A top U.S. official for aid to Iraq has accused the Bush administration of rushing unprepared into the 2003 invasion because of pressures from President Bush’s approaching reelection campaign.
Robin Raphel, the State Department’s coordinator for Iraq assistance, said that the invasion’s timing was driven by “clear political pressure,” as well as by the need to quickly deploy the U.S. troops that had been amassed by the Iraq border.
Soon after the invasion, Raphel said, it became clear that U.S. officials “could not run a country we did not understand.... It was very much amateur hour.”
Her views appeared as part of an oral history project on the website of the congressionally funded U.S. Institute of Peace. Raphel’s account is one of a number that have appeared on the website this year as former officials who were among the first sent into post-invasion Iraq have begun to publicly assess the first two years of the U.S. mission.
Although the officials’ views vary widely -- and some are positive about the U.S. effort -- the accounts make clear that many of the veteran diplomats who were the first to be sent to Iraq had misgivings about the effort from the beginning, with their views foreshadowing criticisms that followed months and even years later.
Many analysts speculated in 2003 that the timing of the invasion might be affected by Bush’s desire to complete the war before the beginning of the 2004 political campaign. But Raphel is apparently the first government official closely involved in the effort to publicly level such an accusation.
Raphel, a 28-year veteran of the State Department’s foreign service and a former assistant secretary of State, said in her account that veteran diplomats who were sent to Iraq early in 2003 shared a view that “we were not prepared.”
“We went too soon. We should have waited until we built an international coalition, which we could have done if we had waited six months,” she said.
But the combined pressures of politics and military requirements “made us move before we were remotely ready for the post-conflict situation,” said Raphel.
In her tour in Iraq, Raphel was one of a small group of veteran diplomats brought in to help retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, then L. Paul Bremer III, establish a new government. She was the senior U.S. advisor to the ministry of trade, which was one of the most important Iraqi government agencies because it imported food and other goods that the central government distributed to the population.
Raphel didn’t fully explain what led to her conclusion that reelection politics compelled the decision to go to war in March 2003. The diplomat, who plans to retire soon from the foreign service, declined through a spokeswoman to discuss the views she expressed in the Institute of Peace project.
Her oral history account appeared on the website in the spring, but was little noticed until recently. It was based on an interview in July 2004, when the United States had just returned sovereignty to the Iraqis and was portraying the mission as highly successful.
A White House official, asked about Raphel’s comments, said: “The president has made clear, in more venues and on more occasions than I can count, his rationale for the war.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with White House rules.
Raphel said she had joked to colleagues early in her tour that “within weeks, we will be on our knees to the United Nations,” asking them to take over leadership of the mission.
She said that key decisions from those days, including those to disband the Iraqi army and remove from government members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, were dictated by the neoconservative views held by hawkish senior administration officials and their Iraqi exile allies.
The decisions “were ideologically based,” she said. “They were not based on analytical, historical understanding.”
She said she believed officials with an ideological bent kept close watch on the others.
“There were political people round and about,” she said. “One had to be careful.”
As months passed, she said, it became clearer that the United States could not run Iraq, and officials began making preparations to return sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government in June 2004.
Another former official who served in Iraq with Raphel agreed in an interview that the veteran diplomats sent in at the time shared many of the same misgivings.
“It was a huge task and we were going about it in a fairly hapless fashion,” said David J. Dunford, a State Department Middle East specialist who was put in charge of the Iraq foreign ministry in early 2003.
Among the veteran diplomats in the first group into Iraq, “we all felt pretty much the same,” Dunford said.
“I don’t remember thinking we went to war because of the reelection schedule, though that may have been the case,” he said. Yet, “you could feel there was a drive to go to war no matter what, no matter what the facts.”
Dunford said he opposed the war initially because he felt “the enormity of the task was beyond our capability.”
Nevertheless, when he was asked to take part, he decided the question was: “Are you going to help, or sit on your hands?” He added: “I decided I would try to help.”
In his oral history, Dunford said he believed the administration didn’t adequately plan for a rebuilding because it didn’t believe that the job would be a U.S. responsibility.
At the time of the war, there was a “great struggle between the State Department and the Pentagon about who would run post-war Iraq,” and the Pentagon eventually won, Dunford said, agreeing with many assessments of administration divisions in the war’s early days.
“Basically, their strategy was we would be showered with flowers, and the Iraqis would welcome us and we would turn over power within weeks to a government headed by [Iraqi exile] Ahmad Chalabi,” he said. “And we would get out of Dodge.”
But Dunford added that “that strategy sort of fell apart as reality set in” and senior U.S. officials came to the view that handing the country immediately to the exile leadership would not work.
Others have criticized the involvement of Defense Department planners. In a speech in Washington on Wednesday, Lawrence Wilkerson, who was former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s chief of staff, charged there was a “cabal” led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to usurp foreign policy decisions.
“Now it is paying the consequences of making those decisions in secret, but far more telling to me is America is paying the consequences,” said Wilkerson, a frequent critic of the Bush administration’s foreign policy and handling of intelligence.
Government veterans who were sent to Iraq as part of the U.S. mission also were convinced that “we cannot remake other countries in our image in terms of democracy or capitalism or things like that,” said Dunford in his oral history account. “That should come naturally from the citizens of the country.”
The oral histories show that, in the chaos of Iraq after the invasion, American officials didn’t always have to follow high-level decisions they opposed.
David Nummy, a former assistant U.S. Treasury secretary who was assigned to run the Iraqi Finance Ministry, told in his account about how he simply ignored the “de-Baathification” order, which he believed would lead to chaos.
“I came to the conclusion that if I had executed the de-Baathification order, it would unravel everything that had been accomplished,” Nummy said. “So I essentially ignored the order.”
Yet he added, “It was not clear to me that there was a really high degree of importance being placed on implementing the order; it was more important to announce” it.
In another of the oral history accounts, a Defense Intelligence Agency official who served 13 months in postwar Iraq said that in seeking transformation of the region, the American “strategic assumptions ... were very wrong.”
Col. Philip J. Dermer, who helped organize local governments and the Iraq defense ministry, said the United States needed far more advance planning.
“We barely got into the planning for what would happen afterward,” he said. “And by the time we did, it was too much, too fast, ad hoc.”
Other former officials who gave oral histories praised many of the early U.S. decisions, as well as the efforts of U.S. and Iraqi leaders, and predicted a more positive outcome for the mission.
Frederick C. Smith, a retired Pentagon official who then was senior advisor to the Iraq Defense Ministry, defended the de-Baathification program and said: “I don’t think anybody could have done a better job” than Bremer, the American official who headed the now-disbanded Coalition Provisional Authority, a temporary governing agency.
Even so, Smith said, the United States needed more troops, better security and advance planning.
“One lesson is clear, he said. “We should have been better prepared with better planning.”
Times staff writer T. Christian Miller in Washington contributed to this report.