The Real War

What led to so many post-9/11 fumbles? A group of intrepid authors gives us answers

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Thomas Ricks is telling his colleagues about the skepticism he encountered when writing his Iraq war book, Fiasco. "When I first started working on it," he says, "a lot of people said, 'Why are you calling it that?'" His Washington Post colleague Bob Woodward silently raises his hand and points to himself as one of the doubters. "By the time my book came out," Ricks continues, "nobody said that to me." In 2006 an acclaimed series of books emerged to tell the real story of the Iraq war and the war on terrorism. TIME gathered the authors of five, all best sellers, for a roundtable conversation: Ricks, Woodward (State of Denial), Michael Gordon and Lieut. General Bernard Trainor (Cobra II), Ron Suskind (The One Percent Doctrine) and Lawrence Wright (The Looming Tower). "I was amazed how they all meshed" as a body of work, says Ricks. "I'd love to sit down as a historian and edit all of them into one book." In that spirit, TIME's Steve Koepp and Mark Thompson debriefed the authors. Excerpts:

TIME In hindsight, why did we go to war in Iraq? What do you think the real reasons were?

TRAINOR After 9/11 the country was in shock, including the President. And he looks at this country--wide-open borders and a free style of life, how do you protect against another catastrophic attack? I think the idea came about that you try to get the archer before he fires the arrow. Better yet, you get the guy who supplies the archer. O.K., that being the case, whom can you operate against? Well, it's not very likely you can do much about North Korea or Iran. But Iraq is an easy target, and if you go against Iraq, you're not only eliminating that guy, but you're also sending a signal to all the troublemakers of the world that you don't mess with Hopalong Cassidy.

TIME What about the sense of unfinished business on the part of the Bush family?

SUSKIND From the first National Security Council meeting in 2001, in January, there was ardor. Now some people say it wasn't a war plan. But what's indisputable is that there was discussion about [how] the primary mission of U.S. policy would be to oust Saddam Hussein. It became the stuff of action plans from the very start. In terms of [Donald] Rumsfeld and [Dick] Cheney, there's a sense of regret that it wasn't done before. The mission was Iraq from the beginning.

RICKS I totally disagree with you. I don't think that there was a Bush Administration plan to invade Iraq at the time they came into office. For the first year, they were more or less focused on improving containment: How do we sharpen policy against Iraq? It wasn't until 9/11 that you get that really sharp break where they say, O.K., let's invade this place.

WRIGHT They saw this as a political opportunity that would never come around again. If they wanted to put that plan into action, this was the moment. There wasn't going to be another one.

TIME Did the failure to capture Osama bin Laden play a role in the decision to go to war?

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