It took US policymakers and the American public many years, perhaps decades, to realize that hubris–arrogant and uninformed self-confidence–had played a crucial and negative role in the Vietnam tragedy. As Richard Helms, the CIA director for much of the Vietnam War, said in 1981, “We were dealing with a complicated cultural and ethnic problem which we never came to understand. In other words, it was our ignorance or innocence, if you will, which led us to misassess, not comprehend, and make a lot of wrong decisions, which one way or another helped to affect the outcome.” This time out, the nation is more fortunate: the perils of hubris have become evident within days of the first attack.
The year-long run-up to the war allowed for much debate: why it was needed (or why not), what it would take to win, how the Iraqis and the rest of the world would react. Most advocates of war argued that it would not be a difficult endeavor and that the Iraqis would be grateful for a US invasion and welcome what American war-backers called “liberation.”
Neither of those propositions has panned out. Yes, it’s early. But the point was that the collapse of the Iraqi forces and the dancing in the streets would happen early. Shortly before the war was launched, Vice President Dick Cheney predicted Saddam Hussein’s troops would “step aside” and that victory would take “weeks rather than months.” His remarks reflected the argument that war advocates–led by Washington’s neoconservatives–had been pushing for over a year.
Immediately after September 11, according to Bob Woodward’s book Bush at War, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz tried to convince President Bush to attack Iraq rather than Afghanistan, maintaining that Hussein’s government was a brittle regime that could crumble easily, that Iraq was a pushover and Afghanistan was not. In February 2002, Kenneth Adelman, an assistant to Donald Rumsfeld in the 1970s and now a leading neoconservative defense intellectual, wrote, “demolishing Hussein’s military power and liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk.” He predicted that Saddam Hussein would quickly fall if the US military attacked his “headquarters, communications, air defenses and fixed military facilities through precision bombing.”
In his book, The Right Man, neocon David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter, suggests that the war in Afghanistan demonstrated that Iraq could be taken with “ten thousand men and a few hundred planes.” Throughout the previous year, I often spoke with TV generals in favor of the war, and most were claiming the war would be short and sweet. Their scenarios usually began this way: Day One, we take Basra. (That, of course, didn’t happen.) Then, within days, the US forces would be outside of Baghdad and controlling most of the rest of the country. What about Baghdad? I asked repeatedly. The answer was always some variant of, that will take care of itself. In other words, the regime will collapse, an anti-Hussein coup will occur, the dictator will flee, or something will happen to make the invasion of the city unnecessary. This jibed with what a prominent Pentagon correspondent told me late last year: the military had a wonderful five-day plan for the war, a plan that ended with US forces ringing Baghdad. Then there was no plan.