May 11-23, 2003: From Peace To War In Iraq

Friday, May 19, 2017
Image credit: 
Poster Collection, IQ 1, Hoover Institution Archives.

Image credit: 
Poster Collection, IQ 1, Hoover Institution Archives.

In the middle of May 2003, the U.S. government threw away a victory that its armed forces had won and started a new war that it had no idea how to win. This fortnight’s events remind us that the lack of unity of conception and command can turn victory into disaster.

As the USS Abraham Lincoln returned from assisting in the invasion of Iraq on May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush spoke under a banner on the aircraft carrier that proclaimed, “Mission Accomplished.” In fact, the military forces that had waged operation “Iraqi Freedom” had accomplished the mission assigned to them. Far from shooting at American troops, Iraqis cheered them. The events of May 11-23, however, started a different war, a war that is yet to end. A decade and a half later, the United States—having lost almost five thousand dead and thirty thousand wounded, and having spent trillions of its treasure and squandered priceless national cohesion—remains mired in Iraq.

The U.S. military’s original plans for Iraq involved the re-establishment of basic services and quick withdrawal. Since February 2003, a group of some 100 officials under Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, USA (ret.) had prepared plans dealing with such things as water and sewage and, principally, with paying the Iraqis who provided basic services including the ordinary police and armed forces. The plans called for maintaining the Iraqi state’s integrity and for passing responsibility for it to an interim coalition. Garner arrived in Iraq on April 19. On the following day, he met with prominent personages from the Shia, Kurdish, and Sunni sectors of Iraq who were to be the Iraqi state’s new face. On May 12, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith presented these arrangements to President Bush, who approved them.

Somehow, however, President Bush’s U.S. government had already approved the very opposite of that plan. Gen. Garner reports that, already on April 24, he had received a phone call from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld informing him that President Bush had appointed Ambassador Paul Bremer to replace him. Bremer arrived on May 11 with a plan, which he issued on May 16. This plan, notwithstanding what Bush approved on May 12, essentially dis-established the Iraqi state by disabling “individuals holding positions in the top three layers of management in every national government ministry, affiliated corporations and other government institutions” from holding government employment. Then, on May 19, Bremer proposed to Rumsfeld to disband Iraq’s army and security services. This would let the Iraqi people know that “neither Saddam nor his people would be coming back.” Building new institutions would take precedence over controlling the existing ones. Bremer proposed the order to President Bush by video conference, who approved it and signed it on May 23. Thenceforth, Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority governed Iraq down to capillary level under the protection of some 150,000 U.S. troops.

The thirty-thousand-odd unemployed Sunni Iraqi army soldiers who then flocked to the Ba’athist paymasters formed the nucleus of the guerrilla war against both Shia and Americans that began to grip the country by July. This was the brand new Occupation War.

Intra-American discussions about who had meant to do what by dis-establishing and then re-forming the Iraqi state are all irrelevant. Just as irrelevant are President Bush’s later statements that he had intended to keep the Iraqi army intact and that he did not understand why that did not happen, and the exchange of letters between Bremer and Bush in which Bremer explained what he was doing and Bush thanked him for doing it.

So many denials of responsibility for a common failure only highlight that, without a constantly governing, coherent idea of one’s objective and of how it is to be secured, involvement necessarily devolves into imbroglio.