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michael gordon


As chief military correspondent for The New York Times, Michael Gordon was embedded with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division during the war and co-authored a book about his experiences, Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq. Here, he describes the mixed reception U.S. troops received and how Baghdad quickly descended into looting and violence. He also recounts the disconnect between civilian policy-makers and the military on the ground in Iraq over de-Baathification, the dissolution of the Iraqi Army and other U.S. policies. This is an edited transcript of two interviews conducted on Aug 10 and Aug. 11, 2006.

When you get to Baghdad on April 12, what is your impression of the state of security in Baghdad? What did you see?

Baghdad was [in] a very chaotic state in the first few weeks. [When] I got there, I very quickly attached myself to some of the units with the 3rd Infantry Division, and I went on a patrol with them. … There's looting just a few blocks away. You see these trucks just full of furniture being carted away. Nobody was really in charge.

There were still some Iraqis who welcomed the Americans, [who] were coming up to them with notes saying: "This intelligence operative is in such-and-such a house. You've got to go there and take care of him." There was a lot of that going on. There was some hostility. I remember on this patrol an Iraqi came up to me and said, "No one here likes you." But there are Iraqis looking for help, for assistance, for money for the war damage.

The main feature the first few weeks in Baghdad is that it was chaotic; there was a lot of looting. But in many respects, it was not a very threatening environment for the American forces. There were none of these IEDs [improvised explosive devices], these roadside bombs that go [off] now. Yes, there was some sniping and then some small-scale attacks, but the level of violence directed against the American forces was really very minor in the first few weeks. We would drive down from the airport to what became the Green Zone and back again without any particular worry or concern. None of these Humvees that I'm in then are armored; [they're] just canvas. No one's particularly worried about it. It was possible to go to the restaurants.

I remember one night when I was with the 3rd Infantry Division, and I saw the troops get into their Humvees -- I think it was sort of like a recon unit -- [and] go out. I was keeping an eye on this because I thought, well, maybe there's a raid going down; they're trying to pick up what they call a high-value target, HVT, some prominent member of the regime. These guys motored out, and then I saw they came back about 45 minutes, an hour later, and they had a whole stack of pizzas. … It was a totally different environment than the one you have now.

What are the rules of engagement for our military forces there in those first few weeks as the looting is occurring? Do they know what they're supposed to be doing, if anything?

The scale of the looting was not really anticipated. People thought there could be some looting, but not the systematic kind of dismantlement of the infrastructure -- taking the wires out of the walls, taking every possible light fixture, destroying a decade's worth of weather records at the airport, all that sort of stuff.

But I would say the posture of the forces then was a certain tolerance of this looting. They tended to regard it as the poor people in the city just grabbing a piece for themselves. They didn't have any specific instructions to use force against them, and in fact, neither the Army nor the Marines wanted to use force against these people. They didn't come to Baghdad to shoot poor Iraqis who were trying to steal a carpet or a piece of furniture. That was their mind-set. It was a very different mind-set from that of Ambassador [L. Paul "Jerry"] Bremer, who came in and started talking at meetings about the need to shoot looters, something that the U.S. military had no interest in doing.

Bremer started out as someone who reported to Rumsfeld and through Rumsfeld to the White House. But once he was out in Iraq, Bremer became his own Rumsfeld.

Where was that coming from?

You'll have to ask him, but [when] he arrived in the capital, he was concerned that it was in a state of some disorder. He was right about that, and he saw that in terms of actual number of troops, there really weren't all that many. It was possible to drive for blocks without seeing an American soldier. …

He wanted to, I guess, establish order and show who was in charge, but I personally think it was an overreaction on his part. After Bremer's comments were reported, … Gen. [Buford] Blount, who is in command of the 3rd I.D. [Infantry Division], made sure that his soldiers understood they were not supposed to go out and shoot looters. They didn't want to start killing the population. …

Let's go backward for a minute now to prewar planning. There's a meeting of the National Security Council [NSC] that you write about in your book [Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq], in March, right before the war starts. Tell me about the meeting, and tell me about the level of planning that you see.

Well, there was a series of high-level meetings with President Bush and his senior aides and Cabinet-level officials. It was just a week or two before the war. It's astoundingly late in the game for these sorts of high-level briefings with the president. …

The actual briefing content was prepared by [former NSC official] Frank Miller and his team. … The message was that it was very important to keep and make use of the Iraqi military. That was really a cornerstone of the postwar plan. That was an essential thing.

This was the case for two reasons. One, the American military understood that they really didn't have enough forces for the postwar, … and so they saw the Iraqi army as a source of manpower. You could use them to seal the borders; you could use them to control areas of Iraq. They also understood that the average American soldier or Marine is not going to know anything about the Iraqi political culture, so it was important to use these people. The allied land war commander, Gen. [David] McKiernan, and the 5th Corps commander, Gen. [William] Wallace -- they all anticipated having use of the Iraqi army.

Also, [Lt. Gen.] Jay Garner, who was running the initial civilian effort in Iraq, he also wanted to use the Iraqi army, because he saw them as a source of labor for the reconstruction of Iraq. He was charged with delivering humanitarian aid and doing some sort of rebuilding. He also didn't have a lot in the way of assets, so he also anticipated using the Iraqi army. Both the American military and civilians who had responsibility for postwar Iraq assumed that they would have use of the Iraq army. This was briefed to the president, and he accepted it.

[So how does this idea of radical de-Baathification creep into the planning?]

Well, de-Baathification was always a significant part of the Bush administration's planning. The concept was that you couldn't take out just Saddam; you also had to dig into his apparatus. … But there was always debate within the American government over how far they should go.

The American military tended to take a very pragmatic view of this, the guys with whom I was embedded and the Marine Commander Gen. [James] Conway and others. Their sense was, you're going to have to rely on a lot of the existing bureaucrats and government officials to run the country; we don't want to run the country for them. They didn't want to push the de-Baathification too far. The CIA, by the way, had the same view. They also were not a big fan of de-Baathification for some of the same reasons, plus they had their own connections in the country.

But the party that pushed for de-Baathification was the Defense Department. Ambassador Bremer really took on the program and agenda of the Defense Department when he came to his post. Then some of the Iraqis themselves -- like [Iraqi National Congress founder] Ahmad Chalabi, for example -- favored it, partly for reasons that had to do with intramural Iraqi politics.

So my impression of Miller's presentation is that he's talking about the top 1 or 2 percent, just a few guys along the way.

Yes, but see, only 1 to 2 percent, that's still 25,000 people. … The idea is, you remove Saddam's agents from the government or people loyal to him, make room for Shiites and Kurds, who, it was assumed, would work together in some sort of collegial way. That was a core element of the program.

When the policy was translated in the field, there were lots of tensions between the American military [and] Ambassador Bremer over how far it should go.

I'll give you an example. Gen. [Raymond] Odierno commanded the 4th Infantry Division in Tikrit. He was trying to run that area of Iraq, which obviously had a high content of Baathists. He received instructions, he told me one day, from the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority], Ambassador Bremer's outfit: Get rid of all the teachers. Fire all the police. They're Baathists. Well, in the Tikrit area, it's Saddam's home area; obviously there are going to be lots of Baathists. One could be no more surprised to find lots of Baathists there than you would be to find conservative Republicans in South Carolina.

He resisted this because he needed somebody to run this area. Someone had to be the police; someone had to teach schools. He resisted firing them, and he had to make these kind of pilgrimages to Baghdad and talk to them about why it was impractical to do this. But while he didn't get rid of them right away, the money to pay them would stop, and it caused all sorts of discontent in the community. …

Another example I saw was in Mosul, where Gen. [David] Petraeus was with the 101st Airborne. I was up there with him, and if he had literally applied the policy, he would have had to shut down the university. He was trying to stand up the civilian structures in Mosul; he wanted to open the university, get the community back on its feet.

Well, everybody who taught at this university had to be a Baath Party member, very much in the way that someone in the Soviet Union had to be a Communist Party member to succeed at a high level. So he had to go to Bremer and pretty much win an exception that for a limited period of time he would be able to keep these people. They were all required to sign declarations that they were renouncing their ties to the Baath Party.

The kind of de-Baathification edicts coming out of Bremer's CPA were not welcomed by the American military in the field. … Nobody disagreed that the people who were most loyal to Saddam should not be a part of it. The question was how far to push this. …

[I]f you push it too hard, you not only end up without qualified people at an early stage of the occupation, but you also feed the anxieties of the Sunnis, who feel that they're being excluded from the new order and that they're really just going to be bit players in a new state that's going to be dominated by the Shiites and, to a lesser extent, the Kurds.

Were they thinking with that level of sophistication and nuance about Sunni/Shi'a, or was Bremer sort of being decisive?

… The Bush administration policy, as I see it in the very start, what they really wanted was a kind of an in-and-out war. Their concept was that they were going to knock off this regime in a matter of weeks, that American forces would be present in Iraq for a period of time, but there'd be a very rapid withdrawal of American troops from the region, that international forces would come in and [with them] international investment, and that the Iraqis would be able to sustain much of the postwar phase by selling their oil and their own resources.

The very striking thing happened when [then- CENTCOM Commander] Gen. [Tommy] Franks came to Baghdad for his first trip on April 16. … He gave guidance that his commanders should be prepared to withdraw all American forces, except for a little more than a division which would remain, by September 2003. This was not Tommy Franks going off on his own; this is Tommy Franks implementing the vision of the Bush administration.

Their vision -- you can trace this all the way back to when President Bush was a candidate in his Citadel speech, which he gave about two years before he assumed office. They looked at what the Clinton administration did in the Balkans, and they saw that not as a success, but as a snare.

I talked to [then-National Security Adviser] Condi Rice and others about this at the time. They said: "American forces are still in the Balkans. We're still stuck there. The people in those societies have become dependent on us and on NATO for everything. This is an unhealthy sort of a relationship. The purpose of the American military is not peacekeeping or stability operations. ... We don't want to be stuck in these places for years and years to come. This is not really our responsibility."

Prior to the Iraq war, this is sort of the guiding philosophy of the Bush administration. [Secretary of Defense] Don Rumsfeld gave a speech where he pretty much outlined all of this a month before the war, on the deck of the Intrepid Museum in New York City. It was called "Beyond Nation-Building", and his argument was that unhealthy dependencies had been created in the Balkans and other places, these massive nation-building operations, and these sorts of things needed to be avoided. It was sort of a tough-love approach, because if we did everything for these people, they would depend on us, and we'd create unhealthy dependencies. ...

This whole venture was supposed to be one that would be carried out with relatively modest costs in terms of American lives and American treasure. I've heard a former American diplomat refer to this as the ding-dong-the-witch-is-dead school of regime change: We go in, we kill the wicked witch, the munchkins jump up, they're grateful, and then we get in the hot-air balloon and we're out of there.

[What do you think Jay Garner felt about it when he came in?]

When Jay Garner came in, I think that was his own sense of how it was going to be. ... His own experience had been, by the way, in Kurdistan following the Gulf War, and I think it very much colored what he thought Iraq might be like. He thought he'd be dealing with a population that was pro-American, didn't have a lot of internal strife, pretty capable of doing things on their own, just needed a little bit of help, little bit of support, and they'd be off and on their way.

His big worry was displaced people; refugees, which didn't really happen; famine, which didn't really happen. To a large extent, the postwar planning that was done was very much influenced by the previous war, the Gulf War. ... These were the sorts of dangers that the Bush administration saw in invading Iraq. Why? Because it's what happened last time. ...

So Jay Garner comes in with that set of expectations that he's going to be working with a real partner, [that his] primary problems are going to be humanitarian aid. Tommy Franks is talking about taking troops out by the end of the summer. This was a bit of a concern for Jay Garner, ... but Gen. Franks gave this guidance. It was April 16. U.S. forces had not yet been in Fallujah. We had virtually no forces in Anbar Province, which is now the most dangerous province in Iraq and the real base of the Sunni insurgency. Really, there were whole parts of the country we didn't know anything about because we didn't have enough troops to even put there. ...

Then things started to deteriorate. Things were a little bit out of control. Reports were coming back to Washington that parts of Baghdad were not secure. There would be buildings on fire. The fires would just have to burn themselves out; there was no fire department. ...

Ambassador Bremer was brought in, and he very much wanted to send a signal when he went out there that "Hey, I'm in charge." He really saw himself a bit as the viceroy.

In what sense a viceroy?

Well, while Jay Garner was looking to kind of bestow authority on the Iraqis and let them play a big role in governing their own affairs, I think Bremer's sense was that things had spun out of control, and somebody needed to be in charge, and he was going to be that person. ...

When Ambassador Bremer was going to Iraq, the original plan was that he was supposed to have a very able deputy who actually knew the political situation in the country, Zalmay Khalilzad, the person who's now our current ambassador. ... [Khalilzad] had been dealing with the Iraqi opposition as an NSC staffperson for well over a year. ... He knew all these players. He was born in Afghanistan, although he is an American citizen obviously. ...

The plan was that Khalilzad would go out there with Bremer because Bremer had never served in the Middle East, nor did he have any nation-building experience. He had left the State Department before the whole Balkans operation. So we were sending a person who had never served in the Middle East and who had no nation-building experience to be the dominant personality in Iraq. Now, given where the Bush administration was coming from, this apparent lack of qualifications was seen as a plus, because he didn't have the Middle East mind-set of the State Department, and he wasn't contaminated by the Clinton-era thinking. But there were really huge gaps in his résumé.

Really just about an hour before this appointment was to be announced, Khalilzad got the word that he wasn't going. [Then-Secretary of State] Colin Powell also got the word and said: "What's this? The one guy we have that actually knows these people and actually knows the situation is not going." He called up Condi Rice and said, "What's going on?" She said, "I had nothing to do with it." And indeed she didn't. It turned out that Ambassador Bremer, in a private meeting with President Bush, had insisted that he be the only one out there, that he be in charge. He didn't want to share his authority with Khalilzad. ... And he [Khalilzad] is now the best thing the U.S. has going for [it] in Iraq.

[Bremer also had some run-ins with the American military, did he not -- some instances of ideological divergence, such as over the order for de-Baathification?]

... I'll give you an example. It's a very telling example. It's not just de-Baathification that's a point of divergence for the American military; it's Bremer's concept of governing Iraq.

The Marines ended up in the south because this thing spun out of control, ... and so now they found themselves in charge of places like Najaf, Nasiriyah, Karbala. All these places had not really been their plan or intention.

Bremer's CPA, by the way, has virtually no representation outside Baghdad, and there are 18 governorates in Iraq. They had representation in maybe half of them, and a lot of it was just two or three people. ... They're pretty much a Baghdad-centric organization, with very little capacity outside that capital. ...

So there's a mayor of An Najaf who had actually been installed by the CIA, but they had to get rid of him for a whole variety of reasons. The Marines said: "Well, we've got the answer. We'll organize an election. We'll have an election in An Najaf. Let the people decide. We're bringing democracy to the Iraqis." ...

This was approved, and they set about a whole process. They organized voter education; they made plans to print out ballots. They told all the people: "We're going to have this big election. You're going to pick your own government in An Najaf. We'll be here, but it will be your guys." And this thing was well under way.

Shortly before the vote was supposed to occur, the word came down from Bremer's CPA, "Cancel the election," and the reason was the wrong guy, American intelligence had concluded, was going to win. It was going to be someone from the Dawa Party. Guess which party is now part of the current government?

But in any event, we couldn't tolerate that situation, and so the Marines were ordered, "Cancel this election." The Marines regard this as one of the big mistakes. ...

There were other points of difference between the military and Bremer, [such as] de-Baathification and how far to push it, ... and also on his ill-advised decision to dismantle the Iraqi army, which ran completely against the plan that had been briefed to President Bush in March of 2003.

When I asked Bremer this question about the army, he says: "No, no, no, they had already vanished. They were not there. They were not available. I didn't dismantle anything. All I did was codify what already existed."

Well, the truth is that they had gone AWOL, and the initial concept the Americans had was that they were hoping the Iraqi army would "capitulate" and surrender in some sort of organized manner with all their vehicles intact, arrayed in a certain way, and come over and work for us.

But the situation in Iraq was very chaotic, and a lot of these people went AWOL and just disappeared, which, from their point of view, was the logical thing to do. If you "capitulated" and organized your vehicles to surrender to the Americans, you made yourself vulnerable to Saddam's Fedayeen. His Iraqi intelligence service and all kinds of loyal regime elements could retaliate against you. So they just vanished.

But what was happening was before Ambassador Bremer arrived, and even while he was there, the American military was making efforts to return these soldiers to duty. For example, Gen. McKiernan, who was the allied land war commander with whom I was embedded, he was holding meetings with the CIA station chief, with current and former Iraqi generals, including a former Iraqi general that the CIA flew in from Vienna, Austria. They were having meetings with an eye toward re-establishing an Iraqi general staff. [According to] the other commanders, including Gen. Conway, the Marine commander, they report that a lot of these Iraqi soldiers wanted to come back, so it would have been very easy to reconstitute this force. Indeed, that was what the American military wanted to do.

Ambassador Bremer was well aware of these meetings, but [he] had a very different vision. ...

What happens with Bremer's idea, first of all, the decision to issue an edict dismantling the army is the decision that Secretary Rumsfeld sanctions, according to Ambassador Bremer, but it's also a decision that's made without the knowledge of Condi Rice or Colin Powell. They learn about it after the fact.

It's a very odd case, because a decision was made to move into very different policy than the one President Bush decided on in March, and the entire Bush administration isn't even aware of this policy until after it's already articulated. I've talked to some of these Bush administration officials, and the way they explain this period is it was understood that Bremer was the viceroy, that he would have maximum power and flexibility to make decisions on the ground, that he shouldn't be second-guessed too much by Washington. ... But what's happening is he's making a decision that the senior military leadership thinks is ill advised. So you have a totally schizoid command.

It's a twofold decision. It's not so much the decision to formally disband the Iraqi army that worried the military; it was the decision [about] how to reconstitute it. It was the three divisions over two years -- no senior officers need apply. ... One reason why they didn't want any senior Iraqi officers from the old army to be part of this new apparatus was they were trying to de-Baathifize the country. ...

They later got hold of the personnel records for the Iraqi army, and they discovered there weren't nearly as many Baathists in the senior ranks of the Iraqi army as they thought. In fact, half of the major generals in the Iraqi army were not serious Baathists. They had based this whole concept of really decapitating the old Iraqi army based on bum information. ...

I think that's extremely odd, because one fact that was well known in Iraq was that the regime didn't trust much of its own army. ... [Saddam] didn't allow them to go anywhere near Baghdad. Even the Republican Guard was not allowed within the capital. ... Only the special Republican Guard was allowed inside the capital. So how Baathist could this military be that Saddam himself did not trust it? It's one of the major mistakes of the postwar period, and it's one that ran against the Bush administration's initial policy predilection.

We've heard stories that a lot of former Iraqi army guys were pissed off that they weren't getting their pensions and were marching on the streets in front of the Green Zone for a while and then joining the insurgency. How real is that?

It's hard to know with scientific precision, but there are a couple reasons to keep the army and use it. One is a, the American military needed the manpower; we didn't have enough forces. ... The other one is b, just keep tabs on these people, prevent them from going over to the wrong side. ...

Remember, there's huge unemployment in Iraq. One reason these Arab armies are so large is the regimes understand their vehicle is to take care of unemployment and create some social stability. Saddam used it for the same reason. There's nothing else to do there. It's not like people are rushing to invest money in Iraq, in a place that's pretty beaten down. ... Under the initial decision made by Ambassador Bremer, there was no provision to pay the people who were no longer going to be part of the army. So these people are told a, the army doesn't exist anymore, and b, you ain't in it. There's no provision to pay them, and this is a respected national institution.

The way that policy was changed was Gen. Petraeus was in Mosul with 101st Airborne. He went down to Baghdad to attend a change-of-command ceremony for Gen. Wallace, and he cornered [Bremer's deputy] Walt Slocombe, and he said: "Your policy is costing American casualties. We've got to pay these people at a minimum." Because of that conversation, it was decided by Slocombe and Bremer that these former members of the army should at least be paid.

Now they're paying people, but they're not getting their service. These people are showing up to be paid, so why is it that we can't recall the army? It was because we didn't want them back. ...

Bremer makes the argument over and over and over again: "I knew that we needed more troops. We were always going to need more troops. And I told it to the president, and I passed the RAND report on to Rumsfeld." Is he being disingenuous? Did he really do those things? Did he really want that?

No, he's not being disingenuous. That was Bremer's assessment. All that's true. And he was right, too, about that: More troops were needed. ... The reason is the number of forces you require to destroy something is a lot less than the number that's required to protect and secure an entire country that's the size of California or even larger. If you're going to control the borders, protect the population, control all of these areas from the north to south to Anbar, that's what generates the massive troop requirements.

All of this was known to the White House, because there was an internal study that was done in the National Security Council by a young Marine major. He looked at the Balkans, looked at everything from East Timor to Kosovo to Bosnia, and he looked at how many forces we had there. He presented a study to Condi Rice and [then-Deputy National Security Adviser] Steve Hadley, and he said, "Look, if you wanted to apply the ratios we had in the Balkans -- the number of forces we had relative to the size of the population and terrain -- what you would have in Iraq is around 300,000 or 400,000 troops." ... It's just the numbers, and it's very similar to what [former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric] Shinseki said. The RAND Corporation report essentially did the same thing. That was what Jim Dobbins did at RAND and gave to Bremer.

What was Condoleezza Rice doing with this information? Why does something like that get generated and get stopped?

Because they're not going to do nation-building. Therefore, what the Clinton administration did in the Balkans they consider to be irrelevant. The military thought it was quite relevant. Jim Dobbins at RAND thought it was very relevant. You have ethnic strife. You have basically a failed state. You have many of the same sorts of dynamics in the Balkans that you later encounter in Iraq.

But for the Bush administration -- "Don't talk to me about the number of forces we had in the Balkans or how we did things in the Balkans, because that was the Clinton administration. That's nation-building. We're not doing that. Talk to me about the number we had in Afghanistan," which at the time seemed more or less to work without imploding. They held up as their model Afghanistan, which we see now is in more difficult shape than they actually realized. They didn't want to learn anything from the Balkans.

Then there's another factor, which just has to be mentioned here. Gen. Franks didn't push for more troops for Phase IV because he had never been in the Balkans. He didn't have his head in the postwar game. That's just not the kind of military background that he had, and he left when things were just getting difficult. He retired and handed things over. Don Rumsfeld had this notion that we could kind of get in and get out, and neither the chairman or the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff pressed the issue forcibly either.

When you have an administration that wants to be anything but Clinton when it comes to nation-building, who doesn't want to learn from the Balkans, and you have a military leadership that at the senior levels didn't really have its head in the game and is not pushing the issue, you end up with fewer forces. ... And [Gen. Tommy] Franks didn't push for forces. …

[Was he ground down by Rumsfeld?]

Franks was never ground down by Rumsfeld any more than Rumsfeld would say he imposed his vision on the military. There's a fiction they both maintain that it was Franks that came up with these ideas all by himself and Rumsfeld simply accepted them. But what happened with the 1st Cavalry Division, in fact, was that Rumsfeld put the issue on the table. It was Rumsfeld who said, "We've got to start thinking about off-ramping this division." Initially Franks resisted; eventually he went along.

But the senior American officer in Iraq at the time, Gen. McKiernan, was not asked, "Can you live without this division or not?" He wanted this division, not because he anticipated insurgency, but because he was worried we might be lifting the top off of Pandora's box. He didn't know what to expect. ... It would have been one more, 20,000-plus folks, but he wasn't asked.

This notion that you hear from the administration that the generals in the field always got everything they wanted is simply not accurate when it comes to that period of history.

So what was the postwar plan? Franks made that announcement when he's first in country: "We're going to have elections for an Iraqi government in 30, 60 days. We're going to be able to get out of here in 90 days. By September, we're gone." This came as a real surprise to McKiernan and [CENTCOM Commander Gen. John] Abizaid even at that time, right?

Well, it certainly wasn't what the military thought was likely to happen, ... but it was in tune with what the White House wanted. In fact, it followed a meeting at the White House the previous day where they had a notion that they were going to elicit the deployment of the NATO division, an Arab division of some kind. There were plans afoot to maybe entice the Indians to deploy a division in Iraq. ... [Then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz said the Iraq occupation would be self-financing. He said that other countries would want to be a part of it.

The idea is you could act unilaterally. We would win big, and then other nations would see our success and would want to join in. You didn't need to have them at the lodge; you needed to have them at the landing. But it turned out to be a bad calculation. For this sort of thing, you needed these people going in. It has been very hard to attract the coalition. In fact, the coalition's largely fiction.

So there was a postwar plan?

... I think there was a plan. There was a vision. It just was an unrealistic plan and a bad plan, one that was dependent entirely on a set of optimistic assumptions, and in fact, it didn't last very long before it was overtaken by reality. But it wasn't because they didn't think about it; they just thought about it badly. ...

What's the role of the National Security Council in the postwar planning, the Phase IV plan? In the fall of '03, Rice seems to go to war a little bit with Rumsfeld to take charge of at least the political side of the process. Help me understand what happened through all of that.

Well, my sense is that this National Security Council apparatus, just in the first term of the Bush administration, just was not very strong or particularly effective. Part of this is their concept of how to govern. Condi didn't come in to be a [Zbigniew] Brzezkinski [National Security Adviser to President Carter]. She wasn't going to be Henry Kissinger. She wasn't going to be the architect that imposed on the government and really decided things. She saw herself really, I think, more as a personal adviser to the president, with whom she is exceedingly close -- a little bit more in the model of a [George H.W. Bush's National Security Adviser] Brent Scowcroft: not very obvious, not high profile. I think Steve Hadley's doing much the same now. So the NSC was kind of a coordinating function.

But this sort of concept depended on a government and set of agencies that played nice together, and this group didn't play nice together. The Defense Department monopolized information, didn't want to share with the rest of the government. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld understood information is power. He intended to keep it to himself. He used to brief plans, war plans, at the White House, and they would take the slides back to the Defense Department. They wouldn't leave them behind for the staff to pour over and examine and second-guess.

Well, now-Secretary Rice, but then-National Security Adviser Rice and her team, they would send their military staff -- they had a couple Marines on their staff -- over to the Defense Department and talk to their contacts there and try to get copies of the briefings that Rumsfeld had presented. ... Efforts were then made to brief Colin Powell and [then-Deputy Secretary of State] Rich Armitage and ensure that the State Department was in the loop. These were all workarounds, because the Defense Department didn't play nice. They wanted to monopolize the process.

There's an episode once where in one of the meetings, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld told Frank Miller, the top Defense staffer on the National Security Council, not to take notes. I mean, this is a person who has worked in the defense arena for decades. He used to work on nuclear targeting, which is the most secret of all the very, very secret issues. He's been cleared into any number of things, and Rumsfeld would [try to] control this information. ...

There's a dysfunctional element to that administration, ... but some of it was that the State Department really didn't fight back. ... In early January, Rumsfeld and his deputy, Doug Feith, went to the National Security Council, and they said: "Postwar should be under the Defense Department, not under the State Department. We need it under the Defense Department because we have to have unity in command." ...

I asked people at the State Department whether Colin Powell resisted this, or Rich Armitage, and I was told he, in fact, did not. The argument that was made was that State realized that Defense had all the resources and the billions of dollars and the budgets and the personnel. But I think it's a case where State would have been better advised to have resisted that and said: "Now, wait a second. That's too much authority for the Defense Department to have over this venture." ...

Well, Defense is now in charge of the postwar, and insurgency is beginning to materialize, and the defense secretary is telling the public that they're "dead-enders," that the disorder in Baghdad is a manifestation of a rash sort of exuberance upon liberation. Again, it's the American military that comes out, and it's John Abizaid in July of 2003 who dares to use the word "insurgency" and who kind of breaks the news to the nation that what's going on in Iraq goes well beyond what the Defense Department civilians are willing to admit.

Help me understand Gen. Ricardo Sanchez. Was he a good choice?

Sanchez was not an inspired choice. In fact, if someone had mentioned to you prior to the war that Sanchez would be the senior military figure in Iraq, no one would have believed it. ... What happened was, for internal, bureaucratic reasons, the Pentagon was looking for someone else to hand this portfolio to, and it just emerged as, really by happenstance, and it happened to be Sanchez, who was just a division commander, rapidly promoted to become the 5th Corps commander and the [commander of the] CJTF-7 [Combined Joint Task Force Seven].

In Washington, this caused a lot of unease in the army. ... This was a very, very difficult job to go to someone who was not regarded as necessarily the optimal candidate for this position. And then once he was in there, he and Bremer didn't have a very effective relationship.

At the end of '03, Bremer seems to have had his leash pulled. Rumsfeld reportedly says to Bremer, according to Bremer, "You now work for Condi Rice; you're out of my field of vision," or whatever he says. Is that a net loss for Rumsfeld? Is there something more to this than meets the eye?

Well, I think what happened was Bremer started out as someone who reported to Rumsfeld and through Rumsfeld to the White House. But once he was out in Iraq, Bremer became his own Rumsfeld.

Rumsfeld is legendary for being a bit of a control freak, for wanting to control information, control his own agency. Very much tried to cut the Joint Chiefs down to size, and I think did. When he was at the Pentagon, runs that place as a sort of iron CEO. But Bremer was very much the same personality type, and he was out in Iraq. He was in charge. He was the viceroy. Didn't need Zalmay Khalilzad's help, he thought. He began to make policies and say things that came as a surprise to people in the government, such as his op-ed article in The Washington Post that outline plans that some senior-level people in the government had not been aware of. ...

But I think what happened was, there was a sense on the part of the White House that we've got to take more control of the situation in Iraq. I think politically, they probably realized by that time that it could hurt them in various elections. Instead of being the net plus Karl Rove thought it would be, it looked like it could be a potential minus. ...

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posted oct. 17, 2006

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