- Robert Draper, an author of the New York Times Magazine, spoke to Business Insider about his new book "Starting war: How the Bush administration led America to Iraq. "
- The book tells of all the terrible decisions based on bad information and motivated arguments that have led to the most catastrophic foreign policy in the United States recently.
- "I am not entirely convinced that there has been the level of introspection that should exist throughout the Washington community. And I hope that if my book can serve us it would inspire this kind of reckoning and self – Inspection, "said Draper.
- You can find more stories on the Business Insider homepage.
Robert Draper, author for New York Times Magazine and author of National Geographic, is the author of the new book "Starting war: How the Bush administration led America to Iraq"Draper published another book on Bush in 2008," Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush ", which covered the first six years of his presidency.
In a phone interview with Business Insider columnist Anthony L. Fisher, Draper spoke about why he thought the time was right to revisit Donald Rumsfeld's megalomania megalomania, the greatest foreign policy catastrophe of modern times, and who in the administration Colin Powell will never be forgive.
This interview was edited for the sake of length and clarity.
"Infused with a fundamental illogic"
Fisherman: Such a catastrophic moment in recent American history, although not forgotten, will certainly not be discussed as much as one might expect. Why did you want to write this book now?
Draper: It was a kind of unfinished business for me. I had this biography of Bush's presidency when the Iraq saga was still going on. It was such a moving goal that I didn't cover it enough in this book. I also made an effort to really decipher this key secret of Bush's presidency. Why did he go to war at the time when he was attacking a country that hadn't attacked us?
I decided to write this book in mid-2017 when the Trump presidency was already underway. There was reason to wonder how we got to the point where we are governed by a reality TV presenter with no political experience who somehow convinced 63 million Americans that "I can fix the problem on my own".
If you analyze that, some of the reasons why people voted for Trump can be explained by cultural grievances to racism. Some of this can be explained by the conservative media echo chamber that demonized Hillary Clinton for over 25 years. Some of this is due to the fact that Trump differed from his Republican opponents during the primaries by saying that you were part of the problem, all of your experiences, what did it bring us? It brought us this catastrophic war in Iraq, at which the Republicans hadn't given a vote at the time.
It just occurred to me that this was, in a way, a starting point for our current location, apart from the fact that it is the most serious foreign policy mistake of the past half century. For all of these reasons, I considered it worth visiting again at this point.
And of course there were a lot of people who just didn't feel comfortable or couldn't talk about Iraq in my interviews in 2005, 2006 and 2007. My intuition was that she was separated from the events by 15 years, a lot of people would be more inclined to speak and that turned out to be the case.
Fisherman: There were three early intelligence mistakes in which one of them would have been discovered in time. This could have derailed the narrative that sent us headlong to war. One was that the Egyptians tortured Al-Qaida senior Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi and the CIA only admitted in March 2004 that he did not provide any reliable evidence of the torture. Another reason was the later discredited Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi as the main source. Then there was the intelligence agency, which claimed that the 9/11 kidnapper, Mohammad Atta, met with an Iraqi officer in Prague.
They put it that "a fundamental illogic is pervaded" and that the scenario basically never made sense. There is no reason for Atta to go to Prague to receive material support for a terrorist attack based on box cutters.
Draper: Exactly. I mean, why spread the conspiracy and run the risk of it being exposed? There was one particular CIA analyst who was in constant dialogue with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and he showed me his diary, which contained these notes. It was precisely this observation.
I would add a fourth, by the way, and that's the intelligence of unmanned aerial vehicles. It was this really alarming suggestion that the President heard in spring 2002 that the Iraqi regime appeared to be purchasing mapping software for American cities. This was the first available evidence that Saddam was actually interested in beating the American homeland. Bush really freaked out. It freaked out a lot of people in the administration and it just turned out to be untrue. It turned out that there was a harmless explanation for buying this software – that it came with hardware (the Iraqis) needed for domestic surveillance missions for their surveillance vehicles.
But that was kind of typical after September 11th. The Bush administration had been so unprepared that eventuality never saw it and was overcompensated by seeing demons everywhere and looking at things in the darkest light.
It is interesting to think about it now because we are seeing the current president, someone who is actively promoting falsehoods. And if there is anything you can draw as a connective tissue between President Bush and President Trump – I don't think Bush has promoted things that he knew were wrong. In fact, he promoted things he believed to be true without having any real evidence to support that belief.
Fisherman: At one point, you mentioned that while Bush was introducing the war to the public and the United Nations, it suggested that someone be brought in "with experience on Madison Avenue."
Draper: That was one of the more interesting revelations when I made the coverage because it was widely believed that Bush was unsure whether Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and whether we should go to war. And George Tenet, the CIA director, tells them, "It's a slam dunk, sir." And that didn't happen.
The president really believed that Saddam had weapons. He just didn't think the CIA was doing this case particularly well. And like you said, he said, let's get people in, let's get lawyers in to help with the case. Let's get people from Madison Avenue. And then he added another step and said, leaving them safe and engaging the whole terrorist business for a domestic audience.
I was literally right before you emailed a former CIA manager who was in charge of the Iraq issue. And she was very proud of the fact that they managed to fight back the whole argument that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were in dispute. And as I told her, I don't think they were successful because the president fundamentally encouraged the CIA to talk about Saddam's links to terrorist groups, and the only links that mattered were that he occasionally cut them checks to widows of Palestinian bombers. Which was in no way different from the Jordanians, the Saudis and the Egyptians. You did the same.
Rumsfeld the control freak
Fisherman: (Former Secretary of Defense) Donald Rumsfeld basically ran over every dissenting vote, not only in the administration but also in his own department. It was well reported that he was against nation building and spent a lot of time thinking about an exit strategy. But I don't know I've ever seen it as explicitly as in your book. They reported that he would enact laws, that there would be no planning for a Saddam after the fall, and that the Department of Defense was prohibited from distributing memos about what to do after the Saddam case.
Draper: This is typical of the Minister of Defense. He would raise puzzles and not really want to answer them, just demonstrate his superior knowledge by asking the right questions. And he said we should think more about what comes next, but that didn't mean that he wanted responsibility for it himself. And when it was actually left to the Pentagon to basically have control over post-war Iraq, Wolfowitz and (former Under Secretary of Defense) Douglas Feith and even Rumsfeld considered it a kind of victory in the Pentagon, but not so much, because they themselves had carefully worked out plans for how to govern Iraq after the invasion. It was more than pleased that the State Department didn't take responsibility.
Rumsfeld's basic view was to take his hands off the bike seat, as he often described, to let the Iraqis rule themselves. But so many unwise assumptions were built into this notion, mainly that the Iraqis themselves could repair a broken nation and that all of these different sectarian groups would somehow join together to do so. There was simply no evidence of these scenarios.
Fisherman: I remember that at the time so much was being done about the "coalition of the willing". The book is about how Lithuanian troops volunteered to go on night patrols in Sadr City, but the Department of Defense said they couldn't give them night vision goggles. (Former National Security Advisor) Condoleezza Rice knew that there were not enough troops to effectively occupy Iraq after the war. And Rumsfeld would neither allow the British nor the Aussies to play a bigger role in it. Did Rumsfeld oppose the idea of a coalition?
Draper: In practical terms, he could just as well have spoken out against it. But he was not against the concept of a coalition. He only believed that the coalition should be entirely on America's terms. Within this idea was that the coalition had to be almost exclusively under Secretary Rumsfeld's terms, and among the things to which he gave such priority were the responsibilities of his office and the Pentagon. He didn't want anyone to poach on his lawn. Whether that was the national security advisor that he believes he mistakenly interfered in the chain of command between the Secretary of Defense and the commander-in-chief. Or other nations that have their own views and regulations about what to do.
What you described fits very well with this guy, who should get to the point, a control freak. Almost nothing was too small for Rumsfeld. If anything mattered, he wanted to be the one who shaped politics. And of course this practically only became an annoying thing that would slow things down. And it also created tons of problems with the nature of the interaction between the state and the Pentagon and the CIA joint chiefs of staff about when and how to do what Rumsfeld wanted.
Fisherman: You paint a picture of President Bush as much more thoughtful and competent than I think that many people perceived it at the time. But there are some moments when it looks like he's only mistaken about the aftermath of a war. He even thought that an invasion of Iraq in a year could lead to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. There is another dramatic moment when Basra is dark and looted and occupied by British troops – and Bush watches on TV amazed that they don't cheer and distribute sweets. Was Bush's larger world view fatally flawed from the start?
Draper: I think that conventional wisdom, especially among many Democrats, was Bush is stupid. It was not and it is not. But surely Bush's intellectual curiosity might fail at times. It's ironic because he could be very dutiful when it comes to the things he thought the President should do, like a daily meeting of the President with the CIA. He did this six days a week throughout his presidency. But when it came to delving into the details of what he disparagingly referred to as "nuance" – he would say "I don't do nuance" – he had this kind of comprehensive vision that gave him the opportunity to cut it the corners that would otherwise require hard work.
He believed in his bones that everyone longed for freedom. And that anyone who was given the opportunity to freedom would take this opportunity. So he believed that this would happen in Iraq. It just made sense to him. Unfortunately, not only was that not true, there were also a lot of people who could have told him that was not true. And I think his top helpers, including Condoleezza Rice, have failed here because no one has brought a different point of view to the Oval Office.
The closest we saw was the dinner Colin Powell (former Secretary of State) had with Bush at the White House residence, where he actually said, "You break it, you own it." That was undesirable news for Bush and also unique. Nobody else told him that. Instead, they trotted into Iraqi refugees who had not seen their country in 30 years to talk happily about how people would throw soldiers at the feet of soldiers when they came to liberate Iraq.
Saddam thought September 11 was the moment when the United States and Iraq would become allies
Fisherman: One of the more interesting observations I found in your book was Saddam's reaction to September 11th. He thought this would be a fundamental change for him, but he thought it would be the opposite direction. He assumed that the US political apparatus would understand that it was against Islamist extremists and that they would act as allies in the war on terror. Was that ever considered in the U.S. government? Did someone get up and say, "You know what, Saddam could actually be of help if we do it right?"
Draper: Ironically, Rumsfeld mentioned in one of his many snowflakes Among the possibilities – I think that was before September 11th – it was perhaps that we turn to Saddam and build some kind of relationship with him. But here, too, it was one of those intellectual exercises, not so seriously thought out politics, let alone something that he promoted. The Bush administration read on Saddam that this guy was a malicious threat. That he really had it for America and therefore wouldn't stop at anything, would ally himself with al-Qaeda or whoever, and maybe hand over his own weapons of mass destruction to others who wanted to do America. Everything about what I just said was factually imprecise. Much closer to the truth, as you mentioned, after September 11, Saddam really believed that America would recognize that they needed him, that they needed Iraq, and that their alliance would be obvious.
Saddam, a disgusting idiot, not to mention a terrible dictator, gave us enough reason not to want to go to bed with a dictator. On September 12, he said America had reached the thorns of its policies. This kind of joy has definitely been noted by the Bush administration. But you could also argue that it was like an extremist pouncing on its extreme basis.
In fact, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said this when he sent two different letters to a former Reagan official a few weeks after September 11 to send them to the Bush White House. My Husband's Noise. We want to be allies. We should be allied. We were murdered by Islamic extremists ourselves, so we should work on it together. And I think Saddam really came up with it far too late that we wouldn't see the logic of it.
Colin Powell has a grudge
Fisherman: You wrote about Colin Powell's obvious regret for his involvement, and he said that he believed that the first line of his obituary would have something to do with making the wrong case for a war against Iraq. I know that you recently contacted him about this book. Does he feel cheated by someone in the administration? Does he have a grudge against someone?
Draper: I think he has a resentment against CIA director George Tenet. I think he feels misled by Tenet, who, while preparing to speak for his UN presentation, surrounded him with all these analysts who assured him, "Yes, yes. We absolutely believe that this intelligence is fair." In fact, there were people within the agency who very much questioned the validity of this analysis and (Powell) never met these people. I think he feels that Tenet is leading him on a primrose route.
He certainly developed an aversion to Cheney and Rumsfeld, but strangely enough, his monologues about his former colleagues lack animus towards President Bush. To date, I find it difficult to say whether he just believes it is inappropriate for a four-star general to criticize his commander in chief, or whether he really believes that Bush himself does the best with the information he has did, but was misled by the people around him. I suspect a mixture of these two.
Fisherman: There is an episode towards the end of the book in which Iraqi military prisoners are being led around suspected WMD locations. And an Iraqi general points to a completely harmless truck and says to his interrogators: "Anyone who told you that this truck was used for biological weapons should be fired. Are you aware that someone was fired? Was there a statement within the Secret service? " Community?
Draper: No. In fact, some of the analysts mentioned in the book – Jerry Watson and Larry Fox – who were so troubled as it turned out wrong that the weapons of mass destruction were their troubled senior managers, who we need to clear up with the American public get. And the executives were so tired of listening to these two that they basically moved them from campus out of Langley headquarters. But as far as I know, no one was fired for these shortcomings in the secret service, quite the contrary. Many of them are doing quite well today. Tenet received the President's Medal of Honor.
If such a big failure in judgment and competence can be seen in a large company, many heads will surely roll. That didn't happen here.
The Iraq debacle proved to be a major institutional failure. And by that I really mean all of Washington, not just the Bush administration, but also the legislature, the media, and secret services. It's really hard to know what may have stopped George W. Bush's unique decision to go to war. However, what we do know is that it came closest to a glide path. And even though I realize that the context for this was September 11th and there was a real fear coming across Washington and beyond, the blindness that started as a result of that fear has served the American public really badly. I am not entirely convinced that there has been the level of introspection that should exist throughout the Washington community. And I hope that if my book can offer us a service, it would lead to such billing and self-inspection.