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Book Scrutinizes U.S. Ideas That Led to Iraq War


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Read Fred Kaplan's book about how the U.S. got into Iraq and you'll come away with no doubt about one thing - ideas matter, even bad ones. Today's provocative speech at some think-tank symposium or this month's task force report written in the bowels of some federal agency, this year's intelligence estimate, they just might produce next year's policy, if not the next decade's war.

Kaplan's book is called "Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power" - so his verdict on the ideas in question is evident. Fred Kaplan writes about the military, most recently for Slate.com. And we're going to hear about a couple of the ideas that he writes about in the book - military transformation and the abolition of tyranny.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. FRED KAPLAN (Author, "Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power"): Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: First, military transformation in Pentagon speak circa 2002, what did it mean?

Mr. KAPLAN: It meant that with the new high technology weapons, especially bombs that can land within a few feet of their target and computerized surveillance systems that can look at the entire battlefield at one time, you don't need large armies to defeat enemy armies or to topple regimes. You can go in with a very light force and win the war in a matter of days or weeks.

SIEGEL: As people were planning for the invasion of Iraq, could they look to Afghanistan or perhaps even to Bosnia before that and claim some experience of success?

Mr. KAPLAN: Well, they looked at Afghanistan where, you know, the army had told Rumsfeld to overthrow the Taliban government. We'll need to send two armored divisions through Pakistan. So then put together this force of northern alliance guerillas, insurgents with a few special forces and some smart bombs and they overthrow the government just like that. Now, what they didn't realize at the time was that the Taliban and al-Qaida fighters still existed. They were out of government but they were still fighting. But Rumsfeld used that as inspiration during the runup to the war in Iraq. When the army generals were telling him we're going to need 300,000 troops, he was thinking, yeah, that's what you told me about Afghanistan. And the interesting thing is in terms of just defeating the Iraqi army and overthrowing Saddam's government, he was right and the generals were wrong. But he didn't stop to realize that winning a battle does not mean winning a war. That wars are fought for political objectives. And until those objectives are realized, the war isn't over yet.

SIEGEL: Donald Rumsfeld has become synonymous, almost iconic with that decision about how to go to war in Iraq. But actually, there are many other defense policy intellectuals who are contributing to these ideas over the years preceding Iraq.

Mr. KAPLAN: Well, these ideas about transformation, yeah, it didn't spring full blown out of Donald Rumsfeld's brain. It was an idea that had been nurtured within the Pentagon and certain think tank circles since the mid-'70s. And there were a series of think-tank intellectuals including a man named Andrew Marshall who is the director of an office called the Office of Net Assessment in the Pentagon. He has held this position since 1973. He is still there. He's about 86 years old. And he and some others came up with these ideas about how you could maintain American preeminence as the Cold War is coming to an end and as you can no longer raise large armies and as you might have to go fight wars here and there where we don't have bases and where you can't insert large amounts of ground forces. So these ideas have been springing forth and evolving for 30 years when Rumsfeld hatched on to them.

SIEGEL: Now, another idea and that is that the embrace of freedom by other countries and the abolition of tyranny should be a central aim of U.S. foreign policy. Those ideas are really at odds with what people thought about the first President Bush's conduct of foreign policy and even with what was written about it and on behalf of the second President Bush's as he was running for president.

Mr. KAPLAN: That's right. Bush - George W. Bush came into office - it would have been a fair assumption to think that this guy was going to be a realist, maybe even a moderate internationalist. Condoleezza Rice wrote an article in foreign affairs so as the campaign 2000 issues where she laid out what the Republican foreign policy was. Just, you know, what's important is balance of power. This business of going around the world using force for moral purposes is really misguided. September 11th happens, that changed. And then Bush started talking about freedom is a gift from God and the point of our foreign policy will be to smash tyranny and spread freedom around the globe. That mainly came or was inspired by Natan Sharansky, the Soviet dissident. Just after Bush won the 2004 election, a friend of his gave him an advance copy of Sharansky's book. Bush told several interviewers that do you want to know what my foreign policy is going to be, read this book. And set about putting it in motion.

SIEGEL: Yeah. By that time, Sharansky had of course been long freed from the Soviet Union. Had been a minister in the Israeli government and then out of the Israeli government and he drew a distinction between free societies and fear societies and in that dichotomy, the U.S., it was argued, should be the advocate of free societies everywhere.

Mr. KAPLAN: Everywhere. And don't be fooled, he said, by these people who think that democracies can't come to Arab countries. That's what they said about Russia as well. And, you know, in retrospect, maybe they were right about Russia. But what Sharansky sort of realized - but not fully - and what Bush didn't recognize at all is that, you know, this is a beautiful idea but it can't just be transplanted. You have to have a government that can mediate conflicts within social groups and do so without causing rank or in violence, and the countries where he though this could just happen automatically, it didn't work that way.

You know when Bush said freedom is a gift from God, I mean, if you really believed that. If you aren't just saying it is a (unintelligible). If you really believe it, it has profound implications because what that says is that freedom is the default mode of humanity. You hold an election, viola, you got democracy or, I mean, even in this country, freedom, democracy - these things are incredibly difficult to establish and even harder to sustain. It takes real effort. I don't think it's the natural state of mankind at all.

SIEGEL: The case for advancing democracy out there at the Middle East, the administration appears to have cooled off on that over the past year or so. On questions of military transformation, have lessons of Iraq, has the experience of Iraq, in any way, returned back through the loop to the Pentagon and caused some rethinking of military strategy?

Mr. KAPLAN: Well, absolutely. I mean, there's been a huge reckoning on this issue. People now realize that, okay, the smart bombs and computerized weaponry is very useful for part one of the war, but that's just part one. And the others - the subsequent parts require the good old fashioned stuff; Boots on the ground, good intelligence, knowledge of the culture and language, time and money. And the question is if they had realized that at the start, would they have gotten into this mess to begin with.

SIEGEL: Fred Kaplan, thanks a lot for talking with us.

Mr. KAPLAN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Fred Kaplan, the author of "Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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