Robert Draper, To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq (Penguin Press, 2020).
The two most glaring challenges of writing recent foreign affairs history are the lack of available archival sources and the interestedness of the human sources, who usually aim to portray events in a favorable light. In the face of these obstacles, historians, journalists, and other scholars usually take one of two paths.
The first, favored by journalists, is to “go deep”: to squeeze every drop from the available sources and cast a wide net for interview subjects. Going deep tends to shed light on how an event happened, how personalities interacted, how information was collected and evaluated, how decisions were made and by whom.
The second, favored by historians, is to “go wide”: to place an event in wider contexts, including the immediate context and the preceding decades or even centuries. This is the interpretive heavy lifting in which the historian links an event to broader trends, ideas, and forces that created the intellectual, cultural, political, and economic atmosphere in which the primary actors operated. Historians often go wide on recent events because their preferred method of going deep — raiding the archives — isn’t yet possible.
It might be assumed that going deep and going wide have a symbiotic relationship. Knowing more about how an event proceeded should help illuminate why it happened. This isn’t always the case, however, as new information in and of itself doesn’t prove or disprove any larger argument. In many cases, new information simply reinforces dominant narratives without creating innovative insights.
It is with this in mind that we ought to consider a new book by Robert Draper, a journalist with The New York Times. This text, To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq, is a case study in these problems. This book’s value lies in its meticulous reconstruction of the Bush administration’s decision-making processes, its gathering and use of intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and its internal divides. However, the book does little more than this, leaving the larger interpretive task of “going wide” to other scholars. These limitations suggest that scholars should increasingly focus on how Americans’ perceptions of Saddam Hussein and Baathist Iraq formed over the previous decades, not just in policymaking circles but in broader cultural, intellectual, political spheres.
In order to write this book, Draper conducted 300 interviews with policymakers, politicians, intellectuals, and high and mid-level personnel throughout the relevant departments and agencies of government. The most prominent interviewees included Colin Powell, Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleezza Rice, George Tenet, and Douglas Feith. The fruits of these interviews allow Draper to shed new light on certain individuals and events, although not the causes of the war itself.
Even experienced national security hands will find Draper’s account of intelligence on weapons of mass destruction illuminating. He interviewed 70 CIA personnel, who recall that top policymakers consistently welcomed intelligence that bolstered the case for war and dismissed contradictory evidence. His interviewees also recall staffers of then-Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld using unvetted intelligence that supported their unshakeable belief in a connection between the Iraqi state and al-Qaeda no matter how many times the intelligence agencies refuted these claims. One CIA official described the spurious intelligence presentations of Feith’s staff as “It was moons away. It was six degrees of Kevin Bacon’s mom.”