And Now for the Bad News: The Word on the War in Iraq

Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, by Thomas E. Ricks. The Penguin Press, 482 pages, $27.95.

The Foreigner’s Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq, by Fouad Ajami. Free Press, 378 pages, $26.

Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. Alfred A. Knopf, 336 pages, $25.95.

Very few honest people dispute that the Iraq war has become an utter catastrophe. On Aug. 17, The New York Times quoted a “military affairs expert” who’d recently attended a White House briefing on Iraq, and who told the Times reporter: “Senior administration officials have acknowledged to me that they are considering alternatives other than democracy.” The last rickety plank in George W. Bush’s jury-rigged justification for the war is falling apart, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to calm the chaos that America has sown.

Yet if the failure of the war is no longer really debatable, the reasons for the failure are. Many erstwhile war supporters—especially liberals who were more concerned with human rights than W.M.D.’s—have tried to excuse their bad judgment by saying they couldn’t have foreseen how badly the occupation would be run. The war’s opponents, in turn, have angrily dismissed that argument as a pathetic way for hawks to avoid responsibility for the real-world results of their positions. “The incompetence critique is, in short, a dodge—a way for liberal hawks to acknowledge the obviously grim reality of the war without rethinking any of the premises that led them to support it in the first place,” Sam Rosenfeld and Matthew Yglesias wrote last year in The American Prospect.

There’s some truth there. The war was built on deception and demagoguery, and no matter how it was run, it wouldn’t have protected America from mythical W.M.D. or severed the nonexistent nexus between Saddam and Al Qaeda. But it’s hard to read many of the new books about the Iraq war without being awed by the administration’s ineptitude, and convinced that things didn’t have to be this bad. Thomas Ricks’ Fiasco, Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City and James Fallows’ Blind into Baghdad offer a baroque kaleidoscope of ignorance and arrogance in, respectively, the Department of Defense, the Coalition Provisional Authority and the Bush administration. There’s evidence of a striking degree of self-sabotage in these narratives, and of a nearly Stalinist ideological conformity and contempt for empirical truth. If the incompetence dodge lets hawks like Thomas Friedman or Hillary Clinton evade their full measure of blame, the notion that the inferno in Iraq became inevitable the moment the war was launched lets far guiltier people off the hook.

“Here is the hardest question,” writes Mr. Fallows: “How could the administration have thought that it was safe to proceed in blithe indifference to the warnings of nearly everyone with operational experience in modern military occupations?”

Having opposed the war from the beginning, Mr. Fallows doesn’t need to exonerate himself by pleading shock at the war’s mismanagement. Blind into Baghdad, a book collecting his prescient, incisive reporting on Iraq policy for The Atlantic Monthly, begins with a farsighted piece he published before the invasion called “The Fifty-First State,” which sketches a vision of what occupying Iraq might entail. As he writes in the book’s introduction, consistent themes emerged from his prewar interviews with dozens of experts: “how long and difficult, as opposed to quick and easy, an occupation was likely to be; how important sectional and religious differences within Iraq would probably become; and how crucial it was for the new occupying power to ensure, from the very start, that a majority of Iraqis could see the benefits of an improved daily life, through physical security, a restored economy, and such mundane features as reliable electricity and water supplies.”

This passage serves as a retort to the unrepentant neoconservative Fouad Ajami, whose new book is interesting mainly as a reminder of the towering foolishness of the men who dreamed up this war. Mr. Ajami, who was born in Lebanon, tries to excuse America’s maladroit performance in Iraq by suggesting that no one could have predicted how the population would react. “[T]he steady refusal of the Shia to come out, openly and without equivocation, in support of this American project [was] one of the great surprises of the expedition into Iraq,” he writes, as if everyone had shared the ahistorical optimism of his clique.

Mr. Ajami’s book is likely to be embraced by conservative war supporters trying to rationalize the horror unleashed in Iraq. It’s a mendacious, revisionist defense of the neoconservative position posing as a melancholy lament for Iraq’s benighted Arabs. Mr. Ajami’s title, The Foreigner’s Gift, is wholly without irony. He faults the Iraqis for their “willfulness”—a word he uses repeatedly—and their ingratitude. He lionizes Ahmed Chalabi, attributing his troubles to threatened Sunni autocrats and their sympathizers in the C.I.A. and State Department. His very language is corrupted by propaganda—he uses the obnoxious Fox News phrase “homicide bomber” instead of the more descriptive “suicide bomber.”

To read this book is to realize how magical thinking utterly fogged the minds of the neocons. Despite Mr. Ajami’s claims, the difficulties facing America in Iraq should have come as no great surprise. What is surprising, though, is that a government full of educated and cunning men implemented no plans to deal with these difficulties. The second and third pieces in the Fallows book, “Blind into Baghdad” and “Bush’s Lost Year,” appeared in 2004; two years later, they remain startling in their depiction of an administration rigid in its refusal to prepare for any scenario that didn’t dovetail with its ideology. Indeed, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld seems to have been doctrinally opposed to the kind of planning that might have prevented post-invasion problems. Mr. Fallows quotes Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy, talking about his boss’ obsession with “uncertainty” and his weird hostility to predictions. “If anybody ever went through all of our records—and someday some people will, presumably—nobody will find a single piece of paper that says, ‘Mr. Secretary or Mr. President, let us tell you what postwar Iraq is going to look like, and here is what we need to plan for.’ If you tried that, you would get thrown out of Rumsfeld’s office so fast—if you ever went in there and said, ‘Let me tell you what something’s going to look like in the future,’ you wouldn’t get to your next sentence!”

The disasters and confusion recounted in Fiasco and Imperial Life in the Emerald City both follow from this criminally irresponsible aversion to planning. Both books are riveting and infuriating, and do much to fill in the details of the occupation’s misadventures and tragedies.

Mr. Ricks, a Pulitzer Prize–winning military reporter and a senior Pentagon correspondent at The Washington Post, tells his story through the words of hundreds of soldiers, so that Fiasco reads like an oral history of the war. Like almost all reporters, he deeply admires the troops, but his military expertise gives him the confidence to make stinging judgments about the conduct of some officers and their divisions as well as of the civilians in the Department of Defense. “The U.S. Army in Iraq—incorrect in its assumptions, lacking a workable concept of operations, and bereft of an overarching strategy—completed the job of creating the insurgency,” he writes.

Like other critics of the war, Mr. Ricks faults the Pentagon for not sending enough troops into Iraq. He depicts L. Paul Bremer—who replaced Lt. Gen. Jay Garner as head of the occupation—as a control freak who, ignoring expert advice, spurred the insurgency with his rash decisions to dissolve the Iraqi Army and to purge Baathists from public jobs. “Every insurgency faces three basic challenges as it begins: arming, financing, and recruiting,” he writes. Finding new members “is usually the most difficult of tasks for the insurgent cause,” but by disenfranchising tens of thousands of former soldiers and government workers, he argues, the United States offered its opponents a rich pool of enraged men on which to draw.

The American military also did its part, with mass arrests, indiscriminate destruction and the kidnapping of suspected insurgents’ wives and children—apparently a widespread practice. Without direction from above, divisions went their own way. Some—especially the 101st Airborne under the much-lauded Maj. Gen. David Petraeus—performed admirably. Others did not. According to Mr. Ricks, the Fourth Infantry Division under Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, which operated in the northern part of the Sunni triangle, was especially brutal. Mr. Ricks quotes an Army intelligence officer saying, “I saw so many instances of abuses of civilians, intimidating civilians, our jaws dropped.” (Mr. Ajami’s portrayal of Major General Odierno is, of course, wholly flattering).

NO AMOUNT O PLANNING CAN ERASE the uglier realities of war. But as Mr. Ricks makes clear, there was an almost total lack of counterinsurgency training for Iraq—a result of the administration’s refusal to admit that an insurgency was possible. “The war plan had called for the Iraqi population to cheerfully greet the American liberators, quickly establish a new government, and wave farewell to the departing American troops,” he writes.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book takes readers inside a hermetically sealed world governed by such fantasies: Baghdad’s Green Zone. Imperial Life in the Emerald City is another profoundly maddening book. To read it is to understand how Mao’s regime could celebrate the successes of the Great Leap Forward while millions of Chinese starved. Mr. Chandrasekaran shows us an American occupation in thrall to a Bush leadership cult, dismissive of experience and expertise and obsessed with doctrinal purity. He describes how potential hires were quizzed on their view of Roe v. Wade, and how young right-wingers were employed based on résumés they’d sent to the Heritage Foundation, then assigned to manage Iraq’s $13 billion budget. Free traders and anti-tax crusaders with no experience in the developing world gleefully tried to remake Iraq’s economy in line with their dogma.

In one typical instance, a major G.O.P. donor named Thomas Foley arrived in Baghdad to oversee private-sector development. He told a contractor about his plans to privatize all of Iraq’s state-owned enterprises within 30 days. The contractor pointed out that international law forbids an occupation government from selling off assets. Mr. Chandrasekaran reports that Mr. Foley replied, “I don’t care about any of that stuff …. I don’t give a shit about international law. I made a commitment to the president that I’d privatize Iraq’s businesses.”

Perhaps everyone should have known that the administration would send people like that to Iraq. In retrospect, though, what’s most striking about the failed occupation is the extent to which the war planners put ideology over self-interest. It would have been good for Mr. Bush’s Presidency if he could have improved Iraq—but it seems the administration couldn’t behave decently even when doing so was politically advantageous.

I WASN’T FOR THE WAR, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to stand totally against it either, because I thought it might give Iraqis a chance at a better life. Saddam’s viciousness was perhaps the only thing that Mr. Bush didn’t exaggerate, and many of the Iraqi exiles I spoke to before the war were hoping for an invasion despite their distrust of American motives. I visited Baghdad for a couple of weeks in May of 2003, right after the occupation began. Back then, you could still drive around the streets, go to cafés and visit Iraqis’ houses. Mixed up with anger and suspicion and anxiety about the new order, there was a palpable sense of hope. The lack of electricity was debilitating, but everyone expected it to be back on soon. Whatever one thought of the Americans, few then doubted their mechanical know-how, their basic competence.

The electrical supply isn’t much better now than it was three years ago. I’m shamed by my former ambivalence about a war that has turned Iraq from a gulag into an abattoir. I wish I’d been full-throated in my opposition. But to say it had to be this way is to downplay the scope of the administration’s scandalous mismanagement and zealous blundering. The White House didn’t just make one massive mistake in going into Iraq. It made thousands.

Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (Norton) was published in May.