Colin Powell: Colin Powell on the Bush Administration's Iraq War Mistakes

Roundup: Talking About History

Colin L. Powell served as the Secretary of State under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005.

Chaos in Baghdad

On the evening of Aug. 5, 2002, President Bush and I met in his residence at the White House to discuss the pros and cons of the Iraq crisis. Momentum within the administration was building toward military action, and the president was increasingly inclined in that direction.

I had no doubt that our military would easily crush a smaller Iraqi army, much weakened by Desert Storm and the sanctions and other actions that came afterward. But I was concerned about the unpredictable consequences of war. According to plans being confidently put forward, Iraq was expected to somehow transform itself into a stable country with democratic leaders 90 days after we took Baghdad. I believed such hopes were unrealistic. I was sure we would be in for a longer struggle.

I had come up with a simple expression that summarized this idea for the president: “If you break it, you own it.” It was shorthand for the profound reality that if we take out another country’s government by force, we instantly become the new government, responsible for governing the country and for the security of its people until we can turn all that over to a new, stable, and functioning government. We are now in charge. We have to be prepared to take charge.

“Taking Charge” is one of the first things a young Army recruit learns. The new soldier is taught how to pull guard duty—a mundane but essential task. Every recruit memorizes a set of rules describing how a guard performs his duty to standards. These rules are collectively known as the “General Orders.”...

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