Reporter’s Notebook: The U.S. in Iraq

moderator: Barbara Bodine, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University
author: Rajiv Chandrasakaran, The Washington Post
author: George Packer, The New Yorker
published: Jan. 28, 2013,   recorded: October 2006,   views: 2260

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As viewed through the eyes of two well-informed journalists and an experienced Middle East diplomat, the U.S. invasion of Iraq demonstrated a unique combination of arrogance and ignorance, and the “reconstruction” period appears a fiasco with no end in sight. Here’s a sampling of panelists’ disturbing insights and anecdotes:

Barbara Bodine recalls meeting with senior administration officials during pre-war days: “Iraq was to be a blank slate, to prove the tenets of the Bush administration’s governing philosophy… One senior advisor admits he read no books on Iraq; he wanted an open mind.”

George Packer reports that in spite of evidence that the “ideological project” that led to the Iraq war was deeply flawed, officials remained committed to it. “Iraq was a … more shattered society than most people understood. …There was no order to hold Iraq together of any kind, once Saddam was gone. America was not in control from day one,” says Packer. Jay Garner, the first post-war occupation administrator, was recalled to Washington after failing to restore order. But his debriefing session with the president was a “backslapping session,” according to Packer. “The president said to Garner, ‘Do you want to do Iran for the next one?’ Garner said, ‘No, sir, me and the boys are holding out for Cuba.’”

Rajiv Chandrasakaran, describing the administration’s almost hare-brained take on post-war planning, tells how U.S. reconstruction officials were intent on creating a western-style capitalist democratic Iraq. In a country with no functioning security, chaos on the streets, and bombed-out hospitals, occupation officials (in large part political appointees) focused on such details as imposing a flat tax and intellectual property law, establishing a traffic code modeled on the state of Maryland’s, and privatizing the system of delivering drugs. Says Chandrasakaran, “Had we not gone in there as an occupying force and not squandered political capital earned by toppling a despised dictator, and had we mobilized enough reconstruction resources and implemented them in a meaningful way…we would have made far greater progress.”

Packer says “the president is enshrouded with yes men and yes women who know the political angle and will not allow anything that cuts against it to get inside the Oval Office. …There’s an institutional malaise that’s frightening.” But, notes Packer, “I don’t think the president is saying in private, as we now know LBJ was saying in the 60s, what a god-awful mess this is, how am I ever going to get out of it. I think the president believes history will vindicate him, if he just holds firm and keeps his resolve -- that in 50 years people will say he was a visionary leader. If that’s going to continue to be the case, no change in policy small or large will save us.”

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