ASPEN, Colorado — There’s a broad consensus in the U.S. defense establishment today that the choice to invade Iraq was ill-considered and that the initial plan to stabilize the country was even worse. But for Donald Rumsfeld’s one-time intelligence chief, the Iraq war wasn’t just the right call at the time. It was “one of the great strategic decisions of the first half of the 21st century, if it proves not to be the greatest.”
Stephen Cambone, who served as the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence from 2003 until 2007, surprised the audience at the Aspen Security Forum this weekend when he hailed the Iraq war as an alloyed triumph that paved the way for the rebellions now sweeping the Middle East. “It will be one of the greatest strategic victories of the United States because…. of the aftershocks that you see flowing through the region, whether it be in Libya, or in Egypt, or now in Syria,” he said.
Even among alumni of the Bush administration, the unapologetic perspective is somewhat unusual. Bob Gates, who succeeded Rumsfeld as Pentagon chief, told a group of West Point cadets last year that “any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.’” Ryan Crocker — who served President Bush’s ambassador to Iraq and Obama’s representative in Afghanistan — recently cautioned tomorrow’s policymakers to think hard before launching any more invasions.
“I would many times over liberate Iraq again from Saddam Hussein,” former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently said. “But we didn’t understand how broken Iraq was as a society and we tried to rebuild Iraq from Baghdad out. And we really should have rebuilt Iraq outside Baghdad in.”
In 2008, Bush said that the decision to go to war was the right one at the time, given the intelligence he received about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. But Bush added that “the biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq.”
Cambone, who served as one of Bush’s top intelligence officials, didn’t express the same sort of remorse.
“There was a preponderance of evidence that led one to believe that it was reasonable to suppose that there was in fact weapons of mass destruction in that country,” he told the Forum (where, full disclosure, I served as a panel moderator). “The conclusion was mistaken. To draw the conclusion might not have been a mistake… You only know what you know at the time and you have to fill in the rest. So was it reasonable to draw that judgement at the time? I think the answer — based on what people, the judgement they did draw — yeah it probably was. In retrospect, was it accurate? No.’”
Cambone also offered a prediction: that the wave of unrest unleashed by the Iraq war would soon hit American allies in Saudi Arabia and Jordan. This was an extremely positive thing, Cambone added: “After Syria comes Lebanon and after Lebanon come Jordan, and after those come Saudi Arabia; this place is in motion in a way that it hasn’t been for a century — and we have an opportunity to shape that.”