ROBERT COSTA: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Robert Costa.
Joining us tonight for our Washington Week bookshelf is Robert Draper, writer at large for The New York Times Magazine, a contributing writer for National Geographic, and author of To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq. Robert, thanks for being here.
ROBERT DRAPER: Thanks for having me. Appreciate it, Bob.
MR. COSTA: But before we dig into your book, let’s take a little walk through some of the circumstances that led the U.S. to invade Iraq. Your book captures this environment of fear after 9/11, and it reveals how the decision-making process was dominated by hawks and it was a process that still to this day has long-lasting political ramifications. President Trump’s noninterventionist foreign policy now stands as a stark contrast to President Bush’s push to go into Iraq. Here’s what Bush said at the time.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: (From video.) With these capabilities, Saddam Hussein and his terrorist allies could choose the moment of deadly conflict when they are strongest. We choose to meet that threat now, where it arises, before it can appear suddenly in our skies and cities.
MR. COSTA: Years later, President Trump campaigned as a critic of that war and U.S. intervention. Here’s what he said while running in 2016.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) The war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake. George Bush made a mistake. We can make mistakes, but that one was a beauty. We should have never been in Iraq. They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction, there were none, and they knew there were none.
MR. COSTA: Robert, you decided as a reporter, as an author to wade back into these waters, and you capture all these different personalities who were competing with each other at the time. Let’s start with one of them who really stood out when I read the book: George Tenet, the former CIA director. Why did he matter, especially as you looked back at all the material and had interviews with your sources?
MR. DRAPER: Sure, I mean, it’s worth remembering, Bob, that Tenet was a Clinton holdover, and so he was viewed by a lot of people particularly in Langley headquarters as somewhat vulnerable, particularly after 9/11, for which the Bush administration was ill-prepared, and there was concern that there would be a sacrificial lamb and it would likely be Tenet. Tenet had a very, very good relationship with the president, and I think that his intentions were honorable in trying to protect his own institution from the political – the attempt to politicize the intelligence, basically, and particularly this notion – and you heard the president more or less allude to it then when he talked about Saddam and his allies wanting to attack us. It was always unclear just, allies, what was he referring to? In the president’s mind, Saddam was evil, al-Qaida was evil, therefore evil people would confederate against us, but there was not a shred of intelligence to suggest that that scenario would really take place. Tenet managed to fight back on that, but when it became clear that war was inevitable and they would mount their case on the basis of Saddam’s supposed weapons program then Tenet, I think, helped prepare that case. And I think that in so doing, even with the best of intentions, he crossed a line. The CIA became part of the sales apparatus, the marketing apparatus, rather than the impartial arbiters of the facts.
MR. COSTA: You’ve spent a lot of time in your career reporting on George W. Bush. You’ve written a book previously, Dead Certain, based on your own interviews with President Bush. When you came back to evaluate the Iraq decision, what is something new you learned about W?
MR. DRAPER: Well, I think the main thing that I learned – I mean, I – you’re right, Bob, that I’ve spent a great deal of time with him when I was doing my previous Bush book, Dead Certain, which was published in 2007, and I’d spent a lot of time for that matter when we were both living in Texas as he was governor and I was a staff writer at Texas Monthly. What was not clear to me even with all that time I spent with him for the – for the biography of his presidency was it was not clear to me, like, how much the intelligence really mattered. And I think I’ve sort of alluded to – (laughs) – how, unfortunately, it didn’t matter as much as it would have liked to because, as it’s often said, 9/11 was a failure of the imagination. I think it can also be said that Iraq was a failure of too much imagination. And for the president of the United States to say, as he did in that clip that you showed, that essentially Saddam would like nothing better than to – than to team up with other people who hate us and hate our freedoms and hand over his weapons to them and allow the destruction of America without leaving any thumbprint, this was something he said repeatedly and it – and it just wasn’t supported by any of the facts. It was something, instead, that he believed. And by the way, obviously, this connects to where we are today, and I think that for – you showed the clip of Trump saying and distinguishing himself in the Republican primary by saying, look, you know, you guys, you know, may have all this supposed experience and expertise, but you were so gullible you bought into this stupid war, and I was smart enough to oppose it from the start – so he claims – and I alone can fix these things by keeping us out of endless wars. But the commonality between Bush and Trump is that there really was a departure from the facts. There was not an honest search for the truth in the leadup to war, and of course now we have a president today who simply embraces what his counselor memorably termed “alternative facts.”
MR. COSTA: And beyond your book, you’ve written for Foreign Policy about Vice President Biden and his own vote on Iraq. And from President Trump to Vice President Biden, this period, this decision on Iraq, whether it was President Bush or those in Congress, continues to haunt American politics. How do you see that?
MR. DRAPER: Yeah, I mean, I want to make clear I don’t think there are 30 voters who are going to vote against Joe Biden because he joined in the majority to give President Bush the authorization to use military force. But I do think it’s the case that then-Senator Biden, like then-Senator Hillary Clinton and a lot of other people on the Hill, particularly Republicans but also Democrats, felt kind of captive to a groupthink – by the way, I don’t exclude the media from that as well – that they tended after 9/11 to listen only to each other rather than to skeptics, rather than to outside voices. It seems that Vice President Biden has learned from his mistake. He has – although I will say that no one, including Vice President Biden, has done much in a way of a full-on, self-inspected elaboration of just why they got things so wrong, why they voted the way they did, and what lessons they’ve internalized from this debacle.
MR. COSTA: When you stepped back – maybe it was on background, maybe it was on the record – and talked to people for your book, did you find a lot of regret in the Bush circle?
MR. DRAPER: No, no, I mean, they – certainly regret for the way things turned out, a lot of recognition that it was a big mess, that things could have and should have been done a lot better. But no, I, frankly, did not find much in the way of, you know, certainly a mea culpa, not that I expect all of them to be baring their souls to a journalist but there really was nothing like that. And for that matter, Bob, there has not been any major member of the Bush administration who has said we were wrong, we should not have done it. Condoleezza Rice did not say that. Colin Powell has come the closest, but even so he has not been terribly fulsome about it. And we certainly haven’t heard anything like that from President Bush, who has in private speeches largely just said time will tell.
MR. COSTA: When you step back and reflect, whether it’s Vietnam with the best and the brightest or to start a war in the Bush era, Robert Draper’s book, why do you think people in power get pulled into these kind of situations when it comes to war?
MR. DRAPER: Yeah, well, I think for one thing they tend to forget that war is not easy; war is messy. And they tend, unfortunately – this certainly was the case in the runup to war – to think of the direst things about Saddam Hussein and the most optimistic, the brightest things about what would happen if they actually invaded. They had the rosiest notion that we would be greeted as liberators, that Iraqis would joyously coalesce around the prospects of a new democracy, that this would in turn lead to a flowering of democracy throughout the Middle East, and that it would require very little in the way of a stabilizing force on our part. None of those turned out to be true, and I think it’s that they tend to see – policymakers do – things through the eyes of the American experience rather than experience of people in the Middle East. And the notion that President Bush had, that people so yearn for freedom that they would put aside all of their sectarian differences – that Saddam, in fact, was responsible for those sectarian differences, and you remove him then everybody, you know, is one big happy family – just simply had no foundation in fact.
MR. COSTA: And let’s stick with that point for a second because there’s a scene in your book where Bush – President Bush wonders, why aren’t they cheering when they go in, speaking of the Iraqis.
MR. DRAPER: Yeah, that’s a painful thing that’s at the end of the penultimate chapter in my book. And what happens is this a few weeks into the invasion, Bob, and after some difficulties then finally British troops are liberating Basra. Bush is watching this in the anteroom to the Oval Office on television with his Secretary of State Colin Powell. And for the first time, he is now seeing stone-cold reality.
And what he is seeing is not people – you know, Iraqis throwing candies and flowers at the feet of American troops – or, British troops. Instead, they’re eyeing them with suspicion. They are looting. They are looking very wary. They have this look of: Why are they here and what’s coming next? And the president turned to Powell with genuine bafflement on his face and said, why aren’t they cheering? It was his recognition that the notion that he’d had in his head all along of what would play out was frankly a fantastical notion, and now there were some hard truths to be discovered.
MR. COSTA: What about Vice President Cheney? He’s receded in public life in recent years. But he comes across once again in this book as such a power, such a force inside that White House. What’s his legacy, as you look back?
MR. DRAPER: Well, certainly as someone who was an unapologetic defender of the Iraq War. And in a way, and up to a point, Cheney, I think, was always fairly intellectually honest about his aims. He had been secretary of defense under the first Bush presidency. That was during the Gulf War. He signed onto his president’s view that the coalition’s mission then was to rout Saddam’s troops out of Kuwait, not to go in and overthrow Saddam. As Saddam continued to survive, Cheney regretted that. But when he became vice president to the second Bush, he recognized that George W. Bush wanted a domestic term, didn’t want to spend his time hugging war widows. And he – you know, he didn’t push for an invasion of Iraq until after 9/11.
I think where I find fault with Cheney was that by the summer of 2002 Cheney was stating as if it were fact – he would say: Simply stated, there can be no doubt that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction, when there could be lots of doubt, there was lots of doubt, and there was a big question in the intelligence community as to whether Saddam had any weapons at all. Maybe he had a weapons program, but there was no physical evidence of WMD. And Cheney was simply saying it as if everybody knew it.
MR. COSTA: A figure who also comes across as a powerful character in this book is former Secretary of State Colin Powell. And when you read your book, you just keep wondering: Did Powell speak up in the way he really wanted to? What does – what does he think about his own role, looking back?
MR. DRAPER: Yeah. I think he’s defensive about it, Bob. And I also have some sympathy towards Powell. After all, he is the only major member of the administration who was willing to speak uncomfortable truths to President Bush about what could happen when he invaded Iraq. And the picture that he painted was not a pretty one. So he gets points for that. And I think therefore that some people are saying, particularly after reading excerpts of my book, that, you know, Powell deserves a lot of blame because he could have stopped the war.
Well, maybe he could have. If when President Bush said to him in January 2003, hey, Colin, I think I’m going to do this, I think I need to do this. Are you with me? I want you with me. The secretary of state could well have said, no. I’m not with you, sir. I think it’s a big mistake. And I’m going to resign. And my staff is resigning. Which probably means the foreign minister of the U.K. will resign. And we’ll create this cascade. But Powell was not the resigning type. And let’s be real, four-star generals usually don’t get to being where they are by being dissidents.
MR. COSTA: And, Robert, there’s a little bit of news this week, sad news. Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser, he died on Thursday in Virginia, a longtime aide to many presidents at the highest levels of national security. He famously spoke out in opposition to invading Iraq. So there were Republicans who did say: This isn’t the right move.
MR. DRAPER: That’s right, and Scowcroft did that in a Wall Street Journal op-ed entitled “Don’t Invade Iraq.” His protege was Condi Rice. She was sort of blindsided by that – or, she was blindsided by it. The entire Bush administration was. And they were infuriated at Scowcroft. But the point was, that Scowcroft, who had really been this legendary figure in Republican politics – and really foreign policy writ large, you know, throughout the foreign policy establishment – had been trying to get through to the Bush administration: I am hearing rumbles that a march for war is unstoppable. And this is not a good idea.
No one in the Bush administration wanted to give Scowcroft the time of day, so he went outside the administration and did so. And Condi Rice called him and gave him a piece of her mind, but Scowcroft didn’t back down. I mean, and it did, for a moment in time, cause a lot of the chatter in the Washington establishment to be – you know, that actually this war does not necessarily have to be inevitable.
MR. COSTA: As you look ahead to 2020 and beyond, is the Republican Party moving more in that Scowcroft, realist direction, Trump non-interventionism? Or does it have this hawkish wing that still is latent within the party and could rear its head once again?
MR. DRAPER: That’s a terrific question, Bob. And I don’t think we know the answer. For one thing, I would – I would refine what you said about – your description of Trump’s foreign policy. I think it’s isolationism. And I don’t think that the binary should be either, you know, full-on Middle East adventurism and isolationism. But what you are asking goes to the heart of a big question of, like, what are the lessons of Iraq? You know, what should we be doing when there is a humanitarian crisis, as there was in Rwanda?
During the Arab Spring, Barack Obama joined on with NATO troops with airstrikes over Libya. And certainly a lot of people have said that was a mistake, but why was that a mistake? Was it only a mistake just because it was Barack Obama doing it? Was there some other kind of alternative? There are a lot of questions that are begged by the Iraq saga. And I do not think that there has been a fulsome exchange among really either party about just what our foreign policy should be, and when we do believe that military intervention is necessary.
MR. COSTA: What about for the Democrats? Do they feel in the Biden side of the party that their hand got burned a little bit on the Iraq stove, and they’re moving in that non-interventionism or isolationist direction as well?
MR. DRAPER: Yeah, for sure. I do think that they are. But I do also think that, you know, a humanitarian crisis, of the sort that occurred in Rwanda and might occur, say, in Syria or some other country, could trigger some desires among certain sort of neoliberal types to invade. I mean, it’s – again, I think the Democrats’ bent is just basically avoid war, where the Republicans has been, avoid the whole conversation of Iraq.
MR. COSTA: Robert, we’ll leave it there. Really, congratulations on the book. It’s an important read. I love your stuff in New York Times Magazine and all of your essays on politics. But as someone who really – this Iraq War shaped my own life and perception of politics. To go back is so important in history, to really go back while these people are still alive, and you can have the kind of conversations you had. Thanks again.
MR. DRAPER: No, my pleasure, Bob. Thanks for having me.
MR. COSTA: And thank you all for joining us. We’ll leave it there. And thanks very much, again, to Robert Draper for that fascinating read.
You can listen to this Extra, and our Extra every week, wherever you get your podcasts, or watch it on our website. While you’re there, I would encourage you to sign up for our Washington Week newsletter, where you can get an advanced look at our show every week. It’s a great newsletter, a lot of information, especially as this campaign heats up and the election nears. But for now, I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us. And we’ll see you next time.