"Iraq: The Perfect Storm" - Memo to Secretary of State, Collin Powell from Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs on the dangers of invading Iraq

Memo reviewed by Dimas Muhamad, HKS Master's candidate

Soldiers deploying to Iraq

In 2002, William Burns, the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, wrote to Secretary of State Collin Powell on the dangers of invading Iraq in this memo. Overall, the substance of the memo is quite strong. However, in terms of writing, policy writers can learn from certain improvements that could have been made.

The author starts in a helpful way by highlighting the problem upfront. He contends that an attempt to “overthrow the regime in Baghdad” by the U.S. would unravel the region and lead to a “perfect storm,” harming American interest. However, this bottom line upfront does not include a solution. Throughout the memo, the author offers only options and his preferred course of action is unclear.  He also did not lay out criteria to evaluate which option would be better. In that sense, this memo is a true options memo, over a decision memo.

One element of the memo that worked quite well is that the author utilized storytelling techniques to enhance the persuasion of the memo. He illustrated various possible grim scenarios that could be expected before, during and after an invasion of Iraq. For instance, he explained that the new Iraqi authority and U.S. forces may struggle to restore order after an invasion.

The overall tone of the memo is slightly informal which supports the author’s use of storytelling and narrative. He used colorful and somewhat casual phrases in his memo such as “go down ratholes,” “bum’s rush,” and “if we’re lucky.” He did admit in the opening of his memo that his goal was to share “quick and informal thoughts” and scenario building for Iraq, and therefore his tone matches his objectives.  

One challenge for readers of this memo is its length. The memo is 10 page long. The author could have clustered the projections into fewer points to make the memo more concise. For instance, in his during-the-invasion section there are several points about Israel, which he could have clustered into one to make it more straightforward. The memo is also not “skimmable.” The author did not make the key points that he wanted to emphasize stand out, such as with boldface. Skimmability would enhance the memo, especially because it is 10 pages long.

To read this memo, Memo: Iraq: The Perfect Storm: (attach memo)