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Donald Rumsfeld's Iraq Revisionism

Authors: Daniel Senor, and Roman Martinez
February 15, 2011
Washington Post

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What went wrong in Iraq? According to Donald Rumsfeld's memoir, U.S. difficulties stemmed not from the Pentagon's failure to plan for the war's aftermath - or Rumsfeld's unwillingness as defense secretary to provide enough troops to secure Iraqis after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Rumsfeld pins most of the blame on the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) for its alleged mishandling of Iraq's political transition in 2003-04, which "stoked nationalist resentments" and "fanned the embers of what would become the Iraqi insurgency."

We were Defense Department officials through the early phases of the war and worked for the CPA in Baghdad. We have defended many of the difficult decisions Rumsfeld made and respect his service to our country. But his book paints an inaccurate and unfair history of U.S. policymaking concerning Iraq's political transition.

Rumsfeld's basic theme is that the CPA erred by failing to grant Iraqis "the right to govern themselves" early in the U.S.-led occupation. Rumsfeld claims that he favored a "swift transition" of power to an "Iraqi transitional government" and that the Bush administration formally endorsed this strategy when it approved the Pentagon's plan for an Iraqi Interim Authority in March 2003. He writes that the head of the CPA, L. Paul Bremer, unilaterally decided not to implement this plan.

But Rumsfeld's own contemporaneous memos undermine this notion. The 26 "Principles for Iraq - Policy Guidelines" that Rumsfeld gave Bremer in May 2003 said nothing about handing real power to Iraqis.

To the contrary, Rumsfeld's instructions endorsed the top-down approach his book condemns. The CPA should "assert authority over the country," he wrote, and should "not accept or tolerate self-appointed [Iraqi] 'leaders.' "

There should be "clarity that the Coalition is in charge, with no conflicting signals to the Iraqi people," Rumsfeld wrote. He directed Bremer to take a "hands-on" approach to Iraq's "political reconstruction," noting that "the Coalition will consistently steer the process to achieve the stated objectives" and should "not 'let a thousand flowers bloom.' " The "transition from despotism to a democracy will not happen easily or fast," he concluded, noting that "[r]ushing elections could lead to tyranny of the majority."

If Rumsfeld's goal was to quickly empower an Iraqi government, this was a strange way to communicate that objective.

Rumsfeld also claims that the Bush administration decided, before the war, to hand over power to an unelected sovereign Iraqi government.

In fact, shortly after the end of major combat operations, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith testified before a House committee on May 15, 2003, that the administration planned for the CPA to govern Iraq. The CPA would establish an Iraqi Interim Authority (IIA), Feith explained, whose most important responsibility would be to design the process by which Iraqis would create a new Iraqi government after drafting a new constitution and holding elections.

The president and his top advisers explicitly decided not to make the IIA a fully empowered Iraqi government. As one declassified Pentagon memo explained, the IIA would "take responsibility" for overseeing certain government offices and ministries - but only as determined by the CPA. And Pentagon officials envisioned that the CPA would retain an absolute veto over any IIA decision. The IIA would lack independent authority to control Iraq's security forces, run Iraq's oil sector, appropriate Iraqi funds or enact legislation.

Rumsfeld claims that it was "startling news" when Bremer wrote on this page in September 2003 that a fully empowered sovereign Iraqi government would take power only after elections were held under a new and democratic constitution.

But Bremer had confirmed this exact sequence of events repeatedly in the summer of 2003, in private memos to the president and Rumsfeld, public speeches and the CPA strategic plan that he shared with Rumsfeld for comments in early July. Rumsfeld criticizes the plan now, but he agreed with it at the time: "You're on the mark," he wrote to Bremer in September 2003. "I agree with your memo and will send it to [the president] and members of the [National Security Council]."

Rumsfeld now argues that a speedy handover to a sovereign Iraqi government would have prevented the (largely Sunni) insurgency from taking hold. But a sovereign Iraqi government established in the spring or summer of 2003 would have empowered the Shiite leaders of the Iraqi opposition movement in exile before the war (most notably, Ahmed Chalabi and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Republic of Iraq). Chalabi has said that such a government would have invited the radical and violent cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to become a member. These figures unflinchingly advocated policies such as aggressive de-Baathification and the use of sectarian Shiite militia groups that antagonized Sunnis after Hussein's fall.

A government led by these figures would have deeply alienated Sunnis, who harbored fears about the Shiite exile leadership, its ties to neighboring Iran and its desire for payback after decades of dictatorship. It likely would have made the Sunni insurgency worse.

Without basic security for ordinary Iraqis, it was extraordinarily difficult to achieve lasting progress in Iraq, especially with respect to a political transition that required negotiation and compromise among competing factions. Establishing public safety was what we failed to do during Rumsfeld's tenure. Only after he resigned and President Bush deployed more troops and a traditional counterinsurgency approach did things begin to turn around.

Policymakers in Washington and Baghdad did their best to craft workable solutions under extreme circumstances. We at the CPA certainly made our share of mistakes. We only wish Rumsfeld would accept responsibility for his.

The writers were based in Baghdad in 2003-04 as officials of the Defense Department and the Coalition Provisional Authority.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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