While in Chapters in Regina, I picked up a copy of Fiasco by Thomas E. Ricks. It is a mesmerizing read if for just the amount of incompetence within the White House, the Pentagon, and the provisional government in Iraq (Paul Bremer comes across as an incompetent idiot). Basically it tells the story of intelligence that was discredited within the CIA even before Colin Powell tried to sell it at the United Nations and about how despite a chorus of concerned experts both inside and outside the Pentagon that the occupation could go very bad, very quickly, the office of the Secretary of Defense ignored it.
Those warnings existed in the war plans since 1991 and were made not only by senior military leadership but from a wide variety of partisan and non-partisan think tanks. Republicans and Democrats saw that the invasion of Iraq could go bad without enough troops and the office of the Secretary of Defense just ignored them. Senior military leaders were told to expect a plan on the occupation of Iraq but then in one instance were told to produce one themselves in just 24 hours. It would read like a comedy of errors if not so many lives were being lost.
While Rumsfeld and General Tommy Franks were right that you could win a military battle with speed and airpower, winning a war and keeping order takes a lot of troops. On top of that the early plans all relied on the Iraqi military to help rebuild until Bremer surprised everyone by dissolving the Iraqi military which made 400,000 skilled troops suddenly unemployed and gave them an axe to grind. He followed that up by dissolving the Ministry of the Interior which put all of the police out of work. "De-Ba’thification" worked just about as well. While the military was relying on the Iraqi’s themselves to do this (they would kill the partisan Ba’th member themselves), Bremer put most of Iraq’s skilled workforce out of jobs on the basis that they may be Ba’th members despite strong reservations from the military and his own advisors.
The book does leave one question unanswered. Why senior military and political leaders refused to listen to those around them? Leaders become isolated but in this case a lot of people were able to make their case to them. It almost seems as if they were overwhelmed by the task at hand and chose to ignore it which forced them into defaulting back to their original assumptions as if they couldn’t handle the complexity on hand. This happens in many organizations but generally near the top, you have people who can focus both on the task at hand and on the larger picture. Within the Pentagon and the White House, they seemed to be focused on too small of a picture (winning the war) and too large of a picture (transforming the middle east in to a pro-American democracy) which was the wrong thing to be focusing on.
As the U.S. Army War College study pointed out, the war “was not integral” to the global war on terrorism but was a costly “detour from it.”
For me the question that the book kept bringing back to me was how do leaders who rise to senior leadership positions in politics and the military manage to ignore their advisors at such a key time. This isn’t just a military question either. I have seen church leaders tune everyone else out and Wall Street is littered with companies that made moves everyone else saw as a probable train wreck (Corel going into competition against Microsoft and Adobe at the same time comes to mind). Just recently Stephane Dion campaigned on a Green Shift even those closest to him thought was a horrible idea. Ignoring those around you isn’t new but what amazes me is that those that can’t or won’t are weeded out more effectively by complex systems like the Pentagon. As for how it happened in the White House, that’s Bob Woodward’s specialty.