Seeking Lessons From Iraq. But Which Ones?

WASHINGTON – Stephen J. Hadley, who played a central role in the decision a decade ago to go to war in Iraq, recently described the cascade of misjudgments and inaccurate assumptions inside the Bush White House leading up to the war as a “failure of imagination.” His explanation of what went wrong is rife with lessons for two crises – one in Syria, another in Iran – that President Obama confronts as he lands in Israel on Wednesday morning. 
Mr. Hadley told a small group gathered here to dissect the long-term lessons of the Iraq war that it never occurred to him or his boss, President George W. Bush, to ask: “What if Saddam is doing all this deception because he actually got rid of the W.M.D. and he doesn’t want the Iranians to know?”
Instead, the White House and the intelligence agencies leapt to the conclusion that Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader who had pursued so many weapons of mass destruction in the past, must still be on the same quest.
“It turns out that was the most important question in terms of the intelligence failure that never got asked,” Mr. Hadley told a discussion organized by the RAND Corporation and Foreign Policy magazine.
History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme, Mark Twain once said, and these days Washington is looking for the assonances. The Iraq experience hangs over every major decision Mr. Obama’s foreign policy team grapples with each day. It looms over the daily debate over whether to intervene – with heavy arms or greater covert action – in Syria. And it permeates the discussion about Iran’s nuclear progress, and particularly over whether Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has made a decision to pursue a bomb. (He has not, American intelligence officials said again last week, though the Israelis disagree.)
“We think about Iraq analogies all the time,'’ one senior administration official said. “But I would be lying if I told you there was clear agreement – even inside the administration – about what all those lessons tell you.”
Take Syria, the administration’s current, most urgent intervention debate. No one is talking about sending in American troops: Mr. Obama made clear during the American and NATO intervention in Libya two years ago that ground troops – and the occupation that follows – are off the table.
It is likely that some of the faulty assumptions that Mr. Hadley now acknowledges were behind the American invasion and occupation of Iraq — that Mr. Hussein’s loyalists could be eliminated from the top of every government institution and the country would keep functioning, or the disastrous consequences of the disbanding of the Iraqi military — were on Mr. Obama’s mind at the time.
But the president was willing to tip the balance in favor of the Libyan rebels who were driving Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi from power, over the objections of his former defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, who argued that the United States had no vital national interests in Libya.
Some of Mr. Obama’s current advisers, along with many senior military officers, make a similar argument about Syria, and say the real lesson of Iraq is never to get involved remaking a society that the United States neither understands nor can control.
Then there is former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former C.I.A. director David H. Petraeus, both of whom argued for arming the rebels – and, as a subtext, that the Iraq experience should not freeze the United States from using its power to tip the scales, especially when there is hope of halting a blood bath. Another in that camp is Anne-Marie Slaughter, who served as the State Department’s director of policy planning under Mrs. Clinton, and argued recently that Mr. Obama “has got to find the happy medium between committing us to a decade-long ground war and choosing not to do anything.”
So far, at least, Mr. Obama’s sense of caution – caution born not only of the Iraq experience, but of Afghanistan — has prevailed. He was willing to intervene in Libya because he saw a way for the United States to make a quick, decisive difference with little risk of casualties. “He doesn’t see that’s possible in Syria,” one of his senior military advisers said recently. “He sees a conflict, like Iraq, where our hopes of doing good can be overwhelmed by the reality of getting sucked into the aftermath.”
To some veterans of the Bush administration, many of whom still insist that the impetus to go into Iraq was right, even if the decision was poorly executed, Mr. Obama’s hesitance suggests that he has drawn the wrong lesson from the Iraq war.
“President Obama right now appears to be running the experiment that, if we don't intervene’’ in Syria, “we can avoid responsibility for the very predictable chaos that’s coming,” said Peter Feaver, a Duke University professor who worked for Mr. Bush and Mr. Hadley.
“Then, when and if Assad falls, and the chaos that everyone has predicted comes to pass, we will all say, ‘We told you so,’ ” Mr. Feaver added. “And apparently the Obama administration’s position is, ‘But we’re not responsible for it, and therefore it’s not our problem.’ ”
To which an Obama administration official responded: “It’s our problem, but that’s different from saying we need to remake Syria. That’s the distinction Bush missed.’’
Iran raises another set of lessons about the Iraq experience, focusing on intelligence. Though Mr. Bush and his aides deny meddling with the intelligence about whether Mr. Hussein had resumed his nuclear program, the record is replete with what Walter B. Slocombe, a former senior defense official in the Clinton administration and an adviser to the Bush administration’s Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq in 2003, calls “confirmation bias.”
The C.I.A., having missed critical nuclear developments in Pakistan and many other nations, did not want to be caught making the same mistake again. And Mr. Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney, were not exactly looking for alternative explanations, as Mr. Hadley indicated.
“The problem was that, with the Iraqi W.M.D., the policy makers wanted bad news,” said James Dobbins of the RAND Corporation, who has held many government posts. “They wanted to confirm that Iraq had W.M.D., and the intelligence analysts were inclined to move in that direction anyway,” since “it would be even worse if they predicted they didn’t have W.M.D. and it turned out they did.”
Mr. Obama’s team, while seemingly convinced that Iran wants a weapons capability, has stopped short of saying that any decision has been made to take the final steps toward a weapon. And the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies, not wanting to repeat their most recent mistake, have been similarly cautious.
But in their more candid moments, some of Mr. Obama’s current and former advisers say they fear “strategic surprise,'’ the discovery that they missed something – a hidden nuclear facility, a decision by political leaders in Iran that they failed to pick up. In short, they fear making the error that worried leaders most before the bitter experience of Iraq. 


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