The decider didn’t decide

The words seemed to be written with flashing neon lights, the way they demanded a reader’s attention — even though you had to read past some 1,400 other words before you got to them in the article that began on Page One of Sunday’s New York Times.

The words clamored for our attention because they revealed more than what President Bush and his White House spinners ever admitted before about the decision that marked the moment when everything went to hell in the war in Iraq. Or, more precisely, the Decider’s non-decision in the disbanding of the Iraqi army two months after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. That move, experts now conclude, left no security force to halt the looting of arsenals and civil disorder that facilitated today’s sectarian civil war crisis.

The article, based on the news in the just-released book, “Dead Certain,” for which Bush granted extensive interviews to author — and fellow Texan — Robert Draper, reported that Bush acknowledged that disbanding Saddam Hussein’s army was a major mistake. But it was the words that followed that were most revealing — as Bush shifted into a passive voice construction, as if the defining act had occurred through no decision at all, just some sort of natural metamorphosis. Said Bush:

“The policy was to keep the army intact; didn’t happen.”

Draper wrote that he had asked Bush how he reacted when ex-Iraq administrator L. Paul (Jerry) Bremer III forced the army’s dissolution. The president’s response: “Yeah, I can’t remember, I’m sure I said, ‘This is the policy, what happened?’ ”

We can finally piece together answers to the president’s question because those neon-flashing words also caught Bremer’s attention. Hoping to salvage his reputation, Bremer gave the newspaper copies of his exchange of letters with Bush at the time of the disbanding of Saddam’s army. Bremer surely hoped we would think this proved he got Bush’s approval. But what it really shows is the layered levels of failure.

Bremer’s letter to Bush, dated May 22, 2003, was more suck up than heads up, a chatty “my first impressions” after one week on the job in Iraq. Bremer said he found “an almost universal expression of thanks to the US and to you in particular for freeing Iraq from Saddam’s tyranny.” In Mosul, he wrote, “an old man, under the impression that I was President Bush … rushed up and planted two very wet and hairy kisses on my cheeks.”

Bremer wrote that his dissolution of Saddam’s Baath Party was greeted by joyful Iraqis “literally with tears in their eyes.” In the middle of that paragraph, halfway through the letter, Bremer finally wrote: “I will parallel this step with an even more robust measure dissolving Saddam’s military and intelligence structures to emphasize that we mean business.”

The next day, Bush sent Bremer a breezy, 90-word attaboy note: “Dear Jerry … your leadership is apparent. You have quickly made a positive and significant impact. You have my full support and confidence.”

Did Bush not see Bremer’s one sentence about disbanding Saddam’s army? Did Bush not ask who would secure Saddam’s weapons? Or secure the cities? Did then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ever ask Bremer those questions? Or bring them to the president’s attention? Did Vice President Cheney, always the Decider’s Ultimate Insider? And where was then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice on all this? Out of the loop? Why didn’t she raise with the president these questions that every national security adviser has always had to anticipate and coordinate?

It gets still worse. Bremer’s predecessor, retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, had argued vigorously to Rumsfeld that Bremer’s decisions to disband Iraq’s army, dissolve the Baath Party and dump Iraq’s most capable leaders were “tragic decisions,” as Bob Woodward revealed in his book, “State of Denial.” But Garner joined the list of those who failed their country when he failed to tell Bush of his vehement objections to Bremer’s actions. Not in his May 27, 2003, farewell memo to the president. And not in his Oval Office goodbye, when what he told Bush about Bremer (as quoted in Woodward’s book) was a 180-degree wimp-out from what he had argued to Rumsfeld. “I think all the things he’s doing are absolutely the right things,” Garner gushed, deep-sixing the words Bush most needed to hear.

Bush is not the first president to be hermetically sealed in an Oval Office bubble. But in the interest of fair and balanced punditry, we need to note that — in addition to this president’s willful incuriousness, ignorance and incompetence — the willfully dysfunctional Bush presidency has nevertheless been a true team effort.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)