Aboard the U.S. Air Force C-130, Bremer edited two draft documents he intended to issue when he arrived. One provided for “de-Baathification,” prohibiting senior officials from Saddam Hussein’s party from participating in the new Iraq. The other disbanded the Iraqi army and other security organs. Looking out the plane windows, Bremer and his deputy, Clay McManaway, saw fire after fire stretching toward the horizon. “Industrial-strength looting,” McManaway yelled over the churn of the propellers. “Lots of old scores to settle.”
In a way no one on the flight could have realized, these succinct observations would go a long way toward explaining the ultimate consequences of the documents in Bremer’s briefcase. Over the last 20 years, as the United States has reckoned with the human toll and costly legacy of its disastrous war of choice in the Middle East, those two infamous decisions of Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority—CPA Order 1, de-Baathifying the Iraqi state, and CPA Order 2, dissolving the Iraqi military—have been held up as some of the worst mistakes of the war. They are seen as sparks that would ignite the insurgency to come and set Iraq aflame for years, a period of disorder that would claim the lives of thousands of U.S. troops and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians.
Exactly why the United States chose to go to war in Iraq is a question that can never be fully resolved. A complex mix of factors drove U.S. officials: varying personal worldviews, genuinely held strategic theories, self-interested lobbying by Iraqi exiles, long-standing grievances against Saddam, post–Cold War hubris, dubious intelligence, and the climate of fear and patriotism induced by the 9/11 attacks.
Publicly, however, the war was justified on the straightforward grounds that Saddam was continuing to develop weapons of mass destruction. After 9/11, the possibility that a dictator with a history of warring with his country’s neighbors and sheltering terrorist groups might someday possess a chemical, biological, or nuclear weapon was deemed unacceptable. Indeed, proposals to invade Iraq were bandied about in the Bush administration as early as the days after September 11, while fires still burned at the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. On the night of 9/11, in fact, Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense and a co-author of a 1997 Weekly Standard article about Saddam titled “Overthrow Him,” asked for intelligence about Iraq’s ties to terrorists. By the summer of 2002, an invasion seemed all but inevitable.
A rough plan had been decided on and shared with the public: the war would be quick and largely bloodless (at least for the United States), and the oil revenues of the newly freed Iraq would pay for the reconstruction. There was little appetite inside the Bush administration for any Marshall Plan–style nation building. Instead, it hoped to mimic the approach that had seemed to work in Afghanistan: a fast and overwhelming invasion followed by a quick transition to friendly local leaders. In Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, a Taliban critic living in exile, was chosen as the country’s interim leader within weeks of the U.S. invasion. In Iraq, many in the Bush administration saw the most promising equivalent as Ahmed Chalabi, an exiled opponent of Saddam who was close with several neoconservatives.
By early 2003, as invasion forces gathered in the Middle East, Pentagon officials were working through plans for that light-touch occupation, what they called “Phase IV” operations—phases one through three focusing on the buildup and initial combat operations. This postwar planning project, code-named Eclipse II, was modeled after Project Eclipse, the Allied plan for Germany after World War II. The archetype had taken years to develop, starting in 1943, when victory was hardly even in sight. But work on the 2003 version was rushed and poorly resourced, a last-minute effort to imagine a post-Saddam Iraq that did not begin until tanks and troops were already crossing the Atlantic.
As army planners grappled with the question of how to handle the thousands of mostly Sunni officials who made up the Baath Party, they found a clear parallel in postwar Germany. During World War II, officials had quickly realized that any effort to “de-Nazify” the defeated country had to be narrowly implemented. Some ten percent of all Germans formally belonged to the Nazi Party and millions more to other Nazi-aligned labor and professional associations. Because getting rid of all of them was administratively untenable, U.S. officials decided to remove and punish the worst actors while leaving untouched the less zealous bureaucrats who had joined the Nazi Party for mere career purposes. In keeping with this precedent, early drafts of Eclipse II envisioned a similarly narrow de-Baathification in Iraq.
The job of overseeing Phase IV fell to Jay Garner, a retired U.S. Army general who headed the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, or ORHA, a caretaker administration for Iraq established on the eve of the invasion. Garner had a celebrated history in the country. At the end of the Gulf War, he commanded a task force there aimed at helping the Kurdish population. But his new mission was much harder. Appointed only in January 2003, he had just weeks to assemble a working plan to govern 25 million Iraqis and a country the size of California.
ORHA started almost from scratch, even though across the Potomac from the Pentagon, the State Department had spent most of 2002 drawing up its own extensive postwar plan—a 13-volume, 1,200-page report developed at a cost of $5 million and with the help of more than 200 Iraqi exiles, including lawyers, engineers, and doctors, divided into 17 working groups. The State Department effort, known as the Future of Iraq Project and overseen by Thomas Warrick, harshly criticized Chalabi and—seemingly as a result—was all but sidelined by the Pentagon. Garner said later that he was told by Rumsfeld to ignore the Future of Iraq Project. His request to add Warrick to his team was denied.
Instead, the Pentagon’s new and hurried collective postwar plans, such as they were, were presented to the National Security Council on March 10, 2003, just a week before the invasion. Called “mega brief four,” the presentation was overseen by Frank Miller, the NSC’s senior director for defense policy and arms control. Miller’s sprawling briefing covered de-Baathification as well as the future of Iraq’s foreign ministry, intelligence services, police, judiciary, and military. It even envisioned a truth and reconciliation commission modeled on the one that South Africa had established after apartheid.
Like de-Nazification, officials decided, de-Baathification would focus on the party elite while leaving the lower echelons intact. Garner’s view was that the United States could probably succeed by removing just the top two leaders from each ministry or agency. “We were talking about a pretty limited number, something like the top one-and-a-half percent,” recalled Larry Di Rita, one of Rumsfeld’s top aides. Miller remembered it the same way: “What we recommended was de-Baathification was to be carried out with a light hand.”
To Douglas Feith, the Pentagon’s undersecretary of defense for policy, the planners’ decisions about de-Baathification appeared straightforward amid the run-up to the war. To him, the proposed measure for a narrowly targeted removal of Baathist officials seemed modest and sensible. “Nobody said they should be killed, imprisoned, or dispossessed,” Feith recalled in an interview. “The penalty was that you couldn’t work in the new government. It wasn’t enormously draconian, given that the Baath Party had done a lot of terrible things.” In Feith’s recollection, the decision attracted little interagency debate amid the many other harder policy questions. “The things I remember are the things that were controversial,” he said. “I don’t remember de-Baathification being in that category. It was handled by an interagency group, and there was consensus.”
Much more challenging, however, was the issue that Feith himself presented in “mega-brief four”: what to do about the Iraqi army. It was, participants recall, one of the hardest postwar questions they confronted. The Iraqi military was huge—estimated at around a half-million regular and irregular troops, in addition to a bloated officer corps that included thousands of generals. The enlisted ranks were composed mostly of Shiites, who were overseen by a predominantly Sunni officer corps loyal to Saddam. Training was poor; discipline, brutal. It was an open question whether the army was salvageable or whether it would be best to disband it altogether and replace it with a new army built from scratch according to Western standards and no longer segregated along sectarian lines. “There were strong arguments on both sides of the debate—both reform and dissolve,” Feith said. “It wasn’t obvious to me what the right answer was.”
After studying the issue, U.S. planners decided to keep the military, assuming they’d be able to use its organizational structure, bases, personnel, and equipment as a foundation of reconstruction efforts. Besides, in the Gulf War, the Iraqi military had surrendered en masse. Tens of thousands of prisoners of war had been placed in the custody of U.S. forces, and U.S. planners expected that something similar would happen again, and this time the soldiers-turned-prisoners could be put to work on reconstruction.
As part of those March meetings, Rumsfeld asked Feith to brief Bush and the NSC on Garner’s conclusion that the army was worth salvaging. As Feith recalled, “We had an enormous job to do on reconstruction, and the Iraqi military has facilities, it has transportation, it has personnel with skills.” Among its ranks were experts on communications technology, roads, construction, and so on. “Those were all things Garner stressed we would need to draw on for reconstruction.”
Meeting with reporters at the Pentagon on March 11, Garner outlined the conversations that week at the White House, telling the press that the United States hoped to quickly hand back control to the Iraqis. “We intend to immediately start turning some things over, and every day, we’ll turn over more things,” he said. He went on to explain that the Iraqi military would be kept intact and used for reconstruction—in part, he pointed out, to avoid putting so many jobless men on the street. The goal, he said, was to hand Iraq back to Iraqis within “months.”
On the eve of war, there was a broad consensus among top officials in the White House and the Pentagon: de-Baathification would be narrowly tailored, and the Iraqi army would be kept intact. No one of prominence was arguing otherwise.
The invasion began on March 20, and in just three weeks, the U.S.-led coalition surged into Baghdad and the Iraqi government collapsed. Nearly everything had gone according to plan—perhaps even better than planners had anticipated. But the pictures from the capital quickly turned alarming. Looting was widespread, and the U.S. military seemed almost invisible as Iraqi government buildings burned. U.S. officials dismissed the civil unrest as a temporary phase—even a sign of strength, as Iraqis were able to make new personal choices. “Freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things,” Rumsfeld famously told reporters. “Stuff happens.”
As the days passed, however, the scenes from Baghdad only got messier, and Garner never got a chance to put his plans into action. He clashed with Chalabi, who was backed by Feith, Rumsfeld, and Vice President Dick Cheney and who sought to wrest control of the country for himself. (“We met in Nasiriyah on the 15th of April and immediately despised each other,” Garner recalled.) Garner was also confronting the problem that the United States had no detailed plan for how to handle post-invasion Iraq, nor did it have anywhere near enough troops to maintain order. The assumptions of Eclipse II had turned out to be wildly optimistic, and there were no contingency plans for dealing with a suddenly lawless country.
Garner thought that time was running out; the United States was, bafflingly, already pulling troops out of the country, back to Kuwait, even as security remained shaky. On his first day in Baghdad, he met with the local U.S. commander, who told him that U.S. forces were stretched thin protecting nearly 250 different sites across the country. As Garner saw it, “Right now, we’re liberators, and at some point the window for liberation closes, and our job is to slow that close.” He went on: “When it closes, we’re then occupiers, and we can’t do what we need to do if we’re occupiers.”
But Garner’s group, ORHA, was severely understaffed, in part because Rumsfeld had opposed assigning many State Department staffers, including Warrick, to it. Garner tried to move ahead as best he could, but he was being deliberately kept out of the loop by higher-up U.S. officials at the Pentagon who were now rethinking some of the basic decisions that had been made about postwar Iraq. As the RAND Corporation’s official history of the occupation later concluded, “No one in Washington had kept Garner apprised of the major changes in approach to the occupation being considered there, in part because no one in Washington short of Secretary Rumsfeld had been charged with keeping Garner so informed.”
Blamed for failing to bring order quickly to Iraq, Garner had fallen out of favor in D.C. On April 24, on one of the first days that Garner was actually in Baghdad, Rumsfeld called Garner and told him that he was being replaced by Bremer as the presidential envoy to Iraq. Garner had always known he would eventually be replaced—as he’d joked to Feith, Bush wanted a “person of stature” to run Iraq—but he never imagined his appointment would last only days. Garner was a victim of not only D.C. bureaucratic politics but also Iraqi realities. The light touch envisioned for ORHA was a pipe dream—the organization’s very name, emphasizing “reconstruction and humanitarian assistance,” now seemed wildly optimistic, given that what Iraq needed above all was any sign of a functioning authority.
Bremer would represent a fresh start for the United States in Iraq, and he would lead a stronger and higher-stature organization, something now called the Coalition Provisional Authority, the successor to ORHA. In a sign of the shoot-from-the-hip decision-making of that time, when the Bush administration established the CPA, it never bothered to issue an actual order closing ORHA; the office just functionally ceased to exist.
Bremer’s appointment surprised almost everyone in Washington. The real decision-making circles at the time were so small—largely confined to the offices of Cheney and Rumsfeld—that even top administration officials learned the news at the same time as the public. Driving to CIA headquarters after the announcement, Tenet phoned Powell, asking, “What do you know about this guy, Paul Bremer?” But the appointment—and the massive mandate that went with it—was consistent with the evolving approach of Rumsfeld and Cheney. As Robert Grenier, who represented the CIA in the interagency process for Iraq, recalled, “I remember very specifically the vice president saying, ‘It’s a choice between legitimacy and control, and we should opt for control.’”
From his pre-departure meetings in Washington, Bremer concluded that Iraq needed a tougher approach and more sweeping reforms than what Garner had sought. The briefings made him feel as if he were headed for a country falling apart. Iraqis were facing electricity and water shortages, and looters prowled the streets. The security apparatus hadn’t surrendered en masse; it had simply melted away. Iraq needed a firmer hand—and fast.
Walter Slocombe, one of Bremer’s top aides, participated in the hurried briefings in D.C. as he and his boss prepared to head to Baghdad. He recalled being astounded by what he learned: Iraq had no functioning government or military, and its economy and infrastructure were crippled by sanctions, corruption, and mismanagement. Every Baath Party office and military base had been destroyed or looted by fleeing soldiers and opportunistic Iraqis. Virtually all the equipment was gone. “They took the wiring out of the walls,” Slocombe recalled. “They even stole the urinals.”
It only seemed logical, then, that Bremer and Slocombe recommended scrapping the earlier plans for retaining the Iraqi army in favor of training up a new army. After the two presented their new plan to Rumsfeld, who approved it, Slocombe and others at the Pentagon began to draft what would become the fateful order to dissolve the Iraqi army. “We decided, ‘Let’s start from the ground up,’” Slocombe said. “If the army was intact, the whole story would be different. I don’t know how, but it would be different.”
And then there was the Baathist problem. On May 1, the day Bush declared the end of major combat operations in front of a banner reading “Mission Accomplished,” Bremer was beginning his meetings in D.C. That morning, an article appeared in The New York Times by the reporter Judith Miller. It quoted Chalabi criticizing Garner’s limited approach to de-Baathification and reported that the Iraqi exile had been lobbying the Bush administration for a more thorough cleansing. Further complaints came in the following days, as Garner’s team appointed a controversial former party official to be minister of health and reinstalled old Baath Party leaders at Baghdad University—conscious choices made by the team in Iraq and justified on the grounds that any rebuilding effort required functioning institutions in the meantime.
On May 9, bowing to the pressure, Rumsfeld publicly promised a more extensive vetting process. That same day, during a meeting at the Pentagon, Feith handed Bremer an order for a broader de-Baathification than originally envisioned, an order that Feith said had been signed off by the interagency process. To Bremer, it was a small, insignificant moment in a time of much harder questions; he was merely being given a fait accompli to announce at the right time. “Since Feith was handing me the paper, I had assumed it was written somewhere inside the Pentagon,” Bremer recalled. “I looked at it, and Feith told me the decree had been cleared through the interagency process.”
The problem was, no one outside of a small circle of aides seems to have seen the document before Feith handed it to Bremer. There was, in fact, no formal interagency process at all. “It didn’t come from the White House,” Miller, of the NSC, said. “It would have come from my desk or from my people if that was true.”
Instead, the draft order appears to have originated from the office of William Luti, the deputy undersecretary of defense for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs. Specifically, the proposed order would have been overseen inside Luti’s office by a special policy section known as the Office of Special Plans. A team of roughly 15 people, the Office of Special Plans was led by Abram Shulsky, a veteran of the Reagan administration. Although it was deliberately given an oblique name, the group focused primarily on Iraq and Iran. Luti declined to be interviewed for this article, but Shulsky recalled in an interview that the draft order didn’t follow any normal process. “There was not a real interagency process,” Shulsky said. “It would have been informal at that point.”
The original order handed to Bremer had applied some rough math about how much of the bureaucracy had to be removed—math influenced not just by postwar Germany but also by the experience of rebuilding eastern European countries such as Poland after the fall of the Iron Curtain. The draft order envisioned that the top three layers of Baathist leaders would be excised from Iraq’s future officialdom and that those in the fourth layer would be considered on a case-by-case basis.
As Bremer prepared for his trip to Iraq, he felt confident that he had been empowered with great presidential authority and that his mission was to achieve lasting change in Iraq. The original, far more optimistic U.S. plans for postwar Iraq had been scrapped, but he and other officials were confident that success was still within reach.
When Bremer arrived in Iraq aboard that air force cargo plane, he was fixated above all on the country’s toppled dictator. Even as U.S. troops occupied most of the country, Saddam and many of his top officials, including his two sons, Uday and Qusay, remained on the run. Against this backdrop, the modest de-Baathification efforts proposed over the winter in Washington seemed inadequate. U.S. officials feared that the Baath Party might not yet be consigned to the ash heap of history. So did ordinary Iraqis, who worried that the Americans would quickly depart, allowing Saddam to rise from the ashes, return to power, and punish anyone who had cooperated with the invaders. As Bremer recalled of the dictator on the lam, “He was a presence—or an absence, more accurately—in everything we were doing.” Hence the draft order for a broad de-Baathification that Bremer carried in his briefcase, a measure that would demonstrate that Saddam and his party had no path to resurrection.
Bremer wanted to come out of the gate with “high-octane orders,” recalled Di Rita, the Rumsfeld aide, who shared a temporary room with Bremer in Baghdad. But when Bremer circulated the draft de-Baathification order with other U.S. military leaders on the ground, he met immediate resistance. It reached far deeper into the Iraqi bureaucracy than anything the White House had originally debated and approved in March. Now, all senior party members would be removed from their positions and banned from future employment. Worse, officials occupying the top three layers of leadership in every ministry and all other government institutions, including universities and hospitals, would be interrogated for any links to the Baath Party and subject to possible criminal investigation.
What had once been a narrowly targeted effort to remove Saddam’s cabinet and inner circle now had the potential to touch every local government building in the country. Garner, who had agreed to remain in place for a brief transition to Bremer, was not happy with the order. Minutes after reading the draft order, Garner recalled, he and the CIA station chief in Baghdad, Charles Seidel, descended on Bremer’s office to protest. “You’re not going to be able to run the country,” Garner said. “Mr. Ambassador,” Seidel added, “you’ll have 50,000 enemies in this city before the sun sets.” But as Bremer saw it, he had been given an order by Washington; it was his job to follow it. On May 16, Bremer signed CPA Order 1.
The other draft order, the one disbanding the Iraqi army, also seemed justified to Bremer, Slocombe, and Feith in light of the on-the-ground reality. Bremer could see that, although some of Iraq’s civil ministries still functioned, its security organs—military, internal security, and intelligence forces—were a different matter. The early hopes that Iraq’s army might help with reconstruction and humanitarian relief had proved hollow. Instead, the military was gone: its personnel had melted away and its facilities and materiel had been looted or destroyed. “There was never a question of keeping the Iraqi army intact,” Slocombe said. “In Pentagon jargon, they had ‘self-demobilized.’”
Other participants dispute that the Iraqi army was really gone for good. Miller, for example, pointed out that the Americans had dropped leaflets and handed out flyers encouraging Iraqi soldiers to go home and wait for orders to return to their bases. “We told people, ‘Go away, and we’ll call you back,’” he said. The U.S. military had already initiated conversations with friendly Iraqi officers about reconstituting the force. One of Garner’s aides, a colonel named Paul Hughes, was hard at work contacting old units. As Garner recalled, “We had about 40,000 soldiers ready to come back.”
Bremer’s decision would cut off those discussions and ultimately create lasting bitterness among Iraq’s erstwhile officer corps.
Like the de-Baathification order, the idea of disbanding the Iraqi military met resistance on the ground in Iraq. Garner and his team felt that it would undo everything they had been working on. “There was new Iraqi leadership that had emerged saying, ‘We’re willing to work with you,’” recalled Michael Barron, then an army colonel who served as a senior adviser to the CPA. “We were looking to bring back those security forces—the army and the police—under new leadership working with the American-led coalition. Order no. 2 took the rug out from under all that.”
Garner, along with Seidel and some U.S. military personnel, favored involving friendly Iraqi generals in the new force. But Bremer and Slocombe concluded that doing so was impractical. In their view, the oppressed Shiite conscripts who had happily gone home during the invasion were not going to rally to the summons of a bunch of Sunni senior officers tied to the ancien régime.
Although there was no typical formal interagency process for approving CPA Order 2, Slocombe remembered informing everyone necessary in both Washington and Baghdad of the plan to disband the army. Communications technology in 2003 in Iraq was still dicey, but the draft was sent to the Pentagon, and Slocombe said he spent many phone calls pacing up and down outside the Republican Palace in Baghdad where the CPA was setting up shop, listening to final changes to the document.
The top civilian leaders at the Pentagon, who had received the presidential OK back in March to keep the military intact, were on board with Bremer’s new vision, accepting the same arguments he did about the changed circumstances. Grenier recalled a conversation with a staffer in Luti’s office who deadpanned, “If we bring back the leadership of the Iraqi army, it will be to shoot them.” Yet even though Defense Department officials carefully reviewed the order—Slocombe recalled the text kicking around the CPA offices for about a week before Bremer pushed the team to finalize it—they don’t appear to have ever shared it with principals outside the Pentagon.
When Bremer announced the pending order on a video conference with the national security team back at the White House, the revelation stunned other leaders in the administration. “No one else around the table—excluding Don Rumsfeld and Doug Feith and possibly the vice president—knew what was going on,” Miller explained. “This was presented to the war cabinet as, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’” Even the president seemed taken aback. After ten or so seconds of silence, Bush said to Bremer, “Jerry, you’re the guy on the ground.”
To Feith, it was a signature moment in the war, a key indication of how the next phase of the occupation would unfold. Rumsfeld and Bush both wanted to give Bremer space to make decisions, particularly as he was just getting started. Rumsfeld was in some respects a micromanager, Feith recalled, but the defense secretary’s inclination stopped at the water’s edge, and he tended to defer to people running operations on the other side of the world. As Feith put it, “He wanted to protect Jerry Bremer from people wielding, as the saying goes, ‘five-thousand-mile screwdrivers.’”
Looking back, Bremer said his regret about CPA Order 2 stems primarily from not having readied what he saw as the second stage of the order: a plan for paying the disbanded army. He and Slocombe never intended to turn the entire Iraqi military out on the street but envisioned issuing the former soldiers some form of a stipend. (As Slocombe put it, “We know if you don’t pay the army, someone else will.”) But amid the post-invasion chaos, the mechanisms to do so weren’t in place yet, as both Bremer and Slocombe were the first to admit. The CPA had no reliable records of the military’s ranks, nor was the oil revenue flowing yet to pay them. Runaway inflation of the Iraqi dinar further complicated whatever back pay, retirement pensions, or stipends the CPA might want to institute. Plus, Slocombe said, it would have been politically awkward to pay ex-regime soldiers before there was any sort of process in place to compensate their victims.
As if on cue, soon after the edict was issued, disbanded soldiers across the country protested for pay. Behind the scenes, the CPA scrambled to assemble an order of battle for the Iraqi army. Bremer said he recalls the very moment in mid-June when Meghan O’Sullivan, one of his aides, walked into his palace office with a giant spreadsheet at last outlining the Iraqi military—the first step in starting up the payments to former soldiers, which ultimately lagged CPA Order 2 by more than a month. “One of my regrets was that we didn’t at the same time announce a plan to put all those people on pensions,” Bremer said. “We delayed the announcement of the pay, because we didn’t have the money. That was a mistake.” When the payments did begin, he pointed out, they quickly quieted the soldiers’ protests.
CPA Order 1 faced its own implementation problems. In the months that followed, de-Baathification proved even more extreme and problematic than what the text of the order called for. Chalabi and his allies had seized control of the process—a process for which the United States had offered no clear guidelines. By April 2004, Bremer himself publicly admitted that the order had been “poorly implemented” and applied “unevenly and unjustly.”
Slocombe confessed that he and others were surprised at how de-Baathification worked out. “In practice, it was abused and it was used as a device to get rid of people, like school superintendents in mid-size cities,” he said. “It was our failure to recognize that in any society, there’d be a considerable amount of score settling and favor trading.” But, Slocombe maintained, that does not mean it was the wrong thing to do. “No one said dissolving the Nazi Party was a big mistake.”
Bremer’s two signature orders marked a turning point in the Bush administration’s adventure in Iraq. Gone were any illusions of a quick in-and-out operation; now, the orders signaled, the United States would be staying for a long occupation aimed at fundamentally remaking Iraq. A rapid handover had been replaced by an open-ended rebuilding. “The irony of CPA 1 and CPA 2 is that Bremer completely overturned the president’s vision for Iraq,” Miller said. “I don’t know if we would have ever been able to be in and out quickly, but we never had the opportunity to try.”
A quick and easy war was unrealistic from inception, however. Many of those who participated in the policymaking process at the time suggested that the actual effect of CPA Orders 1 and 2 has been overblown. The orders themselves weren’t the real problem; they were a symptom of the utter lack of planning before the invasion and lack of a clear decision-making process after. “Everything was designed by people in Washington who had never been to Iraq,” Garner recalled. “It was a poorly conceived and poorly thought-out series of orders.”
The orders were in fact also symptoms of an even larger problem: the nearly impossible challenge that the United States had taken on in choosing to invade Iraq. The collapse of Saddam’s regime demanded some sort of replacement, and the process of devising a replacement would inevitably involve endless hard choices, unexpected obstacles, and unintended consequences—no matter how much planning Washington did. Although the slapdash planning and undersized U.S. military footprint certainly left no margin for error, wiser decisions might not have been enough. It is impossible to prove a counterfactual, but although a narrow de-Baathification plan and a concerted effort to save the Iraqi army might have been better policies, they certainly would have been no guarantee of peace in Iraq.
The two orders were the first of what would ultimately end up being 100 such edicts from the CPA, which lasted 14 months, until June 2004, when authority was finally handed over to an interim Iraqi government. By the fall of 2003, the insurgency—made up of former regime elements and disbanded soldiers—was in full swing. The rest is history: the Abu Ghraib scandal and other revelations of U.S. war crimes, the U.S. troop surge, the American withdrawal, the rise of the Islamic State, all against the backdrop of persistent political instability and violence and the growing influence of Iran, the leading U.S. adversary in the region.
With the benefit of 20 years of hindsight, CPA Orders 1 and 2 are best thought of not as errors that, if avoided, could have saved Iraq. Instead, they were early indicators that the Bush administration’s grand visions for the country were merely paper wishes, out of touch with the post-invasion reality. The orders’ murky origins were emblematic of a chaotic policymaking process that led to a war that was both needless and poorly planned. In truth, the Iraq war was doomed before the first American soldier crossed the border.