Thomas Ricks (Fiasco), Bob Woodward (State of Denial), Michael Gordon and Lieut. General Bernard Trainor (Cobra II), Ron Suskind (The One Percent Doctrine) and Lawrence Wright (The Looming Tower) spoke with TIME's Steve Koepp and Mark Thompson for something called "The Real War", an "analysis" which is itself far short on reality.
But then it was never intended to be realistic. The subtitle gives away the agenda on the spot:
"What led to so many post-9/11 fumbles? A group of intrepid authors gives us answers"
It wasn't "fumbles", guys. This was it! This is what they wanted to do!!
I think my question is more interesting: Can we find even one among these six distinguished authors who is willing to say so? Hah!
In any event ... Here, for your amusement and/or edification, quotes from the article, remarks from a nearly frozen blogger, and a running scoreboard. (On each question, panelists may earn three points for telling the truth, or lose five for spinning.)
TIME: In hindsight, why did we go to war in Iraq? What do you think the real reasons were?This answer from TRAINOR earns a good solid negative five, as we know that Bush had plans to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein even before he received the Republican nomination, way back in a nearly bygone era -- the summer of 2000. Since 9/11 the Bush administration has shown no concern about how to protect our country from another attack. We know this not only because our ports have never been secured but even more important: there's never been an effort to secure them properly. There has been an effort to outsource port security to a foreign country, but that's another story. And even more significantly, we know it because the Bush administration, and especially Bush himself, have done everything in their power to impede investigation of the events of that day.
TRAINOR: After 9/11 the country was in shock, including the President. And he looks at this country — wide-open borders and a free style of life, how do you protect against another catastrophic attack? I think the idea came about that you try to get the archer before he fires the arrow. Better yet, you get the guy who supplies the archer. O.K., that being the case, whom can you operate against? Well, it's not very likely you can do much about North Korea or Iran. But Iraq is an easy target, and if you go against Iraq, you're not only eliminating that guy, but you're also sending a signal to all the troublemakers of the world that you don't mess with Hopalong Cassidy.
TIME gets some of the others talking by spinning towards a more comfortable meme.
TIME: What about the sense of unfinished business on the part of the Bush family?Score three points each for for SUSKIND ("The mission was Iraq from the beginning.") and WRIGHT ("They saw this as a political opportunity") and minus five for RICKS ("It wasn't until 9/11 that you get that really sharp break where they say, O.K., let's invade this place.")
SUSKIND: From the first National Security Council meeting in 2001, in January, there was ardor. Now some people say it wasn't a war plan. But what's indisputable is that there was discussion about [how] the primary mission of U.S. policy would be to oust Saddam Hussein. It became the stuff of action plans from the very start. In terms of [Donald] Rumsfeld and [Dick] Cheney, there's a sense of regret that it wasn't done before. The mission was Iraq from the beginning.
RICKS: I totally disagree with you. I don't think that there was a Bush Administration plan to invade Iraq at the time they came into office. For the first year, they were more or less focused on improving containment: How do we sharpen policy against Iraq? It wasn't until 9/11 that you get that really sharp break where they say, O.K., let's invade this place.
WRIGHT: They saw this as a political opportunity that would never come around again. If they wanted to put that plan into action, this was the moment. There wasn't going to be another one.
This particular argument from RICKS proves nothing, of course, and is therefore all spin. They didn't have the political room to maneuver before 9/11. That's the whole point. That's what 9/11 was about ... er ... that's one of the things that 9/11 was about. So RICKS joins TRAINOR at -5; SUSKIND and WRIGHT have +3 each.
Notice how TIME puts the cart before the horse on the next question:
TIME: Did the failure to capture Osama bin Laden play a role in the decision to go to war?Truth points for both GORDON and WRIGHT on this one. Kudos to WRIGHT who is clearly trying to counter TIME's spin; his points are particularly well-deserved.
GORDON: I was at Tora Bora at that point, in December '01. The desire to have a war plan for Iraq has already been telegraphed to [General] Tommy Franks at Centcom. Franks is actually struggling with Tora Bora, with his unhappiness with the results in Afghanistan, just as he is on the eve of returning for a very important meeting at Crawford with the President. I think they made a very quick decision that in principle Iraq was next on the agenda.
WRIGHT: Al-Qaeda essentially was dead after December 2001. The war on terror, you know, had succeeded. [If we had] captured the leaders, I think people would've felt a sense of finality and might not have had that impulse to roll into Iraq. I'm not sure [the Administration] would have had the public support.
TIME: Given the strategic importance of the Middle East, why hasn't U.S. intelligence about the region been better?This is question is too easy but the answers all come out on the plus side.
WRIGHT: Because we haven't hired the people that have the skills to understand that region. There's an outright prejudice against people who natively speak Arabic, Pashtu, Dari. They are invited not to apply. The FBI says that there are 25 Arabic speakers [in the FBI], but they send them off to [class] for nine weeks, and at the end of that time they can order breakfast in Arabic. But they cannot interrogate a suspect. They don't know anything about the culture.
But this is completely unnecessary. We have a country that's full of immigrant groups that represent those areas. One thing that every American should be more aware of is, it's not the contact-lens solution that we surrender at the airport that makes [us] safer. It's the fact that our Muslim and Arab communities are much more integrated into American life than they are elsewhere, especially in Europe.
WOODWARD: What is central is that before we went into Iraq in March of 2003, somebody should have just asked the basic questions, Do we know anything about this country? Do we have intelligence sources? Do we have open sources? The level of ignorance was pathetic.
RICKS: A lot of people were saying that this is going to be harder than you think. But that advice was systematically excluded. It was aggressively not welcome in the inner circle.
GORDON: I went through rather laboriously this Future of Iraq study by the State Department, which was on a CD. I thought it was an extremely thin document. I didn't think it was anything remotely like a plan for the postwar.
TIME: On the eve of the war, which of you believed that we would go in and find no WMD? Two out of six. Why did you feel that way, Tom?What have we here? Points for RICKS and SUSKIND, with WOODWARD trying to bore in on some of the action? Oh, we should have done this, we should have done that; but you didn't, did you?
RICKS: I thought that at most they would find some old mustard gas buried out in the '91 war that somebody had forgotten about. I remember asking the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs about a week before the invasion, "You don't know where the stuff is, do you?" And he said, "No, but I'm confident the Iraqis will tell us."
SUSKIND: I was sitting with [former Treasury Secretary] Paul O'Neill on the balcony of his condominium at the Watergate a week before the invasion, and he said two things. One is, "Trust me, they haven't thought this through." And second is, "I don't believe there is any evidence, any objective sources to credit as evidence in terms of WMD."
WOODWARD: I talked to people who said, The evidence is much skimpier than what they are saying. And we played around with writing a story about this and did not, and it's one of my regrets. We should've all been much more aggressive. It's an intelligence failure, it's a policy failure, it is a journalistic failure. Tom Ricks and I work at the same newspaper. If you had these doubts, which I was not aware of contemporaneously, we should have found some way to get out and say, "What do we really know here?" We can and should at least put the burden on ourselves to be one step ahead on this, and we were not.
Sorry. Nothing for Mr. WOODWARD on this one.
TIME: Bob, you yourself got some criticism for your first two books for allegedly being too sympathetic to the Bush Administration. But State of Denial is a very tough look at the situation now. Would you say that you are overcompensating?Notice how nobody answered the question? There's no score for anybody. TRAINOR narrowly escaped a penalty for attempting to misdirect the discussion.
WOODWARD: You know, the books speak for themselves, and it was the New York Times that on the second volume ran two front-page stories saying that the book had jolted the White House. My best recollection is the White House is not jolted with something that is a sympathetic portrait.
TRAINOR: We have to make a distinction when you talk about WMD. We were concerned in terms of operations and tactics about chemicals and biologicals, but not nuclear.
GORDON: The military very much had the expectation that not only would it find WMD but it would encounter the use of WMD. One reason the Marines maneuvered the way they did around the battlefield was to stay outside the range of the artillery that they were told was chemical artillery.
RICKS: It's also important to remember though that Dick Cheney in August 2002 got up at the VFW Convention in Nashville and said, "There is no doubt." Which is to say 100% certainty, and I think that had enormous influence inside the military, inside the intelligence community and even to an extent on journalists. When the Vice President says, "I know for a fact," a lot of people in the military said, "He must know something that I don't know."
SUSKIND: And that evidence would often not be available. This is what Cheney said over and over, that evidence as we have defined it up to now may be too high a bar. When someone offers a doubt, Cheney slaps them down.
TRAINOR: I think Cheney was kind of the Cardinal Richelieu in this whole thing. And he was feeding a predisposition that the President had.
TIME: When it comes to war planning, military commanders are told to prepare for the worst. Why was hope such an important part of the tool kit this time?Points for SUSKIND. Deductions for everybody else on this one. Only one deduction for GORDON, even though he spoke twice. 'Tis the season.
GORDON: Well, they in fact prepared for the worst. But they were very much fighting the last war. I mean, they were worried the oil fields would be set on fire. Why? Because Saddam had set the Kuwaiti oil fields on fire. So they entered the situation prepared for all the things that didn't happen and not the things that did.
RICKS: A phrase that came to haunt me in the research for my book was [Deputy Defense Secretary Paul] Wolfowitz's "hard to imagine." It turned out that, yeah, it was the imagination. Wolfowitz said it was hard to imagine that you'd need that many more troops for an occupation than for an invasion.
WOODWARD: I think it's impossible to overemphasize the role of Rumsfeld in all of this. The more you look at it, you discover that even some rather independent-minded, smart people didn't realize they were being co-opted into the vision he had of this war.
SUSKIND: It was a sales job — it wasn't an analysis job. There was so much emphasis on how to sell it that they ended up essentially not doing the basic due diligence.
GORDON: There is another factor here we need to recognize, which is that the Administration took office with a very set view on nation building. One month before the war, Rumsfeld gave a speech in New York City called "Beyond Nation Building." We weren't going to go in with lots of troops. We weren't going to take over responsibility for administering the country, because this would create an unhealthy dependence on the part of that population. Basically, they were going to practice a sort of tough-love philosophy of postwar management. So it wasn't that they lacked a plan. It was that they had a bad plan. And they looked to Afghanistan, where they had applied this, and they mistakenly saw what happened in Afghanistan as a validation of this philosophy.
TIME: Bob, you have experience covering several administrations. How is this one different in terms of decision making?Ka-CHING! The meetings are only about informing others of decisions that have already been made. It's tough to justify awarding WOODWARD points for a question on which the others were excluded, but there it is.
WOODWARD: You can't help but look back at Clinton's famous late nights at the dorm when he would pick through details and ask questions and keep people well past midnight. It probably wouldn't have hurt to have had a little bit of that here at the table. And if you look at Bush, he's kind of, you know, meeting starts at 9, the meeting is over at 10. That's it.
TIME: Once the Saddam statue fell, what was the first inkling you had that something was going astray?WRIGHT doesn't come near answering the question, and his use of the phrase "the end of the war" is grounds for a five-point penalty; GORDON scores three for "We're not going home".
WRIGHT: I was teaching these young journalists in Saudi Arabia when the war happened. And I had been watching the war on Fox and al-Jazeera. The war on Fox was one of "America's liberation." And on al-Jazeera, it was all a narrative of humiliation and surrender. They covered the end of the war with a documentary about the Ku Klux Klan, followed by a documentary about Hiroshima.
GORDON: In April 2003 I was with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team. They were due to go home, because on April 16, 2003, Tommy Franks had flown to Baghdad and given his commanders instructions to prepare to withdraw all but one division�plus by September 2003. Bush had declared an end to major combat operations. So they thought they were going home. A guy I was living with said goodbye to me and said he was flying back. Then I woke up the next morning, and he was still there. And I said, "What happened?" He said, "I went out to the tarmac, they turned me around. We're not going home."
TIME: Where there was a sense that things weren't working, why did that not filter up?There's a five-point penalty for TRAINOR on his objection to the word "despair"; but points to WOODWARD, SUSKIND and RICKS for their contributions here, and the final scores are:
RICKS: Because I think in the fall of 2003, when it was clear there was an insurgency emerging, the U.S. military did what it knew how to do, which is battalion- or brigade-size operations, and because there was no strategic oversight. Division commanders sort of operated on their own, and they were told, Get your area of operations quiet. Well, what's the fastest way to get your area of operations quiet? It's to ship out military-age males and get them off your area of operations. If they're at Abu Ghraib, they're not your problem anymore. They are somebody else's problem.
SUSKIND: Does anyone here have any specific evidence of the President being involved directly, being presented with choices and consequences about the disbanding of the Iraqi army?
WOODWARD: No, it didn't happen. In fact, what they did is contrary to the briefings [Bush] received before the war.
RICKS: That's actually one of the things in the books — I was struck by the absence of the President. He should be a central figure in decision making. And again and again, there's never any one key meeting. For example, the actual decision to go to war doesn't seem to ever have been [made at] a meeting in which people formally sat down and said, "Do we all agree?"
SUSKIND: Often the briefing ends with the Vice President — the let's-get-down-to-brass-tacks briefing. How can a President not be involved in decisions upon which so many lives depend? That's an enormous question here. At day's end, history will point to the character of the President. That's the way it boils down.
WOODWARD: But there's an intervening moment, which is the moment we are living in now. And that is the question of his moral authority as a leader. And he teeters on the edge, quite frankly, of losing that moral authority. I've discussed this with him, years back, about a President being the voice of realism. And in this whole story, he's been the cheerleader.
I think there's something important we haven't talked about, which is, What about the troops over there in Iraq? What about the people who are executing this policy? They really are not being told what they are doing. There is this resilience on one hand and at the same time a kind of despair that is very haunting when you hear it from somebody on the ground. As a country, we owe them everything, but they have not got it. It is almost a war without a home front. Taxes are down, everyone's buying, Christmas is coming. There is a sense almost that we're not at war. I can't explain that phenomenon, but I find it deeply troubling.
TRAINOR: I think your use of the term despair is much too strong. I think what they are sensing out there is a sense of frustration. They are all very well trained and very well motivated. I mean, it's amazing that the morale is as high as it is.
WOODWARD: Sometimes despair is private.
And the final decision:
Lieut. General Bernard TRAINOR spins 'em almost as well as the "moderators" from TIME and will be invited back early and often. RICKS may get a phone call once in a while; GORDON, WRIGHT and/or WOODWARD could be brought back to play the token (soft) (and/or faux) opposition, if we ever need more of that again. And please tell Mr. SUSKIND we wish him well with his book. Then get him out of here as fast as you can.
If I had to choose one of the books mentioned here, it would be "The One Percent Doctrine" by Ron Suskind.