Blogs > HNN > This Has been Bush's Plan All Along

Dec 1, 2007 8:32 pm

This Has been Bush's Plan All Along

[Mr. LeVine is professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture, and Islamic studies at the University of California, Irvine, and author of the forthcoming books: Why They Don't Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil; and Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the Struggle for Palestine, 1880-1948. He is also a contributor, with Viggo Mortensen and Pilar Perez, to Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation. Click here to access his homepage.]

It was a warm early spring day and our two car convoy—of old, beat up, and unembedded Iraqi cars—had just entered the highway out of Baghdad and on the way to Falluja. Even on the cusp of the occupation's first year, in March 2004, it was never a good idea to get stuck in traffic on the highway; too many things could, and often did, go wrong if you stayed in one spot for more than a minute or two.

So I wasn't too thrilled to see yet another freight-train length truck convoy, with heavy military support, cut in front of traffic, bringing it to a halt. But I was also fascinated by the sight--it was telling me, and everyone else on that highway, something about the Bush Administration's plans for Iraq that was clearly not being shared with the American public: the United States was in Iraq for the long haul, and nothing was going to make us leave.

“It's heading up to the base they're building up north,” my driver Maher explained, his matter-of-fact tone barely masking his anger at the implications of his explanation. By the time I saw my first construction convoy I had already sensed that the American media was missing the real story in Iraq. In the papers and on the network and cable news, the talk was of incompetent administration and a strategic failure to understand that Iraqis would not sit idly by while we dismantled their institutions and remade their country in our image. One senior academic colleague told me with an exasperated tone, “Mark, you can't imagine how incompetent the military is” when I recounted what I had seen “in theatre.”

I didn't buy it. What looked like incompetence from home looked in Iraq like a deliberate policy of sewing chaos to ensure Iraqis couldn't ask us to leave, even if they wanted to. The President could blithely declare: “We'll leave if Iraqis ask us to,” or “As Iraqis stand up, we'll stand down,” but these claims meant little when, as far as I could tell, we were standing on top of their collective chest and making sure they couldn't ask us to leave.

As one doctor, a military psychiatrist who had worked with the Americans for a time, put it to me as we toured the woefully underequipped Qadamiya Hospital: “The Americans can't be this incompetent. The chaos has to be deliberate, at least partly.”

I had already seen chaos advance the goals of Israel's leaders in the West Bank and Gaza, where three years of intifada-related war had squeezed Palestinian society to the point where various militias, and even ordinary teenagers, were increasingly engaging in fratricidal violence rather than suicidal violence against Israelis. As I processed my trip with colleagues who worked on other strife-torn regions, it became clear that the deliberate use of chaos was a hallmark of civil wars and political rule across the “arc of instability” stretching from Africa to Central Asia in the post-Cold War era.

Whether in Central Africa, where it was termed the “instrumentalisation du désordre,” or in the former Soviet Union, where it was called “Bardok” (chaos in Russian), the goal was the same: Instead of trying to create stability, embrace and even thrive on the chaos of the post-1989 order by using it to one's military and political advantage.

In Iraq, sponsoring and then effectively managing large-scale chaos served a range of interests and needs of the Bush Administration. First and foremost, it made it impossible for Iraqis—the vast majority of whom were and remain against the occupation—to come together to push the US out. As long as violent resistance could be kept to manageable levels, most Americans would do little more than gripe about the ongoing occupation, which is exactly what has happened in the four and a half years since U.S. troops first arrived in Baghdad.

Second, keeping Iraq in a state of chaos would prevent any power from arising who could threaten American dominance in the near term. Arming one side and then the other,and throwing foreign jihadis into the mix (conveniently franchised under the al-Qa'eda brand), would ensure the country's leaders dare not ask us to leave for fear of jeopardizing their tenuous hold on power. Allowing chaos to rein over the country's reconstruction would not only allow for unprecedented (and sometimes fraudulent) profits for contractors, it would ensure that Iraq remained unable to "stand" on its own two feet for the foreseeable future.

More broadly, making Iraq a cause celebre for jihadis around the world would ensure that the war on terror continues indefinitely, securing massive military budgets, and unprecedented profits for oil and arms companies, for the foreseeable future.

Finally, and most important today, bet that while things might get ugly in the short term, eventually Iraqis would tire of killing themselves wholesale and tone down the violence enough so that the Bush Administration could declare that its policies in Iraq are working—even though in reality the “reduction” in violence is a reduction merely to the sky-high levels of 2006, while violence in other parts of the country has increased.

Everyone played their role to the 'T' in this drama: Iraqis killed each other instead of coming together peacefully to force the U.S. out. Few leading Democrats had the courage to oppose the war on principle; but limiting their criticism to its management meant that there is little they can say now that Bush's policies seem to be working. And the American people, who “own” Iraq as much as does President Bush, are happy to let him manage “his” war as long it allows them to avoid owning up to their collective responsibility for the consequences the occupation has brought to Iraqis, American soldiers, and the health of American democracy more broadly.

And now, as has just been disclosed, the Bush Administration has convinced--or perhaps coerced--Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, to sign an agreement that would allow the US to keep large numbers of forces in Iraq and otherwise have a controlling interest in the country's future for... the foreseeable future.

Simply put, the Bush administration has outwitted Democrats, and the American people, at almost every turn since the President and his senior advisers decided to invade Iraq in the wake of September 11. The sooner Americans realize this, the less will be the likelihood that they will be so easily fooled the next time a President decides to lead the country into a war that everyone says they don't want.

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J. Feuerbach - 12/6/2007


I read the chapter almost in its entirety. Here’s my feedback. You draw, I think, a distinction between descriptive and prescriptive chaos. "But it's not just responding to chaos; initiating change and even chaos has been considered a crucial strategy in the context of the war on terror and the need to maintain and even expand an "empire of bases" that costs upwards of five hundred billion dollars per year" (p. 282).

I find such distinction somewhat artificial. There may be two theories of change and chaos: descriptive (effect) and prescriptive (cause). You can either respond and attempt to handle chaos or you can initiate or induce chaos. However, they are two sides of the same coin. I would agree with your managed chaos thesis if reality could be explained by linear or multiple causation. However, systemic thinking provides us with a better explanation of how things and even sh*t happens. It’s called circular causation. Each component operates as part of a larger whole.

This is what I think transpired. (1) The US made a risk assessment before invading Iraq and determined that the benefits outweighed the risks. (2) It then launched a military adventure with "a flawed plan for war and a worse approach to occupation" (Ricks). So far, the theory of prescriptive chaos can be applied. (3) Next, the US found out that Murphy’s Law wasn't a joke: "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong." At this point the theory of descriptive chaos has to be applied. You even make reference to the possibility of the US being incapable, not unwilling, to manage the chaos. "Perhaps they felt powerless to stop it; more likely they figured that if chaos was inevitable the US might as well be the one controlling and profiting from it (which could yet turn out to be true)" (p. 282). However, you think that the US was attempting to control and profit from the chaos it had generated in the first place.

One last argument against your managed chaos thesis. Could the Republican party profit from induced chaos if it weren't in power? It's interesting to read your thoughts on the topic when you wrote the book: "Some might argue that the idea that the chaos in Iraq was even partly planned is preposterous: wouldn’t the violence and anarchy it unleashed,which clearly called into question the success of Bush’s Iraq policy, be too big an electoral risk to unleash? In, fact, as the 2004 election demonstrated, it cost Bush nothing, because Americans
largely bought the notion that in some vague way Iraq was tied to al-Qa’eda and that whatever the faults in its execution, the Bush Administration had little choice but to invade and occupy Iraq" (p. 292). Although it's true that the Republican party won the 2004 Presidential election, let's not forget that it lost the Congressional 2006 elections. Why? Because of failed policies across the Middle East and especially in Iraq. And there isn't another 9/11, the Republicans will lose the 2008 Presidential elections.

Therefore, I must agree with your following explanation:

"Perhaps President Bush and his neoconservative advisors meant
well; perhaps they really felt that all America had to do was light the
beacon and freedom and democracy would follow. If this is the case,
these 'true believers' in the fantasy of rapid victory followed by rapid
free market democratization comprise the first of at least three circles
of chaos involved in the occupation of Iraq. They would be, as one
Washington insider put it to me, literally 'that incompetent;' an
assessment that perhaps could be made about British and Spanish Prime Ministers Tony Blair and José Maria Aznar and their closest political advisors as well. As I explain below, perhaps they knew exactly what they were doing..." (p. 293)

Yes, Mark. They knew what they were doing... but they didn't know how to do it!

Lorraine Paul - 12/6/2007

Escalation 'ad infinitum', Mr M!

Hmmmm! now that Australia has a government that isn't as lickspittle as the last, when will it be our turn to be invaded and subsequently taught that we must have the 'right sort' of democracy!

N. Friedman - 12/5/2007

Mr. Feuerbach,

I gather, from your answer, that you concede that Wolfowitz did not play the role of decision maker, only the person who formulated how to pursue the policy set by his boss. So, it would seem that he can be both central but not decisive on questions of policy.

Regarding any new position for Wolfowitz or anything else about the Bush administration, I make a point of not trying to read the tea leaves related to what and why Bush does what he does. His administration is an enigma. I think his administration's reasoning with respect to a great many central - and even some minor - policy questions will have to await a careful historical analysis, likely long after he leaves office.

As for reading a book such as Mr. Rick's book, he is writing history before we know the ending. Consider the news that just came out about Iran - which seems to raise a host of new issues that have hardly even been considered. Iran, evidently in the Fall of 2003, supposedly mothballed its nuclear weapons program. If that is really true - and, of course, with the CIA, there is no being all that certain since its track record going way back is not all that perfect -, that raises the question whether such was a result of the Iraq war, akin to the mothballing of such a program by Libya. Maybe the Iranian government concluded that Bush was just like they are, i.e. a war loving religious lunatic. In any event, the new evidence - if it turns out to be correct - will have to be considered with reference to judging the Iraq war.

Now, do not get me wrong. I would not have invaded Iraq. I just think that evaluations such as those by Mr. Rick are way out in front of the evidence and, as is typically the case in such circumstances, rather premature.

J. Feuerbach - 12/5/2007

Mr. Friedman,

I found Ricks' thesis that Wolfy played "an unusually central role on Iraq policy" quite compelling. Again, I invite you to read the book, review the evidence, and reach your own conclusions. After all, nothing is more than 80% true.

An aside. It's interesting that the same day that the new Iran intel is published, Wolfy gets an offer to become the new Arms Control Advisor. Was the Bush administration getting too dovish?

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 12/5/2007

folks, for those of you who don't buy my managed chaos thesis, i have a pdf of the last chapter of my last book 'why they don't hate us,' which goes into the idea in great detail. you can download if off my website,, in the online articles section.
happy reading

N. Friedman - 12/4/2007

Mr. Feuerbach,

What central role did he play? Was he the decision maker? Or, did he pursue the policy that was assigned to him? Did he convince upper level people to do things they did not otherwise intend to do? If so, what specific things? And, in what way? Or, was he merely a central figure in the sense that he had a central assignment and made decisions about how to implement other people's policies, with which all involved happened to agree in general?

I am aware of no facts that cast him as the decision maker. I am aware of no facts that place him into a role other than as supporting cast. And, what you cite does not seem - at least from what you have thus far cited - to change that. All that you fact shows is that he had an important job, which I would not deny.

J. Feuerbach - 12/4/2007

A short reflection on the last paragraph of this very interesting article:

"Simply put, the Bush administration has outwitted Democrats, and the American people, at almost every turn since the President and his senior advisers decided to invade Iraq in the wake of September 11. The sooner Americans realize this, the less will be the likelihood that they will be so easily fooled the next time a President decides to lead the country into a war that everyone says they don't want."

In November 2004, almost 2 years after the invasion of Iraq, Bush was reelected by the American people. By then, there was ample evidence that the invasion of Iraq had been an open, active aggression against a third country that in no way was a threat to the US. On top of that, our reasons for going in had proved to be absolutely baseless. Nonetheless, 62,040,606 Americans voted for Bush! We had a chance to get rid of our Presi for the right reasons but we ended up reelecting him. Either Bush is too smart --LeVine's thesis-- or we Americans are too dumb. Interestingly enough, in our last congressional elections held in November 2006 we apparently changed our collective mind and decided to chastise Republicans for the mishandling of the war in Iraq. Why the sudden change of mind? Three basic reasons: (1) Our soldiers were dying. (2) We were losing the war. (3) The war was costing us a sh*tload of money. If none of these 3 things had occured, the Republicans would still be in control of Congress. By the way, the 3 reasons have to do with US, not with them. Interesting, uh?

Final thought. There's only one thing more amoral (“lacking moral sensibility; not caring about right and wrong”) than the invasion of Iraq: the request of the American people to withdraw our troops from Iraq. We had a golden opportunity in 2004 and we missed out. If we didn't have the insight and judgment or the cojones to kick Bush out of office in November 2004, we now have to face the consequences of our actions.

J. Feuerbach - 12/4/2007

"Wolfowitz seemed at this point to be determined that if he ever again got the chance to deal with Iraq policy, he would not defer to such military judgments about the perceived need to avoid getting stuck in Iraq. A decade later he would play a crucial role in the second Bush administration's drive to war, and this book will return repeatedly to examine his statements and actions. It is unusual for so much attention to be focused on a second-level official of subcabinet rank, but Wolfowitz was destined to play an unusually central role on Iraq policy."

Thomas E. Ricks. "Fiasco. The American Military Adventure in Iraq." p. 7.

If you want to review Wolfy's statements and actions, you'll have to read the book... There are too many!

N. Friedman - 12/4/2007

Mr. Feuerbach,

I take your theory as removing moral and political responsibility for the war from those who actually made the decision to go to war - and Wolfowitz did not make the decision to go to war. That is a fact.

And, it is a fact that the President made the decision to go to war. And he did so either on his own judgment or that of his top, not his second tier, advisers. And, lest there be any doubt, many of his top advisers were advocates of the war from the beginning and would likely have been so even if Mr. Wolfowitz had never been born.

If there is blame here, it goes to those who made decisions, not to those who formulate plans based on the decisions made by others. And, second tier persons do not make decisions to go to war; they help carry them out.

The actual decision makers include the Vice President, Mr. Rumsfeld and Ms. Rice. That list did not include Mr. Wolfowitz. So, why do you select the second tier person? Does he have some magical ability to force over other people?

Why choose the name of a second tier person? I think you owe an answer to that question.

J. Feuerbach - 12/4/2007

Don't worry, you are in good company when it comes to underestimating Wolfy's role in the Bush administration. He was, after all, just the deputy secretary of defense. Ah, don't forget that second-in-commands have played a pivotal role in the Bush administration. (Yes, I'm talking about Dick Cheney.)

By the way, Wolfy has recently been offered the position of chairman of the International Security Advisory Board. According to the NYT, "The board meets quarterly to provide advice to the secretary of state and one of her deputies, based on classified intelligence on some of the most important issues in United States foreign policy today." What kind of unholy mess will Wolfy get us into this time?

Fahrettin Tahir - 12/4/2007

So we have a US governmen playing stupid. Why does that look so natural for Bush and co?

Charles S Young - 12/4/2007

I agree democracy was not much, if any, of a concern. By "transform" I meant the US wanted to display its ability to dominate the region, and rearrange facts on the ground to suit its interests.

Your argument is a state-of-mind claim. What were they thinking? We know what they did and what happened, but the "why" can be several things. Bush's Mission Accomplished strikes me as strong evidence of the state of mind -- they were not expecting the mess -- and there are plausible counter explanations to planned chaos, as I outlined. I won't call planned chaos a conspiracy theory, but it envisions a micromanaging of history that I find unrealistic.

N. Friedman - 12/4/2007

Mr. Feuerbach,

The decisions and real plans were made by someone at a higher pay grade than Mr. Wolfowitz. He was involved in setting things up, not decision making. And, his job was to advance the plans of others, in this case the Secretary of Defense who was, evidently, interested in an invasion.

I find it amazing. There were surely people in the Johnson administration who did exactly what Mr. Wolfowitz did. Yet, people look to Mr. McNamara and Johnson. Why, with the Bush administration do people look at the second tier characters, especially when there is the very high profile and brainy and strong willed Mr. Rumsfeld above Mr. Wolfowitz? It makes no sense.

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 12/4/2007

i don't think the US ever wanted to build a model democracy. the planners who really planned the war were smart enough to know exactly what an invasion and long term occupation would produce. and they got what they wanted, as far as i can tell... thanks for your comment.

J. Feuerbach - 12/3/2007

I agree. The main goal of the invasion of Iraq was to obtain political clout in the region through the establishment of a long-term military presence. Of course we all know --or should know-- who was behind this strategic move: Wolfowitz.

Take a look at the map of the region. I wasn't there but I'm sure Pauly said something like this:

"In order to bring this region under some type of control, we need to set at least one foot on firm ground. If we do that, it's going to be easier to carefully place the other foot --or maybe just the toe-- on the contiguous territories when we think it's necessary. Look at the map: the plan is perfect! We'll use military force and hopefully the other countries will get the message: 'Watch out for the other foot.' Of course we are going to piss off and alienate everyone --foes and allies-- but we have to do it in order to avoid another attack on American soil."

Of course the owner of the circus and all of the clowns thought that it was going to be a walk in the park...

N. Friedman - 12/3/2007


I do not think that your theory is too plausible. The US may want permanent bases in an oil rich country. But, it hardly benefits by sewing discord. That makes no sense and it is not a sustainable policy.

The US may arguably want bases in Iraq because it is between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The idea was, perhaps, to squeeze both countries to put the squeeze on their more radical elements.

Whatever the goal was, the US has demonstrated to every lunatic in that region - of which there appear to be quite a few - that the US can be combated, albeit at a very high cost in lives and the disintegration of social stability. So, I really do not think that the US wants any chaos.

The US wanted stability. The US thought it would create a democracy - confusing Iraq with Turkey under Attaturk. But, the US certainly did not want chaos where the enemies of the US could show that Americans cannot control events.

Of course, it may well be that the US will adjust its ambitions to the reality at hand. But, that reality is quickly changing as the violence, at least for the moment, appears to be running low on fuel to keep making steam.

Charles S Young - 12/3/2007

Planned chaos? Hmmm.

I agree that the plan all along was for a permanent occupation. I think what happened/happens in Iraq is largely irrelevant to that goal. If there's chaos, we stay. If there's not chaos, we stay.

What about the desire to turn Iraq into a model of American ability to transform the Mideast? That framework would not welcome chaos.

But still, the Neocons are certainly capable of such Machiavellian calculation. Even Acheson/Truman welcomed the Korean war's effect on the military budget, which was a key consideration in prolonging the war instead of ending it.

And the seemingly inexplicable small invasion force would certainly support Levine's surmise. The war on terror is certainly convenient for the military industrial complex.

A piece of counter-evidence: Bush's "mission accomplished" claim is certainly haunting him. It suggests they really thought they had pulled off the great imperial coup.

An alternative explanation to Levine's: they wanted permanent bases, full stop. They hoped to achieve this with the decisiveness of the Raid on Entebbe. Once that didn't happen, they see the advantages of the new situation: permanent war that precludes any thought of a peace dividend from the conclusion of the Cold War.

This can be further compared to Korea: Truman first went in to prevent a Munich, and to impress allies with American resolve. As time went on, the advantages of dragging the war out emerged.

The idea of using planned chaos to create exactly the scenario we now have strikes me as beyond the ambition of rational minds. Things never go according to plan, even Neocons know that.

Bryan Mullinax - 12/3/2007

Honestly. Liberals either make the Republicans out to be the most intelligent plotters in the universe, or they are so stupid they cannot tie their shoes.

I have no doubt that President Bush and his administration took a longer view of handling the Middle East situation in the invasion of Iraq. Aside from the WMD worries, draining the swamp of totalitarianism in the Middle East is in the long term interests of the United States and all countries interested in human freedom. And our "friends" the Saudis need to be next on the list.

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 12/3/2007

all i can say, is most people i know who've spent time in iraq as i have come out feeling closer to my view than yours. by bush, i don't mean merely bush the person, but the whole apparatus/complex that surrounds and benefits from him... let's revisit it this five years from now if/when we're still there and hundreds of billions of dollars a year are still being funneled to bush's oil-defense sponsors...

J. Feuerbach - 12/2/2007

Mr. LeVine is giving too much credit to the President. Unfortunately the Iraqi shrink is right: "As one doctor, a military psychiatrist who had worked with the Americans for a time, put it to me as we toured the woefully underequipped Qadamiya Hospital: 'The Americans can't be this incompetent. The chaos has to be deliberate, at least partly.'" Yes, my dear Doctor, the Americans can be this incompetent and your entire country is the victim of our sheer incompetency.

I disagree with Mr. LeVine's thesis perfectly captured in the title: "This Has been Bush's Plan All Along." The book "Fiasco. The American Military Adventure in Iraq" written by Thomas Ricks dispels such thesis. He says, "This book's subtitle terms the US effort in Iraq an adventure in the critical sense of adventurism --that is, with the view that the US-led invasion was launched recklessly, with a flawed plan for war and a worse approach to occupation."