What might have been — our government’s plan for post-invasion Iraq

Few topics have been more thoroughly misreported than our government’s planning for post-Saddam Iraq. In the MSM narrative, a project called the “Future of Iraq” developed a plan for rebuilding Iraq, but neo-conservatives in the Defense Department dismissed it and offered nothing in its place. Thus, the conventional wisdom is that “we didn’t have a plan” for dealing with Iraq in the aftermath of the invasion.

No one who knows anything about government could believe this. Government has many flaws but an inability or reluctance to draw up plans is not among them. Yet the “no plan” refrain is repeated endlessly. I’ve been on television with otherwise intelligent leftists (Christy Hardin Smith, in particular) who have put forth this facially absurd notion as an article of faith. Responding, other than through ridicule, has been difficult since I wasn’t privy to the government’s planning.

Doug Feith was not only privy to the planning, he did much of it. And in his new, invaluable, book War and Decision, Feith describes what the plan was, how it was developed, how the State Department fought against it, how President Bush approved it, and how L. Paul Bremer cast it aside. (In Feith’s account, the vaunted “Future of Iraq” project was not a governance plan; it was just a series of ideas which, contrary to the conventional narrative, the so-called neocons thought were mostly fine).

In this post, I’ll focus on the Defense Department’s plan. In a follow-up post, I’ll examine with more particularity the State Department’s opposition to that plan. And I’ll describe how Richard Armitage advocated a multi-year U.S. occupation even though he understood that it likely would result in instability and possibly terrorism against U.S. forces. Armitage was motivated by a determination to ensure that “externals” – Iraqi exiles and Kurds – would not assume leadership in Iraq. In the end, of course, we got both instability/terrorism and the “externals.”

The Defense Department’s plan might have avoided much of the instability and terrorism. It was predicated on the idea that the U.S. should not be viewed as an occupier because that perception would breed violence. Thus, it was vital to get the Iraqis involved and out-front promptly. The original concept, developed by Feith, was to follow the Afghanistan model. That meant installing a provisional government immediately and placing it largely in charge of governing the country.

However, Secretary Rumsfeld did not see the Afghanistan model as fully applicable. Afghanistan, he understood, was so bereft of resources and infrastructure that even a bad government could do only limited damage. Iraq, by contrast, was rich in oil and had a substantial military. Thus, a corrupt, incompetent, and/or vicious government could do major harm, for which the U.S. would be held responsible.

Rumsfeld therefore told Feith to modify the plan. Feith responded with the Iraqi Interim Authority (IIA), in essence a power-sharing plan under which Iraqis would be in charge of certain ministries, but not at first the key ones. As the government proved itself, additional ministries would be handed over to it.

The State Department opposed both a provisional government and the IIA concept. Its fear was that Iraqi exiles, and especially Ahmad Chalabi, would dominate in such an arrangement. The fear was rational in the sense that exiles, including Chalabi, might well dominate. What’s less clear is why this prospect was so alarming as to become the touchstone for State’s thinking. Feith speculates that this had to do with Chalabi’s status as an anathema to Arab states, a status based on (a) his religion — Shiite — and (b) his association with the movement for Arab democracy. It is not unheard of for the State Department to accord substantial weight to the preferences of friendly, or nominally friendly, Arab governments.

Feith insists that the Defense Department had no particular interest in installing Chalabi or other “externals.” It was not seriously pro- or anti-Chalabi. Feith says that while there are dozen State Department memos that talk about Chalabi in negative terms, he knows of no Defense Department memo that advocates on his behalf. In fact, Rumsfeld was unequivocally against tilting in Chalabi’s favor. Consistent with that view, the IIA was to be a mixture of externals and internals. Elections would later decide which Iraqis ran the government.

To be sure, the Defense Department favored using the externals in advance of the invasion. It favored using them to obtain intelligence, which was in very short supply. Defense also wanted to hold a political conference among the exiles and the Kurds to develop the principles for a post-Saddam constitution. The purpose was not to favor Chalabi or anyone else; the purpose was to hit the ground running. Defense also wanted to train several thousands Iraqi troops. Here, again, the purpose was not sinister. The idea was to have Iraqis participate in their own liberation and to get a head start on developing a reliable security force. Armitage and others at the State Department fought vigorously against the political conference and the training. They were largely successful.

The Defense Department was successful, however, in getting President Bush to sign-off on their post-invasion plan. General Jay Garner, the head of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, then set about to put it into effect (Garner states, by the way, that he never received any instruction or request to favor Chalabi; when Feith talked to him about potential leaders, he was neutral and objective).

But Garner’s successor, L. Paul Bremer, decided to reverse course and implement the State Department’s vision. That vision, and Bremer’s decision, will be the topic of a follow-up post.

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