Unheeded Advice

Before the war in Iraq, civil servants offered lots of advice about postwar challenges. Too bad no one was listening.

Throughout this summer and early fall, as the situation in Iraq continued to deteriorate and the presidential campaign heated up, Americans were treated to a series of finger-pointing exercises about whether the war to unseat Saddam Hussein was justified and who had a better plan to deal with its consequences.

Reasonable people can differ on such matters of policy and politics. But these issues obscure a deeper and more fundamental management problem. It's clear now that the chaos in Iraq could have been at least mitigated if the political leaders in the Bush administration had listened to the civil servants who work for them. Instead, they consistently failed to heed the advice of people who have devoted their careers in government to analyzing situations like the one that unfolded in Iraq and giving leaders the information they need to make informed decisions.

In the January/February 2004 issue of our sister publication, The Atlantic Monthly, James Fallows made a compelling case that in postwar Iraq, "The problems the United States has encountered are precisely the ones its own expert agencies warned against." A look back at his report reveals a damning time line:

  • October 2001: The State Department begins planning for the aftermath of a potential war against Saddam Hussein, in an effort that will become known as the "Future of Iraq" project. Congress provides $5 million to fund the studies of 17 working groups on various political, economic and cultural issues. The project results in a 13-volume report whose central themes include the urgency of restoring electricity and water systems as soon as possible after regime change and the importance of carefully planning for the demobilization of Iraq's military forces.
  • May 2002: The CIA begins conducting a series of "war-game" exercises on potential postwar situations in Iraq. A recurring theme in the sessions: the risk of civil unrest after the fall of Baghdad. After officials in the Office of the Secretary of Defense find out about the sessions, Pentagon officials are ordered to stop participating in them.
  • September 2002: The Agency for International Development begins to plan for its postwar responsibilities. Relief organizations warn the agency's new Iraq Working Group that short-term unrest after a successful military operation could lead to long-lasting problems.
  • October 2002: An Army War College team begins a postwar planning exercise. Its group of researchers, which includes representatives from the Army and other federal agencies, rapidly produces a 135-item checklist of tasks that would need to be undertaken in the immediate postwar period. Among Iraqis, the team notes, "Long-term gratitude is unlikely and suspicion of U.S. motives will increase as the occupation continues."
  • January 2003: The National Intelligence Council at the CIA runs a two-day exercise on postwar issues. Defense officials are again prohibited from participating. Problems identified-from political reconstruction to maintaining public order to providing humanitarian relief-are similar to those raised by previous planning groups.
Two months later the war began, with little evidence that the warnings of the various agencies and task forces (not to mention those of nongovernmental organizations and members of Congress) were taken seriously. As a result, despite readily available evidence to the contrary, administration officials persisted in the belief that troops would be welcomed by Iraqis as liberators and postwar problems would be relatively benign.

Even after the end of major combat operations in April, when Iraq's social order rapidly broke down, AID Administrator Andrew Natsios insisted that the total cost to the United States of rebuilding the country would only be $1.7 billion.

As Fallows notes, Defense Department officials had a persistent bias against projections about the postwar situation, believing that any effort to predict what might happen was a fool's errand. And of course, no one could know exactly what would transpire. Much of the prewar planning, for example, focused on the assumption that Saddam would use the weapons of mass destruction he was thought to possess on his own people before relinquishing power, thereby triggering a refugee crisis.

Still, throughout the run-up to war, experienced, talented and energetic civil servants did what they do best-identified a series of issues that demanded attention. And it turned out they were largely right. The decision to ignore their work is a management failure for which the entire country will be paying for some time to come.

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