contact with senior Iraqis for most the 1990’s. 

I stayed in touch with Iraq and Iraqis up to and during the invasion of 2003.  I saw Iraqis I had known for years—sometimes at their homes, sometimes in detention.  It was not pleasant.  Saddam was removed, but…did it really need to be that bad afterwards?  

Many of the criticisms of the invasion and especially the post invasion decisions are well-founded.  However, some of the “I told you so” stories are very dubious in my recollection.  

I had the opportunity to provide my version of “lessons-learned” from Iraq for over 7000 new intelligence officers (mostly analysts) in the years since.  It’s something I have spent many years considering and discussing with various participants—including Iraqis who by the accident of birth were in Saddam’s Iraq.

This entry was posted in Allies, Chemical Weapons, Intelligence, Iran, Iraq, Sunni, Syria CW, United Nations, WMD and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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