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David Frum

David Frum is the author of five books, including two New York Times bestsellers: THE RIGHT MAN: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush (2003), and co-author with Richard Perle[…]

Frum explains why he supported the war and what George W. Bush did wrong.

David Frum: I wasn't in support of the way it was done the first time around. I was on the losing side of a lot of bureaucratic battles. I'm not important enough to be on any side, but my point of view was on the losing side of important bureaucratic battles in 2002 and 2003.

I think a big part of what went wrong in Iraq was the original conception was that the United States would race into Iraq, overthrow Saddam Hussein, install a provisional government made up of Iraqis and get out as rapidly as possible. We then had a terrible internal argument inside the United States government where the people who were envisioned as that provisional government were vetoed. Now maybe that was a good decision; maybe it was a bad decision. But it meant that we raced into Iraq with no idea, with no plan for what was to come next; and because there never was an alternative to a provisional government idea.

Let me start this all over again because it's too complicated.

During the debate over the Iraq war, to simplify a little, there were two competing ideas in the United States government about how to do Iraq. One idea, broadly, says Donald Rumsfeld, was, "This is not a war, it's a raid. What we're going to do, is we've got 70,000 troops, race them up the Tigris and the Euphrates, capture or kill Saddam Hussein, install a provisional government and then get out, and wish them well."

The other view, which coalesced around Colin Powell, was that first view is completely irresponsible: "It can never work that way. What we need to do is we need to accept that if we go into Iraq, the provisional people are no good, they are tainted in all kinds of way. We are going to have to do a long slow process of developing Iraqi institutions. That will take five years, maybe 10. And that means we're going to need a massive occupying army, which means 70,000 won't do it, we need 350,000; we need to stay a decade."

Now, these were two starkly different visions of how to proceed. And who knows which one was the right one. We ended up melding them together in an especially disastrous way, which is we did Donald Rumsfeld's war and Colin Powell's peace, because we were sending 70,000 people racing up-- I think in the end it was 130,000-- racing up the Tigris and the Euphrates and then we are not installing a provisional government, then we are going to do an occupation that is going to last five or 10 years while we try to build all sorts of Iraqi institutions.

Now, obviously that was a formula for failure and it was a formula for failure because we put together two parts of absolutely predictability that would not work. And when I look back on the way the decision making was done, the great tragedy was that there should have been a moment, and there are institutions in the government to force this, if somebody had said, "Mr. President [George W. Bush], the war plan and the peace plan do not add up together, they won't work. You have to either have a peace plan that follows your war plan, or a war plan that is consistent with your peace plan, or you have to forget the whole thing."

So here's what we end up doing, we send 130,000 troops racing up river. We do seize Baghdad and then we stop and we ask each other what happens now. And there's a week of uncertainty and at the end of the week the president calls Paul Bremmer and says, "I'd like you to be my pro-counsel in Baghdad."

Now, Bremmer is a highly dedicated public servant, a very intelligent man, with a distinguished record. He doesn’t speak Arabic, he's not a Middle East specialist and anyway, it wouldn't matter if he were, he's not an Iraqi, he's obviously a foreigner. And when you install him in that kind of off the cuff way, you are simply asking for trouble.

This decision to install Bremmer was the product of a failure to make a decision a year earlier, about what the government of liberated Iraq was going to look like. We began our conversation by talking about the malperformance [sic] of the U.S. government and this is just one of the most extreme instances. The idea that you would go to war without having had an agreement inside your government about what you're going to do after the war.

And I'll say here, because I was a very unimportant but well placed observer of these events, what I believe would happen, I could have had this same conversation with you in 2002, and I would have said these are the things that are happening that I'm really worried about. But what I would then have said, and this is where I was really wrong, "Since it will obviously be a catastrophe if we arrive in Baghdad without a clear plan for what comes next, therefore it follows that there must be a solution that is going to be agreed upon, and I hope the president [George W. Bush] will choose the one that my faction favors. But maybe we'll be overruled and we'll choose the one that the other faction favors. But he will certainly have to make a choice because there's no way that we're going to go to war to overthrow a regime without a clear idea for what happens on overthrow day plus 10." And that is what happened.

David Frum: I wouldn't say "unable," but he failed to make the decision and historians will then spend the next 30 years arguing about why that decision was not made. But it was not made.

David Frum: I was sympathetic to the Defense point of view.

Topic: Chalabi.

David Frum: I didn't choose him.

Look, here's the case with Chalabi, which is, if we're already getting rid of Saddam, we want to replace Saddam not with an American pro-counsel, but with an Iraqi provisional government. Well, where would we find such a thing?

Well as it happens, there is this group of exiled Iraqis who have themselves formed an organization, and it was a pretty big group of people canvassing a pretty wide range of points of view, from religious people to Iraqi communists, to Shiites and Sunnis together and we're talking about many hundreds of people. And they had formed an organization and they had agreed that Chalabi was going to be the man in charge of it.

So he wasn't an American choice, he was the choice who had sort of come up through this system of exile politics. Now, what the [US] State department would argue against him was, one, exile politics aren't going to work; that's a big mistake; we shouldn’t rely on exiles, we have to rely on indigenous people. Problem: There aren't any indigenous people, because the brave ones are dead, and the others are compromised and anyway, it's going to be hard to find.

So that was the case with Chalabi, he was not the American choice, it was rather he was the man who happened to be leading the closest thing to a provisional government that there was to find.

But I had no brief for Chalabi personally. In fact this was part of the crossfire that happened. There were different bureaucratic camps that each had their own favorite Iraqi. So it was certainly true that the vice president [Dick Cheney] and the civilians in the Defense Department preferred Chalabi, and the people at the State department preferred Adnan al-Pachachi, who had important roles in the pre-Saddam government, and then the CIA and the British tended to prefer a man named Nuri al-Maliki, who would later go on to be prime minister of Iraq.

And I have to say, even at the time and certainly now, it almost didn't matter which one of those guys we picked; pick one. But don't pick Paul Bremmer. Any one of them would have been a better choice than Paul Bremmer--because this is a society that not only was brutalized and oppressed, it was also deeply humiliated.

This was a mistake that we very nearly made in World War II. When President Roosevelt got on so badly with Charles de Gaulle, he never appreciated how important it was that the French felt that they had liberated themselves, and the failure to give de Gaulle enough of a role, to make it feel like the French had liberated themselves, whether that was right or not, was a big irritant in American-French relations, and continues to this day.

It's very important not to do favors for people; they don't forgive you for doing favors for them. Whereas if you can say, we helped you do a favor for yourself, you liberated yourself, we provided the instrumentalities, but you are the heroes, you deserve the credit, you owe us nothing, we're just glad that our interests overlapped, you have a much healthier relationship going forward, and that was the path that we did not take.


Recorded on: May 5, 2008.