The events of 11 September 2001 killed thousands, left many thousands more bereft, and horrified countless millions who merely bore witness. But for a few, 9/11 suggested an opportunity. In the inner circles of the United States government men of ambition seized on that opportunity with alacrity. Far from fearing a ‘global war on terror’, they welcomed it, certain of their ability to bend war to their purposes. Although the ensuing conflict has not by any means run its course, we are now in a position to begin evaluating the results of their handiwork.
To that effort, this very fine book makes an important contribution. A decade ago, Michael Gordon, a reporter with the New York Times, and Bernard Trainor, a retired US Marine Corps lieutenant general, collaborated on The Generals’ War, still perhaps the best narrative history of the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91. Cobra II, a worthy successor, is packaged as an account of the planning and conduct of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It should be read as a study of the politics of war. Although Gordon and Trainor describe in stirring detail the celebrated ‘march on Baghdad’, their real contribution has been to identify the confluence of factors that inspired the march, shaped it, and produced consequences very different from those expected.
One point above all stands out: the rationale for the war had next to nothing to do with the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. Weapons of mass destruction offered little more than a convenient pretext for a war conjured up to serve a multiplicity of ends. Neither the Baath Party regime nor the Iraqi army, crippled by defeat and well over a decade of sanctions, threatened anyone other than the Iraqi people. The hawks in the Bush administration understood this quite well. They hankered to invade Iraq not because Saddam was strong and dangerous but because he was weak and vulnerable, not because he was implicated in 9/11 but because he looked like an easy mark.
For the war’s architects, ‘Iraq was not a danger to avoid but a strategic opportunity,’ less a destination than a point of departure. In their eyes, 2003 was not 1945, but 1939: not a climax but the opening gambit of a vast enterprise largely hidden from public view. Allusions to Saddam as a new Hitler notwithstanding, they did not see Baghdad as Berlin but as Warsaw – a preliminary objective. For the war’s most determined proponents – Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz – toppling Saddam was the first phase of what was expected to be a long campaign. In Iraq they intended to set precedents, thereby facilitating other actions to follow. Although Bush portrayed himself as a reluctant warrior for whom armed conflict was a last resort, key members of his administration were determined that nothing should get in the way of a showdown with Saddam. ‘In crafting a strategy for Iraq,’ the undersecretary of defense Douglas Feith insisted to one baffled US general, ‘we cannot accept surrender.’ The object of the exercise was to demolish constraints on the subsequent employment of American power. Merely promulgating a doctrine of preventive war would not be enough: it was imperative actually to implement that doctrine.
The principal players in this game had their eyes fixed on two very different fronts. First, the Persian Gulf. As the Bush administration hawks saw it, the weak and feckless Clinton administration had allowed the once dominant US position in the region to slip in the course of the previous decade. Taking down Saddam promised to restore US pre-eminence, yielding large economic and political benefits. In the short term, a demonstration of American assertiveness would ease concerns about access to the energy reserves on which the prosperity of the developed world depended. A ‘friendly’ Iraq would reduce the need to cater to Saudi Arabia, whose friendship was looking increasingly problematic given that 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers had been Saudis. In the longer term, Iraq could serve as a secure operating base or jumping-off point for subsequent US efforts to extend the Pax Americana across the broader Middle East, a project expected to last decades. American power would eliminate the conditions that bred and sustained violent Islamic radicalism. That was the ultimate strategic rationale for war.
By planting the Stars and Stripes in downtown Baghdad, Gordon and Trainor write, the advocates of war intended not only to ‘implant democracy in a nation that had never known it’ but to ‘begin to redraw the political map of the region’. As ‘a demonstration of American power for Syria and other wayward regimes’, Operation Iraqi Freedom would show the consequences of defying the world’s only superpower. Even beyond the Middle East, Saddam’s demise was likely to have salutary effects, letting ‘other adversaries know they should watch their step’.
None of this could be done, however, until certain domestic obstacles had been removed. This was the second front, in many respects more challenging than the first. As Bush’s more bellicose lieutenants saw it, the principal constraints on the use of American power lay within the US government itself. In a speech to Defense Department employees only a day before 9/11, Rumsfeld had warned of ‘an adversary that poses a threat, a serious threat, to the security of the United States of America’. Who was this adversary? Some evil tyrant or murderous terrorist? No, Rumsfeld announced: ‘The adversary’s closer to home. It’s the Pentagon bureaucracy.’ But the internal threat was not confined to this single bureaucracy. It included Congress and the Supreme Court, each of which could circumscribe presidential freedom of action. It extended to the CIA and the State Department, which the hawks viewed as obstructive and hidebound. It even took in the senior leadership of the US military, especially the unimaginative and excessively risk-averse Joint Chiefs of Staff. All these were capable of impeding the greater assertiveness that Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz had yearned for well before the events of 9/11. Everyone had to be neutralised. In other words, unleashing American might abroad implied a radical reconfiguration of power relationships at home. On this score, 9/11 came as a godsend. The hawks, citing the urgent imperatives of national security, set out to concentrate authority in their own hands. September 11 inaugurated what became in essence a rolling coup.
Nominally, the object of the exercise was to empower the commander-in-chief to wage his global war on terror. Yet with George W. Bush a president in the mould of William McKinley or Warren Harding – an affable man of modest talent whose rise in national politics could be attributed primarily to his perceived electability – Cheney and his collaborators were engaged in an effort to enhance their own clout. Bush might serve as the front man; but on matters of substance, theirs would be the decisive voices. Gordon and Trainor describe the operative model this way: ‘The president would preside, the vice-president would guide, and the defense secretary would implement’ – with Wolfowitz and a handful of others lending the enterprise some semblance of intellectual coherence.
Step one – bringing Congress to heel – proved remarkably easy. Immediately after 9/11, the Senate and House of Representatives issued the executive branch the equivalent of a blank cheque. A joint resolution passed on 14 September not only authorised the president ‘to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organisations or persons’ that had perpetrated 9/11, but also called on him ‘to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States’. The notorious Tonkin Gulf Resolution of 1964 was a straitjacket compared to this spacious grant of authority. Even when the subsequent war on terror produced massive intelligence failures, operational ineptitude, the abuse of detainees and warrantless wiretaps, the White House had little difficulty keeping the legislative branch at bay. As long as Congress stays firmly in Republican hands, executive accountability will remain a theoretical proposition.
As if to drive home its ascendancy, the White House now claimed the prerogative of disregarding any congressional action that it did not like. On at least 750 occasions during his first five years in office, Bush issued so-called signing statements voiding legislative provisions with which he disagreed. When Congress last year roused itself long enough to ban torture as an instrument of US policy, Bush asserted that as commander-in-chief he would abide by this stricture only so far as it suited him to do so. As a result of all this, the aftermath of 9/11 saw the system of checks and balances all but collapse. Individual legislators still quibble and gripe, but as an institution, Congress at present hardly amounts to more than a nuisance. Its chief function is simply to appropriate the ever more spectacular sums of money that the war on terror requires and to rubber stamp increases in the national debt. This, of course, it routinely and obligingly does.
Nor, thus far at least, have the courts interfered with this presidential muscle-flexing. The Supreme Court historically has shown little inclination to encroach on presidential turf in time of war. Any prospect of the court confronting this president was seemingly nipped in the bud by the fortuitous retirement of one justice followed by the death of another. In appointing John Roberts and Samuel Alito, Bush elevated to the court two jurists with track records of giving the executive branch a wide berth on matters relating to national security. (Once on the court, justices don’t always perform as expected; whether the Roberts court will actually defer to the chief executive on national security issues remains to be seen.)
Within the executive branch itself, however, efforts by Cheney and Rumsfeld to consolidate authority in their own hands have encountered fierce resistance. Here Cobra II confirms much of what we already know. During the months leading up to the Iraq war, Rumsfeld and his aides waged a bureaucratic battle royal to marginalise the State Department and to wrest control of intelligence analysis away from the CIA. Colin Powell was one casualty of that bruising fight. George Tenet, eased out as CIA director, was another. Whether that battle has ended is another matter. With Rumsfeld himself lately under siege and Condoleezza Rice enjoying Bush’s confidence as Powell never did, and with efforts to silence the CIA having yielded a criminal indictment of the vice-president’s former chief of staff, a declaration of victory on behalf of the Cheney-Rumsfeld axis might be premature. The overall conclusion, however, is as clear as it is disturbing. To the extent that any meaningful limits on executive power survive, they are almost entirely bureaucratic. This administration has eviscerated the constitution.
Within the Department of Defense, the hawks were intent on calling the shots. Determined to have a decisive voice in deciding when and where the United States would fight, they also wanted to dictate how it would fight. The team Rumsfeld recruited to assist him in managing the Pentagon contained an unusual number of military zealots, men who believed in the utility of force and viewed the prospect of war with considerable enthusiasm.
In addition to Wolfowitz and Feith, the group included Stephen Cambone, Lawrence Di Rita, William Luti and, on a part-time basis, Richard Perle, who chaired the Defense Policy Board. Several of them had had a hand in rebuilding the armed forces, kicking the Vietnam syndrome, and winning the Cold War in the 1980s in the service of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. They had, in their own minds, raised American influence and prestige to heights not seen since the end of World War Two. Yet they had left office in 1993 with the nagging sense that their mission was unfinished. Although the hegemony of the world’s sole superpower was real enough, it wasn’t absolute and unquestioned.
Then came the era of Bill Clinton: eight years of drift and stagnation camouflaged by the vaporous talk in which the ‘Man from Hope’ specialised. With his notion of foreign policy as a variant of social work, Clinton had repeatedly misused America’s armed forces. Kowtowing to his own generals, he had failed to push through the reforms essential for perpetuating US military dominance. Beguiled by his own rhetoric about globalisation, he had ignored threats brewing in East Asia and the Middle East. In the Clinton years, American power had atrophied even as new dangers proliferated. For the zealots, these were wilderness years. Apart from publishing an occasional op-ed or signing the odd manifesto, they were stuck on the sidelines, watching with dismay. The Bush restoration of November-December 2000 offered the chance to reverse this slide towards decline and disarray. Although they had made little headway in promoting their agenda during the administration’s first months, the propitious onset of the global war on terror promised to change all that. For those intent on establishing beyond doubt and beyond challenge the supremacy of American arms, an expansive, amorphous, open-ended war seemed made to order.
When it came to cementing US military dominion, however, Rumsfeld and his closest associates viewed the Pentagon brass less as part of the solution than as part of the problem. Concerned that the JCS and its staff had emerged ‘as a rival source of power’ during the Clinton years, Rumsfeld intended to put the generals in their place. But this was easier said than done. Before 9/11, the generals pushed back: inside ‘the Building’, Rumsfeld’s ideas and his imperious manner touched off a round of nasty civil-military conflict. Questions of personality aside, disagreement centred on what national security aficionados call ‘transformation’, Rumsfeld’s vision of a redesigned armed force: lighter, more agile and more usable than before. As he and his disciples saw it, senior military officers (army officers especially) were still enamoured of the Powell Doctrine of overwhelming force – lots of tanks, lots of artillery, and lots of ‘boots on the ground’. Rumsfeld’s vision of a new American way of war instead placed the emphasis on quality – precise intelligence, precise weapons, and smaller numbers of troops, primarily elite special operations forces.
Implicit in the Powell Doctrine was the assumption that the wars of the future would be large, uncertain, expensive and therefore infrequent. Implicit in Rumsfeld’s thinking was the expectation that future American wars would be brief and economical, all but eliminating the political risk of opting for force. Rumsfeld believed that technology was rendering obsolete old worries about fog, friction and chance. Why bother studying Clausewitz when Shock and Awe could make a clean sweep of things? For Rumsfeld and his coterie, this was the appeal of having a go at Iraq: a swift victory over Saddam would validate Rumsfeld’s ‘vision’ and discredit those who were obstructing his reforms. According to Cobra II, he was certain that a ‘rapid defeat of Iraq on his terms would break the spine of army resistance to his transformation goal once and for all.’
Gordon and Trainor describe in detail the process that eventually produced a campaign plan which met with Rumsfeld’s approval. The Joint Chiefs of Staff essentially played no role in this. Rumsfeld had little use for their advice. The compliant JCS chairman, General Richard Myers, so much under Rumsfeld’s thumb that he was ‘incapable of expressing an independent view’, remained an onlooker. When Eric Shinseki, the army chief of staff, dared to suggest that occupying Iraq might require several hundred thousand troops, Wolfowitz retaliated with a public rebuke and Rumsfeld instantly pushed the general into oblivion.
Rumsfeld’s chosen military interlocutor was General Tommy Franks, the commander of United States Central Command. In a bestselling memoir published after his retirement, Franks portrays himself as a ‘good old boy’ from west Texas who also happens to be a military genius. In Cobra II, he comes across as Rumsfeld’s useful idiot: a coarse, not especially bright, kiss-up, kick-down martinet who mistreats his subordinates but keeps his boss happy. Franks knew that he wasn’t in charge, but he pretended otherwise. Appreciating the ‘political value in being able to stand at the Pentagon podium and say that the Bush administration was implementing the military’s plan’, Rumsfeld was happy to play along.
The invasion plan that Rumsfeld bludgeoned Franks into drafting foresaw a relatively small force rushing towards Baghdad at breakneck speed, swiftly toppling the Baath regime, and just as quickly extricating itself. ‘The Iraq War would be like a thunderstorm: a short, violent episode that swept away the enemy but would not entail a burdensome, long-term troop commitment.’ Underlying these expectations were three key assumptions: that the regular Iraqi army wouldn’t fight; that the Iraqi people would greet US and British troops as liberators; and that major Iraqi institutions would survive the war intact, facilitating the rapid withdrawal of all but a small contingent of occupying forces.
In the event, these assumptions proved fallacious, even with Saddam Hussein doing his best to help out: convinced that the US would never actually try to take Baghdad, Saddam concentrated on threats from Iran and from within Iraq itself; as a consequence, the Iraqi general staff had no plan worthy of the name to defend against an Anglo-American attack. When that attack began, the anticipated mass defection of Iraqi forces did not occur. The Iraqi army did fight, though poorly – and some US troops found even this level of opposition disconcerting. ‘Why would the Iraqis shoot at us?’ one army captain wondered to himself. ‘We are the good guys.’ Iraqi irregulars – the Fedayeen – offered a spirited resistance that caught allied commanders by surprise. Meanwhile, the welcome given to allied forces as they traversed southern Iraq proved to be spotty and less than wholehearted. Worse still, when Baghdad fell, Iraq’s political infrastructure collapsed, and mass disorder followed.
These developments (especially the appearance of irregular forces), dismissed by the Pentagon and Central Command as mere blemishes on an otherwise perfect campaign, were a portent of things to come. Neither Franks nor Rumsfeld responded to these warnings. Gordon and Trainor rightly indict Franks for failing the most fundamental responsibility of high command: the general did not ‘comprehend the nature of the war he was directing’. But the charge applies equally to Rumsfeld and his team of zealots. An obdurately conventional soldier, Franks lacked the wit to grasp that the conflict in which he was engaged was anything but conventional. Entranced with his vision of warfare rendered precise by precision weapons, Rumsfeld had little patience with facts that did not fit with his preconceptions.
Although US forces made it to Baghdad, and Bush soon thereafter declared an end to ‘major combat operations’, it was all downhill from there. An incident in Fallujah – troops from the 82nd Airborne Division fired into a crowd of angry demonstrators – kick-started the insurgency. That was on 24 April 2003. Heavy-handed US tactics added fuel to the fire. ‘The only thing these sand niggers understand is force and I’m about to introduce them to it,’ a senior officer in the 4th Infantry Division is quoted as saying. Bush’s chosen proconsul, Paul Bremer, compounded the problem by dissolving the remnants of the Iraqi army, thereby providing the insurgents with a pool of potential recruits. As Franks made his escape, command in Iraq devolved on Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, an officer of indifferent ability, poorly prepared for the challenges he faced, and unable to forge an amicable relationship with Bremer.
Cobra II provides only the briefest sketch of all the ugly events that followed. The volume concludes with a summary of the administration’s myriad errors: underestimating the enemy, failing to understand the fractious nature of Iraqi society, relying excessively on technology, and failing to anticipate the magnitude of the nation-building task that could not be avoided. But one failure stands out. Rumsfeld’s grand plan to transform the US military was at odds with the administration’s grand plans to transform the broader Middle East. Imperial projects don’t prosper with small armies that leave quickly: they require large armies that stay. Out of this arrogance, incompetence and sheer stupidity came a policy failure that may yet beggar the debacle of Vietnam.