Tuesday, April 17, 2012

What Role Did Neoconservatives Play In American Political Thought And The Invasion Of Iraq?

In 2006, Francis Fukuyama published America at the Crossroads, Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy. In it, he covered three important facets of American foreign policy with regards to Iraq. First, he went over neoconservative ideology, something often talked about with regards to the invasion of Iraq, but little understood. Second, he debunked the idea that it was solely neoconservatives within the Bush administration who were responsible for the war. Finally, he discussed how neoconservatives betrayed their own ideas by how they dealt with the invasion and reconstruction of the country. Altogether, the neoconservatives did contribute to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein that would in the end, help discredit them.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq brought neoconservatives to the attention of American pundits, but there was broad misunderstanding of their origins and ideas. For example, some believed that because many of the neoconservatives within the Bush administration such as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, and head of the Defense Policy Board Richard Perle were Jewish, their main concern was protecting Israel. Others mentioned University of Chicago professor Leo Strauss as being an influential thinker behind the movement. James Atlas of the New York Times wrote an article in May 2003, which went into great length arguing that Strauss was the intellectual godfather of neoconservatives. Strauss had little direct influence on any of the neoconservatives involved with the Bush administration, and said little about foreign policy to begin with. Neoconservatism actually had its roots with a group of leftists in 1930s and 1940s New York City. Irvin Kristol, Daniel Bell, Irving Howe, Seymour Martin Lipset, Philip Selznick, and Nathan Glazer are considered the founders of the movement. All of them were initially socialists or communists who ended up turning against those ideas, because of the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin. They came to see oppressive governments as being a threat to other countries, because if they were willing to mistreat their own citizens, they would not regard the interests of other countries either. During World War II and the Cold War, they became opponents of liberals and the New Left, because they believed they were soft or sympathetic to the Soviet Union. They also saw World War II as a great moral victory for the United States against dictatorship, fascism and oppression, which helped spread democracy around the world. Kristol and Bell went on to found the journal Public Interest that dealt with American domestic politics. They were opposed to things like President Johnson’s Great Society, which they thought was liberal social engineering that would make the recipients dependent upon the government. By the 1980s, neoconservatives backed President Reagan, and saw the end of the Cold War as another victory for democracy. Irving Kristol’s son William went on to found the magazine the Weekly Standard in the 1990s, and he, along with Frank Kagan began advocating for a neoconservative foreign policy. In 1996, they wrote an article in the journal Foreign Affairs, and then in 2000 published a book Present Dangers that advocated for “benevolent hegemony” by the United States now that the Soviet Union had been defeated. The U.S. was to use its power to spread democracy, and keep its opponents at bay using overwhelming military superiority. The move from Left to Right happened to many Americans in the 1930s to 1960s. The brutality of Stalin made them disillusioned not only with communism, but with liberalism as well, while the victories in World War II and the Cold War emboldened them. Neoconservatives eventually became a vocal element of the larger conservative movement within the United States.

Neoconservatism ended up contributing a fourth approach to foreign policy in the United States in the 1990s. There are two dominant views of foreign affairs amongst American elites, realism, and idealism. Realism is based upon states acting as rational actors that want to protect and expand their power. Idealists want to establish a world order based upon law and global institutions. Fukuyama noted a third trend, which he called nationalists who only care about national security, but also have a strong isolationist view as well. In the 1990s, neoconservatives like Kristol and Kagan added their ideas, which were based upon four main principals. First, their beliefs about dictatorships led them to believe that the internal politics of countries were of great importance, because oppressive countries were much more likely to cause trouble in the international system such as wars. Second, was that morals should play a role in international relations, namely the promotion of democracy and human rights. Third, there was a distrust of international law and organizations to solve anything. Finally, neoconservatives’ dislike of liberal American domestic policies led them to believe that social engineering in other countries would not work either. The movement’s early opposition to Stalinism shaped their opinions of foreign affairs. It was also an alternative to the realist and idealists in American political thought. During the 1990s neoconservatives were also in the odd position of supporting many of President Clinton’s policies such as the intervention in the former Yugoslavia to stop the slaughter there, which mainstream conservatives opposed. Neoconservatives therefore pushed for a liberal foreign policy, but through American military power.

During the 1990s, Iraq became a major concern of neoconservative foreign policy experts. That started with the 1991 Gulf War. Neoconservatives supported the war to stop Saddam Hussein from expanding his power, but became opponents of the first Bush administration’s decision not to support the Kurdish and Shiite uprisings that followed the cessation of hostilities. Neoconservatives began pushing for regime change afterward, and supported various Iraqi exile groups such as Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress. Their concerns about dictators, especially aggressive and oppressive ones, made them opponents of Saddam, and push for his removal. Their distrust of international organizations made them believe that the United Nations would not solve the problem, so the U.S. needed to deal with Iraq unilaterally, perhaps using a pre-emptive strike. Many of these ideas were pushed within the second Bush administration, but they were not the dominant ones.

Many commentators believed that the neoconservatives were the main reason why the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, but they were wrong. It seemed like almost every article that discussed the Bush administration’s decision to go to war mentioned the neoconservatives by talking about officials like Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz and the desire to spread democracy in the Middle East. This argument ignored the fact that Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were not neoconservatives, and were the ones that shaped Iraq policy. In January 2001, Rumsfeld distributed a report on asymmetrical threats to the United States now that the Cold War was over. Iraq was mentioned, because new technologies offered it and other countries the ability to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and nuclear devices, which could threaten U.S. interests. That was the Defense Secretary’s main concern about Iraq from day one of the new administration, to remove the security threat Rumsfeld believed Saddam posed. There was nothing about dictatorships or democracy. President Bush too was concerned about Iraq from the start of his administration, but he voiced none of the neoconservative agenda. In the first two meetings of the National Security Council, the president simply allowed each agency within his administration to follow its own strategy with regards to Iraq from the State Department working on smart sanctions to the Treasury Department looking into cutting off Iraq’s finances to the Pentagon looking into reforming a coalition against Iraq and supporting Iraqi opposition groups. Only that very last point of backing Iraqi opponents was a neoconservative idea. It wasn’t until 9/11 happened that the Bush administration finally started pushing for invading Iraq. Bush thought that Saddam might be involved in the attack, and Rumsfeld hoped that 9/11 might provide an opportunity to strike Iraq. An Iraq-Al Qaeda connection and WMD were not original neoconservative arguments against Iraq, but were adopted by them, so that they could achieve their goal of overthrowing Saddam. That showed that the Bush administration was the one driving the agenda, rather than the neoconservatives.

Fukuyama believed that in backing the Iraq invasion, neoconservatives ended up betraying one of their own ideas, which was the belief that social engineering does not work. Neoconservatives had no ideas on how to build a democracy after the fall of Saddam, or how to develop the country. That’s because almost all of the neoconservative writing focused almost exclusively on using the U.S. military against the country’s enemies, but nothing about what would happen afterward. Neoconservatives in the government seemed to think that the whole process would be quick and easy. Wolfowitz for instance, said that the reconstruction of Iraq would cost little, and would mostly be funded by Iraqi oil revenues. Many neoconservatives also supported the disbanding of the Iraqi security forces having no idea that such institutions as the military were one of the things that held Iraq together, and would be necessary to fight the insurgency. Instead, many seemed to believe that once Saddam was removed, democracy would just come about naturally. Nine years later, Iraq is still struggling with establishing rule of law, building institutions, developing its economy, and creating a democratic form of government showing that the neoconservatives might have been right that grand attempts to change societies usually run into all kinds of problems.

Neoconservatives’ support for the invasion of Iraq brought them into the spotlight in America, but would also discredited many of their ideas immediately afterward. Almost every writing about the Bush administration’s war mentioned neoconservatives as being some of the major movers and thinkers behind the invasion. While they were strong proponents of getting rid of Saddam since the 1990s, they were not the main decision makers within the government. Their support for spreading democracy and concerns about the internal politics of other countries only came to the fore after the invasion when no weapons of mass destruction or Al Qaeda connection were discovered. Those two failures would also not only discredit the administration, but the neoconservatives in general since so many believed that they were the main architects of the war. Neoconservatism went on to cause more problems as they had little to contribute to rebuilding Iraq, because their ideology was originally opposed to such ideas, and they had only focused upon using military force against America’s enemies. Neoconservatives are still involved in American politics today, which is why its important to cut through all the myths about their involvement in Iraq, and understand what their real origins and ideas are.


Atlas, James, “The Nation: Leo-Cons; A Classicist’s Legacy: New Empire Builders,” New York Times, 5/3/03

Dickey, Christopher, “$1 Billion A Week,” Newsweek, 7/21/03

Elliott, Michael and Carney, James, “First Stop, Iraq,” Time, 3/31/03

Fallows, James, “Blind Into Baghdad,” Atlantic, January/February 2004

Fukuyama, Francis, America at the Crossroads, Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy, Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 2006

Hersh, Seymour, “The Debate Within,” New Yorker, 3/11/02

Laura Ingraham Show, “Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz Interview with The Laura Ingraham Show,” U.S. Department of Defense, 8/1/03

Marshall, Joshua Micah, “Practice to Deceive,” Washington Monthly, April 03

Ricks, Thomas, Fiasco, New York: Penguin Press, 2006

Suskind, Ron, The Price of Loyalty, Free Press: New York, London, Sydney, 2004

Viotti, Paul, Kauppi, Mark, International Relations Theory, Realism, Pluralism, Globalism, Macmillan Publishing Company/Maxwell Macmillan: New York, Toronto, 1993


amagi said...

Thank you, this is the first piece of internet analysis I've read that provides real clarity on the topic.

Hopefully there will be less need for neoconservative ideas on foreign intervention as some of the most repressive regimes seem to be lurching, however uncertainly, toward representative government.

I would only make one additional point, which I think is key to the understanding of neoconservative position: the ideology sets itself in stark contrast to the Kissingerian realpolitik that informed much of the Cold War: "he was a bastard, but he was our bastard." The neocon thinking runs the opposite -- representative governments, even if unfriendly, are ultimately better for global stability and world peace than dictators over whom America can assert leverage. In this way, Neoconservatism is first and foremost an anti-Totalitarian ideology.

Discredited or not, a number of neocons wrote op-ed pieces in support of NATO intervention in Libya, and while I doubt they had one iota of influence over the decision to engage, the policy they favored was ultimately enacted.

Anyway, thanks for the article.

Joel Wing said...

Amagi, I actually had a line about how realists and idealists would deal with dictatorships differently than the neocons, which was very close to your comment. This piece took a really long time to put together and in all the editing it got cut.

And yes, neocons are still active in the U.S. They are pushing support for Syria's rebels and for the bombing of Iran right now.

amagi said...

Which neocons are actively in favor of bombing Iran? I am not surprised that some may have done so, but it isn't a subject on which any kind of consensus has been reached among that group (so far as I know).

Also, I didn't mean for my previous comment to sound like criticism -- if it did, it was certainly not meant so. Your tireless dedication to this blog is nothing short of Herculean, and I continue to be tremendously impressed by the quality of your analysis, the precision with which you cite your sources and the excellent original content (interviews, in particular) that you continue to produce.

All I can say is that I am incredibly fortunate I didn't have you for my high school history class.

Many thanks again,


Joel Wing said...

Amagi, didn't take it as criticism as all. I just wanted to let you know that I had almost the same idea in mind originally, but that I ended up cutting it out.

amagi said...

Ok, good to hear.

I would be interested in having you list some articles from prominent neocons who argue in favor bombing Iran -- aside from something from (if I recall correctly) Victor Davis Hanson that ran in the Wall Street Journal a year or so ago, I don't recall coming across any from the crowd of usual suspects; at least nothing so strongly worded that it sticks out in my mind.

Joel Wing said...

Amagi, I'll try to but can't promise anything. I'm falling behind in work, have a test due on Friday, and am behind in reading Iraq stuff as well.

Anonymous said...


This is a great blog posting. The term "neoconservative" is one of the most misunderstood and overused terms in our discourse today. The more often someone uses the term the more likely that person misunderstands what a neoconservative believes. Neoconservatism represents a shift to the left in foreign policy within conservatism. From what I understand foreign policy within conservatism in the United States has tended to be of the realist school (J. Bakker and George HW Bush are good examples of realists) and isolationists.

You didn't define George W. Bush as a neoconservative, but I think his rhetoric with his freedom agenda made him look one. For example, his support for the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon and the democracy promotion programs he funded such as Radio Farda in Iran.

His emphasis on the freedom agenda might have been to save face from the lack of WMD in Iraq.


Joel Wing said...

Jon, I did mention that very briefly that towards the end of the article that the Bush administration did take up the spreading of democracy in the Middle East eventually, which was a neoconservative point. That was after the failure of WMD and an al Qaeda connection was found however, and was emphasized more in the 2nd term as well. I think that showed the neoconservative agenda gained in influence within the White House, but that was largely after the invasion.

Swopa said...

I wish I could share the praise of the commenters above, but I find this post muddled and ultimately unhelpful.

One of the things that I appreciate in your analyses of current Iraqi politics is your understanding that the public explanations Maliki, Sadr et al. offer for their actions are usually empty posturing. You should apply this to American political figures as well, especially the folks who led us into the Iraq fiasco.

For instance, I would argue that the neoconservatives believe in spreading democracy about as much as Sadr believes in non-sectarian politics, or Maliki believes in transparent, ethical government.

Look at the glaring contradiction in four principles you cite (apparently borrowed from Fukuyama): The neocons want to turn dictatorships into democracies, but don't believe in international institutions, or in social engineering by the U.S. So, then, how do they intend to do it -- pixie dust, perhaps?

This question could be answered by consulting the vast literature of neoconservative thinking on democracy promotion... except that I'll wager there isn't much out there; as you note, " almost all of the neoconservative writing focused almost exclusively on using the U.S. military against the country’s enemies."

And why is that? Because the neocons didn't, and don't, care that much about democracy. It's just the ketchup they pour over their desire for military hegemony, to make it go down easier.

Joel Wing said...


I think the argument of the neoconservatives is that democracy is a natural desire of people around the world. They argue who would not want freedom and being able to rule themselves. That doesn't contradict their aversion to international institutions or social engineering at all. Their main argument against international institutions for example, is that bodies like the U.N. restrain American power and largely act as debating societies rather than taking action. Being against that in no way would stop a person from also supporting democracy around the world. The supporting of American power can also fit into that worldview because the neocons see the U.S. as standing for good around the world, a very common idea amongst American elites and the public.

Swopa said...

Also, FWIW, the argument that Cheney, Bush, and Rumsfeld weren't officially neoconservatives seems like pointless hairsplitting. Cheney and Rumsfeld (and Jeb Bush, interestingly) signed the "Statement of Principles" for the essentially neoconservative Project for a New American Century when it was created in 1997.

And a line from that statement -- "The history of the 20th century should have taught us that it is important to shape circumstances before crises emerge, and to meet threats before they become dire"-- was explicitly used by the Bush administration in its public campaign for the war (e.g., "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.")

At the very least, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld allowed themselves in the wake of 9/11 to buy the neoconservative theory, and put it into practice in Iraq. It crashed and burned like the Hindenburg.

If only Iraq had the same effect on neoconservative influence as the Hindenburg did on the dirigible industry...

Joel Wing said...

I think it's an important distinction. Rumsfeld especially didn't care about any of the neoconservatives principles. He saw Iraq as a threat to the flow of oil through the Persian Gulf and wanted to get rid of Saddam because of that, and didn't care what happened afterward. He just wanted out of Iraq until the day he was kicked out. The neoconservatives on the other hand wanted to stay in Iraq long term to try to stabilize it and create a democracy, and if they had their way would still have a U.S. military presence there today. Rumsfeld felt the complete opposite.

Cheney was the one closest to a neoconservative, while Bush also wanted to create a democracy in Iraq.

Ultimately though it was Bush that wanted war. If there were no neoconservatives in his administration he probably would still have pushed for it after 9/11. He came into office thinking Saddam was trouble, and after the Sept. attacks decided he was finally going to do something about him.

Joel Wing said...

P.S. Remember that Bush came into office knowing or caring very little about foreign affairs. The one exception was his dislike of Saddam Hussein.

Swopa said...

You say, "The neoconservatives on the other hand wanted to stay in Iraq long term to try to stabilize it and create a democracy..."

Which neoconservatives said this, and when? I certainly don't recall any of them saying anything like that before the invasion.

Maybe, after their original dream of installing a Western-friendly puppet regime had clearly dissolved (within weeks of the invasion), they fell in line with the idea of staying long enough to revive it somehow.

But to revisit a previous conversation, the point of staying in Iraq wasn't to create a democracy -- it was to forestall one. Sistani was calling for elections right away (http://www.aljazeera.com/archive/2003/11/200849163912507722.html) and the U.S. did everything they could to sidestep the demand.

If the neocons' philosophy was (as you say) to trust people's natural desire for self-rule and democracy to lead them down the right path, why would they back a prolonged occupation after Sistani's call for elections? The answer, of course, is that whatever lip service they paid to a democratic Iraq, what they really wanted was one aligned more with the U.S. than with Iran (which, as we've seen, a democratic election would not produce).

Joel Wing said...

It was after the invasion that they said the U.S. needed to stay in Iraq.

As for the postwar government. Many of the neoconservatives such as Feith, Perle, etc. wanted to set up an interim government immediately after the invasion, and of course were hoping that would be led by Chalabi. It was Bremer who came in and cancelled that idea and went on to ignore Sistani's calls for elections. Bremer was not a neoconservative however.

I think a problem with your argument is that you are assuming that neocons were a driving force within the administration that had power over policy when in fact they were one of many groups within the administration. Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice, Garner, Bremer, Negroponte, Casey, Petraeus, Crocker, and most importantly Bush were not neoconservatives and each had their own ideas about Iraq that proved to be more important than the neocons in shaping Iraq policy.

When Bush decided to go to war with Iraq the neocons provided a group of supporters and an ideology to try to justify it. Afterward they continued to play the role of backers of the Iraq War, but I think their role in making actual policy has always been overblown.

Swopa said...

OK, first, let's dispense with this Bremer nonsense once and for all -- you're simply wrong about it being his decision to cancel the interim-goverment plan.

In his book, on pp. 104-105, Ali Allawi clearly places the decision as having been made prior to May 5, 2003 (the date it was communicated to people in Baghdad) -- before Bremer had been officially appointed, and more than a week before he set foot in Iraq:

"On 5 May, [Jay Garner] announced that a collective nine-person Iraqi leadership, which would be the nucleus of an Iraqi-led government, would be in place by mid-May. Later in the day, however… Garner, Khalizad and Ryan Crocker began to express some unease about vague signals emanating from Washington that might influence the direction [of] the negotiations for a provisional government… Garner began to drop broad hints that he might soon be leaving...

On 6 May, Bush announced that Paul Bremer would become the top civilian administrator in Iraq. On 8 May, Powell announced that the USA and UK were sponsoring a UN resolution that would, in effect, give them the status of occupying powers in Iraq. The Iraqis were completely flabbergasted… the entire process that was to lead to a provisional government had been abruptly stopped, and then upended…

Crocker said [later to Hoshyar Zebari] that, when they had reported to the National Security Council on the progress of talks on the formation of an Iraqi-led government, National Security Advisor Rice had informed him that the [NSC] was working on 'other ideas.' It soon became clear what these 'other ideas' were."

Obviously, Bremer was in no position to make a unilateral decision that early. As I told you previously, the decision was made at the highest levels of the Bush administration, and Bremer was sent out to implement it.

Swopa said...

On the broader question of Bush et al. being neoconservatives, you're missing my point -- if I buy snake oil and drink it, it doesn't matter if I'm an official member of the Snake Oil Boosters' Club.

As you say, Bush knew next to nothing about foreign policy when he took office. So you can imagine how shaken he was when 9/11 forced him to react to a shocking, unforeseen challenge to America's role in the world.

The neoconservative worldview presented him with an off-the-shelf, ready-made theory of how to reassert America's mastery (and, no less important, Bush's own authority).

So he drank the snake oil. Having no ideas of his own to fall back on, and desperately needing a strategy, he adopted the neoconservative worldview and put it into practice.

Joel Wing said...


Here's a brief timeline of pre-2003 events in the Bush admin.

Before Bush was elected president he received foreign policy advice from several figures including Wolfowitz who was a neocon and Rice who was a traditional conservative. In 2000 Rice published an article for Foreign Affairs that tried to outline Bush's foreign policy were he to become president. It said that the U.S. would no longer be involved in humanitarian missions and nation building like in the former Yugoslavia. Bush also gave a speech where he said the same thing. The neocons such as Kagan and the Weekly Standard's Kristol had in fact come out in support of these operations against the mainstream Republican party. The neocons saw these operations as the right use of American power to support human rights and oppose dictatorships.

Bush still came into power with little knowledge or interest in foreign policy. One of the few things he did come into office with was an opposition to Saddam. The first two meetings of the National Security Council dealt with Iraq as the main issue. There was no set policy however. Bush let each agency do its own thing. Powell looked into smarter sanctions, the CIA looked into coups, Wolfowitz looked into helping out the Iraqi opposition. Again, Bush did not choose the neocon policy.

On 9/11 Bush immediately thought Saddam was involved and asked Richard Clarke to look into it. When he was presented with a briefing paper made by Clarke and the intelligence agencies that Iraq was not involved Bush still thought Saddam had a hand. This was all Bush, and did not come from talking with any neocon in the admin like Wolfowitz or Feith.

When Bush held the meetings in Camp David with his administration over what to do about 9/11 Wolfowitz constantly brought up hitting Iraq. Bush told him to drop it, and Afghanistan would be first, again shutting down the neocon policy. Bush did say that Iraq would be later, but again this was his decision.

Again, my view is that once Bush decided to go to war with Iraq, which seemed to be somewhere in 2002 he had the neocons to give a justification for it, but it was always Bush's decision, made independently of people like Wolfowitz, et. al. who he hardly talked to because the neocons were lower level in the administration, and would meet in the separate deputies committee not the regular National Security Council meetings anyway, while people like Feith and Perle weren't included in those meetings at all.

Joel Wing said...

Finally, if you read the new Endgame book, the administration and Garner were still pushing an interim government. When the looting and insurgency started, the White House lost faith that Garner could handle things. They came up with Bremer who had a completely different view. He wanted to run Iraq himself for around 2 years to transform it into a democracy. Bush met with Bremer and said that he could do what he thought was right to change the country. Even though it was a 100% change from the interim government plan it still had the same goal, which was to set up a democracy in Iraq, which was Bush's main goal.

Swopa said...

I don't know why you regard Endgame as the authoritative text on the matter -- it reads like a spin job designed to scapegoat Bremer for the flaws of the occupation, while deflecting blame from the DOD and Bush.

Allawi was there during the negotiations on a provisional government, and identifies precisely when that process was derailed. Endgame incorrectly implies that the decision was made by Bremer up to two weeks later.

Incidentally, the view that Bremer made substantial decisions on a unilateral basis is one that Bremer himself rejects in detail here:

Bremer's account of those matters, FWIW, concurs with Allawi's. Again, why do you believe Endgame rather than the people who were there?

Joel Wing said...

Some decisions Bremer made on his own others came down from Washington.

DeBaathification was delivered to him by Feith for example.

The plan for a two year occupation was Bremer's and opposed by both Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz who wanted out of Iraq as quickly as possible.

Joel Wing said...

A lot of that article by Bremer seems self-serving. He claims that no civilian or military officials objected to the disbanding of the Iraqi army, which was not true. The CIA station chief, Garner, and members of the ORHA did object to the order and went directly to Bremer about it.

Joel Wing said...

Here’s an alternative timeline to the interim government versus Bremer’s long-term plan.

4/24/03 Garner was called by Rumsfeld telling him that he would be replaced by Bremer. At the time, Garner and Khalilzad were working on putting together an interim government. Khalilzad thought he would go with Bremer to Baghdad in May 03 and introduce him to the Iraqis he’d been working with. That was supposed to happen 5/15/03. Bremer dismissed Khalilzad’s plan, because the CPA head wanted a long term transition to democracy in Iraq. Khalilzad was not told of the change in plans until right before the White House announced Bremer was going to take over running Iraq. Allawi’s account of hearing on 5/5/03 from Garner, Khalilzad and Crocker that changes were coming from Washington was the fact that Garner was already told he was going to be replaced more than a week beforehand. Powell called Rice telling her that Khalilzad’s plans should be not discounted, but Rice told him that Bremer only agreed to the job if he could run things his way. Before he left Bremer told Bush that his plan for Iraq would take time, and Bush gave him his backing.

As soon as Bremer got to Iraq he said that he was going to create an Iraqi support committee instead of an interim government. That became the Iraqi Governing Council. Bremer said he had a 7 step plan that would take up to two years to accomplish. Then in Sep. 03 he published an op ed in the Washington Post outlining that strategy. That brought criticism from both Rice and the Pentagon who thought it would take too long, be too costly, and contradicted the Def. Dept.’s plans for a quick withdrawal. 5 days after the op ed Rumsfeld called Bremer saying that the U.S. should immediately turn over authority to the Iraqis, but Bremer did not agree. Bremer wrote a memo arguing his point called “No Quick Fix on Sovereignty.” Later that month Bremer returned to Washington to testify to Congress and met with the White House. During that time Bremer went to Rumsfeld’s house where the Def. Sec. again argued for a quick transfer of sovereignty. Rice was also growing concerned about Bremer’s plan and in Oct. held a meeting of her aides where she expressed her skepticism. In late-Oct. Bremer again went to Washington. Wolfowitz wrote a paper saying that Iraqis should get sovereignty by April 2004, on the one year anniversary of the fall of Saddam. Rumsfeld supported the idea. Bremer again stuck to his guns and wouldn’t budge on his strategy. Bremer later went to a principals meeting of the National Security Council at the White House. Cheney was skeptical of the quick handover. Rice pushed for speeding up Bremer’s process. Bremer argued for sticking with his plan. Later that month there was another NSC meeting where Bush asked for a middle ground between Wolfowitz’s and Bremer’s plan. The President’s and others on his staff’s main concern seemed to be to shore up domestic support for the war, because it was faltering, and therefore they began to push for political changes in Iraq to show progress was being made. Afterward Rice met with Bremer, and told him he had to modify his plan. Bremer met with Bush the next day where he again voiced his opposition to the Pentagon’s plan, arguing that the Iraqis were not ready to take over the country. Still under continued pressure Bremer came up with a sped up process to end the CPA in June 04. He went back to Washington at the beginning of Nov. 03 where it was finally agreed that there would be a quicker path to turning over sovereignty.

Joel Wing said...


I have an article about Bremer and Sistani as well coming out this week.

Swopa said...

A Bremer-Sistani post should be an interesting read, even if it's only halfway to where you should go. ;)

I agree with your comment above about Bremer's op-ed being self-serving, but I don't think he made up the details about the DOD's bureaucratic involvement in & approval of the two initial CPA orders.

Nor do I think that Bremer made up the notes he quoted during an initial mid-May 2003 meeting with Ryan Crocker and others in Baghdad (pp. 42-43 of his memoir):

"I met with the Principals Committee of the National Security Council last week," I said. "The whole crew was there in the SitRoom [White House Situation Room]… the VP, Powell, Rumsfeld, Condi Rice, George Tenet. The agenda included the exiles and the new government of Iraq."

"… Here's what Colin Powell said: 'The president's guidance is to take our time on setting up an Interim Iraqi Administration so what we get is a representative group.' And here's Colin's personal view: 'We should focus on the conditions for the political process, especially security. We should let Iraqi leaders emerge.'"

"… Here's the vice president," I said, reading from my notes. "We're not at a point where representative Iraqi leaders can come forward. They're still too scared. We need a strategy on the ground for the postwar situation we actually have and not the one we wish we had.'"

I flipped through my wilted notes. "Okay, in summary, the Principals of the NSC agree that we need time, we need more balance than what we have in the small group of exiles we've dealt with to date."

Do you think Bremer was lying to Crocker and the others? If not, how can you possibly put any credence in Endgame's pretense that Bremer made the decision unilaterally to abandon an exile-led government?

One damning thing I've learned about Endgame through this exchange its that its version of these events has changed significantly from Cobra II, just two years earlier from the same authors. And it's not that the facts have changed -- instead, Gordon/Trainor change the spin to amplify their portrayal of a power-mad Bremer.

Joel Wing said...


Don't have Bremer's book. One of too many on my Amazon want list that I will get to some time.

I fully acknowledge that things were coming down from Washington that Bremer had to follow. I already said deBaathification came from Feith's office, and that alternative timeline I just posted had Bush, Rich, et al pushing Bremer towards shortening his timeline for handing over power to the Iraqis. At the same time, I don't think he was just there to be the administration's tool, especially because the White House was so divided. For example, Powell and Cheney could definitely have been for an extended U.S. stay in Iraq, but that doesn't mean Rumsfeld didn't want out of Iraq ASAP.

Swopa said...

I don't have Bremer's book, either. But I was planning to go downtown anyway today, so I stopped at the main public library and skimmed the opening chapter.

Joel Wing said...

I literally have over 50 books on Iraq sitting in a book shelf waiting for me to either re-read, finish, or just plain start.

Swopa said...

That's the great advantage I have in choosing not to be a full-time Iraq blogger. :)

I paid attention long enough and closely enough to understand the issues that I considered important... and having long since reaped the wheat on those subjects, I'm free to ignore the chaff.

In visiting the library, I was stunned by the vast number of Iraq books they had. The only ones I own are those by Ali Allawi and Anthony Shadid, and I can't say I know of any others I would consider worth purchasing.

The Bush administration & the U.S. military during that time certainly had no trouble getting their views out in the day-to-day media. Why would any book from them, or the U.S. reporters who relied on them as sources, be expected to offer any real surprises or illumination? I wouldn't expect much from any academic/think-tank source, either, because what firsthand information would they have?

If you threw out all of your 50 books that fit those descriptions, would you have any left? I found Ali Allawi's book useful, because he was involved on the Iraqi side of key events but wasn't a politician per se or an apologist for one. Until such time as someone from Sistani's inner circle writes a book (fat chance!), that's IMO the best we can hope for in terms of a fresh perspective.

Joel Wing said...

I've got books on anything and everything about Iraq. There's about 3 on sanctions, three on the U.N. inspectors, one on the economy, a couple general history books, about four on the Iran-Iraq & Persian Gulf Wars, and then all the rest are about the Iraq War. I haven't read any that I've wanted to get rid of. The last couple I finished were the SIGIR's Hard Lessons, Joseph Sassoon's Saddam Hussein's Ba'th Party, and Faleh Jabar's Shiite Movements In Iraq. My problem is that I take notes on everything for my research and writing, which means it takes four times as long as usual to get through a book compared to if I just read it.

Swopa said...

Well, that's the burden you've chosen to bear. :) But there's a risk of immersing yourself in so many details that you lose sight of the bigger picture, which I think may be the case with some of your arguments here.

To wit, getting back to neoconservatives -- you make a big deal of Bush, Cheney, et al. not being neocons. So what? Let's say the administration was staffed top to bottom with Platonic ideals of neoconservatism... how would that have changed the results in any way?

The U.S. used its military superiority to take out a despotic regime, shunning international constraints to the greatest extent possible and without any plans for social engineering. That sounds exactly like the neoconservative playbook, if you ask me.

I can understand that natural human cowardice makes few neocons willing to stand up and say, "Yep, they did things according to our theories, and wow, did they ever fail." But the job of objective analysts should be to challenge such cowardice, not enable it.

Joel Wing said...

Well I'm going to have to stick to my guns on this one. I think the Bush administration was highly fractious, with a dysfunctional foreign policy process, and the neoconservatives were only one of many groups within the administration.

The lack of planning for post-war Iraq for example, was not driven by neoconservatives or ideology, it was due to a best case scenario thinking that seemed to affect many, but not all within the administration, and general disinterest by some important players. Gen. Franks didn't care about postwar planning for instance, and he was not a neoconservative. Rice tried to do some postwar planning but failed to coordinate or push the effort throughout the administration, and not a neoconservative. Rumsfeld as well only cared about teh actual invasion, and nothing for what happened afterward, not a neocon. Etc.

Swopa said...

Um, let's recap here. I asked: "Let's say the administration was staffed top to bottom with Platonic ideals of neoconservatism... how would that have changed the results in any way?"

You responded by saying that X, Y, and Z weren't neoconservatives.

In short, you didn't answer the question.

If you'd like, we can approach this from another angle: What conditions would have needed to exist for you to say neoconservative ideas did get a fair test?

Joel Wing said...

If neocons had staffed the administration up and down there would have been an interim government, probably headed by Chalabi. The Iraqis obviously would have played a much greater role, but the U.S. military presence would have continued, because none of that would have addressed the complaints of the Sunnis, so the insurgency would have continued as well.

Swopa said...

If they'd given power to an unelected exile-led (and especially Chalabi-led) government, the Sunnis would have been the least of their concerns.

In short, the results would have been far more disastrous than the actual occupation was. So I guess the neocons' reputation got a lucky break the way things turned out.

Joel Wing said...

The problem with getting Chalabi in power was that Bush did not like him however. Garner didn't like him either.

Swopa said...

That's to Bush and Garner's credit, but even if they had liked him, Chalabi had two bigger problems that would have kept him from successfully gaining power: (1) Iraqis in general didn't like him (i.e., he had no base of support), and (2) Sistani wouldn't have stood for it.

The latter is why I snarked that a Bremer-Sistani post would be halfway toward the right goal. A really great post would be "How Sistani Defeated the U.S. and Put a Sectarian Shiite Government in Power in Iraq."

I mean, think about it. Of all the political actors in the wake of the Iraq invasion, Sistani is the one who was most successful in accomplishing in his goals.

You've had endless posts analyzing various elements of what the U.S. leaders thought and did, but that's basically been analyzing a Harlem Globetrotters game by looking at the strategy & tactics of the Washington Generals (pun not intended, but apt nonetheless).

Joel Wing said...

Sistani did get Shiites into power, but he has been very unhappy since then. He didn't like the civil war, he doesn't like the current government, the corruption, the lack of services, etc. Right now he refuses to meet with any politicians and his son, who is his main spokesperson who usually deals with the elite, won't meet with certain figures even. There are constant message out of the leading clerics in Najaf about the problems with the country.

Swopa said...

That's one lesson Sistani has learned -- after being so closely identified with the initial UIA government (and getting flak for its many shortcomings as a result), he now knows to maintain some distance. Call it "plausible deniability."

But whatever criticisms he offers, don't look for him to call for the government to replaced, save perhaps by a Shiite coalition with other individuals at the top.

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