National Security

The Iraq Syndrome

A decade later, what lessons haven't we learned from the war in Iraq that we should?

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.

When we talk about the plan for political transition in Iraq, I mean, one of the most important assertions of the intelligence community relating to that enormously important plan was that the externals, the exiles and the Kurds, would have no legitimacy whatsoever in post-Saddam Iraq. Dismissing, you know, the whole set of Chalabi, Allawi, Barzani, Talabani -- the whole group of them. They were attacked as, you know, basically the Gucci loafer-wearing exiles living high in London and elsewhere, and that they would have no following. And as somebody pointed out earlier, many of these people have dominated Iraqi politics since Saddam's overthrow and have won elections over and over again. And, I mean, that was really a profound and very highly significant error.

And, as I said, I'm not saying this to recriminate, but the strong emphasis that they really did know what they were talking about turned out to be really a big problem. And I think one of the lessons is, we should just be, in general, more skeptical about intelligence. You have to rely on intelligence. It's as good as it can get, you know, you try to improve it, but whenever you read it, it should be read very skeptically.

About lessons learned: One of the most interesting things that I have seen that has come out of Iraq over the last decade has been the Iraqi Perspectives Project. And it was, I believe, a project launched by the Joint Forces Command, where they sent a bunch of historians to study the transcripts of the interrogations of Saddam and all his top military and civilian officials. And one of the really fascinating things in there was the reports on what Saddam said. And essentially what he said is, all of the American-led international diplomacy to try to get him to change his policies, or ultimately to leave Iraq, did not work with him, because he believed two things.

He believed, first of all, the United States was a paper tiger. And he cited specific cases: Vietnam, Somalia, I think maybe Beirut, as examples of where the United States will not take casualties. And he said, it's clear the Americans would have to take casualties to take Baghdad; therefore, they're not coming to Baghdad. I just don't believe the threats. The second thing he said is, he believed the French and the Russians would block any U.N. resolution, and that that would also help ensure that he wouldn't have to face the execution of the threats that were being made. This is a textbook example of how military power relates to diplomacy. He did not believe our military threats, and therefore our diplomacy didn't work with him.

One of the consequences of the Iraq war, without a doubt, because it didn't go well, is there's a really profound swing of the pendulum toward reluctance to use military power, at the same time that there's a great hope that diplomacy is going to be able to solve some of the major problems we have with North Korea, with Iran, elsewhere. And it's important to understand that the likelihood of success of any kind of diplomacy with these difficult regimes hinges in large part on the credibility of our military threats, and when that's undermined, our diplomacy is undermined.

Philip Mudd, former CIA official: It seems to me that for the American people, there's this increasing distinction between wars of necessity and what I would call value wars. I think, like it or not, most Americans in retrospect would see Iraq as a choice reflecting American values. Bad guy, uses chemicals on his own people, he shouldn't be there.

But we're very reluctant to use American men and women to impose our views of values. And now we're seeing it in Syria again, people who might be democrats, might not, I'm not sure. But there's an American value here. We don't like dictators. I think there's a clear distinction now between, do I see American security at risk, or is this a value war?

Chris Chivvis, RAND: I'm not sure I agree, Phil. I think in many of these cases, in nearly all of them, that distinction is very difficult to make

But actually, my point was more broadly on the lessons of Libya. I think you could say that we learned both the right lessons and the wrong lessons, or perhaps we misapplied the lessons in Libya. It's not so much the leading from behind -- we did, you know, put thinking into getting the coalition right, and that was obviously important in the initial stages of Libya, and helped our success.

It's in the post-conflict period that we probably mislearned, or at least have misapplied, the lessons of Iraq with our extreme reticence to employ any kind of boots on the ground -- even small numbers of boots on the ground. That's obviously a mistake and something that we'll have to figure out how to modulate our understanding of that particular lesson.

Peter Feaver, Bush NSC official: There's another form of confirmation bias, and that's the belief that, if I come out with, say, a 51/49 calculation, over time I turn that into an 80/20, where you believe that all the sub-cost-benefit calculations line up with the overall net one. And we see that, I think, in Iraq. People who believed that it was a mistake -- or came to believe that it was a mistake -- to invade therefore believed it would also be a mistake to surge in 2007, although they're logically very, very separate decisions.

Second, there was a fundamental, philosophical difference that came directly from Iraq. The Bush administration believed that you get better cooperation by assuring your allies and partners that you have their back and that you were committed to them, and you got more cooperation than free-riding. And the Obama administration clearly believed that you got more free-riding than cooperation -- that the way to get cooperation was to threaten to leave, or to commit to leave. This concentrates the mind and forces them to step up. And I think we are seeing that experiment play out right now.

And, third, about casualty sensitivity: the original version of the Vietnam syndrome was this belief that the American public would not take casualties. The American people have actually responded to all of the wars, from Korea on, in the same functional form, but at orders of magnitude fewer casualties. But the reason is not that they are suddenly more casualties-phobic than they used to be. The reason is that their definition of the number of casualties necessary to accomplish the objective has changed. That is, it's always been the case that the public will accept casualties they believe are necessary to accomplish a war that they believe we're going to win. But if you change one of those dynamics -- the expectation that we're going to win, or the expectation that these casualties are necessary and not the result of blundering generals or incompetent management -- then the public will change its view.

Has the Iraq/Afghanistan experience changed the public's belief of what number of casualties are necessary to accomplish objectives? Has the bin Laden killing changed the public's belief of how many casualties you need to suffer in order to accomplish an objective? If so, then I think we're in a different era of warfare.

James Dobbins, RAND: I was stimulated by the discussion about the so-called intelligence failure in Iraq, and to the extent there was one, I have a somewhat institutional explanation for it. I think that intelligence analysts are oriented toward bad news, and policymakers toward good news. Policymakers want their policies to succeed, intelligence analysts are telling them why they don't succeed.

Now, the problem was that, with the Iraqi WMD, the policymakers wanted bad news. They wanted to confirm that Iraq had WMD, and the intelligence analysts were inclined to move in that direction anyway, since it would be even worse if they predicted they didn't have WMD and it turned out they did. The story with the vice president's visit to the CIA was not that he browbeat them into a conclusion that they were reluctant to accept, but that he reinforced their existing bias in ways that probably made them even more sure that bad news was justified and, in any case, welcome.

On a slightly different issue, the current narrative on counterinsurgency is, in Iraq it finally succeeded, but in Afghanistan it didn't work and we're never going to do it again. [Instead] we're going to move toward counterterrorism. And I think this is a mislabeling of what we're actually doing. I mean, we're not stopping doing counterinsurgency in Afghanistan because it doesn't work. We're stopping because it's too expensive to do with Americans, and so we'll do it with Afghans, which will be a lot cheaper, even if, perhaps, less reliable.

But if the Afghans don't do counterinsurgency successfully, then we're not going to do counterterrorism in Afghanistan because we're not going to be there at all.

Paul Pillar, former CIA analyst: Lots has been said about intelligence. I would second what Walt said before, but I've got a slightly different take than what Jim just mentioned. It's not so much the good news versus bad news thing, but the phenomenon of what sort of message your customer wants to hear.

This is one respect in which the Silberman-Robb Commission -- which overall I think did an excellent job -- and the Senate Intelligence Committee fell short. And that was recognizing [how] influence -- admittedly difficult to measure, but [it] does not take the form of the stereotypical view of politicization, which is arm-twisting -- affects judgments.

This is one respect in which, of all the lessons we've learned, we're a step behind the British because, over on the other side, they had the Butler Commission report which, among other things, made the judgment that substantive intelligence judgments and policy were improperly commingled, and [former British Prime Minister Tony] Blair accepted that finding. And it was basically the same phenomenon and dynamic on this side of the pond as on the other side. But we haven't had any such recognition.

The intelligence didn't drive the policy on Iraq. I could cite numerous respects in which that was true. You could look at what George Tenet and the community were saying in the early months of 2001, as reflected in what Colin Powell was saying as of the spring of 2001, that Saddam Hussein is in his box, he's not very successful with his WMD program.

It was only after the march to war started, that this became the big selling point. The infamous estimate in the fall of 2002 [which said Saddam continued to pursue WMD] was never requested by the administration. It was requested by Democrats on the Hill. If you look at the overall intelligence product, including the infamous estimate, which included the judgment that if Saddam has these weapons, he probably won't use them against the United States, or give them to terrorists, the Democrats seized on that, too.

All the judgments about terrorist connections and the alliance, to use the president's words, between the Saddam Hussein regime and al Qaeda, that wasn't intelligence judgments. Those were going the other direction.

But perhaps even more fundamental than that is the conflation between a single substantive issue -- do they or do they not have X? That's not the policy question. The policy question is, you know, even if they have X, what's the best way to deal with that? And what are all the costs and the benefits of having one way of dealing with it versus some other way of dealing with it?

Yesterday [Director of National Intelligence] Jim Clapper presented the most recent worldwide threat estimate to one of the Senate committees. And it was basically the same kind of judgments on Iran, about, we don't think that they've made any decision on [nuclear weapons]. But even if the judgment had been significantly different -- even if he had said, well, we think now that, yeah, they are going ahead and they're going to make a bomb -- that doesn't answer the policy question about what to do about it.

Kalev Sepp, Naval Postgraduate School: I'm quoting from Drew Erdmann here, who not everybody may know, but he came out of Policy Planning [and] he ended up in Iraq as the Minister of Higher Education -- not the advisor to the minister, he was the Minister of Higher Education. And then was in the White House, was director for Iran and Iraq. One of his comments, consistently, about Iraq particularly is: We say it's about them, but it's really about us, that domestic issues actually drive foreign policy.

And I would point to something that Michael Gordon just published, derived from a memo that Ambassador Negroponte sent President Bush, saying that we're going to need five years in Iraq to get them back on their feet. And President Bush's response was, we don't have five years. Which has nothing to do with what's going on in Iraq.

Second item: A badly run war can weaken a political party. And an example here is the Republicans lost dominance in national security and foreign policy affairs, and it's rooted, principally, I think, in Iraq, and somewhat in Afghanistan.

This is a lesson and a question at the same time: I think we've learned that holding elections does not equal the creation of a vibrant democracy. And there's actually a long historical set of examples from that: Louis Napoleon uses a referendum to end democracy in, you know, in France. Mussolini and Hitler both used democracy to overturn democracy, in Italy and Germany. And now, Phil's raised these points about Libya and Syria. Maybe this is a graduate school question, but is this the end of militant Wilsonianism?

And the last point is about the decision for war. Hopefully the lesson is that wars have very serious unintended consequences, and cannot simply be managed, even on what appear to be smaller scales.

Feaver: Kal, doesn't that also apply, though, to non-intervention? It seems to me that that's the one mistake we make by looking back at Iraq, is we focus on the decision for war -- that's understandable and obvious. But during that same decade we chose not to intervene in a half dozen other places that had other plausible cases for interventions, Darfur just being one of them, Congo, etc.

Amb. Charlie Ries: North Korea.

Feaver: North Korea, exactly. And so, looking forward, if we think that it's only decisions for war that have a chain of unintended consequences that are bad, and forget that decisions not to intervene likewise have a chain of consequences that are hard to predict, I think we're making the problem easier than it is.

Rothkopf: It's a very serious question, and I think it's a good point, because with regard to Syria, if the result of Iraq is that you don't go into Syria, and if the collapse of Syria leads to dire effects in Lebanon or Jordan or back in Iraq or Turkey, or throughout the whole region, then the lesson-learning may be more damaging than the impetus for the lesson in the first place, right --

Sepp: The only thing I would come back with is the issue of responsibility. There's two sets of lessons about coming out of Vietnam. The lesson for the Special Forces was, don't fight their wars for them. Make them fight for their own country. The other is, do we have to deal with the mess that is created? Are we responsible for dealing with the mess? Even if we're not morally responsible, we may be responsible in the sense of having to deal with the mess. That's my point.

David Sanger, The New York Times: So first, on confirmation bias, I think that Walt's point is very well taken. I think in this case, for the intelligence community, there may have been an additional factor: that they had underestimated the speed at which the Soviets were going to get the bomb in late '40s; the speed at which the Indians and the Pakistanis got it in the '60s and the '80s. So it may be that the overriding impetus in the intel community would be, we're not going to make that mistake of underestimating again. Then came Iraq, and the mistake was made in the opposite direction.

So in 2004, I think it was, we had an interview with President Bush just as the war was turning bad in Iraq, in which he talked about his own motivations to make the decision that he made, and I thought he said something that was quite revealing at the time, which was that, after 9/11, it's not that Iraq had changed as a threat, but his own perception of how much threat the United States could take had changed.

In other words, post-9/11 he wasn't willing to put up with the possibility of an attack from Iraqi soil on the United States. And that's interesting, because that tells you, it was more about what was going on in his mind, about threat perception, than any real change in threat itself.

And that gets us to the question of why the decision was made of the three countries in the "axis of evil" that we actually attacked the only one with no known nuclear weapons program. I think you could have made a case at the time that North Korea was equally irrational, but as Rice said, Saddam lives in a worse neighborhood. So it wasn't the actual threat posed by North Korea. It was the neighborhood.

Dobbins: It was an opportunity provided by Kuwait.

Sanger: That's right.

And then on Iran, we actually saw people in the administration playing down the discovery in late 2002, early 2003, of the Natanz plant. Imagine for a moment that the Natanz enrichment plant had actually been picked up overnight and was in Iraq instead. That would have been the smoking gun. But because the gears were moving much more toward Iraq, no one wanted to very much focus on Iran. In fact, when we were calling around asking about this, it was like, it's nothing, don't worry about it.

Well, today it's something. So, these questions of how you're perceiving the threat that's right in front of you may have more to do with it than the actual evidence that was coming up, flawed as this evidence may have been.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, The Washington Post: Another baked-in assumption held by many in the lead-up to Iraq was that it would have a transformative power across the region. And yes, I know there are some who think that the Arab spring was tied to Iraq. I think the vast majority of us don't see a direct connection there.

The Afghanistan side of things, an argument baked in there that a surge in Afghanistan would somehow help to promote stability in Pakistan, I think, if anything, we've seen the opposite.

On civil military relations, you know, the genesis of the surge was both civilian and military. One could argue, based on some of the good books out there, that the genesis was in the civilian policy community, and quickly embraced by the military. But what has that legacy had as it's been internalized by the military going forward? And I think to the Afghanistan process in 2009, when Secretary of Defense Gates essentially let three 4-stars -- McChrystal, Petraeus, and Mullen -- serve as the principal lobbyists for the troop increase.

To come back to where we ended the last round on State, I agree with the others who say that by the 2007/8 period, State did improve. And I think much of that has atrophied. There's a real danger in the narrative that's taking hold at State and AID that their end of the surge in both Iraq and Afghanistan was a resounding success. There isn't the same lessons-learned culture that's taking place within those bureaucracies, and I think there needs to be a real serious examination as to whether, going forward, more of those functions are assumed, within the military, just because there is not the requisite work being done to maintain those skill sets, to build upon them for adaptation in future interventions.

Lt. Col. John Nagl (ret.): We talked a lot during this session, in particular, about the caution on intervention. Bismarck warned about the results of rolling the iron dice. I think that that is a generational lesson. I think it's going to be 20 years before we go there again with a boots-on-the-ground intervention, events not pulling us in.

We can talk a lot in this town about the different situations that may compel us to do so. The American people, I think, are going to have a real hard time buying it, and we're going to have a hard time feeding it to them this next time.

We talked about, despite what I just said, requiring the military to prepare for all kinds of wars, not just the kind of wars that it would like to; preparing civilian capacity as well. I think that question is very much open, and the attempt to determine the lessons of this last decade of war will play a big role in making those decisions. But so will our budgetary situation, which has not been helped, obviously, by the war in Iraq.

And my only original point, but an important one, I think, is that these wars have demonstrated, to a degree unimaginable 40 years ago, the success of the all-volunteer force. There was no belief in the wake of Vietnam that we could fight one, much less two, prolonged ground combat wars with an all-volunteer force. And it has come through with flying colors, and I think that is a real testament to the young people of this generation, who have all volunteered for this.

Col. Peter Mansoor (ret.): The lessons of Iraq argue for more civilian involvement in the fashioning of strategy, not less. There is not enough presidential involvement in the decision to go to war, in questioning the assumptions and looking at the plan, and questioning what's going to happen once we get to Baghdad. There just is not.

And it's not until the war is nearly lost in 2006 that President Bush decides to become the commander in chief, and really delve into the issues of strategic development, and he decides to surge. The surge has a million fathers; he is the only one that's responsible for it because he's the only one that decided to do it, against every political headwind in the nation that was blowing against him.

And it turned out that it was risky, a gamble, as Tom Ricks would say. But it was successful. And then we screwed up the end game, as Michael Gordon said.

But the fact is that when you question assumptions, when you delve into the specifics of plans, when there's real focus from the civilian leadership on the military rather than just saying, oh, the generals will decide, strategy is better for it.

Sanger: War is too important to be left to the generals.

Nagl: You got it.

Rothkopf: What a great segue. General? [LAUGHTER]

Gen. John Allen: As one who discovered that war wasn't left up to me --

[LAUGHTER] A couple things, again, in the context of things that we could take forward, coalition development and coalition management is going to be extraordinarily important in the future. I'm not sure that we put enough emphasis on that, either in our schools or in our whole-of-government approach to things.

Clearly, a 50-nation coalition right now in Afghanistan has been important to us, but my guess is, just as I think John said a moment ago, that it will be 20 years before we undertake something like this again. It's going to be a long time before NATO is going to be interested, probably, in undertaking something that could look like this again. So development of coalition maintenance and management is going to be important.

To Peter's point, I think it's extraordinarily important, as you've just said. The whole-of-government approach with respect to the development of strategy has got to be firmly implanted in the way ahead.

And something I worry about increasingly as time goes on is the sense that the development strategies in Iraq, and now Afghanistan, have failed, and that the development dimension of what we have attempted to undertake was either the wrong approach, or was just flawed from the beginning. And I think that really deserves some rigorous testing.

I understand the SIGIR report and SIGAR are alive and well, and they've got their opinions, and many of their observations are, in fact, correct. But development, with a little "d," which was wielded day-to-day by company and battalion commanders [and] by multinational division commanders in Iraq, in fact, was enormously successful in achieving many of our objectives locally or regionally. It, in fact, is what, in many respects, both created local governance, facilitated local governance, yet reduced the insurgency. It produced opportunities that we would not have otherwise had, had we not had development.

So I worry that the conversation on the discussion on development is headed in a direction where we could come to wrong conclusions. And I think we should just look at that very, very closely in the future about this.

Feaver: I think it's possible that five years from now, the conventional wisdom will have evolved to the point where we decide, we did the Iraq war better than we did the Afghanistan war. We achieved a higher level of success, however it's defined as success, not that we were right to go in.

I don't think there will be a change on the judgment on the front-end decision, but on what did we accomplish, it may be that Iraq will end up scoring a little higher than Afghanistan, which is not what any one of us would have predicted, say, four years ago.

Rothkopf: There's a big difference between development and stabilization. And one of the problems that we have in post-conflict reconstruction redevelopment is we send in development people whose job is long-term, slow economic development to do a job that is fundamentally political and security oriented.

If you take the development view of a country -- a country like Haiti or a country like Afghanistan -- and you say, where should you build a bridge? The development guy will do an analysis and say, for the economic future of the country, you build the bridge over here. But the person who's trying to stabilize the region might say, let me build a bridge right in the middle of town next to an existing bridge, so the most people see that there's a brand new bridge, because that's political.

Allen: Exactly.

Rothkopf: And it's a different calculus, and you need people to make a different calculus.

Dobbins: We recently ran a study that tried to benchmark the results of 20 post-conflict reconstruction efforts since the end of the Cold War. And we tried to use well-recognized indices, so we used Freedom House for levels of democratization; we used IMF for levels of economic growth; we used the World Bank for government effectiveness; and we used UNDP for human development.

In economic growth, Afghanistan registered the second highest of all 20 countries. For democratization it was about average. It increased by 20 percentage points on the Freedom House index. On government effectiveness, it was the second highest of all 20. And for human development, which includes education, health, as well as standard of living, it was the highest of all 20.

Now, you have to be careful. It meant it moved from 185th in the world to 176th in the world. This is level of progress. It's not absolute outcome. But the efforts in Afghanistan have achieved comparatively very high levels of improvement in all of those categories. We also benchmark levels of peace, and Afghanistan was one of four that didn't achieve peace over that period. So it's not an unqualified success.

Rothkopf: One big conclusion you can draw is that there is no teacher quite as effective or powerful as your last mistake. But what gives that power is the ability to tell the difference between what was a mistake and what was not. And it often takes a long time to figure that out.

I grew up in an era in which Vietnam was clearly seen as a disaster for the United States. That was the conventional wisdom. Today Vietnam is a capitalist country, the Soviet Union has fallen, the principal objectives of the war have actually been realized in some respects. The picture looks somewhat different than it did in 1975. or '76. It's worth keeping in mind as we look forward at these things.

And the other lesson that we take from these things is that very often, what gets us into trouble the next time is either mislearning the mistake, acknowledging something to be a success that wasn't actually a success, or the failure to see our errors of omission.

Syria has been brought up as a potential example there. I was struck, as a former member of the Clinton administration, that it might be a particular irony that Susan Rice could be the national security advisor at the time that this happened, because of her closeness to the Rwanda error of omission, which was seen during the Clinton administration as the biggest mistake we made. The president said it was the biggest mistake he made. And he said, we will not do that again. We will not fail to intervene in a place where that could happen. And there's 70,000 dead Syrians, and a million displaced Syrians outside of Syria, and a million displaced Syrian inside of Syria. And so that could be one of the lessons.

But in any event, the only way you get there is to have discussions like this. And I have to say, there haven't been enough of them -- even with the tenth anniversary looming, there haven't been enough really thoughtful, introspective, after-action kind of analyses like this.

Foreign Policy


The Secret Surge Debate

Behind closed doors, a newly revealed transcript shows, the Bush administration was much more deeply divided about the way forward in Iraq than it let on in public.

As the grim casualty counts filtered in from Iraq in November 2006, a group of top Bush administration officials gathered in National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley's office for a Saturday-morning brainstorming session.

The U.S. strategy for tamping down the sectarian violence was in tatters, but there was no agreement within the administration on what should replace it. The White House was moving to publicly inaugurate a policy review, but the president's team was badly divided.

"What can we really do?" asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who wondered aloud if the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad might be "playing us for a sucker."

Much of the discussion, which is chronicled in a classified transcript described in detail here for the first time, was dominated by Rice's argument that the United States should abandon a strategy in which "nothing is going right" and instead focus on "core interests" like fighting al Qaeda and contesting Iranian influence. Instead of trying to stop the burgeoning sectarian violence, Rice suggested, the American military might concentrate on averting "mass killings" --attacks on the order of Srebrenica, the 1995 massacre in which more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed.

But Hadley and his aides on the National Security Council were pushing in the opposite direction and making the case for sending more troops.

"On force numbers in Baghdad, we have never had a level of forces that historical case studies, such as those conducted by Rand, find to be necessary," said Brett McGurk, an Iraq hand on the NSC. "There is an argument that coalition forces are not only critical to preventing mass killings, they are also critical to establishing the conditions for a political deal."

Ten years after the American-led invasion of Iraq, the conflict remains a subject of fierce debate. By all accounts, President George W. Bush's decision to send five additional combat brigades, more than 20,000 troops, for the "surge" was among the most fateful of the nearly nine-year conflict.

I covered the war in Iraq before, during, and after the surge, and it is clear that it played an essential role in tamping down the sectarian violence and catalyzing the tribal awakening in Anbar province so that it spread to Diyala, areas south of Baghdad, and to the Iraqi capital itself.

The United States owed it to the Iraqis it sought to liberate to try to reduce the violence before heading toward the exit, and it owed it to the American troops. As overstretched as the U.S. military was, defeat would have been even worse.

For all that, the political reconciliation the United States sought to encourage through the surge was never fully achieved. A host of other decisions over two administrations also aggravated that problem, and the Bush and Obama administrations each fell short in curbing Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's drift toward authoritarianism.

But leaving Iraq in the grips of a spiraling civil war in 2007 would have been a disaster for U.S. national security. And it is one of history's larger ironies that the surge Barack Obama so strenuously opposed as a candidate later enabled him as president to withdraw American forces without unleashing a tidal wave of fresh violence.

Still, the decision to surge was not an easy one for Bush's Iraq team -- and the internal debate was more pointed than is commonly realized, with lessons for Iraq, Afghanistan, and other potential conflicts that reverberate even today.

* * *

In October 2006, Hadley made his first trip to Baghdad, where he heard an earful from military officers about the fighting in the Iraqi capital and the increasingly sectarian role of the Shia-dominated Iraqi government.

That visit helped frame the problem. And when Hadley, Rice, and their aides gathered on Nov. 11, the war was shaping the political debate at home. Just days earlier, the Republicans had taken a drubbing in the midterm elections, and Donald H. Rumsfeld had finally been pushed out as secretary of defense.

If there was to be a new strategy, Hadley believed, it was imperative that the Joint Chiefs be brought on board. But as the meeting in Hadley's office got under way the civilians were hardly united, with the State Department and the NSC staff forming opposing camps.

Rice put the question on the table: What were the United States' core interests in Iraq and could Iraq, which had managed to hold elections, build a genuine democracy?

"Is Iraq so fractured that democracy, for the majority Shia, means one man, one vote, only once?" Rice asked. "In other words, are the Shia simply pursuing a hegemonic agenda?

"Let's go around the table and focus on Condi's key question," Hadley said. "Can this government overcome narrow sectarian interests? Is there room for compromise?"

Meghan O' Sullivan, the deputy national security advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan, answered with an emphatic "yes." Iraq, she argued, could overcome its sectarian differences, but Maliki's government would not be able to rise above its sectarian "impulses" unless the United States did more to improve security and thus showed that a multi-sectarian Iraq was possible.

Rice challenged the argument: "With 140,000 troops, how can they doubt our level of commitment?" she asked.

"We see this as a huge commitment," O'Sullivan responded. "But they see that we are not doing enough to provide security. The point is that the Iraqis are not predetermined to choose the sectarian piece every time."

Rice still seemed skeptical and wondered if the Maliki government was simply "using us as a shield" while pursuing a sectarian agenda.

Peter Feaver, a Duke University professor who had been recruited to run the NSC's strategic planning office, backed up O'Sullivan's analysis. "We may in fact be doing just enough to encourage hedging behavior from all sides, but not enough to set the conditions for a political deal," he said.

At this point, David Satterfield, Rice's senior advisor on Iraq, joined the debate on the other side. The sectarian demons appeared to have been unleashed, and Satterfield made the State Department's case for a more limited American role, one that narrowed the administration's goals in Iraq to "core interests" like counterterrorism.

"This drive for dominance is fully consistent with the Shia historical narrative of enemies on all sides and betrayal lurking around the corner," Satterfield said. "In this regard, Maliki's intentions must be seen as part of this overarching Shia agenda. It is going to play out."

"We need a fundamental reconsideration of our presence and purpose in Iraq," Satterfield continued. "No application of forces is likely to make a discernible difference. The Shia will pursue their own agenda regardless. We need to focus on our core interests and deploy our resources accordingly."

But then John Hannah, Vice President Dick Cheney's national security advisor, pushed back. It was too soon to give up on the White House's ambitious goal to foster and build ties with a moderate Iraq, albeit one that would be dominated by the Shia.

"I do not agree with the deterministic quality to David's view," Hannah said. "We have one last chance to change this situation. I do not believe it is fated that the Sunnis will reject a deal, or that the Shia won't offer one. Looking at the Shia, they have had a reasonable deal on the table for some time. There are just too few Sunnis willing to accept their position as a minority power in a coalition government."

Philip Zelikow, the State Department counselor and Rice confidant, argued that while the situation might not have been predetermined, the political die had since been cast.

"We contained but did not defeat the insurgency last year," he said. "I think the communities have become more polarized and the Shia narrative has become entrenched. Our focus is Green Zone-centric. Will there be a political deal? Can the moderates have a role? In fact, the central government at this stage has little ability to control the security situation outside the Green Zone. As a consequence, all sides are going to self-help. The locus of power is now diffuse and decentralized."

"We need to cut deals as necessary with these local bases of power," he added. "We need to embed and support not the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] as a whole, but the particular units that we identify as able to help advance our interests. That is a much more deliberate and calibrated approach than what we're doing now."

* * *

At this point, the NSC staff made a new argument, one that sought to link the fraught situation in Iraq with the political realities at home. The time for taking corrective action was growing short and there might only be sufficient political support in the United States for one last push. If the United States aimed low, as State was advocating, it might squander the only chance to change the military and political equation in Baghdad.

"We need to keep in mind, as we consider the options, that we have a window here -- a short window, of course, but one in which we might be able to make the pitch that we need to focus on building up Maliki's capabilities to deal with issues," Feaver said. "Once we adopt another approach, particularly if it deals with limiting our footprint, we will never be able to recapture this window."

Advancing the NSC's case, McGurk argued that the discussion of a Shia narrative was too simplistic. The sectarian violence was being stoked by a very specific Shia agenda, that of Muqtada al-Sadr, the fiery anti-American cleric. Maliki, McGurk continued, was "beholden" to the Sadrists, who had joined the Shia political alliance, been granted control of the Health and Transportation ministries and were using them to pursue their campaign of sectarian cleansing.

"To a Sunni, what is important at this moment is not the constitution or an oil law," McGurk said. "It is the fact that you can't go to the hospital without risk of showing up in a gutter with a drill through your skull. That's what happening in the Health Ministry, and it's a Sadrist phenomenon, not a Shia one."

Not all Shia were opposed to an American role, McGurk reported. When Mowaffak al-Rubaie, then Maliki's national security advisor, said that he planned to recommend that American forces move to the periphery of Baghdad, the son of the influential Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani responded that Iraq still needed "more neutral forces."

"Are we prepared to simply say the Sadrists won, and we have lost?" McGurk asked. "Is a Shia center, represented by Sistani, no longer salvageable? I am not prepared to go that far."

Rice acknowledged that there were numerous Shia groups, but did not necessarily see that as a plus. "We need to work with different actors within the Shia community," Rice said. "But nothing is going right. This is a devastating conclusion. But this is not an academic seminar. OK, so what should we do?"

"Is the situation in Iraq irretrievable?" Rice asked. "I do not think so. It might be retrievable. But not with more of what we've been doing with this government. Deploying U.S. forces to force Iraq to do more also won't get there."

Bush was moving to embrace a troop surge and Rice, his closest aide and confidante, was not yet on board with what would be the president's biggest Iraq decision since his decisions to go to war itself.

* * *

After the long back and forth over what was not working, Rice outlined her plan. The United States would need to reassert itself diplomatically in the region.

"We have lost the initiative in the region. We look like Gulliver, tied down. The region is scared. Bandar is worried that if we talk to the Iranians we will cut a deal with Iran," Rice added, referring to Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then the head of the Saudi national security council. "We must get this initiative back."

She also argued for a more limited role for U.S. forces in Iraq. The United States would continue to fight al Qaeda and it would become more "aggressive" about Iranian-sponsored attacks in Iraq. But it would limit its role in containing sectarian violence to stopping mass killings "on the scale of Srebrenica."

"On the security side, we will do less ‘door-knocking' police work, give up on neighborhood ‘clear, hold, and build,' concentrate more on Special Forces work with McChrystal's people," she said, referring to Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal's Joint Special Operations Command, which was hunting al Qaeda and Iranian-backed operatives in Iraq.

"The chiefs might come up with strategies for preventing mass killings," Rice said, referring to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "This should not need a large force. In Darfur, we are talking about limited deployments of far less able troops than our own.

"But we will still need to fill this out with a political dimension, economics, work on the border and using JSOC against the IRGC," Rice added, using the acronyms for the Joint Special Operations Command and Iran's paramilitary Quds force.

Satterfield endorsed Rice's argument. "In the case of mass violence, we may need a strong demonstration case to enforce the ‘no mass killings' red line. We would need to be willing to act unilaterally. But this in itself could trigger events beyond our control."

O' Sullivan was skeptical that the United States could limit its military role in Iraq and still succeed politically. "It's counterintuitive that we can shrink our footprint while also increasing our ability to build up local institutions," O'Sullivan said.

"We're back around on what to do," Hadley observed.

"We just can't stay in a posture that is unsustainable," Rice shot back, making her case again for a more limited role for U.S. forces. "We should not rush to the door, clearly. But we cannot stay in an indefensible posture."

O'Sullivan stood her ground. What if the U.S. military pulled back and the Mahdi army "goes crazy?" she asked. There might be executions in Baghdad's squares that did not rise to the level of mass killings. Would the United States simply stand by and watch that unfold? And if the sectarian violence increased, that might create new opportunities for al Qaeda in Iraq to cast itself as a protector of the Sunnis.

"Taking our hand off the sectarian boiling in Baghdad," she argued, could backfire. "Does that make sense from our perspective?"

"We are not achieving our objectives now," Rice said. "The current posture is not sustainable."

Hadley gently intervened. "Condi described what may now be our core objectives: fight al Qaeda, don't allow mass killings, build the institutions, limit Iranian aggression, and recover the strategic initiative in the region. But here is what I am struggling with. In two years, we have not provided an adequate level of security," he said. "Can we really achieve these objectives with less?"

"I don't think we can equate force levels with security," Rice said. "Maybe we need to cut deals with the power brokers, even Muqtada Sadr."

"But is there a time and sequencing issue here?" responded Hadley, who suggested that one option was to step up the American military effort and then transition down the road.

McGurk jumped in and noted that one of the CIA's top counterinsurgency experts had done an assessment showing that the presence of U.S. forces was key to stability. "When we have a presence we are able to help resolve local disputes before they get out of control, police illegal conduct by Iraqi forces, and ultimately help the Iraqis develop their own patterns of interaction," McGurk said, outlining the CIA analysis. "But where we leave before these patterns of interaction develop, violence takes hold, sectarian incidents accelerate, and the violence becomes self-sustaining with deepening roots."

The problem, McGurk argued, was that the United States never had sufficient forces in Baghdad to give its political strategy a fighting chance. "Right now, the Shia won't disband militias because of the terrorist problem, and the Sunnis won't come fully inside the political process because of the JAM problem, "McGurk said. "We can help break that cycle. Nobody else will."

Taking up Rice's case, Zelikow argued that that it was too late to think about sending more troops. The United States, he insisted, did not have enough forces and by the time they got to Iraq the situation might have deteriorated to the point where it could not be salvaged.

"To secure Baghdad, you probably need around six to eight U.S. brigades beyond what we have there now, and six to eight Iraqi brigades," Zelikow said. "But the window is probably closed from our end," he added. "We do not have the capability to provide comprehensive population security."

"We would also need to be confident that an increase of this kind would work," Zelikow said. "We would be betting the house."

"The house and the whole farm," Hadley said.

If the United States were to add forces, Zelikow continued, they should embed with select Iraqi military units to create joint Iraqi-American units in mixed sectarian areas. The United States, he insisted, needed to retain the flexibility to deal with other military challenges, mainly Iran.

The discussion drifted to the Iraqi political situation and the challenges in forming a multi-sectarian state.

"We have been in the business of micromanaging," Rice said. "Maybe we say to the Sunnis, ‘Deal with it': allow a Shia and Kurdish coalition and let the Sunnis find a way in. We can be more tolerant of a Shia and Kurdish deal so long as they don't do certain things along the lines of our objectives: no mass killings."

Hadley had a word of caution. "We need to be careful that in taking our hand off the driving wheel that we don't create the conditions for Iraq to be a place where a regional Sunni and Shia war plays out," Hadley said. "Sunni Arab states may look at a Shia-Kurd government and decide they need to throw their lot in with the Sunnis. Iran may see the Shia government as a proxy. We need to be mindful of these dynamics in the course we choose."

Before the meeting closed, Feaver spoke up again to challenge State's "smaller footprint" approach. There was sufficient public support if the Bush administration wanted to be more ambitious. "That is the judgment of Rove and Bartlett," Feaver said, referring to Karl Rove and Dan Bartlett, respectively the White House political operative and White House counselor.

State's plan also risked alienating the shrinking but still significant group of supporters who were still backing the Iraq war. "We cannot make this look like anything other than a big retreat," Feaver said.

Importantly, Feaver argued, the more limited approach the State Department was arguing for might turn out to be equally unpopular. Focusing on al Qaeda and Iranian-backed groups might entail increased American casualties. Meanwhile, sectarian violence might increase, raising questions about the value of the war effort. Nor was it clear that a "smaller footprint" would give the United States the freedom of maneuver it needed to go after al Qaeda.

Rice was not persuaded. "Peter, I don't think I accept any of your assumptions, particularly on casualties," she said sharply. "We also are not talking about retrenchment. Think about where we want to be in 2008. If we increase our forces significantly, it better work and work fast. I'm not sure we can make that assumption, either."

The State Department and NSC aides, it seemed, were as divided as ever. Rice would eventually come to accept the surge after talking with Ray Odierno, the day-to-day commander of U.S. forces in Iraq who played a major role in devising the plan that was eventually carried out by his superior Gen. David Petraeus, but that change of heart was not yet in the offing.

Before the meeting ended, Hadley hinted at the strategy President Bush would announce two months later, noting that a surge of American reinforcements might serve as a "bridge" to the reduced American presence that would eventually follow.

"I also want to clarify that even with a focus on core objectives, as Condi has laid out, we cannot back away from a broader freedom agenda," Hadley said.

On this much, Rice agreed: "No, that's right," she said.