What really led the United States to the war in Iraq (2023)


A fatal combination of fear, power and arrogance

VonMelvyn P. Leffler
What really led the United States to the war in Iraq (1)

ANnot pentagonOn the afternoon of September 11, with the fires still burning and the ambulances crowding, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld returned to his office from the smoky courtyard. His closest aide, Under Secretary of State Stephen Cambone, cryptically recorded the secretary's thoughts on Saddam Hussein and Osama (or Osama) bin Laden: “Hit S.H. at the same time; Not just UBL; short term goals need to - become massive - sweep everything - need to do this to accomplish anything useful.

The president did not agree. When George W. Bush returned to Washington that night, his main concern was to calm the nation, ease its suffering and inspire hope. Told that al-Qaeda was likely responsible for the attack, he did not focus on Iraq. The following day, at meetings of the National Security Council, Rumsfeld and Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz advocated a crackdown on Saddam Hussein. With no good targets in Afghanistan and no war plans to oust the Taliban, defense officials thought Iraq might offer the best opportunity to demonstrate American resolve and resilience. His arguments did not resonate with any of those present.

The following night, however, President Bush met with his counterterrorism expert, Richard Clarke, and several other aides outside the White House Situation Room. According to Clarke, Presidentthese“I want you to go over everything again as soon as possible, everything. See if Saddam did it. See if it's connected in any way.” Clarke promised yes, but insisted that al-Qaeda, not Hussein, was responsible. He then muttered to his assistants, "Wolfowitz got him."

What really led the United States to the war in Iraq (2)

There is no real evidence that Wolfowitz reached Bush. The president may have spoken in one of an attack on Iraqconversationwith British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Friday, September 14th. But when Wolfowitz revisited the issue at Camp David over the weekend, Bush wasmake it clearthat he does not believe Hussein is linked to 9/11 and that Afghanistan is his No. 1 priority. His vice president, national security advisers and the director of the CIA agreed.

From the January/February issue of 209: The George W. Bush Years

Bush's decision to invade Iraq was neither predetermined nor inevitable. It wasn't about democracy and it wasn't about oil. It was not about reversing the 1991 decision, when the United States failed to overthrow Hussein, nor about making up for the dictator's attempt to assassinate Bush's father, George HW Bush, in 1993. Instead, Bush and his advisers were motivated for his concerns for the security of the United States. Desperate to thwart any possible attack on the Americans, they were determined to eliminate Hussein's ability to use weapons of mass destruction to control the future exercise of American power in the Middle East.

Bush decided to invade Iraq only after many months of great fear, a time when hardworking but overzealous officials tried to analyze incomplete and unreliable information. His excessive fear of Iraq was accompanied by an excessive preoccupation with American power. And they were unsettled by the sense that the country's credibility was eroding after the 9/11 shocking revelation of unprecedented vulnerability.

EUn Key Bush SpeechesIn the first week after 9/11, he didn't mention Iraq. When reporters asked the president if he had a special message for Saddam Hussein, Bushspokengenerally: "Anyone harboring terrorists should fear the United States... The message to all countries is: there will be a campaign against terrorist activity, a worldwide campaign." As General Tommy Franks, commander of US forces in the Middle East, Bush proposed to start military planning against Iraq, the president instructed him not to.

Rumsfeld and his top advisers remained most concerned about Iraq – a regime, wrote Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith on September 18, "that engages in and supports terrorism and threatens vital US interests." But even they didn't advocate a full-scale invasion. Instead, Wolfowitz advocated seeding a Shiite rebellion in the south, establishing an enclave or liberation zone for organizing a provisional government, and denying Hussein control of the region's oil. "If we were able to mount an Afghan resistance against the Soviets," Wolfowitz told me, "we might have been able to mount an Arab resistance."

Bush was not entirely insensitive to this approach, but neither Rumsfeld nor Wolfowitz could persuade him to divert his attention from Afghanistan and the broader war on terror. Shifting to Bush's priority, Wolfowitz ended up helping craft the strategy that toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan. But he, Feith and their civilian colleagues at the Pentagon have not given up on the idea of ​​regime change in Iraq. They were outraged by Hussein's gloating over the 9/11 attack. And they were convinced he was dangerous.

Bush's attention did not turn to Iraq until the fall, after anthrax spores circulated through the US mail, killing several postal workers and appearing in a Senate building and a facility that processed White House mail. On October 18, White House sensors alerted staff to the presence of a deadly poison; It was a false alarm, but it raised concerns about a biological or chemical weapons attack.

Bush and his advisers were concerned about what they thought they knew about Iraq, even though it was difficult to gauge Hussein's intentions and capabilities. The Iraqi dictator kicked out international inspectors in 1998, leaving the CIA unable to gather intelligence. But analysts were convinced that Hussein could not be trusted for having destroyed all weapons of mass destruction he had previously possessed. His suspicions were heightened when an Iraqi defector claimed that Iraq had established mobile biological weapons production facilities and now possessed "capabilities that surpassed the pre-Gulf War era".

From the January/February 2004 issue: Spies, Lies and Guns: What Went Wrong

Michael Morell, the president's CIA spokesman, insisted to me that anyone who re-examined the evidence available at the time would still conclude that Hussein "had the capability to produce chemical weapons, that he had chemical weapons stockpiled, that he had the capability to manufacture weapons biological and that he restarted a nuclear program. Today you would reach that verdict based on what was on the table.” But what was on the table, Morell told me, was circumstantial and suspicious, much of it coming from regime-hating Iraqi Kurds. Morell admitted he should have said, "Mr. President, here's what we think... But what you really need to know is that we have little confidence in this decision, and here's why.” Instead, Morell told the president that Hussein “had a chemical weapons program. He has the ability to create biological weapons.”

Bush and his top advisers were inclined to believe that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. This didn't just apply to government hawks. Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice believed that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. So did State Department analysts and their colleagues at the CIA and National Security Agency. They disagreed about the purpose of the aluminum tubes and Iraq's acquisition of the uranium yellow cake, and they were aware that it would take Hussein five to seven years to develop a nuclear weapon once the regime started work on it again. Despite this, they believed they knew Iraq had biological and chemical weapons, or could rapidly develop them, and that Hussein aspired to rebuild a nuclear program.

Foreign intelligence partners agreed. Tony Blair and his most trusted advisers felt the same way. Nobody told Bush that Hussein didn't have weapons of mass destruction.

Hussein was seriously hampered by sanctions and the presence of inspectors. But now the inspectors are gone and the sanctions are gone. The dilemma faced by US policymakers was how to contain Hussein if the sanctions regime ended and the United Nations monitors did not return. "I wasn't worried about what he would do in 2001," Wolfowitz told me. "I was worried about what he would do in 2010 if the existing containment ... collapsed."

Hussein did little to allay American fears. He used his oil gains to leverage support from France, China and Russia to end UN sanctions. He continued to support terrorist activities in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, some of which targeted US advisers. And reports of its widespread crackdown in Iraq continued.

Read: Britain's Iraq war reckoning

At the same time, Hussein invested his growing financial reserves in strengthening Iraq's military-industrial complex and acquiring materials that could be used for chemical and biological weapons. According to British intelligence, the Iraqis were still hiding information about 31,000 chemical munitions, 4,000 tons of chemicals that could be used in weapons, and large amounts of materials that could be used in the manufacture of biological weapons.

These ratings held up through the winter. "Iraq continues its programs of mass destruction," concluded Britain's Joint Intelligence Committee in February 2002. thus." ."

"I have no doubt that we have to deal with Saddam," Blair wrote to Bush in the fall of 2001. But if "we attack Iraq now," Blair warned, "we would lose the Arab world, Russia, probably half the EU, and my concern is the impact on Pakistan". knowing exactly what we want to do; and how can we do that.” Busch agreed.

"President Bush believed' Rumsfeld later wrote, 'that the key to successful diplomacy with Saddam was a credible threat of military action. We hoped that the process of putting increasing numbers of American forces in position to attack Iraq would persuade Iraqis to end their resistance.” force you to … do what the international community is asking, which is to destroy weapons of mass destruction or show us that you have destroyed them. That was it. Either do it or, if you have already done it, show it, prove it”.

Bush wanted to use the threat of force to resume inspections and gain confidence that Iraq does not have weapons of mass destruction that could fall into the hands of terrorists or be used to blackmail the US in the future. But he also wanted to use the threat of violence to overthrow Hussein. He doesn't know exactly which of these goals takes priority. He never clearly classified these overlapping but conflicting impulses, even as each seemed to be becoming more convincing.

"The best way to make Saddam comply with the demands of the United Nations," wrote Cheney in his memoirs.In my time, “was to convince him that we would use force.” Prominent Democrats did not disagree. In early February 2002, Senator Joseph Biden, the Democratic chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations, held hearings to revise the State Department's 2003 budget proposal. Secretary of State Powell emphasized that the war on terror was his top priority. There are regimes, Powell said, that not only support terror but also develop weapons of mass destruction. They "could provide terrorist organizations with what they need to use these things against us."

Biden asked if that meant the president was announcing a new precautionary policy, as foreign allies believed. After Powell denied this allegation, Biden voiced his own concerns about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, particularly in Iraq. "I happen to be someone who thinks that Saddam has to go one way or the other and that American forces will probably be forced to let him go," he said. "In my opinion, the question is how to do it, not whether to do it."

Secret Service reports over the next few months failed to assuage Bush's fears. What alarmed the president was the new information that Al Qaeda was pursuing biological and chemical weapons, along with the knowledge that Iraq possessed and used them.

In late May 2002, analysts reported that al-Qaeda operatives were entering Baghdad, including the jihadist leaderAbu Musab al-Sarqawi. "Other individuals associated with Al-Qaeda," said Powell, head of the State Intelligence Department, "are operating in Baghdad and are in contact with colleagues who may be more directly involved in planning the attack." activity in Iraq and experts were divided on the nature of the relationship between the Iraqi dictator and Osama bin Laden. Hardly anyone believed Iraq had anything to do with 9/11, but according to a postwar Senate investigation, there were "about a dozen reports of varying reliability implicated by Iraqi or Iraqi nationals in the efforts of al-Qaeda's conquest". training in chemical and biological warfare.

From the July/August 2006 issue: The Brief and Violent Life of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

Al-Zarqawi was a known terrorist, a Jordanian who fought in Afghanistan, met with bin Laden and ran his own training camps in Herat. Already known for his toughness, radicalism and barbarism, he yearned to get revenge on the Americans. Reports of al-Sarqawi's presence in Iraq arrived shortly before US policymakers received information about the activities of an Iraqi procurement agent in Australia. Allegedly, this agent wanted to buy GPS software that would allow the regime to map American cities. Could the Iraqi dictator plan an attack of mass destruction on the United States?

Al-Zarqawi has also worked with Ansar al-Islam, an Islamic extremist group fighting a major Kurdish faction for control of northeastern Iraq. A small CIA team infiltrated the region near the town of Khurmal and reported in July that al-Zarqawi had begun experimenting with biological and chemical agents that terrorists could insert into ventilation systems. According to one of the CIA agents, "They were all involved in biological and chemical warfare... They did a lot of tests on donkeys, rabbits, rats and other animals."

In Washington, the Joint Chiefs of Staff advocated military action in Khurmal. So did Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz. They did not believe that al-Qaeda would be in Iraq without the dictator's consent - even in a part not controlled by Hussein. His suspicions grew when information placed al-Zarqawi and other al-Qaeda fighters in Baghdad. CIA agents in Iraq saw no evidence that Al Qaeda agents were linked to Hussein, but everyone they spoke to believed that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Bush said he would "move prudently" and use only the best intelligence agencies. But the information was murky, leading to contested assessments, conflicting judgments and uncertain recommendations. Sometimes the president exaggerated the evidence he had. Hussein is a threat, Bushtold the pressin November 2002, "because he is associated with al-Qaeda". While he was an exaggeration, Bush knew that al-Zarqawi had been to Baghdad, had al-Qaeda links, and was experimenting with chemical and biological weapons. And he knew that Hussein supported suicide bombings and celebrated his "martyrs".

Bush decided not to authorize military action in Khurmal. On July 31, he told Blair that he had not yet decided on war - that it might give the Iraqi dictator one more chance to fulfill his promises to allow inspections and destroy his weapons of mass destruction. At the same time, however, the President instructed General Franks to proceed with his war planning.

Although Bush had yet to decide whether to disarm or remove the Iraqi dictator, he mobilized public and congressional support for his policies. In October, the House of Representatives passed a resolution authorizing him to use military force by 296 votes to 133, and the Senate did the same by 77 votes to 23. The political effort in Washington was matched by a diplomatic effort in New York. . On November 8, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1441, which called for inspections and found that the Iraqi regime was already violating previous resolutions. According to the US government, this was justification for the US to take unilateral action if it so desired.

Bush practiced coercive diplomacy and hoped to use intimidation to achieve his goals. "We have given Saddam one last choice," declared his British partner in politics, Blair, in 2011. If Hussein proved recalcitrant, the credibility of the president - and of the United States - would be threatened, and in this case, forced diplomacy would end up with a military conflict. intervention. However, the costs of this intervention were not calculated.

Bush wanted a free and democratic Iraq to emerge if he resorted to military action, but he spent little time discussing the institutions, policies and spending that would be needed to liberate Iraq and provide a better life for its impoverished citizens. In a meeting with General Franks, Bush asked, "Can we win?"

"Yes sir," Franks said.

"Can we get rid of Saddam?" the president asked again.

"Yes, sir," said his general.

The president didn't ask, "What next?"

After the invasion turned into a chaotic and dysfunctional occupation and Iraq's suspected weapons of mass destruction were not found, Bush instructed his director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet, to create a special mission called the Iraq Research Group. to investigate what happened to them. guns happened. The group's first director, David Kay, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee on January 28, 2004: "Let me start," he admitted, "by saying that we were almost all wrong" regarding the destruction programs in mass of Iraq. While chastised for misinterpreting Iraq's capabilities, Kay did not believe that intelligence analysts had misled policymakers about the underlying threat. "I think the world is much safer with the disappearance and removal of Saddam Hussein."

Read: Mission Creep: When Everything Is Terrorism

The second head of the research team, Charles Duelfer, oversaw part of Saddam Hussein's interrogation after US forces captured him in December 2003. Duelfer addressed Hussein's "controlling presence". Hussein "wasn't a cartoon," Duelfer pointed out. "He was catastrophically brilliant and extremely talented in a dark and insidious way", similar to Joseph Stalin, the leader Hussein most wanted to emulate. And his aspirations were clear: to thwart Iran, defeat Israel and dominate the region. To achieve these goals, Hussein was eager to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

This is the conclusion Duelfer reached in September 2004 when he presented the final, comprehensive report to the research group. The evidence seemed conclusive: Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and no active programs. But "it was very clear", Duelfer later wrote in his memoirs,Hide and Seek: The Search for the Truth in Iraq, "that Saddam complied with UN disarmament restrictions only as a tactic". Hussein's priority objectives, the research group confirmed, are to end sanctions and move forward in obtaining weapons of mass destruction. "Virtually" no senior Iraqi leader "believed that Saddam had given up weapons of mass destruction for good". His wish to be executed by firing squad was denied and Hussein was hanged in prison on December 30, 2006.

Bush decided firstto confront Hussein - not to invade Iraq. The president feared another attack, perhaps worse than 9/11. Rogue states like Iraq, Bush feared, could share the world's deadliest weapons with terrorists desperate to inflict pain on the United States, puncture its air of invincibility, undermine its institutions and make Americans question the value of their freedoms.

But fear alone has not shaped the president's strategy. Bush's confidence in American power was equally important. From the beginning of his term, he intended to expand the military capabilities of the United States, which already far exceeded those of any other nation. The use of air force, special forces and new technology to drive the Taliban out of Kabul in 2001 reinforced their sense of power. America's reach seemed to know no bounds. Washington must not be dissuaded from helping its friends and protecting its interests, especially in regions with important natural resources and energy reserves. The US had the power to do this and it had to demonstrate it.

Fear and power were reinforced by arrogance. Bush insisted that all people wanted to live up to American values ​​- freedom to say what they wanted and pray how they wanted. When the United States overthrew a brutal dictator, American officials were satisfied with the knowledge that they were enriching the lives of their impoverished subjects.

Spurred on by fear, growing confidence in American power, and a sense of moral virtue, Bush resorted to forced diplomacy. The strategy was tempting because almost everyone around Bush believed that Hussein's resistance would not stop until he was confronted with a superior force. But the strategy was adopted without a clear objective - regime change or the elimination of weapons of mass destruction.

Read: America's credibility suffers in Iraq

When those weapons were not found after the invasion, Bush switched to a more ideological discourse. "The failure of Iraqi democracy," he saidwarned, "would encourage terrorists around the world... Success will send the message from Damascus to Tehran - that freedom can be the future of all nations". your strategy to make sense. Critics of him mocked his naivety, accused him of dishonesty and mocked his democratic zeal.

These critics downplayed Bush's strengths and misinterpreted his thinking. Bush didn't fail because he was a weak leader, a naive ideologue or a manipulative liar. He always had full responsibility for the government's Iraq policy and did not rush into war. He didn't go to war to make Iraq democratic, but to remove a murderous dictator who was intent on restarting his weapons programs, supported suicide bombings, and had links to terrorist groups (though not al-Qaeda).

With these narrow goals, Bush succeeded. Another attack on American soil did not take place and eliminated a brutal, unpredictable and dangerous tyrant. But he didn't get it at an acceptable price. The war was disastrous for Iraq. In the years that followed, more than 200,000 Iraqis died as a result of war, insurgencies and civil wars, and more than 9 million people - about a third of the pre-war population - were internally displaced or fled abroad.

The intervention also had a human, financial, economic, and psychological impact on the United States that few could have predicted. The war bolstered Iran's power in the Persian Gulf, diverted attention and resources from the ongoing fighting in Afghanistan, divided the United States' European allies, and provided an additional opportunity for China's rise and Russia's revanchism. The conflict tarnished America's reputation and fueled anti-Americanism. It stoked resentment among Muslims, heightened perceptions of American arrogance, complicated the fight against terrorism, and dimmed hopes for democracy and peace between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East. Instead of spreading freedom, the President and his advisers stepped down and witnessed the worldwide recession of freedom.

Fear, power and arrogance explain the march of the United States to the war in Iraq. Thinking differently, simplifying history and believing that everything would be fine if we had more honest employees, stronger leaders and more realistic policy makers, we are kidding ourselves. Tragedies don't happen because our leaders are naive, stupid and corrupt. Tragedy strikes when serious, responsible officials do their best to make America safer and end up making things much worse. We have to ask why this is happening. We need to recognize the dangers that lurk when there is too much fear, too much power, too much arrogance - and not enough wisdom.

This article is adapted fromConfronting Saddam Hussein: George W. Bush and the Invasion of Iraq.

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