Must-reads for Obama

After 9/11, President Bush wanted to go to war against Iraq in the worst way. Two new reports suggest that's exactly what he did. The indictments of administration policy -- one from an in-house watchdog, the other from a Senate committee -- offer a depressing postmortem on the Bush administration's blunders and an instruction manual in reverse for Barack Obama.

"Hard Lessons: The Iraq Reconstruction Experience," a draft report by the administration's special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, was published this month by the New York Times. It explains how "blinkered" prewar planning and mistakes by U.S. occupation officials and military leaders undermined "the largest foreign reconstruction effort undertaken by the United States since the Marshall Plan."

The report revisits some familiar ground. It isn't newsthat the effort to rebuild Iraq was upended by the hasty dissolution of Iraq's armed forces and the exclusion from political life of former members of the Baath Party. Its contribution is to dramatize in almost novelistic detail these and other examples of mismanagement, lack of coordination and wishful thinking. For example, former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is quoted as complaining that, in the months after the March 2003 invasion, the Pentagon "kept inventing numbers of Iraqi security forces -- the number would jump 20,000 a week!"

The "hard lessons" the report commends to Obama seem common-sensical in retrospect: Don't attempt an elaborate reconstruction program in an insecure environment. Attract and retain qualified employees and contractors. Ensure that the host country will endorse and help implement reconstruction efforts. To which must be added: Don't terrorize the residents of the society you aim to rebuild.

That last lesson is at the center of the "Senate Armed Services Committee Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody." It documents how "alternative" interrogation tactics such as forced nudity, stress positions and the use of dogs for intimidation "migrated" from Guantanamo Bay to Afghanistan to Iraq. One result was the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. The report lays the blame on Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and other officials who "conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. custody."

Obama, who opposed the war in Iraq, might seem an unlikely audience for these cautionary tales. But he inherits from Bush a military and -- yes -- a nation-building mission in Afghanistan that could expand under his watch. As for torture, he already is receiving advice from those who believe that he will have to respond to terrorism there and elsewhere with brutality. He should add these documents to his pre-inauguration reading list.

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