Archive for Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Bush ignored inconvenient information

April 13, 2004


It was fitting that Condoleezza Rice testified to the 9-11 commission on the day before the anniversary of the fall of Baghdad -- and as anti-American fighting raged in Iraq.

In both cases, information was available to the White House that might have prevented disaster -- the attacks on the twin towers and Pentagon and the postwar chaos. In both cases, the information wasn't used.

We need to know why.

Out in FBI field offices were details that might -- or might not -- have prevented the attacks, such as reports that would-be terrorists were training at flight schools. We'll never know what might have been, because trees weren't shaken, cabinet meetings on al-Qaida weren't held, the president wasn't briefed by his counterterrorism adviser on the domestic threat.

There was no full focus on al-Qaida at the top.

Some say this was a case of an administration so fixated on building missile defenses against North Korea and countering China that it failed to recognize new threats. But let's give the White House the benefit of the doubt. Let's say this was a case of a new threat so inconceivable that imagination failed.

Some dangers predictable

How, then, to explain White House failure to act on information about what was likely to happen in Iraq?

Those dangers were not unimaginable. The CIA, the State Department, legislators, a plethora of Iraq experts foresaw the chaos that could follow The Day After. But no one at the White House seems to have listened.

Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki famously warned that several hundred thousand troops would be required to ensure postwar Iraq security. He was sharply rebuked by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz.

The State Department's Future of Iraq project detailed how to reconstitute the Iraqi army to provide ready security. But the project was junked by Pentagon civilian officials who disbanded the Iraqi army. Most Iraq experts had warned against such a step.

U.S. officials didn't train new Iraqi security forces to confront an insurgency. I was told by a senior U.S. official in October in Baghdad that U.S. special forces could handle any insurgents so long as they had good intelligence. Iraqi forces would serve merely as adjuncts.

And so we watch as ill-equipped Iraqi police and paramilitary forces scatter before the threat of insurgent violence. And more U.S. troops are being ordered up.

So we must ask why prewar warnings were so willfully disregarded by Bush team.

Based on my interviews with administration officials and those of many other journalists, I believe top officials blocked out any information they didn't want to hear.

Unrealistic expectations

Many of the Bush team had a vision of how postwar Iraq would look, gleaned from a handful of secular Iraqi exiles. Wolfowitz, the intellectual father of the Iraq war, told me that the operative historical analogy for postwar Iraq was post-World War II France, where the exiled Gen. Charles de Gaulle returned to set up a democracy and the Americans went home.

Apparently, exile leader Ahmed Chalabi was supposed to play a similar role. Pentagon officials ignored warnings that Chalabi had no popular base in Iraq. A recent State Department poll in Iraq showed him with a 65 percent unfavorable rating.

If you anticipate postwar France, however, you needn't think seriously about administering postwar Iraq or ensuring security after the war. So the Pentagon didn't.

When looting and crime exploded after the war in Baghdad, Rumsfeld famously said, "Freedom is messy," and left it unchecked. Never mind that Iraq experts, and the best U.S. military commanders, warned that first impressions would be crucial. The early chaos in Iraq set the tone for everything that followed.

Iraqis, schooled for decades to the order of dictatorship, expected a new and better order. Its lack of -- and U.S. inability to produce -- it destroyed trust and bred conspiracy theories about U.S. intentions. These still haunt the occupation. And, of course, instability has hurt efforts to rebuild the country and attract foreign investment.

You say all this is history, and we must think about Iraq's future. But the mistakes of the last year have constricted future options. Iraqis were never going to tolerate a long occupation, and time is running out.

If order is to be restored in Iraq, and a representative government elected, it will require that the White House look at facts without rose-tinted glasses. Will any Pentagon officials be held to account for their huge mistakes in postwar planning? Will Rice tell us why she failed to effect cooperation between State Department realists and Pentagon fantasists?

If a year from now there is a 3-18-03 commission looking into why the Bush team was so unprepared for The Day After, what will she say? This was not a failure of imagination. It was a willful rejection of inconvenient facts.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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