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When Did Bush Learn about Sunnis and Shiites?

October 6, 2018

In my research on the Iraq War, I have been looking for information on what American officials knew about the country they were about to invade. In 2006, the press reported on what I found to be a remarkable claim. As of January 2003, two months before the invasion, Bush supposedly did not know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. Given the importance of this claim, which if true would speak volumes about how carefully American leaders thought about the postwar, I decided that it would be useful to gather every source I could in order to look more deeply into it. Please let me know if there are any other sources relevant to the question that I have missed.

 

The original basis for the media reports was from Ambassador Peter Galbraith's The End of Iraq, page 83. The quote is as follows.

 

A year after the Axis of Evil speech, President Bush met with three Iraqi Americans: the author Kanan Makiya; Hatem Mukhlis, a doctor; and Rend Rahim, who later became postwar Iraq’s first representative to the United States. As the three described what they thought would be the political situation after Saddam’s fall, they talked about Sunnis and Shiites. It became apparent to them that the president was unfamiliar with these terms. The three spent part of the meeting explaining that there are two major sects in Islam.

 

So two months before he ordered U.S. troops into the country, the president of the United States did not appear to know about the division among Iraqis that has defined the country’s history and politics. He would not have understood why non-Arab Iran might gain a foothold in post-Saddam Iraq. He could not have anticipated U.S. troops being caught in the middle of a civil war between two religious sects that he did not know existed.

 

In a footnote, Galbraith recounts that “I heard this directly from two participants in the meeting.” The exact same story is reported in George Packer’s The Assassins' Gate (p. 96). Here’s how he put it:

 

On January 10, 2003, Makiya, Rend Rahim, and a doctor from a prominent Sunni family in Tikrit named Hatem Mukhlis were ushered into the Oval Office for a meeting with the president, Cheney, Rice, and Khalilzad. Bush asked them for their personal stories, but the exiles also spent a good portion of the time explaining to Bush that there were two kinds of Arabs in Iraq, Sunnis and Shia. The very notion of an Iraqi opposition appeared to be new to him.

 

Packer doesn’t tell how he knows this, although it seems likely that he talked to one or both of Galbraith’s sources. Given that Cheney and Rice were members of the administration who have defended the wisdom of the Iraq War in subsequent years and the fact that Khalilzad gives a different account, as shown below, the sources for the claim are probably from those among the Iraqi guests.

 

I haven't found any reason to believe that the Iraqis had any agenda seeking to make Bush look bad, so their accounts as described by Galbraith and Packer can probably be taken at face value. Yet there is some evidence on the other side. Khalilzad writes in chapter 14 of his memoir,

 

In early 2003, President Bush began to reach out personally to the Iraqi opposition. In an Oval Office meeting in early January with three exiled Iraqi opposition figures, he was very clear, vowing that the United States would remove Saddam from power one way or the other. He then asked each of the three to share their personal stories. The president was clearly moved as they spoke of the suffering their families and communities had endured.

 

Brandeis University professor Kanan Makiya told President Bush that he was conducting research into Saddam’s war crimes. Using his own biography as a segue, he told the president that the United States had a transformative opportunity in Iraq. Regime change, Makiya predicted, would “break the mold” and establish a new Iraq in which the United States would be liked and respected. The other Iraqi participants echoed Makiya’s sentiments.

 

The president then peppered the Iraqis with questions. The press has covered this exchange extensively. Journalists have reported that the president asked the exiles to explain to him the difference between Shias and Sunnis in Iraq. This is not true. What I remember is that the president asked whether there was a sharp divide between the Sunnis and Shias and how these dynamics would play out after Saddam’s downfall. Would sectarian differences instigate “hatred, civil conflicts, and more disasters?” He also asked whether the elite in the country was well educated or whether Saddam had purged the educated classes “like in China.”

 

Consistent with Khalilzad’s recollection, a former CIA official reports that although he had been previously unaware of the Sunni-Shia split, Bush was briefed on the topic by a senior analyst from the agency soon after he became President (John Nixon, Debriefing the President, p. 196). And in an October 2002 speech President Bush told the country that when Saddam was gone “[t]he oppression of Kurds, Assyrians, Turkomans, Shi'a, Sunnis and others will be lifted.” Yet as anyone who has taught students at any level can attest, presenting an individual with a piece of information once or twice, and even having him repeat it, is no guarantee that it will be recalled when needed months or years later.

 

A more detailed version of the January 10 meeting is floating around, in which Maikya started talking about Sunnis and Shiites, at which point Bush stopped him to say "I thought they were all Muslims."This story appears in at least two sources, but unfortunately neither provides a reference. If this account is accurate, it seems to rule out Khalilzad's interpretation, though I do not know what the original source for the Bush quote is. Google is of no help.

 

While not speaking directly to the issue of what Bush knew, a 2006 article from the New York Times reveals how remarkably ignorant government leaders can be.

 

FOR the past several months, I’ve been wrapping up lengthy interviews with Washington counterterrorism officials with a fundamental question: “Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?”

 

A “gotcha” question? Perhaps. But if knowing your enemy is the most basic rule of war, I don’t think it’s out of bounds. And as I quickly explain to my subjects, I’m not looking for theological explanations, just the basics: Who’s on what side today, and what does each want?...

 

But so far, most American officials I’ve interviewed don’t have a clue. That includes not just intelligence and law enforcement officials, but also members of Congress who have important roles overseeing our spy agencies. How can they do their jobs without knowing the basics?...

 

A few weeks ago, I took the F.B.I.’s temperature again. At the end of a long interview, I asked Willie Hulon, chief of the bureau’s new national security branch, whether he thought that it was important for a man in his position to know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. “Yes, sure, it’s right to know the difference,” he said. “It’s important to know who your targets are.”…

 

O.K., I asked, trying to help, what about today? Which one is Iran — Sunni or Shiite? He thought for a second. “Iran and Hezbollah,” I prompted. “Which are they?”

 

He took a stab: “Sunni.”

 

Wrong.

 

Al Qaeda? “Sunni.”

 

Right.

 

Not knowing about the Sunni-Shia split in 2006 is a lot more inexcusable than not knowing in early 2003. Before the Iraq War, we had not yet seen a Sunni-Shiite Civil War in the Middle East, and most of the intelligence estimates and media reports of the time did not give the sectarian split as much attention as it would later receive. In the American mind, Shiites such as the Iranian government and Hezoballah and Sunni extremists like Al Qaida all fell under the broad category of Muslim extremists, and they all seemed to take up the same causes, namely being anti-American and championing the Palestinians against the Israelis. But in 2006, the United States had been in the middle of a religious civil war for three years and taking large numbers of casualties. The Iraq War was probably the most important issue of the 2006 midterms, and the fact that, even at this point, members of the House Intelligence Committee and FBI counter-terrorism officials did not know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites should make us very pessimistic about the ability of the US government to solve conflicts in that part of the world.

 

There is no way to definitively prove whether the two Iraqi sources or Khalilzad’s recollection is closer to the truth. Each individual may be recalling the meeting to the best of his ability and providing a reasonable interpretation depending of what he heard. One thing we can say for sure is that Bush did not appreciate the Sunni/Shiite split in the days before the Iraq War, or seek out much information about it. Khalilzad, who presented the more charitable interpretation of the meeting, goes on to say

 

A Sunni Arab physician from Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, Hatem Mukhlis, assured the president that Sunnis, too, were eager to depose Saddam. Once the dictator was gone, Shias and Sunnis would work together in a new democratic government. The point clearly resonated with the president.

 

The other part of the meeting that has been reported widely is Makiya’s assessment of how the Iraqi people would greet U.S. forces. Makiya, it is true, did tell the president that the United States would be welcomed “with sweets and flowers.” As evidence, Makiya cited Iraqi reactions to the Gulf War, when people cheered from the rooftops as coalition forces waged air strikes against the regime. Makiya’s optimistic statement was tempered by Mukhlis, who said that the United States would be well received, but only if it delivered for the Iraqi people within the first two months. After that, he stated, “you could see Mogadishu in Baghdad.”

 

President Bush seemed to share the opposition’s assumption that the Iraqi people would welcome a U.S. military intervention. But he was concerned about collateral damage from the war. What if the country sustained heavy damage during the campaign against Saddam’s forces? All three Iraqis replied that the regime was fragile and would fall quickly.

 

In other words, no matter what Bush knew about Sunnis and Shias, he was eager to brush aside any possibility of sectarian conflict after the fall of Saddam based on some assurances from activists who had a stake in his overthrow. Once top officials in the White House and Pentagon had decided on war, they weren’t going to do a lot of searching for information that might complicate their plans.

 

On March 16, perhaps only two months after Bush learned about sectarian divisions within Iraq, surely referring in part to the meeting with Iraqi exiles discussed above, Vice President Cheney said on Meet the Press that he “talked with a lot of Iraqis in the last several months myself, had them to the White House,” which had given him a “read … on the people of Iraq” telling him that “they will welcome as liberators the United States when we come” to overthrow Saddam Hussein. While the part about being welcomed as liberators has gotten a great deal of attention in subsequent years, what the quote reveals about how the administration collected information in the run-up to the Iraq War deserves more scrutiny. In political science terms, questions of sample size, much less selection effects–the fact that the administration was talking only to those Iraqis who favored intervention–do not appear to have been considered.

 

Unless and until transcripts of the January 2003 meeting become available, and maybe not even then, we will probably never know whether that was the first time Bush came to understand that there were two large Muslim sects in Iraq. Nonetheless, even the most generous interpretation of the meeting reveals a flawed decision-making process in the run-up to war.

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