I thought I knew most of the major blunders of the Bush administration's foray into Iraq. But Roger Cohen has come up with a new one. He's talking about Zalmay Khalilzad:

"Khalilzad’s anguish centers on May 6, 2003. That’s the day he expected Bush to announce his return to Iraq to convene a grand assembly something like an Afghan loya jirga that would fast-forward a provisional Iraqi government.

Instead, the appointment of L. Paul Bremer III to head a Coalition Provisional Authority was announced. Khalilzad, incredulous, went elsewhere. In the place of an Afghan-American Muslim on a mission to empower Iraqis, we got the former ambassador to the Netherlands for a one-year proconsul gig.

“We had cleared both announcements, with Bremer to run things and me to convene the loya jirga, both as presidential envoys,” Khalilzad told me. “We were just playing with a few final words. Then the game plan suddenly changed: we would run the country ourselves.”

Alluding to former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his successor, Condoleezza Rice, who was then national security adviser, Khalilzad continued: “Powell and Condi were incredulous. Powell called me and asked: ‘What happened?’ And I said, ‘You’re secretary of state and you’re asking me what happened!’ ”

Powell confirmed his astonishment. “The plan was for Zal to go back,” he said. “He was the one guy who knew this place better than anyone. I thought this was part of the deal with Bremer. But with no discussion, no debate, things changed. I was stunned.”

The volte-face came at a Bush- Bremer lunch that day where Bremer made a unity of command argument to the Decider. “I put it very directly to the president: you can’t have two presidential envoys running around Iraq,” Bremer told me. (...)

The insurgency that took hold after Bremer’s arrival had a clear target: the guy in Timberlands. Given the extent of its post-cold-war power, the United States must wield it with subtlety. This was the sledgehammer approach.

And chosen over lunch. “Unfortunately, yes, the way that decision was taken was typical,” Powell said. “Done! No full deliberations. And you suddenly discover, gee, maybe that wasn’t so great, we should have thought about it a little longer.”"

I suppose it's easier to conclude that it was a mistake to place Bremer in charge, rather than creating an interim Iraqi government immediately, now that we've seen the results: a disengaged proconsul with no real knowledge of the country issuing decrees detached from reality while twenty-something Heritage Foundation wannabes run around trying to convince Iraqis "that Iraq should not enshrine judicial review in its constitution because it might lead to the legalization of abortion." Although, frankly, it would have been pretty clear back in 2003: in the Middle East, of all places, having Iraqis in charge would have made a huge difference.

But what was obviously, unequivocally, plainly a mistake was to make a decision of that magnitude over lunch, without any serious discussion. That's just insane.

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