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October, 2004

An Open Letter to the American People:

We, a nonpartisan group of foreign affairs specialists, have joined together to call urgently for a change of course in American foreign and national security policy. We judge that the current American policy centered around the war in Iraq is the most misguided one since the Vietnam period, one which harms the cause of the struggle against extreme Islamist terrorists. One result has been a great distortion in the terms of public debate on foreign and national security policy—an emphasis on speculation instead of facts, on mythology instead of calculation, and on misplaced moralizing over considerations of national interest. [1]   We write to challenge some of these distortions.

Although we applaud the Bush Administration for its initial focus on destroying al-Qaida bases in Afghanistan, its failure to engage sufficient U.S. troops to capture or kill the mass of al-Qaida fighters in the later stages of that war was a great blunder. It is a fact that the early shift of U.S. focus to Iraq diverted U.S. resources, including special operations forces and intelligence capabilities, away from direct pursuit of the fight against the terrorists. [2]

Many of the justifications offered by the Bush Administration for the war in Iraq have been proven untrue by credible studies, including by U.S. government agencies.  There is no evidence that Iraq assisted al-Qaida, and its prewar involvement in international terrorism was negligible. [3]   Iraq’s arsenal of chemical and biological weapons was negligible, and its nuclear weapons program virtually nonexistent. [4]   In comparative terms, Iran is and was much the greater sponsor of terrorism, and North Korea and Pakistan pose much the greater risk of nuclear proliferation to terrorists. Even on moral grounds, the case for war was dubious: the war itself has killed over a thousand Americans and unknown thousands of Iraqis, and if the threat of civil war becomes reality, ordinary Iraqis could be even worse off than they were under Saddam Hussein. The Administration knew most of these facts and risks before the war, and could have discovered the others, but instead it played down, concealed or misrepresented them.

Policy errors during the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq have created a situation in Iraq worse than it needed to be. Spurning the advice of Army Chief of Staff General Shinseki, the Administration committed an inadequate number of troops to the occupation, leading to the continuing failure to establish security in Iraq. Ignoring prewar planning by the State Department and other US government agencies, it created a needless security vacuum by disbanding the Iraqi Army, and embarked on a poorly planned and ineffective reconstruction effort which to date has managed to spend only a fraction of the money earmarked for it. [5]   As a result, Iraqi popular dismay at the lack of security, jobs or reliable electric power fuels much of the violent opposition to the U.S. military presence, while the war itself has drawn in terrorists from outside Iraq.

The results of this policy have been overwhelmingly negative for U.S. interests. [6]   While the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime was desirable, the benefit to the U.S. was small as prewar inspections had already proven the extreme weakness of his WMD programs, and therefore the small size of the threat he posed. On the negative side, the excessive U.S. focus on Iraq led to weak and inadequate responses to the greater challenges posed by North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear programs, and diverted resources from the economic and diplomatic efforts needed to fight terrorism in its breeding grounds in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere in the Middle East. Worse, American actions in Iraq, including but not limited to the scandal of Abu Ghraib, have harmed the reputation of the U.S. in most parts of the Middle East and, according to polls, made Osama Bin Laden more popular in some countries than is President Bush. This increased popularity makes it easier for al-Qaida to raise money, attract recruits, and carry out its terrorist operations than would otherwise be the case.

Recognizing these negative consequences of the Iraq war, in addition to the cost in lives and money, we believe that a fundamental reassessment is in order. Significant improvements are needed in our strategy in Iraq and the implementation of that strategy. We call urgently for an open debate on how to achieve these ends, one informed by attention to the facts on the ground in Iraq, the facts of al-Qaida’s methods and strategies, and sober attention to American interests and values.

Signed (All titles and affiliations listed for purposes of identification only),

See list of signatures



[1] On the mythology, see Jack Snyder, “Imperial Temptations,” The National Interest, Spring 2003.

[2] See, e.g., James Fallows, “Bush’s Lost Year,” The Atlantic, October 2004.

[3] National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, “The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States,” (W.W. Norton & Co., 2004).

[4] The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications,” January 2004; Chaim Kaufmann, “Threat Inflation and the Failure of the Marketplace of Ideas: The Selling of the Iraq War,” International Security vol. 29, no. 1 (Summer 2004). Weapons inspector Charles Duelfer concluded Saddam's Iraq had no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in an interview on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” October 6, 2004. 

[5] See, e.g., James Fallows, “Blind Into Baghdad,” The Atlantic, January/February 2004; Peter W. Galbraith, "Iraq: The Bungled Transition," New York Review of Books, September 23, 2004; David M. Edelstein, "Occupational Hazards: Why Military Occupations Succeed or Fail," International Security, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Summer 2004), Robin Wright and Thomas E. Rick, “Bremer Criticizes Troop Levels” Washington Post, October 5, 2004.

[6] On negative impacts on the war on terrorism, see Mia Bloom, Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, forthcoming); Ivan Arreguin-Toft, “Tunnel at the End of the Light: A Critique of U.S. Counter-Terrorist Grand Strategy,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs, vol. 15, no. 3 (2002); Robert A. Pape, “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” American Political Science Review 97, no. 3 (August 2003), and “Dying to Kill Us,” New York Times, September 22, 2003, p. A17; Anonymous, Imperial Hubris (Washington, DC: Brassey’s, 2004).  Regarding problems in Iraq itself, see Anthony H. Cordesman, “The Critical Role of Iraqi Military, Security, and Police Forces: Necessity, Problems, and Progress,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, Third Revised Draft: September 27, 2004 (3.1); David Rapoport, “The Fourth Wave: September 11 in the History of Terrorism,” Current History (December 2001); and Douglas Jehl, "US Intelligence Shows Pessimism On Iraq's Future," The New York Times, September 16, 2004, page A1.

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