Choosing War: An Analysis of the Decision to Invade Iraq — Joseph J. Collins

Iraq Decision

Despite impressive progress in security made by the Surge, the outcome of the Iraq War remains in question. Though a comprehensive narrative of the war is not yet possible, an investigation of the major early decisions made at the presidential, interagency, cabinet department, and theater levels is important to the Project on National Security Reform (PNSR). The strategic significance of Iraq and the complex contingency character of much of the fighting alone warrant a comprehensive analysis of the decision to invade the country. In addition, evaluation of the U.S. government (USG) planning effort reveals critical shortcomings that the U.S. national security system must rectify to avoid similar errors in the future.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September 2001, the regime of Saddam Hussein assumed a new, more ominous appearance in Washington. Military operations against Iraq were first suggested by the Pentagon as early as September 12, 2001, but it was not until November 2001 that the President asked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to begin planning for potential military operations against Iraq. The U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), headed by General Tommy Franks, was tasked with planning for the mission. The Chairman, General Richard Myers, USAF, and the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), General Peter Pace, USMC, played a supporting role. In the end, Secretary Rumsfeld assumed a uniquely preeminent position in the development of the battle plan and the invasion force.Rumsfeld envisioned a lightning-fast operation in Iraq, followed by a swift handover of power to the Iraqis. Later, Rumsfeld even deactivated the military’s automated deployment system–questioning, delaying, or deleting units on numerous deployment orders.

While CENTCOM and the JCS did not underestimate the challenge of Phase IV stability operations, civilian leaders at the Pentagon remained critical of the need for a large troop presence. Phase IV planning was uneven within CENTCOM itself. All of the invading divisions and separate brigades believed that they would return home as soon as practicable after the cessation of hostilities. The Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), charged with carrying out initial stabilization and reconstruction activities, was not established until January 2003, at which time it was subordinated to the Secretary of Defense, who placed it under the authority of Central Command.

Colin Powell, with the strong backing of the United Kingdom and other U.S. allies, convinced President Bush in August 2002 to exhaust diplomatic efforts before going to war. While Secretary Powell was successful in restarting weapons inspections in Iraq, he was never able to build a consensus for decisive action in the Security Council. The President fared better with Congress and received strong, bipartisan approval for prospective military operations against Iraq.

In March 2003, the U.S. military commenced Operation Iraqi Freedom and effectively toppled Saddam. By May 2003, however, an anti-coalition insurgency had begun to develop. The military had not prepared for a counterinsurgency campaign and required approximately a year to adjust its field operations. The civilian ORHA plan for postwar Iraq was also scrapped and replaced by more than a year of formal American occupation under the Coalition Provisional Authority led by Ambassador L. Paul (Jerry) Bremer.

Though Saddam’s perceived possession of WMD unified diverse factions within the administration in support of the war, USG efforts were not well integrated. While formal war planning was in high gear from Thanksgiving of 2001 up to March 2003, planners in the civilian agencies were not included in Pentagon close-hold briefings. They did not begin to make meaningful independent contributions until summer 2002. Moreover, postwar issues were divided and addressed by different groups that often worked in isolation from one another, sometimes for security reasons and sometimes for bureaucratic advantage. Complicating matters, very few humanitarian planners had access to the war plan, while very few war planners cared about anything other than major combat operations.

Though Powell and CIA Director George Tenet supported the President’s decision to wage war, a significant number of officials in the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency dissented, sometimes through disruptive media leaks. Within the Pentagon, Franks––who shared Rumsfeld’s belief in the importance of speed––was caught between trying to placate his boss and satisfy the physical needs of his forces. Though the subordination of ORHA to the Pentagon appeared to streamline the chain of command, it also dampened interagency cooperation. The dysfunctional tension between clear lines of command and cross agency coordination continued when ORHA was replaced by the CPA. Bremer emphasized his status as Presidential Envoy and did not report consistently to or through either the Secretary of Defense or the National Security Advisor.

The Iraq war is a classic case of failure to adopt prudent courses of action that balance ends, ways, and means. Policy queuing was a problem. The tentative scheme to manage postwar Iraq was approved in October 2002, but little could be done as diplomats vainly attempted to solve the problem without recourse to arms. After major combat operations had ceased, U.S. efforts were hampered by ineffective civil and military plans for stability operations and reconstruction. The U.S. government deployed inadequate military forces to occupy and secure Iraq. Washington has also been unable to provide a sufficient number of trained civilian officials, diplomats, and aid workers to conduct effective stabilization and reconstruction missions. The State Department and USAID remain underfunded and insufficiently operational, while military manpower has been overextended. Exacerbating the situation, the U.S. government was slow to appreciate the ferocity of the Iraqi insurgency. Problematic U.S. funding and contracting mechanisms also delayed the provision of services and basic reconstruction.

From the outset, the underlying assumption that major combat operations would be difficult but that securing peace would be easy had a corrosive effect on planning. Faulty intelligence on Iraq’s suspect weapons of mass destruction, the state of Iraqi infrastructure, and the usefulness of Iraqi police contributed to “rosy scenario” predictions. Whether motivated by wishful thinking, stress, or predisposition, decision-makers failed to properly account for the extensive countervailing analysis, which warned of the dangers in postwar Iraq. In addition, one consistent problem demonstrated by the first Bush administration has been a failure to partner successfully in the interagency, with the Congress, and with our allies.

As of mid-2008, the Iraq War had cost the United States over 4,100 dead and over 30,000 wounded. U.S. military allies have suffered hundreds of additional casualties. Iraqi civilian dead may number more than 90,000, while over 8,000 Iraqi soldiers and police officers have been killed. Fifteen percent of the Iraqi population has become refugees or displaced persons. The Congressional Research Service estimates that the USG now spends over $10 billion per month on the war. Total direct appropriations for Operation Iraqi Freedom from March 2003 to June 2008 have exceeded $524 billion.

Globally, U.S. standing among friends and allies has decreased substantially. At the same time, operations in Iraq have had a negative effect on efforts in other facets of the war on terrorism, which have taken a back seat to the priority of the war in Iraq when it comes to manpower, materiel, and decision makers’ attention. The U.S. armed forces––especially the Army and Marine Corps––have been severely strained. American efforts in Iraq have fostered terrorism and emboldened Iran to expand its influence throughout the Middle East.

The central finding of this study is that U.S. efforts in Iraq were hobbled by a set of faulty assumptions, a flawed planning effort, and a continuing inability to create security conditions in Iraq that could have fostered meaningful advances in stabilization, reconstruction, and governance. With the best of intentions, the United States toppled a vile, dangerous regime but has had great difficulty replacing it with a stable entity. Notwithstanding recent progress under the Surge, this case study exposes serious mistakes in U.S. government policy making and execution regarding Iraq.