Optimism overshadowed reports concerning Iraq

Editorial

There’s a certain air of second-guessing from people who, quite frankly, are not in a strong position to be able to say “I told you so” in the 229-page report released Friday by the Senate Intelligence Committee on pre-Iraq war intelligence assessments made in January 2003.

Only a few critics outside the political class and even fewer elected officials predicted that a U.S. invasion of Iraq could easily destabilize Iraq and lead to al-Qaida being strengthened rather than weakened.

Apparently, however, such views were expressed in assessments that were reportedly widely circulated inside the U.S. government. The National Intelligence Council issued two papers that purportedly represented a synthesis of views across the 16-agency U.S. intelligence community. These papers predicted that establishing democracy in Iraq would be “a long, difficult and probably turbulent challenge,” noting that Iraq’s political culture did “not foster liberalism or democracy.”

They also predicted that an invasion would “probably boost proponents of political Islam” and that “funds for terrorist groups probably would increase as a result of Muslim outrage over U.S. actions.”

That sounds pessimistic, but it could be that the Intelligence Council reports were not pessimistic enough. They predicted that oil production would increase within a few months of the invasion and that oil revenue would ease reconstruction costs.

At the time, you may remember, public statements were predicting that U.S. troops would be greeted as liberators, and a working democracy would emerge fairly quickly. Military planners were figuring the number of U.S. troops could be reduced substantially by summer of 2003.

Release of these assessments follows publication of former CIA chief George Tenet’s book, “At the Center of the Storm.” He wrote of a January 2003 CIA assessment that predicts “a post-Saddam authority would face a deeply divided society with a significant chance that domestic groups would engage in violent conflict with each other.” He also wrote that “(f)ear of U.S. domination and a widespread belief probably would attract many angry young recruits to extremists’ ranks.”

Some of these releases are self-serving, and not all of these negative suggestions were front-and-center in the reports. The U.S. made plenty of mistakes (the most fundamental of which was the decision to invade in the first place). But the most important were a failure to consider there could be negative consequences following a swift military victory, and to plan beyond the invasion.

Psychologically, it is easy to understand a tendency to dismiss negative thoughts once you have decided on a course of action, but especially in war it is prudent to hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

Administration enthusiasts apparently believed their own rosy scenarios and planned (or failed to plan) accordingly.

The point of the Monday morning quarterbacking should be not to point fingers, but to encourage leaders in any future conflict to go beyond cheerleading and be ready if and when rosy scenarios turn darker.