The New York Review of Books and TomDispatch

Bush Has the Nerve to Say He Found Inner Peace on Iraq

Introduction note by Tom Dispatch editor Tom Engelhardt.

"I made my arguments and went down in flames. History will prove me right."

Yes, that was George W. Bush. No, he wasn't talking about Iraq. The date was September 1993 and Bush, then managing general partner of the Texas Rangers, had voted against "realignment and a new wild-card system" at a Major League Baseball owners meeting. "Bush," writes Jerry Crasnick of, "was the lone dissenter in a 27-1 vote."

Skip a few years to February 2003, when Bush found himself involved in another owners' meeting involving "realignment" -- in this case, of the Middle East -- and what was certainly an attempt to install a new "wild-card system." Again, he cast his lone vote. At stake was the fate of the planet and, unlike in 1993, it didn't matter, in the end, how the other owners, then gathering at the United Nations, voted.

The catastrophic results of this realignment effort, we now know well; that Bush again believes history will prove him "right," we also know. Whatever documentation may exist for that 1993 baseball meeting, recently we received a striking document from February 22, 2003 -- a transcript, published in the Spanish newspaper El País, of a conversation at the President's "ranch" in Crawford, Texas, between Bush and Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar. This was less than a month before the President launched his invasion of Iraq. As recorded, his was a remarkable performance, a window into the Presidential mind -- and, as with the famed Downing Street Memo when no one else in the mainstream was willing to publish it, the New York Review of Books is publishing this transcript, newly translated, in its upcoming issue. (It can now be read at the Review's website.)

The invaluable Mark Danner, who has covered the Iraq War and the Bush administration for the New York Review of Books, has written an illuminating piece on what we can now see of a President, at the edge of an invasion, and eerily "at peace with himself." More than four-and-a-half years and the same President later, it remains a chilling vision of the man the Supreme Court put in charge of what his followers once loved to hail as the planet's "lone superpower," its New Rome. Thanks to the kindness of the editors of the Review, it is posted below. Tom

"The Moment Has Come to Get Rid of Saddam"Bush's Faith Run Over by History
By Mark Danner

[This essay appears in the November 8, 2007 issue of the New York Review of Books and is posted here with the kind permission of the editors of that magazine.]

The only thing that worries me about you is your optimism.
-- Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar to President Bush, from the Crawford Transcript of February 22, 2003

Surely one of the agonizing attributes of our post-September 11 age is the unending need to reaffirm realities that have been proved, and proved again, but just as doggedly denied by those in power, forcing us to live trapped between two narratives of present history, the one gaining life and color and vigor as more facts become known, the other growing ever paler, brittler, more desiccated, barely sustained by the life support of official power.

At the center of our national life stands the master narrative of this bifurcated politics: the Iraq war, fought to eliminate the threat of weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist, brought to a quick and glorious conclusion on a sunlit aircraft carrier deck whose victory celebration almost instantly became a national embarrassment. That was four and a half years ago; the war's ending and indeed its beginning, so clearly defined for that single trembling instant, have long since vanished into contested history.

The latest entry in that history appeared on September 26, when the Spanish daily El País published a transcript of a discussion held on February 22, 2003 -- nearly a month before the war began -- between President Bush and José María Aznar, then prime minister of Spain. Though the leaders met at Mr. Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, some quickly dubbed the transcript Downing Street Memo II, and indeed the document does share some themes with that critical British memorandum, mostly in its clear demonstration of the gap between what President Bush and members of his administration were saying publicly during the run-up to the war and what they were saying, and doing, in more private settings. Though Hans Blix, the UN chief inspector whose teams were then scouring Iraq for the elusive weapons, had yet to deliver his report -- two weeks later he would tell the Security Council that it would take not "years, nor weeks, but months" to complete "the key remaining disarmament tasks" -- the President is impatient, even anxious, for war. "This is like Chinese water torture," he says of the inspections. "We have to put an end to it."

Even in discussing Aznar's main concern, the vital need to give the war international legitimacy by securing a second UN resolution justifying the use of force -- a resolution that, catastrophically, was never achieved -- little pretense is made that an invasion of Iraq is not already a certainty. "If anyone vetoes," the President tells Aznar,
"we'll go. Saddam Hussein isn't disarming. We have to catch him right now. Until now we've shown an incredible amount of patience. There are two weeks left. In two weeks we'll be militarily ready.... We'll be in Baghdad by the end of March."

The calendar has already been determined -- not by the inspectors and what they might or might not find, nor by the diplomats and what they might or might not negotiate, but by the placement and readiness of warplanes and soldiers and tanks.

When did war become a certainty? The gradations of the President's attitudes are impossible to chart, though as far back as the previous July, the head of British intelligence, Sir Richard Dearlove, on his famous consultations in Washington, had detected "a perceptible shift in attitude." As Dearlove was quoted reporting to the British cabinet in the most famous passage in the Downing Street Memo:
"Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route...."1

It is on this point -- the need of the Europeans to have a UN resolution justifying force, and thus a legal, or at least internationally legitimate, war, and the deep ambivalence among Bush administration officials about taking "the UN route" -- that much of the drama of the Crawford transcript turns, making it into a kind of playlet pitting the sinuous, subtle, and sophisticated European, worried about the great opposition in Europe, and in Spain in particular, to an American-led war of choice with Iraq ("We need your help with our public opinion," Aznar tells Bush), against the blustery, impatient, firing-straight-from-the-hip American cowboy. Bush wants to put out the second resolution on Monday. Aznar says, "We'd prefer to wait until Tuesday." Bush counters, "Monday afternoon, taking the time zone differences into account." To Bush's complaint that the UN process was like "Chinese water torture," Aznar offers soothing understanding and a plea to take a breath:
"Aznar: I agree, but it would be good to be able to count on as many people as possible. Have a little patience.

"Bush: My patience has run out. I won't go beyond mid-March.

"Aznar: I'm not asking you to have indefinite patience. Simply that you do everything possible so that everything comes together."

Aznar, a right-wing Catholic idealist who believes in the human rights arguments for removing Saddam Hussein, finds himself on a political knife edge: more than nine Spaniards in ten oppose going to war and millions have just marched through the streets of Madrid in angry opposition; he is intensely concerned to gain a UN resolution making the war an internationally sanctioned effort and not just an American-led "aggression." Bush responds to his plea for diplomacy with a rather remarkable litany of threats directed at the current temporary members of the Security Council. "Countries like Mexico, Chile, Angola, and Cameroon have to know," he declares, "that what's at stake is the United States' security and acting with a sense of friendship toward us." In case Aznar doesn't get the point, he describes to the Spaniard what each nation will suffer if it doesn't recognize "what's at stake":
"[Chilean President Ricardo] Lagos has to know that the Free Trade Agreement with Chile is pending Senate confirmation, and that a negative attitude on this issue could jeopardize that ratification. Angola is receiving funds from the Millennium Account that could also be compromised if they don't show a positive attitude. And Putin must know that his attitude is jeopardizing the relations of Russia and the United States."

What is striking about this passage is not only how crude and clumsy it is, with the President of the United States spouting threats like a movie gangster -- he presumably wants the Spaniard to convey them directly to the various leaders -- but how ineffective the bluster turned out to be. None of these countries changed their position on a second resolution, which, in the event, was never brought before the Security Council to what would have been certain defeat. Bush, in making the threats, did the one thing an effective leader is supposed always to avoid: he issued an order that was not obeyed, thus demonstrating the limits of his power. (The Iraq war itself, meant as it was to "shock and awe" the world and particularly U.S. adversaries, did much the same thing.)

Along with bluster comes stern self-righteousness. Aznar asks whether "there's a possibility of Saddam Hussein going into exile" -- "the biggest success," he tells the President, "would be to win the game without firing a single shot" -- and Bush answers that there is: the Egyptians
"say he's indicated that he's willing to go into exile if they let him take $1 billion and all the information that he wants about the weapons of mass destruction."

And would such exile, asks Aznar, come with a "guarantee" (presumably against prosecution or extradition)? "No guarantee," declares Bush. "He's a thief, a terrorist, a war criminal. Compared to Saddam, Milosevic would be a Mother Teresa." Though it's hard to evaluate whether Saddam was really willing to leave Iraq -- the Egyptians, Saudis, and others who were then touting the possibility all had an interest in seeing Saddam leave and the Sunni power structure remain in place -- it is inconceivable that he would do so without some sort of guarantee, a possibility Bush forecloses.

What is most interesting in this passage, and indeed in the entire transcript, is what it reveals about Bush's attitudes and character. One moment he blusters and threatens, the next he speaks reverently and self-righteously about how he is guided by "a historic sense of responsibility":
"When some years from now History judges us, I don't want people to ask themselves why Bush, or Aznar, or Blair didn't face their responsibilities. In the end, what people want is to enjoy freedom. Not long ago, in Romania, I was reminded of the example of Ceausescu: it took just one woman to call him a liar for the whole repressive system to come down. That's the unstoppable power of freedom. I am convinced that I'll get that resolution."

He did not get it, of course. Despite his strong conviction, neither Chile nor Angola nor Russia proved ready to change their votes, threat or no threat. There is a difference between being sure and being right. Bush's conviction, here as elsewhere, came not from an independent analysis of the facts -- of the interests and intentions of the nations involved -- but from the wellspring of faith. He has confused rhetoric, however uplifting, and reality. Aznar, the sophisticated European, comments wryly on this. It is the most Jamesian moment in the playlet of Crawford; one can almost see the subtly arched eyebrow:
"Aznar: The only thing that worries me about you is your optimism.

Bush: I am an optimist, because I believe that I'm right. I'm at peace with myself. It's up to us to face a serious threat to peace."

It is worrying, as Aznar remarks, to rely on optimism grounded only in belief. The Spaniard knows that gaining that second Security Council resolution, and thus the critical international legitimacy for the war, will be very hard; in many nations, launching a war against Iraq, particularly before the UN inspectors have finished their work, is deeply unpopular. Faith cannot replace facts, nor can a historic sense of mission. Both may be personally comforting -- they plainly are to George W. Bush -- but they don't obviate the need to know things.

Bush came to office a man who knew little of the world, who had hardly traveled outside the country, who knew nothing of the practice of foreign policy and diplomacy. Two years later, after the attacks of September 11 and his emergence as a self-described "war president," he has come to know only that this lack of knowledge is not a handicap but perhaps even a strength: that he doesn't need to know things in order to believe that he's right and to be at peace with himself. He has redefined his weakness -- his lack of knowledge and experience -- as his singular strength. He believes he's right. It is a matter of generations and destiny and freedom: it is "up to us to face a serious threat to peace." For Bush, faith, conviction, and a felt sense of destiny -- not facts or knowledge -- are the real necessities of leadership.

So Bush is confident -- confident about winning the second resolution and thus international legitimacy; confident, because "we're developing a very strong humanitarian aid package," that "there's a good basis for a better future" in a "post-Saddam Iraq." In fact, of course, at the very moment he is telling these things to the Spanish prime minister in Crawford, Texas, the postwar planning in Washington is a shambles, consisting of little more than confusion and savage internecine warfare between the Defense and State Departments.

The plan for governance in "post-Saddam Iraq" does not exist, all discussion of it having been paralyzed by a bitter dispute between officials in the Pentagon, State Department, and CIA that the President will never resolve. The Iraqi "civil society" that he tells Aznar is "relatively strong" will soon be decimated by the prolonged looting and chaos that follows on the entry of American troops into Baghdad. The "good bureaucracy" he boasts about in Iraq will shortly be destroyed by a radical de-Baathification ordered by the American proconsul that he almost certainly never approved. The Iraqi army that he decides in early March will be retained and used for reconstruction will instead be peremptorily dissolved, to catastrophic effect.

If these radical departures from the President's chosen plan have dampened his optimism and faith -- or indeed have even led him to try to discover what happened -- there is no evidence of it. When Bush's latest biographer, Robert Draper, asked him why the Iraqi army had not been kept intact, as the President had decided it should be, Bush replied, "Yeah, I can't remember. I'm sure I said, 'This is the policy, what happened?'"3

"This is the policy, what happened?" As a subtitle for a history of the Iraq war, one could certainly do worse. Prime Minister Aznar is gone now, having been fatally weakened by his support for the Iraq war and the failure to obtain United Nations support for it; almost exactly a year after the war began, jihadists targeted the Madrid train station, killing nearly two hundred Spaniards and sending the prime minister to electoral defeat. Tony Blair, the star of the Downing Street Memo, is gone as well, his popularity having never recovered from his staunch support of the war. George W. Bush, on the other hand, nearly five years after he launched the war, remains confident of victory, just as he was confident he would win that second UN resolution. There is no sign that his confidence is any more firmly rooted in reality now than it was then. Instead of reality we have faith -- in himself, in the deity, in "the unstoppable power of human freedom." He stands as lead actor in his own narrative of history, a story that grows steadily paler and more contested, animated solely by the authority of official power. George W. Bush remains, we are told, "at peace with himself."


1. Dearlove's consultations had taken place on July 20, 2002, in Washington and at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and he reported to a meeting of the British "war cabinet" at Ten Downing Street three days later. See Mark Danner, The Secret Way to War: The Downing Street Memo and the Iraq War's Buried History (New York Review Books, 2006), pp. 6-7 and pp. 88-89.

2. And not just for George Bush. The mystique of leadership -- of faith over facts -- pulled others along in its wake. Condoleezza Rice, for example, makes a curious appearance in the discussion, assuring the President and the Spanish prime minister that she has "the impression" that Hans Blix, whose report is due the following week, "will now be more negative than before about the Iraqis' intentions." In fact, quite the opposite: Blix will tell the Security Council that "the key remaining disarmament tasks" can be achieved not in "years, nor weeks, but months." Here is what Blix told the Security Council on March 7, 2003:
"How much time would it take to resolve the key remaining disarmament tasks? While cooperation can and is to be immediate, disarmament and at any rate the verification of it cannot be instant. Even with a proactive Iraqi attitude, induced by continued outside pressure, it would still take some time to verify sites and items, analyse documents, interview relevant persons, and draw conclusions. It would not take years, nor weeks, but months. Neither governments nor inspectors would want disarmament inspection to go on forever. However, it must be remembered that in accordance with the governing resolutions, a sustained inspection and monitoring system is to remain in place after verified disarmament to give confidence and to strike an alarm, if signs were seen of the revival of any proscribed weapons programmes."
Blix's conclusions were not only not "more negative than before about the Iraqis' intentions"; he suggests that inspections of all the suspect sites could be completed in a matter of months. President Bush, needless to say, is not willing to wait for months, or even for weeks, for the additional inspections to be completed. What would have happened if he had been? On the one hand, the administration's willingness to delay might have secured a deal whereby additional countries would have supported "all means necessary" to deal with Saddam. On the other, the inspectors, given more time, would have discovered no weapons, likely leading the administration to argue that the inspections themselves were useless -- not that the weapons didn't exist. But the momentum for war would have been blunted.

3. According to the New York Times account of this exchange:
"Mr. Bush acknowledged one major failing of the early occupation of Iraq when he said of disbanding the Saddam Hussein -- era military, 'The policy was to keep the army intact; didn't happen.'

"But when Mr. Draper pointed out that Mr. Bush's former Iraq administrator, L. Paul Bremer III, had gone ahead and forced the army's dissolution and then asked Mr. Bush how he reacted to that, Mr. Bush said, 'Yeah, I can't remember, I'm sure I said, "This is the policy, what happened?"' But, he added, 'Again, Hadley's got notes on all of this stuff,' referring to Stephen J. Hadley, his national security adviser."
See Jim Rutenberg, "In Book, Bush Peeks Ahead to His Legacy,"The New York Times, September 2, 2007, and Robert Draper, Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush (Free Press, 2007), p. 211.

Mark Danner, who has written about foreign affairs and politics for two decades, is the author of The Secret Way to War, Torture and Truth, and The Massacre at El Mozote, among other books. He is Professor of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley and the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs, Politics, and the Humanities at Bard College. His writing on Iraq and other subjects appears regularly in the New York Review of Books. His work is archived at

Can We Prevent an Iran Attack?

This essay appeared previously on TomDispatch; it features an introduction by editor Tom Englehardt.

Be careful what you wish for -- that might be the catch phrase for American relations with Iran since the CIA helped overthrow the elected government of that country in 1953 and installed the young Shah in power. Much of our present world -- and many of our present problems in the Middle East and Central Asia -- stem from that particular act of imperial hubris. The Shah's Iran was then regarded by successive American administrations not just as a potential regional power, but as our regional bulwark, our imperial outpost. The U.S. helped bulk up the Shah's military, as well as his fearsome secret police, and, under President Dwight Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace program, actually started Iran down the nuclear road which today leaves some administration figures threatening bloody murder, even while former Centcom commander John Abizaid claims that an Iranian bomb would not be the end of the universe. ("There are ways to live with a nuclear Iran… Let's face it, we lived with a nuclear Soviet Union, we've lived with a nuclear China, and we're living with [other] nuclear powers as well.")

The White House has reportedly given secret approval for covert operations to "destabilize" Iran and, evidently, its backing to small-scale terror strikes inside that country, while Iranian influence inside Shiite Iraq remains (as it has long been) significant. Meanwhile, a war of words (and charges) only escalates. President Bush heightened the anti-Iranian rhetoric in his September 13th post-Petraeus-hearings address, while an escalating campaign of charges against the activities of Iran and its Revolutionary Guards in Iraq continues to intensify, just as reports are coming out that the Pentagon is building a new base in Iraq, right up against the Iranian border. The Iranian nuclear situation remains at a boil.

There are also regular, if shadowy, reports that Vice President Cheney's office is pushing hard for a shock-and-awe air campaign against Iran. Recently (and not for the first time), the Iranians shot back: General Mohammed Hassan Koussechi, a senior Revolutionary Guard commander, threatened to respond to any American action in his country by firing off missiles with a range of at least 1,200 miles against American and Western targets across the Middle East including, presumably, the enormous military bases the Pentagon has scattered across Iraq. ("Today the Americans are around our country but this does not mean that they are encircling us. They are encircled themselves and are within our range.")

While U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups slip in and out of the Persian Gulf, a murky Israeli air attack on a site in the Syrian desert, combined with a bizarre and unlikely nuclear tale involving the North Koreans, has added a further touch of paranoia to the situation. (According to the Israeli paper Haaretz, ex-United Nations Ambassador John Bolton has claimed that the Israeli bombing should be taken as "a clear message to Iran…. that its continued efforts to acquire nuclear weapons are not going to go unanswered.")

The President has indicated, more than once, that he would not hand the Iranian nuclear situation over to his successor unresolved (unlike the war in Iraq). Even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a man who knows well the dangers a U.S. attack on Iran poses, continues to claim that "all options are on the table" when it comes to the Iranians. So consider the Iranian-American relationship, splayed on the "table" of Iraq, to be the potential crucible of disaster for the planet between now and January 2009. Former ambassador Peter Galbraith, author of The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End, considers that essential relationship in the upcoming issue of the New York Review of Books in an essay that the magazine's editors have been kind enough to let Tomdispatch post. Think of it as an action-packed, information-filled, essential primer for the months to come. Tom

The Victor?

By Peter Galbraith

[This essay appears in the October 11, 2007 issue of the New York Review of Books and is posted here with the kind permission of the editors of that magazine.]


In his continuing effort to bolster support for the Iraq war, President Bush traveled to Reno, Nevada, on August 28 to speak to the annual convention of the American Legion. He emphatically warned of the Iranian threat should the United States withdraw from Iraq. Said the President, "For all those who ask whether the fight in Iraq is worth it, imagine an Iraq where militia groups backed by Iran control large parts of the country."

On the same day, in the southern Iraqi city of Karbala, the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, battled government security forces around the shrine of Imam Hussein, one of Shiite Islam's holiest places. A million pilgrims were in the city and fifty-one died.

The U.S. did not directly intervene, but American jets flew overhead in support of the government security forces. As elsewhere in the south, those Iraqi forces are dominated by the Badr Organization, a militia founded, trained, armed, and financed by Iran. When U.S. forces ousted Saddam's regime from the south in early April 2003, the Badr Organization infiltrated from Iran to fill the void left by the Bush administration's failure to plan for security and governance in post-invasion Iraq.

In the months that followed, the U.S.-run Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) appointed Badr Organization leaders to key positions in Iraq's American-created army and police. At the same time, L. Paul Bremer's CPA appointed party officials from the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) to be governors and serve on governorate councils throughout southern Iraq. SCIRI, recently renamed the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), was founded at the Ayatollah Khomeini's direction in Tehran in 1982. The Badr Organization is the militia associated with SCIRI.

In the January 2005 elections, SCIRI became the most important component of Iraq's ruling Shiite coalition. In exchange for not taking the prime minister's slot, SCIRI won the right to name key ministers, including the minister of the interior. From that ministry, SCIRI placed Badr militiamen throughout Iraq's national police.

In short, George W. Bush had from the first facilitated the very event he warned would be a disastrous consequence of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq: the takeover of a large part of the country by an Iranian-backed militia. And while the President contrasts the promise of democracy in Iraq with the tyranny in Iran, there is now substantially more personal freedom in Iran than in southern Iraq.

Iran's role in Iraq is pervasive, but also subtle. When Iraq drafted its permanent constitution in 2005, the American ambassador energetically engaged in all parts of the process. But behind the scenes, the Iranian ambassador intervened to block provisions that Tehran did not like. As it happened, both the Americans and the Iranians wanted to strengthen Iraq's central government. While the Bush administration clung to the mirage of a single Iraqi people, Tehran worked to give its proxies, the pro-Iranian Iraqis it supported -- by then established as the government of Iraq -- as much power as possible. (Thanks to Kurdish obstinacy, neither the U.S. nor Iran succeeded in its goal, but even now both the US and Iran want to see the central government strengthened.)

Since 2005, Iraq's Shiite-led government has concluded numerous economic, political, and military agreements with Iran. The most important would link the two countries' strategic oil reserves by building a pipeline from southern Iraq to Iran, while another commits Iran to providing extensive military assistance to the Iraqi government. According to a senior official in Iraq's Oil Ministry, smugglers divert at least 150,000 barrels of Iraq's daily oil exports through Iran, a figure that approaches 10 percent of Iraq's production. Iran has yet to provide the military support it promised to the Iraqi army. With the U.S. supplying 160,000 troops and hundreds of billions of dollars to support a pro-Iranian Iraqi government, Iran has no reason to invest its own resources.

Of all the unintended consequences of the Iraq war, Iran's strategic victory is the most far-reaching. In establishing the border between the Ottoman Empire and the Persian Empire in 1639, the Treaty of Qasr-i-Shirin demarcated the boundary between Sunni-ruled lands and Shiite-ruled lands. For eight years of brutal warfare in the 1980s, Iran tried to breach that line but could not. (At the time, the Reagan administration supported Saddam Hussein precisely because it feared the strategic consequences of an Iraq dominated by Iran's allies.) The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq accomplished what Khomeini's army could not. Today, the Shiite-controlled lands extend to the borders of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Bahrain, a Persian Gulf kingdom with a Shiite majority and a Sunni monarch, is most affected by these developments; but so is Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, which is home to most of the kingdom's Shiites. (They may even be a majority in the province but this is unknown as Saudi Arabia has not dared to conduct a census.) The U.S. Navy has its most important Persian Gulf base in Bahrain while most of Saudi Arabia's oil is under the Eastern Province.

America's Iraq quagmire has given new life to Iran's Syrian ally, Bashir Assad. In 2003, the Syrian Baathist regime seemed an anachronism unable to survive the region's political and economic changes. Today, Assad appears firmly in control, having even recovered from the opprobrium of having his regime caught red-handed in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. In Lebanon, Hezbollah enjoys greatly enhanced stature for having held off the Israelis in the 2006 war. As Hezbollah's sponsor and source of arms, Iran now has an influence both in the Levant and in the Arab-Israeli conflict that it never before had.

The scale of the American miscalculation is striking. Before the Iraq war began, its neoconservative architects argued that conferring power on Iraq's Shiites would serve to undermine Iran because Iraq's Shiites, controlling the faith's two holiest cities, would, in the words of then Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, be "an independent source of authority for the Shia religion emerging in a country that is democratic and pro-Western." Further, they argued, Iran could never dominate Iraq, because the Iraqi Shiites are Arabs and the Iranian Shiites Persian. It was a theory that, unfortunately, had no connection to reality.

Iran's bond with the Iraqi Shiites goes far beyond the support Iran gave Shiite leaders in their struggle with Saddam Hussein. Decades of oppression have made their religious identity more important to Iraqi Shiites than their Arab ethnic identity. (Also, many Iraqi Shiites have Turcoman, Persian, or Kurdish ancestors.) While Sunnis identify with the Arab world, Iraqi Shiites identify with the Shiite world, and for many this means Iran.

There is also the legacy of February 15, 1991, when President George H.W. Bush called on the Iraqi people to rise up against Saddam Hussein. Two weeks later, the Shiites in southern Iraq did just that. When Saddam's Republican Guards moved south to crush the rebellion, President Bush went fishing and no help was given. Only Iran showed sympathy. Hundreds of thousands died and no Iraqi Shiite I know thinks this failure of US support was anything but intentional. In assessing the loyalty of the Iraqi Shiites before the war, the war's architects often stressed how Iraqi Shiite conscripts fought loyally for Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War. They never mentioned the 1991 betrayal. This was understandable: at the end of the 1991 war, Wolfowitz was the number-three man at the Pentagon, Dick Cheney was the defense secretary, and, of course, Bush's father was the president.

Iran and its Iraqi allies control, respectively, the Middle East's third- and second-largest oil reserves. Iran's influence now extends to the borders of the Saudi province that holds the world's largest oil reserves. President Bush has responded to these strategic changes wrought by his own policies by strongly supporting a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad and by arming and training the most pro-Iranian elements in the Iraqi military and police.


Beginning with his 2002 State of the Union speech, President Bush has articulated two main U.S. goals for Iran: (1) the replacement of Iran's theocratic regime with a liberal democracy, and (2) preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Since events in Iraq took a bad turn, he has added a third objective: gaining Iranian cooperation in Iraq.

The administration's track record is not impressive. The prospects for liberal democracy in Iran took a severe blow when reform-minded President Mohammad Khatami was replaced by the hard-line -- and somewhat erratic -- Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in August 2005. (Khatami had won two landslide elections which were a vote to soften the ruling theocracy; he was then prevented by the conservative clerics from accomplishing much.) At the time President Bush first proclaimed his intention to keep nuclear weapons out of Iranian hands, Iran had no means of making fissile material. Since then, however, Iran has defied the IAEA and the UN Security Council to assemble and use the centrifuges needed to enrich uranium. In Iraq, the administration accuses Iran of supplying particularly potent roadside bombs to Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents.

To coerce Iran into ceasing its uranium enrichment program, the Bush administration has relied on UN sanctions, the efforts of a European negotiating team, and stern presidential warnings. The mismanaged Iraq war has undercut all these efforts. After seeing the U.S. go to the United Nations with allegedly irrefutable evidence that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons and had a covert nuclear program, foreign governments and publics are understandably skeptical about the veracity of Bush administration statements on Iran. The Iraq experience makes many countries reluctant to support meaningful sanctions not only because they doubt administration statements but because they are afraid President Bush will interpret any Security Council resolution condemning Iran as an authorization for war.

With so much of the U.S. military tied up in Iraq, the Iranians do not believe the U.S. has the resources to attack them and then deal with the consequences. They know that a U.S. attack on Iran would have little support in the U.S. -- it is doubtful that Congress would authorize it -- and none internationally. Not even the British would go along with a military strike on Iran. President Bush's warnings count for little with Tehran because he now has a long record of tough language unmatched by action. As long as the Iranians believe the United States has no military option, they have limited incentives to reach an agreement, especially with the Europeans.

The administration's efforts to change Iran's regime have been feeble or feckless. President Bush's freedom rhetoric is supported by Radio Farda, a U.S.-sponsored Persian language radio station, and a $75 million appropriation to finance Iranian opposition activities including satellite broadcasts by Los Angeles-based exiles. If only regime change was so easily accomplished!

The identity of Iranian recipients of U.S. funding is secret but the administration's neoconservative allies have loudly promoted U.S. military and financial support for Iranian opposition groups as diverse as the son of the late Shah, Iranian Kurdish separatists, and the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), which is on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations. Some of the Los Angeles exiles now being funded are associated with the son of the Shah but it is unlikely that either the MEK or the Kurdish separatists would receive any of the $75 million. U.S. secrecy -- and that the administration treats the MEK differently from other terrorist organizations -- has roused Iranian suspicions that the U.S. is supporting these groups either through the democracy program or a separate covert action.

None of these groups is a plausible agent for regime change. The Shah's son represents a discredited monarchy and corrupt family. Iranian Kurdistan is seething with discontent, and Iranian security forces have suppressed large anti-regime demonstrations there. Kurdish nationalism on the margins of Iran, however, does not weaken the Iranian regime at the center. (While the U.S. State Department has placed the PKK -- a Kurdish rebel movement in Turkey -- on its list of terrorist organizations, Pejak, the PKK's Iranian branch, is not on the list and its leaders even visit the U.S.)

The Mujahideen-e-Khalq is one of the oldest -- and nastiest -- of the Iranian opposition groups. After originally supporting the Iranian revolution, the MEK broke with Khomeini and relocated to Iraq in the early stages of the Iran-Iraq War. It was so closely connected to Saddam that MEK fighters not only assisted the Iraqis in the Iran-Iraq War but also helped Saddam put down the 1991 Kurdish uprising. While claiming to be democratic and pro-Western, the MEK closely resembles a cult. In April 2003, when I visited Camp Ashraf, its main base northeast of Baghdad, I found robotlike hero worship of the MEK's leaders, Massoud and Maryam Rajavi; the fighters I met parroted a revolutionary party line, and there were transparently crude efforts at propaganda. To emphasize its being a modern organization as distinct from the Tehran theocrats, the MEK appointed a woman as Camp Ashraf's nominal commander and maintained a women's tank battalion. The commander was clearly not in command and the women mechanics supposedly working on tank engines all had spotless uniforms.

Both the U.S. State Department and Iran view the MEK as a terrorist group. The U.S. government, however, does not always act as if the MEK were one. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the U.S. military dropped a single bomb on Camp Ashraf. It struck the women's barracks at a time of day when the soldiers were not there. When I visited two weeks later with an ABC camera crew, we filmed the MEK bringing a scavenged Iraqi tank into their base. U.S. forces drove in and out of Camp Ashraf, making no effort to detain the supposed terrorists or to stop them from collecting Iraqi heavy weapons. Since Iran had its agents in Iraq from the time Saddam fell (and may have been doing its own scavenging of weapons), one can presume that this behavior did not go unnoticed. Subsequently, the US military did disarm the MEK, but in spite of hostility from both the Shiites and Kurds who now jointly dominate Iraq's government, its fighters are still at Camp Ashraf. Rightly or wrongly, many Iranians conclude from this that the U.S. is supporting a terrorist organization that is fomenting violence inside Iran.

In fact, halting Iran's nuclear program and changing its regime are incompatible objectives. Iran is highly unlikely to agree to a negotiated solution with the U.S. (or the Europeans) while the U.S. is trying to overthrow its government. Air strikes may destroy Iran's nuclear facilities but they will rally popular support for the regime and give it a further pretext to crack down on the opposition.

From the perspective of U.S. national security strategy, the choice should be easy. Iran's most prominent democrats have stated publicly that they do not want US support. In a recent open letter to be sent to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji criticizes both the Iranian regime and U.S. hypocrisy. "Far from helping the development of democracy," he writes, "U.S. policy over the past 50 years has consistently been to the detriment of the proponents of freedom and democracy in Iran…. The Bush Administration, for its part, by approving a fund for democracy assistance in Iran, which is in fact being largely spent on official institutions and media affiliated with the U.S. government, has made it easy for the Iranian regime to describe its opponents as mercenaries of the U.S. and to crush them with impunity."

Even though they can't accomplish it, the Bush administration leaders have been unwilling to abandon regime change as a goal. Its advocates compare their efforts to the support the U.S. gave democrats behind the Iron Curtain over many decades. But there is a crucial difference. The Soviet and East European dissidents wanted U.S. support, which was sometimes personally costly but politically welcome. But this is immaterial to administration ideologues. They are, to borrow Jeane Kirkpatrick's phrase, deeply committed to policies that feel good rather than do good. If Congress wants to help the Iranian opposition, it should cut off funding for Iranian democracy programs.

Right now, the U.S. is in the worst possible position. It is identified with the most discredited part of the Iranian opposition and unwanted by the reformers who have the most appeal to Iranians. Many Iranians believe that the U.S. is fomenting violence inside their country, and this becomes a pretext for attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq. And for its pains, the U.S. accomplishes nothing.


For eighteen years, Iran had a secret program aimed at acquiring the technology that could make nuclear weapons. A.Q. Khan, the supposedly rogue head of Pakistan's nuclear program, provided centrifuges to enrich uranium and bomb designs. When the Khan network was exposed, Iran declared in October 2003 its enrichment program to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), provided an accounting (perhaps not complete) of its nuclear activities, and agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment. Following the election of Ahmadinejad as president in 2005, Iran announced it would resume its uranium enrichment activities. During the last two years, it has assembled cascades of centrifuges and apparently enriched a small amount of uranium to the 5 percent level required for certain types of nuclear power reactors (weapons require 80 to 90 percent enrichment but this is not technically very difficult once the initial enrichment processes are mastered).

The United States has two options for dealing with Iran's nuclear facilities: military strikes to destroy them or negotiations to neutralize them. The first is risky and the second may not produce results. So far, the Bush administration has not pursued either option, preferring UN sanctions (which, so far, have been more symbolic than punitive) and relying on Europeans to take the lead in negotiations. But neither sanctions nor the European initiative is likely to work. As long as Iran's primary concern is the United States, it is unlikely to settle for a deal that involves only Europe.

Sustained air strikes probably could halt Iran's nuclear program. While some Iranian facilities may be hidden and others protected deep underground, the locations of major facilities are known. Even if it is not possible to destroy all the facilities, Iran's scientists, engineers, and construction crews are unlikely to show up for work at places that are subject to ongoing bombing.

But the risks from air strikes are great. Many of the potential targets are in populated places, endangering civilians both from errant bombs and the possible dispersal of radioactive material. The rest of the world would condemn the attacks and there would likely be a virulent anti-U.S. reaction in the Islamic world. In retaliation, Iran could wreak havoc on the world economy (and its own) by withholding oil from the global market and by military action to close the Persian Gulf shipping lanes.

The main risk to the U.S. comes in Iraq. Faced with choosing between the U.S. and Iran, Iraq's government may not choose its liberator. And even if the Iraqi government did not openly cooperate with the Iranians, pro-Iranian elements in the U.S.-armed military and police almost certainly would facilitate attacks on U.S. troops by pro-Iranian Iraqi militia or by Iranian forces infiltrated across Iraq's porous border. A few days after Bush's August 28 speech, Iranian General Rahim Yahya Safavi underscored Iran's ability to retaliate, saying of U.S. troops in the region: "We have accurately identified all their camps." Unless he chooses to act with reckless disregard for the safety of U.S. troops in Iraq, President Bush has effectively denied himself a military option for dealing with the Iranian nuclear program.

A diplomatic solution to the crisis created by Iran's nuclear program is clearly preferable, but not necessarily achievable. Broadly speaking, states want nuclear weapons for two reasons: security and prestige. Under the Shah, Iran had a nuclear program but Khomeini disbanded it after the revolution on the grounds that nuclear weapons were un-Islamic. When the program resumed covertly in the mid-1980s, Iran's primary security concern was Iraq. At that time, Iraq had its own covert nuclear program; more immediately, it had threatened Iran with chemical weapons attacks on its cities. An Iranian nuclear weapon could serve as a deterrent to both Iraqi chemical and nuclear weapons.

With Iraq's defeat in the first Gulf War, the Iraqi threat greatly diminished. And of course it vanished after Iran's allies took power in Baghdad after the 2003 invasion. Today, Iran sees the United States as the main threat to its security. American military forces surround Iran -- in Afghanistan, Iraq, Central Asia, and on the Persian Gulf. President Bush and his top aides repeatedly express solidarity with the Iranian people against their government while the U.S. finances programs aimed at the government's ouster. The American and international press are full of speculation that Vice President Cheney wants Bush to attack Iran before his term ends. From an Iranian perspective, all this smoke could indicate a fire.

In 2003, as Trita Parsi's Treacherous Alliance shows, there was enough common ground for a deal. In May 2003, the Iranian authorities sent a proposal through the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, Tim Guldimann, for negotiations on a package deal in which Iran would freeze its nuclear program in exchange for an end to U.S. hostility. The Iranian paper offered "full transparency for security that there are no Iranian endeavors to develop or possess WMD [and] full cooperation with the IAEA based on Iranian adoption of all relevant instruments." The Iranians also offered support for "the establishment of democratic institutions and a non-religious government" in Iraq; full cooperation against terrorists (including "above all, al-Qaeda"); and an end to material support to Palestinian groups like Hamas. In return, the Iranians asked that their country not be on the terrorism list or designated part of the "axis of evil"; that all sanctions end; that the US support Iran's claims for reparations for the Iran-Iraq War as part of the overall settlement of the Iraqi debt; that they have access to peaceful nuclear technology; and that the US pursue anti-Iranian terrorists, including "above all" the MEK. MEK members should, the Iranians said, be repatriated to Iran.

Basking in the glory of "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq, the Bush administration dismissed the Iranian offer and criticized Guldimann for even presenting it. Several years later, the Bush administration's abrupt rejection of the Iranian offer began to look blatantly foolish and the administration moved to suppress the story. Flynt Leverett, who had handled Iran in 2003 for the National Security Council, tried to write about it in The New York Times and found his Op-Ed crudely censored by the NSC, which had to clear it. Guldimann, however, had given the Iranian paper to Ohio Republican Congressman Bob Ney, now remembered both for renaming House cafeteria food and for larceny. (As chairman of the House Administration Committee he renamed French fries "freedom fries" and is now in federal prison for bribery.) I was surprised to learn that Ney had a serious side. He had lived in Iran before the revolution, spoke Farsi, and wanted better relations between the two countries. Trita Parsi, Ney's staffer in 2003, describes in detail the Iranian offer and the Bush administration's high-handed rejection of it in his wonderfully informative account of the triangular relationship among the U.S., Iran, and Israel, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States.

Four years later, Iran holds a much stronger hand while the mismanagement of the Iraq occupation has made the U.S. position incomparably weaker. While the 2003 proposal could not have been presented without support from the clerics who really run Iran, Iran's current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has made uranium enrichment the centerpiece of his administration and the embodiment of Iranian nationalism. Even though Ahmadinejad does not make decisions about Iran's nuclear program (and his finger would never be on the button if Iran had a bomb), he has made it politically very difficult for the clerics to come back to the 2003 paper.

Nonetheless, the 2003 Iranian paper could provide a starting point for a U.S.-Iran deal. In recent years, various ideas have emerged that could accommodate both Iran's insistence on its right to nuclear technology and the international community's desire for iron-clad assurances that Iran will not divert the technology into weapons. These include a Russian proposal that Iran enrich uranium on Russian territory and also an idea floated by U.S. and Iranian experts to have a European consortium conduct the enrichment in Iran under international supervision. Iran rejected the Russian proposal, but if hostility between Iran and the U.S. were to be reduced, it might be revived. (The consortium idea has no official standing at this point.) While there are good reasons to doubt Iranian statements that its program is entirely peaceful, Iran remains a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its leaders, including Ahmadinejad, insist it has no intention of developing nuclear weapons. As long as this is the case, Iran could make a deal to limit its nuclear program without losing face.

From the inception of Iran's nuclear program under the Shah, prestige and the desire for recognition have been motivating factors. Iranians want the world, and especially the U.S., to see Iran as they do themselves -- as a populous, powerful, and responsible country that is heir to a great empire and home to a 2,500-year-old civilization. In Iranian eyes, the U.S. has behaved in a way that continually diminishes their country. Many Iranians still seethe over the U.S. involvement in the 1953 coup that overthrew the government of democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and reinstated the Shah. Being designated a terrorist state and part of an "axis of evil" grates on the Iranians in the same way. In some ways, the 1979-1981 hostage crisis and Iran's nuclear program were different strategies to compel U.S. respect for Iran. A diplomatic overture toward Iran might include ways to show respect for Iranian civilization (which is different from approval of its leaders) and could include an open apology for the U.S. role in the 1953 coup, which, as it turned out, was a horrible mistake for U.S. interests.

While President Bush insists that time is not on America's side, the process of negotiation -- and even an interim agreement -- might provide time for more moderate Iranians to assert themselves. So far as Iran's security is concerned, possession of nuclear weapons is more a liability than an asset. Iran's size -- and the certainty of strong resistance -- is sufficient deterrent to any U.S. invasion, which, even at the height of the administration's post-Saddam euphoria, was never seriously considered. Developing nuclear weapons would provide Iran with no additional deterrent to a U.S. invasion but could invite an attack.

Should al-Qaeda or another terrorist organization succeed in detonating a nuclear weapon in a U.S. city, any U.S. president will look to the country that supplied the weapon as a place to retaliate. If the origin of the bomb were unknown, a nuclear Iran -- a designated state sponsor of terrorism -- would find itself a likely target, even though it is extremely unlikely to supply such a weapon to al-Qaeda, a Sunni fundamentalist organization. With its allies now largely running the government in Baghdad, Iran does not need a nuclear weapon to deter a hostile Iraq. An Iranian bomb, however, likely would cause Saudi Arabia to acquire nuclear weapons, thus canceling Iran's considerable manpower advantage over its Gulf rival. More pragmatic leaders, such as former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, may understand this. Rafsanjani, who lost the 2005 presidential elections to Ahmadinejad, is making a comeback, defeating a hard-liner to become chairman of Iran's Assembly of Experts for the Leadership (Majles-e Khobrgran Rahbari), which appoints and can dismiss the Supreme Leader.

At this stage, neither the U.S. nor Iran seems willing to talk directly about bilateral issues apart from Iraq. Even if the two sides did talk, there is no guarantee that an agreement could be reached. And if an agreement were reached, it would certainly be short of what the US might want. But the test of a U.S.-Iran negotiation is not how it measures up against an ideal arrangement but how it measures up against the alternatives of bombing or doing nothing.


U.S. pre-war intelligence on Iraq was horrifically wrong on the key question of Iraq's possession of WMDs, and President Bush ignored the intelligence to assert falsely a connection between Saddam Hussein and September 11. This alone is sufficient reason to be skeptical of the Bush administration's statements on Iran.

Some of the administration's charges against Iran defy common sense. In his Reno speech, President Bush accused Iran of arming the Taliban in Afghanistan while his administration has, at various times, accused Iran of giving weapons to both Sunni and Shiite insurgents in Iraq. The Taliban are Salafi jihadis, Sunni fundamentalists who consider Shiites apostates deserving of death. In power, the Taliban brutally repressed Afghanistan's Shiites and nearly provoked a war with Iran when they murdered Iranian diplomats inside the Iranian consulate in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Iraq's Sunni insurgents are either Salafi jihadis or Baathists, the political party that started the Iran-Iraq War.

The Iranian regime may believe it has a strategic interest in keeping U.S. forces tied down in the Iraqi quagmire since this, in the Iranian view, makes an attack on Iran unlikely. U.S. clashes with the Mahdi Army complicate the American military effort in Iraq and it is plausible that Iran might provide some weapons -- including armor-penetrating IEDs -- to the Mahdi Army and its splinter factions. Overall, however, Iran has no interest in the success of the Mahdi Army. Moqtada al-Sadr has made Iraqi nationalism his political platform. He has attacked the SIIC for its pro-Iranian leanings and challenged Iraq's most important religious figure, Ayatollah Sistani, himself an Iranian citizen. Asked about charges that Iran was organizing Iraqi insurgents, Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi told the Financial Times on May 10, "The whole idea is unreasonable. Why should we do that? Why should we undermine a government in Iraq that we support more than anybody else?"

The United States cannot now undo President Bush's strategic gift to Iran. But importantly, the most pro-Iranian Shiite political party is the one least hostile to the United States. In the battle now underway between the SIIC and Moqtada al-Sadr for control of southern Iraq and of the central government in Baghdad, the United States and Iran are on the same side. The U.S. has good reason to worry about Iran's activities in Iraq. But contrary to the Bush administration's allegations -- supported by both General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker in their recent congressional testimony -- Iran does not oppose Iraq's new political order. In fact, Iran is the major beneficiary of the American-induced changes in Iraq since 2003.

[Note: This essay reviews Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States by Trita Parsi (Yale University Press, 361 pp., $28.00)]

Peter W. Galbraith, a former US Ambassador to Croatia, is Senior Diplomatic Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and a principal at the Windham Resources Group, a firm that negotiates on behalf of its clients in post-conflict societies, including Iraq. His The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End is now out in paperback.

This article appears in the October 11, 2007 issue of the New York Review of Books.

Copyright 2007 Peter Galbraith

How Lost the War Is

[This essay appears in the August 16th, 2007 issue of the New York Review of Books and is posted here with the kind permission of the editors of that magazine.]


On May 30, the Coalition held a ceremony in the Kurdistan town of Erbil to mark its handover of security in Iraq's three Kurdish provinces from the Coalition to the Iraqi government. General Benjamin Mixon, the U.S. commander for northern Iraq, praised the Iraqi government for overseeing all aspects of the handover. And he drew attention to the "benchmark" now achieved: with the handover, he said, Iraqis now controlled security in seven of Iraq's eighteen provinces.

In fact, nothing was handed over. The only Coalition force in Kurdistan is the peshmerga, a disciplined army that fought alongside the Americans in the 2003 campaign to oust Saddam Hussein and is loyal to the Kurdistan government in Erbil. The peshmerga provided security in the three Kurdish provinces before the handover and after. The Iraqi army has not been on Kurdistan's territory since 1996 and is effectively prohibited from being there. Nor did the Iraqi flag fly at the ceremony. It is banned in Kurdistan.

Although the Erbil handover was a sham that Prince Potemkin might have admired, it was not easily arranged. The Bush administration had wanted the handover to take place before the U.S. congressional elections in November. But it also wanted an Iraqi flag flown at the ceremony and some acknowledgement that Iraq, not Kurdistan, was in charge. The Kurds were prepared to include a reference to Iraq in the ceremony, but they were adamant that there be no Iraqi flags. It took months to work out a compromise ceremony with no flags at all. Thus the ceremony was followed by a military parade without a single flag -- an event so unusual that one observer thought it might merit mention in Ripley's Believe it or Not.

Mowaffak al-Rubaie, the Iraqi national security adviser, attended the ceremony alongside Kurdistan's prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, but the Iraqi government had no part in supervising the nonexistent handover. While General Mixon, a highly regarded strategist with excellent ties to the Kurds, had no choice but to make the remarks he did, Mowaffak al-Rubaie acknowledged Kurdistan's distinct nature and the right of the Kurds -- approximately six million people, or some 20% of Iraq's population -- to chart their own course.

On July 12, the White House released a congressionally mandated report on progress in Iraq. As with the sham handover, the report reflected the administration's desperate search for indicators of progress since it began its "surge" by sending five additional combat brigades to the country in February 2007. In recent months the Bush administration and its advocates have been promoting the success of the surge in reducing sectarian killing in Baghdad and achieving a turnaround in Anbar province, where former Sunni insurgents are signing up with local militias to fight al-Qaeda.

Although reliable statistics about Iraq are notoriously hard to come by it does appear that the overall civilian death toll in Baghdad has declined from its pre-surge peak, although it is still at the extremely high levels of the summer of 2006. Moreover, the number of unidentified bodies -- usually the victims of Shiite death squads -- has risen in May and June to pre-surge levels. How much of the modest decline in civilian deaths in Baghdad is attributable to the surge is not knowable, nor is there any way to know if it will last.

The developments in Anbar are more significant. Tribesmen who had been attacking U.S. troops in support of the insurgency are now taking U.S. weapons to fight al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremists. Unfortunately, the Sunni fundamentalists are not the only enemy of these new U.S.-sponsored militias. The Sunni tribes also regard Iraq's Shiite-led government as an enemy, and the U.S. appears now to be in the business of arming both the Sunni and Shiite factions in what has long since become a civil war.

Against the backdrop of modest progress, much has not changed, or has gotten worse. The Baghdad Green Zone is subject to increasingly accurate mortar attacks and is deemed at greater risk of penetration by suicide bombers. Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric whose Mahdi Army was a major target of Bush's surge strategy, remains one of Iraq's most powerful political figures. The military activity against his forces seems only to have enhanced his standing with the public.

Even if the surge has had some modest military success, it has failed to accomplish its political objectives. The idea behind Bush's new strategy was to increase temporarily the number of U.S. troops in Baghdad and Anbar. The aim was to provide a breathing space so that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government might enact a program of national reconciliation that would accommodate enough Sunnis to isolate the insurgents. Meanwhile, Iraqi forces, improved by their close relations with U.S. troops and additional training, would take over security.

The core of the national reconciliation program is a series of legislative and political steps that the government should take to address the concerns of Iraq's Sunnis, who feel left out of the country they dominated until 2003. These steps include an oil revenue-sharing law (to ensure that the oil-poor Sunni regions get their share of revenue); holding provincial elections (the Sunnis boycotted the January 2005 provincial and parliamentary elections leaving them underrepresented even in Sunni-majority provinces); revising Iraq's constitution (the Sunnis want a more centralized state); revising the ban on public sector employment of former Baathists (Sunnis dominated the upper ranks of the Baath Party and of the Saddam-era public service), and a fair distribution of reconstruction funds. Both the administration and Congress have placed great emphasis on the obligation of the Iraqi government to achieve these so-called benchmarks. Congress has, by law, linked US strategy on Iraq and financial support of the Iraqi government to progress on these benchmarks and other steps.

Iraq's government has not met one of the benchmarks, and, with the exception of the revenue-sharing law, most are unlikely to happen. But even if they were all enacted, it would not help. Provincial elections will make Iraq less governable while the process of constitutional revision could break the country apart.

Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, likes to talk of the disparity between the Iraqi clock and the U.S. clock, suggesting that Iraqis believe they have more time to reach agreement than the American political calendar will tolerate. Crocker is the State Department's foremost Iraq hand but, more generally, American impatience often reflects ignorance. For example, both Congress and the administration have expressed frustration that the ban on public service by ex-Baathists has not been relaxed, since this appears to be a straightforward change, easily accomplished and already promised by Iraq's leaders.

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim leads the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC, previously known as SCIRI), which is Iraq's leading Shiite party and a critical component of Prime Minister al-Maliki's coalition. He is the sole survivor of eight brothers. During Saddam's rule Baathists executed six of them. On August 29, 2003, a suicide bomber, possibly linked to the Baathists, blew up his last surviving brother, and predecessor as SCIRI leader, at the shrine of Ali in Najaf. Moqtada al-Sadr, Hakim's main rival, comes from Iraq's other prominent Shiite religious family. Saddam's Baath regime murdered his father and two brothers in 1999. Earlier, in April 1980, the regime had arrested Moqtada's father-in-law and the father-in-law's sister -- the Grand Ayatollah Baqir al-Sadr and Bint al-Huda. While the ayatollah watched, the Baath security men raped and killed his sister. They then set fire to the ayatollah's beard before driving nails into his head. De-Baathification is an intensely personal issue for Iraq's two most powerful Shiite political leaders, as it is to hundreds of thousands of their followers who suffered similar atrocities.

Iraq's Shiite leaders are reluctant to spend reconstruction money in Sunni areas because they believe, not without reason, that such funds support the Sunni side in the civil war. In a speech in late June on the Senate floor Indiana Republican Richard Lugar reported that Iraq's Shiite-led government has gone "out of its way to bottle up money budgeted for Sunni provinces" and that the "strident intervention" of the U.S. embassy was required in order to get food rations delivered to Sunni towns.

Iraq's mainstream Shiite leaders resist holding new provincial elections because they know what such elections are likely to bring. Because the Sunnis boycotted the January 2005 elections, they do not control the northern governorate, or province, of Nineveh, in which there is a Sunni majority, and they are not represented in governorates with mixed populations, such as Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad. New elections would, it is argued, give Sunnis a greater voice in the places where they live, and the Shiites say they do not have a problem with this, although just how they would treat the militant Sunnis who would be elected is far from clear. The Kurds reluctantly accept new elections in the Sunni governorates even though it means they will lose control of Nineveh and have a much-reduced presence in Diyala.

The American benchmark of holding provincial elections would also require new elections in southern Iraq and Baghdad. If they were held, al-Hakim's Shiite party, the SIIC, which now controls seven of the nine southern governorates, would certainly lose ground to Moqtada al-Sadr. His main base is in Baghdad and new elections would almost certainly leave his followers in control of Baghdad Governorate, with one quarter of Iraq's population. Iraq's decentralized constitution gives the governorates enormous powers and significant shares of the national budget, if they choose to exercise these powers. New local elections are not required until 2009 and it is hard to see how early elections strengthening al-Sadr, who is hostile to the U.S. and appears to have close ties to Iran, serve American interests. But this is precisely what the Bush administration is pushing for and Congress seems to want.

Constitutional revision is the most significant benchmark and it could break Iraq apart. Iraq's constitution, approved by 79% of voters in an October 2005 referendum, is the product of a Kurdish-Shiite deal: the Kurds supported the establishment of a Shiite-led government in exchange for Shiite support for a confederal arrangement in which Kurdistan and other regions like the one SIIC hopes to set up in the south, are virtually independent.

Since there is no common ground among the Shiites, Kurds, and Sunnis on any significant constitutional changes in favor of the Sunnis, such changes must come at the expense of the Kurds or Shiites. Since voters in these communities have a veto on any constitutional amendments, they are certain to fail in a referendum. A revised constitution has no chance of being enacted but its failure will exacerbate tensions among Iraq's three groups.

Constitutionally, Iraq's central government has almost no power, and the Bush administration is partially to blame for this. When the constitution was being drafted in 2005, the United Nations came up with a series of proposals that would have made for more workable sharing of power between regions and the central government. The U.S. embassy stopped the UN from presenting these proposals because it hoped for a final document as centralized as (and textually close to) the interim constitution written by the Americans.

When the constitution finally emerged in its present form, then U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad brokered a deal with several Sunni leaders whereby, in exchange for Sunni support for ratification, there would be a fast-track process to revise the constitution in the months following ratification to meet Sunni concerns. Like the Bush administration, the Sunnis want a more centralized state. While the U.S. insists that constitutional revision is a moral obligation, the Sunnis actually never lived up to their end of the bargain. Almost unanimously, they voted against ratification of the current constitution.

With input from the United Nations (belatedly brought back into the process last year), the Iraqi Parliament's mainly Arab Constitutional Review Committee (CRC) is considering amendments that would strip Kurdistan of many of its powers, including its right to cancel federal laws, to decide on taxes applicable in its own territory, and to control its own oil and water. The Sunni Arabs would also like Iraq declared an Arab state, a measure the non-Arab Kurds consider racist and exclusionary.

Thanks to Khalilzad's expedited procedures, constitutional revision may be the final wedge between Kurdistan and Arab Iraq. If approved by the CRC, the constitutional amendments will be subject to a vote in the parliament as a single package and then to a nationwide referendum. Kurdistan's voters are certain to reject the proposed package (or any package affecting Kurdistan's powers), and this could push tense Sunni-Kurdish relations into open conflict. Kurdish NGOs, who ran a 2005 independence referendum, are poised to make a "NO" campaign on constitutional revision a "No to Iraq" vote. In its July 12 report to Congress, the White House graded the CRC's work as "satisfactory," an evaluation that was either grossly dishonest, or, more likely, out of touch with Iraqi reality.

For the most part, Iraq's leaders are not personally stubborn or uncooperative. They find it impossible to reach agreement on the benchmarks because their constituents don't agree on any common vision for Iraq. The Shiites voted twice in 2005 for parties that seek to define Iraq as a Shiite state. By their boycotts and votes the Sunni Arabs have almost unanimously rejected the Shiite vision of Iraq's future, including the new constitution. The Kurds' envisage an Iraq that does not include them. In the 2005 parliamentary elections, 99% of them voted for Kurdish nationalist parties, and in the January 2005 referendum, 98% voted for an independent Kurdistan.

But even if Iraq's politicians could agree to the benchmarks, this wouldn't end the insurgency or the civil war. Sunni insurgents object to Iraq being run by Shiite religious parties, which they see as installed by the Americans, loyal to Iran, and wanting to define Iraq in a way that excludes the Sunnis. Sunni fundamentalists consider the Shiites apostates who deserve death, not power. The Shiites believe that their democratic majority and their historical suffering under the Baathist dictatorship entitle them to rule. They are not inclined to compromise with Sunnis, whom they see as their longstanding oppressors, especially when they believe most Iraqi Sunnis are sympathetic to the suicide bombers that have killed thousands of ordinary Shiites. The differences are fundamental and cannot be papered over by sharing oil revenues, reemploying ex-Baathists, or revising the constitution. The war is not about those things.


The Iraq war is lost. Of course, neither the President nor the war's intellectual architects are prepared to admit this. Nonetheless, the specter of defeat shapes their thinking in telling ways.

The case for the war is no longer defined by the benefits of winning -- a stable Iraq, democracy on the march in the Middle East, the collapse of the evil Iranian and Syrian regimes -- but by the consequences of defeat. As President Bush put it, "The consequences of failure in Iraq would be death and destruction in the Middle East and here in America."

Tellingly, the Iraq war's intellectual boosters, while insisting the surge is working, are moving to assign blame for defeat. And they have already picked their target: the American people. In The Weekly Standard, Tom Donnelly, a fellow at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, wrote, "Those who believe the war is already lost -- call it the Clinton-Lugar axis -- are mounting a surge of their own. Ground won in Iraq becomes ground lost at home." Lugar provoked Donnelly's anger by noting that the American people had lost confidence in Bush's Iraq strategy as demonstrated by the Democratic takeover of both houses of Congress. (This "blame the American people" approach has, through repetition, almost become the accepted explanation for the outcome in Vietnam, attributing defeat to a loss of public support and not to fifteen years of military failure.)

Indeed, Vietnam is the image many Americans have of defeat in Iraq. Al-Qaeda would overrun the Green Zone and the last Americans would evacuate from the rooftop of the still unfinished largest embassy in the world. President Bush feeds on this imagery. In his May 5, 2007, radio address to the nation, he explained:

If radicals and terrorists emerge from this battle with control of Iraq, they would have control of a nation with massive oil reserves, which they could use to fund their dangerous ambitions and spread their influence. The al Qaeda terrorists who behead captives or order suicide bombings would not be satisfied to see America defeated and gone from Iraq. They would be emboldened by their victory, protected by their new sanctuary, eager to impose their hateful vision on surrounding countries, and eager to harm Americans.

But there will be no Saigon moment in Iraq. Iraq's Shiite-led government is in no danger of losing the civil war to al-Qaeda, or a more inclusive Sunni front. Iraq's Shiites are three times as numerous as Iraq's Sunni Arabs; they dominate Iraq's military and police and have a powerful ally in neighboring Iran. The Arab states that might support the Sunnis are small, far away (vast deserts separate the inhabited parts of Jordan and Saudi Arabia from the main Iraqi population centers), and can only provide money, something the insurgency has in great amounts already.

Iraq after an American defeat will look very much like Iraq today -- a land divided along ethnic lines into Arab and Kurdish states with a civil war being fought within its Arab part. Defeat is defined by America's failure to accomplish its objective of a self-sustaining, democratic, and unified Iraq. And that failure has already taken place, along with the increase of Iranian power in the region.

Iraq's Kurdish leaders and Iraq's dwindling band of secular Arab democrats fear that a complete U.S. withdrawal will leave all of Iraq under Iranian influence. Senator Hillary Clinton, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden, and former UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke are among the prominent Democrats who have called for the U.S. to protect Kurdistan militarily should there be a withdrawal from Iraq. The argument for so doing is straightforward: it secures the one part of Iraq that has emerged as stable, democratic, and pro-Western; it discharges a moral debt to our Kurdish allies; it deters both Turkish intervention and a potentially destabilizing Turkish-Kurdish war; it provides U.S. forces a secure base that can be used to strike at al-Qaeda in adjacent Sunni territories; and it limits Iran's gains.

In laying out his dark vision of an American failure, President Bush never discusses Iran's domination of Iraq even though this is a far more likely consequence of American defeat than an al-Qaeda victory. Bush's reticence is understandable since it was his miscalculations and incompetent management of the postwar occupation that gave Iran its opportunity. While opposing talks with Iran, the neoconservatives also prefer not to discuss its current powerful influence over Iraq's central government and southern region, persisting in the fantasy -- notwithstanding all evidence to the contrary -- that Iran is deeply unpopular among Iraq's Shiites and clerics. (At the same time, U.S. officials accuse Iran of supplying Iraqi Shiite militias with particularly lethal roadside bombs.)


On June 25, without giving the press or White House any advance notice, Richard Lugar, the most respected Republican voice on foreign affairs in Congress, spoke in the Senate about "connecting our Iraq strategy to our vital interests." On the face of it, the idea is as sensible and conservative as the senator delivering the speech. He observed that political fragmentation in Iraq, the stress suffered by the U.S. military, and growing antiwar sentiment at home "make it almost impossible for the United States to engineer a stable, multi-sectarian government in Iraq in a reasonable time frame." Lugar noted that agreements reached with Iraqi leaders are most often not implemented, partly, as Lugar observed, because the leaders do not control their followers but also because Iraqi leaders have also discovered that telling the Bush administration what it wants to hear is a fully acceptable substitute for action.

Lugar is blunt in his description of the situation in Iraq:

Few Iraqis have demonstrated that they want to be Iraqis.... In this context, the possibility that the United States can set meaningful benchmarks that would provide an indication of impending success or failure is remote. Perhaps some benchmarks or agreements will be initially achieved, but most can be undermined or reversed by a contrary edict of the Iraqi government, a decision by a faction to ignore agreements, or the next terrorist attack or wave of sectarian killings. American manpower cannot keep the lid on indefinitely. The anticipation that our training operations could produce an effective Iraqi army loyal to a cohesive central government is still just a hopeful plan for the future.

Lugar concluded his speech by urging that we "refocus our policy in Iraq on realistic assessments of what can be achieved, and on a sober review of our vital interests in the Middle East." After four years of a war driven more by wishful thinking than strategy, this is hardly a radical idea, but it has produced a barrage of covert criticism of Lugar from the administration and overt attack from the neoconservatives.

Lugar's focus on the achievable runs against main currents of opinion in a nation increasingly polarized between the growing number who want to withdraw from Iraq and the die-hard defenders of a failure. We need to recognize, as Lugar implicitly does, that Iraq no longer exists as a unified country. In the parts where we can accomplish nothing, we should withdraw. But there are still three missions that may be achievable -- disrupting al-Qaeda, preserving Kurdistan's democracy, and limiting Iran's increasing domination. These can all be served by a modest U.S. presence in Kurdistan. We need an Iraq policy with sufficient nuance to protect American interests. Unfortunately, we probably won't get it.

Peter W. Galbraith, a former US Ambassador to Croatia, is Senior Diplomatic Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and a principal at the Windham Resources Group, a firm that negotiates on behalf of its clients in post-conflict societies, including Iraq. His The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End is now out in paperback

This article appears in the August 16th issue of the New York Review of Books.

How Close to Catastrophe?

[This piece, which appears in the November 16, 2006 issue of the New York Review of Books, is posted here with the kind permission of the editors of that magazine.]

James Lovelock is among the planet's most interesting and productive scientists. His invention of an electron capture device that was able to detect tiny amounts of chemicals enabled other scientists both to understand the dangers of DDT to the eggshells of birds and to figure out the ways in which chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were eroding the ozone layer. He's best known, though, not for a gadget but for a metaphor: the idea that the earth might usefully be considered as a single organism (for which he used the name of the Greek earth goddess Gaia) struggling to keep itself stable

In fact, his so-called Gaia hypothesis was at first less clear than that -- "hardly anyone, and that included me for the first ten years after the concept was born, seems to know what Gaia is," he has written. But the hypothesis has turned into a theory, still not fully accepted by other scientists but not scorned either. It holds that the earth is "a self-regulating system made up from the totality of organisms, the surface rocks, the ocean and the atmosphere tightly coupled as an evolving system" and striving to "regulate surface conditions so as always to be as favourable as possible for contemporary life."

Putting aside questions of planetary consciousness and will (beloved as they were by an early wave of New Age Gaia acolytes), the theory may help us understand how the earth has managed to remain hospitable for life over billions of years even as the sun, because of its own stellar evolution, has become significantly hotter. Through a series of processes involving, among others, ice ages, ocean algae, and weathering rock, the earth has managed to keep the amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and hence the temperature, at a relatively stable level.

This homeostasis is now being disrupted by our brief binge of fossil fuel consumption, which has released a huge amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Indeed, at one point Lovelock predicts -- more gloomily than any other competent observer I am aware of -- that we have already pushed the planet over the brink, and that we will soon see remarkably rapid rises in temperature, well beyond those envisioned in most of the computer models now in use – themselves quite dire. He argues that because the earth is already struggling to keep itself cool, our extra increment of heat is particularly dangerous, and he predicts that we will soon see the confluence of several phenomena: the death of ocean algae in ever-warmer ocean waters, reducing the rate at which these small plants can remove carbon from the atmosphere; the death of tropical forests as a result of higher temperatures and the higher rates of evaporation they cause; sharp changes in the earth's "albedo," or reflectivity, as white ice that reflects sunlight back out into space is replaced with the absorptive blue of seawater or the dark green of high-latitude boreal forests; and the release of large amounts of methane, itself a greenhouse gas, held in ice crystals in the frozen north or beneath the sea.

Some or all of these processes will be enough, Lovelock estimates, to tip the earth into a catastrophically hotter state, perhaps eight degrees centigrade warmer in temperate regions like ours, over the course of a very few decades, and that heat will in turn make life as we know it nearly impossible in many places. Indeed, in the photo section of the book there is one picture of a red desert captioned simply "Mars now -- and what the earth will look like eventually." Human beings, a hardy species, will not perish entirely, he says; in interviews during his book tour, Lovelock has predicted that about 200 million people, or about one thirtieth of the current world population, will survive if competent leaders make a new home for us near the present-day Arctic. There may also be other survivable spots, like the British Isles, though he notes that rising sea levels will render them more an archipelago. In any event, he predicts that "teeming billions" will perish.


Lovelock, who is in his eighties, concedes that this is a gloomier forecast than those of scientists more actively engaged in peer-reviewed climatology; it is, in a sense, a visceral feeling. It should be approached somewhat skeptically, for Lovelock has been (as he has always forthrightly admitted) wrong before in his immediate reactions. Though he invented the machine that helped us understand the dangers of CFCs, he also blithely dismissed those dangers, arguing that they couldn't do enough damage to matter. The American chemists Sherry Rowland and Mario Molina ignored his assurances and performed the groundbreaking work on the depletion of the ozone layer that won them the Nobel Prize. (And won for the planet an international agreement on the reduction of CFCs that allowed the earth a chance to repair the ozone hole before it opened so wide as to annihilate much of life through excess ultraviolet radiation.) Lovelock has also failed to identify any clear causal mechanism for his sudden heating hypothesis, explaining that he differs with more conventional forecasts mostly because he thinks they have underestimated both the extent of the self-reinforcing cycles that are causing temperatures to rise and the vulnerability of the planet, which he sees as severely stressed and close to losing equilibrium. It also must be said that parts of his short book read a little oddly -- there are digressions into, say, the safety of nitrates in food that don't serve much purpose and raise questions about the rigor of the entire enterprise.

That said, there are very few people on earth -- maybe none -- with the same kind of intuitive feel for how it behaves as a whole. Lovelock's flashes of insight about Gaia illuminate many of the interconnections between systems that more pedestrian scientists have slowly been trying to identify. Moreover, for the past twenty years, the period during which greenhouse science emerged, most of the effects of heating on the physical world have in fact been more dire than originally predicted. The regular reader of Science and Nature is treated to an almost weekly load of apocalyptic data, virtually all of it showing results at the very upper end of the ranges predicted by climate models, or beyond them altogether. Compared with the original models of a few years ago, ice is melting faster; forest soils are giving up more carbon as they warm; storms are increasing much more quickly in number and size. As I'm writing these words, news comes across the bottom of my computer screen that a new study shows methane leaking from Siberian permafrost at five times the predicted rate, which is seriously bad news since methane is an even more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.

In this fast-changing scientific puzzle, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which has given the world valuable guidance for a decade, stands the risk of being outrun by new data. The panel is supposed to issue a new report in the coming year summarizing the findings made by climate scientists since its last report. But it's unlikely that its somewhat unwieldy procedures will allow it to incorporate fears such as Lovelock's adequately, or even to address fully the far more mainstream predictions issued during the last twelve months by James Hansen of NASA, the planet's top climatologist.

Hansen is not quite as gloomy as Lovelock. Although he recently stated that the Earth is very close to the hottest it has been in a million years, he said that we still have until 2015 to reverse the flow of carbon into the atmosphere before we cross a threshold and create a "different planet." When Hansen gave this warning last December we had ten years to change course, but soon we'll have only nine years, and since nothing has happened in the intervening time to suggest that we're gearing up for an all-out effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the divergence between Hansen and Lovelock may be academic. (Somehow it's small comfort to be rooting for the guy who says you've got a decade.)

What's amazing is that even Al Gore's fine and frightening film An Inconvenient Truth now lags behind the scientific cutting edge on this issue -- the science is moving fast. It's true that the world is beginning slowly to awaken to the idea that global warming may be a real problem, and legislatures (though not ours) are starting to nibble at it. But very few understand with any real depth that a wave large enough to break civilization is forming, and that the only real question is whether we can do anything at all to weaken its force.


It's to the question of solutions to mitigate the effects of global warming that Lovelock eventually turns, which is odd since in other places he insists that it's too late to do much. His prescriptions are strongly worded and provocative -- he thinks that renewable energy and energy conservation will come too slowly to ward off damage, and that an enormous program of building nuclear reactors is our best, indeed our only, real option. "We cannot turn off our energy-intensive, fossil-fuel-powered civilization without crashing," he writes. "We need the soft landing of a powered descent." That power can't come from wind or solar energy soon enough:

"Even now, when the bell has started tolling to mark our ending, we still talk of sustainable development and renewable energy as if these feeble offerings would be accepted by Gaia as an appropriate and affordable sacrifice." Instead, "new nuclear building should be started immediately."

With his extravagant rhetoric, Lovelock does us a favor -- it is true that we should be at least as scared of a new coal plant as of a new nuclear station. The latter carries certain obvious risks (which Lovelock argues convincingly loom larger than perhaps they should in our imaginations), while the coal plants come with the absolute guarantee that their emissions will unhinge the planet's physical systems. Every potential source of non-carbon energy should be examined fairly to see what role it might have in avoiding a disastrous future. But Lovelock also undermines his own argument with what amounts to special pleading. He is a foe of wind power because, as he says, he doesn't want his Devon countryside overrun with windmills, placing him in the same camp as Cape Cod vacationers resistant to wind farms offshore in Nantucket Sound or Vermonters reluctant to see some of their high ridgelines dotted with towering turbines. "Perhaps we are NIMBYs," he writes, referring to the abbreviation for the phrase "Not In My Back Yard,"

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Why the Memo Matters

[On May 16, the New York Review of Books put the original Downing Street memo in print in this country for the first time. Mark Danner wrote an accompanying analysis, The Secret Way to War. In response to that piece, John Walcott of Knight Ridder news service wrote a brief letter and Danner, in answering, has now taken the opportunity to return to the significance of the Downing Street memo and the press coverage of it. This exchange will appear in the July 14 issue of the New York Review of Books.]

To the Editors:

Mark Danner's excellent article on the Bush administration's path to war in Iraq ["The Secret Way to War," NYR, June 9] missed a couple of important signposts.

On October 11, 2001, Knight Ridder reported that less than a month after the September 11 attacks senior Pentagon officials who wanted to expand the war against terrorism to Iraq had authorized a trip to Great Britain in September by former CIA director James Woolsey in search of evidence that Saddam Hussein had played a role in the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Then, on February 13, 2002, nearly six months before the Downing Street memo was written, Knight Ridder reported that President Bush had decided to oust Saddam Hussein and had ordered the CIA, the Pentagon, and other agencies to devise a combination of military, diplomatic, and covert steps to achieve that goal. Six days later, former Senator Bob Graham of Florida reports in his book, he was astounded when General Tommy Franks told him during a visit to the US Central Command in Tampa that the administration was shifting resources away from the pursuit of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan to prepare for war in Iraq.

John Walcott
Washington Bureau Chief
Knight Ridder

Mark Danner replies:

John Walcott is proud of his bureau's reporting, and he should be. As my colleague Michael Massing has written in the pages of the New York Review of Books, during the lead-up to the Iraq war Knight Ridder reporters had an enviable and unexampled record of independence and success.

But Mr. Walcott's statement that in my article "The Secret Way to War" I "missed a couple of important signposts" brings up an obvious question: Signposts on the way to what? What exactly does the Downing Street memo (which is simply an official account of a British security cabinet meeting in July 2002) and related documents that have since appeared, prove? And why has the American press in large part still resisted acknowledging the story the documents tell?

As I wrote in my article,
The great value of the discussion recounted in the to show, for the governments of both countries, a clear hierarchy of decision-making. By July 2002 at the latest, war had been decided on; the question at issue now was how to justify it -- how to 'fix,' as it were, what Blair will later call 'the political context.' Specifically, though by this point in July the President had decided to go to war, he had not yet decided to go to the United Nations and demand inspectors; indeed, as 'C' [the chief of MI6, the British equivalent of the CIA] points out, those on the National Security Council -- the senior security officials of the U.S. government -- 'had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record.' This would later change, largely as a result of the political concerns of these very people gathered together at 10 Downing Street.
Those "political concerns" centered on the fact that, as British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw points out, "the case [for going to war] was thin" since, as the Attorney General points out, "the desire for regime change [in Iraq] was not a legal base for military action." In order to secure such a legal base, the British officials agree, the allies must contrive to win the approval of the United Nations Security Council, and the Foreign Secretary puts forward a way to do that: "We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors." Prime Minister Tony Blair makes very clear the point of such an ultimatum: "It would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the inspectors."

On February 13, 2002 -- five months before this British cabinet meeting, and 13 months before the war began -- the second of the articles Mr. Walcott mentions had appeared, under his and Walter P. Strobel's byline and the stark headline, "Bush Has Decided to Overthrow Hussein." The article concludes this way:
Many nations...can be expected to question the legality of the United States unilaterally removing another country's government, no matter how distasteful. But a senior State Department official, while unable to provide the precise legal authority for such a move, said, 'It's not hard to make the case that Iraq is a threat to international peace and security.'... A diplomatic offensive aimed at generating international support for overthrowing Saddam's regime is likely to precede any attack on Iraq...
The United States, perhaps with UN backing, is then expected to demand that Saddam readmit inspectors to root out Iraq's chemical, biological, nuclear and missile programs... If Baghdad refuses to readmit inspectors or if Saddam prevents them from carrying out their work, as he has in the past, Bush would have a pretext for action.
Thus the stratagem that the British would successfully urge on their American allies by late that summer was already under discussion within the State Department -- five months before the Downing Street meeting in July 2002, and more than a year before the war began.

Again, what does all this prove? From the point of view of "the senior State Department official," no doubt, such an admission leaked to a Knight Ridder reporter was an opening public salvo in the bureaucratic struggle that reached a climax that August, when President Bush finally accepted the argument of his secretary of state, and his British allies, and went "the United Nations route."

Just in the way that unnoticed but prophetic intelligence concealed in a wealth of "chatter" is outlined brightly by future events, this leak now seems like a clear prophetic disclosure about what was to come, having been confirmed by what did in fact happen. But the Downing Street memo makes clear that at the time the "senior State Department official" spoke to the Knight Ridder reporters the strategy had not yet been decided. The memo, moreover, is not an anonymous statement to reporters but a record of what Britain's highest security officials actually said. It tells us much about how the decision was made, and shows decisively that, as I wrote in my article, "the idea of UN inspectors was introduced not as a means to avoid war, as President Bush repeatedly assured Americans, but as a means to make war possible."

The Knight Ridder pieces bring up a larger issue. It is a source of some irony that one of the obstacles to gaining recognition for the Downing Street memo in the American press has been the largely unspoken notion among reporters and editors that the story the memo tells is "nothing new." I say irony because we see in this an odd and familiar narrative from our current world of "frozen scandal" -- so-called scandals, that is, in which we have revelation but not a true investigation or punishment: scandals we are forced to live with. A story is told the first time but hardly acknowledged (as with the Knight Ridder piece), largely because the broader story the government is telling drowns it out. When the story is later confirmed by official documents, in this case the Downing Street memorandum, the documents are largely dismissed because they contain "nothing new."

Part of this comes down to the question of what, in our current political and journalistic world, constitutes a "fact." How do we actually prove the truth of a story, such as the rather obvious one that, as the Knight Ridder headline had it, "Bush has decided to overthrow Hussein" many months before the war and the congressional resolution authorizing it, despite the President's protestations that "no decision had been made"? How would one prove the truth of the story that fully eight months before the invasion of Iraq, as the head of British intelligence reports to his prime minister and his cabinet colleagues upon his return from Washington in July 2002, "the facts and the intelligence were being fixed around the policy"?

Michael Kinsley, in a recent article largely dismissing the Downing Street memo, remarks about this sentence:
Of course, if 'intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy,' rather than vice versa, that is pretty good evidence of Bush's intentions, as well as a scandal in its own right. And we know now that was true and a half. Fixing intelligence and facts to fit a desired policy is the Bush II governing style, especially concerning the war in Iraq. But C offered no specifics, or none that made it into the memo. Nor does the memo assert that actual decision makers had told him they were fixing the facts.
Consider for a moment this paragraph, which strikes me as a perfect little poem on our current political and journalistic state. Kinsley accepts as "true and a half" that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" -- that is, after all, "the Bush II governing style" -- but rejects the notion that the Downing Street memo actually proves this, since, presumably, the head of British intelligence "does [not] assert that actual decision makers had told him they were fixing the facts."

Kinsley does not say from whom he thinks the chief of British intelligence, in reporting to his prime minister "on his recent talks in Washington," might have derived that information, if not "actual decision makers." (In fact, as the London Sunday Times reported, among the people he saw was his American counterpart, director of central intelligence George Tenet.) Kinsley does say that if the point, which he accepts as true -- indeed, almost blithely dismissing all who might doubt it -- could in fact be proved, it would be "pretty good evidence of Bush's intentions, as well as a scandal in its own right."

One might ask what would convince this writer, and many others, of the truth of what, apparently, they already know, and accept, and acknowledge that they know and accept. What could be said to establish "truth" -- to "prove it"? Perhaps a true congressional investigation of the way the administration used intelligence before the war -- an investigation of the kind that, as I wrote in my article, was promised by the Senate Intelligence Committee, then thoughtfully postponed until after the election -- though one might think the question might have had some relevance to Americans in deciding for whom to vote -- then finally, and quietly, abandoned. Instead, the Senate committee produced a report that, while powerfully damning on its own terms, explicitly excluded the critical question of how administration officials made use of the intelligence that was supplied them.

Still, Kinsley's column, and the cynical and impotent attitude it represents, suggests that such an investigation, if it occurred, might still not be adequate to make a publicly acceptable fact out of what everyone now knows and accepts. The column bears the perfect headline, "No Smoking Gun," which suggests that failing the discovery of a tape recording in which President Bush is quoted explicitly ordering George Tenet that he should "fix the intelligence and facts around the policy," many will never regard the case as proved -- though all the while accepting, of course, and admitting that they accept, that this is indeed what happened. The so-called "rules of objective journalism" dovetail with the disciplined functioning of a one-party government to keep the political debate willfully opaque and stupid.

So: if the excellent Knight Ridder articles by Mr. Walcott and his colleagues do indeed represent "signposts," then signposts on the way to what? American citizens find themselves on a very peculiar road, stumbling blindly through a dark wood. Having had before the war rather clear evidence that the Bush administration had decided to go to war even as it was claiming it was trying to avert war, we are now confronted with an escalating series of "disclosures" proving that the original story, despite the broad unwillingness to accept it, was in fact true.

Many in Congress, including many leading Democrats who voted to give the President the authority to go to war -- fearing the political consequences of opposing him and thus welcoming his soothing arguments that such a vote would enable him to avoid war rather than to undertake it -- now find themselves in an especially difficult position, claiming, as Senator John Kerry did during the presidential campaign, that they were "misled" into supporting a war that they believed they were voting to help prevent. This argument is embarrassingly thin but it remains morally incriminating enough to go on confusing and corrupting a nascent public debate on Iraq that is sure to become more difficult and painful.

Whether or not the Downing Street memo could be called a "smoking gun," it has long since become clear that the UN inspections policy that, given time, could in fact have prevented war -- by revealing, as it eventually would have, that Saddam had no threatening stockpiles of "weapons of mass destruction" -- was used by the administration as a pretext: a means to persuade the country to begin a war that need never have been fought. It was an exceedingly clever pretext, for every action preparing for war could by definition be construed to be an action intended to avert it -- as necessary to convince Saddam that war was imminent.

According to this rhetorical stratagem, the actions, whether preparing to wage war or seeking to avert it, merge, become indistinguishable. Failing the emergence of a time-stamped recording of President Bush declaring, "I have today decided to go to war with Saddam and all this inspection stuff is rubbish," we are unlikely to recover the kind of "smoking gun" that Kinsley and others seem to demand.

Failing that, the most reliable way to distinguish the true intentions of Bush and his officials is by looking at what they actually did, and the fact is that, despite the protestations of many in the United Nations and throughout the world, they refused to let the inspections run their course. What is more, the arguments of the President and others in his administration retrospectively justifying the war after the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq -- stressing that Saddam would always have been a threat because he could have "reconstituted" his weapons programs -- make a mockery of the proposition that the administration would have been willing to leave him in power, even if the inspectors had been allowed sufficient time to prove before the war, as their colleagues did after it, that no weapons existed in Iraq.

We might believe that we are past such matters now. Alas, as Americans go on dying in Iraq and their fellow citizens grow ever more impatient with the war, the story of its beginning, clouded with propaganda and controversy as it is, will become more important, not less.

Consider the strong warning put forward in a recently released British Cabinet document dated two days before the Downing Street memo (and eight months before the war), that "the military occupation of Iraq could lead to a protracted and costly nation-building exercise." On this point, as the British document prophetically observes, "US military plans are virtually silent." So too were America's leaders, and we live with the consequences of that silence. As support for the war collapses, the cost will become clear: for most citizens, 1,700 American dead later -- tens of thousands of Iraqi dead later -- the war's beginning remains as murky and indistinct as its ending.

Class of 9/11

The following is based on the commencement address given to the graduating students of the Department of English of the University of California at Berkeley in the Hearst Greek Theatre, May 15, 2005.

When I was invited to give this speech, I was asked for a title. I dillied and dallied, begged for more time, and of course the deadline passed. The title I really wanted to suggest was the response that all of you have learned to expect when asked your major: What are you going to do with that? To be an English major is to live not only by questioning, but by being questioned. It is to live with a question mark placed squarely on your forehead. It is to live, at least some of the time, in a state of "existential dread." To be a humanist, that is, means not only to see clearly the surface of things and to see beyond those surfaces, but to place oneself in opposition, however subtle, an opposition that society seldom lets you forget: What are you going to do with that?

To the recent graduate, American society -- in all its vulgar, grotesque power -- reverberates with that question. It comes from friends, from relatives, and perhaps even from the odd parent here and there. For the son or daughter who becomes an English major puts a finger squarely on the great parental paradox: you raise your children to make their own decisions, you want your children to make their own decisions -- and then one day, by heaven, they make their own decisions. And now parents are doomed to confront daily the condescending sympathy of your friends -- their children, of course, are economics majors or engineering majors or pre-meds -- and to confront your own dread about the futures of your children.

It's not easy to be an English major these days, or any student of the humanities. It requires a certain kind of determination, and a refusal -- an annoying refusal, for some of our friends and families, and for a good many employers -- to make decisions, or at least to make the kind of "practical decisions" that much of society demands of us. It represents a determination, that is, not only to do certain things -- to read certain books and learn certain poems, to acquire or refine a certain cast of mind -- but not to do other things: principally, not to decide, right now, quickly, how you will earn your living; which is to say, not to decide how you will justify your existence. For in the view of a large part of American society, the existential question is at the bottom an economic one: Who are you and what is your economic justification for being?

English majors, and other determined humanists, distinguish themselves not only by reading Shakespeare or Chaucer or Joyce or Woolf or Zora Neale Hurston but by refusing, in the face of overwhelming pressure, to answer that question. Whether they acknowledge it or not -- whether they know it or not -- and whatever they eventually decide to do with "that," they see developing the moral imagination as more important than securing economic self-justification.

Such an attitude has never been particularly popular in this country. It became downright suspect after September 11, 2001 -- and you of course are the Class of September 11, having arrived here only days before those attacks and the changed world they ushered in. Which means that, whether you know it or not, by declaring yourselves as questioners, as humanists, you already have gone some way in defining yourselves, for good or ill, as outsiders.

I must confess it: I, too, was an English major...for nineteen days. This was back in the Berkeley of the East, at Harvard College, and I was a refugee from philosophy -- too much logic and math in that for me, too practical -- and I tarried in English just long enough to sit in on one tutorial (on Keats's "To Autumn"), before I fled into my own major, one I conceived and designed myself, called, with even greater practical attention to the future, "Modern Literature and Aesthetics."

Which meant of course that almost exactly twenty-five years ago today I was sitting where you are now, hanging on by a very thin thread. Shortly thereafter I found myself lying on my back in a small apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, reading the New York Times and the New York Review -- very thoroughly: essentially spending all day, every day, lying on my back, reading, living on graduation-present money and subsisting on deliveries of fried rice from the Hong Kong restaurant (which happened to be two doors away -- though I felt I was unable to spare the time to leave the apartment, or the bed, to pick it up). The Chinese food deliveryman looked at me dispassionately and then, as one month stretched into two, a bit knowingly. If I knew then what I know now I would say I was depressed. At the time, however, I was under the impression that I was resting.

Eventually I became a writer, which is not a way to vanquish existential dread but a way to live with it and even to earn a modest living from it. Perhaps some of you will follow that path; but whatever you decide to "do with that," remember: whether you know it yet or not, you have doomed yourselves by learning how to read, learning how to question, learning how to doubt. And this is a most difficult time -- the most difficult I remember -- to have those skills. Once you have them, however, they are not easy to discard. Finding yourself forced to see the gulf between what you are told about the world, whether it's your government doing the telling, or your boss, or even your family or friends, and what you yourself can't help but understand about that world -- this is not always a welcome kind of vision to have. It can be burdensome and awkward and it won't always make you happy.

I think I became a writer in part because I found that yawning difference between what I was told and what I could see to be inescapable. I started by writing about wars and massacres and violence. The State Department, as I learned from a foreign service officer in Haiti, has a technical term for the countries I mostly write about: the TFC beat. TFC -- in official State Department parlance -- stands for "Totally Fucked-up Countries." After two decades of this, of Salvador and Haiti and Bosnia and Iraq, my mother -- who already had to cope with the anxiety of a son acquiring a very expensive education in "Modern Literature and Aesthetics" -- still asks periodically: Can't you go someplace nice for a change?

When I was sitting where you are sitting now the issue was Central America and in particular the war in El Salvador. America, in the backwash of defeat in Vietnam, was trying to protect its allies to the south -- to protect regimes under assault by leftist insurgencies -- and it was doing so by supporting a government in El Salvador that was fighting the war by massacring its own people. I wrote about one of those events in my first book, The Massacre at El Mozote, which told of the murder of a thousand or so civilians by a new, elite battalion of the Salvadoran army -- a battalion that the Americans had trained. A thousand innocent civilians dead in a few hours, by machete and by M-16.

Looking back at that story now -- and at many of the other stories I have covered over the years, from Central America to Iraq -- I see now that in part I was trying to find a kind of moral clarity: a place, if you will, where that gulf that I spoke about, between what we see and what is said, didn't exist. Where better to find that place than in the world where massacres and killings and torture happen, in the place, that is, where we find evil. What could be clearer than that kind of evil?

But I discovered it was not clear at all. Chat with a Salvadoran general about the massacre of a thousand people that he ordered and he will tell you that it was military necessity, that those people had put themselves in harm's way by supporting the guerrillas, and that "such things happen in war." Speak to the young conscript who wielded the machete and he will tell you that he hated what he had to do, that he has nightmares about it still, but that he was following orders and that if he had refused he would have been killed. Talk to the State Department official who helped deny that the massacre took place and he will tell you that there was no definitive proof and, in any case, that he did it to protect and promote the vital interests of the United States. None of them is lying. I found that if you search for evil, once you leave the corpses behind you will have great difficulty finding the needed grimacing face.

Let me give you another example. It's from 1994, during an unseasonably warm February day in a crowded market in the besieged city of Sarajevo. I was with a television crew -- I was writing a documentary on the war in Bosnia for Peter Jennings at ABC News -- but our schedule had slipped, as it always does, and we had not yet arrived at the crowded marketplace when a mortar shell landed. When we arrived with our cameras a few moments later, we found a dark swamp of blood and broken bodies and, staggering about in it, the bereaved, shrieking and wailing amid a sickening stench of cordite. Two men, standing in rubber boots knee-deep in a thick black lake, had already begun to toss body parts into the back of a truck. Slipping about on the wet pavement, I tried my best to count the bodies and the parts of them, but the job was impossible: fifty? sixty? When all the painstaking matching had been done, sixty-eight had died there.

As it happened, I had a lunch date with their killer the following day. The leader of the Serbs, surrounded in his mountain villa by a handful of good-looking bodyguards, had little interest in the numbers of dead. We were eating stew. "Did you check their ears?" he asked. I'm sorry? "They had ice in their ears." I paused at this and worked on my stew. He meant, I realized, that the bodies were corpses from the morgue that had been planted, that the entire scene had been trumped up by Bosnian intelligence agents. He was a psychiatrist, this man, and it seemed to me, after a few minutes of discussion, that he had gone far to convince himself of the truth of this claim. I was writing a profile of him and he of course did not want to talk about bodies or death. He preferred to speak of his vision for the nation.

For me, the problem in depicting this man was simple: the level of his crimes dwarfed the interest of his character. His motivations were paltry, in no way commensurate with the pain he had caused. It is often a problem with evil and that is why, in my experience, talking with mass murderers is invariably a disappointment. Great acts of evil so rarely call forth powerful character that the relation between the two seems nearly random. Put another way, that relation is not defined by melodrama, as popular fiction would have it. To understand this mass murderer, you need Dostoevsky, or Conrad.

Let me move closer to our own time, because you are the Class of September 11, and we do not lack for examples. Never in my experience has frank mendacity so dominated our public life. This has to do less with ideology itself, I think, than the fact that our country was attacked and that --from the Palmer Raids after World War I, to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, to the McCarthyite witch-hunts during the Fifties -- America tends to respond to such attacks, or the threat of them, in predictably paranoid ways. Notably, by "rounding up the usual suspects" and by dividing the world, dramatically and hysterically, into a good part and an evil part. September 11 was no exception to this: indeed, in its wake -- coterminous with your time here -- we have seen this American tendency in its purest form.

One welcome distinction between the times we live in and those other periods I have mentioned is the relative frankness of our government officials -- I should call it unprecedented frankness -- in explaining how they conceive the relationship of power and truth. Our officials believe that power can determine truth, as an unnamed senior adviser to the President explained to a reporter last fall:

"We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out.

The reporter, the adviser said, was a member of what he called "the reality-based community," destined to "judiciously study" the reality the administration was creating. Now it is important that we realize -- and by "we" I mean all of us members of the "reality-based community" -- that our leaders of the moment really do believe this, as anyone knows who has spent much time studying September 11 and the Iraq war and the various scandals that have sprung from those events - the "weapons of mass destruction" scandal and the Abu Ghraib scandal, to name only two.

What is interesting about both of those is that the heart of the scandal, the wrongdoing, is right out in front of us. Virtually nothing of great importance remains to be revealed. Ever since Watergate we've had a fairly established narrative of scandal. First you have revelation: the press, usually with the help of various leakers within the government, reveals the wrongdoing. Then you have investigation, when the government -- the courts, or Congress, or, as with Watergate, both -- constructs a painstaking narrative of what exactly happened: an official story, one that society -- that the community -- can agree on. Then you have expiation, when the judges hand down sentences, the evildoers are punished, and the society returns to a state of grace.

What distinguishes our time -- the time of September 11 -- is the end of this narrative of scandal. With the scandals over weapons of mass destruction and Abu Ghraib, we are stuck at step one. We have had the revelation; we know about the wrongdoing. Just recently, in the Downing Street memo, we had an account of a high-level discussion in Britain, nearly eight months before the Iraq war, in which the head of British intelligence flatly tells the prime minister - the intelligence officer has just returned from Washington -- that not only has the President of the United States decided that "military action was...inevitable" but that -- in the words of the British intelligence chief -- "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." This memo has been public for weeks.

So we have had the revelations; we know what happened. What we don't have is any clear admission of -- or adjudication of -- guilt, such as a serious congressional or judicial investigation would give us, or any punishment. Those high officials responsible are still in office. Indeed, not only have they received no punishment; many have been promoted. And we -- you and I, members all of the reality-based community -- we are left to see, to be forced to see. And this, for all of us, is a corrupting, a maddening, but also an inescapable burden.

Let me give you a last example. The example is in the form of a little play: a reality-based playlet that comes to us from the current center of American comedy. I mean the Pentagon press briefing room, where the real true-life comedies are performed. The time is a number of weeks ago. The dramatis personae are Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (and soon to be promoted) General Peter Pace of the Marine Corps; and of course, playing the Fool, a lowly and hapless reporter.

The reporter's question begins with an involved but perfectly well-sourced discussion of Abu Ghraib and the fact that all the reports suggest that something systematic -- something ordered by higher-ups -- was going on there. He mentions the Sanchez memo, recently released, in which the commanding general in Iraq at the time, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, approved twelve interrogation techniques that, as the reporter says, "far exceed limits established by the Army's own field manual." These include prolonged stress positions, sensory deprivation (or "hooding"), the use of dogs "to induce stress," and so on; the reporter also mentions extraordinary "rendition" (better known as kidnapping, in which people are snatched off the streets by U.S. intelligence agents and brought to third countries like Syria and Egypt to be tortured). Here's his question, and the officials' answer:

Hapless Reporter: And I wonder if you would just respond to the suggestion that there is a systematic problem rather than the kinds of individual abuses we've heard of before.

Secretary Rumsfeld: I don't believe there's been a single one of the investigations that have been conducted, which has got to be six, seven, eight or nine --

General Pace: Ten major reviews and 300 individual investigations of one kind or another.

Secretary Rumsfeld: And have you seen one that characterized it as systematic or systemic?

General Pace: No, sir.

Rumsfeld: I haven't either.

Hapless Reporter: What about-?

Rumsfeld: Question?


And, as the other reporters laughed, Secretary Rumsfeld did indeed ignore the attempt to follow up, and went on to the next question.

But what did the hapless reporter want to say? All we have is his truncated attempt at a question: "What about-?" We will never know, of course. Perhaps he wanted to read from the very first Abu Ghraib report, directed by US Army Major General Antonio Taguba, who wrote in his conclusion

"that between October and December 2003, at the Abu Ghraib Confinement Facility, numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted.... This systemic and illegal abuse was intentionally perpetrated.... [Emphasis added.]

Or perhaps this from the Red Cross report, which is the only contemporaneous account of what was going on at Abu Ghraib, recorded by witnesses at the time:

"These methods of physical and psychological coercion were used by the military intelligence in a systematic way to gain confessions and extract information or other forms of co-operation from persons who had been arrested in connection with suspected security offenses or deemed to have an "intelligence value." [Emphasis added.]

(I should note here, by the way, that the military itself estimated that between 85 and 90 percent of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib had "no intelligence value.")

Between that little dramatic exchange --

Rumsfeld: And have you seen one that characterized it as systematic or systemic?

General Pace: No, sir.

Rumsfeld: I haven't either --

-- and the truth, there is a vast gulf of lies. For these reports do use the words "systematic" and "systemic" -- they are there, in black and white -- and though the reports have great shortcomings, the truth is that they tell us basic facts about Abu Ghraib: first, that the torture and abuse was systematic; that it was ordered by higher-ups, and not carried out by "a few bad apples," as the administration has maintained; that responsibility for it can be traced -- in documents that have been made public -- to the very top ranks of the administration, to decisions made by officials in the Department of Justice and the Department of Defense and, ultimately, the White House. The significance of what we know about Abu Ghraib, and about what went on -- and, most important, what is almost certainly still going on -- not only in Iraq but at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, and other military and intelligence bases, some secret, some not, around the world -- is clear: that after September 11, shortly after you all came to Berkeley, our government decided to change this country from a nation that officially does not torture to one, officially, that does.

What is interesting about this fact is not that it is hidden but that it is revealed. We know this -- or rather those who are willing to read know it. Those who can see the gulf between what officials say and what the facts are. And we, as I have said, remain fairly few. Secretary Rumsfeld can say what he said at that nationally televised news conference because no one is willing to read the reports. We are divided, then, between those of us willing to listen, and believe, and those of us determined to read, and think, and find out. And you, English majors of the Class of 2005, you have taken the fateful first step in numbering yourselves, perhaps irredeemably, in the second category. You have taken a step along the road to being Empiricists of the Word.

Now we have come full circle -- all the way back to the question: What are you going to do with that? I cannot answer that question. Indeed, I still have not answered it for myself. But I can show you what you can do with "that," by quoting a poem. It is by a friend of mine who died almost a year ago, after a full and glorious life, at the age of ninety-three. Czeslaw Milosz was a legend in Berkeley, of course, a Nobel Prize winner -- and he saw as much injustice in his life as any man. He endured Nazism and Stalinism and then came to Berkeley to live and write for four decades in a beautiful house high on Grizzly Peak.

Let me read you one of his poems: it is a simple poem, a song, as he calls it, but in all its beauty and simplicity it bears closely on the subject of this talk.


On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas, A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn, Vegetable peddlers shout in
the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island, The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels' trumps Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above, As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet Yet is not a prophet, for he's much too busy, Repeats while he binds his
There will be no other end of the world,
There will be no other end of the world.

"There will be no other end of the world." I should add that there are two words at the end of the poem, a place and a date. Czeslaw wrote that poem in Warsaw in 1944. Can we think of a better place to put the end of the world? Perhaps Hiroshima 1945? Or Berlin 1945? Or even perhaps downtown New York in September 2001?

When Czeslaw Milosz wrote his poem in Warsaw, in 1944, there were those, as now, who saw the end of the world and those who did not. And now, as then, truth does matter. Integrity -- much rarer than talent or brilliance -- does matter. In that beautiful poem, written by a man -- a poet, an artist -- trying to survive at the end of the world, the white-haired old man binding his tomatoes is like yourselves. He may not have been a prophet but he could see. Members of the Class of September 11, whatever you decide "to do with that" -- whether you are writers or professors or journalists, or nurses or lawyers or executives -- I hope you will think of that man and his tomatoes, and keep your faith with him. I hope you will remember that man, and your own questioning spirit. Will you keep your place beside him?

Secret Way to War

It was Oct. 16, 2002, and the United States Congress had just voted to authorize the president to go to war against Iraq. When George W. Bush came before members of his Cabinet and Congress gathered in the East Room of the White House and addressed the American people, he was in a somber mood befitting a leader speaking frankly to free citizens about the gravest decision their country could make.

The 107th Congress, the president said, had just become "one of the few called by history to authorize military action to defend our country and the cause of peace." But, he hastened to add, no one should assume that war was inevitable. Though "Congress has now authorized the use of force," the president said emphatically, "I have not ordered the use of force. I hope the use of force will not become necessary." The president went on:

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