Sunday, April 20, 2008

A National Defense University paper on the Iraq War

Following is the text of the e-mail I sent as a Letter to the Editor of the National Defense University Press. It covers much the same ground that my earlier post on the same paper, but I did include a bit more research in this one.

Dear Editor:

The recently-released NDU paper, "Choosing War: The Decision to Invade Iraq and Its Aftermath" by Joseph Collins (April 2008) has attracted some press attention, particularly in the McClatchy article "Pentagon institute calls Iraq war 'a major debacle' with outcome 'in doubt'" by Jonathan Landay and John Walcott of 04/17/08.

But what struck me most in reading "Choosing War" is how superficially Collins treats his determination of the actual decision-point for going to war. He identifies January 2003 as "in this author's assessment, around the time that the President finally decided in his own mind to go to war."

It's not clear how Collins would know what was happening in the President’s "own mind" in any case. But he provides no discussion of how he came to identify January 2003 as the key decision point. This is a rather important matter in a paper whose aim is to critically analyze the decision-making process leading up to the war.


The so-called "Downing Street Memo" has been analyzed by a number of capable writers, notably including Mark Danner in The Secret Way to War (2006). That document provides very strong evidence that Bush and Blair had agreed to go to war by July 2002 at the latest. If that is the case, it means that an analysis of the decision-making process would have to focus on the elements up to that point which led to the decision. It would also require some explanation of why the administration claimed for months afterward that no decision for war had been made.

There is other evidence that Bush had made a firm decision for war even earlier. For instance, Daniel Eisenberg reported for Time as early as 05/05/2002 ["We're Taking Him Out"] that in a meeting with a bipartisan group of Senators in March 2002, Bush had referred to Saddam Hussein with what Time delicately called a "vulgar epithet" and declared, "We're taking him out." Eisenberg also reported that Dick Cheney had told a group of Senate Republicans in late March that the "question was no longer if the U.S. would attack Iraq... The only question was when." Bob Woodward reported in his Plan of Attack (2004) that Gen. Tommy Franks was convinced in March 2002 that Bush had decided to go to war with Iraq.

If Collins examined such evidence and found it unconvincing, it would certainly be informative to know why he came to that conclusion. Again, in a paper devoted to analyzing the decision-making process leading up to the war, this seems to be a rather remarkable omission.

Collins' paper also contains some other notable weaknesses. He dismisses the role of the Office of Special Plans in the Pentagon and the similar operation in the Office of the Vice President in offering alternative interpretations of raw intelligence information. [For the OSP, The Lie Factory by Robert Dreyfuss and Jason Vest Mother Jones Jan/Feb 2004] His argument about the connection of Saddam's regime to terrorism is quite a stretch, since there is really no evidence in the public record that the regime was sponsoring anti-American terrorism at the time. He gives a poor description of the progress of UN weapons inspections in Iraq.

Especially surprising is Collins' observation, "The vast majority of Bush administration officials did not believe that Saddam had anything to do with 9/11." Since the October 2002 Congressional war resolution required the administration to establish such a connection as part of one of the two conditions in which war was authorized, it's striking that he didn't explore the serious implications of that observation.

Collins winds up declaring it "puzzling" why senior administration officials ignored so many of the prescient warnings about the difficulties they should expect in Iraq. He even speculates, "Perhaps they were too busy". Since this was the central foreign policy pre-occupation of the administration at this time, that speculation cries out for further explanation.

In the end, Collins doesn't seem to take into account what we know of how some of the key decision makers for the Iraq War were arrogant, ideologically dogmatic, dishonest, or incompetent. Without taking account of those factors, it would inevitably wind up being "puzzling" why they proceeded as they did.

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