The owners of the war in Iraq

WASHINGTON—When, in American history, has a vice president had so much influence over a decision to go to war—and how to run the war?

If you answered "right now" you would be correct.

At so critical a time, Vice President Dick Cheney calls the shots, and calls most of them wrong, in cahoots with his old friend Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, said in a recent speech that Cheney early on formed a "cabal" with Rumsfeld that rode rough-shod over the highest level national security policy-making apparatus, and still does.

Cheney and Rumsfeld, and their boss, George W. Bush, by many accounts arrived in office five years ago determined to find some excuse to flex American muscle, invade Iraq, take down dictator Saddam Hussein, implant a pro-Western democracy at peace with Israel in the heart of the Middle East oil patch and demonstrate the virtues of a lighter, leaner U.S. military.

The fires were still burning at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks when Bush and Cheney began asking if there was even the remotest connection between the bombers and Saddam Hussein.

The CIA reported there wasn't, but that didn't matter.

Cheney, Rumsfeld and their neo-conservative aides let Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi guide their thinking on what would happen when the United States invaded Iraq. He produced so-called defectors who testified about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction stockpiles and his nuclear program.

Even though those defectors failed lie detector tests, their lies made their way into the intelligence stream, often bypassing the professional intelligence officers who regarded Chalabi and company as charlatans.

Chalabi and his associates told Cheney and others that Saddam would fall swiftly, the invading American troops would be greeted as liberators, the country could be safely handed over to Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress exiles and the Americans could withdraw by the summer of 2003.

Cheney and Rumsfeld were so convinced that they believed the invasion could be done on the cheap. The generals wanted an invasion and follow-on force of nearly 300,000 troops. Rumsfeld thought it could be done, a la Afghanistan, with fewer than 50,000. After all, there would be no need for an occupation force or any nation rebuilding.

So Rumsfeld hammered the head of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. Tommy Franks, to reduce the force to just over 200,000, cut two divisions out of the follow-on force, and reduce the total U.S. force to 138,000 to deal with occupying and keeping the peace in a fractious country the size of California with a population of 25 million, divided into ethnic and religious groups.

When the whole deal went south on them in the summer of 2003, Cheney and Rumsfeld stuck with the idea of fighting this war on the cheap. American armored divisions, the deadliest in the world, were ordered to leave most of their armor at home, because it cost too much to run them. Tank crews dismounted and became infantry patrolling the deadly roads and streets in Humvees, slightly heavier versions of the old Jeep. Ditto artillery crews.

Mothers and fathers provided their soldier and Marine sons and daughters with the $1,000 they needed to buy their own body armor and other combat equipment that the military could not provide.

Inside the leadership councils the main voice arguing against the invasion, against the United States going in without a broad allied coalition, against the failure to plan for an occupation and costly reconstruction was that of Secretary of State Powell, only occasionally supported by his eventual successor, Condoleezza Rice.

Cheney and Rumsfeld rolled over them and never looked back.

The Iraq war belongs to them. They led the charge and beat the military leadership into submission and into line from the get-go. They set the stage for a disaster and stubbornly held that course when it was clear that a larger force was needed to secure the wide-open borders and to take over the unguarded million tons of weapons and ammunition scattered all over the country.

They and their boss, the president, created the conditions that led to the torture and mistreatment of detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq, in Guantanamo Bay, and in the secret Gulag prisons the Central Intelligence Agency manages around the world.

Cheney and Rumsfeld also created the conditions that are grinding down our Army and Marine Corps with repeated one-year tours of duty in a war that seems unending—a war that's now cost the lives of 2,100 American troops and has sent more than 15,000 of them home with horrible wounds, the worst suffered in roadside bombings while riding in Humvees. President Bush believes that God and history will judge his actions.

Cheney and Rumsfeld can only hope they can dodge responsibility for their actions now, and in the hereafter.



Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young