Gordon: Iraq ‘Hanging in Balance’

Michael R. Gordon, the chief military correspondent for the New York Times and co-author of a new book on the U.S. invasion of Iraq, says it is possible that the United States might achieve the "victory" in Iraq now being sought by President Bush. But it is also possible, he says, the country "could be engulfed in a civil war."

April 7, 2006

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Michael R. Gordon, the chief military correspondent for the New York Times, has just co-authored, Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq, with Retired General Bernard E. Trainor. He says it is possible that the United States might achieve the "victory" in Iraq now being sought by President Bush, but it is also possible the country "could be engulfed in a civil war."

Gordon outlines "grievous errors" committed by the Bush administration in the Iraq campaign, starting with a miscalculation on the strength of opposing forces, and including a poor understanding of Iraqi politics and the disbanding of the Iraqi army.

Gordon says the Bush administration did have a plan for postwar Iraq but it was a faulty one because it placed too strong on emphasis on Iraqis to do the primary policing work. "If you’re really going to do regime change, you have to be able to also fill the vacuum that follows," Gordon says. "But that wasn’t the attitude they had and that’s why we were ill-prepared to restore the electricity and the basic services."

In the book that you’ve written with General Trainor you quote Richard Armitage, who was deputy secretary of state to Colin Powell, at his final meeting of the NSC in November 2004, saying "We’re not winning the war in Iraq," to which President Bush asks, "Are we losing it?" and he answers "not yet." My question to you is, are we winning or losing the war now?

I think the war hangs in the balance. I don’t think that we should rule out that there could be a relatively positive outcome in Iraq. The question is: What does "victory" mean to the Bush administration? Initially, victory meant we would go into Iraq quickly, topple Saddam, help install a government that would be friendly to the United States, and withdraw the vast bulk of our forces in a short period of time. Then victory meant we would defeat the insurgency and then get back on the course of withdrawing our troops. And now victory means we’re going to try to transfer the authority and the responsibility for fighting the insurgency over to the Iraqis, who we’ll support militarily for some years to come, but the main burden will fall on them—and the insurgency will likely continue. So I think if that’s considered victory, I think there is a prospect that we could achieve it. I think it’s also possible Iraq could be engulfed in a civil war. I don’t think we have a civil war yet but I don’t think that can be excluded either. So that’s just a long-winded way of saying I think it can still go either way.

What about public opinion in this country? Is this really gradually forcing the United States to get out of Iraq?

No, I don’t think so. I think the public opinion is actually fairly sophisticated. I think the public by and large believes that the war was a mistake, and by that they mean it was not wrong to topple Saddam, but that the costs in terms of American lives and treasure have been disproportionate. That’s the public’s verdict so far on the war. But the polls also indicate that the public is willing to sustain, I believe, deployment, if they believe there’s some prospect of a positive outcome. What the White House has been trying to do is to persuade the public there is still that possibility.

You report that, on 9/11 Secretary of Defense [Donald M.] Rumsfeld was talking to his aides and telling them what they had to do and to prepare militarily for the next phase of the war on terror, and they thought it was just Afghanistan, but then it was clear he was talking about Iraq also. Why was Rumsfeld thinking about Iraq then?

Secretary Rumsfeld had a view that there should be a global war on terror which would be of some duration, and he did not consider the toppling of the Taliban to be a sufficiently potent demonstration of American power and resolve. And what are the Taliban, really? Wes Clark, the former NATO commander, once told me the Taliban were the most incompetent enemies since the Barbary pirates. Toppling the Taliban was really a given. Rumsfeld seemed to feel from the very start that there needed to be a phase two, in which the United States would demonstrate that terrorists, and also countries that supported them, were going to pay a heavy price for taking on the United States.

Well, there are other countries out there that are also pretty bad, like North Korea and Iran, among others. Why was Iraq singled out?

Well the irony is that of the three so-called "axis of evil" states, even accepting the faulty intelligence on WMD, Iraq was not the most worrisome case. I mean North Korea has nuclear weapons and is making more; Iran is much more advanced in the WMD area than we believed Iraq was at the time. In fact, the Israelis, even at the time of the war, were always more concerned about Iran than Iraq. But of the three countries, Iraq was the weakest. Its conventional forces had deteriorated. So if you were looking to take military action, it was feasible in the case of Iraq, it was not feasible in the case of North Korea, particularly because they have nuclear capability and the South Koreans would never have supported that. Also there was a history of Saddam being out of compliance with his UN obligations. But beyond that, the Bush administration entered office, not with a plan to invade Iraq, but definitely with the view that Iraq was unfinished business and that the sanctions regime was faltering, and that something needed to be done to resolve this lingering problem of Saddam Hussein.

You think that President Bush felt that his father had left it unfinished from the first Gulf War?

Well, I think it’s subtler than that. When I was writing our first book, The Generals’ War: The Inside Story of the Conflict in the Gulf, about the earlier war, the view in the Bush administration at the time was that Saddam would fall within six months to a year. That view was communicated to me by Brent Scowcroft [the national security adviser to President George H.W. Bush]. In fact, Dick Cheney, as defense secretary, placed a bet with me that Saddam would fall in a year or so. I’ve been trying to collect for the last few years without success. The view at the time was that Saddam would fall of his own weight because they were thinking that any leader that led his country to two disastrous wars, against Iraq and then Kuwait, would surely be replaced.

But that’s not what happens in tyrannical countries in which the regime rules by fear. So I think it’s too simplistic to say that Bush was trying to finish the war his father started. But when President-elect Bush had his first meeting with President Clinton, Clinton listed his priorities—Middle East peace is at the top, and al-Qaeda would follow that, and Iraq was toward the bottom—and President Clinton told President-elect Bush: "I sense that your priorities are missile defense and Iraq." Well, Bush didn’t respond, but those were indeed the administration’s foreign policy and national security priorities when they entered office.

In the epilogue of your book you say there were five "grievous errors" committed by Bush and his team about Iraq. What were they?

On Condoleezza Rice’s recent visit to Britain, she said that there were thousands of tactical mistakes made in Iraq. General Trainor and I don’t believe there were thousands of tactical mistakes, we think there were five mistakes, but unfortunately they weren’t tactical; they were major strategic mistakes. And the first one was misreading the enemy.

The view at the time was that the enemy was primarily the Republican Guard. It was felt that if you defeated the Republican Guard forces and captured Baghdad, we would essentially win the war. It was really a continuation of American thinking from the first Gulf War; because that was the primary enemy we faced at that time. And what was overlooked was really the presence of thousands of paramilitary fighters in the south and their huge caches of arms there.

That’s a force known as the Saddam Fedayeen, and they later became an element of the insurgency. So we misread the enemy in a military sense.

Should we have known that the Fedayeen were out there?

Yes we should have. It was known that they were in the Iraqi force structure. It was not known that they were in the south in such numbers, nor that they would be such determined fighters. This again was an intelligence failure by the CIA that was as grave as its failure to correctly assess the absence of WMD.

There was also a misreading of the politics of Iraq. The view was that if you took Baghdad and controlled the ministries and the governmental structure, you would essentially be able to govern Iraq from this centralized location. And in reality Iraq just didn’t work that way. Maybe under Saddam, with all the powers of a police state, he was able to govern from Baghdad, but really the center of gravity was the entire population of Iraq. You needed to be able to control or at least have the support of the population in order to run Iraq.

The second big error, and to my mind this is a greater error, was the failure to adapt to circumstances. In the early days of the war it became evident that the enemy we were fighting was different from the one we had projected we would fight. The Marines and soldiers that fought at al-Nasariyah and Samawah and Najaf began fighting this paramilitary foe that was a very determined enemy. And the generals in the field decided they needed to make an adjustment.

In fact they paused, as we all recall, the march to Baghdad for several days to concentrate on fighting the Fedayeen, who were threatening the supply lines and logistic spaces. And when the generals wanted to pause and fight the Fedayeen, General Franks was very unhappy. In fact, General Scott Wallace, the 5th Corps commander, talked publicly to two embedded reporters, including Jim Dwyer of the New York Times, about how the enemy we were fighting was different than expected. General Franks’ response was he threatened to fire him. He had to be talked out of it. So the view in the field was that we were up against a different enemy than had been anticipated. The view that Rumsfeld and Franks had was essentially to press on.

That was the failure to adapt. There was also a Marine intelligence officer in Nasariya who sent a message saying "these Fedayeen, they’re going to be a thorn in our side in the postwar, we’re going to need to contend with them." If [defense department officials] had correctly assessed the Fedayeen [they] would have sent more troops. Instead what Secretary Rumsfeld and General Franks did was they sent fewer troops. Instead of sending more troops they canceled the deployment of the final division that was to go to Iraq under their own plan, the 1st cavalry division.

And what was the "third mistake"?

The third mistake was really our inadequate nation-building policies. You know, it is commonly believed that we failed to plan for the postwar, but that’s not really the case. They thought about the postwar, and it’s not that the Bush administration didn’t have a plan, it just had a bad plan. The Bush administration looked askance at what the Clinton administration had done in the Balkans. The Bush people believed that the Clinton administration had put too many forces into the Balkans and that the international civil service had taken on too much responsibility for controlling events there and we had created an unhealthy dependency on the part of the host population, on ourselves, and we shouldn’t do Iraq that way.

We should do Iraq more like Afghanistan. So, for example, the issue of police came up. It was discussed. There was a midlevel Justice Department official who said we need to send five to six thousand international constabulary to train the Iraqi police to control events in Baghdad. The White House rejected this, because they said, "no, we’re going to let the Iraqis be the police. We’re going to be the enablers. We’re going to empower them, essentially, to do the heavy lifting. We’re not going to do it for them."

Well, that was all well and good until the Iraqi police vanished, police stations were burned down, there was looting and then there was no mechanism for controlling it. If you’re really going to do regime change, you have to be able to also fill the vacuum that follows. But that wasn’t the attitude they had and that’s why we were ill-prepared to restore the electricity and the basic services. Another factor that contributed to our problems was that there were dysfunctional military structures. Colin Powell, in his final meeting with the president, told him the national security decision-making process was dysfunctional. Just take the decision to disband the Iraqi army in 2003. Ambassador [L. Paul] Jerry Bremer made that decision with the approval of Secretary Rumsfeld, but without the knowledge of Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and without any input from the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Or the generals in Iraq, right?

The generals in Iraq were opposed to the way Ambassador Bremer handled that. His decision to disband the army and to rebuild a new army from scratch, not letting any senior Iraqi officers serve, was of great concern to General [David] McKiernan and General [John] Abizaid. They wanted to rehabilitate the existing army and put a force into the field much faster. When that decision was made, General McKiernan and the CIA station chief were actually meeting with Iraqi generals with an eye toward reconstituting a new army. So, sure the army had gone AWOL, but an effort could have been made to recall it. At the very end of the book almost all the senior commanders who are in the field speak on the record, and they all agree there was a window of opportunity in the summer of 2003 to do things right, one that closed on us.

And some of the mistakes that they cite were the decision to disband the army and also Ambassador Bremer’s decision to disallow local elections which the Marines organized in Najaf, because they didn’t want to be the local rulers of Najaf. This was the fifth big mistake.

The elections had been approved by Ambassador Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority. Ballots were being printed up and everything. And just as the elections were approaching, Ambassador Bremer ordered them canceled on the grounds that he had received reports that the wrong candidate would win, that [the winner] was going to be a fundamentalist. Saying that a fundamentalist was going to win in Najaf was like saying a conservative Republican is going to win in South Carolina. The Marines were happy to let the elections proceed. They were ordered to cancel them. They didn’t have the heart to cancel them so they simply told the population they were deferring them or postponing them. But Marine generals say on the record that this decision backfired badly because it led the population to believe that the Americans were not liberators but occupiers who wouldn’t let the people have their own elections.

What about Bremer’s first decision to not allow people who were in the top four levels of the Baath party to take jobs?

There was always going to be some degree of de-Baathification. That was decided by President Bush in March 2003. The issue was just how energetically you pursued that. Ambassador Bremer in his own book blames the problem on Ahmed Chalabi, who had a role in actually supervising de-Baathification. But the generals thought that Bremer’s authority pushed it too far. For example, in the book, General Ray Odierno, whose 4th infantry division was based in Tikrit, which was where Saddam was from, and who captured Saddam, and [whose forces were not] known for going easy on the Iraqis, were trying to control events in Tikrit and they got orders to fire all the teachers and fire all the police on the grounds they were Baathists. Well, what kind of people live in Tikrit but people who, for one reason or another, joined the Baath party? Now, as a condition of a further employment, they were prepared to renounce it. But if you were to purge all of these people from these positions you couldn’t run that city. And General Odierno had to intervene in Baghdad just to keep Iraqi schoolteachers and police functioning. And he ultimately prevailed, but for a period of time their pay wasn’t being provided by the Coalition Provisional Authority and attitudes there began to sour.

In Mosul, General David Petraeus of the 101st airborne, who is very sensitive to nation-building needs because he had been in Bosnia, had to seek an exemption from Ambassador Bremer just to keep the university running, because if he had fired all the senior level Baathists they wouldn’t have had a university in Mosul.

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