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"

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.

Then there's the Vice President. As far as I can tell, he has been the one who has insistently pushed points of view for which there is no apparent factual basis. He's the one who still says, "We haven't found weapons of mass destruction—yet." He still says there is evidence of links between al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, and the September 11 attacks, a year after President Bush disavowed this claim.

I would argue that the Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State are, each in their own way, tragic figures. Colin Powell's whole previous life was spent avoiding exactly the kind of circumstance that his administration has now created and embraced. He has tried to avoid committing the military to jobs it can't really do—where the backing, logistical, political, and other kinds, was less than it should be. For various reasons, he was not able to win the battles inside the Administration that would have prevented that situation. But he decided to stay in and be a good soldier rather than a dissenter.

As for the Secretary of Defense, he was clearly experienced enough in the ways things can go wrong to have some idea of what might happen. 'Rumsfeld's Rules'—his book—is all about the need to foresee the worst and to speak up honestly. And those are the very things that he appeared not to encourage within the Pentagon, nor to do himself within the Administration in challenging the war plans. He, too, was a good soldier.

The result of all this is a kind of path of folly where the people who could say, "Wait a minute, is this a good idea?" were systematically excluded from the decisions, and a smaller and smaller group of people reassured each other on the basis of hope rather than evidence. As a procedural matter, it started with the president's own personality and intellectual traits and radiated out from there.

Doesn't the idea of Rumsfeld being a "good soldier" put him in more of an outside role than some have imagined for him?

I think he was both on the inside and on the outside. An illustration is a memo from Rumsfeld that Bob Woodward mentioned in one of his books. This was a memo that Rumsfeld sent to the President not long before the war began, in which Rumsfeld, with surprising prescience, lists things that might not go according to plan. That Rumsfeld could come up with such a memo illustrates his sophistication. But what makes him a tragic figure is the use to which the memo was put. He didn't say, "Perhaps we should reconsider the entire enterprise—perhaps we should think again about the broadest range of threats we have to deal with, and the trade-offs we will inevitably encounter if things go wrong in Iraq." It wasn't a last-minute warning about the decision the President was about to make. Instead his conclusion after all the grim predictions was, "We should make sure that war plan is double-scrubbed and worked on extra well." So he had already decided to be a good soldier. There is nothing in Rumsfeld's past that suggests that he is one of these "nation builders." In his past life he would have rolled his eyes at the idea that you could remake Iraq into a showcase specimen of democracy.

Have there been other wars fought in this manner, in which the aftermath wasn't considered?

Historically, a tremendous strength of the United States was that it would start thinking about what would happen after a war while the war was still going on. I mentioned in my previous article that by 1942, when the U.S. had barely gotten into the European war and was still on the losing side of the Pacific war, it set up a school of military government for postwar Japan and Germany. Within the military this same tradition was very much honored in the Iraq war. There were very, very careful efforts to plan for a postwar occupation. Through a combination of arrogance and failure of imagination, none of those plans was put to use until now, when they're suddenly being looked at. One of many things I still find puzzling is why the people who were most determined that the war succeed and that Iraq become a successful example were so totally uninterested in those efforts to make the occupation work. Of course I'm thinking of people like Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, and President Bush.

As you outlined this litany of failures—not discussing potential costs, not considering the aftermath, and not questioning whether this was a course of action that would make us safer—I kept asking myself, how did the Administration get away with this? Did you find some answer to that question?

I have only a partial answer. There are three things that allow an administration to "get away" with something like that. First, on national security matters, basically any administration can get away with anything for a while, especially when there is a huge reservoir of trust in the administration, as there was after September 11. The Administration's immediate response after September 11 was very high-minded, very reassuring, very trust inducing. The President struck a very eloquent tone in his address of Sept 20, 2001; the initial operations in Afghanistan seemed to be carried out with great dexterity; there was international sympathy. And so the natural benefit of the doubt that any administration initially enjoys in dealing with foreign and military challenges was enjoyed even more by this Administration because of the circumstances of September 11 and its immediate response.

The second factor was the general tone of the press. For idiosyncratic reasons, the two leading institutions of the press, The New York Times and the Washington Post, were both much less skeptical of the drive to war in Iraq than they have been of most similar undertakings since Vietnam. The Washington Post was amazingly bellicose through the year 2002. The editorial page was resolutely and explicitly pro-war, and the news pages were implicitly and effectively pro-war. As the Post's own examination recently pointed out, there were ten times as many front-page stories saying, "Administration claims nuke threat from Iraq" as there were skeptical stories—which were buried, when they ran at all, deep inside the paper. I think that tone partly reflected the personalities of many people involved in editing the newspaper, partly the outlook of the Post's publisher, Donald Graham, who was a strong supporter of the war, and partly an indicator—and accelerator—of a tremendously powerful wartime mood in Washington, D.C. The New York Times had its Judith Miller issue, which made it implicitly more pro-war than usual. Also, the New York media in general were much less skeptical of the Iraq war than they have been of other wars, because New York was still feeling wounded. So by the end you had even the New Yorker sounding pro-war.

And then you have the Democrats. In my personal view they made an opportunistic and wrong decision in the fall of 2002—the decision that they could not afford to oppose the war. Many of them had opposed the first Gulf War and felt that was a political mistake, so they couldn't oppose this one either. The leaders of the Democratic Party decided in the fall of 2002 that they really could not oppose the president on this right before the midterm elections. They tried to get it out of the way in a big hurry, so they could win the midterm elections on their economic issues, ha ha ha.

As your piece makes clear, we are in fact less safe than we were before we went into Iraq. Yet this is an Administration that continues to be identified by most Americans as being most able to keep America safe. How do you account for that disconnect?

The most impressive thing to me in reporting this article is that there is virtually no dissent among national security professionals on the idea that invading Iraq has made America much less secure. I think that's an underappreciated point in the general public—to put it mildly. Except for those who have an occupational obligation to support the Administration's policy, everybody in the national security business says, "Of course, this has made the U.S. more vulnerable than it was before." Our army is more overextended and weaker; our allies are much less on our side; the source of opposition is much, much, much more intense than it was before. And we've lost time in dealing with Iran and North Korea.

I guess there is a general lag time before people come to mistrust an administration. There's a natural desire—a proper and a healthy desire—for people to believe that in matters of foreign policy an administration is acting with America's best interest in mind and is trying to protect us. It takes time for the public to be convinced-away from faith. Years from now, I have no doubt that Americans will refer off-handedly to Iraq as a "mistake" or "disaster," but the realization hasn't all set in yet—and for people who support the President in general, it's an uncomfortable fact to face. And the Democrats have had troubles in clarifying exactly what they think. Because of the way they voted in the fall of 2002, it's complicated for them to make the case against the war. I think if Bill Clinton were on the stump, he could probably explain the perverse consequences of the war to people, although he was somewhat pro-war. I think it's a combination of the normal lag time and a failure of explanation by the Democrats.

You and Seymour Hersh seem to have become the journalists that those in the Pentagon and the intelligence community who are dissatisfied tend to reveal their thoughts to. How does that process work? Are you at a point now where you find them or do they come to you?

Two of the long pieces I've done in the last two years ("The Fifty-first State" and "Blind Into Baghdad") and one short one ("The Hollow Army") have brought a lot of people out of the woodwork. A lot of people have written to me after those articles appeared, saying, "Oh, you don't know the half of it." Email really is wonderful! There has also been a nucleus of people I've known for a long time as they've risen through various ranks of the military and the national security community. There has been a kind of ongoing conversation among these people about the way America responds to different foreign policy threats. The fact that these people proved to be right early on about Iraq has made their view increasingly interesting to me, so I've kept in close touch with them. There are networks of people who, as they gain confidence, know they can talk to you without having their views distorted or, in certain cases, their cover blown. You're able to have more sustained talks with them.

As a journalist in that position how do you distinguish between those who want to register legitimate concerns versus those who just have an axe to grind?

This is an eternal problem, especially when it comes to internal politics in the Pentagon. There is a lot of personal ill will on the part of a number of people in uniform toward Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, and Doug Feith especially. In a way, that's obvious enough that you can allow for it—as you would with a partisan bias. It's a matter of just being aware of these biases and being able to separate them out and say, "Ok, despite the bile, here's the factual point the person is raising."

People inside the Administration essentially won't talk to journalists anymore unless they think you're guaranteed to be sympathetic. I used to be able to talk to people like Paul Wolfowitz, whom I'd known and liked before. Now they don't even answer. So, people on the inside will not talk, and people who used to be on the inside, if they talk, are immediately denounced as having an axe to grind—Richard Clarke, for example, or General Shinseki, who doesn't give interviews, or Thomas White, the former secretary of the Army, or a number of others. If you ever complain in public, then it's versions of the Valerie Plame-Joseph Wilson issue—you must be a sorehead, there must be something wrong. By virtue of your dissenting, you are discredited.

Were you surprised by the amount of dissent among the people you talked to?

I was impressed by the venom of the people who are professional soldiers and professional national security advisers, toward their current civilian leadership. Obviously it's not such a good thing for the country if professional soldiers resent their civilian leadership. I think these soldiers are clearly aware of their obligatory deference to civilian authority, but the sense they have of having been misused and betrayed in careless ways by civilian leaders is very powerful. One of them told me, "We're the ones who are going to be out there calling parents saying, 'Your son has been killed, your daughter has lost her arm, your husband has been captured.' We're the ones making these dreadful phone calls, because somebody else had a sweeping idea, and had some experimental vision of transforming the Middle East." They mean Feith, Wolfowitz, and Cheney—and to a much smaller degree the President, who they see mainly as having been sold on these visions by his advisors. Their case against Rumsfeld is that his ideal of a leaner, meaner, streamlined army led him to commit far too few troops to Iraq.

What is behind Rumsfeld's "light and fast" military ethos? It seems like there's a lot of evidence that it doesn't seem to be able to stabilize a country in the long term. I'm just wondering, why are we still seeing troop reassignments in that same model?

The "light and fast" approach in general is a good one, and I think that part of Rumsfeld's reform doctrine has been a valuable part of the fight he's been trying to lead. The difficulty is that he has apparently cared more about winning that symbolic battle than thinking carefully about this particular war in this particular country—Iraq. It's certainly the case that these light, fast units are wonderful for destabilizing regimes or for lighting strikes. But the job in Iraq, as it was conceived by the administration, was a different one. It wasn't just about getting rid of Saddam Hussein and then leaving. It was about transforming the country altogether. That's a very different undertaking. Rumsfeld apparently has a longstanding disagreement with the Army establishment. He thought they were too slow in changing their ways. He let that spill over into ignoring, disregarding, and overruling their very prescient warnings about what it would take to actually run Iraq. In his past life, he would have ridiculed pointy-headed theorists, but his regime within the Pentagon has meant the triumph of the pointy-headed theorist over the people who actually have to occupy territory and pacify neighborhoods.

Aside from talking to people like you, what recourse does the military have for airing its dissatisfaction?

The first recourse is voting with their feet. It is almost certain that a year or two from now the headlines about recruitment will have to do with dramatic shortfalls of NCOs, the Guard and Reserve not meeting recruiting targets, people generally deciding to leave. It's a dramatic change from eight or ten years ago when the military felt itself to be in kind of a golden age.

You're in good company when discussing the need to reassess what you call the "inglorious bargain" with Saudi Arabia. Given that it's something that's clearly on people's minds, why isn't that more of a political issue?

I don't know. There are all sorts of bargains that the United States needs to reassess. It needs to reassess its relationship with Saudi Arabia, with Pakistan, with Israel. But each of those has some kind of barrier to being discussed. With Pakistan it's probably just the boredom factor—nobody wants to talk about Pakistan. Also, they are a nuclear power. With Saudi Arabia it's all the obvious economic power that Saudi Arabia has. Part of reassessing that relationship would mean very much reassessing the energy economy of the United States. One of the painful things about the lost year is that 2002 could have been a logjam-breaking opportunity to think about our relationship with both Saudi Arabia and Israel. This was our chance to say, "We've just been through an experience that makes clear that it's time to look at fundamentals. Let's look at the fundamentals of our energy dependence, let's look at the fundamentals of our overall Mideast strategy." Those issues were not raised even once, as far as I can tell, within the Administration.

You speculate that Afghanistan might have provided a better showcase for progress than Iraq. But in an interview I did with Michael Scheuer, he said that at the end of the day the Afghans will probably install some sort of Islamist government in Kabul, and you can probably have ten or fifteen "democratic" elections, but in the long run it will still be tribal politics and clan relations dominating the politics of the country.

I bow to him in expertise on Afghanistan, but the point I'm trying to make is that there was a lower bar for seeming to succeed in Afghanistan than the bar we set for ourselves in Iraq. In Afghanistan, if you could make things somewhat better, then you could show that by going in and removing the Taliban, the United States had brought what was by every measure a net improvement. You could also have probably made it somewhat easier to stamp out the poppy economy and kept the warlords somewhat more under control. It would not have been Luxembourg or Sweden, but it would have been better. It would have been an easier challenge to meet than this very grandiose, sweeping test of the first Arab-Islamic democracy we've created for ourselves in Iraq.

You describe a power vacuum that set in after Bush revoked the Presidential Decision Directive 56, which laid out interagency cooperation in emergencies. Without that in place, a lot of power became concentrated in the Pentagon. What are some of the risks of that kind of concentration of power, and what effects are we seeing from that now?

From Atlantic Unbound:

Sage, Ink: "Party Politics" (March 2001)
A cartoon by Sage Stossel.

There have been a number of failures of inter-organization cooperation and collaboration associated with the war in Iraq. The State Department was almost willfully frozen out of post-war planning. And near the end, Bush signed an order saying the Pentagon would officially be in charge of the occupation. So what could have been a machine working together starting in early 2002 ended up instead as a bunch of turf wars. There was an evident loss of a lot of expertise, time, and effort, and an increase in resentments. Nobody, probably not even the Pentagon, will now claim it was a good idea to have only the Pentagon in charge of the occupation. The State Department is now being roped into it as fast as the Pentagon can manage, and that shouldn't have been necessary a year-plus after the war. It should have been that way from the beginning.

You make clear that because of the war in Iraq, our ability to deal with a North Korean or Iranian threat is much more limited. Our army is spread thin, we have fewer troops in South Korea—

And who will believe our warnings now?

Exactly. What do we do if there's a crisis with North Korea or Iran, say, ten years down the road?

Ten years down the road, I don't know. In the short term, it seems to me we are really in a mess involving both those countries. Essentially, everyone understands two things about the way we need to deal with them. First, solutions have to involve international effort, international leverage, and international assurances. And second, the United States has to lead those international efforts. We have the most advanced intelligence system and the biggest military, among other things. Both halves of that equation are harder for us now. It's harder to put together the international effort, and who will believe our intelligence? So, what exactly will happen with respect to North Korea and Iran, I honestly don't know. Many people argue that North Korea, although apparently more of a lunatic regime than Iran, is ultimately less threatening because what they're looking for is mainly status and recognition. Their demand in the last session of showdowns with the U.S. was essentially a commitment from the United States that we wouldn't attack them. That's just about all they wanted. Both these regimes clearly have nuclear programs underway. It's not a matter of doubt like with Iraq. So, it will be a major challenge for the next administration to deal with both those countries with diminished resources.

And what about Iran?

Iran is in a very, very unstable area. It's a major power in that area, and it's acquiring weapons while it's surrounded by also very well-armed powers. So there are a number of dangers: will Israel feel it needs to take preemptive action against Iran? Will the Saudis feel they need to get nuclear weapons if Iran has them? It's just an inherently unstable area compared even to Asia.

When you wrote "The Fifty-First State" how convinced were you that those predictions you made were going to come to pass?

I could hardly throw a stick in Washington at the time without hitting somebody who was thinking or worrying about post-war Iraq. It was such a widely understood issue that I couldn't imagine that there would be so little systematic attention to preventing these problems. I didn't know then—I couldn't really imagine—what I learned when reporting the 'Blind into Baghdad' article, that all this careful preparation would be ignored. Now the Administration seems to be content with saying there were some predicted problems that did not occur. For example, the oil wells weren't burned, and there weren't the mass refugee flows. Their attitude seems to be, you win some, you lose some. But nobody can claim to have been blindsided by what happened, the way we were blindsided by the planes into the World Trade Center. These were foreseeable and foreseen problems.

Your message in "Bush's Lost Year" is that the Bush team failed to make America safer. It's a cover story for the October issue, just before the election. It seems inevitable that this is going to be labeled a partisan attack. How would you respond to that?

What I've been doing over the last two years is looking at America's military and diplomatic response to the pressures it's come under since September 11. This article is a logical continuation of the other work I've been doing about how Iraq happened, how things could have gone better, how they could have gotten worse. Part of The Atlantic's historic role has been to explain, as best we can understand, the big issues of our time. During the Vietnam War, The Atlantic was not a partisan magazine, but it published an increasing number of articles saying, "How could this war have happened? How could it have unfolded in just this way? How is it likely to end?" The magazine's coverage of that war was not partisan, even if the governments then in power—first Democrats, then Republicans—were unhappy about some of its implications.

I don't think you'll find a partisan word in my article. I'm talking about how the current government, the only government America has, performed on Iraq and the war on terror, because these are the major foreign policy issues of the day. The most honest assessment I can make of the situation is the one I offered the magazine.

As I said a while ago, I think the road to Iraq will be studied as a specimen of a failure of decision-making. And while that is a hostile judgment about the nature of the current administration, I'm not intending it as a partisan judgment. If Democrats had done the same thing I would be just as critical. What I'm saying is that in carrying out the public trust and committing the nation to war, the current Administration did not perform well. They ignored crucial information, they fooled themselves on certain important points, and they did not, based on the available evidence, consider the broadest possible view of America's strengths and weaknesses and how to defend them.