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Leffler Assesses Bush Administration’s History and Legacy Ten Years after the Invasion of Iraq

President George W. Bush addresses the nation from the Oval Office at the White House Wednesday evening, March 19, 2003

President George W. Bush addresses the nation from the Oval Office at the White House Wednesday evening, March 19, 2003, announcing the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. PD-USGOV-POTUS

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq. In a new article for Diplomatic History, Melvyn P. Leffler, Faculty Associate in the Miller Center’s GAGE Program and Edward Stettinius Professor of American History in the History Department at the University of Virginia, reviews what officials from the George W. Bush administration have written about selective key foreign policy events during the administration. Leffler acknowledges that while memoirs can be self-serving, they can also offer “valuable insights into the motives, thoughts hopes, fears and personal relationships within an administration.” In the article, Leffler highlights areas of agreement and disagreement between the officials. He also assesses the foreign policy decision-making process in the administration and the leadership style of the president.

According to Leffler, Bush administration officials generally agree that foreign policy was not a top priority when they entered office. Rather, the Bush administration’s main agenda focused on tax cuts and education reform. With regards to national security, the main focus centered on accelerating the ballistic missile defense program and transforming the Pentagon. “Nowhere in these memoirs,” writes Leffler, “is there any indication that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Ashcroft or Rice assigned high priority to a prospective terrorist attack, an omission that would come to haunt administration officials, and no one more than Rice.” After the September 11, 2011 attacks, the overriding concern of President Bush and officials in his administration was to prevent another attack. The memoirs also reveal that after the attack, the administration operated under fear and deep uncertainty.

Leffler finds general consensus in the memoirs that invading Afghanistan was conceived of as the first of a sequence of actions. The administration sought to go on the offensive in the war on terror. According to Leffler:

Top officials wanted to go after all terrorists and all states that harbored them, not at once, but sequentially. They were not focused on Osama bin Laden, or al Qaeda alone; they wanted to destroy Jemaah Islamiya in Indonesia and the Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines as well as challenge the Chechen terrorists and the Basque separatists. Nor were they focused exclusively on the perpetrators of 9/11.

Despite accounts otherwise, Leffler shows that the memoirs reveal that planning for the war in Iraq only began in the wake of 9/11, the anthrax scares and signs that al Qeada might have been seeking WMD. Leffler finds that not all administration officials believed that Saddam Hussein was linked to 9/11 or even necessarily to al Qaeda. While Vice President Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz did believe it, President Bush did not and Donald Rumsfeld was uncertain. Meanwhile CIA analyst Paul Pillar, Richard Clarke and Colin Powell thought it was nonsense. However, the Bush administration was convinced that they had reason to act and they were impelled by a sense of power to do so. According to Leffler, the memoirs inadvertently illuminate:

the hubris and self-confidence of officials who believed the country had been savagely attacked, and who felt they had the power and right to wage war, wreak revenge, topple defiant (and much weaker) regimes, and spread American values and institutions – values and institutions that in their view had proven their vitality and appeal in the victories over communism, fascism and Nazism.

The memoirs also reveal that war on Iraq was not on the administration’s agenda before 9/11. Rather, it was designed to thwart the possibility of another attack. Leffler also finds consensus on the reasons for going to war with Iraq:

What is clear in the memoirs is that the administration went to war in order to deal with a range of perceived threats – not to promote democracy, not to transform the Middle East, and not to secure supplies of oil…Virtually every memoir makes clear that officials in the Bush administration did believe that Saddam had WMD (specifically biological and/or chemical weapons) or would soon acquire them or seek to develop them.

On the timing of the decision to go to war, there is much ambiguity across the accounts. Leffler writes:

The ambiguity stemmed from the fact that, according to Tenet, “there was never a serious debate…within the administration about the imminence of the Iraqi threat.” Bush acknowledges that he never convened a decisive meeting or asked for a full discussion.

Rather than blunting attacks by critics about post-invasion reconstruction failures, in their memoirs top administration officials only blame each other. And there was clear disagreement about what those efforts should entail. For example, while Bush’s memoir emphasizes that democracy promotion became a “central” objective after toppling Saddam, Rumsfeld and Feith insist they wanted to hand authority over to Iraqis (mostly Iraqi exiles).

Furthermore, Leffler argues that the memoirs confirm a dysfunctional decision-making process throughout the Bush administration. Cheney and Rumsfeld, for example, attack Rice for the way in which she conducted business at the National Security Council, while Rice acknowledges the challenges she faced in dealing Rumsfeld, Powell and Cheney. Dysfunctionality is also highlighted in the divisions over the so-called “freedom agenda.” While Bush and Rice came to view nation-building as essential to nurturing U.S. security interests after the invasion of Iraq, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Feith and Zakheim rejected or derided the “freedom agenda.”

While the memoirs note flawed administrative structures and ineffective decision-making procedures, Leffler finds:

The president’s overall leadership style is praised more often than not in these memoirs, even by critics of his policies… He may have been intellectually incurious, as some colleagues suggested, but other interlocutors found him knowledgeable, engaged, vigorous, highly focused, and a good listener. Almost everyone liked Bush’s folksy manner, humble demeanor, and good wit. In contrast, his toughness, refusal to doubt himself, and determination to act boldly wrought both admiration and criticism from his advisers and subordinates. None doubted that Bush was, in fact, the decision-maker.

Leffler concludes that the memoirs leave many essential issues unresolved. For example: Why did top administration officials pay little head to the warnings of an attack prior to 9/11? After the invasion of Afghanistan, why did they focus on Iraq, rather than Syria or Iran? Why was planning for what came after the invasion of Iraq so marginalized and disorganized? Leffler notes that scholars will have to wait for the release of full archival collections in both the United States and Iraq until these and many, many other issues can be addressed more clearly.

Read the full article, “The Foreign Policies of George W. Bush Administration: Memoirs, History, Legacy,” by Melvyn P. Leffler here.

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