Looking out my window on the sixth floor of the State Department, I could see the plumes of smoke across the Potomac. The full magnitude of the attacks on that Tuesday, September 11, 2001, was just beginning to sink in. That afternoon, sitting in a virtually deserted building, alone in my office as assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs (NEA), I tried to collect my thoughts and think ahead. Our computer systems were down, so I sat at my desk and wrote a note to Secretary of State Colin Powell in longhand, as legibly as I could. It was a hurried effort, covering four pages of yellow legal paper.
In the memo, I argued that we had to look for opportunities amid crisis. Of course, we had to respond decisively to al Qaeda’s strike on our homeland. But it seemed to me that at this grim and painful moment we could take advantage of almost unprecedented global support and retake the initiative in the Middle East. We could shape a strategy that would not only hit back hard against terrorists and any states who continued to harbor them, but also lay out an affirmative agenda that might eventually help reduce the hopelessness and anger on which extremists preyed. We could use the demonstration effect of military action in Afghanistan to focus the minds of leaders in Libya and Syria and use coercive diplomacy—political and economic pressure backed by the threat of force—to contain and undermine Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
In the 18 months that followed—that rare hinge point in history between the trauma of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq in early 2003—we took a different and ultimately disastrous course. This is a story of the road not taken, of the initial plan of coercive diplomacy in Iraq, which turned out to be long on coercion and short on diplomacy. It’s a story of forever wars from which we are still trying to disentangle ourselves, of the ways in which we accelerated the end of America’s moment in the Middle East and of our singular dominance of the wider international landscape. It’s a story of my own failure to do more to prevent a war that we did not need to fight. And it’s a story with lessons about flawed assumptions, broken policy processes and unilateral impulses that resonate powerfully today as another U.S. administration flirts with another regime change—this time in Iran—in a region where unintended consequences are rarely uplifting.
In the uncertain and emotional days after 9/11, it was not hard to imagine the George W. Bush administration seizing the moment of opportunity before it. President Bush’s national security team was familiar, experienced and tested. Restraint and realism seemed to be their dominant guideposts. As the U.S. military and the CIA moved swiftly in the fall of 2001 to help overthrow the Taliban, the State Department pedaled ahead on a number of the diplomatic initiatives I had sketched in my hurried note to Powell—opening a direct dialogue with the Iranians about post-Taliban Afghanistan that helped produce a new government, resuscitating talks with the Libyans over terrorism (and eventually their nuclear program) and winning Russian acceptance and U.N. Security Council passage of a “smart sanctions” framework for Iraq that would target more sharply the government’s illicit activities, and not its innocent civilians.
That agenda, however, was soon eclipsed by an alternative view. The new administration had been shaken badly and felt a call to action—the more decisive the better. It was not the season for nuance, caution and compromise. It was the season for the risk-tolerant and the ideologically ambitious, bent on inserting ourselves aggressively into the regional contest of ideas, militarizing our policy and unbuckling our rhetoric.
After the pain and surprise of 9/11, it was time for the muscular reassertion of American might, time to remind adversaries of the consequences of challenging the United States. For many in the White House and the Pentagon, that was a message best served unilaterally, unencumbered and undiluted by elaborate coalition-building.
Regime change in Iraq became the acid test of the administration’s post–9/11 approach. Impatient and proud of his decisiveness, President Bush found containment of Saddam to be too passive, inadequate to the challenges of this moment in history. The humble realist lens of his presidential campaign no longer seemed to illuminate. For “paleoconservatives” like Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, the message sent in Afghanistan was necessary but insufficient. For “neoconservatives” such as Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Undersecretary Doug Feith at the Pentagon, Saddam’s forcible ouster was not just a message, it was an opportunity to create a democratic model in Iraq, begin the transformation of the whole region and reassert American hegemony after a post-Cold War decade of naive attachment to the promise of a peace dividend.
In the months after 9/11, the policy terrain tilted away from the wider agenda for which we argued at the State Department, and toward a single-minded focus on toppling Saddam. So did the bureaucratic playing field, with Secretary Powell increasingly isolated and considered by antagonists at the White House and the Pentagon to be too independent, too popular and too moderate, and my bureau, NEA, considered a den of defeatists and Cassandras. In a Washington that rarely lacked for infighting and policy combat, the road to war in Iraq was distinctive for its intensity and indiscipline.
My NEA colleagues and I continued to believe for some time that we could contain Iraq and avoid war. We worried that an ill-considered, unilateral war to topple Saddam would prove to be a massive foreign policy blunder. We did not, however, argue frontally against the bipartisan policy of eventual regime change—a goal we had inherited from the Clinton administration—nor did we argue against the possible use of force much further down the road to achieve it. Instead, sensing the ideological zeal with which war drums were beating, we tried to slow the tempo and point debate in a less self-injurious direction. None of us had any illusions about Saddam or the long-term risk his regime posed for the region. His brutality deserved every bit of international condemnation and ostracism it had received. We did not, however, see a serious, imminent threat that would justify a war.
At the State Department, we were at first lulled into thinking that our arguments were getting traction. Before 9/11, the new administration’s episodic interagency discussions about Iraq were long and painful, the kind of bureaucratic purgatory that exists when issues are being sharply debated but everyone knows there is neither the political will nor urgency to resolve them.
The September 11 attacks provided the opening for regime-change proponents. Powell mentioned to me on September 12 that Rumsfeld had raised the threat posed by Saddam at the previous evening’s NSC meeting, and Wolfowitz pressed the issue again at a meeting of principals—top officials—at Camp David a few days later. President Bush was intrigued enough to ask the NSC staff for a quick investigation of whether Saddam had a role in the 9/11 attacks. The answer was an unambiguous no. The president made clear that the immediate priority would be action against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the idea of a preemptive strike to topple Saddam was slowly gathering steam.
Before a White House meeting that November, I sent a note to Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage emphasizing that it was the “wrong time to shift our focus from Afghanistan.” I explained that we needed “to show that we will finish the job [and] restore order, not just move on to the next Moslem state.” I added that the case for war was extremely weak. There was “no evidence of an Iraqi role” in 9/11, “no [regional or international] support for military action” and “no triggering event.” There was a “relatively weak internal opposition [in Iraq],” and little clarity on what might happen on the day after.
In my travels in the Middle East in early 2002, I detected little sense of urgency about Saddam from Arab leaders—and considerable anxiety, as I reported to Powell, that “the United States will come in, create a mess and then leave them to deal with the consequences.” Their sense, like mine, was that “the current Iraq opposition is fractured, feeble and incapable of organizing itself, much less bringing security, stability and civil society to a post-Saddam Iraq.” I emphasized again my conviction, which I knew Powell shared, that “getting into Iraq would be a lot easier than getting out” — that the post-conflict situation would be a far bigger problem than the initial military operation.
During the spring and early summer, interagency debate continued. We still thought we could “slow the train down,” as Powell used to put it, but the truth was that it was gathering speed. I used a different, and equally mistaken, metaphor in a note to the secretary before an April 2002 meeting with the president. I urged him to “play ‘judo’ with the crazier assertions from OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense]” and hope that by exposing the risks of war and its aftermath we could gain leverage. That tactic had only marginal effect, especially in that post–9/11 moment when there was a bias for action, and prudence looked like weakness.
We took one last run later that summer at the argument for avoiding war—summarizing, all in one place, the profound risks of an ill-prepared and ill-considered conflict. David Pearce, who directed NEA’s Iraq-Iran office, produced an initial draft outlining everything that could go wrong if we went to war. Deputy Assistant Secretary Ryan Crocker and I joined him in what quickly became the most depressing brainstorming session of our careers. The resultant memo, revised by David, was more a hurried list of ‘horribles’ than a coherent analysis, a hastily assembled antidote to the recklessly rosy assumptions of our bureaucratic antagonists.
Many of the arguments in the memo, which we entitled “The Perfect Storm,” look obvious in hindsight. We highlighted the deep sectarian fault lines in Iraq, on which Saddam had kept such a brutal lid. We emphasized the dangers of civil unrest and looting if the Iraqi military and security institutions collapsed or were eliminated in the wake of Saddam’s overthrow, and the risk that already badly degraded civilian infrastructure would crumble. If the United States embarked on this conflict, and especially if we embarked on it more or less on our own, and without a compelling justification, we’d bear the primary responsibility for post-conflict security, order and recovery. That would suck the oxygen out of every other priority on the administration’s national security agenda.
Looking back, we understated some risks, like the speed with which Sunni-Shia bloodletting in post-Saddam Iraq would fuel wider sectarian conflict in the region. We exaggerated others, like the risk that Saddam would use chemical weapons. Yet it was an honest effort to lay out our concerns, and it reflected our collective experiences and those of our generation of State Department Arabists, seared by the memory of stumbling into the middle of bloody sectarian conflict in Lebanon in the 1980s.
What we did not do in “The Perfect Storm,” however, was take a hard stand against war altogether, or make a passionate case for containment of Saddam as a long-term alternative to conflict. In the end, we pulled some punches, persuading ourselves that we’d never get a hearing for our concerns beyond the secretary if we simply threw ourselves on the track. Years later, that remains my biggest professional regret.
In a note to Powell later in August, I acknowledged we had lost the battle with others in the administration about “whether the goal of regime change makes sense; now it’s about choosing between a smart way and a dumb way of bringing it about.” We had only marginally greater success in this next phase, with our arguments for internationalizing the road to war and ensuring as much as possible the cooperation and support of Iraqis inside the country—not exile charlatans preferred by the Pentagon like Ahmed Chalabi—largely falling on deaf ears.
At a White House meeting on Iraq in September, I dutifully made the case for working through the United Nations to build international legitimacy and to enhance the leverage of coercive diplomacy. After listening politely but impatiently, the vice president replied, “The only legitimacy we really need comes on the back of an M1A1 tank.” Despite grumbling by Cheney and other hardliners, who saw the whole U.N. effort at best as a waste of time and at worst a sign of weakness, President Bush managed to push through a Security Council Resolution in early November warning of “serious consequences” if Saddam did not comply with his obligations.
On February 5, 2003, Powell made his famous presentation to the Security Council about Saddam’s noncompliance and continuing weapons of mass destruction activities, holding up a model vial of anthrax and incriminating photographs. The secretary had worked hard to peel away unsubstantiated material pressed on him by the vice president’s staff and others, but most of what remained was eventually discredited. In the moment, it felt like the most persuasive—and honest—case the administration could muster, from its most credible spokesperson. Over time, the damage done became more obvious, to both Powell’s reputation and our country’s. Powell would later call his speech “painful” and a permanent “blot” on his record. It was a hard lesson for all of us in the complexities of duty.
Late on the evening of March 19, 2003, the president announced in a nationally televised speech that we were at war again with Saddam. A dozen years before, I had sat with my wife, Lisa, and watched the president’s father make a similar, equally sobering speech. I had much deeper trepidation this time. This was not a war we needed to fight.
It didn’t take long for the house of cards that was our Iraq policy to begin to collapse. Early triumphalism after Saddam’s toppling gave way to a serious insurgency, accelerated by tragically misguided decisions to disband the Iraqi army and ban even rank-and-file members of Saddam’s Baath Party from public-sector roles. After an early summer visit to Baghdad, I tested my capacity for diplomatic understatement by reporting to Powell that “we’re in a pretty big hole in Iraq.” The headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority, I told the secretary, was “reminiscent of the bar scene in Star Wars.” In the faded and still creepy grandeur of Saddam’s old Republican Palace, American and other coalition personnel swarmed busily at all hours of the day and night—military and civilian, armed and unarmed, veterans of post-conflict situations and young Republican neophytes, the hardworking and committed and the certifiably clueless. Sectarian violence exploded around the country, and for the next few years the hole only got deeper.
By the end of Bush’s first term, and four years in NEA, I was exhausted, deeply worried about the mess we had made in the Middle East and disappointed in my own failure to do more to avoid it.
Our policy sins of commission had quickly become glaringly apparent, the sins of omission harder to measure but no less significant.
The Iraq invasion was the original sin. It was born of hubris, as well as failures of imagination and process. For neoconservative proponents, it was the key tool in the disruption of the Middle East—the heady, irresponsible and historically-unmoored notion that shaking things up violently would produce better outcomes. Unsurprisingly, the toppling of Saddam set off a chain reaction of troubles. It laid bare the fragilities and dysfunctions of Iraq as well as the wider Arab state system—proving that Americans could be just as arrogant and haphazard in their impact on Middle East maps as the original British and French mapmakers.
Poverty of imagination was another problem. Although we had tried in NEA to emphasize—repeatedly—all the things that could go wrong, all the reasons to avoid an ill-conceived war and all the plausible alternative policy paths, none of us asked enough basic questions. None of us thought seriously enough about the possibility that Saddam had no WMD anymore and was obfuscating not to conceal his stockpiles but rather to hide their absence in the face of domestic and regional predators. We learned that only later.
There was also a failure of process. The polarization of views in the administration in the run-up to war in 2003 was stark and crippling, and never really resolved. Sometimes that was simply a function of wishful thinking, such as the neocon fantasy that Iraqis would quickly rise above a history devoid of consensual national governance and replete with sectarian rivalries, or the Rumsfeldian notion that we could do regime change on the cheap.
And then there were the more elusive sins of omission. Some were deeply personal. Having tried to highlight all the things that could go wrong, all the unanswered strategic and practical questions, and all the flaws in going it alone, why didn’t I go to the mat in my opposition or quit? These are hard decisions, filled with professional, moral and family considerations. I still find my own answer garbled and unsatisfying, even with the benefit of a decade and a half of hindsight. Part of it was about loyalty to my friends and colleagues, and to Secretary Powell; part of it was the discipline of the Foreign Service, and the conceit that we could still help avoid even worse policy blunders from within the system than from outside it; part of it was selfish and career-centric, the unease about forgoing a profession I genuinely loved and in which I had invested 20 years; and part of it, I suppose, was the nagging sense that Saddam was a tyrant who deserved to go, and maybe we could navigate his demise more adeptly than I feared.
The wider sins of omission are really about opportunity costs, about the road not taken. How might things have been different for America’s role in the world and for the Middle East if we had not invaded Iraq in the spring of 2003? What if we had tried to harness the massive outpouring of international goodwill and shared concern after the terrible attacks of September 11 in a different, more constructive direction? That would have required a real attempt at coercive diplomacy in Iraq, patience in our approach and a readiness to share in its design and execution.
Instead, we opted for the more immediate satisfactions of unilateral impulses and blunt force and kept the sharing part to a minimum. It was beyond our power and imagination to remake the Middle East, with or without the overthrow of Saddam, but we could certainly make an already disordered region worse and further erode our leadership and influence. And we did.