TO START A WAR
How the Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq
By Robert Draper
Penguin Press, 480 pp., $30
Robert Draper is a veteran journalist and a staff reporter at the New York Times magazine. He has just published a comprehensive look at how the U.S. decided to invade Iraq in 2003. His stunning, thorough account is based largely on interviews with some 300 people, including just about all the major figures except George W. Bush himself. So why did the New York Times Book Review assign only an 11-paragraph review, which it buried on page 15? Especially as Draper’s study is not only historically indispensable, but is also an up-to-date warning that the U.S. could be tricked into a war with Iran, with some of the same culprits responsible?
Quite possibly, Times editors were embarrassed by Draper’s Chapter 17, “Truth and the Tellers,” which is a brilliant dissection of how the mainstream U.S. media, including his own paper, joined in the drumbeat for war. Draper points out that Times reporter Judith Miller, who was eventually professionally disgraced for reporting false stories about Iraq’s (non-existent) weapons of mass destruction leaked by pro-war Bush officials, was actually something of a scapegoat. The paper’s top brass, including executive editor Howell Raines, encouraged her and others, while sidelining skeptical reports by different reporters. Draper notes that Miller “was certainly not responsible for the [articles] written by her colleagues that the Times editors decided not to publish.”
He writes that the poor coverage was not universal. Knight-Ridder reporter Warren Strobel and his colleagues did write reports skeptical of the administration’s dishonest claims about Iraq’s weapons. But the Knight-Ridder papers were
. . . not situated in the Beltway and not driving Washington’s daily narrative. . . while the reporters at the Times were ever conscious of their status in the top echelon. . . Careers could be made by wars. It was equally true that wars could be made by careerists, including those in newsrooms.
How much of a role did Israel, or pro-Israel neoconservatives, play in the rush toward invasion? Draper points out that Douglas Feith, an undersecretary in Donald Rumsfeld’s Defense Department, was vigorous and influential. Right after the September 11, 2001 attacks, Feith immediately looked for (non-existent) links between the hijackers and Saddam Hussein. Draper explains:
Feith, whose father had been a committed Zionist and whose grandparents had been murdered in concentration camps, was an ardent supporter of Israel and believed Saddam to be that country’s greatest foe.
Draper reports that Israel surely did form part of George W. Bush’s pro-invasion calculations. His father’s Secretary of State, Jim Baker, had warned: “Those neocons are going to eat George W. alive. The only one who could protect him would be (Secretary of State Colin) Powell. But Powell doesn’t know his own strength. He’s the good soldier.” And Bush Junior himself had told British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw that “my dad got burned by the Israeli lobby in 1992, and I don’t want to fall into the same trap.”
But Douglas Feith and other neoconservative zealots were not the ultimate deciders. Draper concludes that George W. Bush decided early on that he wanted to attack Iraq, for a complex mix of motivations that also included his compulsion to strike back somewhere after September 11, and because he blamed Saddam Hussein for (allegedly) planning to assassinate his father back in 1993. The officials around Bush recognized the president’s bellicose inclinations, and they chose cowardice, rigging the intelligence to tell Bush what he wanted to hear. Many of them later confessed to Draper that although they had doubts, they had stayed quiet. Draper put it diplomatically
Though the decision was finally his and only his to make, it will never be known what George W. Bush’s course of action would have been if, during the spring, summer, and fall months of 2002, even one member of his administration had tested his professed receptiveness to an argument against war.
The high-level cowardly group-think prompted some astonishing incompetence. At least the idea that Iraq would turn out to have hidden weapons of mass destruction was plausible, if not backed by any proof. But the invaders made ridiculous mistakes that ended up being lethal. First, the majority of Bush’s advisers decided that an exile named Ahmad Chalabi should lead the new Iraq after Saddam was overthrown, (and a surprising number of journalists joined the Chalabi fan club). It is a mystery how sentient adults could have believed that this man, accurately regarded by many others who met him as a charlatan, who had been charged with bank embezzlement in Jordan, and who had not been in Iraq for nearly half a century, could preside over reconstruction.
It got worse. Draper reports in detail how the Bush administration’s invaders made no plans for administering post-war Iraq. Within weeks, they replaced their first pro-consul, Jay Garner — with L. Paul (Jerry) Bremer, a bureaucrat who, Draper points out dryly, “had no work experience in the Middle East.” Bremer promptly made the fatal decision to disband the Iraqi army — “in one fell swoop putting 350,000 armed Iraqi men out of work.” The Iraqi resistance naturally began almost immediately. So far, 4,583 American service men and women, and at least 288,000 Iraqi people, have paid with their lives for the Bush administration’s incompetence.
The Iraq tragedy is relevant today. On September 14, Donald Trump made up a new threat from Iran, and tweeted: “Any attack by Iran, in any form, against the United States will be met by an attack on Iran that will be 1,000 times greater in magnitude!” Trump sounds unhinged — until you recall that just this January, he provocatively ordered the assassination of Iran’s General Qasem Soleimani — and got little resistance from either the mainstream U.S. press or the foreign policy establishment. Cowardly group-think didn’t end with Iraq.