The weekend after the statue of Saddam Hussein fell, Kenneth Adelman and a couple of other promoters of the Iraq war gathered at Vice President Cheney's residence to celebrate. The invasion had been the "cakewalk" Adelman predicted. Cheney and his guests raised their glasses, toasting President Bush and victory. "It was a euphoric moment," Adelman recalled.
Forty-three months later, the cakewalk looks more like a death march, and Adelman has broken with the Bush team. He had an angry falling-out with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld this fall. He and Cheney are no longer on speaking terms. And he believes that "the president is ultimately responsible" for what Adelman now calls "the debacle that was Iraq."
Adelman, a former Reagan administration official and onetime member of the Iraq war brain trust, is only the latest voice from inside the Bush circle to speak out against the president or his policies. Heading into the final chapter of his presidency, fresh from the sting of a midterm election defeat, Bush finds himself with fewer and fewer friends. Some of the strongest supporters of the war have grown disenchanted, former insiders are registering public dissent and Republicans on Capitol Hill blame him for losing Congress.
Trials of a lame duck
A certain weary crankiness sets in with any administration after six years. By this point in Bill Clinton's tenure, bitter Democrats were competing to denounce his behavior with an intern even as they were trying to fight off his impeachment. Ronald Reagan was deep in the throes of the Iran-contra scandal. But Bush's strained relations with erstwhile friends and allies take on an extra edge of bitterness amid the dashed hopes of the Iraq venture.
"There are a lot of lives that are lost," Adelman said in an interview last week. "A country's at stake. A region's at stake. This is a gigantic situation. . . . This didn't have to be managed this bad. It's just awful."
The sense of Bush abandonment accelerated during the final weeks of the campaign with the publication of a former aide's book accusing the White House of moral hypocrisy and with Vanity Fair quoting Adelman, Richard N. Perle and other neoconservatives assailing White House leadership of the war.
Since the Nov. 7 elections, Republicans have pinned their woes on the president.
"People expect a level of performance they are not getting," former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said in a speech. Many were livid that Bush waited until after the elections to oust Rumsfeld.
"If Rumsfeld had been out, you bet it would have made a difference," Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said on television. "I'd still be chairman of the Judiciary Committee."
Return of the old guard
And so, in what some saw as a rebuke, Senate Republicans restored Trent Lott (Miss.) to their leadership four years after the White House helped orchestrate his ouster, with some saying they could no longer place their faith entirely in Bush.
Some insiders said the White House invited the backlash. "Anytime anyone holds themselves up as holy, they're judged by a different standard," said David Kuo, a former deputy director of the Bush White House's faith-based initiatives who wrote "Tempting Faith," a book that accused the White House of pandering to Christian conservatives. "And at the end of the day, this was a White House that held itself up as holy."
Richard N. Haass, a former top Bush State Department official and now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said a radically different approach to world affairs naturally generates criticism. "The emphasis on promotion of democracy, the emphasis on regime change, the war of choice in Iraq -- all of these are departures from the traditional approach," he said, "so it's not surprising to me that it generates more reaction."
Bickering in the open
The willingness to break with Bush also underscores the fact that the president spent little time courting many natural allies in Washington, according to some Republicans. GOP leaders in Congress often bristled at what they perceived to be a do-what-we-say approach by the White House. Some of those who did have more personal relationships with Bush, Cheney or Rumsfeld came to feel the sense of disappointment more acutely because they believed so strongly in the goals the president laid out for his administration.
The arc of Bush's second term has shown that the most powerful criticism originates from the inside. The pragmatist crowd around Colin L. Powell began speaking out nearly two years ago after he was eased out as secretary of state. Powell lieutenants such as Haass, Richard L. Armitage, Carl W. Ford Jr. and Lawrence B. Wilkerson took public the policy debates they lost on the inside. Many who worked in Iraq returned deeply upset and wrote books such as "Squandered Victory" (Larry Diamond) and "Losing Iraq" (David L. Phillips). Military and CIA officials unloaded after leaving government, culminating in the "generals' revolt" last spring when retired flag officers called for Rumsfeld's dismissal.
Neocons say Bush botched it
On the domestic side, Bush allies in Congress, interest groups and the conservative media broke their solidarity with the White House out of irritation over a number of issues, including federal spending, illegal immigration, the Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers, the response to Hurricane Katrina and the Dubai Ports World deal.
Most striking lately, though, has been the criticism from neoconservatives who provided the intellectual framework for Bush's presidency. Perle, Adelman and others advocated a robust use of U.S. power to advance the ideals of democracy and freedom, targeting Hussein's Iraq as a threat that could be turned into an opportunity.
In an interview last week, Perle said the administration's big mistake was occupying the country rather than creating an interim Iraqi government led by a coalition of exile groups to take over after Hussein was toppled. "If I had known that the U.S. was going to essentially establish an occupation, then I'd say, 'Let's not do it,' " and instead find another way to target Hussein, Perle said. "It was a foolish thing to do."
Turning on an old friend?
Perle, head of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board at the time of the 2003 invasion, said he still believes the invasion was justified. But he resents being called "the architect of the Iraq war," because "my view was different from the administration's view from the very beginning" about how to conduct it. "I am not critical now of anything about which I was not critical before," he said. "I've said it more publicly."
White House officials tend to brush off each criticism by claiming it was over-interpreted or misguided. "I just fundamentally disagree," Cheney said of the comments by Perle, Adelman and other neoconservatives before the midterm elections. Others close to the White House said the neoconservatives are dealing with their own sense of guilt over how events have turned out and are eager to blame Bush to avoid their own culpability.
Joshua Muravchik, a neoconservative at the American Enterprise Institute, said he is distressed "to see neocons turning on Bush" but said he believes they should admit mistakes and openly discuss what went wrong. "All of us who supported the war have to share some of the blame for that," he said. "There's a question to be sorted out: whether the war was a sound idea but very badly executed. And if that's the case, it appears to me the person most responsible for the bad execution was Rumsfeld, and it means neocons should not get too angry at Bush about that."
It may also be, he said, that the mistake was the idea itself -- that Iraq could serve as a democratic beacon for the Middle East. "That part of our plan is down the drain," Muravchik said, "and we have to think about what we can do about keeping alive the idea of democracy."
Few of the original promoters of the war have grown as disenchanted as Adelman. The chief of Reagan's arms control agency, Adelman has been close to Cheney and Rumsfeld for decades and even worked for Rumsfeld at one point. As a member of the Defense Policy Board, he wrote in The Washington Post before the Iraq war that it would be "a cakewalk."
But in interviews with Vanity Fair, the New Yorker and The Post, Adelman said he became unhappy about the conduct of the war soon after his ebullient night at Cheney's residence in 2003. The failure to find weapons of mass destruction disturbed him. He said he was disgusted by the failure to stop the looting that followed Hussein's fall and by Rumsfeld's casual dismissal of it with the phrase "stuff happens." The breaking point, he said, was Bush's decision to award Medals of Freedom to occupation chief L. Paul Bremer, Gen. Tommy R. Franks and then-CIA Director George J. Tenet.
"The three individuals who got the highest civilian medals the president can give were responsible for a lot of the debacle that was Iraq," Adelman said. All told, he said, the Bush national security team has proved to be "the most incompetent" of the past half-century. But, he added, "Obviously, the president is ultimately responsible."
‘Nobody was getting it’
Adelman said he remained silent for so long out of loyalty. "I didn't want to bad-mouth the administration," he said. In private, though, he spoke out, resulting in a furious confrontation with Rumsfeld, who summoned him to the Pentagon in September and demanded his resignation from the defense board.
"It seemed like nobody was getting it," Adelman said. "It seemed like everything was locked in. It seemed like everything was stuck." He agrees he bears blame as well. "I think that's fair. When you advocate a policy that turns bad, you do have some responsibility."
Most troubling, he said, are his shattered ideals: "The whole philosophy of using American strength for good in the world, for a foreign policy that is really value-based instead of balanced-power-based, I don't think is disproven by Iraq. But it's certainly discredited."