This review essay is part of the “Learning From Defeat” project. It is the second of thirteen. An introduction to the project can be found here.
“[When the Bush administration came to power in 2001], longtime bureaucrats frequently would tell me… “it’s good to have adults in charge again.”—Dov Zakheim, 2013.
“I just presumed that what I considered to be the most competent national-security team since Truman was indeed going to be competent. They turned out to be among the most incompetent teams in the postwar era.”—Kenneth Adleman, 2006.
[Adleman famously predicted the invasion of Iraq would be a “cakewalk” in 2002].
Ponder a mystery.
Ask 100 historians to rank the foreign policy teams of the post Truman presidencies. What might they say? My wager: the majority would pinpoint the administration of George H.W. Bush as the most accomplished of the modern era. The men and women who served under President Bush have a distinguished list of accomplishments to their name: they brought the Cold War to a victorious conclusion, integrated two Germanies into one whole, managed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the communist bloc without the outbreak of violence, shepherded South Korea and the Philippines into the democratic fold, saved South America from a regional debt crisis, enshrined human rights and neoliberal economics as the conceptual foundation stones of the new post-Cold War order, and presided over two military victories—first in the now largely forgotten Panama intervention, second in the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. That war’s 100-hour land campaign was one of the most spectacular military triumphs in American history—a triumph made the more impressive by the massive global backing the Bush team mustered to support it.1 A vast number of countries mobilized troops to join in the coalition, even the Soviet Union supported this American-led intervention, and the United States did not have to pay a dime. Allies abroad were convinced to finance all operations.
The best summary of these accomplishments is found in Hal Brands, Making the Unipolar Moment: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Post-Cold War Order (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016).
It is a substantial set of accomplishments. Even those who might disagree with some of their favored policies (say the administration’s embrace of free trade as a bedrock principle of their new world order) will admit that the foreign policy team that directed America in the late Reagan and Bush Sr. years was fantastically effective at moving the world towards their own vision of the good.
Such nice things cannot be said for the poorest showing of the post-Truman era. Here again a commanding majority of experts is likely to have a consensus candidate: the administration of George W. Bush, particularly during its first term. The demerits are many: a poorly conceived strategy of the War on Terror, the disastrous invasion of Iraq, the mismanagement of that country’s occupation, their failure to prevent its subsequent descent into civil war, the mistaken attempt to remake the People’s Republic of China a “responsible stakeholder” in an American led international system, and Russia’s alienation from this same system all occurred under the watch of the Bush 43 team. To this may be added a one final disaster, the subject of this series: it was this group of statesmen that had responsibility for Afghanistan in the early aughts. As they squabbled in Washington, their field of victory sank into our military quagmire.
How different the legacies of these two groups of officials!
But there is the catch: these are not two groups of officials. The national security teams of Bush 41 and Bush 43, America’s most accomplished and most reviled set of statesmen officials… were the exact same set of people. The authors of America’s Cold War victory were the architects of America’s 21st century defeats. There lies the mystery! With more collective experience under their belts than any foreign policy team since the Founding Era, with a greater list of accomplishments than any group of national security elites since the creation of the modern national security state, the statesmen-officials of the second Bush administration should have accomplished glorious deeds. They should have lived up to their track records. Instead, they delivered failure and catastrophe. How could this have happened?
While not framed in quite this way, this is the essential question driving Richard Haas’ War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars. The question is more peripheral to Dov Zakheim’s A Vulcan’s Tale: How The Bush Administration Mismanaged the Reconstruction of Afghanistan, yet Zakheim’s book provides a vantage point by which the problem may be spied. The two books form an interesting pair: both are written by detail oriented, second-tier national security officials who proudly proclaim themselves professionals of their craft. Both served in the administration of Bush 41; both served again in, and were shocked by the oversights of, the administration of Bush 43. Both joined the Bush administration in its earliest days; both left it before the conclusion of its first term (Haas left office in mid-2003; Zakheim left half a year later, in early 2004). Throughout this time neither had the position or the power to seriously influence the administration’s policy priorities.
Finally, and most pertinently to this series, both of these relative non-entities were pulled aside from their regular positions and handed an additional responsibility— coordinator of the American effort in Afghanistan.
Read that again: they were both given the same job at the same time. Yet the problem was worse than just duplication of effort and confused lines of authority. The two men were not even aware the other man was working the same portfolio! Zakheim explains:
There was one other fact Rich [Armitage, Deputy Secretary of State] never mentioned to me: there was already a government wide coordinator for Afghanistan—Richard Hass, the director of the Policy Planning Office at State, whose formal title was Coordinator for the Future of Afghanistan. I suspect that Rich never mentioned this fact because he assumed I knew it. And I certainly should have known. In government service one should never assume anything, however. The reality was that I had no idea that Richard was also pulling double duty and that he was, at a minimum, State’s coordinator if not the administration’s overall designee for Afghan reconstruction…. I did not learn about has his role until quite sometime after he left the State Department in mid 2003 to become president of the Council on Foreign Relations. To this day I do not know who appointed him, or exactly when he was appointed.
…That I did not know about Richard’s activities despite constant interface with other officials, both at state and the other agencies, who dealt with Afghanistan—as well as the two ambassadors to that country—is sorry testimony to the state of disarray that governed the administration’s approach to Afghanistan once the military mission seemed to be under control.
In retrospect it was not a mistake to appoint a single coordinator for Afghanistan; That was a good idea. The mistake was to fail to ensure that this person truly had authority—and recognition— across the government. Whether State or Defense provided that person was less important than that Afghanistan clearly was fading as a government priority, even though stability and security were not yet assured; No serious disarming militias had taken place and reconstruction had barely begun.
There was additionally no guarantee that a single coordinator, a “czar,” would have made much difference. The United States has had a succession of “drug czars” after all, but the so-called drug war continues. Still, even though an active single interagency coordinator might not have sufficed for success in Afghanistan, such a position was necessary to it. The government’s failure to implement in practical terms the role for which Rumsfeld intended me and for which Richard Haas was named compounded the problems that it failed to anticipate in the heady days of seeming victory in mid-2002 and that it continues to face in Afghanistan. 2
Zakheim, A Vulcan’s Tale: How the Bush Administration Mismanaged the Reconstruction of Afghanistan (Washington DC: Brookings, 2013), 173-4
Two men, given the same portfolio despite both already being overworked with existing responsibilities, and never informed of the other’s existence—the entire affair is microcosm of larger dysfunction of the Bush 43 team. Something had gone wrong with the Vulcans.
The “Vulcans” of Zakheim’s title properly refer to seven men and one woman. Together they comprised the chief foreign policy advisers of George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign team. Along with Zakheim, they included Condoleezza Rice, Richard Armitage, Robert Blackwill, Stephen Hadley, Richard Pearle, Robert Zoellick, Paul Wolfowitz, and Scooter Libby. (The name “Vulcans” was a reference to a great iron statue of the god that towers over Birmingham, Alabama, Rice’s hometown and the original meeting spot of the campaign’s foreign policy team).3 All of these people had served with distinction in the Reagan or Bush 41 administrations; three would go on to cabinet level positions under Bush 43 (Zakheim would serve in the less exalted position of Pentagon comptroller, whose job is to guarantee the Department of Defense’s budget flows as the Secretary of Defense wills it).
Condoleezza Rice, No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington (New York: Broadway Papersbacks, 2012), 5.
In his excellent Rise of the Vulcans, journalist James Mann expands the term to include Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Colin Powell, who had close friendships and professional connections to most of the Vulcans and (with the exception of Rumsfeld) were key parts of the foreign policy team that ended the Cold War.4 In this review essay I’ll expand the term further, widening it to include the entire generation of statesmen-officials who served important positions both under Reagan/Bush 41 and returned to service a decade later under Bush 43.
James Mann, Rise of the Vulcans: The History of the Bush War Cabinet (New York: Penguin, 2004).
What did the Vulcans believe? A great deal has been said about the supposed ideological differences between the “realists” who governed in Bush 41 and the “Wilsonians” who ran the show under 43. Haas, who identifies strongly with the former, provides a stock example of this sort of analysis:
The two Iraq wars also constitute two fundamentally different approaches to American foreign policy. The first represents a more traditional school, often described as “realist,” that sees the principal although not sole purpose of what the United States does in the world as influencing the external behavior of states and relations among them. It is the external actions of others that most directly affect U.S. interests, while U.S. power is more suited to affect what others do rather than what they are. What goes on inside states is not irrelevant, but it is secondary.… The second Iraq war reflects an approach to foreign policy that is at once more ambitious and more difficult. It believes the principal purpose of what the United States does in the world is to influence the nature of states and conditions within them, both for moral and ideological reasons as well as for practical ones in the sense that mature democracies are judged to make for better and more peaceful international citizens. This is the foreign policy of Woodrow Wilson, to some extent that of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, and clearly that of George W. Bush.
…The difference between a foreign policy designed to manage relations between states and one that seeks to alter the nature of states is critical, and constitutes the principal fault line in the contemporary foreign policy debate. The two Iraq wars are of great import, both for what they were (and are) and for what they represent: the two dominant and competing schools of American foreign policy. They thus constitute a classic case study of America’s purpose in the world and how it should go about it. 5
Richard Haas, War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010), 12.
Yet this emphasis on the “Wilsonian” character of George W. Bush’s foreign policy does not adequately describe the motivations of the Bush team during the era in which Haas himself served. Most of the Bush 43 quotations which Haas marshals to criticize the Wilsonian ambitions of his administration are gathered from Bush’s 2005 second inaugural, a speech intentionally designed to rebrand an administration in need and redirect American grand strategy towards grander ends.6 The goals of American diplomacy c. 2004-2008 should not be read backwards. Democracy promotion was not enshrined as the organizing of Bush’s foreign policy until after the invasion of Iraq. There were several reasons for this shift.7 The most important was the failure of U.S. forces to find WMD in Iraq, which forced administration officials to search for a new reason to justify the American presence in the country. But this was not the original casus belli that brought our boots into Baghdad. As Haas himself notes:
On the context of the speech see Peter Baker, Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House (New York: Anchor, 2014), pp. 270-275 and Rice, No Higher Honor, 324-326. For Haas’ comments see War of Necessity, 263.
For a sympathetic version of the logic they eventually developed that tied democratization to reducing terrorism, see Rice, No Higher Honor, 729-733.
After 9/11, the president and those closest to him wanted to send a message to the world that the United States was willing and able to act decisively. Liberating Afghanistan was a start, but in the end it didn’t scratch the itch. Americans had no long-standing history or feud with Afghanistan. Also, there was a pervasive pessimism when it came to Afghanistan, in the sense that most of the advisors around the president held out little hope that Afghanistan could ever be made into something much better.
Iraq was fundamentally different. The president wanted to destroy an established nemesis of the United States. And he wanted to change the course of history, transforming not just a country but the region of the world that had produced the lion’s share of the world’s terrorists and had resisted much of modernity. He may have sought to accomplish what his father did not. The arguments put forward for going to war—noncompliance with U.N. resolutions, possession of weapons of mass destruction—turned out to be essentially window dressing, trotted out to build domestic and international support for a policy that had been forged mostly for other reasons. The fact that Iraq was not involved in 9/11 or tied to al-Qaida (despite repeated intimations and claims by the president and others to the contrary) mattered not.8
Haas, War of Necessity, 234.
Zakheim reports that of the eight Vulcans, only two, Pearle and Wolfowitz, fit the Wilsonian mode. The rest of the team were committed “realists.”9 Only Wolfowitz would go on to serve in any position of importance, and there he was constrained by a Secretary of Defense who was a resolute internal critic of democracy promotion. With the partial exception of the President himself, it is hard to find any principal on the NSC who understood the invasion of Iraq in Wilsonian or humanitarian terms: Colin Powell’s view was similar to Haas’s own, while Cheney and Rice, in accord with their public statements, saw the invasion as a realpolitick maneuver intended to demonstrate the consequences of defying the United States and dethrone a potential vector of WMD to terrorist organizations.10
Zakheim, A Vulcan’s Tale, xii, 14. In No Higher Honor Rice describes Pearle’s inclusion on the campaign as a bid to “represent the right wing of the Republican foreign policy establishment… [for] Bush needed all elements of the party united behind him, and the group I assembled [needed to be] broadly representative enough to demonstrate his commitment to a foreign policy big tent.” (4)
Richard Cheney, In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011), 368-369; Donald Rumsfeld, Known and Unknown: A Memoir (New York: Sentinel, 2011), 416-424; 435-7, Rice, No Higher Honor, 151-156; 196-99. The Rumsfeld memoir is especially useful as it includes the text of many of the original memos as evidence that this was not some pot-hoc reconstruction.
The Vulcan impulse to recast the threat posed by terrorist organizations as a problem of “state sponsors of terror” and “rogue states” reflects their realist predilections. Haas often wondered how his close friend Condoleezza Rice could change from a “pragmatic and moderate” foreign policy intellectual (i.e., one of his precious “realists”) to someone with a “pronounced conservative leaning… [who agreed with] the stances put forward by Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Office of the Vice Presidency.”11 But no real change had taken place. The Condoleezza Rice that served with Haas under Bush 41 believed that states were the most important actors on the international stage, that military power was the most effective tool for shaping the behavior of adversarial states, and that the United States must use this power to create an international system that reinforced American primacy. The Condoleezza Rice that served as the National Security Advisor of Bush 43 believed… these exact same things. The 9/11 attacks gave these convictions a new and fierce urgency. Righteous anger and naked fear gave the deliberations of the Bush 43 war cabinet a different emotional tenor than that of his father’s. 12 But scrape away the passions of the moment and the underlying ideas are the same. Rice was the same devotee of hard-nosed realpolitick in 2001 that she had always been.13
Haas, War of Necessity, 181
This is the main point of Mann, Rise of the Vulcans, but some other wise observers of the 43 administration have made similar points. See for example David Armstrong, “Dick Cheney’s Song of America: Why Has the Bush Administration Failed to Stop Saudi Funding of Terrorism?,” Harper’s Magazine, October 1, 2002.
The best account of these changes is Michael Mazarr,Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence, and America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy (New York: PublicAffairs, 2019), 110-164.
Haas might have reached this realization himself had he spent less time comparing the invasion of Iraq with the earlier Gulf War, and more time comparing it to the invasion of Afghanistan. The invasion of Afghanistan he labels a “war of necessity;” the invasion of Iraq, a “war of choice.” Yet the strategic aims of both invasions were remarkably similar. Their proximate causes differed, but they were conceived by national security principals as two prongs in the same campaign, each an attempt to secure the same ultimate end.14 While one may distinguish between the defensive and preemptive natures of the two campaigns, both were intended as a response to the asymmetrical threats that terrorist groups posed to conventional military power. The strategic principles connecting the two wars are clearly articulated in Bush administration documents such as the 2002 National Security Strategy and Bush’s 2002 commencement speech at West Point. At this point on the timeline democracy promotion was still a third order concern.
Tanner Greer, “Learning From Our Defeat: The Assumptions of Donald Rumsfeld,” Scholar’s Stage (7 September 2021).
What these documents don’t specify is what happens once the display is over. Deterrence has seemingly been restored—but at the cost of saddling the United States with responsibility for the populations of formerly hostile states. At this point a realist might conclude that the international order would be better off if these populations were governed by leaders who understood their interests in terms more amenable to America’s long term security—but classical realism provides the statesman with little theoretical guidance as to how such leaders might be found or securely put in power. Haas’ school gave little thought to reforming peoples or building states. Processes that occurred below the level of the state-to-state interaction were not a part of its theoretical purview. When asked to consider these problems, Bush 43 officials tended to fall back into platitudes about the universal desire for freedom. They did international relations. History itself would do handle the rest.
This was an intellectually sloppy set of assumptions—Zakheim calls it the “almost magic” logic of “if one did not plan for a contingency that one did not wish to happen, thereby it could not happen”15—but they were not at variance with Vulcan’s Cold War experience. Their late Cold War victories had taught them to think in grand strategic terms, to carefully ponder the shape and nature of the “international order,” and to expect the domestic politics of adversaries and allies alike to change as this broader order did. These habits of mind were less suited for an age of terrorists and insurgents.
Zakheim, A Vulcan’s Tale, 3.
The Vulcans realized this too late.
This focus on hostile states and demonstration effects powerfully shaped military operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
So few troops were sent to Afghanistan, Haas argues, because administration officials were determined to “demonstrate that traditional American approaches to warfare were overly conservative and that new technology and tactics at the heart of defense transformation had rendered using large numbers of troops obsolete.”16 This reluctance to commit larger troop numbers would come to haunt us: Osama Bin Laden’s escape at Tora Bora and the needless deaths in Operation Anaconda both occurred in part because commanders had too few resources at their disposal.17
Haas, War of Necessity, 195.
For a succinct account, Ben Barry, Blood, Metal and Dust: How Victory Turned into Defeat in Afghanistan and Iraq (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2020), 92-110.
The “light footprint” approach was demanded by the strategic goals of these campaigns. If the demonstration was to deter other rogue regimes, these regimes must believe that the United States still had the spare military capacity to deal with them too. In 2002 Pentagon officials eager to use the upcoming Iraq invasion to coerce Syria, Iran, and so forth would describe the post-invasion stage of a campaign as “recocking the pistol.”18 Shifting the military’s focus from Afghanistan to Iraq was the first of many planned “recocks.”
Mazzar, Leap of Faith, 274.
Zakheim condemns this unequivocally:
The war in Afghanistan was a victim of the war in Iraq. I’m absolutely convinced that the United States would have realized its objectives of permanently ridding Afghanistan of all al Qaeda and the Taliban and laying a solid foundation for a functioning pro western Afghan government far more quickly and successfully had the US government’s preoccupation with Iraq not let it to ignore Afghanistan… President Barack Obama’s campaign mantra held Iraq was the “war of choice” while Afghanistan was the “necessary war.” In fact when he took office Afghanistan was the “unnecessary war” for I would not have been necessary had the United states only acted earlier to come to Afghanistan’s aid.19
Zakheim, A Vulcan’s tale, 1, 293.
Haas—ironically, perhaps, as the originator of the “war of choice” vs. “war of necessity” framing—does not agree:
It is certainly true, as Schroen and others charge, that Iraq increasingly garnered extraordinary high-level attention, but it is not clear any of this came at the expense of Afghanistan. Also not clear is that Iraq in fact drew economic or military resources that otherwise would have gone to Afghanistan. (Even Schroen admits that withdrawn units were replaced by other units of high quality.) I say this because I never once heard anyone say, “We should not or cannot do this in Afghanistan because of the need to set aside dollars or troops for Iraq.” The failure to capture or kill retreating al-Qaida and Taliban elements at the battle of Tora Bora was a failure born of tactics and overreliance on Afghan units and above all the ill-advised decision to limit the number and role of U.S. forces. But again, I know of no evidence that U.S. troop numbers were kept down to preserve them for a possible war to come.20
Haas, War of Necessity, 195.
This is only half true; U.S. troops levels were kept low for the reason Haas identifies (and which I have already quoted: “to demonstrate… that new technology and tactics at the heart of defense transformation had rendered using large numbers of troops obsolete”). But that reason only makes sense within the larger context of the War on Terror and the Vulcan worldview, which sought to maximize the flexibility of American military power precisely so that it could quickly be used in other campaigns.
But Haas’ judgement on this question cannot be trusted for another reason: in the second Bush administration Haas was a relative non-entity. Even though designated as the Coordinator for the Future of Afghanistan, Haas was not privy to Iraq War planning or highest level debates on Afghanistan. Haas did not learn about these war plans until almost ten months after the planning process had started. This was only one of a half dozen instances where Haas found himself blindsided by his own administration’s policies.21Ensconced in the State Department Policy Planning staff where he worked mostly as a glorified speech writer, Haas was isolated from interagency debates and had little responsibility for implementing anything—and that in a department the White House did not trust to implement much in the first place. It is to the Defense Department we must look to see the connection between the Iraq War and the Vulcans’ failure in Afghanistan.
For examples see ibid., 1-4, 171-172, 198-200.
As the Pentagon’s finance man, Zakheim was responsible for traveling to other countries to hold out the tin cup and secure foreign funds for the Afghanistan reconstruction effort. He writes that in late 2002
I found myself increasingly overloaded. I was enmeshed in preparation for UN preconference for potential donors to Iraq as well as the full conference scheduled for the fall. I was defending the defense budget on Capitol Hill. Somehow I also had to find time to attend to my responsibilities to find material support for the Afghanistan operations. That job was growing more and more difficult for one simple reason—the United States was asking the same countries to contribute funds, material, and troops to both the reconstruction Afghanistan and to reconstruction in Iraq—and we were also asking them to staff Bremer’s CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority]. We worried that countries would develop “donor fatigue”, so consciously or unconsciously we tended to place less stress on support for Afghanistan.22
Zakheim, A Vulcan’s Tale, 211.
An even more important resource than money was the attention of Pentagon high officials. OSD interest in Afghanistan began to flag as Iraq absorbed an increasingly large portion of their attention span:
Every so often Paul Wolfowitz would devote a meeting to Afghanistan. For example, he met with Ashraf Ghani, the brilliant Afghan finance minister, on April 21st, who was there to plead for financial help. Thanks primarily to OMB stubbornness American funds were not flowing to Afghanistan at anything like the rate Ghani hoped for. Without financial support he could not reorganize his finance ministry, impose budgetary discipline, and thereby strengthen the central government. Other ministries likewise were getting insufficient financial assistance.
Paul would occasionally hold special meetings related to Afghanistan as well. He invited me to join him when he met with Ahmed Rashid, the Pakistani journalist and expert on South Asia, to brief him on developments in the region. But this meeting was the exception. More often I’ve come into his office to find him pouring over charts that linked terrorists to Iraq.23
The most the depressing example of this sort was Zakheim’s own appointment as has the Coordinator for Afghanistan. He was already employed as comptroller, a job not normally associated with policy formulation or policy coordination, yet burdened with a large number of responsibilities, including getting the Pentagon budget through Congress. “My very appointment,” he remembers,
confirmed to me the degree to which Afghanistan had been relegated to a lower priority for the administration. Had this not been the case, surely an assistant secretary in the Policy office, if not the Under Secretary for Policy himself, would have been assigned—and quickly grabbed—the task.24
The Under Secretary of Defense for Policy was hardly interested. His memoir—which we looked at in the last entry in the series—devotes more than quadruple the page space to pre-Iraq invasion debates and controversies than it does to the problems of post invasion Afghanistan.25 This matches the administration’s general tenor: of the dozens of NSC meetings held over the course of 2002, only a handful of them dealt with Afghanistan. This was all in accorded with the original intent of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, an intervention that was never really about Afghanistan itself. But had Iraq not taken up so much of the administration’s bandwidth, it is likely that many of the problems allowed to fester there would have been addressed as they occurred.
For the Afghan post-invasion see Feith, War and Decision, pp. 139-178. For the pre-Iraq debates, see the same book, pp. 180-424
To what extent are these problems simply a matter of mismatch between personnel and the positions they filled?
Consider the figure of Paul Wolfowitz, one of the only Vulcans committed to democracy promotion as an end in itself. Wolfowitz was one of the few actual neoconservatives to serve Bush 43. But that is not the primary problem Hass and Zakheim have with him. Hass is succinct:
[Wolfowitz’s] strength was an ability to think outside the box and to raise first-order questions. This was also a weakness, since in policy making the moment for first-order questions inevitably passes and it is time to tackle detailed questions of implementation. This was not his forte.26
Haas, War of Necessity, 230.
Zakheim has more to say:
After 9/11, however, With Rumsfeld focused on managing first one, and then two wars, it fell to Wolfowitz as Deputy to take the lead in addressing the future of systems acquisition, ensuring the coherence of the budget, and overseeing the modernization of the department’s aging infrastructure, among many other mundane activities. Sensing that Wolfowitz preferred to focus on policy, the bureaucracy, both military and civilian, responded accordingly, slowing initiatives that it was not enamored of, such as financial management reform or infrastructure modernization, when it was not busy resisting the cancellation of programs such as the F-22 fighter. A result, initiatives such as financial management or acquisition reform and infrastructure modernization, both essentially process issues rather than policy questions, did not receive the attention they might have.27
Zakheim, A Vulcan’s Tale, 290
Wolfowitz was cerebral and academic. Condoleezza Rice’s description is typical: “Though he already had a distinguished policy career [when he joined the 2000 election team], Paul was really most comfortable debating ideas.”28 As Wolfowitz’s “distinguished policy career” was all in diplomatic or policy planning positions, his overweening focus on careful wording and grand unifying conceptual schemes did America no disservice. But the Deputy Secretary of Defense position was different. Traditionally the job focuses on the nuts-and-bolts of managing the Department’s billion dollars budgets and thousands of employees. The job was not well suited to someone of Wolfowitz’s temperament—but Wolfowitz was too prominent a member of the campaign team to not be given a plum position.
Rice, No Higher Honor, 3. See also Doug Feith’s comments in War and Decision, 75. On Wolfowitz’s pre Bush ’43 experiences and their relation to his government service c. 2000-2005, see Robert Draper, To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq (New York, 2021), 6-30; Mann, Rise of the Vulcans, passim.
The results were not great. Zakheim again:
Even those who expressed concern about the implementation of US plans seem to show little interest in the nuts and bolts of costs and expense management. Their reticence had nothing to do with leaks, either, because every meeting seemed to be reported in the press within 24 hours of it taking place. Those who were unhappy with whatever decision was being made would run to their friends in the press at the first opportunity. My staff was not included in the initial planning meetings for the war or its aftermath because the policy wonks gave so little thought to implementation. It did not seem to occur to them that funds would have to be allocated and accounted for when expended. The policy planners seemed unaware of any opportunity costs of starting a second war in Iraq, that is, the impact the massive wartime expenditures may have on the baseline budget, let alone the unfinished effort in Afghanistan. They evidently assumed that Congress would make sufficient supplemental funds available to meet all needs as they emerged. The planners also evinced no sense of any need to audit the myriad contractors to be employed to support any military operation.29
Zakheim, Rise of the Vulcans, 187.
Comments like these hit a broader list of targets than Wolfowitz—in context it is clear that Wolfowitz, his staff, and the entire Policy Planning team run by Doug Feith are the folks he has in mind. Zakheim returns to the theme near the end of the book:
Alas, the key lesson of the past decade is that even the best policy goals are not likely to be fulfilled without equally good plans for implementing them. The politics of high policymaking is sexy, alluring, and magnetic to journalists and others outside government. The politics of implementation, of translating intentions into reality, on the other hand, is hard for those without government experience to grasp without some technical knowledge, analogous personal experience, a willingness to account for the views of others whether elsewhere in government or other governments, and a willingness to modify or even abandon preconceived notions that clash with harsh reality.
Unfortunately, the attitude of far too many self-absorbed policymakers and pundits mirrors that of the infamous Leona Helmsley, wife of a wealthy hotelier, who, when asked why she didn’t pay her taxes, remarked haughtily? “Taxes are for the little people.” To those who saw (and many still see) themselves as “big thinkers” and important persons in foreign policy, implementation and execution—the guts of making things really happen—is for the little people. Implementation is not deserving of the time and attention of the best and the brightest. And, invariably, it is the little people—the taxpayers whom Leona Helmsley so casually dismissed, and, more importantly, the troops—who bear the brunt of the consequences of high-minded indifference to practicality.30
This critique is important, for most of the people who attacked the Bush administration in its own time were themselves pundits, journalists, and would-be policy-makers enamored with “big thinking.” This class would prefer that the problems of the Vulcans could all be boiled down to their ideas. Ideas are the currency of intellectuals everywhere; they will always find it more satisfying to blame bad policy on bad ideology. As Wolfowitz is something of a poster boy for Bush ’43 evil think, this alternate critique of his failures is worth pondering. Is the problem less the Vulcans’ particular ideas than the simple fact that wordsmiths and ideas-men ideas were promoted up into leadership positions they were unsuited for?
Zakheim answers this question with a tentative “yes.” He feels some personal guilt over the matter: before selecting Wolfowitz for Deputy Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld asked Zakheim whether Wolfowitz was the right man for the job. Zakheim regrets not making a stronger case for giving the job to fellow Vulcan Richard Armitage, who was also on the list. During the campaign most outside observers assumed that Armitage, an “oversized cinderblock of a man”31 who served three voluntary tours in Vietnam and who was usually more concerned with tactical implementation than strategic vision, would be given the position. Rumsfeld did not like him for one big reason: Armitage was the best friend of Colin Powell.32
A colorful description from Draper, To Start a War, 111. Google his image and you’ll see it is an apt one
Colin Powell and Richard Armitage, Interview, March 28, 2017,
George W. Bush Oral History Project, Miller Center, University of Virginia.
Zakheim imagines what might have been had he pushed harder for Armitage:
Armitage would have emphasized the need to line up allies before doing anything dramatic, which Rich always considered to be a key factor in US foreign policy. Perhaps the country would have gone to war in Iraq anyway. Nevertheless, had Armitage served Defense and Wolfowitz at State, the administration probably would have taken longer to commit the troops and would have had more international—including UN—support than actually obtained. It might have spent more time focusing on Afghanistan before going to war with Saddam Hussein. Lining up international support certainly would have taken up much of State’s time, but that is what Diplomats do as a matter of course. On the other hand, both DoD and USAID would have had less distractions from their work in Afghanistan. And ultimately the United States might not have expended as much human and material treasure in a war from which it has yet to fully extricate itself.33
Zakheim, Rise of the Vulcans, 31.
Given the Colin Powell connection, it is unlikely that Armitage would have ever been chosen for this position as long as Rumsfeld was Secretary. But it was only chance that gave that position to Rumsfeld in the first place. Bush originally wanted to select Fred Smith, the founder and CEO of FedEx, for the position. Smith declined the position because of heart problems. In a world where Smith does not need heart surgery in 2001, Donald Rumsfeld would have been given the other position he had been offered, Director of the CIA.34 Armitage would have been Smith’s Deputy Secretary of Defense, the Department of Defense policy planning office would not be filled with Cheney/Rumsfeld loyalists, and Paul Wolfowitz would have either have taken a position as UN ambassador or been forced into a lower level policy position at State or the NSC.
George W. Bush, Decision Points (New York: Crown Publishers, 2010), 83-84. Mann, Rise of the Vulcans, 338-342.
Would this configuration have stopped the course for war? Would it have kept the Bush administration focused on Afghanistan? Would it have led to a less state centric response to the terror attacks of 9/11?
Perhaps. Rumsfeld, ever the bureaucratic fighter eager to steal others’ turf while zealously guarding his own, would have been fighting for his analysts at the CIA instead of against them. As Operation Enduring Freedom was built around CIA war plans and the Agency played an outsized role in the post-war settlement of that country,35 Rumsfeld would have pushed to keep Afghanistan at center stage, as it would have kept himself and his Agency at the center of NSC discussions. Dick Cheney and his underlings in the Office of the Vice Presidency would not have acted that differently on this timeline, but they would have had far less influence as a whole, for the Office of the Secretary of Defense would have been managed by a loyalist to Powell, not Cheney. With Rumsfeld in an advisory role and Smith new to high government service, Cheney and Powell would have been the dominating personalities on the NSC. The debates between them would have been far more balanced. Powell, in particular, would have been in a better position to leverage his prestige for the sake of trumpeting State’s perspective. Without Rumsfeld there to muzzle them, the Joint Chiefs of Staff would also have had a louder voice in these discussions.
A fluid account of the CIA’s planning is found in Steve Coll, Directorate S : The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan (New York: Penguin, 2018), 12-112.
This might not have derailed the Iraq campaign completely. Powell and Armitage both thought a coercive military campaign against Saddam was inevitable—but they argued that this war should be reserved for the second term of the administration, perhaps in 2005.36 Without Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Feith running Defense, there certainly would have been less stonewalling in the interagency debates, and we probably would have seen a greater emphasis on using diplomatic and intelligence tools to solve the problems of Afghanistan, which DoD sidelined in their quest to find new targets to demonstrate their department’s “transformational” approach to war.
Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor, Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq, reprint ed., (New York: Vintage, 2007), 82.
It is a fun little counterfactual. Among other things, it makes clear that Bush 43’s personnel problems were bigger than Paul Wolfowitz. The problem was not simply whether individual Vulcans were well suited for the roles they were assigned, but whether the Vulcans as a network were configured to succeed.
Zakheim describes the issue from the perspective of Condoleezza Rice:
Condoleezza Rice, whether she admitted to it or not, and out of loyalty to her boss she never did admit it publicly, found herself in a unique position among national security advisers. Not only did she have to contend with two strong rival secretaries as state and defense, she also had a deal with the equally intense rivalry among their two powerful deputies, both of whom had their own personal relationship with the president. Moreover, none of her predecessors ever had a deal with the former holder of that position (and a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, now in the cabinet, namely: Powell) and a Secretary of Defense who had returned to that position (namely Rumsfeld, who had also been White House Chief of Staff) and a powerful an amply staffed Vice President who had been a Secretary of Defense and White House Chief of Staff. If that were not enough Rice also had to contend with the fact that Wolfowitz remained a Cheney protege and was close to Rumsfeld, who was in turn as close a friend of Cheney’s as he was his associate…. Given the existence of these multiple nodes of informal power vectors within the administration, it was a major accomplishment for Rice just to have lasted for four years. Many of her predecessors, with far fewer positive powerful rivals to contend with, did not manage to do so.37
Zakheim, Rise of the Vulcans, 283-4.
Zakheim is not the only one to note how “nodes of informal power vectors”—or in other words, “friendships”—corrupted the policy process in the early years of Bush ‘43. James Mann calls it the “BFF problem.”38 The upper echelons of the administration had several “BFF” pairings: Armitage-Powell, Wolfowitz-Libby, and Cheney-Rumsfeld (with Libby and Wolfowitz, in turn, both being close friends with and owing their careers to Dick Cheney). In the Reagan administration bitter conflicts between NSC Principals were usually resolved through tight coordination at the Deputy and undersecretary level; because the (then younger) Vulcans were spread between departments instead of stacked with their friends in vertical silos, coalitional coordination had to happen in the formal “interagency” decision process. In contrast, in the early days of Bush ’43 the distribution of personnel only deepened cleavages between the Principals. Interpersonal disputes between Secretaries soon blossomed into totalizing death grudges between entire departments. Strained from the beginning, by mid-2002 the interagency process was dead. Important decisions were being made instead through informal networks of friends and loyalists.
James Mann, The Great Rift: Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, and the Broken Friendship That Defined an Era ( Henry Holt and Co, 2021), 215-217.
Haas describes the problems with the breakdown of the nat-sec machinery:
To be sure, formal decision-making processes can be time-consuming, can increase the chance of leaks, can stifle innovation, and are no guarantee against groupthink and error. But it is also true that rigorous and inclusive policy development mechanisms can improve the quality of policy, protect leaders from themselves and the shortcomings of those around them, and increase the odds that implementation faithfully reflects what is sought. It is no coincidence that the administration of George H. W. Bush fared relatively well in Iraq. There was and is a close correlation between the quality of policy and the quality of the process that produces it. By contrast, George W. Bush paid a price for the informality of national security decision making during much of his administration. There was little systematic consideration of the pros and cons of going to war versus alternative policies. Policies that would shape the aftermath of the conflict received scant interagency oversight. It is worth noting that the most successful phase of policy on the ground that included the so-called surge in early 2007 resulted from a far more careful and rigorous policy review back in Washington.39
Haas, War of Necessity, 272.
The most stunning example of this breakdown concerns Iraq:
How did George W. Bush reach this point [where he was determined to invade Iraq]? I will go to my grave not fully understanding why. …there is no certainty, as there was no meeting or set of meetings at which the pros and cons were debated and a formal decision taken. No, this decision happened. It was cumulative.40
Haas’ description of events is confirmed by other officials in the Bush administration.41 The NSC never once debated the question “Should we go to war with Iraq?” No principal was ever asked to explicitly justify the costs and benefits of the invasion, nor to identify the working assumptions behind their calculations.
This included officials with a much higher rank than Haas. Consider this statement from George Tenet’s memoir: “One of the great mysteries to me is exactly when the war in Iraq became inevitable.” At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA (New York: Harper Collins, 2007). See also Mazzar, Leap of Faith, passim, but esp 39-140, 204.
The interagency process is intended to force such things out into the open. Departments traditionally submit “options papers” which explicitly lay out a position, identify expected outcomes of the policies the department advocates, and offer probabilistic judgments of the policy’s success. The NSC formally presents these different options to the president, who then decides between—or summarily rejects—the options given.
Some responsibility for the failure of this process under Bush ‘43 lies with the person formally responsible for directing it, Bush’s National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Rice shielded Bush from explicit disagreements between national security Principals. Her method was to “bridge” disagreements between the departments, by presenting either a compromise view or simply the majority opinion to president for approval.42This was in accord with the president’s desire for brief, action-oriented meetings and his impatience for minutia filled digressions or disagreements. It came at the cost of preventing the president from hearing the serious reservations—or outright opposition—his officials might have had to plans other officials worked out through intuitive and informal decision processes.
For an extremely and perhaps unreasonably harsh version of this critique, see Jean Edward Smith, Bush (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2017); for more measured version, Mazarr, Leap of Faith, 84-87; , Draper, to Start a War, 131-141.
But as Zakheim acknowledges, Rice was in a difficult position. She was tasked with coordinating a cabinet of big men whose careers and experience far outstripped her own. For the formal interagency process to function properly, their cooperation was necessary. This cooperation was not forthcoming.
The Vulcan’s billed themselves as experts in world affairs. Rice was one of the few area experts among them (Rice speaks Russian and wrote her dissertation on military politics in the Communist bloc). Most were foreign policy generalists. That label is a bit deceiving. As one blob professional once told me, “a foreign policy generalist is a specialist—he is just a specialist in America’s own national security bureaucracy and decision making process.” What the successful generalist knows best is America itself.
By the time Dick Cheney became Vice President of the United States, he was arguably the most experienced operator in the federal government. From an early job where he was literally tasked with fixing the White House plumbing he would rise to become the youngest White House Chief of Staff in American history, serve a decade in Congress (where he sat on the House Intelligence Committee), and serve again in the executive branch as Secretary of Defense. He understood everything that one man could understand about the workings of the Department of Defense, the White House, Congress, and the Intelligence Community. He knew all the leverage points: when a signature was needed, and when it wasn’t: which committee members needed to be won over, and which ones could be ignored; where the memos came from, and who they must not be sent to. He was as good as they come.
Perhaps too good.
To read accounts and memoirs of Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, and Colin Powell is to see greatness in action. These were Washington maestros, truly magnificent in their ability to shape public perceptions, hustle the bureaucracy to their favored policies, and manipulate lawmakers into taking their side. In their less experienced days, these men, like most selected to lead America’s gargantuan national security apparatus, were dependent on the formal rules of the interagency process. That is one reason those rules exist: to ensure that the politicians tapped to direct American diplomacy, many of whose experience in foreign affairs is shallow, are able to work smoothly with the “deep state” they are asked to lead. But these men were different. They were titans! By the time of Bush 43 the titans understood the in-and-outs of the system so well that it was easier for them to work outside the rules than inside their bounds.
Sometimes this was as simple as walking up to the president and getting him to sign something before other Principals were made aware. At other times more complicated maneuvers—such as setting up alternate intelligence cells outside of the IC—were called for. All three men were supremely skilled in the fine art of the hedge. Powell refused to put dissenting opinions down in writing or raise them in meetings with other NSC Principals. Instead he outsourced dissenting talking points to journalists and other friends outside the administration, forcing his opponents to respond to them instead of him. Taciturn Cheney would give his opinions only in one-on-one meetings with the President. When he had a controversial move to make he would have one of his deputies take the first steps so that he could preserve plausible deniability and shut the effort down if it encountered too much resistance. Rumsfeld was in a league of his own: instead of staking out a position Rumsfeld would pepper discussion with a series of Socratic questions designed to lead colleagues and underlings to present his favored options as their own ideas. When Rumsfeld reported that such-and-such response was advised by his generals, you could be sure that a long game of question and answers had produced the advice Rumsfeld most wanted.
The senior Vulcans were masters of the organizations they led. Cheney famously elevated the thinly staffed Office of the Vice Presidency into bureaucratic superpower with eyes and ears in every meeting. Through a mix of selective bullying and incessant pestering, Rumsfeld tamed the much vaster Pentagon bureaucracy, browbeating even proud generals into adopting the Rumsfeld line. These fights would work their way down through the ranks: both Haas and Zakheim report the fierce battles they witnessed to ensure that loyalists would fill key junior positions in officialdom.43
Haas, War of Necessity, 252; Zakheim, A Vulcan’s Tale, 198.
The heavyweights would work to keep intelligence and even briefing material out of the other sides’ hands—after one NSC meeting Rumsfeld got in a literal tug of war contest with Condoleezza Rice over some briefing slides he had used.44Behavior like that seems childish, but it had a purpose: “In Washington information was power, and Rumsfeld did his best to control the flow.”45 “Controlling the flow” also meant shaping the way IC products flowed across the system. CIA director George Tenet recalls that briefing senior Vulcans “was like jumping into a swimming pool with an Olympic champion.” They “knew their brief and knew where they wanted it to end up… arriv[ing at briefings] with such detailed knowledge on people, sources, and timelines” that his analysts “could not compete.”46 One DoD analyst compared delivering these briefings to “being wire-brushed in the nude.”47 Rumsfeld in particular was notorious for the persnickety objections he would raise to his briefers, questioning everything from the fonts used on briefing slides to the deployments of individual squads and fire teams. It was much easier for analysts to spare themselves the pain and shape their conclusions as they knew top Vulcans wished to hear it. Many analysts ended up doing just that.
Mazarr, Leap of Faith, 91.
Tenet, At The Center or the Storm, 341.
Gorand and Trainor, Cobra II, 169.
Mazarr, Leap of Faith, 307.
This shadow contest in the realms of informal power had consequences. In resulted in an environment where intelligence and assessments were molded to match pre-existing models of the world, arguments against preferred policies were circumvented before they had the chance to be openly articulated, and entire bureaucracies began to move in anticipation of what a Principal would do before he—or the NSC—had made any formal decisions. “[It] was like watching iron filings move across a tabletop,” one administration insider would remark. “You know there is magnet down there. You know the magnet is moving. You never see the magnet.”48
Baker, Days of Fire, 110.
In light of all this, the famous ‘reality based community’ nugget so lampooned by Democrats in the aughts takes on a new and more tragic meaning. In 2004 one “senior official” told New York Times reporter Ron Suskind that he was part of this “reality based community.” People like Suskind “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality,” but now
That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.49
Ron Suskind, “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush”, The New York Times Magazine (October 17, 2004)..
There is a strange truth to this pronouncement. The Vulcans were masters of their reality. They had wrought anew the social realm in which they lived, changing the terms of the bureaucratic game, bending the rules, memos, and meetings that constrained lesser men to their own wills. As they received intelligence estimates and force structure reports that had been molded to match their assumptions about the world it certainly would seem that they were recrafting reality. Unfortunately, the reality that mattered existed outside the confines of the American bureaucracy. The Vulcan’s skill at reshaping their world came at the expense of their ability to accurately perceive—much less shape—the world outside it.
Let us conclude with the concluding paragraphs of Zakheim’s book:
The fact that policy during much of the Bush administration was made by people whose egos and dreams were outsized even by Washington standards undermined efforts to implement an effective follow up to the initial military operations. An endless stream of journalistic accounts has documented the stubborn refusal of leading American in the Iraq drama to address the cultural, political, and religious realities that governed Iraqi society. Less well documented but no less important is the pernicious impact of a similar combination of blindness, obstinacy, and illusion regarding the implementation of American policy objectives in Afghanistan. That some people had jobs for which were totally unsuited, professionally as well as temperamentally, only aggravated an already unhealthy situation.
Real leadership is not only about setting directions. It also has to encompass a management style that can see efforts through to successful completion. In fact, it is not the management style itself that matters, but the awareness that management matters. The details will not “take care of themselves.” It is all well and good to be a Vulcan, or to be a member of some future exclusive crowd of would-be public servants. Someone, however, has to know how to get the job done.50
This has been the second essay in a series titled “Learning From Our Defeat.” The next review essay in the series will consider Sarah Cheyes’ The Punishment of Virtue.
Zakheim, A Vulcan’s Tale, 294-295.