War Stories

Who Made the Worst Decision of the Iraq War?

We may never know for sure. But there’s reason to suspect Cheney.

Iraqis stand in the back of a truck piled high with furniture.
Iraqis celebrate during a looting spree at Saddam Hussein’s former palace near Baghdad International Airport on April 10, 2003. Scott Nelson/Getty Images

A story this week on Task & Purpose, a military-affairs website, brings news that L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer—the first proconsul of the American occupation in post-Saddam Iraq and the man who signed what may be the most catastrophic orders in U.S. diplomatic history—is living out his days as a professional ski instructor in Vermont.

The invocation of Bremer’s name, following the 15th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, stirs up the single biggest enduring mystery of the war: Who wrote the orders Bremer signed? Who is responsible for the one decision that—more than any other, except the decision to go to war in the first place—wreaked such horrendous damage to human life and geopolitical stability?

On May 15, 2003, one day after he arrived in Baghdad to head the Coalition Provisional Authority, Bremer issued CPA Order No. 1, which barred members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party from all but the lowliest government posts. The next day, he issued CPA Order No. 2, which disbanded the Iraqi army.

With those two orders, the future of Iraq was doomed, the already-likely failure of the American mission was sealed, and the prospect of a sectarian civil war—enveloping not only Iraq but the entire Middle East—became nearly inevitable. Not only did the orders remove the country’s two main indigenous institutions of authority, they also put 50,000 civil servants and a quarter-million soldiers out of a job, many of them with access to weapons. In other words, Bremer’s orders amounted to a recipe for resentment, anarchy, and violence.

President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had sent a small invasion force to Iraq—enough troops to crush the Iraqi army and oust Saddam from power but way too few to restore stability after his fall. This decision was deliberate: Rumsfeld had no interest in keeping 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq to do “nation-building.” That would be left to the Iraqis themselves. But Bremer’s orders, which left them without an army or a government, rendered the task impossible.

One remarkable thing about these orders is that they surprised almost everyone back in Washington, including the president. On March 10, one week before the invasion, the National Security Council had held a principals’ meeting, attended by Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, the national security adviser, the director of the CIA, the secretaries of state and defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and their top aides. They decided that, after the war, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission would be set up—similar to such panels in post-Apartheid South Africa and post-Communist Eastern Europe—to ferret out the undesirable Baath Party members from those who could reliably work for a new government. Intelligence analysts figured that only about 5 percent of the party—the leaders—would have to be removed, and even they would be given the right to appeal.

On March 12, another principals meeting took place to decide what to do about the Iraqi military. They decided to disband the Republican Guard—Saddam’s elite corps—but to call the regular army’s soldiers back to duty and to reconstitute their units after a proper vetting of their loyalty to a new Iraqi leadership.

Both decisions were unanimous. NSC staff members had briefed officials on the plans before the meeting, up and down the chain of command, and they encountered no dissent. In other words, Bremer’s two orders violated decisions made at the highest level of government—decisions of staggering importance that would shape every aspect of the war’s aftermath.

So who wrote the orders?

In his memoir, Bremer wrote that Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy, handed him the documents and told him to sign and implement them as soon as possible after arriving in Baghdad. “We’ve got to show all the Iraqis that we’re serious about building a new Iraq,” he remembered Feith saying. “And that means that Saddam’s instruments of repression have no role in that new nation.”

But Feith was little more than an avid errand boy for Rumsfeld. And Rumsfeld told journalist Bob Woodward that the orders didn’t originate in the Pentagon, that they came from “elsewhere”—which must have meant the White House and probably meant, specifically, Vice President Cheney.

Cheney’s culpability must remain a theoretical matter until the archives are fully opened (and even then, we might never know for certain), but the evidence is compelling.

First, there is the matter of what Sherlock Holmes would call “the dog that didn’t bark.” Cheney’s office, which he’d enlarged and transformed into a parallel NSC, was famously the most tight-lipped clique in Washington. The fact that no one has leaked the full story of Bremer’s orders, even after 15 years, points a finger at Cheney and his crew.

Second, Cheney was very close to an Iraqi exile named Ahmad Chalabi, and Chalabi (who died in 2015) had a vested interest in both of those orders. In the years leading up to the war, he had been one of the most fervent lobbyists for ousting Saddam with U.S. military force, and in his pitches for “regime change,” he particularly stressed the need to strip Baathists of all power. After the combat phase of the war, Chalabi quickly put himself in charge of a de-Baathification commission—which he saw as an efficient route to taking power himself.

In the run-up to the invasion, Chalabi also formed a militia called the Free Iraqi Forces, which he envisioned as the nascent army of the new Iraq—as long as the existing army was disbanded. In NSC meetings, Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense (who had also long been friends with Chalabi), pushed for supporting this militia, but Bush rejected the idea. The CIA, which had once backed Chalabi in an attempted anti-Saddam coup that went horrifically wrong, also warned against getting mixed up with his schemes. Wayne White, the top regional expert in the State Department’s intelligence bureau, described him as a “used-car salesman.” Gen. Tony Zinni, the head of U.S. Central Command, dismissed Chalabi and his entourage as “silk-suited, Rolex-wearing guys in London” who had no real constituencies in the cities and villages of Iraq.

Nonetheless, as Saddam deserted his palace, Wolfowitz supplied a military cargo-transport plane to fly several hundred of Chalabi’s militiamen to Iraq. They all vanished into the streets upon landing; they never had comprised an organized alternative military; like most of Chalabi’s enterprises, the whole business was a scam. A few years later, evidence mounted that Chalabi had been, all along, a spy for Iran, which wound up gaining the most from the instability spawned by the invasion.

In his memoir and in this week’s interview with Task & Purpose, Bremer not only disclaimed credit for the orders he signed but also disputed the notion that they had such dire consequences. “There was no Iraqi army to disband,” he said, noting that all the soldiers had gone home; even the barracks were empty.

But this wasn’t true. In Baghdad, a U.S. Army colonel named Paul Hughes spent weeks contacting officers of the Iraqi regular army, paying them to call up their troops to rejoin the new government—just as the NSC had directed and his commanders in the field had ordered. Many of these officers were waiting for the signal—and were as flabbergasted as Hughes when Bremer’s orders came down.

Why didn’t Bush rescind Bremer’s orders after reading about them in the newspaper? This is another mystery. When journalist Robert Draper posed the question, Bush replied, “The policy had been to keep the [Iraqi] army intact; didn’t happen.” Draper asked how he reacted to Bremer’s reversal. Bush replied, “Yeah, I can’t remember. I’m sure I said, ‘This is the policy, what happened?’ ”

Since Bush has recently emerged as such a charming guy, a philanthropist, an impressive amateur painter, precisely the sort of person you’d like to have a beer with (if he drank beer, which he stopped doing a long time ago). He’s so much more appealing than the current tenant in the White House we tend to forget that he was, by and large, such a terrible president.

According to recent opinion polls, many Americans also seem to have forgotten that invading Iraq was such a terrible idea. It would probably have been terrible even without Bremer’s orders. There would likely still have been a sectarian power struggle over a weakened state, siring a civil war and brewing regional tensions. But if the army and the government had stayed intact, the fighting may have been less chaotic and deadly; there might even have been a small chance that it could have been contained.

Yet Bremer whooshes down the slopes of the Okemo Mountain Resort. His erstwhile higher-ups, those who made the decisions, are still gainfully employed or basking in comfortable retirement. John Bolton, another enthusiast for the war and one of the few who has no misgivings about it, is about to become the president’s national security adviser. No one has been held accountable, no one has had to pay a price, except for the 100,000 or so Americans and Iraqis who died—and the untold numbers maimed or otherwise damaged—in the struggle to clean up the mess or simply got trapped in the crossfire.