Bush 43 advisors on the war in Iraq

Bush 43 advisors on the war in Iraq

Top officials talked to Miller Center scholars about the evolution of the conflict

American public opinion never supported Operation Iraqi Freedom to the same extent as it did the Afghan war. Through Miller Center oral histories, former officials opened up about the most critical issues at the time: the removal of Iraqi leader Sadam Hussein, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, the Abu Graib prison atrocities committed by U.S. Army personnel, “enhanced interrogation techniques” (viewed as torture by human rights advocates), ill-considered decisions to disband the Iraqi army, mounting fatalities, injuries, and an an insurgency by Iran-backed Shia forces.

On the decision to invade Iraq:

Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert:  I think the first time the President indicated that Iraq was a problem was the [2002] State of the Union. I was listening to him and he started talking about Iraq. I said, “Oh, crap. We’re going to end up in Iraq.” He was making the case that we needed to move against Saddam Hussein. We were getting intelligence things about yellow [cake] and evidence it was there. We were constantly getting intelligence briefings on … how many centrifugal force machines they had and all those types of things.

Robert Gates, later secretary of defense:  [Former secretary of state James A.] Baker and I used to talk about how much shit we took between 1991 and 2003 for not going all the way to Baghdad [after Operation Desert Storm]. Of course, we’d make the argument that the coalition would have shattered, that it wasn’t under the authority of a Security Council resolution. I would argue Saddam wasn’t going to sit on his veranda waiting for the 20th Mechanized Division to drive up and arrest him; he’d go to ground, form an insurgency, and we’d end up occupying two-thirds of Iraq and have to repair everything we destroyed. Go figure. After 2003, I never heard that criticism again.

On the importance of WMD for the decision to invade Iraq:

Q: One argument that has been advanced is that because of the defiance of the UN resolutions there was ample legal rationale to go [into Iraq] and do what we did anyway because effectively the First Gulf War had not been—

Karl Rove: The terms of the resolutions had been violated.

Q: Exactly. So my question is to get you to respond to that. Is that an insufficient argument in the post-9/11 environment to prosecute the war?

Rove: You can make that argument. I could accept it, but look at it from [President George W.] Bush’s perspective: “I want this to be done in a way that is sustainable. I don’t want to just use the precedent of ‘He is violating a number of UN resolutions.’ I think we will be in a stronger place as a country and internationally if we have a vote of Congress, a vote of the United Nations, and a broad coalition in agreement with us that we need to enforce this.”

This attitude was formed over many months of discussion. I think his rationale was that the country would be better off if this is done by Congress rather than done by him. Perhaps this goes maybe unconsciously back to the fact that he recognizes that Florida and the 36 days from hell have put him in the Presidency, and that places a special burden on him: There are people in this country who don’t accept that I’m legitimate, so they will apply a tougher test on an action, and I don’t want to weaken the Presidency long term. I want to strengthen the office that I have. I want to leave it in better shape than I found it. The office has been hurt by the lack of respect that many Americans think it was held in, and then more importantly, I came here in a way that is controversial. So I need to take additional steps to make certain that the Office of the Presidency is not weakened by this action.

Q: Got you. What I was trying to make a distinction about was whether the argument about weapons of mass destruction was a necessary argument in a legal environment where the violations existed whether he possessed the weapons of mass destruction or not.

Rove: That’s right, but after 9/11 this was a bigger issue for us. The issue had been in force since 1991, and obviously neither 41 nor Clinton had felt that his—We then get an argument, “Well, if it was so bad, why didn’t Clinton come? Why wasn’t Clinton in favor of this? Why didn’t Clinton do this? Why didn’t your dad do this? Why did your dad let this happen?”

Q: And that doesn’t change after 9/11. You can’t make an argument that we’re in a different environment.

Rove: You can, but the calculus after 9/11 is we can no longer tolerate an actor like this with access to these kinds of weapons who is playing around with terrorist elements and can slip these things to nonstate actors. So the calculus changes after 9/11.

On the disputed intelligence case for going into Iraq: 

House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-MO):  About January, the President in these meetings started to talk about Iraq. My immediate reaction was yes, I understand what you’re saying. I was also aware that our Air Force and our Armed Forces had been maintaining the no-fly zone in Iraq 10 years after the first Persian Gulf war and that that was expensive and we were losing lives and that was a big problem. But I said to the President in one of the meetings, “If this is just about getting rid of Saddam Hussein, I am not for it. There are a lot of bad guys out there and we can’t go kill all of them; it’s impractical.”

“But,” I said, “if it is about him having weapons of mass destruction that could end up in the hands of terrorists, then I am willing to listen and get serious.” He said, “Figure it out for yourself. Don’t take our word for it, go out to the CIA, talk to them, talk to anybody you want to talk to in the military. Make up your own mind.”

I went out to the CIA. I think I went three times at least and talked to everybody there, alone. I said to George Tenet, “This is not about Saddam Hussein for me. This is not about trying to go change the Middle East forever,” which some of the neocons [neoconservatives] thought this should be about. Even though that’s understandable to try to do, I said, “For me it boils down to one simple fact: Does he have weapons of mass destruction, especially components of nuclear weapons, or does he not? Do we worry that some components could wind up in the hands of terrorists?” Tenet and everybody else I talked to—They said the other world intelligence services agreed that he did. It was a real problem.

So I came back and told the President, “I’ll speak for and vote for and cosponsor the resolution.”

On the intelligence about weapons of mass destruction before the invasion of Iraq:

Karl Rove, senior advisor: What I saw was intense focus on the quality of the intel [intelligence] and did it say that he had WMD. I think that was the lever. It was one thing to say that this was a bad actor who supported terrorism. It was another thing to say that this was a bad actor who supported terrorism who had weapons of mass destruction and regional aspirations that threatened American interests and the interests of our allies in the region. I saw the care and the detail that was gone over and participated in a distant way as we prepared these speeches and statements. There were robust arguments about phrases.

I remember John Kerry went out and made a speech on the floor about the threat and we discussed about how he said things that we would never feel comfortable saying, that he painted a picture of greater immanency than we were willing to acknowledge, particularly on Saddam’s nuclear program.

This is a sobering decision all along, even after we went in and the concerns grew even heavier. I remember when the Third ID [infantry division] was approaching Baghdad and there was really grave concern because Condi and Hadley revealed that the Iraqi commanders are talking to each other in open traffic, “When do we get to use the weapons? When are we going to deploy the weapons?”

So we have the Third ID in MOPP [mission-oriented protective posture] suits. It’s 95, 100 degrees, and they’re approaching Baghdad. These kids are in these antibiological, antichemical warfare suits, looking like something out of some sci-fi movie, approaching Baghdad and trying to fight. You can’t ignore some Iraqi brigade commander saying, “General, when will the weapons be unleashed?” You can’t say, “Geez, they don’t have any.” We did find I think it was 14,000-some-odd artillery shells and short-delivery weapon systems with missile systems with degraded chemical material in them.

I think the whole system of the government over there was so dysfunctional that as these stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons deteriorated, nobody wanted to go in and report to the chief that that was the case. Saddam had them. He used them on his own people. We found them. We found the dual-use facilities that he could use to make these things quickly, particularly chemical weapons.

Saddam was pretty clear with his U.S. interrogators that these weapon systems, or the thought that he had these weapon systems, were important to sustaining him in power. He was diverting tens of millions of dollars from the Oil-for-Food Programme to keep together the infrastructure necessary to reconstitute all these programs when Western attention faltered. He was confident it was, and it was.

On the protracted search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq:

Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert: We were looking for a needle in a haystack in the first place, and the haystack moves.

Josh Bolten, White House chief of staff:  I remember a conversation with [speechwriter] Mike Gerson, who—he and I were on the periphery of the intelligence and the Iraq decision making. We went out for a walk, or were having lunch together or something. We had gone days without the inspectors finding anything, you know, finding any evidence of weapons of mass destruction. So there was doubt beginning to creep in, which was shocking to me and I think it was to Mike as well, doubt beginning to creep in about the existence of the weapons of mass destruction. At that point I was still convinced that they were there, but they had done a very good job of hiding them, or the inspectors weren’t looking particularly hard.

I remember one of us making a comment that—I think I was making a political comment to the effect that if they don’t find those weapons, the President’s reelect is dead. Mike made the comment, “Reelect? If they don’t find the weapons, he’ll probably be impeached.” We sort of—I remember we kind of laughed nervously. [laughter] I was still convinced that they were there, we just weren’t finding them. I didn’t think at that point that it was a serious prospect that they wouldn’t be found.

On blame for the failed assessment that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction:

General Michael Hayden, director of the Central Intelligence Agency: When we look back on it, I think no one disagrees that it was mishandled. But I also point out that it’s our fault, not the President’s, not the Vice President’s. This is tradecraft on the part of the intelligence community.

[Former Clinton chief of staff and CIA director] Leon Panetta had written a little bit when he was out of government about the administration cooking the intel, and the very last thing I said to him as I left the building was, “Leon, that’s just not right. We just got it wrong…. You’ve got to stop saying it. It was our fault. We just got it wrong. Nobody pressured us.” 

On the expectations about how the Iraqis would greet American soldiers:

Josh Bolten, White House chief of staff:  I don’t think there were many people who expected something a lot worse than what the Vice President predicted, people cheering in the streets. At least in the initial phases of all this we thought we were going into a friendly environment of people who would be enormously relieved and grateful to be out from under from Saddam’s boot and cooperative in constructing a functioning democratic capitalist society. We turned out to be wrong.

On the public messaging during the Iraq War: 

Stephen Hadley, National Security Advisor:  [President Bush] understands that when you’re doing something hard, like Iraq, the President needs to will it to happen. And this is something a lot of people will criticize him for. They will say he’s not introspective, it’s all black-and-white, it’s all two-dimensional. You bet. Once he commits troops, it’s two-dimensional. It’s, we are going to succeed. Every time he tried to give a speech on something other than the War on Terror it ended up being a War on Terror speech. I finally went to him and said, “Mr. President, why are we saying the same stuff over and over again?”

He said, “Hadley, you don’t get it. We’ve got troops engaged; it’s a nation at war. I have to make it clear over and over again that America is going to succeed. That’s the message we need to send our enemies, that’s the message we need to send our friends. That’s the message I need to send to our men and women in uniform so they can go out every day and risk their lives to achieve this objective.”

On the cost estimates for conducting the war in Iraq:

Mitch Daniels, director, Office of Management and Budget: It is a total myth that I or anyone said this whole project as it unfolded could be done for whatever we were talking, $50 or $60 billion. That wasn’t the question. The question was how much should the administration request in its supplemental appropriation. The question to DoD was, because I said we’re not war fighters over here, or war planners, “What are your assumptions?” What are we supposed to cost? Answer? Crystal clear. It’s all in the Congressional Record. The answer was: Tell us, what will it cost to beat the Iraqi Army and stay six months, until the end of the year? …

So that was the question. Beat the Iraqi Army, stay six months. In everybody’s naïveté, the thought was, Win it, and start getting out. In fact, that supplemental may have had some cost assumptions for the beginnings of withdrawal. …

If someone had said what will it cost to beat the Iraqi Army and stay eight years or ten years, we’d have given a different answer. That was not the question…. I’m very touchy on this subject because it was completely misrepresented later on by people for political reasons. Of course we would have given a different answer if someone had known or even hypothesized an extended war, ten-year occupation. Anyway, that’s that story.

On the problems of postwar planning in Iraq:

General George Casey, Commanding General, Multi-National Force – Iraq: This is something that’s just my own thought, but the Democratic administration, the Clinton administration, had been through Bosnia, had been through Kosovo, and they had understood postwar, postconflict planning. They’d been immersed in it. Bosnia, we struggled through. Kosovo, we learned from Bosnia, and we did that much better. Now you have all these Republican folks who basically weren’t in government when all that stuff happened and they’re thinking about this for the first time….

The impact on the President? He’s getting all of this different advice. One of the things that Rumsfeld was very good at was asking hard questions, and he was “kicking over a lot of rocks” on the plan to go to war. It was so difficult and so complex, and the outcome was so uncertain going into the war, that it became all-consuming and there was precious little intellectual and emotional energy left to say, “OK, let’s put the plan together here for the postwar.”

On the crucial decision to "de-Ba’ath-ify" the Iraqi military shortly after the invasion, which contributed to a power vacuum in the country:

General George Casey, Commanding General, Multi-National Force – Iraq: I asked [White House national security expert] Frank Miller about this. You know, one of the things that nobody writes about in their books is who made the decision to de-Ba’athify. Bremer did. I said, “Frank, how the hell did that happen?” Now this is secondhand I’m relating to you. Frank says it was a Friday afternoon or something, and Bremer’s getting ready to go into the country [Iraq]. He comes in and he briefs the principals to the National Security Council that he intends to disband the army and to impose a very stringent level of de-Ba’athification. It had not been raised with anybody beforehand, and it’s one of those bureaucratic moments when nobody says anything because something this big surely had been discussed with somebody and their deputy must not have informed them. I can just see this going through their minds. And nobody said anything, and they adjourned the meeting…. Frank was there, and that’s what he said happened, and it’s just screwy enough to be true.

On congressional criticism of Iraqi failures to advance democracy in their own country:

Robert Gates, secretary of defense: At one point in the spring of ’07, these guys, particularly on the Senate side, were just hammering me on the inability of the Iraqis to pass de-Ba’athification law, oil sharing law, an election law, some fundamental laws that essentially would shape Iraq for a long time to come.

I was sitting there thinking to myself, These guys have emerged from 4,000 years of despotism. They’ve been at this democracy business for a year. You guys, on the other hand, have been in business for 230 years and can’t even pass a goddamn appropriations bill, much less deal with any of the serious problems facing our country and you’re complaining about them not meeting benchmarks? How about some benchmarks for you guys?

I prepared five budgets as Secretary. Not once in the four and a half years that I was Secretary was there an appropriations bill signed by the beginning of the fiscal year, not once.

On the great difficulties of fighting the war on terror:

House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-MO):  One of the things I used to say is we can’t kill all of them. You’ll never kill all the terrorists. You have to figure out how to change the underlying causes, which is nation building. That’s really hard to do. In this part of the world it is even harder to do. And query the appetite of the American people to do this, even in the name of national security. It’s a really tough leadership proposition to lead this country in the face of that threat. But the answers to it are really complicated, expensive, and difficult, and we’re still grappling with it and we will be grappling with it for a long time.

On the internal debates about enhanced interrogation techniques:

Pete Wehner, speechwriter and director of the Office of Strategic Initiatives: Did they work? From what I read, and I read a fair amount on it, it seems to have. As a general matter, people will come back and say it is not a forum where the information that you get is very good. But if you talk to some of the people who administered the program, they make a fairly persuasive case that it did. These are the hard decisions in a war. I can justify it with qualifiers. I am not completely comfortable with it, but when you’re in a position of protecting people—and I do think context matters. A lot of people have forgotten or they weren’t aware of the intelligence that was coming in after 9/11. They were expecting an attack that was much worse. We were flying blind; we knew very little about al-Qaeda. We were scrambling to get information. What is the nature of this threat? You get a high-value target like this that you’re not getting otherwise. You have to connect the dots. If you don’t connect the dots, then you’re excoriated because you didn’t do enough to protect us when thousands or tens of thousands of people die.

In retrospect should we have done it? We ended the program. If they had never gone on would we have gotten less information? Maybe. When you’re doing these things in real time I think it was justifiable. But it wasn’t an easy or simple decision.

On the Office of Legal Counsel and its work:

John Yoo, deputy assistant attorney general: What usually happens is the White House counsel or the Attorney General’s office would say we want to do this, something. Then part of our job is to say if you do it, you have four ways to do it. If you do it the first two ways, it will be unconstitutional. If you do it in these latter two ways, it will be constitutional. The latter two ways might not be as fully effective as the first ways in achieving what you want, but they’re constitutional. It happens all the time.

The statutory role or the Executive order role is a little different. You’re not just advising on proposals; you’re reviewing legislation that has already passed. Then it’s more this is either constitutional or unconstitutional. But take for example the [USA] PATRIOT Act [Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act]—I got really heavily involved in the Patriot Act. There was this desire to make it easier to get warrants for national security wiretaps. The White House would say—actually parts of Justice and the White House would both ask us and say—“Can we change the standard to get a national security wiretap from A to B?” We might say, “Look, you might not be able to get it from A to B, but you could get somewhere halfway that would be constitutional. If you try to go all the way to here you might have a serious problem.”

Then you tell them that. It’s still up to them to decide what they’re going to try to do, but they have our advice. Usually we’re the last word in the government—OLC is the last word in the executive branch about constitutionality in terms of our view. So if you said something was unconstitutional, usually they’re not going to do it. I try to think of them as the same thing because I think that’s just sort of standard with clients and lawyers generally. Clients say we want to buy this company or something and the lawyer’s job is to say, “You can’t do it in these two ways. You could do it these other two ways.”

On the problems of getting an incumbent president ready for the reelection campaign: 

Josh Bolten, White House chief of staff: In fact there was a point at which we were concerned—not that he was insufficiently focused on the campaign, but that he was insufficiently focused on some of the mechanics of the campaign, like debate preparation. I think that happens to every second-term President. They say, “I don’t need that; I don’t need to prep, I’m doing this stuff every day.” What they forget is that for three and a half years they have not been confronted in either the context or the way that a political opponent will confront them. Presidents are pretty well insulated from political confrontation. The British have question time and things like that; we don’t do that to Presidents. The worst we do to them is the occasional press conference where it’s not a debate. The person gets to ask a question and maybe a follow-up and that’s it. So we were worried about Bush, who a little bit surprisingly to me didn’t take much interest in his debate preparation for ’04 and I think it showed, at least in the early debates.  

On the argument for a troop surge in Iraq in 2006:

William McGurn, White House speechwriter: I remember having an argument with someone, I can’t remember who it was. They were kind of implying, “Well, things are bad because the speeches weren’t good enough.” I said, “You give me a better war, I’ll give you better speeches.” It sounds flip, but it’s true. What the American people wanted to know is, Are we winning? In 2006 it looked like we were losing…. So 2006 was a terrible year. Everyone knew at midterms people wanted us out of Iraq. Even people who previously had supported the war wanted us out of Iraq. I think the President realized that…. By the fall, way before the midterms, President Bush was planning to change his strategy…. Remember, the surge was not about just sending more troops to Iraq. The surge was also about completely changing the strategy.

This is a speech where the speech is policy. We’re not explaining the policy, we’re making the policy in this speech. It’s very difficult. Here is the fundamental difficulty we had. The President’s new strategy was a counterinsurgency strategy. The old strategy was you go and you have a base and you support operations. This was to go after the insurgents, to get them in their lairs. Petraeus had thought out a new approach. It’s a counterinsurgency strategy. Not just more troops, a different strategy. The problem we had was we were not allowed to use the word “counterinsurgency.” Now, why would you say we couldn’t use it? The answer was in classic counterinsurgency teaching, I think. You’re supposed to have 10 troops for every one of the enemy’s to be successful. We didn’t have that, we had eight troops or something. Now, General Petraeus argued that the Iraqi Army and police supplied the difference. What we didn’t want is people saying, “Oh, it’s a counterinsurgency strategy. It’s doomed to failure because our troops don’t have the numbers you need for counterinsurgency.”

So here’s the problem from the speechwriter’s point of view. You’re wearing a red tie today. How do I describe that tie if I can’t use the word “red”? The most we could say was General Petraeus had been the author of the U.S. Army’s counterinsurgency manual. So the result is after two weeks we put this thing together. It goes through the staffing. Then on a Saturday morning at like 6:30 we’re meeting in the Oval Office. The President has seen the speech for the first time…. The President reads through. He’s on like the third page. He goes, “OK, page one is awful, but it’s not the disaster that page two is.” You can imagine what we’re thinking here: This is not going to go well. [laughter]….

I sat literally right next to his desk on the side when we went through these speeches. The other guys sat on sofas or something. He used to say to me, “Billy, we are not going to abandon the people of Iraq the way we abandoned the people of Vietnam, from the rooftop of an Embassy.” I loved him for that. I really do. I love the man for that. We went through the speech. He didn’t like it. After this meeting—when he doesn’t like it, you have to go fix it….   

Everything went wrong the night of the speech. This is my proudest speech and everything went wrong. No one wanted to hear it. It had been canceled so many times before. Iraq is going to hell. So few people believed it. So few people endorsed it. Even the conservatives trashed it after that. When he delivered it, I don’t know if you remember, he delivered it from a room downstairs. I think it’s the library. I remember we had to change the angle because one of the lights in the background looked like a cross and we didn’t want it to look like a crusader’s thing, the way the light was shining on the thing.

Fox did it, and if you remember they missed the feed or something in the beginning. He looked very awkward. It was just awkward and tense. So everything went wrong with this speech except the substance. I said before, “Better war, better speech.” It holds up very well. The surge worked. Not because the words were so great. He took the blame for everything. There is a line that says, “The troops have done everything I’ve asked of them.” I think it holds up well….

I remember the President rehearsing that speech. It was awkward. He would sometimes do it two or three times right before a televised address. He had a bad rehearsal on one thing. Instead of rehearsing it he went out on the South Lawn with Barney. I looked at him and I thought, Boy, that’s a lonely man. It’s one thing to write the speech, it’s another thing to have the lives of a lot of men and women hinging on this thing. He went out and I love him for it. It was a real moment of courage…. This [speech] is to a war-weary public. Then you’re asking the poor guys out in Fallujah and these places, “I know you’ve given everything and you’ve seen your buddies die, but we’re asking a little more of you.” It’s a hard thing to ask and it is a hard thing to do. I was proud to be with the President at his lowest moments. Lots of people are there when a President is riding high. I saw a man for all his flaws who was just magnificent in that moment.

On Bush’s leadership and the troop surge: 

Robert Gates, secretary of defense:  I give Bush a lot of credit. In essence, because Iraq is not going well, at the end of 2006, for all practical purposes, he fires the Secretary of Defense, the combatant commander, CENTCOM [U.S. Central Command] commander, the field commander, and goes against the unanimous advice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to approve the surge.

For those who talk about Obama neglecting the views of the military or disagreeing with the military or so on, this is as stark a case as I have ever read about, since [Abraham] Lincoln, in many respects, or the conflict or the disagreement between Roosevelt and [George] Marshall about sending materiel to England rather than building up the U.S. Army first. There are a handful of these examples in the 20th century and early 21st century, but this is a stark one of a President and his civilian advisors directly disagreeing with all of their uniformed leaders to take a major step.

My experience was that Bush listened to his generals and always listened respectfully, but was not in the slightest hesitant to disagree with them. It was particularly true in ’06, when it was perfectly apparent that their strategy was failing.

Pete Wehner, speechwriter and director of the Office of Strategic Initiatives: The decision on the surge qualifies as one of the most courageous and impressive political decisions in my lifetime—it certainly was in my experience in the Bush White House. Unless people were there at the time, they don’t remember the ferocity of the political headwinds to get the surge through.