Quick Review: TO START A WAR by Robert Draper (Penguin Press)

DraperD-ToStartAWarUSHCAn interesting, well-written, and extensive investigation into what the US went to war with Iraq

Even now, after more than fifteen years, it is hard to see the invasion of Iraq through the cool, considered gaze of history. For too many people, the damage is still too palpable, and still unfolding. Most of the major players in that decision are still with us, and few of them are not haunted by it, in one way or another. Perhaps it’s that combination, the passage of the years and the still unresolved trauma, that explains why so many protagonists opened up so fully for the first time to Robert Draper.

Draper’s prodigious reporting has yielded scores of consequential new revelations, from the important to the merely absurd. As a whole, the book paints a vivid and indelible picture of a decision-making process that was fatally compromised by a combination of post-9/11 fear and paranoia, rank naïveté, craven groupthink, and a set of actors with idées fixes who gamed the process relentlessly. Everything was believed; nothing was true. The intelligence failure was comprehensive. Draper’s fair-mindedness and deep understanding of the principal actors suffuse his account, as does a storytelling genius that is close to sorcery. There are no cheap shots here, which makes the ultimate conclusion all the more damning.

In the spirit of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August and Marc Bloch’s Strange Defeat, To Start A War will stand as the definitive account of a collective process that arrived at evidence that would prove to be not just dubious but entirely false, driven by imagination rather than a quest for truth — evidence that was then used to justify a verdict that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and a flood tide of chaos in the Middle East that shows no signs of ebbing.

“Why did Bush et al shift their focus from Afghanistan and al Qaeda to Saddam and Iraq?” This is a question that many have been trying to answer, with varying degrees of success ever since the shift happened. In his latest book, Draper presents an account of how the United States ended up in Iraq. It’s an interesting, wide-ranging investigation.

It is a question that has animated a number of my students over the years (in the UK and in Canada). Is it as simple as “the Americans wanted to take the oil”, or “Bush’s family wanted revenge on Saddam”, or “They wanted to finish what they started back in 1991”? According to Draper, the shift to focusing on Iraq was almost inevitable.

Draper gives readers a lot to unpack, and a lot of information to synthesize and analyse. After finishing the book, I think Draper has come to the same conclusion I have over the years. It has always seemed, to me, that there are many convincing arguments for the invasion of Iraq — from the mundane to the grand strategic, many authors and journalists have been able to craft convincing, rigorous and evidence-based analyses of the invasion. Some of these reasons are contradictory, or explicitly exclude or dismiss other reasons. I think it’s becoming increasingly clear that the truth is that all of them are at least partially right.

The Bush Administration contained a multitude of personalities with their own ideologies and agendas. As it happened, these ideologies and agendas found a shared focal point: Iraq and Saddam. This confluence of focus, interest and ideologies meant that the administration was primed to find cause for going after Saddam (not necessarily militarily, but that was certainly a big part for many). That the president was receptive to these arguments (and, unfortunately, obsessed with being the “decider” and utterly dismissive of nuance) is ultimately why they found purchase. Each administration official who believed they had a reason for going after Iraq was able to cater their argument to suit whatever position the president seemed to hold at the time. Meanwhile, Bush bought into a grand, historical narrative of the United States (specifically the president) as crusader for democracy. Despite being presented with plenty of evidence that Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11, and receiving many learned and informed arguments against invasion, they blundered on with little-to-no interest in changing their goals.

After reading To Start A War, readers will likely come away with the impression that the Bush administration was almost inevitably going to “go after” Saddam at some point during his administration. Certain members, especially Wolfowitz, were focused on Iraq from the beginning and were utterly convinced that Saddam was at the root of all turmoil in the Middle East, and a real threat to the United States. Draper offers a good account of the relentless flood of queries, post-9/11 that the CIA received from many in the Executive Branch. Even after repeatedly and clearly explaining and showing how it was either impossible or illogical for Saddam to have been a part in the 9/11 attacks, the analysts received even more queries. These queries took on the tone of demands for making the intelligence fit the narrative, and changes in personnel and briefings clearly indicated a desire to have the intelligence fit the desired narrative.

It’s worth spending bringing up the Iraqi oil issue. It is tragically true that many politicians (especially American) would have no interest in the region if it wasn’t for oil. It is impossible to talk or write about the invasion without taking into consideration Iraq’s oil reserves (fifth largest in the world) and what it means for the world. Any amount of research will throw out plenty of conspiracies, enthusiastic and convincing arguments for and against oil being the sole reason for the invasion. In To Start a War, oil is barely a factor for most of the book — indeed, it was noticeably absent. Does this mean Draper has been hoodwinked by the “it wasn’t about oil” apologists or whatever you may want to call that group? As already mentioned, with the benefit of hindsight, declassification, plentiful new and existing research and accounts, it is becoming ever-more clear that the cause of the shift in focus and invasion is not down to any single reason. Even al Jazeera, no fan of George W. Bush and his administration, says it wasn’t about oil — one reporter concluded that “the Bush administration invaded Iraq for its demonstration effect.” In other words, they did it because they could. It was the foreign policy equivalent of dick-swinging.

To Start a War is an engaging, exhaustive (and only slightly exhausting) account of how the Bush administration made the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. It is a damning account, one filled with examples of wishful thinking, hubris, global ignorance, single-mindedness, and sometimes ruthless political maneuvering to make intelligence suit a narrative. It is also an account of political cowardice, as certain administration members and civil servants caved to the Executive Branch’s wishes and demands.

If you only read one book about the Iraq invasion and war, then make it this one. A rewarding read. Definitely recommended.


Robert Draper’s To Start a War is out now, published by Penguin Press in North America and in the UK.

Follow the Author: Goodreads, Twitter
Review copy received via Edelweiss

One thought on “Quick Review: TO START A WAR by Robert Draper (Penguin Press)

  1. I recently listened to the “Blowback”-podcast on the same topic and it’s a stark reminder of how evil the Bush-administration has been, But it’s interesting to look back at the incompetence and lack of ethics/strategic thinking that went into planning that war. It’s definitely more complicated than just “The Americans wanted the oil.”.

    And worst of all, it’s still going on with no end in sight…

    Also, I’m still pissed off about seeing Colin Powell at the DNC-convention this year. As if we’re supposed to think he’s a good guy now just because he hates Trump… He was right there with everyone else in the government selling everyone the WMD-lie.

    Liked by 1 person

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