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It was March 1992 and the document at hand was a draft of the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance (DPG), the Pentagon’s traditional vehicle for providing strategic planning advice.
The policy planning shop can only be effective if the secretary is receptive to new ideas and approaches.
In Cheney’s reading of history, the United States had a record of demobilizing precipitously.
As a Pentagon planner, I was concerned that the American people, and their leaders, did not appreciate the magnitude of this event. I believed that the United States should exercise leadership and expand the liberal international order that the United States and its allies had built after World War II. The “new world order,” as the president called it, presented a particular challenge for the Department of Defense. Doves, including many of the Democrats who controlled Congress, wanted to collect a bigger “peace dividend” and spend it on domestic priorities. Throughout the winter of 1991 into early 1992, I convened discussions with a number of experts from both inside and outside the building. The scenarios did not amount to predictions about the future, and they were not exhaustive of the possibilities. We were not arguing that the United States should necessarily get involved in these scenarios if they materialized. Under Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz had emerged as the leading voice in the administration arguing that the United States should aid the Iraqis who were trying to topple Saddam.
When I kept raising the issue within the government, however, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell called Wolfowitz to complain about “civilians in the Pentagon.” At that point, Wolfowitz stood down.
While we achieved our limited aim in the Gulf War, the outcome left unresolved the question of how to manage the continuing threat of a dangerous and unpredictable regime in Iraq. Against this backdrop, I had, by 1992, developed a clear sense of the strategy I wanted the DPG to advance. I thought it was critical to expand what we called the democratic “zone of peace,” which provided the basis for an open international system. While we believed that there had to be a floor beneath which defense spending could not fall, we understood how important it was to maintain the health of the economy at home. Though the draft DPG remains classified, important parts of the document have been published in the press and released by the Pentagon.
The most important idea in the document, while pertinent to Iraq, was most obviously concerned with Russia. Among the more challenging issues was how to establish criteria for sizing military forces. The military was ultimately directed to maintain sufficient forces for two major regional contingencies—or 2MRCs. When the Times story was published, I was in Germany for a NATO security conference with my Pentagon colleague Stephen Hadley, who had contributed to the DPG.
The leak had generated such an outcry that it became an issue in the 1992 presidential campaign.
As word got around the administration that I had drafted the leaked document, I began receiving phone calls from State Department and White House officials. A senior director on the NSC staff also reached out to tell me that the White House did not appreciate the document’s provocative language and unilateralist theme.
It was for this reason that I had felt demoralized when Cheney asked several of us who had worked on the DPG draft to come to his office. When Cheney endorsed the draft, much to our surprise, Wolfowitz and Libby jumped in and recommended that we change some of the more controversial wording before finalizing the draft. Even with Cheney’s blessing, the DPG was not reviewed at senior levels of the interagency process. The DPG’s prescience on these issues, however, is not the reason the document remains such a source of historical intrigue over a quarter century later. It is true that many of the DPG’s far-reaching and controversial ideas were gradually adopted as U.S.
Had Cheney and his colleagues been intent on waging war against Iraq, an early policy review in the Bush administration over Iraq policy would have been quite different. I saw in the Iraq policy review how difficult it was for the United States, even under a new administration, to undertake a bold policy departure in the absence of a crisis of major policy failure. The principals and their aides who had contributed to the 1992 DPG—notably Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Powell—brought different concerns to the table this time around. Early discussions on Iraq left me with the impression that the principals were unsatisfied with the tit-for-tat engagements that characterized our Iraq policy.
In the Deputies Committee, the Defense Department and vice president’s office, represented by Wolfowitz and Libby, respectively, argued that Iraq was a looming threat—one that continued to grow as the containment regime against Saddam weakened.
With no policy agreement among the major players—either on goals or strategy—my NSC colleagues and I drafted a tactical paper with an escalating three-step plan for liberating Iraq. When we first presented the proposal to Deputy National Security Advisor Hadley, he was understandably reluctant to endorse it without a presidential decision on U.S.
The plan’s key elements were eventually incorporated into an NSC paper entitled “A Liberation Strategy,” which the principals received in early August 2001. On December 2, 2002, President Bush appointed me as his “Special Presidential envoy to the Free Iraqis.” I was to work with the Iraqi opposition to prepare for a post-Saddam Iraq.
While I hope that my memoir will endure as a window into a critical period in American foreign policy, I also wrote it with the country’s current bout of cynicism in mind. I am deeply concerned by how contentious our foreign policy debates have become and hope, as we formulate an approach for the region, that we can pull back from our growing division at home.
It is clear from the record that the Iraq War was hardly conceived in the decades prior to the 2003 invasion.

I had been pleased that my office was assigned the task of drafting the DPG, which would inform choices for the 1994–99 planning cycle. I was surprised by how muted the response was in the United States when the Soviet Union collapsed. The twentieth century had shown that the global security environment could change dramatically—with little warning. President Bush was committed to preserving a “base force” after the Cold War of no fewer than 1.6 million troops. Their opponents in Congress wanted to protect the defense budget but were struggling to do so in the absence of a clear rationale from the Bush administration. Our team developed a set of future contingencies that would be used to test the capabilities of proposed force structures. Instead, our job was to identify the kinds of forces and capabilities that would be relevant should the president decide to deal with such scenarios. In subsequent years, a myth developed to the effect that the DPG set in motion thinking and planning to invade Iraq at some point in the future.
At first, General Norman Schwartzkopf, and then President Bush, announced that the United States would not advance further into Iraq. I had agreed and suggested that the United States could overthrow the Baathist regime without sending large numbers of American troops to Baghdad. Iraqi forces moved into Kurdish cities and slaughtered Saddam’s opponents indiscriminately. Hundreds of thousands of civilians fled to the borders of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iran to escape Saddam’s forces. With only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States could not be a global hegemon. The strategy would be designed to preserve peace among the major world powers and galvanize collective action among allies as challenges—like Iraq—arose. This meant that we could not allow a hostile power like Iraq or other major regional powers to take control over key regions like the Middle East. I did not see defense spending as a threat to the economy, but too large a budget would drag down economic growth.
It was reviewed extensively within the Pentagon bureaucracy, particularly by the Joint Staff, which reported to Powell.
Some thought that sizing forces for one large contingency—a second Gulf War, for example—would be enough.
This still represented a major peace dividend, but did not amount to the even larger downsizing that many were advocating.
National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft considered the paper to be “nutty” and “kooky.” At a staff meeting the morning after the leak, he had made clear his unhappiness. While I told myself that this was exactly the kind of debate the country needed, I was disconcerted. Cheney concurred but underscored that he wanted to keep the basic contours of the strategy.
When Cheney realized that the rest of the administration did not want to conduct a full strategic review, he asked us to produce an unclassified version of the DPG with his name as the main author.
A simple Google search of the 1992 DPG pulls up countless articles citing the document as evidence that Cheney and his Pentagon colleagues had laid the seeds of the 2003 Iraq War many years earlier.
I was quite involved in Iraq policy during this period as a senior National Security Council aide to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. Saddam had been throttled in the Gulf War and Operation Desert Fox but remained belligerent and dangerous. They disagreed on which Iraqi opposition groups to support, whether to maintain no-fly zones, and how to enforce international sanctions against Iraq.
But in terms of adopting a new strategy, they were not even united on the goals we should be prioritizing. They doubted that the international community had the desire or will to keep pressure on Saddam. As a starting point, it called for taking advantage of the Iraq Liberation Act by allocating all of the assistance to the Iraqi opposition that Congress had already made available. The document laid out a series of options—short of a full-scale invasion—that the president could consider if he decided to topple Saddam’s regime. I was a member of Hadley’s Deputies Committee meetings on Iraq, comprised of a small group of senior officials. The United States fell far short of its aspirations in Iraq—a reality that weighs deeply on me.
Case in point is the recent debate in our presidential campaign about the origins of the Iraq War, and whether the Bush administration “lied” in the run-up to the war. Many of the architects of the war did indeed work together in previous administration and reached similar conclusions about the U.S. He was the Special Presidential Envoy to Free Iraqis from 2002-2003 and later was the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the UN. For policy planners, periods of big change often provide the best opportunity to contribute.
He was drawn to conceptual thinking and blocked out time in his schedule to engage in long, substantive policy discussions. The toughest challenge was to break out of “threat-based thinking” and pursue opportunities to shape the world.
At the same time, I wanted to cast the net wide for ideas and involve key officials so that they, too, would have a sense of ownership over the final product. Saddam believed that his regime had lost control of seventeen provinces, with only Anbar Province remaining loyal.

The United States already had F-15 pilots patrolling southern Iraq within one hundred kilometers of where the massacres were happening.
Remembering Saddam’s chemical weapons attacks against them in 1988, millions of Kurds began fleeing toward the Iranian and Turkish borders.
This meant that the United States would be vulnerable in the most foundational scenario we envisioned, in which “a single nation or a coalition of nations” would coalesce behind “an adversarial security strategy” and develop “a military capability to threaten U.S. These goals, I assumed, required the United States to preserve its military preeminence and forward presence, as well as its economic strength.
To do so, the key was to prevent a hostile power from dominating a “critical region,” defined as having the resources, industrial capabilities, and population that, if controlled by a hostile power, would pose a global challenge. The State Department, however, had been missing in action in terms of formulating post–Cold War strategy. President Clinton launched Operation Desert Fox in December 1998 to destroy Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction programs and considered going to war against North Korea to stop its nuclear weapons program. I was tasked with overseeing the Iraq review after the Defense Department vetoed the idea of giving the State Department the lead on Iraq. The consensus in the intelligence community was that he had retained stockpiles of chemical weapons and preserved the capability to restart his weapons programs if and when international pressure relented. That the Iraqi regime continued to seek weapons of mass destruction and support terrorism, they warned, only exacerbated the threat. Attendees could not reveal even the existence of the meetings, and we processed papers through special channels to avoid press leaks. Second, if Saddam refused to disarm, the United States would pursue a serious policy of regime change in Iraq. While it will take some time before the true impact of the United States’ efforts in Iraq become clear, in the near term, it is perhaps inevitable that the region’s conflicts and the threat they pose will dominate our relations with the Middle East. I saw the DPG as an opportunity to outline a grand strategy for the post–Cold War world that would guide our force structure well beyond 1999. Written without attribution because Kennan was still at the State Department, the X article had analyzed the “sources of Soviet conduct” and prescribed in broad brushstrokes the containment strategy that guided U.S. In fact, senior officials in the Bush administration, including Cheney himself, opposed regime change in the first Gulf War. In negotiating an armistice with Saddam’s generals, however, Schwarzkopf permitted the Iraqi regime to fly helicopters over the south of the country. They could prevent the gunship attacks and provide protection while we transferred arms to insurgents who were fighting Saddam’s military with only small arms, machine guns, and grenades. For the most part, they were willing to concede the strategy development process to the civilians, but they were intensely interested in any decisions on force structure and resources that would affect their individual services. What if a crisis were to erupt elsewhere or an adversary tried to take advantage of our preoccupation in one region? Entreaties by every post–Cold War president have failed to prevent the emergence of an aggressive Russia, which has launched wars against Georgia and Ukraine. The national security strategies of those administrations emphasized the need to maintain alliances, partnerships, and forces needed to maintain the balance of power in key regions. Did we want to increase pressure or reduce it through narrower sanctions and less activity in the no-fly zones? I expected, at a minimum, that a monument would be erected to celebrate freedom’s triumph and communism’s defeat, or that a museum would be built to document the struggle and remember the enormous sacrifices made by the Americans, victims of the Gulag, and others who had resisted the Soviet Union. In the absence of a compelling strategy, there was no logical baseline to determine the appropriate level of defense capabilities and spending. Saddam deployed the helicopter gunships to mow down his opponents, slaughtering tens of thousands of civilians. Pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 688, the United States began enforcing a no-fly zone in the north and provided humanitarian assistance to the Kurds under Operation Provide Comfort. Otherwise, public support in the United States would not permit American presidents to carry out this strategy.
In the end, the civilian policy team produced the first strategy that guided America’s post–Cold War policy, which fit well with the advice on forces and resources that Powell and his team were offering.
Leaders in the Baltic states, including Lithuania, fear that they might be next, and today the United States has a treaty obligation to come to their defense. I was dissatisfied with the status quo and how it had left Iraqis with the worst of both worlds—Saddam and sanctions.
I knew that, in the absence of clear guidance from the principals, it would be difficult to develop robust policy recommendations at my level. Third, our policy of regime change would seek a broad-based representative in Iraq, even if a coup ousted Saddam during our planning.
President Obama’s “pivot to Asia” was based on the recognition that China’s rise requires the United States to increase its presence in the region.
Throughout the 1990s, I had advocated publicly for regime change through greater support for the Iraqi opposition to Saddam. But neither I, nor any of my colleagues from the DPG period, had ever argued for a full military invasion of Iraq. Efforts to orchestrate a military coup had failed, and the United States was providing only minimal support to Iraqi opposition groups.

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