March 19 marks 10 years since the United States invaded Iraq. Foreign Policy and the RAND Corporation teamed up to bring together many of the key players who launched, fought, analyzed, and executed the war, including everyone from Bush national security advisor Stephen Hadley and Gen. John Allen to Doug Feith, the controversial Bush Pentagon aide who advocated for the war in 2003, and Paul Pillar, the CIA analyst who later went public with his doubts. It quickly became clear that, even a decade later, every aspect of the war -- from its rationale through each phase of its execution -- remains hotly contested. We hope this unique conversation adds to the record of how we understand that war -- and in particular, what its consequences will be, and already are, for future American national security debates. We present here edited excerpts from the third part of the discussion, on "The Iraq Syndrome," moderated by FP's David Rothkopf, and you can find a full list of participants and their bios here. The first part of the transcript can be read here, and the second part can be read here.
David Rothkopf, Foreign Policy: The idea of this session was to drill down into what might be called the Iraq Syndrome. But the Iraq Syndrome could mean a lot of things. We are talking about aftereffects of the past 10 years, aftereffects of the Iraq experience, that may be impacting choices we're making elsewhere.
In Syria they may be manifested in this reluctance to intervene. In Afghanistan it was the translation of the surge from one place to a surge someplace else. In Libya it might have been translated into an approach like leading from behind, not having the United States get involved in one way, working in a different way to make a coalition do it. In Africa, it might be translated into light footprint, use of drones, avoidance of the kind of conventional approach that was used early on in Iraq. And the main reason you regularly hear people say we don't want to go into Iran is we were wrong about WMD in Iraq.
So the purpose here is to talk a little bit about your views on these lessons, or alternatively, whether you feel there are some lessons that we have properly learned from Iraq that are properly being applied.
Walt Slocombe, senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority: I have a somewhat limited point I'd like to make, which is what I call the danger of confirmation bias in policy analysis, and particularly in intelligence analysis. Everybody has preferences and views, and when they hear information, they tend to be subject to confirmation bias.
And I think the hardest problem -- based on the Silberman-Robb analysis of the intelligence -- was powerful confirmation bias. I don't think anybody willfully lied; I don't think anybody was told to produce a result. But people heard what they wanted to hear. And that is, there was a reasonable hypothesis that Saddam still had substantial WMD and WMD programs.
And in retrospect, tiny bits of specific information you're taking as confirming this hypothesis -- just as Iago plants in Othello's mind that Desdemona is being unfaithful and then uses the planted handkerchief as proof. And I think that's a common problem, and a difficult one to deal with. But it's wrong to say, because the intelligence community was wrong about WMD and Iraq in 2003, therefore it is wrong about WMD and nuclear programs in Iran in 2013. That's crazy.
Doug Feith, Bush Pentagon official: It's very hard to obtain intelligence about closed societies. So the fact that our intelligence was as wrong as it was is not necessarily a knock on, you know, the professionalism of people doing an inherently very difficult job.
One of the lessons that we've learned about intelligence over decades, and especially in recent years, is the importance of intelligence people qualifying what they say. And the Iraq experience kind of accelerated the trend of intelligence people emphasizing not just what they know or they think they know, but also what they don't know, and being a little better about qualifying what it is they put forward.