The Middle East Program hosted a book discussion with Charles Duelfer, former Director, Iraq Survey Group and former Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center, on his new book Hide and Seek: the Search for Truth in Iraq and Robert Litwak, Director, International Security Studies, Woodrow Wilson Center, and former Director for Nonproliferation, National Security Council.
Charles Duelfer said that the major mistake leading to the current protracted U.S. involvement in Iraq was the failure to utilize intelligence concerning the internal dynamics in the country. He asserted that an active response to the Saddam regime was necessary, but it "by no means had to be this costly." Duelfer infused his book with the Iraqi perspective which he believed would explain Saddam's rationale, and actions. Citing the fact that critical decisions leading up to the First Gulf War, and then again up to the 2003 war, were misinformed due to a systematic lack of first-hand contact with "living, breathing Iraqis who had not left Iraq decades earlier," Duelfer explained that one of the overarching themes of his book related to how intelligence should inform policymaking.
The mindsets and biases of Saddam Hussein regarding the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) were informed by two historical events. In the 1980s, his use of chemical and biological weapons to thwart the Iranians was only perfunctorily admonished by the Americans. Then, a decade later, when the US troops stopped short of invading Baghdad, Saddam was convinced it was because his possession of chemical and biological WMDs acted as a deterrent. Thus, Saddam believed his possession of unconventional weapons had twice saved his regime. Saddam held that the US would eventually come around to understanding that in the Middle East, Iraq, with its secular, motivated and hardworking populace, was a natural ally. To that effect, Duelfer relates that throughout the 1990s the Iraqis, via experts like Duelfer, made several overtures for formal and informal discussions.
The Bush administration, contended Duelfer, had the option of tackling Iraq through sanctions, dialogue or regime change. Saddam failed to read the winds of political change post 9/11, which meant that the U.S. had become extremely fixated on this third policy option. Duelfer believed that every step to implement this third option was a "monumental mistake." In the period leading up to the war, the administration chose to use the intelligence community's assessment on WMDs which turned out to be largely wrong. Then, it chose not to use the CIA judgments and, instead, to rely upon information from expatriate Iraqis. Moreover, the CIA was prohibited from conducting "pre-war intelligence work for post-war governance." These grave errors contributed, according to Duelfer, to a five-year prolongation of the war in Iraq.
Robert Litwak said that he would attempt to extrapolate from the lessons offered by Duelfer and focus on how the Iraqi experience could help the Obama administration deal with the other "hard cases" facing them. According to Litwak, strategy discussions in Washington were based on concepts of societal change. The concepts, however, were implicit, unarticulated and were not premised on sound analysis.
Litwak went on to say that failed assumptions like those made in Iraq would not work with Iran and North Korea either. President George H.W. Bush believed that the sanctions imposed on Iraq would bring about regime change, but they failed to do so. The U.S. administration then failed to deter Saddam Hussein from attacking Kuwait, from pulling out of Kuwait and, finally, from making Iraq comply with Security Council resolutions. These mistakes occurred because of an innate misunderstanding of Iraqi intentions and motivations.
Contrary to Bush, Obama has clarified that his policy will focus on behavior change rather than regime change, said Litwak. Thus, Obama has credibility in a way that the Bush administration was never able to attain. Consequently, Obama can offer a "structured choice" with a real upside and a more credible downside for Iran and North Korea. Such a choice is a prerequisite for testing the intentions of Iran and North Korea. In short, Litwak suggested that the new administration, to get interactions with Iran and North Korea right, needed to break out of the cycle of "flawed images of adversaries leading to flawed strategies."
Drafted by Nassima Barrows and Kanishka Bhattacharya on behalf of the Middle East Program.