Above all, let us avoid the policy of peace with insult…. The worst policy for the United States is to combine the unbridled tongue with the unready hand.

—Theodore Roosevelt

Just win, baby.

—Al Davis, owner, Oakland Raiders

By mid-winter 2003, President Bush and his team had spoken so long and so vehemently, and had moved so many troops, as to well-nigh guarantee that spring would bring either military success against Iraq, or the administration’s discredit. Moreover, the Bush team’s internal confusion and delay had so eroded the American people’s precious post-September 11 resolve, as well as foreigners’ support for America, that the president and his secretary of state had to scramble to build support for war. Even after the president’s State of the Union address, and Secretary Powell’s dramatic February 5 appeal to the United Nations, the Bush team remained of two minds about whether to change Iraq’s regime or merely “disarm” it. The president had not resolved disagreements over whether anti-American terrorism is the work of renegade individuals, or of regimes that use them as cut-outs. Nor had he explained what part military action against Iraq would play in the “war on terrorism.” Was it a diversion from the “war,” as some in the administration charged, or was it, as others maintained, the war’s proper centerpiece?

At the outset of the “war on terror,” the Pentagon argued that the path to victory lay in changing hostile Arab regimes. President Bush, however, sided with Colin Powell’s State Department, the CIA, as well as the earlier Bush Administration’s “best and brightest,” and rejected the connection between regimes and terrorism (except for friendless, hapless Afghanistan). He chose to work with Saudis and other “friendly” Arab regimes against “shadowy networks,” and to track down killers “one at a time.”

By summer 2002, Bush somehow decided that Saddam’s regime had to be toppled. Whatever his reasoning, he did not break with his earlier decision’s premises and with the advisers who personified them. He spoke not of “regime change” but of “disarming” Saddam. He claimed that he had not decided whether to attack, and that he thought it necessary, or at any rate useful, to obtain the endorsement of the U.N. This proved too clever by half. Whereas in the summer of 2002 polls had been running heavily in favor of overthrowing Saddam, by January 27, 2003, opposition to attacking Iraq, and to President Bush, had risen sharply.

Common sense would not have expected otherwise. To ask support of anyone, never mind of powers who are declared opponents, for a course of action on which one has not decided oneself, and at the same time to give the impression that one’s decision is contingent on such support, is to beg for opposition. More important, once President Bush had given the American people the impression that America needed the U.N.’s blessing to go to war, many Americans took him at his word and disapproved of war without those blessings.

As a preface to discussing America’s political-military choices on the eve of the battle with Iraq, it is essential to look at how President Bush and his closest aides framed these choices since September 11.

Inside the War Cabinet

The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward has produced a portrait of George Bush and his war cabinet at work, between 9/11 and the downfall of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, that is as detailed as it is accurate. Bush at War (Simon & Schuster, 400 pages, $28) is not history, because Woodward focuses so sharply on his portraits, and says little by which the reader might evaluate people, ideas, or actions. But it is excellent raw material for history. To anyone personally acquainted with these persons, Woodward’s account has the ring of truth.

In the few passages in which he states facts rather than his subjects’ views, Woodward sums up what the reader has already grasped: the war cabinet had a loose grip on the basic facts, did not identify strategic goals, did not separate detail from key questions, made no attempt to relate means to ends, and acknowledged obvious, massive realities and choices only after having proceeded for weeks as if they didn’t exist.

Consequently, Woodward writes: “Eighteen days after September 11 they were developing a response, a plan of action, not a strategy. ” And “the emphasis on such side issues revealed how far they were from solving the main ones.” And: Five weeks after September 11, “it was critical” to “incorporate military and CIA functions,” but it was not being done. As for bombing Afghanistan, after weeks of planning in which the president had insisted that he did not want operations to be like those under President Clinton—bombs falling onto tents and mud huts, “pounding sand” he called it—initial operations in fact amounted to hitting 31 meaningless targets. A month after September 11, one participant at a meeting of the National Security Council said: “we need a political vision now.” Another commented: “This is FUBAR” (an old military acronym, meaning f–d up beyond all recognition.) Why? Like all human entities, the war cabinet reflected its leader.

When Woodward asked Bush to explain how he led the war, Bush responded with perhaps the book’s most revealing passage:

I’m the commander—see, I don’t need to explain—I do not need to explain why I say things. That’s the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.

And, in fact, Bush neither presented plans of his own, nor synthesized plans from others’ contributions. He wanted plans to accomplish vague, often contradictory things. “We need an early blueprint for response. ” “Have to coordinate public affairs.” He demanded “boots on the ground,” meaning American soldiers involved against terrorism somewhere. He said next to nothing about to do what or to what effect. He wanted to show success, but ventured no view as to what that might mean. He wanted “a demonstration of seriousness” but said little about seriousness itself. He wanted “options” among which he could choose, boxes he could check.

In other words, according to Woodward, Bush led by pulling rank. A stickler for hierarchy, Bush is one of those bosses who calls subordinates by their first names, and even nicknames, while insisting on being called by his honorific. Impatient with intellectual arguments, he was drawn to the bloody-shirt bombast of CIA covert action chief Cofer Black. Only Condolezza Rice dared tell him things that he was likely to regard as unpleasant, and she had to guard her words. The Churchills and Lincolns of this world lead by asking questions that bare the problem’s essence. Then, like good coaches, they teach subordinates a game plan and their parts. Not Bush. At one point, he told Rice “I am the quarterback.” She replied, “You are the coach.” But Bush saw himself not as teaching, but as demanding “the consensus of six or seven smart people, which makes my job easier.” Woodward comments: “He was about to find out that, indeed, the advice might not only be different, but that it could come dressed in language that was not always straightforward.”

The confusion began immediately. At 8 a.m. on September 12, CIA director George Tenet walked into the Oval Office and gave the president some intercepts of associates of Osama bin Laden rejoicing at the previous day’s attacks. For Tenet, this was “game, set, and match.” For the CIA, anti-American terror amounted to little more than bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. Bush believed that Saddam “probably was behind this in the end,” but he did not demand to see the evidence for and against contrary hypotheses. He even asked Tenet for a list of which targets in America terrorists were likely to hit. Rather than avow ignorance, Tenet produced a list of guesses. Bush agreed to give the CIA “whatever it takes.” Tenet said that much of the money would go to “heavily subsidize” the intelligence services of Arab countries. This “would “triple or quadruple” the intelligence available to the CIA. Bush did not question the wisdom of “buying” intelligence from governments whose agendas differ radically from America’s. Thus did Bush set the war’s goals—implicitly, and on the basis of unexamined assumptions.

At meetings of the National Security Council throughout the rest of that day, “The persistent question was the exact definition of the mission.” Defense Secretary Rumsfeld asked; “Are we going after terrorism more broadly than just al-Qaeda?” He suggested that the problem included regimes, primarily Iraq, and that the war should seek to solve the real problem. Secretary of State Powell did not try to define the problem differently, but argued for restricting the mission to al-Qaeda because it would be easier to gain support for that. “Bush made it clear it was not the time to resolve the issue. He emphasized again that his principal goal was to produce a military plan that would inflict real pain and destruction on the terrorists.” No one dared ask which ones? And what good would it do to kill one set of people rather than another? Somehow, they would do something in Afghanistan. They would figure out what as they were doing it.

Discussion at the crucial September 15 war council began with the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s three options: 1) cruise missile strikes on Afghanistan; 2) add manned bombers; 3) add “boots on the ground.” Bush chose option three. But hit what to accomplish what? For Rice, “Afghanistan evoked every negative image: far away, landlocked, hard.” Discussion was that vague. Rumsfeld hinted gently that “the worst thing they could do…was to misstate the objective” and that simply moving or killing al-Qaeda or the Taliban would not solve America’s problem. Powell steered the discussion away from ends by arguing that “You’re going to hear [objections] from your coalition partners” in case you decide to “do” anything but Afghanistan. And even as regards Afghanistan, he cautioned: “don’t go after their leadership.” Rumsfeld responded that “any argument that the coalition wouldn’t tolerate Iraq argued for a different coalition.” The dispute was over whether alliances are ends or means. Bush did not resolve it. He asked, what U.S. forces, what allied ones, when, how, “what’s the first wave? What’s later?” But he neglected to ask, what do I want to accomplish, and what reason do I have to believe that this action will accomplish what I want?

Since objectives were unclear, “the Pentagon was still coming up dry.” And since foreign governments were being asked to provide troops and basing arrangements for operations the ends and means of which the U.S. itself had not decided upon, their commitments were understandably vague. To Bush’s impatience, Rumsfeld replied: “Look, we’re not able to define a special operation role for our own forces. Until we can do that, how can we talk about others?” But Bush was not in the business of explaining. By the NSC meeting of September 26, he had agreed that “targets…were going to be the air defense systems, military airfields, runways, and other military targets…and boots on the ground may or may not be simultaneous.”

When pressed about what the actions he had approved would accomplish, the president said: “Our strategy is to create chaos, to create a vacuum, to get the bad guys moving [so we can hit them].”

“Well, you know,” Rumsfeld replied, “our military buildup has already had that effect.” The mud huts that America would strike had long since been vacated. “The target list cannot impose much damage on the people we want to impose it on.” Thus, two weeks after the September 11 attacks, did the thought wedge itself into the NSC that only the government of Afghanistan could rid Afghanistan of terrorists, and hence that America would have to strengthen rebel forces in Afghanistan. But those forces aimed to change the regime. Did the Bush team want that?

At the NSC meeting of Wednesday, October 3, three weeks after the attacks, the team realized that it had already effectively chosen “regime change. ” But “the problem was that [they] had not yet figured out how to do it.” Nevertheless, on October 7, Bush told the military, “Your mission is defined; your objectives are clear….” Meanwhile, Vice President Cheney informed the president that, because of the upcoming winter, “if we’re serious about unleashing the Northern Alliance, we need to do it soon.” That would mean reorienting the bombing away from the target list on which everyone had agreed over the past month and “on[to] the targets that will make it easier for the Northern Alliance to move.” Bush agreed, because, he said, “We need the American people to understand we’re being successful….” It is difficult to avoid the impression that Bush was less concerned with the steak than with the sizzle.

But actual policy did not change, and U.S. pilots continued to pound sand through the middle of October. At the October 15 NSC meeting, after five weeks of non-stop deliberations, the disconnect between the White House word circus and military reality became undeniable. Rice told Rumsfeld privately that it was up to him to craft a strategy. Rumsfeld, Woodward writes, “was stirred up. He went back to the Pentagon and directed his policy shop, headed by Undersecretary [for policy] Douglas Feith, to draft a paper outlining an overall Afghanistan strategy. He wanted it in six hours.”

Essentially, Feith came up with the obvious—that only the Northern Alliance could defeat the Taliban, and that close air support was the only way U.S. forces could help. One supposes that over five weeks Feith (whose “shop” employs about 1,000 people, plus hot and cold running consultants) had thought about matching ends and means in Afghanistan, and in the war as a whole. Such ideas are within the grasp of ordinary mortals. But Woodward shows that planning at the highest level admitted common sense about ends and means only when the alternative of embarrassment was clear and present.

In the end, despite confusion, the power that the United States added to that of the Northern Alliance overwhelmed the Taliban. The president and his administration declared victory, and basked in a year of high approval ratings.

Bush At War deals summarily with “homeland security.” Bush was very keen on it. But he dealt with it roughly as he did with military affairs. Bush worried a lot about how America might be hit, and wanted the country “buttoned up.” He seemed not to have glimpsed that this is impossible. He said things such as “searching everyone from clergymen to elderly ladies at airports could send a message to terrorists—no matter how you dress or how unlikely a suspect you may appear, no one is immune to scrutiny.” He did not ask whether that is worth doing, whether and how it might contribute to victory. Woodward did not write the book to raise such questions. Raising them is our purpose.

The War, and the Battle of Iraq

By making military action appear inevitable, President Bush’s State of the Union address and Secretary Powell’s U.N. presentation forced foreign and domestic audiences to consider whether they could afford to be on the losing side of a successful U.S. military operation. Neither address resolved the confusions endemic to the war.

With images from KH-11 satellites, tapes of conversations between Iraqi officers, and evidence of Iraqi purchases of banned materials, Powell argued that Iraq had not complied with U.N. resolutions regarding weapons of mass destruction. With photos of terrorists in Iraq, he also asserted “a potentially sinister nexus between Iraq and the al-Qaeda terrorist network.” The pictures’ significance was self evident—but only to those who understand satellite imagery. It was impossible to offer proof of the images’ dates. U.S. artists’ conceptions of Iraqi mobile biowar labs would have to be accepted on faith. The intercepted conversations certainly were consistent with a cover-up of forbidden programs. But by themselves they proved nothing. Nevertheless, the fact that the Secretary of State bet his country’s prestige on a sound and light presentation beamed around the globe was a more certain trumpet for the battle of Iraq than any the Bush team had yet sounded. Still, if the Americans really believed it themselves, why hadn’t they made their final decision?

The tentativeness of the connection that Powell made between Iraq and terrorism bespoke the Bush team’s long-standing, unresolved internal struggles about “the war.”

The War

The only connection President Bush made on January 28 between the battle for Iraq and “the war” was that “outlaw regimes” could “give or sell those weapons to their terrorist allies….” But what was the nature of the “alliance” between outlaw regimes and terrorists? Bush had never explained. For a quarter century, Congress had mandated that the State Department issue yearly reports on states that support terrorism. It was common knowledge in Washington that the reports’ depiction of each state’s terrorist connections fluctuated with U.S. policy. (In 1982, for example, the report gave Iraq a better grade, as part of the U.S. government’s nine-year, misguided attempt to turn Saddam into an ally). In 1993, however, the Clinton Administration made the reports irrelevant by embracing the CIA’s contention that terrorists were not the foot soldiers and cut-outs of regimes, but were “loose networks” of private individuals imperfectly pursued by regimes. The Defense Department, for its part, had touted evidence of Iraq’s provision of stolen identities (and of refuge) to the persons who carried out the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, the meeting between an Iraqi terrorist handler and Mohammed Atta, the hijack training camp at Iraq’s Salman Pak, and so on.

Since George Bush did not question the CIA, he shaped the war on terror according to its view. In the State of the Union, he continued to define “the war” as “against a scattered network of killers,” and described its operations as teaching them, “one by one…the meaning of American justice.” Bush’s fleeting reference to terrorists as “allies” of regimes, like Powell’s reference to a “potentially sinister nexus,” may have reflected no more than the tactical need to assert at least a tenuous link between the battle for Iraq and “the war.” The “nexus” between the battle and the war remained a topic for the president’s attention.
At any rate, Bush strengthened the CIA’s position by placing a new “Terrorist Threat Integration Center” under its direction. Designed “to make sure the right people are in the right places to protect our citizens,” it stood no chance of doing this.

The Battle

Would America overthrow the Iraqi regime? Bush certainly hinted broadly at “regime change.” He said that “outlaw regimes that seek and possess weapons of mass destruction” are “the gravest danger in the war on terror,” and that the day Saddam and his regime were removed would be the day of his people’s liberation. He pledged to bring “freedom” to the people of Iraq. But he stressed even more strongly that the danger to America consists of Iraq’s possession of certain arms. His only explicit commitment was, “If Saddam does not fully disarm…we will lead a coalition to disarm him.” The confusion continued.

Supposing U.S. forces were ordered into action, what would they actually do? Professional military sources are unanimous that they would use “shock and awe” tactics—the few troops on the ground would direct accurate fire from the air in order to cut off Iraqi units from their command structure and from one another, and allow U.S. units to pass. With Americans moving around them at will, the Iraqis would surrender even faster than they did during the Gulf War.

But from an operational, as opposed to a purely tactical point of view, the effectiveness of “shock and awe” is by no means clear. During the Gulf War, Iraqi troops surrendered en masse after they had been cut off in a concentrated deployment far from home, and pounded for weeks. Many had been killed. They were going to be overrun, and likely killed. They believed that the U.S. was going to overthrow the regime. In 2003, it is not self-evident that people will be put in fear of death by operations designed to produce fear rather than death. Most important, the fact that Bush does not explicitly aim to change the regime was sure to compound the deadly memory that the last Bush had actually turned surrendered prisoners back to Saddam.

What if Iraqi troops did not collapse? U.S. forces would not be prepared for, and Iraqi deployments do not lend themselves to, mass killing. Pursuing regime change with relatively small forces on the ground, and in the presence of undefeated Iraqi units, would court tactical disaster. In the presence of undefeated Iraqi units, search-and-destroy missions for weapons of mass destruction would guarantee tactical disasters. Too late it would become clear that operations designed for one purpose and pursued for another are less likely to accomplish either than to produce blunders pregnant with catastrophe. Choice is the essence of strategy.

The Bush team’s unmade choices could invite ploys to preempt or divert American military power. Saddam might proclaim that troops authorized by the U.N. could enter Iraq, search for, and take away whatever they pleased. Iraqi forces would not fire unless fired upon. The U.N, could then unanimously “authorize” a U.S. military incursion, but narrowly tailored to achieve some kind of “disarmament” while respecting Iraqi sovereignty. Part of the Bush team would be tempted to declare that it had achieved its objectives without bloodshed. Bush could agree with Powell that “disarmament” was the functional equivalent of “regime change.” The agony of defeat would follow fast.

It is also possible, however, that U.S. military’s advantages over Iraq could overwhelm confused planning. Iraqi troops might well collapse, leading to the shattering end typical of tyrannical regimes. The fate of Saddam could discourage the terror regimes of Palestine and Syria enough so that, under pressure from Israel and Turkey, they would cleanse themselves. Meanwhile, decent Iranians might be heartened to end the terrible regime that, since1979, had produced misery at home and anti-Americanism abroad. The Saudi royal family could be replaced by persons who actually did useful work and did not feel the need to subsidize the world’s terrorists. Following the changes in these regimes, terrorists would no longer hatch faster than we could catch them. After a while, even the Bush Administration might consider sending Tom Ridge back to fixing parking tickets.

Magic? Military success is the closest thing to it. If the battle of Iraq turns out so, America will rightly thank the Bush team, confusion and all. If not, we will have to forgive them, for they know not what they do.