War Stories

Reckless or Clueless?

Were the administration’s Iraq gaffes due to bad thinking or no thinking at all?

When the histories are written about the occupation of Iraq, several chapters should be devoted to solving this mystery: Were the Bush administration’s fatal mistakes due to bad thinking or to the sheer absence of thinking? The political scientists could follow up with a symposium on which trait—wrongheadedness or mindlessness—is worse in a wartime presidency.

Michael Gordon has recently been trying to unravel some aspects of this mystery in the New York Times, and his account of what may be the administration’s most catastrophic mistake—the decision to disband the Iraqi army in May 2003—suggests mindlessness was the culprit.

The decision—decreed by the U.S.-led occupation authority’s “Order No. 2,” titled “The Dissolution of Entities”—is now widely seen as a turning point in the post-battlefield phase of the war. Removing a potential force for order from an inherently chaotic landscape, the decision allowed looters to flourish and worsened matters by unleashing thousands of ticked-off Iraqi ex-soldiers who no longer had paychecks but still had their guns. The ensuing riots stretched the already-sparse “coalition” forces still thinner. Finally, the elimination of the army destroyed all shreds of the Iraqi people’s hopes that their sovereignty might be preserved. Gordon quotes one U.S. colonel as saying of the disbanding, “We changed from being a liberator to an occupier with that single decision.”

And yet, according to Gordon, the top echelon of Bush’s national security team either opposed this decision or knew nothing about it. Gen. Tommy Franks, the head of U.S. Central Command, was against it. The Joint Chiefs of Staff weren’t consulted on it. Neither, insisted Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita, was Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Douglas Feith, a member of Rumsfeld’s inner circle, told Gordon that his postwar plans envisioned the Iraqi army playing a vital role. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice is quoted as saying that, though the White House had no objection to the decision, it had no involvement in it, either.

No, this momentous decision seems to have been made entirely by L. Paul Bremer, the occupation chief, and his assistant, Walter Slocombe.

Gordon is generally an excellent reporter, but I had a hard time believing this account when I read it in the Times last week. Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney tightly controlled the occupation authority’s decision-making on so many matters. One or both of them fired Bremer’s predecessor, retired Gen. Jay Garner, in part because he was too much of a loose cannon. Bremer issued his decree almost immediately after arriving in Baghdad and seems to have settled on its substance before he left Washington. Could he and a midlevel official like Slocombe—who wasn’t even in Baghdad at the time and is not known as a great initiator—really have taken such a grand leap on their own?

I had always assumed that the decision to disband the Iraqi army was yet another product of Ahmad Chalabi’s baleful influence. Chalabi was still favored at the time, by top officials in the Pentagon and the White House, to take the helm of a new Iraqi government. He was also a strong advocate for comprehensive de-Baathification, which would have entailed the weeding, if not utter plowing, of the Iraqi army. It is also worth noting that, in mid-April of 2003, the U.S. military airlifted Chalabi to Baghdad along with 120 members of his American-trained militia, the Free Iraqi Forces. Chalabi wanted the FIF to serve as the command layer of a new Iraqi army; under such a scenario, the old Iraqi army would have to go. Gordon’s article doesn’t mention Chalabi or the FIF, much less their return to Iraq a few weeks prior to Bremer’s Order No. 2.

The Chalabi explanation is consistent with many other reports on Team Bush’s rosy-eyed view of how the postwar game would go (see especially James Fallows’ chronicle in The Atlantic): Our troops win quickly; they’re welcomed with kisses and candy; we turn things over to Chalabi and the World Bank, who usher in Western-style democracy; most of our troops go home within a year, supplanted by a new Iraqi army; renewed oil production reimburses us for the war’s expenses.

In other words, it’s consistent with the “wrongheaded” theory of Bush decision-making. The thinking was naive, the logic was based on absurd assumptions, but officials were thinking, they did have a logic.

Gordon’s account—though he doesn’t say as much—suggests the “mindless” theory is closer to the mark. The senior officials didn’t think at all about the implications of disbanding the army. Or (if Condi Rice’s comment reflects a broader view), to the extent the subject did float through their brains, they didn’t think it was important enough to warrant much pondering.

Again, for all my skepticism toward Bush’s national security team, not even I accepted this theory—until this week’s reports that 380 tons of concentrated high explosives have gone missing from the vast munitions arsenal at Al-Qaqaa, just outside Baghdad. Could the “mindless” theory be true after all? Certainly nobody in the administration could have intended for the arsenal to go unguarded. (Nor should the existence of the arsenal have been a surprise. The munitions had been a known, sealed weapons site for many years; as recently as March 2003, just before the war began, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency visited the site and confirmed the seals were still in place.) It seems, almost unbelievably, that no decision-makers thought the place was worth guarding—or, rather, that nobody thought about whether it might be worth guarding. It was a case not of bad thinking, but of no thinking.

Nor was Al-Qaqaa an anomaly. Peter Galbraith writes in today’s Boston Globe that, while in Baghdad in April 2003, he witnessed hordes of Iraqis looting their country’s equivalent of the Centers for Disease Control, carting away live HIV and black-fever viruses. American troops were stationed across the street, but they didn’t interfere because they didn’t know the importance of the building. He describes similar lootings at the sprawling nuclear facility at Twaitha, which had also been under IAEA seal until the fall of Saddam. Galbraith writes that he briefed Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz about these events shortly afterward. Even then, security was not beefed up at sensitive sites. David J. Morris, who was embedded with the Marines this past June, writes in today’s Salon of further lapses along the labyrinthine arsenals in western Iraq, where 103 weapons dumps have been identified, yet, due to troop shortages, only a handful are under regular watch.

Had Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, or Feith calculated the risks and benefits of disbanding the Iraqi army—and had they listed the looting of these arsenals as one of the risks—it’s hard to believe that they still would have approved (or allowed Bremer to issue) Order No. 2. It’s easier, or perhaps just more comforting, to imagine that they simply didn’t do any calculations.

And so we’re left wondering whether, on the most crucial matter about the war (keeping Iraq secure after Saddam’s downfall), our top officials have been reckless or just careless. At this point, it’s a tossup which is scarier.