To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq

This is a terrific 2020 book by journalist Robert Draper. Here are some highlights:

* Donald Rumsfeld’s desire for dominance at times hindered his desire for information—except, of course, around the president, at which time he became a model of self-restraint, leaving Bush at a loss to understand how anyone could find fault with his genial SecDef.
Over time, a close observer of Donald Rumsfeld—which Feith and Wolfowitz were, by necessity—understood that, while any number of things might set him off, a few in particular were guaranteed to do so. The first of these was to assume that alliances were hallowed objects, never to be tampered with. Ten days after the 9/11 attacks, the secretary issued a new Rumsfeld’s Rule, via snowflake: “The mission determines the coalition. Don’t let the coalition determine the mission.” 51 This new dictum had been on Rumsfeld’s mind after the preceding weekend at Camp David. That was when Powell had argued that going after Iraq would destroy any effort to build a vast post-9/11 coalition. “Then maybe it’s not a coalition worth having” had been Rumsfeld’s rejoinder. The notion that the outside world should be dictating America’s goals mortally offended his sensibilities. And, as Feith would observe, “it didn’t matter whether the topic was North Korea, Iraq, or Timbuktu.” 52 For in the end, Rumsfeld believed, one’s intentions were themselves sovereign states.
Another grave mistake was to assume that some small decision might be unworthy of Rumsfeld’s time. This was almost never the case. If something of even the slightest significance was to be decided, the secretary wanted to know about it—and early, “when the clay is wet” and he could still shape the contours of the matter. 53
Having the secretary’s fingers sculpting the daily DOD minutiae was a fact of life to which many career staffers struggled to adjust. At times, they pushed back against doing so. A major source of friction was the “dep book,” the bulging file of deployment orders coordinated by the Joint Chiefs and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Rumsfeld insisted on approving all troop movements. Some, of course, were major and well deserving of the secretary’s input. Most, however, were logistical necessities—training missions, repositioning of military police from one base to the next—that would seem not to rise to the secretary’s level.
Such judgments, however, were for Rumsfeld to make. Each and every mission throughout the world would grind to a halt as the secretary squinted at the dep book. Recalled one Pentagon official, “He would either sit on things or flat-out reject them, or ask question after question: ‘Why are we doing this?’ Push came to shove, and we were really having trouble getting forces deployed, even on training missions. It became a real issue. Here we had folks prepared, trained, literally on the tarmac at times, waiting for the go-ahead and not getting it. And we were getting hard questions from the JCS as to why OSD couldn’t get the dep order signed. We became aware that it was just a game the secretary was playing: If I don’t sign this, who’s going to scream the loudest?”

* A third mistake was to assume that the “mama bird,” the CIA, knew what it was talking about. This was one error that neither Wolfowitz nor Feith was likely to commit.

* One day in the late spring of 2002, CIA director George Tenet hosted a town hall for his employees in the Awards Suite of the agency’s Original Headquarters Building. The event was a show of inclusiveness in keeping with Tenet’s reputation as an accessible, gregarious boss who ate in the employee cafeteria and worked out in the campus gym with the GS-12 careerists. It was also the director’s way of acknowledging that morale had plummeted after 9/11 and now, as the Bush administration began pressing its case against Saddam Hussein, was falling through the floorboards.
A counterterrorism analyst named Susan Hasler raised her hand. The concern on her mind did not pertain to Tenet’s management of the agency. Rather, what dismayed Hasler was the director’s inability to ward off the unreasonable demands of the Bush administration.
“People here are being tasked on the same question over and over,” she said. All of them had been putting in excruciating hours trying to thwart the next attack. But that crucial work was competing for time with seemingly pointless inquiries that had already been answered, time and again. “And frankly,” Hasler concluded, “it’s wearing people down.”

* The Central Intelligence Agency, founded in 1947, had implicitly been created to avert another Pearl Harbor. It could be said that the agency had failed in this mission on September 11, 2001. Yes, Tenet and his subordinates had issued repeated warnings to the new administration about bin Laden’s fatwa against America, about the “system blinking red.” But, as Henry Kissinger was said to have admonished one of the agency’s top analysts in 1973, after the outbreak of the Yom Kippur war, “You warned me. But you did not persuade me.”

* “The thing about intelligence,” the agency’s former Iraq group chief Hal Rooks would say, “is that you can always find what you want somewhere on the spectrum.” 28 But even that full spectrum of intelligence data—conflicting statements, statements, unverified sightings, ambiguous imagery, and overheard innuendo—had begun to lose its primacy after 9/11. The CIA now confronted the specter of a post-intelligence era. Rather than make sense of the unfathomable, policymakers fell prey to “allowing their imagination to serve as a substitute for information,” according to the British sociologist Frank Furedi. Or, worse, they might even choose the fantastical over the factual. In the face of inconclusive intelligence, wrote Furedi, policymakers took license in “promiscuous speculation” and “the institutionalization of ‘thinking outside the box,’ which is another way of saying, ‘more imagination.’”

* To Powell’s brain trust, Bush “tended to try to make up for in principle what he lacked in knowledge,” one of them would say. “Like ‘You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.’ He sometimes didn’t understand the implications of what he was saying. And he didn’t want to hear anyone explain the implications to him.

* Still, when the secretary told his staff, as he often did, that Bush tended to make a decision “based on the last person left in the room with him,” 22 it was his glum way of admitting that, as one who never lingered with Bush, he was unlikely to get his way.

* But for George W. Bush, the information he received was not always as important as how he received it, through the narrow-mesh filters of his human experience.
Beginning with his first campaign for Congress, in 1978, the abiding political through line for the Texas oilman had been his embrace of individual liberty. He repeatedly cited freedom as God’s gift to all humanity. In a well-publicized campaign speech at the Reagan Presidential Library on November 19, 1999, then-Governor Bush mentioned the word “free” or “freedom” twenty-seven times. The candidate dared his audience to imagine a free China, a free Russia. He ticked off the intoxicating effect of free markets, free trade, free elections; of the freedom to worship; of whole regions one day giddy with the contagion of freedom.

* The terrorists’ primary objective was to destroy America’s freedom. Saddam hated America. Therefore, he hated freedom. Therefore, Saddam was himself a terrorist, bent on destroying America and its freedom.

* [French president Jacques] Chirac was dismissive. Intelligence agencies tended to “intoxicate each other” with worst-case scenarios, he said.

* But the progress made by the inspectors in Iraq was beginning to make others feel queasy. At The Washington Post, reporter Walter Pincus called Blix, whom he had known since 1960, when the two met in Ghana as delegates of the World Assembly of Youth. Hanging up after their conversation, Pincus realized that Bob Woodward and others at the Post were being taken for a ride on the WMD narrative.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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