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Decisionmaking in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM: Removing Saddam Hussein by Force

Authored by Dr. Steven Metz. Edited by Professor John R. Martin. | February 2010

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One of the defining characteristics of strategy making in the Bush administration was the treatment of any decision involving transnational terrorism as a crisis with a limited slate of participants and a minimal role for professional expertise except on operational and technical considerations. When the administration broke from its predecessors and chose to approach the Iraq issue as part of the war on terrorism rather than as simply an element of regional stability, it shifted to a crisis decision mode. This was unusual since the Iraq conflict did not meet the usual requirements for a crisis -- a very high threat and limited decision time. As a result, the role of anyone outside the administration's inner circle, including Congress and, perhaps more importantly, professionals and experts in the military and other government agencies, was limited. It is impossible to tell whether this was simply a peculiarity of the Bush administration, a result of the psychological trauma of 9/11, or something ingrained in the American system for strategy formulation which might happen again. If the latter is true, the U.S. military must understand that when issues which might not seem to entail crises are redefined as crises, its influence will be constrained or minimized, at least at the actual point of decision. Even the fact that the military had a refined system for crisis action planning did not change this. Because the issue was not actually a crisis, but was treated as if it was, the result was a strange polyglot in which the military used its deliberate planning process to implement a policy which was itself formed in a crisis mode.

Because the Bush administration was determined to remove Saddam Hussein by whatever means necessary and because it understood the limits of support for invasion from the American people, Congress, and other nations, it kept debate tightly focused. Specifically, it resisted discussion of the monetary or second order strategic costs of intervention. As a result, the two major adverse unintended consequences--the insurgency and sectarian war in Iraq, and a renewed urgency to acquire nuclear weapons by Iran and North Korea's desire to expand its nuclear arsenal, which President Bush had included with Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the "axis of evil"--were seldom mentioned and, based on available information, not seriously analyzed. This is an important point: how top policymakers draw the parameters of debate on a strategic issue plays a major role in determining the outcome. "Bounding an issue," in other words, is a vital component of decisionmaking. Such parameters can be vertical or horizontal. Vertical parameters deal with time--how far into the future to assess the repercussions of an action. Horizontal ones deal with the extent to which second- or third-order effects shape a decision. Not considering the effect that removing Saddam Hussein from power had on nuclear proliferation among other nations hostile to the United States is an example of a horizontal parameter of decisionmaking.

In any case, the way the decision to invade Iraq was made suggests a number of lessons for the U.S. military. For starters, uniformed military leaders have two methods of influence over strategy making: direct and indirect. The direct method is when military leaders advise policymakers on specific issues. Generally, only the most senior officers in the Pentagon, the combatant commands, or the White House staff have an opportunity for this. Lower ranking and retired officers may help shape thinking on an issue by writing and through public statements, but only in rare cases do they have direct access to policymakers.114 There is little evidence that lower ranking and retired military officers directly influenced the decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Even for senior serving officers, the direct method of influence depends on the receptivity of policymakers. The Bush administration became receptive to military advice during the course of the conflict in Iraq but was unreceptive while making the decision to remove Saddam Hussein. There was little military leaders could have done about this. Receptivity to professional advice always reflects the personality of the president and other top policymakers as well as the prevailing political climate. The greater the confidence and determination of the president, the less his receptivity to professional advice. Thus, receptivity has little to do with intellectual content of the advice. Had senior military leaders advised against removing Saddam Hussein because of the risk that it would result in insurgency, it would have made little difference even if they were insurgency experts. Resistance to military advice comes not from an assessment of the adviser's credentials or even the logic of the advice, but from a deeper perception of the value of career professionals in the making of policy and strategy. Hence greater education in strategy during an officer's professional development does not automatically mean that advice offered will have greater weight in policy and strategic decisions. A well-educated officer may give better advice than a less-educated one, but this does not mean the president or the secretary of defense will listen.

If the Commander in Chief rejects or ignores senior military leaders, officers have few options. They can opt for open dissent--the "fall on your sword" approach. Acts of rebellion against policy seldom--if ever--work. Even a military leader as influential as General Douglas MacArthur discovered that opposing a determined president is a losing proposition. Officers can opt for subterfuge--leaking information to the press or providing a contrarian assessment off the record. In addition to the questionable ethics of this behavior, there is also little evidence that it can derail a determined president. The third option is to express dissent to policymakers privately and then support whatever decision is made. Given the nature of American civil-military relations, this has been and will continue to be the most common approach. While there is no public information to suggest that senior military leaders privately opposed the decision to remove Saddam Hussein by force, only time will tell if they did.

Expressing dissent with official positions has inherent dilemmas. If a senior officer does so publicly (or even privately), he or she may simply be replaced by someone more compliant. President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld had no qualms about this and were perfectly right in doing so. Policymakers have an obligation to listen to military advice, but they also have a right, perhaps even an obligation, to assure that senior military leaders are willing to implement their decisions. Probably the best that senior military leaders can do when they believe that a determined president is pursuing a bad option is to mitigate the risks and costs. Had military leaders believed that removing Saddam Hussein by force would lead to protracted instability and conflict in Iraq, they might have begun preparing for this earlier than they did. But even this would have been difficult--perhaps even impossible--under the forceful leadership of Secretary Rumsfeld. The Secretary was convinced that the military's tendency to assume and prepare for the worst outcome was an impediment to action. The administration deliberately did little to prepare for extensive stabilization and reconstruction activities, precisely because its political opponents would have used this to derail the intervention. It was the equivalent of refusing to stock up on caskets before a major battle lest the public grow to oppose the war. Certainly administration policymakers bear the greatest responsibility for failing to prepare adequately for post-conflict operations, but senior military leaders, particularly the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the CENTCOM commander, should have pressed for it. The military's tendency to "worst case" a policy or strategy is an essential contribution to American strategy making yet, from what is known, was missing in this case.

The indirect method of influence is less precise but can be powerful. It entails configuring the military in a way that leads policymakers to opt for certain types of actions and eschew others. For instance, after Vietnam, the military devoted limited resources to preparing for counterinsurgency or other forms of what became known as "low intensity conflict," instead focusing on large-scale conventional warfighting. The Army was also redesigned so that any major deployment required the mobilization of the reserve forces. As a result of these actions, when President Reagan committed the United States to counterinsurgency in El Salvador, he did so with only a small military deployment, relying heavily on advice and assistance rather than direct U.S. action. In this case, the indirect method of influence did what was intended but a determined President can overcome it. President Clinton committed the U.S. military to multinational peacekeeping in the Balkans despite the fact that the armed forces had not prepared extensively for such an activity. In part because the military adapted quickly to multinational peacekeeping without extensive preparation, the Bush administration concluded that it could adapt equally well to stabilization and counterinsurgency in Iraq (as it eventually did). Ironically the military's ingrained adaptability limits its ability to shape policy or strategy by not preparing for an activity.

The decision to remove Saddam Hussein by force showed that policymakers may use the prestige and authority of the military to mobilize support for a decision that the military had a small role in making. That senior leaders like the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commander of U.S. CENTCOM did not publicly oppose armed intervention in Iraq led the American public and Congress to conclude that the military supported the decision. Silence was seen as concurrence. Since the military is seen as objective and beyond partisan politics, this helped make the administration's case for intervention. Had senior military leaders publicly admitted that they were not asked whether intervention was a good idea or not, it would have given the appearance of dissent and, in all likelihood, they would have been replaced (and the intervention would have gone forward with new military leaders). This is an enduring dilemma in the American system of policymaking and civil-military relations.

Ultimately, there was little that senior military leaders could have done differently on the invasion of Iraq. The 9/11 attacks distorted the political climate in ways that paved the way for bold action with limited professional input. That was precisely what the Bush administration wanted. But as the United States returns to a more normal political climate without the fear and anger of the immediate post-9/11 period, the indirect method of influence may again come more into play. One of the most crucial strategic debates under way today is whether the United States should undertake Iraq-like large scale stabilization operations in the future. Much of the military, particularly the Army, agrees with analysts like Thomas Donnelly and Frederick Kagan who believe that the United States may be forced to do so, and thus should further expand the land forces and hone their capability for protracted stabilization operations.115 This will make it easier for a future president to commit the United States to such actions. By stressing what it can do rather than what it (or the U.S. Government in general) cannot do, the military diminishes its ability to shape future strategy.

That said, the military is and should be a secondary player in the making of strategy and policy. Its greatest contribution remains its willingness to think about and prepare for the worst possible outcomes. Its failure to do this during the decision to remove Saddam Hussein by force is something that future military leaders must avoid. In the American system of policy and strategy making, the military is Cassandra. Even when not heeded, it serves the nation (and policymakers) by warning of danger, not by unbridled optimism.

  • 114. A major exception was the influential role played by General (Ret) John Keane in the strategic shift of 2007. This is assessed elsewhere in this monograph series.
  • 115. See Thomas Donnelly and Frederick W. Kagan, Ground Truth: The Future of U.S. Land Power, Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute Press, 2008.