A tale of two memos

In War and Decision, Douglas Feith’s important book on Pentagon decision-making in the early days of the war on terrorism, Feith tells of two memos presented by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage on the same day, July 25, 2002, regarding the governance of a post-invasion Iraq. The first memo warned of the danger of the U.S. being seen as an occupying power. It predicted that the result likely would be “delegitimized government, instability and possible terrorist acts against U.S. forces.” This view was shared by Feith, who therefore advocated that significant power be transferred to Iraqis promptly after the invasion.

The second State Department memorandum rejected this approach, however. It insisted there “must be no doubt who has international executive authority in Iraq,” namely a U.S. led “Transitional Civil Authority.” Although in Afghanistan the rapid transfer of power to Afghans “external” to that country had worked reasonably well, Armitage took the position that this approach would not work in Iraq where, he argued, the “balance” of “real leadership” was “weighted much more to the inside.” In essence Armitage and others in the State Department believed that the Iraqi “externals,” and particularly Ahmad Chalabi, lacked credibility with Iraqis.

Thus, Armitage favored a “multi-year transitional period” during which the U.S. would run the country while “internals” developed their credibility. Armitage advocated this despite his understanding, expressed in the first memo, that multiple years of a U.S. dominated government would breed instability and terrorism.

Given these probable consequences, which turned out to be all too real, Armitage’s position makes sense only if an Iraqi government dominated by “externals” was likely to be disastrous. This seems to have been Armitage’s view, but on what was it based? He and others in the State Department believed that “externals” like Chalabi lacked credibility with the Iraqi people, but, again, how did they know this? The U.S. had precious little reliable intelligence about Iraq, and there certainly were no public opinion polls we could rely on. Moreover, common sense suggests that the credibility of any post-invasion Iraqi government would be a function less of a priori assumptions than on performance. A government that could deliver basic services, get the economy going, and provide basic security would likely be credible enough. And Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld had stipulated that the amount of power granted to an Iraqi government would depend on its performance of those duties initially turned over to it.

In short, the State Department’s position against turning power over to Iraqis, and in favor of a heavy-handed occupation laden with adverse consequences of which State was well aware, seems misguided and arguably irrational. It is best explained, perhaps, by reference to the view of Chalabi held by certain Arab states whose preferences have been known to carry weight at Foggy Bottom. To these states, Chalabi was a menace, but not because he lacked “credibility” with Iraqi, and not because he lacked competence. To the contrary, the problem with the charismatic, dynamic Chalabi from their perspective was (a) his pro-Arab democracy stance and (b) his Shiite religion.

One can understand why this might alarm certain Sunni Arab dictators. Why it should have alarmed the State Department and/or why the Department failed to distinguish the interests of these dictators from our own (and from those of the Iraqis) is less clear.

As Feith recounts in his book, L. Paul Bremer ultimately implemented the State Department’s vision for post-invasion Iraq even though President Bush had signed off on Rumsfeld’s plan. Bremer would later write: “What would have happened if the U.S. government had turned over Iraq to the exiles in May, as some in Washington had wanted?” As Feith notes, Bremer “misses the point that the individuals he disparages. . .are the very same Iraqis to whom he eventually turned over the government.” The case can be made that all Bremer and Armitage achieved by delaying the turnover was the instability and terrorism Armitage himself had predicted would likely result from U.S. domination of the post-invasion government.

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