St. Augustine famously wrote, “We do not seek peace in order to be at war, but we go to war that we may have peace. Be peaceful, therefore, in warring, so that you may vanquish those whom you war against, and bring them to the prosperity of peace.” He also wrote, “True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good.” While it doesn’t use these terms, Robert Draper’s book To Start a War details why the Bush administration made a gravely mistaken decision, despite having clearly met the jus ad bellum criteria of “right intention.” His book, he says in the Preface, is “a human narrative of patriotic men and women who, in the wake of a nightmare [9/11], pursued that most elusive of dreams: finding peace through war.”

Draper organizes the chapters of his book around a key personality or set of personalities in the Bush administration, along with a few other chapters focusing on Saddam Hussein, the press, the inspectors, and CIA analysts. These chapters serve to highlight the distinct and often competing motivations of the Bush administration leadership with regard to Iraq and Saddam Hussein.

This way of framing the issue serves to reintroduce the reader to the complexity of the issues, and the diverse justifications and arguments presented for military action that have too often been lost in the popular imagination, thanks in no small measure to partisan politics. The invasion of Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein would be much easier to condemn if, as many people seem to believe, the motives of the “decision makers” and planners were really corrupt, such as:

  • President George W. Bush really knew there were no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq but decided to invade anyway (“Bush lied, Soldiers died”);
  • Vice President Richard Cheney was the puppet master to Bush, a behind-the-scenes warmonger who promoted the invasion of Iraq to enrich his corporate friends at Haliburton;
  • Under Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was the true architect of the war and the head of a neoconservative warmongering imperialist cabal;
  • Secretary of State Colin Powell was conned into believing that Saddam Hussein had WMD with the flimsiest of evidence;
  • The decision to invade was entirely a Republican conservative or neoconservative affair that had little support from Democrats, liberal reporters, or public intellectuals;
  • “Regime change” was a novel idea promoted by the Bush administration for partisan political reasons (regime change in Iraq, had, in fact, been official US policy since 1998). 

I’m not sure that Draper’s tale of the in-fighting and personality conflicts within the Bush administration reveals much more than we already know. But on the whole, his narrative does add more detail and seems to be a fair description of the distinct personalities of key actors, each with their unique virtues and vices, distinct leadership styles, and competing ideological and policy priorities.

What, then, were the intentions and motivations of the key actors? Simply put, the two central motivations were to (1) secure freedom and peace for the Iraqi people—which would, in turn, serve as an example and eventually spread democracy to the broader Middle East—and (2) eliminate the WMD threat. It was clear to me that both of these were motives for the war, but I have always believed that if the Bush administration had become convinced that Saddam had, in fact, no WMD capability, there would have been no Operation Iraqi Freedom. Draper’s book confirms that belief beyond any reasonable doubt.

Draper opens his book with a chapter on Paul Wolfowitz titled “Idée Fixe.” Wolfowitz, in great measure through his experience as a former ambassador to Indonesia, believed that an Islamic society was capable of representative democracy. He had also been profoundly influenced by the Iraqi dissident and exile Kanan Makaya, at times referred to as “Iraq’s Solzhenitsyn” and the anonymous author of Republic of Fear: The Inside Story of Saddam’s Iraq (1989). Wolfowitz believed that an oppressed Iraqi people, once liberated from the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, would become a representative democracy and serve as an example to the broader Arab-Islamic Middle East. Since Desert Storm, Wolfowitz had promoted the idea that an indigenous Iraqi force, properly supported, could topple Saddam and serve as the first Arab democracy. He considered the failure to pursue this policy immediately following the victory in Desert Storm a catastrophic failure and a disaster for the Iraqi people and the broader region. After 9/11, however, Wolfowitz came to believe that liberating Iraq on the cheap, as it were, by merely providing support to an indigenous force was no longer feasible. 

Here, then, was the intellectual foundation and contextual basis for the so-called “freedom agenda” of the Bush administration. The freedom agenda was a central motivation for the prominent “neoconservatives” in the administration, and certainly it held pride of place among neoconservative intellectuals. It also resonated with President Bush himself, and his often embarrassingly naïve rhetoric reflected this idea. But as Draper reminds us, the freedom agenda had broad bipartisan support, and prominent liberal journalists and public intellectuals—such as The Washington Post’s Jim Hoagland, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner David Ignatius, Lally Weymouth, and Bob Woodward—promoted it. Jeffrey Goldberg, writing in the left-of-center The New Yorker Magazine in the spring of2002, argued that “in the post-Holocaust universe, the civilized world should not permit genocidal dictators to stay in power.” Liberal public intellectuals such as Leon Wieseltier, Andrew Sullivan, Paul Berman, and Christopher Hitchens also supported the invasion to liberate Iraq, with the latter supporting the removal of Saddam Hussein irrespective of whatever weapons the dictator did or did not possess.

In February 2003, only weeks before the commencement of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Paul Berman, author of Terror and Liberalism, chastised President Bush in the left-leaning Slate for not grounding the decision to invade Iraq on the freedom agenda:

Bush has failed to present the current war and its impending new Iraqi front in terms of a democratic struggle against totalitarianism. He failed to discuss in any serious way the moral aspect of the war, has failed to present the war as an act of solidarity with horribly oppressed Iraqis and other victims of Muslim fascism, has failed to show the humanitarian aspect of the war, has failed to present the war in the light of the long history of anti-totalitarianism.

Berman’s view is worth recalling not simply because it reminds us of the support for the Iraqi war by so-called “liberal hawks,” but because it highlights the fact that, at the end of the day, the Bush administration rested its case to the American public and foreign allies, not on Iraq becoming a democratic model for the Arab-Islamic states in the Middle East, but on the basis of Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction. Draper doesn’t explore the counterfactual—If the administration knew that Saddam had no WMD, would the US have invaded anyway? But his reporting clearly shows that if President Bush and the key foreign policy actors—Vice President Cheney, SECDEF Donald Rumsfeld, NSC Director Condoleezza Rice, and especially Colin Powell—knew that Saddam had no WMD or had come clean with the inspectors, there would have been no invasion of Iraq.

That Saddam had WMD was the consensus view of the intelligence community and the unanimous view among the key players in the Bush administration, even among the skeptics (most notably Colin Powell and foreign intelligence services), despite dissenting views among intelligence and foreign policy experts, which Draper does a fine job of explaining. The serious debate at the time was whether the US should pursue a policy of containment. Those who advocated a policy of containment insisted that it was unlikely that Saddam would give chemical, biological, or nuclear material to Islamic terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda. They argued he was a brutal, dictatorial thug, but not a jihadi. The Islamists were also a threat to his regime. 

But this view was vehemently rejected by the most influential member of the Bush team, Vice President Cheney, to whom President Bush had granted wide authority in foreign policy. For Cheney particularly, but not exclusively, containment was an intolerable risk in a post-9/11 world. In his chapter on Cheney, significantly titled, “The Man Who Feared Too Much,” Draper writes:

Unlike the president, Vice President Cheney was not animated by a desire to see freedom take root throughout the world. He did not share Wolfowitz’s belief that humanitarian outrages warranted regime change. And though he accepted the logic of [Secretary of Defense] Rumsfeld’s desire to transform the military, it was not the vice president’s pet cause, not even when he had been defense secretary.

What motivated Cheney was America’s vulnerability to another sensational attack, and the necessity of the United States overcoming that vulnerability without impediments.

This is not to say that the idée fixe of Paul Wolfowitz and the freedom agenda were not supporting and influential secondary motivations for war. But the importance of that conviction, influenced by the honorable yet mistaken Kanan Makiya and the less-than-honorable and wildly mistaken Ahmad Chalabi, played a key role in the planning, force structure, and operation conduct of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Or, to be more specific, the overly optimistic assumptions by the neoconservatives in the administration (and the liberal hawks outside it) regarding the capability or interest of the Iraqi population to govern themselves had a direct impact on the failure to plan for “Phase IV”—the securing peace and security in Iraq following offensive combat operations.

It is indeed hard to overstate the degree of incompetence, fecklessness, and irresponsibility of the Bush administration civilian leadership in planning for the occupation of Iraq after the completion of decisive combat operations. While, in my view, the belief that Saddam still had WMD was an intelligence failure, albeit an understandable one, the failure to properly plan for Phase IV was a policy failure of enormous magnitude. That policy failure is neither understandable nor forgivable.

Draper details it all in depressing and infuriating detail, and for some of us it is a painful read. The failure of the Bush administration to plan for the jus post bellum was due in large measure to the wildly optimistic and mistaken intellectual assumptions by the freedom agenda advocates in and out of the administration. They believed that Iraq was capable of establishing a representative democracy after regime change, and the corresponding failure to appreciate the tribal and sectarian nature of Iraqi society and culture. Draper elaborates:

And despite the rosy promises of Makiya, Chalabi, and others that democracy in Iraq was “truly doable” this… required an Olympian leap of the imagination. As Paul Pillar, of the CIA, warned in a January 2003 paper entitled, “Principal Challenges in a Post-Saddam Iraq,” “Iraqi political culture does not foster liberalism or democracy. Iraq lacks the experience of loyal opposition and effective institutions for mass political participation. Saddam’s brutal methods have made a generation of Iraqis distrustful of surrendering or sharing power.”

Draper reminds us that there were also similar warnings and concerns from Condoleezza Rice and most memorably Army Chief of Staff General Shinseki, who testified before Congress that several hundred thousand military personnel would be required following combat operations to secure Iraq. He was famously slapped down and publicly humiliated by Wolfowitz at Rumsfeld’s request.

Now, you would think that anyone committed to the freedom agenda, even those inclined to dispute the more pessimistic analysis of intelligence experts such as Paul Pillar, would still hedge their bets, and while hoping for the best, plan for the worst. But they didn’t, and there was no backup plan. That’s because, in addition to the ideological optimism of the freedom agenda advocates, there were other reasons for the planning failure, most notably Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s commitment to “transforming the military” to a smaller, technologically superior force, in which terms like “counterinsurgency” or constabulary missions would be purged from the military vocabulary. As To Start a War explains:

Wolfowitz’s quarrel with Shinseki’s assertion of “several hundred thousand soldiers” had less to do with the substance of the prediction than with its potential to disrupt the momentum toward war. Rumsfeld, on the other hand, was offended on theological grounds. An Army general having the gall to say that a light footprint in Iraq would not suffice!

“We don’t do windows” had become the military slogan for this new, lighter, technologically superior, and agile force. Moreover, Draper writes:

Underlying Rumsfeld’s inattentiveness to the post bellum occupation of Iraq, was his “abiding belief that this whole postwar planning exercise was not America’s responsibility anyway, that Iraqis had better learn how to ride the bicycle themselves.

Rumsfeld’s insistence on a “light footprint” was also shared by Vice President Cheney, and that sealed the matter. As a result, as British General Tim Cross, who was responsible for British postwar planning, would come to realize, “the plan is that we do not need a plan. The plan is that once we have moved into Iraq, then the Iraqi people, generally speaking will welcome us.”

All this is to say that, ironically, those who were most committed to the freedom agenda as the primary reason for liberating Iraq, those who had the most to lose if the situation in Iraq went south, those whom you would expect would want to hedge their bets and urge the “realists” to hope for the best but plan for the worst, not only failed to do so but also told those who were skeptical about the possibility of a peaceful transition to democracy to “shut up and color,” as the saying went in the military. The rest—the years-long expenditure in lives and treasure—is history.

The epigraph for Draper’s book is from Goethe: “A man is not deceived by others; he deceives himself.” That pretty much sums it up.

Keith Pavlischek is a retired Marine Colonel. He served in Iraq in 2005. From 2002–05 he served at the National Security Agency, where he had a minor role in the non-planning for Phase IV of Operation Iraqi Freedom.