View photos of Afghanistan's army.
When Texas governor George W. Bush began to gather his network of informal national security and foreign policy advisors around him in 1999, neither he nor they initially had much to say about nation building. Bush himself certainly seemed disinclined to raze enemy countries and then spend decades and billions reshaping them. Rather, he spoke of a more "modest" and humble American stance in the world. Condoleezza Rice, who led the small team of advisors whom she had dubbed the Vulcans, went further when she articulated a decidedly negative view of nation building in a major article that appeared in the January 2000 issue of Foreign Affairs.
I was a Vulcan. I was, in other words, one of the original members of a group of eight who advised Bush on foreign and national security policy issues as he made his first run for the White House.
I am proud of my public service in the Bush administration as well as of my service in earlier administrations. I would not be entirely honest, however, if I did not confess disappointment with some of the consequences of Bush administration policies. But my tale is in no way lurid. The administration's shortcomings were not a consequence of criminality, or moral debasement, or stupidity, or a lack of patriotism and good intentions, as so many frenzied anti-Bush ideologues have charged and, to all appearances, actually believe. The shortcomings were instead a consequence, above all, of the inherent novelty and difficulty of the challenges the administration faced but also of deficiencies of management, understanding, and forethought. Some of these deficiencies were inherent in the structure of today's federal government, but others were a consequence of flawed leadership. And nowhere, in my estimation, did these deficiencies and flaws accumulate to do more damage than in the case of the war in Afghanistan.
In early spring of 1999, at a meeting of the Vulcans and other senior advisors in the governor's mansion in Austin, Bush asked whether we would have advocated intervention in Bosnia. All but two of us supported the intervention. I was one of the two dissenters. The other was Dick Cheney. The governor responded by stating that his heart was with the minority, but his head told him it was the right thing to do. Now that the United States had committed itself, he considered withdrawal to be out of the question.
Most of the other Vulcans fell somewhere in between support for and opposition to nation building or regime change. They could be described as "realists," although they were not as openly opposed to military interventions as I was. During the campaign, and indeed not until after 9/11, was there anything remotely unsavory about the term "realist" among the Vulcans. Out of the eight of us, Richard Armitage, Robert Zoellick, Robert Blackwill, and Stephen Hadley, like Rice and indeed Paul Wolfowitz and Cheney, had all served in George H. W. Bush's administration, which was renowned for the hard-headed realism that governed its foreign policy. Only Richard Perle and Wolfowitz were neoconservatives, although Paul denied, seemingly in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that he really was a "neocon." (Paul seemed to do so largely on the basis that he was not an active supporter of Israel's conservative Likud Party, whereas most neocons, the majority of them Jewish, were.)
While the Vulcans reached consensus on many issues, there were differences as well. With Perle and Wolfowitz working alongside several hard-core realists, tensions within this group of strong-willed overachievers with different worldviews were inevitable. Paul, in particular, often expressed to me concern about his relations with Condi. But he never made an issue of Iraq, although he never hid his view that there needed to be a change of regime in that country.
No one else made an issue of Iraq either. In fact, to my knowledge the notion of going to war to unseat Saddam was never debated among the Vulcans. Neither Paul nor Richard Perle ever raised the matter; had they done so, the group would have been bitterly divided. Instead, while all the Vulcans agreed that Saddam had to go, policy discussions relating to Iraq during the campaign and the transition centered on toughening sanctions against Baghdad to accelerate the economic squeeze that would lead to the regime's collapse. And such discussions were not special; Iraq was just one of many thorny foreign policy issues raised and debated. Afghanistan commanded even less attention from the Vulcans than did Iraq. No one spoke about unseating the Taliban. No one pointed out that al Qaeda was in virtual control of pieces of the country. Afghanistan simply was not on anyone's radar screen in 1999 or the year 2000.
Whatever rifts that did emerge among the Vulcans were never sharp, prolonged, or, most important, public. The group worked well together, whether face-to-face or in weekly conference calls. In part that resulted from the unstated but understood pecking order that existed among the Vulcans. Everyone knew that Condi was the leader and that Paul led on defense issues. Richard Perle, Rich Armitage, Bob Blackwill, Bob Zoellick, Steve Hadley, and I made up the next echelon. To some extent, comity among the Vulcans reflected a common purpose -- to ensure the governor's nomination and then election. In addition, however, the group's unity was a direct result of Condi Rice's leadership, which derived ultimately from her relationship to the governor. Their interactions differed qualitatively from those that any of the others had with him: they seemed to communicate on their own special frequency. It was that very special derivative authority, coupled with her willingness to stroke the rather large egos of several of the team's leading lights, that ensured that everyone pulled in the same direction.
On Sept. 12, 2001, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Doug Feith and I arrived in the Pentagon conference room about two minutes before the meeting was to start. The service chiefs and secretaries were already there. So was Dick Myers, who had just been promoted from vice chairman to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Paul Wolfowitz, and two other under secretaries. Just after six o'clock the president walked in, with his White House team and Don Rumsfeld in tow.