Leap of Faith

Hubris, Negligence, and America's Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy


By Michael J Mazarr

Formats and Prices




$22.99 CAD



  1. ebook $17.99 $22.99 CAD
  2. Hardcover $30.00 $39.00 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around March 19, 2019. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

The dramatic insider account of why we invaded Iraq, the motivations that drove it, and the frustrations of those who tried and failed to stop it, leading to the most costly misadventure in US history.

A single disastrous choice in the wake of 9/11-the decision to use force to remove Saddam Hussein from power-did enormous damage to the wealth, well-being, and reputation of the United States. Few errors in U.S. foreign policy have had longer-lasting or more harmful consequences. Yet how the decision came to be made remains shrouded in mystery and mythology. To this day, even the principal architects of the war cannot agree on it.

Michael Mazarr has interviewed dozens of players involved in the deliberations about the invasion of Iraq and has reviewed all the documents so far declassified. He paints a devastating of portrait of an administration fueled by righteous conviction yet undercut by chaotic processes, rivalrous agencies, and competing egos. But more than the product of one bungling administration, the invasion of Iraq emerges here as a tragically typical example of modern U.S. foreign policy fiascos.

Leap of Faith asks profound questions about the limits of US power and the accountability for its use. It offers lessons urgently relevant to stave off similar disasters-today and in the future.



This book is an account of a government policy decision, drawn from open sources and over one hundred interviews and informal conversations with participants at various levels in the decision process. I have consulted published secondary sources, especially the memoirs of government officials who have had access to detailed government records of the decision process. I have looked for every declassified document available, from both the US and British governments.

The book does not, as far as I have been able to ensure, contain information that remains classified. Every government document cited here has been declassified through official US or UK procedures. In places where the book describes the activities of US intelligence agencies, I have verified the events using memoirs that have been cleared through the CIA’s publications review board. In my interviews, I asked questions about the decision process and the origins of key policies but did not try to unearth secret information about intelligence findings, US military operations, or other issues. Because I was a Department of Defense employee during the time that I did some of the independent research for this book, I submitted the draft manuscript for security clearance. It has been cleared by the official DoD process.

All of my interviews were conducted on an anonymous basis; any former officials quoted by name in this work are being cited from other published materials. In quoting from those interviews, when I use the term “senior official,” I am referring to people serving at the time in positions of deputy assistant secretary or higher, including equivalent positions at the NSC or in intelligence agencies. The opinions expressed in this book are solely my own.



But where is the man, where is he so keen as to cheat the snares of the gods with a leap? Calamity lures him, smiles, seduces him, into her net, and no escape.


This is a profound truth: The interacting processes that propel the world produce outcomes that no one intends. The fatal conceit—fatal to the fecundity of a spontaneous order—is the belief that anyone, or any group of savants, is clever and farsighted enough to forecast the outcomes of complex systems.


There is, I think, in Reinhold Niebuhr’s political thought a self-limitation which is the very reflection of the subject matter of politics. It is the awareness, to put it in different words, of the tragic character of the political act. We plan a political strategy in order to achieve a certain result, but the result, more often than not, has only a very remote relation to what we intend.


Despite being the official retreat of American presidents, Camp David is a curiously bare and rustic facility.4 Tucked into the forested northern edge of Maryland, it consists of a handful of low-slung, wood-sided lodges set among stands of soaring trees. The camp’s working areas have the feel of a kindly, if second-rate, family resort, at least according to publicly available photographs: rudimentary wood paneling, exposed brick or stone walls, and bare working tables. Former CIA official Michael Morell described one room at Camp David as “a comfortable, homey getaway filled with leather couches, overstuffed chairs, and a big, well-used fireplace.”5

Presidents since Franklin Roosevelt have valued Camp David as an escape from the capital’s hustle and grind. One famous picture taken at the camp shows Nancy Reagan having just stepped off a horse, leaping into the arms of her husband; both are wearing cowboy hats. But some presidents and their families have not taken to the austerity of the compound. Harry Truman reportedly found the facility remote, and his wife, Bess, considered it dreary. George H. W. Bush enthused, on the other hand, that “the quiet mountain setting, the trees, the trails, the movies, and the varied sports activities… contributed to frank conversation and the chance to get to know guests on a personal basis.”6

His son George W. also enjoyed the place. He would write in his memoirs that Camp David, though just a thirty-minute helicopter trip from Washington, “feels much more removed than that.” The crisp air and natural environment, he concluded, “[foster] reflection and clear thinking.”7

On September 7, 2002, President George W. Bush gathered his National Security Council (NSC) at Camp David to decide whether to seek United Nations (UN) approval for attacking Saddam Hussein.8 It was unseasonably warm, with temperatures pushing into the mid-eighties. Official photographs depict a brilliant, sunlit day, with officials in shirtsleeves and sportcoats.

The previous day, the NSC had heard the emerging war plan from General Tommy Franks, chief of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM). Then the cabinet principals (the secretaries of state and defense, the national security advisor, the vice president, and others) had debated the issue without the president. Dick Cheney, continuing a theme he had struck beginning shortly after 9/11, argued for rapid military action. Colin Powell pressed for another UN resolution to provide more legitimacy.9 The session turned into a contentious affair in which these two great elephants of the administration openly butted heads. In Bob Woodward’s telling, Powell “detected a kind of fever in Cheney.… The vice president was beyond hell-bent for action against Saddam. It was as if nothing else existed.”10

Powell’s concerns notwithstanding, the debate was no longer about whether to go to war. One senior official with knowledge of Powell and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage’s thinking confirmed that both fully supported the idea of removing Hussein. The question was when, and under what conditions.11 Donald Rumsfeld would later claim—with much justification—that while Powell quibbled about the scheduling and ornamentation of war, he never disputed the need for action.12

The debate reopened on September 7 at a full NSC meeting chaired by President Bush. Cheney argued for a thirty- to sixty-day ultimatum to Saddam—that he must leave power and open his country to inspections—or else, Cheney urged, the “United States should remove him by force if he did not comply.” Cheney believed Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs were accelerating so fast that the United States had no time to spare. “It is time to act,” he said. “We can’t delay for another year.… An inspection regime does not solve our problem.”13 Bush concluded the discussion by insisting that Saddam must be brought to heel. But the president did not issue any clear guidance.

Within seven months of that Camp David session, US tanks would be streaming across the Kuwaiti border, headed for the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. The consequences of the resulting war remain only partly known—but what we do know is devastating. The war has been a catastrophe for the Iraqi people, at least 150,000 of whom (and perhaps close to half a million, based on the most recent estimates) died in the maelstrom that emerged after March 2003.14 The war has been a tragedy for many of the American servicemen and women and civilian officials who served in the conflict. More than 4,400 of them made the ultimate sacrifice; well over 30,000 have been wounded, many grievously.15 Tens of thousands suffer from damaging, and in some cases crippling, psychological traumas.

The war undermined the presidency of George W. Bush, whose blueprint for a moderate domestic agenda of education, immigration, and entitlement reform gave way to the fateful choice to become a war president. It drained US finances, both directly and indirectly: estimates of the comprehensive cost of the war, including long-term care for wounded veterans, replacing used-up equipment, and continuing operations in Iraq, range from narrow calculations of $800 billion to several trillion dollars. From a geostrategic standpoint, an effort to demonstrate the power and purpose of the United States ended up producing the reverse—global resentment at an America that seemed out of control and measurably less respected than before. Potential rivals, from Russia to North Korea to China, took the war as evidence of the need to intensify efforts to balance American power and influence. Within the region, the collapse of Iraq and entanglement of American power strengthened and emboldened Iran. Sixteen years after the war, the Middle East remains embroiled in chaos; the cause of democracy has not been measurably advanced, and al Qaeda boasts an order of magnitude more adherents than it did before the invasion. More indirectly, the disaster of an unnecessary war helped, along with the subsequent financial crisis, to further undermine American faith in politics and public institutions and to set the stage for today’s hyperpolarized atmosphere.

The decision to launch an ill-conceived invasion of Iraq as the centerpiece of a war on terror has therefore turned out to be a historical misjudgment of the first order. Columnist George Will commented in 2018 that

it is frequently said that the decision to invade Iraq was the worst US foreign policy decision since Vietnam. Actually, it was worse than Vietnam, and the worst in American history, for two reasons. One is that so far we probably have paid no more than 20 percent of the eventual costs of that decision that enhanced Iran’s ascendancy. The other reason is that America gradually waded waist deep into Vietnam without a crossing-the-Rubicon moment—a single, clear, dispositive decision. In contrast, the protracted preparation for invading Iraq was deliberative and methodical.16

These and other risks involved in the decision to wage war were more than evident in September 2002. But they never came up at the Camp David session—an important step on the march toward war. Indeed, there was no single meeting at which the decision to launch a global war on terror, or an invasion of Iraq, was openly, consciously, and rigorously debated.

How was this possible? How did a group of such world-wise leaders not only allow but actively cheer on such a devastating mistake? How was it that the United States, steeped in liberal values and devoted to norms of nonaggression, could fling itself into an aggressive war so easily and with apparently so little thought? Our understanding of precisely why and how that choice came to be made remains radically incomplete: more than fifteen years after the invasion, with numerous memoirs having been published and hundreds of documents declassified, we still do not know when or how, precisely, the decision took place.

That has not kept hundreds of commentators from claiming that they know the basis for it. For the administration’s fiercest critics, the war represented the rash ambitions of an aggressively militaristic clique of ideologists. Some underscore George W. Bush’s longtime resentment of Saddam Hussein and his desire to finish the work his father started in the first Gulf War.17 Others focus on Bush’s psychodramas18—his alleged desire to “prove himself.” Some view the war as an attempt to gain control of Iraq’s oil,19 bolster Israel’s security,20 or promote the fortunes of corporations with ties to Bush’s inner circle. Others see the war as a scheme to build a new capitalist state in the Middle East along American lines.21 One popular theory points to the intrigues of a “cabal” of neoconservatives who dragged the nation to war in service of imperial visions.22 Whatever the explanation, war opponents agree on one point: it was waged on the backs of half-truths, misrepresentations, and outright lies. Representative Walter Jones, a staunch Republican from North Carolina, voted for the war, but eventually “came to believe we were misled, we were lied to.”23

Closing in on two decades after the onset of the war, we still have no consensus on its causes or the motives of those who launched it. Wikipedia boasts an entire page devoted to the “Rationale for the Iraq War,” and it comes to no firm conclusions.24 “I will go to my grave not fully understanding why” Bush chose to invade, admits Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass—and he was working in the administration at the time.25 “Iraq is the Rashomon of wars,” George Packer lamented in 2005.26

These are the questions I have sought to understand during almost a decade of research, including reviewing both published sources and declassified American and British documents and having over a hundred conversations with former officials and military officers. I have become convinced that what many people think they know about the war is wrong—that it resulted from conspiracies, or the plotting of villainous officials, or the dreamy liberation narratives of second-tier neoconservatives, or craven motives like corporate profits—and most of all, that it reflected a self-consciously dishonest plot to hoodwink the American people. Part of my purpose has been to strip away the layers of supposed neocon cabals, pocket-lining oil industrialists, and intelligence failures and get to the heart of this event: a tragically typical example of how America’s worthy global ambitions can go terribly wrong and how senior leaders come to intuitive, moralistic judgments as one antidote to the profound uncertainty of national strategy.

The Bush administration did not invade Iraq to grab its oil or fill Haliburton’s coffers with US government contracts. George Bush was not stupid, nor was he trying to prove something to his father. The scheming of lower-level Defense Department officials adorned the process with sometimes preposterous claims and ideas but did not cause the war. Even when stretching intelligence findings to the limit of what they would support, senior officials did not consider themselves to be lying to the American people. Such arguments not only fail to match the facts, they tempt us to search for wickedness or corruption in the decision process—perversions that can be cured by a simple trade-out of people or administration.

As we will see, there was plenty of foolishness to go around, including willful negligence of historic proportions. Most fundamentally, however, my research has convinced me that two factors are especially useful in understanding how such a tragedy could occur: the fuel of American missionary ambitions and the spark of an intuitive, value-driven judgment. Those twin flaws are not the unique province of any one president or any one administration. They affect the thinking of senior officials from many eras who were trying to do their level best in the face of overwhelming uncertainty. And because they are so common, these factors lie in wait, ready to emerge in future national security decisions—a pattern that may already be recurring today in US policy toward such profound challenges as Russia, Iran, and China.

Many of those in the room at Camp David on September 7 left convinced that something had been decided. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice later wrote that the group “decided on a course of action. Everyone in that room heard the President say, ‘Either he will come clean about his weapons, or there will be war.’… The way ahead could not have been clearer.”27 In his own memoirs, Cheney admits that Bush “had not yet made a decision” but saw no evidence of anyone arguing “against using military force to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Nor did anyone argue that leaving Saddam in power… was a viable option.”28

Some officials told journalist Peter Baker that the September 7 session was “the turning point, the juncture at which Bush resolved to go forward.”29 Just five days later, in a seeming confirmation that the die had been cast, Bush delivered a blistering speech to the United Nations.30 “The purposes of the United States should not be doubted,” Bush proclaimed before a mostly stone-faced audience. “The Security Council resolutions will be enforced… or action will be unavoidable.”31

All of this would seem to suggest that the “decision” to go to war had been made in the meeting on September 7. And yet others involved in the process disagree. One participant in the Camp David session recalled that President Bush’s body language seemed to suggest that he was “still debating in his mind what to do.”32 No formal order to begin military operations emerged. Bush himself has insisted that he did not decide on military action until much closer to the invasion; one very senior official privy to the president’s thinking, when asked when the decision was made, instantly replied, “March [2003]”33—six months after the September 7 meeting.

Bush’s secretary of defense didn’t seem to think a final choice had been made. The day after the United Nations speech, Donald Rumsfeld dictated a memo dismissing the need for a public relations campaign to justify war. Such an effort, he said, “doesn’t come into play until and unless the President makes a decision to do something in Iraq from a military standpoint,” implying that Bush had not yet done so.34 The same day, in a different memo, Rumsfeld stated categorically that “the President has not yet recommended invading Iraq. Therefore, I do not think I should go up [to Congress] and make the case for invading Iraq.”35

Yet such quibbling makes no sense in light of the fact that the Bush administration had been busily planning for war—if not actually deciding on it—since at least December 2001. The idea had floated to the surface amid the smoke, haze, and fury of September 11 itself, in part because many in the administration had long been convinced of the need to dethrone Saddam Hussein. Even among the small library of documents so far declassified, a tidal wave of evidence can be found that many senior officials assumed war was inevitable long before September 2002.36 Two months earlier, in July, for example, Richard Haass, then director of policy planning at the State Department, visited Condoleezza Rice. “I raised this issue about were we really sure that we wanted to put Iraq front and center at this point,” Haass said later. “And she said, essentially, that that decision’s been made, don’t waste your breath.”37

In important ways, then, the essential judgment to invade was in place at least two-thirds of a year before March 2003 and eight weeks prior to the September meeting at Camp David—long months during which the administration routinely dismissed the idea that it had already decided to go to war. Even as the NSC was “debating” the choice of war at Camp David that September, for example, and whatever Rumsfeld’s hesitations, the administration was already rolling out an elaborate public relations campaign. It was a “meticulously planned strategy,” as the New York Times put it, “to persuade the public, the Congress and the allies of the need to confront the threat from Saddam Hussein.” The campaign, like the battle plan for invasion, had been in the works for months.38

In evaluating the decision to go to war in Iraq, we must account, first and foremost, for the beliefs, the perspectives, and ultimately the choices of the man whose highly idiosyncratic decision-making style drove the character of that judgment.

Many of those who worked for George W. Bush describe his private kindnesses. There are hundreds of examples of his spontaneous emotionalism and graciousness in the presence of Iraqis or US servicemen. I have spoken with a number of US military officers and former White House officials who described scenes such as a visit to a US Air Force base. There, after the ceremonial part of the visit was concluded, Bush held back to spend time with a family who had lost a son in Iraq. He dismissed everyone else from the room. He dropped all artifice and spoke humbly, authentically. He shared their pain and took responsibility for the decision that cost their son his life. The visit got no media coverage and received no credit beyond those who attended.

Bush did these sorts of things, I am certain, all the time. One senior official explained that when he asked the president what he most enjoyed about the job, Bush replied that he liked touching people—touching their lives with the office of the presidency.39 Yet such episodes only highlight the tragic paradox: How was it that a man who on an individual level possessed such a caring touch could be so disconnected from decisions affecting the lives of millions?

Officials who observed George W. Bush closely typically portray him as thoughtful and astute, entirely capable of telling insights and rapid-fire questions that drove to the heart of issues. But he could also be bewilderingly disinterested and uninformed; in a number of key planning meetings about the Iraq war, for example, he asked no substantive questions. Bush could have a brilliantly untaught sense of large trends in history and yet be spectacularly blind to the risks of his own policies. He was the son of one of America’s most powerful political dynasties—and yet someone who, as part owner of the Texas Rangers, eschewed luxury boxes for regular seats behind the dugout, calling peanut vendors by name, gobbling down cheap hot dogs, chatting with fans, and bonding with Hispanic players by sputtering through conversations in his high school Spanish.40 This fan of the energy industry and skeptic of global climate treaties built a Crawford ranch house that was, his speechwriter David Frum marveled, “a showcase of enviro technology,” with passive energy, extensive water conservation systems, and propane-fueled trucks.41

Journalist Frank Bruni writes that he asked Bush if he believed one of the goals of 9/11 was to kill him. Bush replied, in all likely sincerity, that he was not thinking of himself but of the families of those who had lost loved ones, and of “the children. I am a loving guy.” He then proceeded to tear up.42 He cried when he took John Kerry’s concession call; he cried when his press secretary Scott McClellan left the White House.43 After 9/11, even as Bush endorsed a global strategy of targeted assassination and sometimes celebrated the results in brutal and seemingly callous language, his was one of the first, and ultimately one of the most consistent, voices opposing the conflation of a war on terrorism with prejudice against Muslims.

“Bush defied easy description,” his former White House aide David Kuo wrote upon first meeting the man who was then Texas governor. “He seemed not just charming, but weighty, seductive yet pure, likable yet mysterious.” Kuo was astonished in particular by Bush’s encounters with men struggling with substance abuse. Bush would “slow down. His cadence would change. He would put both of his hands on the man’s shoulders and look into his eyes. Any swagger disappeared. Something softer and perhaps more genuine took its place. He listened to each story and nodded.… It was one of the more Christ-like things I had ever seen a powerful man do.”44 The qualities—and flaws—of this swaggering, thoughtful, disinterested, sensitive, indolent, and deeply committed man help explain how the United States came to launch an ill-conceived and ill-planned invasion that would count as perhaps America’s greatest foreign policy tragedy of the modern era.

Bush’s dominant goal—in fact, his overriding motive, especially after 9/11—was to fulfill what he viewed as his sacred obligation as president: to keep the American people safe. But his personality and worldview formed a very particular vision of how best to do that, a vision that strongly reflected America’s missionary tradition and proved vulnerable to the appeal of passionate moral imperatives that overrode conceptions of risk and cost. The result was, as many commentators have noted, a form of astonishing certainty. “I know it is hard for you to believe,” he told Bob Woodward in 2002 about the ballooning war on terror, “but I have not doubted what we’re doing.… There is no doubt in my mind we’re doing the right thing. Not one doubt.”45 Fueled by such visions and certainty, he would seek to smite America’s enemies and to achieve an impossibly idealistic transformation of Iraq and the broader Middle East—objectives that were destined to crash headlong into the limits of American power and the realities of a complex world.

This book tells the story of the Iraq decision in mostly straightforward chronological terms, beginning with the moment after the first Gulf War when the US relationship with Iraq began its downward slide from wary engagement into bitter hostility. Each chapter tells the story of one key phase of the process that led to March 2003. Chapter 9 then offers a brief recapitulation of the vital weeks after the first US troops crossed the Iraqi border, when the easy dreams of a quick war gave way to a recognition of the long and bitter task ahead.

In telling this story, I have taken an approach that is at times more impressionistic than linear, dividing each chapter into a number of chronological but sometimes independent vignettes that accumulate to form a mosaic of the whole road to war. I hope by this approach to mirror in narrative style the way in which the decision itself emerged: gradual, piecemeal, with arguments and memos and events piling atop one another and building toward a final judgment. The actual decision process was emergent, indirect, and intuitive, and any telling of the story must share some of these characteristics.

The resulting narrative—emerging as it does in between the initial accounts and the eventual and more complete flood of declassified documents some years hence—does not pretend to offer the final word on every meeting, every thought, every event along the road to war. There is surely much not captured here, and some claims that future historians will need to correct. But my research convinces me that the big picture can be sketched out with some confidence—that we know enough, from interviews, memoirs, and documents, to make an updated judgment, one that builds on the important early treatments to tell the story of the origins of this war in more comprehensive terms.

Yet some will rightly ask: Why another


On Sale
Mar 19, 2019
Page Count
528 pages

Michael J Mazarr

About the Author

Michael J. Mazarr is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. He has been a faculty member and associate dean at the U.S. National War College and senior fellow and project leader at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He served in the U.S. Navy Reserve and has worked as an aide to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and as a defense staffer on Capitol Hill. He holds degrees from Georgetown University and the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs.

Learn more about this author