REVIEW A preordained
catastrophe Cobra II: The
Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of
Iraq by Michael Gordon and
General Bernard Trainor
In the words of its
authors, the chronicle of the invasion and
occupation of Iraq is a tale of hubris and
heroism, of high-tech wizardry and cultural
ignorance. It also a tale of incompetence and
arrogance, of missed opportunities and of ideology
run amok. It is a tale of America at its worse.
The two authors of Cobra II: The Inside
Story of The Invasion and Occupation of Iraq are
singularly well qualified to embark on such a
demanding undertaking. As a New York Times
correspondent, Michael Gordon was "embedded" in a
US Army unit fighting in
and thus brings to the narrative a first-hand
experience that is an added and valuable component
of the wider picture.
As for Bernard Trainor, this
retired marine general and academic provides a
unique perspective on the Pentagon's inner workings
and how sound military planning can
be undermined by the
political vagaries of
policymakers. Together they make a team that has
produced an outstanding piece of work.
With surgical precision the
authors undertake not only to dissect the process
that led the Bush administration to invade Iraq
but also to illustrate, sometimes hour by hour,
how the invasion unfolded. Though essentially an
American saga, the authors also
shed new light on the
mindset of Saddam Hussein and the misperceptions
that caused him to play into the hands of the
nucleus of hardliners within the Bush
administration who had decided on his removal as a
matter of principal.
And while the
description of how Ba'athist Iraq functioned and
was held together will not come as a surprise to
the small group of observers with first-hand
experience of the country, the specifics they
provided shed new light on what turned out to
having been a preordained catastrophe.
the wake of the first Gulf War, the Bill Clinton
administration viewed Saddam as a "manageable
nuisance". As the authors point out, no specific
efforts were made to unseat him and, operating
through a United Nations mechanism, Washington did
not move beyond trying to neutralize his arsenal
of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
this point the authors chose not to further
explore the real nature of the relationship
between Saddam and the US. Had they done so, the
inescapable conclusion would have been that,
independently of the will of either party, Saddam
was objectively an ally of the United States.
Not only did he represent a threat to
Iran, a self-confessed enemy of the US, but his
mere presence in power and the precedent created
by his failed invasion of Kuwait ensured that
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states would have to
continue to rely for their security on American
support and presence in the region. Thus,
ultimately Washington had no interest in removing
Saddam from power.
This approach, which
for Washington was more a matter of laissez-faire
than an explicit policy formulation, came to an
end with the advent of the Bush administration.
While Iraq was not a primary issue when Bush
assumed the presidency, a number of his close
advisers had been involved in the first Gulf War
and perceived the liberation of Kuwait without a
concomitant fall of Saddam as unfinished business.
In a wider perspective and in parallel to
this Iraqi "leftover", the authors document the
realignment of US foreign policy toward a
neo-conservative worldview based on a proactive
projection of American power. The September 11,
2001 attacks on the US gave substance to what
until then had only been an ideological concept.
Overthrowing the Taliban in Afghanistan was not
In the new "war on terror",
America had to take the initiative. The obvious
foe down the line, the one who had survived the
first Gulf War and whose overthrowing would "turn
Iraq into a good, stable, modern, pro-Western free
market country" was Saddam.
supported that approach, in addition to the
president, included Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, former
Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee chairman
Richard Perle and then-deputy defense secretary
Paul Wolfowitz. Thus, by the end of September 2001
the Pentagon was hard at work planning the
invasion of Iraq.
It was a convoluted
process about which the authors provide a
fascinating insight. Basically it pitted the
neo-conservative establishment, headed by Rumsfeld
egged on by former exile leader Ahmad Chalabi, now
Iraq's deputy prime minister and oil minister,
against the Pentagon with then-secretary of state
Colin Powell on the sidelines and increasingly
Rumsfeld, who never hid his
disdain for the military establishment, wanted a
quick deployment, lasting at best a few weeks
followed by a rapid thrust that would dispatch
Saddam in a matter of weeks.
US Central Command head, General Tommy Franks, had
planned for a 500,000-soldier force. Rumsfeld was
aghast. Franks, never one to stand up to superior
authority, started to redesign his plans. From
half a million his force was reduced to 300,000,
but even this did not meet with Rumsfeld's
Finally Franks presented a plan
that included an invasion force of just 145,000,
which could be reinforced to reach 275,000. The
plan provided for 45 days of attack followed by
125 days of consolidation totaling 135 days of war
to conquer a country the size of California with
24 million inhabitants. After that reconstruction
While the plan went through
further minor modifications its essence remained
unchanged, with the underlying assumption that
Iraq would welcome the Americans with open arms;
but it did not go unchallenged. Powell reportedly
told President George W Bush that, in his view, if
the Iraqi Army were to crack, the country's
governing structure would crack with it and
Washington would be stuck with a costly
reconstruction job stretching for years into an
Recalling the shop rule:
if you break it you own it, Powell reportedly
said: "It will break and you will own it." Bush
was undeterred. Ultimately, Powell was not against
the war as such, but wanted the allies to share
the burden. The end result was Washington's
attempt to enlist the support of the UN Security
Council, essential for Britain, but an endeavor
much opposed by Cheney who believed that the US
could go at it alone.
It was not Powell's
finest hour. When it became clear the US attempt
to obtain multilateral endorsement for an invasion
of Iraq would fail, it was withdrawn - but not
before it sent a chill through Washington. The
reality was that Saddam had indeed neutralized his
WMD, but acting on the principal that the Arab
world never misses an opportunity to miss an
opportunity he had obfuscated the fact.
The miscalculation was colossal and Saddam
ended up with the worst of both worlds. No only
had he deprived himself of WMD, but made it
impossible to ascertain that he had denied himself
the benefit of having done so. Had he complied
with the demands made on him by the UN, Washington
would have been deprived of the rationale used to
justify the invasion, namely that Iraq was not
destroying its WMD. To Washington's relief Saddam
proved obdurate, and the road to invasion was then
While the army that was poised to
strike was certainly the most technically advanced
in the world, the fact that this was a war against
"evil" had not been overlooked. Thousands of small
American flags were ready to be distributed to an
enthusiastic populace that would welcome with open
arms their American liberators. The end result of
the operation would culminate into an apotheosis
that was to redraw the political map of the Middle
East, bring democracy to a country that had never
known it and demonstrate to the world at large the
power of the United States.
The land war
started on March 21, 2003. It was an ominous
harbinger that the first American casualty fell to
an Iraqi civilian firing from the back of a
speeding pickup truck.
planned for a technowar in which small numbers of
US troops armed with advanced weaponry would lay
to waste the massed charges of Saddam's tank
regiments. It was not to be. The Iraqi Army was
nowhere in sight.
Conversely, a motley
throng of thousands of Iraqis in civilian garb
armed with assault weapons and rocket launchers
started to harass the American columns. Faulty
intelligence, inadequate equipment, exposed lines
of communications and, above all, lack of numbers
bedeviled the American divisions as they converged
on Baghdad, leaving large swaths of the country
When the city fell, and with
it the governing structure of the country,
Powell's prediction came true. Iraq was "broke"
and the Bush administration "owned it".
Tragically, it did not know what to do with it.
Planning for the war took 18 months;
planning for post-war reconstruction started two
months before the invasion. It showed.
resulting tale of mismanagement, missed
opportunities and misjudgment that the authors
depict is surreal. Shortly after the fall of
Baghdad, a group of senior Iraqi Army officers,
calling themselves the "independent military
gathering" approached the Americans with an offer
They were turned down, in
line with the policy to disband the army of
then-administrator of the Coalition Provisional
Authority in Iraq, L Paul Bremer. The wholesale
banning of the Ba'ath Party was another of the
sweeping decisions taken by Bremer, with
Washington's support, which overnight
disfranchised a large segment of Iraq's society.
Not surprisingly, Chalabi, who wanted to
make room for his supporters, encouraged the move.
Ultimately Iraq was a nation of bureaucrats, most
of whom were ready to switch their loyalties to
the highest bidder. "The regime", one Iraqi said,
"was for sale and the Americans could have bought
it all, including the army, the Ba'ath Party and
most of the intelligence services".
authors in their concluding observations profess
to believe that "the future of Iraq still hangs in
the balance". It is a contention that they
undermine, given that all the evidence they
provide points to the contrary.
the case can be made that everything that went
wrong, from the decision to send too few troops to
Bremer's calamitous administration, was
preordained, and that any remedial action at this
stage will amount to too little, too late. The
same applies to the dearth of understanding, not
to mention the crass ignorance that prevailed
within the upper echelons of the Bush
administration, of what Iraq stood for.
country has the intellectual resources currently
available to the US, be it from academia, the
media, the armed forces or the intelligence
services. Iraq was not an enigma, and from the
disrepair of the electrical grid to the fragility
of the society the expertise was available. Why it
was not harnessed and put to use is a question
that the authors don't address, though the answer
emerges from their narrative by default.
Invading Iraq was not an exercise in
realpolitik, but an act of faith. Iraq was to be a
ward of the US, its people forever grateful for
having been delivered from evil. Democracy would
flourish on the banks of the Euphrates River, and
with it the benefits of peace and free enterprise
would descend on the Middle East.
It was a
dream, unrelated to any reality and betrothed to
ideology. None of the authors of the dream, be
they Bush, Rumsfeld or Cheney, were the sort of
men who actively sought a diversity of opinions.
They were ideologues who were not ready to let
fact interfere with their beliefs.
Ultimately, Cobra II, the code name for
the invasion of Iraq, stood for ideology
unmanaged. It came undone because when reality
meets ideology, reality always wins.
Cobra II: The inside story of the
invasion and occupation of Iraq. Pantheon,
March 14, 2006. ISBN: 0375422625. Price US$27.95,
hardcover 640 pages.