Interviews September 2004

A Tragedy of Errors

James Fallows, the author of "Bush's Lost Year," describes the road to Iraq as a case study in "failed decision-making"
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In "Bush's Lost Year," the Atlantic's cover story for October, James Fallows argues that over the course of 2002, President Bush squandered myriad resources and opportunities as a result of his drive to war against Iraq. Among the opportunities lost, Fallows argues, were a chance to reassess our "inglorious bargain" with Saudi Arabia, a chance to wage a comprehensive war on terror, and a chance to improve the situation in Afghanistan—all amid a climate of international solidarity that followed September 11.

Perhaps the most worrisome development, Fallows suggests, concerns the threat posed by the other members of the "axis of evil"—the ones that we know have or are developing weapons of mass destruction. With our standing in the international community diminished, our military considerably weakened, and the trustworthiness of our intelligence in doubt, he explains, Iran and North Korea have much less to fear from America than they did before Iraq: "the United States now has no good options for dealing with either country."

Fallows points out that today Osama bin Laden is still at large; America remains utterly dependent on Saudi oil; anti-Americanism is increasingly rampant; al-Qaeda's numbers are growing; the national debt is increasing; our military is stretched to the breaking point; and Iraq is a mess. It is difficult to fathom how in a year we can have lost so much. "All that was required," Fallows writes, "was to think broadly about the threats to the country, and creatively about the responses. The Bush Administration chose another path."

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a long-time contributor. He is the author of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, among other books.

We spoke on August 27.

Elizabeth Shelburne



Your piece is about decisions that Bush and his administration made in 2002, and the damage that resulted. In general, why do you conclude that 2002 was "a lost year"?

In this article I was trying to get at what happened in one surprisingly short period, a little over a year. This was the time between America's immediate reaction to being attacked on 9/11, and its situation barely a year later, when so much of the treasure of the country—its military manpower, its government, its international influence—was concentrated on the single goal of removing Saddam Hussein.

At the beginning of 2002, the U.S. had a vast range of resources and opportunities at its disposal. But over the course of that year, we lost or traded away a number of those, including: the ability to conceive of the terrorist threat in the broadest possible terms; the ability to draw upon deep reserves of international support; the ability to rely upon national unity; the ability to field a strong and agile military; and the ability to put government financial resources to effective use. It's the loss of all those opportunities that amounted to a lost year.

It seems like the administration could not have picked a better way to shatter all of these opportunities than war with Iraq.

Certainly that was not the administration's intention. But the path it chose had almost matchlessly perverse results. The military became committed in a way that both foreclosed other options and, more important, made the limits of American power evident in ways they hadn't been since Vietnam. The military has been overused and in some ways abused because of the nature of this war. The problem was not simply the decision to make Iraq the singular focus of the war on terror, but also the way the war and its aftermath were carried out. That goes back to the pattern I mentioned in an earlier article, "Blind into Baghdad," about how focusing on Iraq, without fully committing the resources to see it through, ended up being uniquely harmful for the military and the country.

Now we face worse nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea than ever existed in Iraq, but we're in a weaker position to deal with them. Our complaints about them are both less believable and less legitimate, in terms of lining up international support. The apparent misuse of U.S. prewar intelligence on Iraq, and the plain inaccuracy of our assessments, creates a kind of "crying wolf" problem for any future undertakings. The financial commitment in Iraq has been enormous. And the fractures within the country have made it seem as if that post-Sept 11 consensus seem never existed. "Camelot" is usually thought of as a Democratic rather than Republican term, but for five or six months after September 11 there was a kind of Camelot moment, which is entirely gone now.

You make the point that there seemed to be little or no consideration of what might happen afterwards, or of the possibility that our approach might fail.

Every action has consequences, both pro and con. We're seeing those in Iraq now. The "pro" clearly is eliminating Saddam Hussein. No one would dispute that that was a benefit. The question is whether, in the vast scheme of things, it was worth it, given the way it was done. That's what historians will ask, and what Americans should be asking—at least in my view. But as far as I can tell, there's no available evidence that the Administration ever considered the question in a systematic way. That is, they asked "Would it be good to get rid of Saddam Hussein" but not "What will we give up if we do that?"

In the abstract, it's surprising that no one seems to have asked that question. What's not surprising is that this omission is consistent with everything we know about President Bush's style of deliberation. As he often points out, he makes a decision—and he sticks with it. He doesn't revisit it. But as far as one can tell from all the available evidence, the decision was, Let's get Saddam Hussein. The decision was not, If we do this, what will be the effect on America's interests, the world's interests, or our overall situation with terrorism? As far as I can tell, after looking very hard, that conversation did not occur.

Based on what I've read, it sounds like dissent did exist at the time; it's just that those dissenting opinions weren't reaching the president. Is that correct?

Yes. My own personal judgment is that for decades into the future, political scientists and historians will study the decision-making process that led to the Iraq war as a case study in failure. Or at least deliberative disfunction.

You have a president who has made a point of neither inviting challenge on points of detail nor himself seeking out significant facts. John Kennedy was famous for picking up the phone and calling a third-level person in the State Department to ask, "What's really going on in Laos?" Bush has never shown an inclination to do that kind of thing and, in fact, has prided himself on not being bogged down by the details.

The team surrounding him has apparently conformed to those wishes. There is little evidence that the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, has been able to surface the latent and important disagreements within the government, such as those between the State Department and the Defense Department. If she had done this, the President would have—or at least in principle could have—recognized that there were fundamental differences of viewpoint. The factual basis for those viewpoints could—again, in principle—have been aired so that the strengths and weaknesses of each side could be examined. But there's no evidence that she has independently fought to make sure the president was aware of facts that didn't fit the prevailing vision. The two clear examples of this are the apparent torpidness with which she presented the information in August of 2001—"Bin Laden determined to attack inside the United States"—and the failure to consider the idea that post-war Iraq might be difficult to govern, even though much of the U.S. government was practically shouting out warnings to that effect. Based on what's known now, the national security advisor was simply not doing two of the basic duties of her job—surfacing deep disagreements within the government so that they can be resolved, and bringing to the President's attention points of fact that might have had important long-term policy implications.

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