The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Behind the Iraq War, a story of influence, intelligence and presidential power

From left, Secretary of State Colin Powell, President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2003. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The world feels all too full of current, urgent catastrophes. From a deadly pandemic to China’s violent repression of the Uighurs, from resurgent authoritarianism to escalating climate change, it can seem impossible to keep up with, let alone fully understand, the dangers afflicting the planet today. So a reader might be forgiven for wondering why, at this particular moment, he or she should spend more than 400 pages retreading the path the United States took to war in Iraq in 2003.

But the detailed, nuanced, gripping account of that strange and complex journey offered in Robert Draper’s “To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq” is essential reading — now, especially now. Draper exposes key points about the relationships among an American president, the executive branch he leads and the intelligence he receives that burn as fiercely today as they did almost two decades ago, when the United States hurtled into a war from which it has yet to extricate itself fully.

Animating Draper’s account is a simple yet often overlooked fact about America’s war in Iraq: “The decision was George W. Bush’s.” That may sound like a truism, but the standard telling of the path to war sometimes skips over it, instead dwelling on the push for war by Vice President Dick Cheney, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith. But there’s only one commander in chief and indeed, in Bush’s own words, only one “decider.” Draper thrusts Bush back into the Iraq narrative, because in the end it was Bush alone whom Cheney, Wolfowitz and Feith had to convince. With Bush would come the American people and Congress, but the president had to buy in first.

Yet Bush didn’t start his presidency hellbent on war with Iraq — unlike key advisers such as Wolfowitz. After 9/11, Bush didn’t insist that Iraq somehow must have been behind the attacks — unlike key advisers. Bush didn’t even initially buy the notion that, regardless of responsibility, a full response to 9/11 had to include attacking Iraq — again, unlike key advisers.

So: What changed the one mind that could change the fate of nations?

Here, too, Draper’s narrative complicates the standard answer: that the intelligence on whether Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction was politicized. It was; but what that actually means — that’s complex, it turns out. There was no single moment when, for example, Cheney told CIA Director George Tenet to skew the agency’s analysis and Tenet complied. Instead, there was a far more subtle and gradual process. There were genuine errors, with analysts drawing mistaken inferences from Saddam Hussein’s apparent refusal to explain what they believed was a gap between the weapons Iraq had and the weapons United Nations inspectors could account for. But there was also an insistence by Tenet on maintaining the CIA’s relevance to Bush, which led to overstatement, suppression of contrary views, and a skewing of who wrote which analyses and who briefed whom — all trending toward painting a more ominous picture. There was a parallel commitment to sustaining relevance by Secretary of State Colin Powell, who traveled the path to war with unease yet believed he was at least being rigorous in how he approached the intelligence, without realizing, it seems, the consequential imprimatur that his voice provided to an already faulty analysis. And, less subtly, there was an insistence at key moments by Cheney and his fellow hawks on reinserting into speeches language that others had deleted because the intelligence did not back it up.

It all adds up to what we’ve come to call politicized intelligence, but it’s complex and multilayered. And, as Draper demonstrates, the steady alignment of the intelligence analysis behind the case for war reflected a deeper phenomenon within Bush’s executive branch: the steady alignment of Cabinet members behind going to war. It’s not, in Draper’s rendering, that Powell, Tenet or national security adviser Condoleezza Rice ever became gung-ho on war with Iraq themselves. It’s that, consciously or otherwise, they began to assume, rightly or wrongly, that Bush had decided to go to war, regardless of what he said about his mind not being made up. And so they got on board, bringing the intelligence case along with them.

That makes Draper’s account one for the ages, one to study not just to understand a war whose repercussions loom large given the Americans, Iraqis and others who’ve perished — and given the through-line from Bush’s decision to the continuing U.S. presence in Iraq and the persistent threat from terrorists there and in Syria in the wake of the U.S. invasion. Draper’s story is ultimately an account of the complex dynamics of the American presidency, especially when it comes to major decisions of war and peace. Presidents affect those around them simply by the questions they ask — and the ones they fail to ask. Their power is so extraordinary that even their most independent-minded Cabinet members can reorient their own positions, even their genuinely held beliefs, thinking they’re serving faithfully, when in fact faithful service would mean asking the president tough questions and candidly telling him their concerns, even their disagreement. What’s more, presidents can infect the very intelligence coming to them by giving the impression that only certain answers are welcome, then hardening their views based on what — surprise! — appears to be intelligence confirming those views.

The lessons that emerge from Draper’s book for any American president are profound, making it a must-read for all who care about presidential power. I’d say President Trump should read it — but, well, you know. But future presidents should. And so should those who serve those presidents. Because, in the end, it may be the questions they don’t ask that make it into the history books, having changed the fate not just of a country like Iraq but of America as well.

To Start a War

How the Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq

By Robert Draper

Penguin Press. 480 pp. $30