Opening Up New Avenues to Understanding the Path to War in Iraq
Robert Draper, To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq (Penguin Press, 2020).
The two most glaring challenges of writing recent foreign affairs history are the lack of available archival sources and the interestedness of the human sources, who usually aim to portray events in a favorable light. In the face of these obstacles, historians, journalists, and other scholars usually take one of two paths.
The first, favored by journalists, is to “go deep”: to squeeze every drop from the available sources and cast a wide net for interview subjects. Going deep tends to shed light on how an event happened, how personalities interacted, how information was collected and evaluated, how decisions were made and by whom.
The second, favored by historians, is to “go wide”: to place an event in wider contexts, including the immediate context and the preceding decades or even centuries. This is the interpretive heavy lifting in which the historian links an event to broader trends, ideas, and forces that created the intellectual, cultural, political, and economic atmosphere in which the primary actors operated. Historians often go wide on recent events because their preferred method of going deep — raiding the archives — isn’t yet possible.
It might be assumed that going deep and going wide have a symbiotic relationship. Knowing more about how an event proceeded should help illuminate why it happened. This isn’t always the case, however, as new information in and of itself doesn’t prove or disprove any larger argument. In many cases, new information simply reinforces dominant narratives without creating innovative insights.
It is with this in mind that we ought to consider a new book by Robert Draper, a journalist with The New York Times. This text, To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq, is a case study in these problems. This book’s value lies in its meticulous reconstruction of the Bush administration’s decision-making processes, its gathering and use of intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and its internal divides. However, the book does little more than this, leaving the larger interpretive task of “going wide” to other scholars. These limitations suggest that scholars should increasingly focus on how Americans’ perceptions of Saddam Hussein and Baathist Iraq formed over the previous decades, not just in policymaking circles but in broader cultural, intellectual, political spheres.
In order to write this book, Draper conducted 300 interviews with policymakers, politicians, intellectuals, and high and mid-level personnel throughout the relevant departments and agencies of government. The most prominent interviewees included Colin Powell, Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleezza Rice, George Tenet, and Douglas Feith. The fruits of these interviews allow Draper to shed new light on certain individuals and events, although not the causes of the war itself.
Even experienced national security hands will find Draper’s account of intelligence on weapons of mass destruction illuminating. He interviewed 70 CIA personnel, who recall that top policymakers consistently welcomed intelligence that bolstered the case for war and dismissed contradictory evidence. His interviewees also recall staffers of then-Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld using unvetted intelligence that supported their unshakeable belief in a connection between the Iraqi state and al-Qaeda no matter how many times the intelligence agencies refuted these claims. One CIA official described the spurious intelligence presentations of Feith’s staff as “It was moons away. It was six degrees of Kevin Bacon’s mom.”
In contrast to former CIA Director George Tenet’s self-portrayal in his memoir, where he presents himself as a voice of reason against neoconservative ideologues, Tenet actually prevented the ambiguity of much intelligence on weapons of mass destruction and the doubts of many analysts from reaching top policymakers. Cheney, Wolfowitz, and others made it clear to the CIA what kind of intelligence they wanted, and “Tenet responded to this compulsion by indulging it.” As Draper explains, Tenet and other CIA leaders set up “Red Cell” analysis teams that speculated wildly about Saddam’s links to al-Qaeda, pressured analysts to remove qualifying language from key documents, and excluded skeptical analysts from important meetings.
Nothing illustrates Tenet’s destructive impact on the intelligence process better than the infamous meeting on Dec. 21, 2002. This is when Tenet and Deputy Director John McLaughlin presented the CIA’s strongest case on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction to Bush. The standard account we hear about this meeting holds that Bush expressed surprise about the weakness of the case and Tenet reassured him by saying the intelligence was a “slam dunk.”
But is that really what happened? Using eyewitness testimony, Draper shows that Bush was indeed skeptical, but not about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction or links to al-Qaeda. Rather, he was worried about his ability to sell a dry, nuanced presentation to the American people. “Maybe someone with Madison Avenue experience should look at the presentation,” Bush mused. Tenet’s subsequent “slam dunk” comment was actually reassurance that the case could be sold and that the CIA could assemble more damning evidence to help. Draper concludes that Tenet contributed to the manipulation of intelligence to satisfy the administration’s top hawks and maintain his access and relevance, thus sustaining a distorting feedback loop that explains much of the weapons of mass destruction fiasco.
Draper also unearths bewildering anecdotes that add color and, at times, absurdity to a story that already seems saturated with the absurd. One standout moment came from Feith’s Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group, which aimed to produce intelligence linking Saddam to al-Qaeda in order to provide a counter to the professional analysts who refused to make this connection. According to testimonies from three Pentagon officials, David Wurmser, who worked on Feith’s team, created a massive scroll from butcher paper with “Saddam” on one end an “Osama bin Laden” on the other. In between was a tangle of names, lines, and dates supposedly linking these figures. In keeping with the spirit of this document, which some analysts sarcastically named the “Beautiful Mind” scroll, Feith said to his team: “We have got to find proof that Saddam was involved in this,” with “this” being 9/11.
Despite these strengths, well-versed readers on the Iraq War will encounter familiar themes that are covered in other journalistic accounts: the transformational shock of 9/11, the efforts of Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Wolfowitz to shift the U.S. response to 9/11 from Afghanistan to Iraq, the manipulation of intelligence, the silencing of dissenting voices, and the inadequate planning for the postwar situation. Draper’s work reaffirms that these things did indeed happen and are critical to any explanation of the decision to go to war.
But does the book leave us with a deeper understanding of that decision? Draper occasionally hints at a larger interpretation by suggesting that Bush conceived of the struggle with Iraq as a cosmic moral showdown, but for the most part the book punts on the “why” and focuses on the “how,” in keeping with its title.
Scholars can, however, use Draper’s work to push Iraq War research in productive directions. What’s striking about his and other accounts of the war is the seeming fixedness or calcification of certain views of Iraq among top Bush administration officials and within the larger political conversation: that Saddam would never relinquish his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, that U.S. power could implant democracy in any society, that democracy itself was a universal good, and that containment could not manage the Iraqi threat.
The ossification of viewpoints on these issues by the early 2000s suggests that scholars of the Iraq War should shift their attention from the thoroughly examined 18 months between 9/11 and the March 2003 invasion to the pivotal decade of the 1990s, when Iraq became a major political and foreign policy issue in the United States. Questions about Saddam’s nature and intentions, the feasibility of containment, and the role democracy should play in post-Cold War foreign policy were in greater flux in the 1990s. These elements make up the intellectual, political, and cultural scaffolding of the beliefs that motivated the 2003 Iraq War, and scholars should know more about how, why, and when consensus hardened around them. Some scholars have pushed this work forward, but the bulk of scholarship on the Iraq War remains focused on the 2001–2003 period.
Draper conveys how Bush, Rice, Wolfowitz, and others passionately believed in helping the Iraqi people by democratizing Iraq, reflecting a larger heroic self-perception. For instance, he interviews a British official who recalls Condoleezza Rice embracing him shortly after the U.S. invasion and exclaiming, “We’ve done it Kevin! It’s just like the fall of the Soviet Union!” Bush himself, while watching footage of looters in Basra after the invasion, questioned aloud, “Why aren’t they cheering?”
Bush’s question has a clear answer that few Americans grasped before the invasion. The Iraqi people had been bombed by the United States during the Gulf War, then abandoned to Saddam’s mercies after George H.W. Bush called on them to topple their leader. U.S.-backed sanctions then deprived them of basic necessities throughout the 1990s. With this minimal background knowledge, it makes more sense that Iraqis might not greet U.S. soldiers with gratitude and enthusiasm. These and other moments suggest that Americans folded Iraq into a grand narrative of progress in the struggle of democracy and human rights against totalitarian bullies from the European fascists to modern rogue states. As Bush’s question shows, this self-perception blinded many of them to how the United States is really seen in much of the world.
I am particularly intrigued by how the narrative of an ongoing battle with totalitarian states and ideologies has shaped U.S. foreign policy. Baathist Iraq was widely described as totalitarian in the 1990s, as were states like Iran and North Korea. Might this say more about the United States than it does about the labeled countries? What distorting effects on foreign policy has the totalitarian model created? This would be an interesting path forward for Iraq scholarship and U.S. diplomatic history in general.
I would also like to see scholars look at the larger spectrum of actors in this story, outside of the executive branch and the military: Republicans, Democrats, pro- and anti-war liberals, Iraqi oppositionists, intellectuals of many stripes, experts on Iraq and the Middle East, anti-war protesters, and the public. These actors matter for understanding the path to war because they occupied key institutions that had the power to block, check, or alter the pursuit of regime change. Democrats, for instance, could have insisted on more hearings and testimonies as they did before the Persian Gulf War, more patience with weapons inspections, and the postponement of the vote to authorize the war until after the 2002 midterm elections to lessen political pressures to vote in favor. As some of them have partially admitted, major media outlets could have been more critical of weapons of mass destruction-justification and more open to a wider range of views on the conflict.
Some scholars have offered interesting arguments on the roles of these actors in the road to war. Michael MacDonald’s Overreach explores the tendency of Americans, especially liberals, to conceptually fuse their interests and ideals to the point where they believe that in pursuing U.S. interests, like the removal of Saddam, they will also spread universally beneficial ideals like democracy. Still, much work remains to be done on how the views of these larger groups evolved and why they acted as they did before the war. Looking at these groups’ perceptions of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction programs or the inspections over time could be one fruitful angle.
Finally, the story of how alternatives to regime change such as containment were discredited, both in policymaking circles and in the larger political conversation, deserves more attention. Like most works on the Iraq War, Draper overlooks the containment policy that the United States and its allies imposed on Iraq at the end of the Gulf War. Draper presents some evidence that Rice and Powell believed that Saddam was weak and fairly well-contained before 9/11. This remained a common viewpoint in mid-levels of the CIA, State Department, military, and most U.S. allies after the attacks.
Why, then, did so few members of the foreign policy and political establishment contend that Saddam could be contained if the United States could use the international goodwill and urgency of the post-9/11 moment to revive sanctions, inspections, and other tools of containment? This question disappears from the remainder of Draper’s account. Nonetheless, the question of containment’s rejection deserves greater scrutiny given the post-invasion discovery that Saddam was much weaker than the United States had supposed and that he had destroyed his weapons of mass destruction.
To understand the narrow “menu” of strategies that the Bush administration and other players in the Iraq debate constructed for themselves, scholars should refocus on the 1990s when debates about containing Iraq churned. Whether or not the policy was deemed adequate depended heavily on one’s goals and ethics. For regime change enthusiasts, containment was too limited in its goals and too willing to accept Saddam’s evil presence as permanent. In contrast, containment’s defenders viewed it as a way to manage a thorny problem in lieu of realistic alternatives and the limits of U.S. power. Containment thus serves as an excellent window into debates about national purpose and grand strategy after the Cold War.
Draper’s book adds fascinating new information on the path to the Iraq War, but this approach to studying the war is nearing a point of diminishing returns. One wonders what additional books based on limited declassified sources, memoirs, and interviews could uncover that would truly challenge the mainstream understanding of the war. Until historians have access to the relevant archives, “going wide” by linking the war to larger trends and ideas is the most valuable work we can do.
Joseph Stieb is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Mershon Center for International Security at the Ohio State University. He received his Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2019. He is currently writing a book on the containment of Iraq. Follow him on Twitter @joestieb.