from Vanity Fair
I: About That Cakewalk …
I remember sitting with Richard Perle in his suite at London's Grosvenor House hotel and receiving a private lecture on the importance of securing victory in Iraq. "Iraq is a very good candidate for democratic reform," he said. "It won't be Westminster overnight, but the great democracies of the world didn't achieve the full, rich structure of democratic governance overnight. The Iraqis have a decent chance of succeeding."
In addition to a whiff of gunpowder, Perle seemed to exude the scent of liberation—not only for Iraqis, but for all the Middle East. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Perle suggested, Iranian reformers would feel emboldened to change their own regime, while Syria would take seriously American demands to cease its support for terrorists.
Perle had spent much of the 1990s urging the ouster of Saddam Hussein. He was aligned with the Project for the New American Century, a neoconservative think tank that agitated for Saddam's removal, and he had helped to engineer the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, which established regime change as formal U.S. policy. After the accession of George W. Bush, in 2001, Perle was appointed chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee, and at its first meeting after 9/11—attended by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz; and Rumsfeld's No. 3, Douglas Feith—Perle arranged a presentation from the exiled Iraqi dissident Ahmad Chalabi. Perle wanted to shut down terrorist havens—not only in Afghanistan but also in Iraq. When we spoke at Grosvenor House, it was late February 2003, and the culmination of all this effort—Operation Iraqi Freedom—was less than a month away.
Three years later, Perle and I meet again, at his home outside Washington, D.C. It is October 2006, the worst month for U.S. casualties in Iraq in nearly two years, and Republicans are bracing for what will prove to be sweeping losses in the upcoming midterm elections. As he looks into my eyes, speaking slowly and with obvious deliberation, Perle is unrecognizable as the confident hawk I once knew. "The levels of brutality that we've seen are truly horrifying, and I have to say, I underestimated the depravity," Perle says, adding that total defeat—an American withdrawal that leaves Iraq as an anarchic "failed state"—is not yet inevitable, but is becoming more likely. "And then," he says, "you'll get all the mayhem that the world is capable of creating."
According to Perle, who left the Defense Policy Board in 2004, this unfolding catastrophe has a central cause: devastating dysfunction within the Bush administration. The policy process has been nothing short of "disastrous," he says. "The decisions did not get made that should have been. They didn't get made in a timely fashion, and the differences were argued out endlessly. At the end of the day, you have to hold the president responsible.… I think he was led to believe that things were chugging along far more purposefully and coherently than in fact they were. I think he didn't realize the depth of the disputes underneath. I don't think he realized the extent of the opposition within his own administration, and the disloyalty."
Perle goes as far as to say that, if he had his time over, he would not advocate an invasion of Iraq: "I think if I had been delphic, and had seen where we are today, and people had said, 'Should we go into Iraq?,' I think now I probably would have said, 'No, let's consider other strategies for dealing with the thing that concerns us most, which is Saddam supplying weapons of mass destruction to terrorists.' … I don't say that because I no longer believe that Saddam had the capability to produce weapons of mass destruction, or that he was not in contact with terrorists. I believe those two premises were both correct. Could we have managed that threat by means other than a direct military intervention? Well, maybe we could have."
Having spoken with Perle, I wonder: What do the rest of the war's neoconservative proponents think? If the much-caricatured "Prince of Darkness" is now plagued with doubt, how do his comrades-in-arms feel? I am particularly interested in finding out because I interviewed some of the neocons before the invasion and, like many people, found much to admire in their vision of spreading democracy in the Middle East.
I expect to encounter disappointment. What I find instead is despair, and fury at the incompetence of the Bush administration many neocons once saw as their brightest hope.
David Frum, the former White House speechwriter who co-wrote Bush's 2002 State of the Union address, accusing Iraq of being part of an "axis of evil," says it now looks as if defeat may be inescapable, because "the insurgency has proven it can kill anyone who cooperates, and the United States and its friends have failed to prove that it can protect them. If you are your typical, human non-hero, then it's very hard at this point to justify to yourself and your family taking any risks at all on behalf of the coalition." This situation, he says, must ultimately be blamed on "failure at the center."
Kenneth Adelman, a longtime neocon activist and Pentagon insider who has served on the Defense Policy Board, wrote a famous op-ed article in The Washington Post in February 2002, arguing, "I believe that demolishing Hussein's military power and liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk." Now he says, "I am extremely disappointed by the outcome in Iraq, because 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. Not only did each of them, individually, have enormous flaws, but together they were deadly, dysfunctional."
Fearing that worse is still to come, Adelman believes that neoconservatism itself—what he defines as "the idea of a tough foreign policy on behalf of morality, the idea of using our power for moral good in the world"—is dead, at least for a generation. After Iraq, he says, "it's not going to sell." And if he, too, had his time over, Adelman says, "I would write an article that would be skeptical over whether there would be a performance that would be good enough to implement our policy. The policy can be absolutely right, and noble, beneficial, but if you can't execute it, it's useless, just useless. I guess that's what I would have said: that Bush's arguments are absolutely right, but you know what? You just have to put them in the drawer marked CAN'T DO. And that's very different from LET'S GO."
James Woolsey, another Defense Policy Board member, who served as director of the C.I.A. under President Clinton, lobbied for an Iraq invasion with a prodigious output of articles, speeches, and television interviews. At a public debate hosted by Vanity Fair in September 2004, he was still happy to argue for the motion that "George W. Bush has made the world a safer place." Now he draws explicit parallels between Iraq and Vietnam, aghast at what he sees as profound American errors that have ignored the lessons learned so painfully 40 years ago. He has not given up hope: "As of mid-October of '06, the outcome isn't clear yet." But if, says Woolsey, as now seems quite possible, the Iraqi adventure ends with American defeat, the consequences will be "awful, awful.… It will convince the jihadis and al-Qaeda-in-Iraq types as well as the residual Ba'thists that we are a paper tiger, and they or anybody they want to help can take us on anywhere and anytime they want and be effective, that we don't have the stomach to stay and fight."
Professor Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, yet another Defense Policy Board member and longtime advocate of ousting Saddam Hussein, is even more pessimistic: "People sometimes ask me, 'If you knew then what you know now, would you still have been in favor of the war?' Usually they're thinking about the W.M.D. stuff. My response is that the thing I know now that I did not know then is just how incredibly incompetent we would be, which is the most sobering part of all this. I'm pretty grim. I think we're heading for a very dark world, because the long-term consequences of this are very large, not just for Iraq, not just for the region, but globally—for our reputation, for what the Iranians do, all kinds of stuff."
II: Let the Finger-Pointing Begin
I turn in my piece on Thursday, November 2—five days before the midterm elections. The following day, the editors phone to say that its contents—especially the comments by Perle, Adelman, and Frum—are so significant and unexpected that they have decided to post an excerpt that afternoon on the magazine's Web site, vanityfair.com.
The abridged article goes up at about 4:45 P.M., eastern standard time. Its impact is almost immediate. Within minutes, George Stephanopoulos confronts Vice President Dick Cheney with Perle's and Adelman's criticisms during an on-camera interview. Cheney blanches and declines to comment, other than to say that the administration remains committed to its Iraq policy and will continue to pursue it, "full speed ahead." By the next morning, news of the neocons' about-face has been picked up by papers, broadcasters, and blogs around the world, despite a White House spokesperson's attempt to dismiss it as "Monday-morning quarterbacking."
Some of my interviewees, Richard Perle included, protest in a forum on National Review Online that they were misled, because they believed that their words would not be published until V.F.'s January issue hit newsstands—after the midterms. Posting a preview on the Web, they say, was a "partisan" attempt to score political points. In response, the magazine issues a statement: "At a time when Vice President Dick Cheney is saying that the administration is going 'full speed ahead' with its policy in Iraq and that 'we've got the basic strategy right,' and the president is stating that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's job is secure, we felt that it was in the public's interest to hear now, before the election, what the architects of the Iraq war are saying about its mission and execution."
Some of the neocons also claim that the Web excerpt quotes them out of context—implying, perhaps, that in other parts of their interviews they had praised the performance of Bush and his administration. That charge is untrue. Meanwhile, not all the neocons are unhappy. On Wednesday, November 8, with news of the Democratic takeover of Congress still fresh and Rumsfeld's resignation still hours away, I receive an e-mail from Adelman. "I totally agree with you," he writes. "Why keep Issue #1 behind closed doors until the American people have a chance to vote? That's why I was (among the only ones) not giving any 'rebuttal' to the [Web] release, despite being asked and pressured to do so, since I think it's just fine to get word out when it could make a difference to people.
"Plus I personally had no rebuttal. I thought the words I read from you were fair and right on target."
A cynic might argue that, since the Iraqi disaster has become so palpably overwhelming, the neocons are trashing what is left of Bush's reputation in the hope of retaining theirs. Given the outcome of the midterms, it also seems likely that these interviews are the first salvos in a battle to influence how history will judge the war. The implications will be profound—not only for American conservatism but also for the future direction and ambitions of American foreign policy. The neocons' position in this debate starts with an unprovable assertion: that when the war began, Iraq was "a doable do," to use a military planner's phrase cited by David Frum. If not for the administration's incompetence, they say, Saddam's tyranny could have been replaced with something not only better but also secure. "Huge mistakes were made," Richard Perle says, "and I want to be very clear on this: they were not made by neoconservatives, who had almost no voice in what happened, and certainly almost no voice in what happened after the downfall of the regime in Baghdad. I'm getting damn tired of being described as an architect of the war. I was in favor of bringing down Saddam. Nobody said, 'Go design the campaign to do that.' I had no responsibility for that."
Some of those who did have responsibility, and were once the most gung-ho, are also losing heart. In December 2005, I spoke with Douglas Feith, the former undersecretary of defense for policy, whose Office of Special Plans was reportedly in charge of policy planning for the invasion and its aftermath. He told me then, "I have confidence that in 20 to 30 years people will be happy we removed Saddam Hussein from power and will say we did the right thing. They will look back and say that our strategic rationale was sound, and that through doing this we won a victory in the war on terror."
When we talk again, in October 2006, Feith sounds less certain. It is beginning to seem possible that America will withdraw before Iraq achieves stability, he says, and if that happens his previous statement would no longer be justified. "There would be a lot of negative consequences," he says, adding that America's enemies, including Osama bin Laden, have attacked when they perceived weakness. Leaving Iraq as a failed state, Feith concludes, "would wind up hurting the United States and the interests of the civilized world." In 2005, Feith thought failure unimaginable. Now he broods on how it may occur, and envisions its results.
At the end of 2003, Richard Perle and David Frum published a book, An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror. Neoconservatives do not make up an organized bloc—much less a "cabal," as is sometimes alleged—but the book ends with a handy summary of their ideas. Foreign policy, write Perle and Frum, should attempt to achieve not only the realist goals of American wealth and security but also less tangible ends that benefit mankind. The neoconservative dream, they say, is similar to that which inspired the founders of the United Nations after World War II: "A world at peace; a world governed by law; a world in which all peoples are free to find their own destinies." But in Perle and Frum's view, the U.N. and similar bodies have failed, leaving "American armed might" as the only force capable of bringing this Utopian world into being. "Our vocation is to support justice with power," they write. "It is a vocation that has earned us terrible enemies. It is a vocation that has made us, at our best moments, the hope of the world."
Although Perle was one of the first to frame the case for toppling Saddam in realist terms of the threat of W.M.D.—in a letter he sent to Clinton in February 1998 whose 40 signatories included Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Feith—he insists that the idealist values outlined in his book shaped the way he and his allies always believed the war should be fought. At the heart of their program was an insistence that, no matter how Saddam was deposed, Iraqis had to be allowed to take charge of their destiny immediately afterward.
In the 1990s, the neocons tried to secure American air and logistical support for an assault on Saddam by a "provisional government" based in Kurdistan—a plan derided by former CentCom chief General Anthony Zinni as a recipe for a "Bay of Goats." After 9/11, as America embarked on the path to war in earnest, they pushed again for the recognition of a provisional Iraqi government composed of former exiles, including Chalabi. In addition to acting as a magnet for new defectors from the Iraqi military and government, they argued, this government-in-exile could assume power as soon as Baghdad fell. The neocons, represented inside the administration by Feith and Wolfowitz, also unsuccessfully demanded the training of thousands of Iraqis to go in with coalition troops.
The failure to adopt these proposals, neocons outside the administration now say, was the first big American error, and it meant that Iraqis saw their invaders as occupiers, rather than liberators, from the outset. "Had they gone in with even just a brigade or two of well-trained Iraqis, I think things could have been a good deal different," James Woolsey tells me at his law office, in McLean, Virginia. "That should have been an Iraqi that toppled that statue of Saddam." Drawing a comparison to the liberation of France in World War II, he recalls how "we stood aside and saw the wisdom of having [the Free French leaders] de Gaulle and Leclerc lead the victory parade through Paris in the summer of '44." The coalition, he says, should have seen the symbolic value of allowing Iraqis to "take" Baghdad in 2003. He draws another historical parallel, to the U.S. campaigns against Native Americans in the 19th century, to make another point: that the absence of Iraqi auxiliaries deprived coalition soldiers of invaluable local intelligence. "Without the trained Iraqis, it was like the Seventh Cavalry going into the heart of Apache country in Arizona in the 1870s with no scouts. No Apache scouts. I mean, hello?"
If the administration loaded the dice against success with its pre-war decisions, Kenneth Adelman says, it made an even greater blunder when Saddam's regime fell. "The looting was the decisive moment," Adelman says. "The moment this administration was lost was when Donald Rumsfeld took to the podium and said, 'Stuff happens. This is what free people do.' It's not what free people do at all: it's what barbarians do. Rumsfeld said something about free people being free to make mistakes. But the Iraqis were making 'mistakes' by ruining their country while the U.S. Army stood there watching!" Once Rumsfeld and General Tommy Franks failed to order their forces to intervene—something Adelman says they could have done—several terrible consequences became inevitable. Among them, he tells me over lunch at a downtown-D.C. restaurant, was the destruction of Iraq's infrastructure, the loss of documents that might have shed light on Saddam's weapons capabilities, and the theft from Iraq's huge munitions stores of tons of explosives "that they're still using to kill our kids." The looting, he adds, "totally discredited the idea of democracy, since this 'democracy' came in tandem with chaos." Worst of all, "it demolished the sense of the invincibility of American military power. That sense of invincibility is enormously valuable when you're trying to control a country. It means, 'You fuck with this guy, you get your head blown off.' All that was destroyed when the looting began and was not stopped."
According to Frum, there was a final ingredient fueling the wildfire spread of violence in the second half of 2003: intelligence failures that were, in terms of their effects, even "grosser" than those associated with the vanishing weapons. "The failure to understand the way in which the state was held together was more total," he tells me in his office at the neoconservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute (A.E.I.). America assumed it was invading a functional, secular state, whose institutions and lines of control would carry on functioning under new leadership. Instead, partly as a result of the 1990s sanctions, it turned out to be a quasi-medieval society where Saddam had secured the loyalty of tribal sheikhs and imams with treasure and S.U.V.'s. Here, Frum says, another disadvantage of not having an Iraqi provisional government made itself felt: "There's no books, there's no treasury, and he's distributing. One guy gets a Land Rover, another guy gets five Land Rovers, somebody else gets a sack of gold.… That is information that only an Iraqi is going to have, and this is something I said at the time: that Iraq is going to be ruled either through terror or through corruption. Saddam knew how to do it through terror. Ahmad Chalabi would have known how to do it through corruption. What we are now trying to do, in the absence of the knowledge of who has to be rewarded, is to do a lot of things through force." The state had ceased to "deliver" rewards to loyalists, and in that vacuum the insurgency began to flourish.
III: The Trouble with Bush and Rice
As V.F. first revealed, in the May 2004 issue, Bush was talking about invading Iraq less than two weeks after 9/11, broaching the subject at a private White House dinner with British prime minister Tony Blair on September 20, 2001. With so much time to prepare, how could the aftermath have begun so badly? "People were aware in February or March of 2003 that the planning was not finished," Frum says. "There was not a coherent plan, and in the knowledge that there was not a coherent plan, there was not the decision made to wait." The emphasis here needs to be on the word "coherent." In fact, as Frum points out, there were several plans: the neocons' ideas outlined above, a British proposal to install their client Iyad Allawi, and suggestions from the State Department for a government led by the octogenarian Adnan Pachachi. To hear Frum tell it, the State Department was determined to block the neocons' anointed candidate, Ahmad Chalabi, and therefore resisted both Iraqi training and a provisional government, fearing that these measures would boost his prospects.
It would have been one thing, the neocons say, if their plan had been passed over in favor of another. But what really crippled the war effort was the administration's failure, even as its soldiers went to war, to make a decision. Less than three weeks before the invasion, Bush said in a rousing, pro-democracy speech to the A.E.I., "The United States has no intention of determining the precise form of Iraq's new government. That choice belongs to the Iraqi people." But with the administration unable to decide among Allawi, Pachachi, and Chalabi, the Iraqis ultimately were given no say. Instead, L. Paul Bremer III soon assumed almost unlimited powers as America's proconsul, assisted by a so-called Governing Council, which he was free to ignore and which, to judge by Bremer's memoir, he regarded as a contemptible irritant.
The place where such interagency disputes are meant to be resolved is the National Security Council, chaired during Bush's first term by Condoleezza Rice, who was national-security adviser at the time. A.E.I. Freedom Scholar Michael Ledeen—whose son, Gabriel, a lieutenant in the Marines, recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq—served as a consultant to the N.S.C. under Ronald Reagan and says the council saw its role as "defining the disagreement" for the president, who would then make up his mind. "After that, we'd move on to the next fight." But Rice, says Ledeen, saw her job as "conflict resolution, so that when [then secretary of state Colin] Powell and Rumsfeld disagreed, which did happen from time to time, she would say to [then deputy national-security adviser Stephen] Hadley or whomever, 'O.K., try to find some middle ground where they can both agree.' So then it would descend at least one level in the bureaucracy, and people would be asked to draft new memos." By this process, Ledeen complains, "thousands of hours were wasted by searching for middle ground, which most of the time will not exist." Sometimes—as with the many vital questions about postwar Iraq—"it may well have been too late" by the time decisions emerged.
"The National Security Council was not serving [Bush] properly," says Richard Perle, who believes that the president failed to tackle this shortcoming because of his personal friendship with Rice. "He regarded her as part of the family." (Rice has spent weekends and holidays with the Bushes.) The best way to understand this aspect of the Bush administration, says Ledeen, is to ask, Who are the most powerful people in the White House? "They are women who are in love with the president: Laura [Bush], Condi, Harriet Miers, and Karen Hughes." He cites the peculiar comment Rice reportedly made at a dinner party in 2004, when she referred to Bush as "my husb—" before catching herself. "That's what we used to call a Freudian slip," Ledeen remarks.
Whatever the N.S.C.'s deficiencies, say the neocons, the buck has to stop with the president. "In the administration that I served," says Perle, who was an assistant secretary of defense under Reagan, there was a "one-sentence description of the decision-making process when consensus could not be reached among disputatious departments: 'The president makes the decision.'" Yet Bush "did not make decisions, in part because the machinery of government that he nominally ran was actually running him." That, I suggest, is a terrible indictment. Perle does not demur: "It is." Accepting that, he adds, is "painful," because on the occasions he got an insight into Bush's thinking Perle felt "he understood the basic issues and was pursuing policies that had a reasonable prospect of success." Somehow, those instincts did not translate into actions.
On the question of Bush, the judgments of some of Perle's ideological allies are harsher. Frank Gaffney also served under Reagan as an assistant secretary of defense; he is now president of the hawkish Center for Security Policy, which has close ties with the upper echelons of the Pentagon. Gaffney describes the administration as "riven," arguing that "the drift, the incoherence, the mixed signals, the failure to plan this thing [Iraq] rigorously were the end product of that internal dynamic." His greatest disappointment has been the lack of resolution displayed by Bush himself: "This president has tolerated, and the people around him have tolerated, active, ongoing, palpable insubordination and skulduggery that translates into subversion of his policies.… He doesn't in fact seem to be a man of principle who's steadfastly pursuing what he thinks is the right course," Gaffney says. "He talks about it, but the policy doesn't track with the rhetoric, and that's what creates the incoherence that causes us problems around the world and at home. It also creates the sense that you can take him on with impunity."
In 2002 and '03, Danielle Pletka, a Middle East expert at the A.E.I., arranged a series of conferences on the future of Iraq. At one I attended, in October 2002, Perle and Chalabi were on the platform, while in the audience were a Who's Who of Iraq policymakers from the Pentagon and the vice president's office. Pletka's bitterness now is unrestrained. "I think that even though the president remains rhetorically committed to the idea of what he calls his 'freedom agenda,' it's over," she says. "It turns out we stink at it. And we don't just stink at it in Iraq. We stink at it in Egypt. And in Lebanon. And in the Palestinian territories. And in Jordan. And in Yemen. And in Algeria. And everywhere else we try at it. Because, fundamentally, the message hasn't gotten out to the people on the ground.… There is no one out there saying, 'These are the marching orders. Follow them or go and find a new job.' That was what those fights were about. And the true believers lost. Now, that's not to say had they won, everything would be coming up roses. But I do think that we had a window of opportunity to avert a lot of problems that we now see."
For Kenneth Adelman, "the most dispiriting and awful moment of the whole administration was the day that Bush gave the Presidential Medal of Freedom to [former C.I.A. director] George Tenet, General Tommy Franks, and Jerry [Paul] Bremer—three of the most incompetent people who've ever served in such key spots. And they get the highest civilian honor a president can bestow on anyone! That was the day I checked out of this administration. It was then I thought, There's no seriousness here. These are not serious people. If he had been serious, the president would have realized that those three are each directly responsible for the disaster of Iraq."
The most damning assessment of all comes from David Frum: "I always believed as a speechwriter that if you could persuade the president to commit himself to certain words, he would feel himself committed to the ideas that underlay those words. And the big shock to me has been that, although the president said the words, he just did not absorb the ideas. And that is the root of, maybe, everything."
IV: Was Rumsfeld Lousy? You Bet!
Having started so badly, the neocons say, America's occupation of Iraq soon got worse. Michael Rubin is a speaker of Persian and Arabic who worked for Feith's Office of Special Plans and, after the invasion, for the Coalition Provisional Authority (C.P.A.), in Baghdad. Rubin, who is now back at the A.E.I., points to several developments that undermined the prospects for anything resembling democracy. First was the decision to grant vast powers to Bremer, thus depriving Iraqis of both influence and accountability. "You can't have democracy without accountability," says Rubin, and in that vital first year the only Iraqi leaders with the ability to make a difference were those who controlled armed militias.
The creation of the fortified Green Zone, says Rubin, who chose to live outside it during his year in Baghdad, was "a disaster waiting to happen." It soon became a "bubble," where Bremer and the senior C.P.A. staff were almost completely detached from the worsening realities beyond—including the swelling insurgency. "The guys outside—for example, the civil-affairs officers, some of the USAID [United States Agency for International Development] workers, and so forth—had a much better sense of what was going on outside, but weren't able to get that word inside," Rubin says. Because Bremer was their main source of information, Rumsfeld and other administration spokesmen were out of touch with reality and soon "lost way too much credibility" by repeatedly claiming that the insurgents were not a serious problem.
Meanwhile, waste, corruption, and grotesque mismanagement were rife. Perle tells me a story he heard from an Iraqi cabinet minister, about a friend who was asked to lease a warehouse in Baghdad to a contractor for the Americans in the Green Zone. It turned out they were looking for someplace to store ice for their drinks. But, the man asked, wouldn't storing ice in Iraq's hot climate be expensive? Weren't the Americans making ice as and when they needed it? Thus he learned the extraordinary truth: that the ice was trucked in from Kuwait, 300 miles away, in regular convoys. The convoys, says Perle, "came under fire all the time. So we were sending American forces in harm's way, with full combat capability to support them, helicopters overhead, to move goddamn ice from Kuwait to Baghdad."
Perle cites another example: the mishandling of a contract to build 20 health clinics. While it is certainly "a good thing for the U.S. to be building clinics, and paying for it," Perle says, "the prime contractor never left the Green Zone. So there were subcontractors, and the way in which the prime contractor superintended the project was by asking the subcontractors to take videos of their progress and send them into the Green Zone. Now, you've got to expect projects to go wrong if that's the way you manage them, and indeed they did go wrong, and they ran out of money, and the contract was canceled. A complete fiasco." He knows, he says, "dozens" of similar stories. At their root, he adds, is America's misguided policy of awarding contracts to U.S. multi-nationals instead of Iraqi companies.
To former C.I.A. director Woolsey, one of this saga's most baffling features has been the persistent use of military tactics that were discredited in Vietnam. Since 2003, U.S. forces have "fought 'search-and-destroy' instead of 'clear-and-hold,'" he says, contrasting the ineffective strategy of hunting down insurgents to the proven one of taking territory and defending it. "There's never been a successful anti-insurgency campaign that operated according to search-and-destroy, because bad guys just come back in after you've passed through and kill the people that supported you," Woolsey explains. "How the U.S. government's post-fall-of-Baghdad planning could have ignored that history of Vietnam is stunning to me." But Rumsfeld and Bush were never willing to provide the high troop levels that Woolsey says are necessary for clear-and-hold.
Adelman's dismay at the handling of the insurgency is one reason he now criticizes Rumsfeld so severely. He is also disgusted by the former defense secretary's claims that the mayhem has been exaggerated by the media, and that all the war needs is better P.R. "The problem here is not a selling job. The problem is a performance job," Adelman says. "Rumsfeld has said that the war could never be lost in Iraq; it could only be lost in Washington. I don't think that's true at all. We're losing in Iraq."
As we leave the restaurant together, Adelman points to an office on the corner of Washington's 18th Street Northwest where he and Rumsfeld first worked together, during the Nixon administration, in 1972. "I've worked with him three times in my life. I have great respect for him. I'm extremely fond of him. I've been to each of his houses, in Chicago, Taos, Santa Fe, Santo Domingo, and Las Vegas. We've spent a lot of vacations together, been around the world together, spent a week together in Vietnam. I'm very, very fond of him, but I'm crushed by his performance. Did he change, or were we wrong in the past? Or is it that he was never really challenged before? I don't know. He certainly fooled me."
V: "A Huge Strategic Defeat"
Though some, such as James Woolsey, still hope against hope for success in Iraq, most of the neocons I speak with are braced for defeat. Even if the worst is avoided, the outcome will bear no resemblance to the scenarios they and their friends inside the administration laid out back in the glad, confident morning of 2003. "I think we're faced with a range of pretty bad alternatives," says Eliot Cohen. "The problem you're now dealing with is sectarian violence, and a lot of Iranian activity, and those I'm not sure can be rolled back—certainly not without quite a substantial use of force that I'm not sure we have the stomach for. In any case, the things that were possible in '03, '04, are no longer possible." Cohen says his best hope now is not something on the way toward democracy but renewed dictatorship, perhaps led by a former Ba'thist: "I think probably the least bad alternative that we come to sooner or later is a government of national salvation that will be a thinly disguised coup." However, he adds, "I wouldn't be surprised if what we end up drifting toward is some sort of withdrawal on some sort of timetable and leaving the place in a pretty ghastly mess." And that, he believes, would be "about as bad an outcome as one could imagine.… Our choices now are between bad and awful."
In the short run, Cohen believes, the main beneficiary of America's intervention in Iraq is the mullahs' regime in Iran, along with its extremist president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And far from heralding the hoped-for era of liberal Middle East reform, he says, "I do think it's going to end up encouraging various strands of Islamism, both Shia and Sunni, and probably will bring de-stabilization of some regimes of a more traditional kind, which already have their problems." The risk of terrorism on American soil may well increase, too, he fears. "The best news is that the United States remains a healthy, vibrant, vigorous society. So, in a real pinch, we can still pull ourselves together. Unfortunately, it will probably take another big hit. And a very different quality of leadership. Maybe we'll get it."
Frank Gaffney, of the Center for Security Policy, is more pessimistic. While defeat in Iraq is not certain, he regards it as increasingly likely. "It's not a perfect parallel here, but I would say it would approximate to losing the Battle of Britain in World War II," he says. "Our enemies will be emboldened and will re-double their efforts. Our friends will be demoralized and disassociate themselves from us. The delusion is to think that the war is confined to Iraq, and that America can walk away. Failure in Iraq would be a huge strategic defeat." It may already be too late to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, Gaffney says, pointing out that the Manhattan Project managed to build them in less than four years from a far smaller base of knowledge. "I would say that the likelihood of military action against Iran is 100 percent," he concludes. "I just don't know when or under what circumstances. My guess is that it will be in circumstances of their choosing and not ours."
Richard Perle is almost as apocalyptic. Without some way to turn impending defeat in Iraq to victory, "there will continue to be turbulence and instability in the region. The Sunni in the Gulf, who are already terrified of the Iranians, will become even more terrified of the Iranians. We will be less able to stop an Iranian nuclear program, or Iran's support for terrorism. The Saudis will go nuclear. They will not want to sit there with Ahmadinejad having the nuclear weapon." This is not a cheering prospect: a Sunni-Shia civil war raging in Iraq, while its Sunni and Shia neighbors face each other across the Persian Gulf armed with nukes. As for the great diplomatic hope—that the Iraq Study Group, led by George Bush Sr.'s secretary of state James Baker III, can pull off a deal with Syria and Iran to pacify Iraq—Perle is dismissive: "This is a total illusion. Total illusion. What kind of grand deal? The Iranians are not on our side. They're going to switch over and adopt our side? What can we offer them?"
If the neocon project is not quite dead, it has evidently suffered a crippling blow, from which it may not recover. After our lunch, Adelman sends me an e-mail saying that he now understands the Soviet marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, who committed suicide in the Kremlin when it became clear that the last-ditch Communist coup of 1991 was going to fail. A note he left behind stated, "Everything I have devoted my life to building is in ruins." "I do not share that level of desperation," Adelman writes. "Nevertheless, I feel that the incompetence of the Bush team means that most everything we ever stood for now also lies in ruins."
Frum admits that the optimistic vision he and Perle set out in their book will not now come to pass. "One of the things that we were talking about in that last chapter was the hope that fairly easily this world governed by law, the world of the North Atlantic, can be extended to include the Arab and Muslim Middle East," he says. "I think, coming away from Iraq, people are going to say that's not true, and that the world governed by law will be only a portion of the world. The aftermath of Iraq is that walls are going to go up, and the belief that this is a deep cultural divide is going to deepen." This is already happening in Europe, he adds, citing the British government's campaign against the wearing of veils by women and the Pope's recent critical comments about Islam. As neoconservative optimism withers, Frum fears, the only winner of the debate over Iraq will be Samuel Huntington, whose 1996 book famously forecast a "clash of civilizations" between the West and Islam.
Reading these interviews, those who always opposed the war would be justified in feeling a sense of vindication. Yet even if the future turns out to be brighter than the neocons now fear, the depth and intractability of the Iraqi quagmire allow precious little room for Schadenfreude. Besides the soldiers who continue to die, there are the Iraqis, especially the reformers, whose hopes were so cruelly raised. "Where I most blame George Bush," says the A.E.I.'s Michael Rubin, "is that, through his rhetoric, people trusted him, people believed him. Reformists came out of the woodwork and exposed themselves." By failing to match his rhetoric with action, Bush has betrayed them in a way that is "not much different from what his father did on February 15, 1991, when he called the Iraqi people to rise up, and then had second thoughts and didn't do anything once they did." Those who answered the elder Bush's call were massacred.
All the neocons are adamant that, however hard it may be, stabilizing Iraq is the only option. The consequences of a precipitous withdrawal, they say, would be far worse. Listening to them make this argument, I cannot avoid drawing a deeply disturbing conclusion. One of the reasons we are in this mess is that the neocons' gleaming pre-war promises turned out to be wrong. The truly horrifying possibility is that, this time, they may be right.