Mark Danner on the Third Act in Iraq

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For Part 1 of Mark Danner’s “Iraq: The War of the Imagination,” click here.

This is certainly one of the longest pieces the New York Review of Books has ever run in a single issue. (It will appear in the December 21st issue, soon on the newsstands.) It won’t even fit in the Tomdispatch “shell” and so I’m proud to post it, with the kind permission of the editors of the New York Review of Books, as an instant two-part piece. Most of you will, in any case, be breaking for Thanksgiving. So now you have your assignment for the long weekend. I couldn’t send along a better journalist — or writer — to accompany you. will return on Monday afternoon, November 27th, with a week of genuine surprises, part of a explosive special book project long underway at the site. Look for it. Tom

Iraq: The War of the Imagination (Part 2)
By Mark Danner

[This piece, which appears in the December 21, 2006 issue of the New York Review of Books, is posted here with the kind permission of the editors of that magazine.]


So there would be no President Chalabi. Unfortunately, the President, who thought of himself, Woodward says, “as the calcium in the backbone” of the U.S. government, having banned Chalabi’s ascension, neither offered an alternative plan nor forced the government he led to agree on one. Nor did Secretary Rumsfeld, who knew only that he wanted a quick victory and a quick departure. To underline the point, soon after the U.S. invasion the secretary sent his special assistant, Larry DiRita, to the Kuwait City Hilton to brief the tiny, miserable, understaffed, and underfunded team led by the retired General Garner which was preparing to fly to a chaotic Baghdad to “take control of the transition.” Here is DiRita’s “Hilton Speech” as quoted to Woodward by an army colonel, Paul Hughes:

[This piece, which appears in the December 21, 2006 issue of the New York Review of Books, is posted here with the kind permission of the editors of that magazine.]


So there would be no President Chalabi. Unfortunately, the President, who thought of himself, Woodward says, “as the calcium in the backbone” of the U.S. government, having banned Chalabi’s ascension, neither offered an alternative plan nor forced the government he led to agree on one. Nor did Secretary Rumsfeld, who knew only that he wanted a quick victory and a quick departure. To underline the point, soon after the U.S. invasion the secretary sent his special assistant, Larry DiRita, to the Kuwait City Hilton to brief the tiny, miserable, understaffed, and underfunded team led by the retired General Garner which was preparing to fly to a chaotic Baghdad to “take control of the transition.” Here is DiRita’s “Hilton Speech” as quoted to Woodward by an army colonel, Paul Hughes:

“We went into the Balkans and Bosnia and Kosovo and we’re still in them…. We’re probably going to wind up in Afghanistan for a long time because the Department of State can’t do its job right. Because they keep screwing things up, the Department of Defense winds up being stuck at these places. We’re not going to let this happen in Iraq.

“The reaction was generally, Whoa! Does this guy even realize that half the people in the room are from the State Department? DiRita went on, as Hughes recalled: “By the end of August we’re going to have 25,000 to 30,000 troops left in Iraq.”

DiRita spoke these words as, a few hundred miles away, Baghdad and the other major cities of Iraq were taken up in a thoroughgoing riot of looting and pillage — of government ministries, universities and hospitals, power stations and factories — that would virtually destroy the country’s infrastructure, and with it much of the respect Iraqis might have had for American competence. The uncontrolled violence engulfed Iraq’s capital and major cities for weeks as American troops — 140,000 or more — mainly sat on their tanks, looking on. If attaining true political authority depends on securing a monopoly on legitimate violence, then the Americans would never achieve it in Iraq. There were precious few troops to impose order, and hardly any military police. No one gave the order to arrest or shoot looters or otherwise take control of the streets. Official Pentagon intentions at this time seem to have been precisely what the secretary of defense’s special assistant said they were: to have all but 25,000 or so of those troops out of Iraq in five months or less.

How then to secure the country, which was already in a state of escalating chaos? Most of the ministries had been looted and burned and what government there was consisted of the handful of Iraqi officials who Garner’s small team had managed to coax into returning to work. In keeping with the general approach of quick victory, quick departure, Garner had briefed the President and his advisers before leaving Washington, emphasizing his plan to dismiss only the most senior and personally culpable Baathists from the government and also to make use of the Iraqi army to rebuild and, eventually, keep order.

Within weeks of that meeting in the Kuwait Hilton, L. Paul Bremer arrived in Baghdad, replacing Garner, who had been fired after less than a month in Iraq. On Bremer’s first full day “in-country,” in Woodward’s telling, one of Garner’s officials ran up to her now–lame duck boss and thrust a paper into his hand:

“‘Have you read this?’ she asked.

“‘No,’ Garner replied. ‘I don’t know what the hell you’ve got there.’

“‘It’s a de-Baathification policy,’ she said, handing him a two-page document.”

The document was Bremer’s “Coalition Provisional Authority Order Number 1 — De-Baathification of Iraqi Society,” an order to remove immediately from their posts all “full members” of the Baath Party. These were to be banned from working in any government job. In every ministry the top three levels of managers would be investigated for crimes.

“‘We can’t do this,’ Garner said. He still envisioned what he had told Rumsfeld would be a ‘gentle de-Baathification’ — eliminating only the number one Baathist and personnel directors in each ministry. ‘It’s too deep,’ he added.”

Garner headed immediately to Bremer’s office, where the new occupation leader was just settling in, and on the way ran into the CIA chief of station, referred to here as Charlie.

“‘Have you read this?’ Garner asked.

“‘That’s why I’m over here,’ Charlie said.

“‘Let’s go see Bremer.’ The two men got in to see the new administrator of Iraq around 1 PM.

“‘Jerry, this is too deep,’ Garner said. ‘Give Charlie and I about an hour. We’ll sit down with this. We’ll do the pros and cons and then we’ll get on the telephone with Rumsfeld and soften it a bit.’

“‘Absolutely not,’ Bremer said. ‘Those are my instructions and I intend to execute them.'”

Garner, who will shortly be going home, sees he’s making little headway and appeals to the CIA man, who “had been station chief in other Middle East countries,” asking him what will happen if the order is issued.

“‘If you put this out, you’re going to drive between 30,000 and 50,000 Baathists underground before nightfall,’ Charlie said…. ‘You will put 50,000 people on the street, underground and mad at Americans.’ And these 50,000 were the most powerful, well-connected elites from all walks of life.

“‘I told you,’ Bremer said, looking at Charlie. ‘I have my instructions and I have to implement this.'”

The chain of command, as we know, goes through Rumsfeld, and Garner gets on the phone and appeals to the secretary of defense, who tells him — and this will be a leitmotif in Woodward’s book — that the matter is out of his hands:

“‘This is not coming from this building,’ [Rumsfeld] replied. ‘That came from somewhere else.’

“Garner presumed that meant the White House, NSC or Cheney. According to other participants, however, the de-Baathification order was purely a Pentagon creation. Telling Garner it came from somewhere else, though, had the advantage for Rumsfeld of ending the argument.”

Such tactics are presumably what mark Rumsfeld as a “skilled bureaucratic infighter,” the description that has followed him through his career in government like a Homeric epithet. In fact, according to Bremer, he had received those orders at the Pentagon a few days before from Douglas Feith, Rumsfeld’s undersecretary for policy. In Bremer’s telling, Feith gave him the draft order, emphasizing “the political importance of the decree”:

“We’ve got to show all the Iraqis that we’re serious about building a New Iraq. And that means that Saddam’s instruments of repression have no role in that new nation.”

The following day, Bremer’s second in Iraq, the hapless Garner was handed another draft order. This, Woodward tells us, was Order Number 2, disbanding the Iraqi ministries of Defense and Interior, the entire Iraqi military, and all of Saddam’s bodyguard and special paramilitary organizations:

“Garner was stunned. The de-Baathification order was dumb, but this was a disaster. Garner had told the president and the whole National Security Council explicitly that they planned to use the Iraqi military — at least 200,000 to 300,000 troops — as the backbone of the corps to rebuild the country and provide security. And he’d been giving regular secure video reports to Rumsfeld and Washington on the plan.”

An American colonel and a number of CIA officers had been meeting regularly with Iraqi officers in order to reconstitute the army. They had lists of soldiers, had promised emergency payments. “The former Iraqi military,” according to Garner, “was making more and more overtures, just waiting to come back in some form.” Again, Garner rushed off to see Bremer:

“‘We have always made plans to bring the army back,’ he insisted. This new plan was just coming out of the blue, subverting months of work.

“‘Well, the plans have changed,’ Bremer replied. ‘The thought is that we don’t want the residuals of the old army. We want a new and fresh army.’

“‘Jerry, you can get rid of an army in a day, but it takes years to build one.”

Again Bremer tells Garner that he has his orders. The discussion attains a certain unintended comedy when the proconsuls go on to discuss the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, which Bremer has also announced he will abolish:

“‘You can’t get rid of the Ministry of the Interior,’ Garner said.

“‘Why not?’

“‘You just made a speech yesterday and told everybody how important the police force is.’

“‘It is important.’

“‘All the police are in the Ministry of the Interior,’ Garner said. ‘If you put this out, they’ll all go home today.”

On hearing this bit of information, we are told, Bremer looked “surprised” — an expression similar, no doubt, to Rice’s when she and the President learned from the secretary of state that the civilian occupation authority would not be reporting to the White House but to the Pentagon. Unfortunately, within the Pentagon there coexisted at least two visions of what the occupation of Iraq was to be: the quick victory, quick departure view of Rumsfeld, and the broader, ideologically driven democratic transformation of Iraqi society championed by the neoconservatives. The two views had uneasily intersected, for a time, in the alluring person of Ahmad Chalabi, who seemed to make both visions possible. With a Chalabi coronation taken off the table by President Bush, however, determined officials with a direct line to Bremer were transforming the Iraq adventure into a long-term, highly ambitious occupation. Presumably as Garner woke up on May 17, reflecting that “the US now had at least 350,000 more enemies than it had the day before — the 50,000 Baathists [and] the 300,000 officially unemployed soldiers,” he could take satisfaction in having managed, by his last-minute efforts, to persuade Bremer to “excise the Ministry of Interior from the draft so the police could stay.”


One can make arguments for a “deep de-Baathification” of Iraq. One can make arguments also for dismantling the Iraqi army. It is hard, though, to make an argument that such steps did not stand in dramatic and irresolvable contradiction to the Pentagon’s plan to withdraw all but 30,000 American troops from Iraq within a few months. With no Iraqi army, with all Baath Party members thrown out of the ministries and the agencies of government, with all of Saddam’s formidable security forces summarily sacked — and with all of these forces transformed into sworn enemies of the American occupation — who precisely was going to keep order in Iraq? And who was going to build that “new and fresh army” that Bremer was talking about?

These questions loom so large and are so obvious that one feels that they must have some answer, even if an unconvincing one. The simple fact is that these two enormously significant steps — launching a “deep de-Baathification” of the government and dissolving the Iraqi army — together with Bremer’s decision, taken also during his first days, to downgrade to that of a figurehead the status of the group of Iraqi politicians known as the Iraqi Governing Council, transformed what had been the Pentagon’s plan for a quick victory and quick departure into a
long-running and open-ended occupation that would perforce involve the establishment of a new Iraqi army.

The political implications within Iraq were incalculable, for the de-Baathification and the dissolution of the army both appeared to the Sunnis to be declarations of open warfare against them, convincing many that they would be judged not by standards of individual conduct but by the fact of their membership in a group — judged not according to what they had done but according to who they were. This in itself undermined what hope there was to create the sine qua non of a stable democracy: a loyal opposition, which is to say an opposition that believes enough in the fairness of the system that it will renounce violence. “You Americans, you know,” as a young Sunni had told me in October 2003, when the insurgency was already in full flower,
“you have created your enemies here.”

It is unlikely that the Pentagon’s vision of a rapid departure ever could have worked, Bremer or no Bremer. What is striking, however, is the way that the most momentous of decisions were taken in the most shockingly haphazard ways, with the power in the hands of a few Pentagon civilians who knew little of Iraq or the region, the expertise of the rest of the government almost wholly excluded, and the President and his highest officials looking on. In the event, the Bush administration seems to have worked hard to turn Kennan’s problem of knowing the facts on its head: the systemic failures in Iraq resulted in large part from an almost willful determination to cut off those in the government who knew anything from those who made the decisions. Woodward tells us, for example, that Stephen Hadley, then Rice’s deputy and now her successor,

“first learned of the orders on de-Baathification and disbanding the military as Bremer announced them to Iraq and to the world. They hadn’t been touched by the formal interagency process and as far as Hadley knew there was no imprimatur from the White House. Rice also had not been consulted. It hadn’t come back to Washington or the NSC for a decision….

“One NSC lawyer had been shown drafts of the policies to de-Baathify Iraq and disband the military — but that was only to give a legal opinion. The policymakers never saw the drafts, never had a chance to say whether they thought they were good ideas or even to point out that they were radical departures from what had earlier been planned and briefed to the president.”

As for the uniformed military, the men who were responsible for securing Iraq and whose job would thus be dramatically affected both by de-Baathification and by the dissolution of the Iraqi army, they were given no chance to speak on either question. Woodward writes:

“General Myers, the principal military adviser to Bush, Rumsfeld and the NSC, wasn’t even consulted on the disbanding of the Iraqi military. It was presented as a fait accompli.

“‘We’re not going to just sit here and second-guess everything he does,’ Rumsfeld told Myers at one point, referring to Bremer’s decisions.

“‘I didn’t get a vote on it,’ Myers told a colleague, ‘but I can see where Ambassador Bremer might have thought this is reasonable.'”

Since it is the cashiered Iraqi troops who, broke, angry, and humiliated (“Why do you Americans punish us, when we did not fight?” as one ex-soldier demanded of me that October), would within days be killing Myers’s soldiers with sniper fire and the first improvised explosive devices, one has to regard the general’s expressed forbearance as uncommonly generous.

At the time, the civilians in the Pentagon had attained their greatest power and prestige. Rumsfeld’s daily press conferences were broadcast live over the cable news channels, with an appreciative audience of journalists chortling at the secretary’s jokes on national television. No one then seems to have questioned what Woodward calls his “distrust of the interagency.” Instead, Woodward writes,

“from April 2003 on, the constant drumbeat that Hadley heard coming out of the Pentagon had been ‘This is Don Rumsfeld’s thing, and we’re going to do the interagency in Baghdad. Let Jerry run it.'”

“Jerry,” it might be said at this point, seems a well-meaning man, but he had never run anything larger than the United States embassy in the Netherlands, where he served as ambassador. He spoke no Arabic and knew little of the Middle East and nothing of Iraq. He had had nothing to do with the meager and inadequate planning the Pentagon had done for “the postwar” and indeed had had only a few days’ preparation before being flown to Baghdad. He apparently never saw the extensive plans the State Department had drawn up for the postwar period. And as would become evident as the occupation wore on and he became more independent of the Pentagon civilians, he had no particular qualifications to make and implement decisions of such magnitude, decisions that would certainly prolong the American occupation and would ultimately do much to doom it.

For Rumsfeld, however, Bremer’s supposed independence in Baghdad has had its uses:

“Rumsfeld later said he would be surprised if Wolfowitz or Feith gave Bremer the de-Baathification and army orders. He said he did not recall an NSC meeting on the subject. Of Bremer, Rumsfeld said, ‘I talked to him only rarely…'”

It is impossible to believe, even in this administration, that Bremer decided on his own, on his second day in Baghdad, to dissolve the Iraqi army, and it is unlikely that Rumsfeld’s own involvement in a matter of such magnitude would have slipped the defense secretary’s mind. To the “skilled bureaucratic infighter,” however, especially one with little or no oversight from president or Congress, what Woodward calls “the rubber-glove syndrome — the tendency not to leave his fingerprints on decisions” — can prove useful in avoiding responsibility for wreckage caused — for a time, anyway. It cannot, however, prevent the consequences on the ground and, in Iraq, it has not.


Nearly four years into the Iraq war, as we enter the Time of Proposed Solutions, the consequences of those early decisions define the bloody landscape. By dismissing and humiliating the soldiers and officers of the Iraqi army our leaders, in effect, did much to recruit the insurgency. By bringing far too few troops to secure Saddam’s enormous arms depots they armed it. By bringing too few to keep order they presided over the looting and overwhelming violence and social disintegration that provided the insurgency such fertile soil. By blithely purging tens of thousands of the country’s Baathist elite, whatever their deeds, and by establishing a muscle-bound and inept American occupation without an “Iraqi face,” they created an increasing resentment among Iraqis that fostered the insurgency and encouraged people to shelter it. And by providing too few troops to secure Iraq’s borders they helped supply its forces with an unending number of Sunni Islamic extremists from neighboring states. It was the foreign Islamists’ strategy above all to promote their jihadist cause by provoking a sectarian civil war in Iraq; by failing to prevent their attacks and to protect the Shia who became their targets, the U.S. leaders have allowed them to succeed.

To Americans now, the hour appears very late in Iraq. Deeply weary of a war that early on lost its reason for being, most Americans want nothing more than to be shown a way out. The President and his counselors, even in the weeks before the election, had begun redefining the idea of victory, dramatically downgrading the goals that were set out in the National Security Presidential Directive of August 2002. Thus Vice President Cheney, asked the week before the election about an “exit strategy” from Iraq, declared that “we’re not looking for an exit strategy. We’re looking for victory” but then went on to offer a rather modest definition:

“Victory will be the day when the Iraqis solve their political problems and are up and running with respect to their own government, and when they’re able to provide for their own security.”

This was before Americans had gone to the polls and overwhelmingly condemned the administration’s Iraq policies — with the result that, as one comedian put it, “on Tuesday night, in an ironic turnaround, Iraq brought regime change to the US.”

On the day after the election the President, stripped of his majorities in Congress, came forward to offer a still more modest definition: Victory would mean producing in Iraq “a government that can defend, govern and sustain itself.” In fact, even these modest words have come to seem ambitious, and perhaps unrealistic. As I write, Operation Together Forward, the joint effort by American and Iraqi forces to secure the city of Baghdad, has failed. The American commander in the capital, faced with a 26% increase in attacks during the operation, declared the results “disappointing,” an on-the-record use of direct language that a year ago would have been inconceivable coming from a senior US officer.

Operation Together Forward was not only to have demonstrated that the Iraqis were now “able to defend themselves,” as the President said, but to have made it possible for “the unity government to make the difficult decisions necessary to unite the country.” The operation was intended to blunt the power of Sunni insurgents and thus clear the way for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to lend his support to disarming and eliminating the Shia militias that are responsible for much of the death-squad killing in Baghdad. Unfortunately, the militias — in particular, the Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization — remain a vital part of the unity government’s political infrastructure. This inconvenient but fundamental political fact renders much of the Bush administration’s rhetoric about its present strategy in Iraq almost nonsensical.

The evident contradiction between policy and reality, and the angry reactions by al-Maliki to efforts by the U.S. military to rein in the militias by launching raids into Sadr City, have stirred rumors, in Baghdad and Washington, of a possible post-election coup d’état to replace Maliki with a “government of national salvation.” It is hard to know what such a government, whether led by Ayad Allawi, a longtime Washington favorite who was briefly interim prime minister (and who derided the possibility of coming to power by a coup), or some other “strongman,” might accomplish, or whether any gains in security could outweigh the political costs of conniving in the overthrow of a government that, however ineffectual it is, Iraqis elected. The establishment of that government stands ever more starkly as one of the few (if ambiguous) accomplishments remaining from the original program for Iraq.

To Americans the Iraq war seems to have entered its third and final act. Though the plans and ideas now will come apace, all of them directed toward answering a single, dominant question — How do we get out of Iraq? — none is likely to supply a means of departure that does not carry a very high cost. The present “sense of an ending” about Iraq has its roots more in American weariness and frustration than any real prospect of finding a “solution” or “exit strategy” that won’t, in its consequences, be seen for what it is: a de facto acknowledgment of a failed and even catastrophic policy.

Only the week before the election, President Bush warned an interviewer about the consequences of an American defeat in Iraq:

“The terrorists…have clearly said they want a safe haven from which to launch attacks against America, a safe haven from which to topple moderate governments in the Middle East, a safe haven from which to spread their jihadist point of view, which is that there are no freedoms in the world; we will dictate to you how you think…. I can conceivably see a world in which radicals and extremists control oil. And they would say to the West: You either abandon Israel, for example, or we’re going to run the price of oil up. Or withdraw….”

A few days after the Republican defeat at the polls, the President’s chief of staff, Josh Bolten, discussing the Iraqi government, put the matter in even starker terms:

“We need to treat them as a sovereign government. But we also need to give them the support they need to succeed because the alternative for the United States, I believe, is truly disastrous…. We could leave behind an Iraq that is a failed state, a haven for terrorism, a real
threat to the United States and to the region. That’s just not an acceptable outcome.”

We are well down the road toward this dark vision, a wave of threatening instability that stands as the precise opposite of the Bush administration’s “democratic tsunami,” the wave of liberalizing revolution that American power, through the invasion of Iraq, was to set loose throughout the Middle East. The chances of accomplishing such change within Iraq itself, let alone across the complicated landscape of the entire region, were always very small. Saddam Hussein and the autocracy he ruled were the product of a dysfunctional politics, not the cause of it. Reform of such a politics was always going to be a task of incalculable complexity.

Faced with such complexity, and determined to have their war and their democratic revolution, the President and his counselors looked away. Confronted with great difficulties, their answer was to blind themselves to them and put their faith in ideology and hope — in the dream of a welcoming landscape, magically transformed. The evangelical vision may have made the sense of threat after September 11 easier to bear but it did not change the risks and the reality on the ground. The result is that the wave of change the President and his officials were so determined to set in course by unleashing American military power may well turn out to be precisely the wave of Islamic radicalism that they had hoped to prevent.

In the coming weeks we will hear much talk of “exit strategies” and “proposed solutions.” All such “solutions,” though, are certain to come with heavy political costs, costs the President may consider more difficult to bear than those of doggedly “staying the course” for the remainder of his term. George W. Bush, who ran for president vowing a “humble” foreign policy, could not have predicted this. Kennan said it in October 2002:

“Anyone who has ever studied the history of American diplomacy, especially military diplomacy, knows that you might start in a war with certain things on your mind as a purpose of what you are doing, but in the end, you found yourself fighting for entirely different things that you had never thought of before. In other words, war has a momentum of its own and it carries you away from all thoughtful intentions when you get into it.”

If we are indeed in the third act — as I will take up in a future article — then it may well be that this final act will prove to be very long and very painful. You may or may not know where you begin. You never know where you are going to end.

–November 16, 2006

Books under Review

State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III by Bob Woodward, Simon and Schuster, 560 pp., $30.00

The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America’s Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11 by Ron Suskind, Simon and Schuster, 367 pp., $27.00

State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration by James Risen, Free Press, 240 pp., $26.00

[Footnotes for this piece can be found in the New York Review of Books.]

Mark Danner, a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, is Professor of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley and Henry R. Luce Professor at Bard College. His most recent book is The Secret Way to War: The Downing Street Memo and the Iraq War’s Buried History. His work can be found at

This article appears in the December 21, 2006 issue of the New York Review of Books.

Copyright 2006 Mark Danner