Why Did Bush DO NOTHING to Reverse Disbanding of Iraqi Military?

05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET
  • Steve Clemons Washington Editor at Large of The Atlantic and founder and senior fellow of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation.

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James Fallows and I are both still in utter disbelief about what appeared in the New York Times yesterday regarding Bush's comments to biographer Robert Draper that he really didn't know much about why his policy on keeping the Iraqi military intact was reversed.

From the Times report:

Mr. Bush acknowledged one major failing of the early occupation of Iraq when he said of disbanding the Saddam Hussein-era military, "The policy was to keep the army intact; didn't happen."

But when Mr. Draper pointed out that Mr. Bush's former Iraq administrator, L. Paul Bremer III, had gone ahead and forced the army's dissolution and then asked Mr. Bush how he reacted to that, Mr. Bush said, "Yeah, I can't remember, I'm sure I said, 'This is the policy, what happened?'" But, he added, "Again, Hadley's got notes on all of this stuff," referring to Stephen J. Hadley, his national security adviser.

There are several layers that need to be peeled back on this revealing admission from Bush.

First, who made the decision if not Bush? From Charles Ferguson's prize-winning documentary, No End in Sight, we learn that CPA National Security Advisor Walter Slocombe had much to do with the decision.

On May 9, 2003, Walter Slocombe, L. Paul Bremer, Paul Wolfowitz, and Douglas Feith had a meeting discussing Iraq. A question came up: "What about the Iraqi military?" And according to Slocombe, no one said anything -- which was a response in itself. The decision to disband was made by Slocombe and Bremer. My source does not know if the decision went up to Rumsfeld or not -- but it did not go further to anyone else in the administration, including to the National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, to the Secretary of State Colin Powell, to the Vice President, or to the President.

But then there is another question that just seems to SCREAM OUT.

When Bush & Co. realized that the administration's policy on the keeping the Iraq military intact and all of those soldiers employed had been flipped upside down, why didn't they reverse the decision? Why didn't Bush demand an immediate reversal?

According to former senior CPA Office of Reconstruction Special Initiatives chief Paul Hughes -- who is one of the few good guys in No End in Sight and who responded to a query of mine:

Steve Clemons: Why after the Iraq military had been disbanded -- and it was made clear that this was not consistent with President's Bush's position -- that the military was not immediately reconstituted/reassembled? Is there some technical reason why after a military is officially disbanded that that order could not have been rescinded -- and then the Iraqi military reconstituted?

Paul Hughes: In a nutshell, Bremer was empowered to make the decision and it could have only been rescinded by him. The trick was how to make that happen.

Jay Garner tried to get him to roll it back some and Bremer refused; I suspect it would have taken Rumsfeld to make it happen and we know where he was on the issue.

The president was aware of the plans to use the military but he never had his hand on the throttle. So when the Pentagon leadership decided to abolish the military, it felt no need to inform either the President or the NSA (Rice). He was out of the loop on this decision because his management style enabled others to do end-runs around him.

Another aspect of this issue concerns how you put toothpaste back in the tube. Once the order was announced, there was no turning back because at that moment we stopped being an army of liberators and became an army of occupation. Once the Iraqis saw us in that light there was no way to go back and change that.

Paul Hughes is probably right that when this decision was implemented, it affirmed what many Iraqis and Arab Muslims throughout the region feared: that US forces were not "an army of liberators and became an army of occupation."

But still. . .It is stunning to hear Bush himself admit his surprise that a policy this consequential to the Iraq effort had been reversed by his people -- and that he knew little about it. No curiousity? No fury?

Perhaps the single worst mistake in Bush's presidency despite the decision to invade Iraq in the first place and he tells Draper: "Yeah, I can't remember. . .[to Bremer] This is the policy, what happened? . . .Hadley's got notes on all of this stuff."

Stunning, frustrating, depressing honesty from George W. Bush.

-- Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note