What went wrong in Iraq?

So what went wrong with the US plans for establishing a client state in Iraq? When historians look back on Iraq, they may well point to two key decisions: the first was to not go through the tried and true method of instigating a coup by military officers friendly to the US, and then after making the decision to mount an invasion, making the fateful decision in the immediate aftermath to disband the Iraqi army and the Baathist administrative structure that was running the country.

With the army and the Baathist structures still in place, it might have been possible to maintain order and stability in those crucial first few weeks after the invasion, to provide the Iraqi people with the day-to-day security they enjoyed under Saddam Hussein but without the political repression. Then once an orderly transition was achieved, it may have been possible to hand over power to a client Iraqi government that would allow the US considerable influence, but without the Iraqi people feeling that they were being directly dominated by a foreign power.

But once the Iraqi military and administrative structure was summarily dismantled, like Humpty Dumpty it could not be put together again. With the levels of anarchy and civil war rising as a result of this power vacuum, this leaves the US in the current mess where it can neither stay nor leave without appearing to lose.

So who was responsible for that disastrous decision to disband the army and the Baathist structure? The actual order was given by Coalition Provisional Authority leader L. Paul Bremer but it seems like this was too big a decision to have been made on the fly by someone at his level. One has to suspect that it was signed off at the highest levels of government, at least by Rumsfeld and Bush, and going all the way up to Cheney.

But it has long been established that no one in this administration admits to any mistakes. We have never been told what they might have done differently knowing what they know now. With an almost religious certainty they insist that they made the right calls all the way down the line.

But this is belied by the fact that the rosy predictions of success in Iraq have proven to be tragically wrong. Consider these predictions, all made in 2003 prior to the war’s commencement:

* Feb. 7, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, to U.S. troops in Aviano, Italy: “It is unknowable how long that conflict will last. It could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months.”

* March 4, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a breakfast with reporters: “What you’d like to do is have it be a short, short conflict. . . . Iraq is much weaker than they were back in the ’90s,” when its forces were routed from Kuwait.

* March 11, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars: “The Iraqi people understand what this crisis is about. Like the people of France in the 1940s, they view us as their hoped-for liberator.”

* March 16, Vice President Cheney, on NBC’s Meet the Press: “I think things have gotten so bad inside Iraq, from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators. . . . I think it will go relatively quickly, . . . (in) weeks rather than months.”

Now that things have started to go terribly wrong, those who enthusiastically supported the war and still think it was a great idea initially placed the blame on the media or the feckless allies of ‘Old Europe” like France and Germany for not bailing the US out its mess (the latter being a curious charge since those countries predicted that invading Iraq would be a mess) but those attempts did not gain any traction.

Now they have split into two camps as far as assigning blame goes. There are those who say that the administration has bungled the conduct of the post-invasion occupation and now blame Rumsfeld and even Bush. (See here and here.) But others cannot bring themselves to turn on their idols, so their fingers are being pointed at either the Iraqi or American people.

The Iraqis are being blamed for being ungrateful wretches who are actually going to the extent of attacking the very troops who overthrew Saddam Hussein. Some of the people who blame the Iraqis are even calling on the US to teach especially the ungrateful Sunnis a lesson by throwing all its support to those Shia forces that are engaged in killing Sunnis. Of course, this kind of shallow thinking overlooks the fact that many of the Shia (such as the followers of Muqtada al Sadr) are also hostile to the US presence and have carried out attacks on the US. Also the Shia tend to be friendly towards Iran so backing the Shia forces actually strengthens Iran in the region, which is hardly consistent with the grand goal of overthrowing Saddam Hussein as the first step in a sweep through the Middle East that had Iran as the next target.

Those advocates who suggest that since the Iraqis are so ungrateful the US should simply encourage them to kill each other also ignore the enormous debt that the US owes the Iraqi people. The US helped Saddam Hussein come to power and actively supported him during the time of his internal repressions and in his tragic war against Iran. The US instigated and controlled the sanctions against Iraq from 1991 that reduced Iraq from a prosperous and advanced society to an impoverished one by the time of the invasion in 2003, resulting in the deaths of an enormous number of Iraqis due to the lack of food and medicine and other basic services. And the US has now, by its invasion in 2003, created conditions of anarchy and lawlessness and an additional huge number of deaths, as was seen by the Lancet study.

Those who are snarling at the Iraqis and calling for them to be punished for their ingratitude remind me of the psychology of people who take out their rage on their helpless pets or on infants who don’t stop crying. There is something about seeing oneself as being very powerful and yet not being able to get others to do what you want them to do that drive some people into an impotent rage and lash out destructively.

The other tack that is being taken is to blame the American people. This has happened before, during Vietnam. When wars don’t go well, it is tempting for those in power to say that it is because the people did not support it enough. The war was a great idea, the political and military leadership was perfect, but the people somehow let them down.

Stephen Colbert quotes and then hilariously satirizes those who takes this route, saying: “American people, you are losing this war. . .American people, you should be ashamed! The President went off and bit off a big piece of the Middle East, and like an eagle, brought it back to the nest, and he’s regurgitating it into your mouths. Why won’t you swallow? When history looks back at the actions of this president and the decisions he made regarding this war, you will go down as the most incompetent American public of all time.”

Blaming the American public for defeat in Iraq by citing their lack of support does not really make sense since the loss in public support for wars (In Iraq as in Vietnam) usually occurs after the military campaign has gone sour. But what this argument seems to be hinting at is that even though the war is currently going really badly, so badly that the American public is fed up with it, there is something new that could be done that would dramatically change the tide of events, but cannot be put into practice because the public will not support this new push. The problem is that this brilliant new idea, often dramatically described as “one last shot” or “turning point” is never quite specified or is so outlandish (“Triple the number of troops in Iraq” or “Drop a nuclear bomb on Iraq/Iran so they know we mean business” or “Round up all the militants and throw them in prison or kill them”) that it falls outside the realm of reality. Pushing for ideas that are not likely to be accepted enables its advocates to position themselves to avoid blame since they can then say that if only their idea had been followed, the war could have been won. Keeping alive the vague idea that other options exist enable the warmongers to delude themselves that theirs were the right decisions, but were foiled by poor execution or lack of will.

The brutal reality is that there are no good options left in Iraq that would constitute a ‘victory’ in the sense that the Bush administration envisions. And this brings us to the current options that are being floated to ‘turn things around’ in Iraq.

Next: The battle for rhetorical supremacy

POST SCRIPT: Iraq petition

Here is an online petition that you can sign that calls for an immediate withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.


  1. Erin says

    Pushing for ideas that are not likely to be accepted enables its advocates to position themselves to avoid blame since they can then say that if only their idea had been followed, the war could have been won.

    I’ve heard speculation that the report issued by the Iraq Study Group was aiming at a similar thing: suggest stuff that you know won’t fly in toto, assert that the suggestions will only work if each of them is followed to the fullest, and then wash your hands of it when the project collapses.

  2. says

    There are good points in your article. I would like to supplement them with some information:

    I am a 2 tour Vietnam Veteran who recently retired after 36 years of working in the Defense Industrial Complex on many of the weapons systems being used by our forces as we speak.

    If you are interested in a view of the inside of the Pentagon procurement process from Vietnam to Iraq please check the posting at my blog entitled, “Odyssey of Armaments”


    The Pentagon is a giant, incredibly complex establishment, budgeted in excess of $500B per year. The Rumsfelds, the Administrations and the Congressmen come and go but the real machinery of policy and procurement keeps grinding away, presenting the politicos who arrive with detail and alternatives slanted to perpetuate itself.

    How can any newcomer, be he a President, a Congressman or even the new Sec. Def.Mr. Gates, understand such complexity, particularly if heretofore he has not had the clearance to get the full details?

    Answer- he can’t. Therefore he accepts the alternatives provided by the career establishment that never goes away and he hopes he makes the right choices. Or he is influenced by a lobbyist or two representing companies in his district or special interest groups.

    From a practical standpoint, policy and war decisions are made far below the levels of the talking heads who take the heat or the credit for the results.

    This situation is unfortunate but it is absolute fact. Take it from one who has been to war and worked in the establishment.

    This giant policy making and war machine will eventually come apart and have to be put back together to operate smaller, leaner and on less fuel. But that won’t happen until it hits a brick wall at high speed.

    We will then have to run a Volkswagen instead of a Caddy and get along somehow. We better start practicing now and get off our high horse. Our golden aura in the world is beginning to dull from arrogance.

  3. says


    What you suggest is possible but I am not sure I agree. The ISG recommendations seemed to me to be more like an attempt to rpovide a face-saving way of scaling down the US involvement, rather than a real solution.

  4. says


    Thanks for the insights from someone who is an insider. It is easy for others to forget what a massive bureaucracy the military establishment is and how dependent the civilian leadership is on what they are told.

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