news feature
August 29, 2008




Iraq panel leaves out politics
by Bruce Rodgers

The effort “would focus on what hasn’t worked, what’s gone wrong and at the same time, what we can do about it,” Bill Lacy, director of The Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at Kansas University, told The University Daily Kansan. Lacy was highlighting an upcoming panel at the institute titled, “Iraq: What Went Wrong? What’s Next?” held Aug. 24

Left off the table was the question if going to war against Iraq was a good idea in the first place. It was not an unexpected omission. The Dole Institute was built to recognized one-time Republican presidential candidate and former US Sen. Bob Dole, a decorated World War II veteran, and to promote the “ideal that politics is an honorable profession.” Accordingly, President George W. Bush was not criticized during the panel for leading the nation to war. And considering the military immanence in the room: Good soldiers don’t publicly criticize the Commander-in-Chief.

Lacy moderated the panel, which featured Dr. Don Wright, historian at the US Army Combat Studies Institute and co-author of On Point II, Transition to the New Campaign, The US Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom, May 2003 to January 2005. When the media has paid attention to Wright’s book, co-written with Col. Timothy R. Reese, the response has been favorable with the book’s presentation of facts and candid approach.

“The book was reviewed by the upper brass,” said Wright at the panel. “We were to get the basic facts of the story and let the reader decide.”

Wright said that “nobody disagreed with or did we avoid certain topics,” but he added that there was “no charge at looking at decisions by the secretary of the army, the vice president or the president.” Abu Ghraib, with its legacy of torture and prisoner abuse, is covered in On Point, said Wright.

Another panel member, Retired Col. Kevin Benson, helped plan the Iraqi invasion for the Third US Army and the Combined Forces at the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom and later, serving in Iraq until July 2003. He was director at the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth from 2003 to 2007.

“The Army is a learning organization, not an intellectually inclined organization,” said Benson, in reference to Wright’s book. “It is reflective — what is useful now to obtain policy objectives.”

Benson agrees with Wright that the Army “didn’t know what to do once the Saddam regime fell.” Such planning wasn’t a focus, said Wright, because the “entire command was convinced of the use of WMDs.”

Also, said Benson, there was “this enormous effort of answering questions from the president and the secretary of defense (Donald Rumsfeld). It took energy away from the totality of the campaign.” He called writing a plan of “what we do when we get to Baghdad enormous.”

That challenge was made more difficult because of the lack of soldiers in Iraq. “If I had to write a sequel, there would be a minimum of 300,000 and 20 combat brigades.” Benson said he proposed such numbers to his superiors.

The lack of commitment for more soldiers, said Dr. Adrian Lewis, the third panel member, can be leveled at Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and the Bush administration’s belief Coalition troops would be greeted as liberators. Lewis, a professor of history at KU and director of the KU-Ft. Leavenworth Program, stated he thinks the United States should not have gone to war.

Lewis went on to point out the argument that the country has formed a “military cluster,” and asked the audience of about 100 in that context, “Ask (yourself) what Americans did in this war?” As a way to get Americans involved when the political leadership considers going to war, Lewis expressed his support of a draft.

Later in the program, during an audience Q&A, when a uniformed Iraq War veteran, and self-described “door kicker,” took issue with the Lewis’ support of the draft, Lewis apologized for the comment.

Decisions made in Iraq by L. Paul Bremer, director of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance for postwar Iraq, were criticized by Wright and Benson. Bremer, who assumed his position in May 2003 and reported primarily to Rumsfeld, issued two orders that profoundly affected the Iraqi domestic situation after the taking of Baghdad. One disbanded the Iraqi Army and the other set in motion de-Bathification in the Iraqi civil service ranks.

Those orders by Bremer have been blamed by many as unleashing devastating sectarian violence in Iraq between Sunni and Shiite, and allowing al-Qaida to gain a foothold in the country.

Benson said he argued against disbanding the Iraqi Army and de-Bathification (purging the government bureaucracy of members of the Sunni-dominated Bath Party) and to let the Iraqis sort it out.

“The Iraqi bureaucracy and regular Army didn’t fight us, and (both) pre-date the Bath Party,” said Benson. He recalled a meeting that included Douglas J. Feith, undersecretary of Defense for Policy, where Feith stated, “The policy of the United States is de-Bathification.” The design, according to Wright, was to “dis-empower the Sunnis.”

While failures in US policy toward Iraq have their roots in political decisions, only Lewis seemed to dare to bring the politics of war into the discussion, however briefly.

“No matter how great a military, it’s the political leader who makes the decisions,” said Lewis, later to add, “The American people need to learn, Rumsfeld was a disaster. (And) it’s too easy to go to war when Americans are not involved.”

When asked by a member of the audience, what victory in Iraqi means, Wright replied, “When it’s an Iraq that is stable and prosperous.”

Benson answered, “The definition of victory is a political decision.”

Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at


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