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Ten Years After: How Bush Took Us to War

Called the worst foreign policy decision in U.S. history

After the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq this March and the "Mission Accomplished" moment of May, 2003, that just passed, history is slowly being rewritten to soften the image of George W. Bush, as was apparent in the dedication ceremonies for the Bush Library in Dallas in late April.
"He kept us safe" is what the former president wants us to remember, to earn credit where credit is due for constructing the vast security apparatus that prevented any further attacks on U.S. soil for almost a dozen years until Boston.

The Iraq invasion is another matter, and it is fair on the 10th anniversary of its March 19, 2003 commencement, followed only six weeks later on May 1 by the heralding of "Mission Accomplished", to assess the results of that disastrous war. Many in the media have done so. But instead, let's go back to how it began and recount just how we managed to blunder into so costly a mistake. It's an extraordinary story: the deceptions the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld administration spun that many would call treasonous to lure the American public into endorsing an unnecessary war. We shouldn't allow that memory to dim as the nation faces new threats and considers taking new military actions in Syria and Iran.

the past as prelude

Anyone who knew the recent history of Iraq — the arbitrary boundaries drawn to make a country of hostile ethnic and religious groups when the Ottoman Empire was dismembered after World War I — could have foreseen the insurgency that would break out between the Sunni, the Shi’a and the Kurds, once Saddam Hussein’s oppressive lid was lifted from the cauldron of sectarian hatred.

Actually, one didn’t even need that history. Modern day examples had filled our headlines a few years before. The break-up of the Soviet Union had led to two wars of independence by Chechnya against Russia. The break-up of Yugoslavia on Tito’s death ignited wars among the mix of Croats, Serbs, Armenians, Montenegrins, Bosnians, and Albanians — between Christians and Muslims — that gave us the euphemism “ethnic cleansing”.

But Bush had come from the insularity of Texas. He he had been given the same eastern education as his dad’s — Andover and then Yale , where he had majored in history — yet he exhibited little knowledge of foreign policy, and when he began campaigning for the presidency, he was quickly lampooned for getting names and geography wrong.

Thus susceptible, he came under the ambit of neoconservatives, who held that hatred for the West and the U.S. stemmed from the resentment of living under repressive societies that could be fixed with democracy and the freedom it brings. Bush’s oft-said “They hate our freedom” is an outcropping of that doctrine. Such accomplishments could define his presidency.

The neocons had fastened on Iraq in particular, urging intervention to Clinton beyond his policy of containment from the air. Clinton had imposed a no-fly zone and had launched a four-day punitive cruise missile bombing campaign for Hussein’s refusal to comply with United Nations resolutions and weapons inspectors.

But why Iraq, with so many repressive Arab regimes to choose from — Syria, Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia? Hussein had threatened Israel — he had lobbed Scud missiles into the country during 1991’s Desert Storm — and that led to accusations that the neocons’ secret agenda was to use American troops to eliminate a Israel’s problem (the top neocons were Jewish), which they denied. The neocons espoused that the toppling of Saddam would unleash an outbreak of democracy in the region, a domino theory that would unseat one after another Arab despot.

”It was always going to be Iraq”

And so it was that Richard Clarke, Bush’s counter-terrorism advisor, recounted that on the night after the 9/11 attacks, the President took Clarke and others aside to say, “I want you to find whether Iraq did this”. When Clarke protested that repeated analysis found no Iraqi link to terrorism, Bush insisted: "Iraq, Saddam, find out if there is a connection.” In his book, “Against All Enemies”, Clarke wrote that, immediately after the attacks, he attended a meeting about what he thought would be the Al Qaeda havens in Afghanistan.

"Instead, I walked into a series of discussions about Iraq. At first I was incredulous that we were talking about something other than getting Al Qaeda. Then I realized...that Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were going to try to take advantage of this national tragedy to promote their agenda about Iraq."

Rumsfeld’s 2011 memoir corroborates. Just fifteen days after 9/11, he says he was called to the Oval Office where Bush ordered up a review and revision of war plans — not for Afghanistan, the training ground and launch platform for the New York and Washington attacks, but for Iraq. “Two weeks after the worst terrorist attack in our nation’s history the president insisted on new military plans for Iraq”, wrote Rumsfeld. The President simply wanted to attack Iraq.

Preemption

American policy had been to retaliate only when provoked, but Bush had made speeches in his first couple of years as president signaling that, going beyond his immediate response to 9/11 ("we will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor
them"), he would adopt an interventionist policy and use military force even if not provoked. “If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long”, he said at West Point in June of 2002. “And our security will require all Americans … to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives”. It was a policy that became known as the Bush Doctrine.

Then Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz was the most prominent neoconservative. It could be said that the Bush Doctrine of preemptive strikes was actually Wolfowitz’s handiwork; in 1992 he and his deputy, Scooter Libby, had had authored a Defense Planning Guidance that advocated a policy of unilateralism and pre-emptive military action to head off any threat to the United States and prevent any other nation from attaining superpower status. Rumsfeld, in a Fox News interview in 2011, said Wolfowitz was the first to bring up Iraq, at the presidential retreat at Camp David after the 9/11 attacks.

War would become Bush’s foreign policy. Biographer Mickey Herskowitz, given unique access to Bush in 1999 (a longtime Texas newspaper man, he had written the authorized biography of Bush’s grandfather, Prescott Bush) said that the soon-to-be presidential candidate had fastened on a stratagem ascribed to Cheney, when he was chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee under Reagan: "Start a small war. Pick a country where there is justification you can jump on, go ahead and invade." Bush's circle of pre-election advisers had a fixation on the political capital that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher collected from the Falklands War. Said Herskowitz: "They were just absolutely blown away, just enthralled by the scenes of the troops coming back, of the boats, people throwing flowers at [Thatcher] and her getting these standing ovations in Parliament and making these magnificent speeches" .

Once the Iraq enterprise was underway, Bush would say, “I’m a war president. I make decisions … with war on my mind”.

There would be much shrinking of the Bush psyche. His father had held back in 1991’s Desert Storm, content that the coalition had destroyed Saddam’s army and crippled his ability for further mischief. Pundits opined that the younger Bush wanted to best “Poppy’ by going to Baghdad. And/or he wanted to avenge Hussein’s attempt to assassinate Bush Sr when he had gone to Kuwait in 1993 to commemorate the victory over Iraq in the Persian Gulf War.

beating the drums of war

David Frum, the Bush speechwriter who coined “axis of evil”, recently wrote,

”You might imagine that an administration preparing for a war of choice would be gripped by self-questioning and hot debate. Yet that discussion never really happened… For a long time, war with Iraq was discussed inside the Bush administration as something that would be decided at some point in the future; then, somewhere along the way, war with Iraq was discussed as something that had already been decided long ago in the past”.

But the war had to be sold to the American public. So the Bush administration embarked on a campaign, beginning with Cheney stating on August 26, 2002, “Many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon". Weeks later, a National Intelligence Estimate — a pooling of sixteen intelligence agencies — would say it would take as many as five years, unless Baghdad immediately obtained weapons-grade materials. Two weeks later on “Meet the Press" Cheney would say "We do know, with absolute certainty, that [Hussein] is using his procurement system to acquire the equipment he needs in order to enrich uranium to build a nuclear weapon".

Iraq "is a grave and gathering danger," Bush told the United Nations on Sept. 12, 2002.

A separate Defense Department intelligence unit was set up to “stovepipe” raw intelligence to the top without following the CIA’s practice of vetting. The White House was looking for evidence to use without the usual caveats and qualifications.

There were the aluminum tubes, that our own Oak Ridge National Laboratories said could not be used in centrifuges for enriching uranium and were probably for rockets.

There was Bush stating in Cincinnati the famous sixteen words: “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa”, ignoring forged documents and a report by Joseph Wilson, a former ambassador sent as a fact-finder to Niger, that this was fable.

The administration told us that Saddam had developed mobile biological weapons labs, a notion they advanced despite warnings from both German and British intelligence that the informant, codenamed http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curveball_%28informant%29 “Curveball” by the CIA, was a fabricator. No matter. Bush referred to a British government report that Iraq could launch "a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes after the order" is given. "Each passing day could be the one on which the Iraqi regime gives anthrax or VX -- nerve gas -- or someday a nuclear weapon to a terrorist ally".

the flim-flam man

The administration was in the thrall of the patently untrustworthy Ahmed Chalabi, who had been promoted by neocon Richard Perle as the “George Washington of Iraq” in the absurd belief that he would be accepted by Iraqis as the nation’s new leader despite living in exile in London since 1956. (In the years to come, he couldn’t even win a seat in Iraq’s parliament.) The Bush administration was unable to see that it was being had — talked into using American lives to attack Iraq so that Chalabi could anoint himself its prime minister. The CIA had always been skeptical; ultimately, even the administration caught on. Chalabi’s offices in Iraq were raided by the police and the U.S. Army. He is reported to have given U.S. state secrets to the Iranians, and was under investigation for counterfeiting and other crimes by Iraq in keeping with his having been convicted and sentenced in absentia to 22 years in prison for bank fraud by a Jordanian military tribunal years before. Such was the man in whom the administration and the neocons had placed their trust in going to war.

And, of course, the war was also about oil — although that was always denied. David Frum says that in 2002, Chalabi and Cheney “spent long hours together, contemplating the possibilities of a Western-oriented Iraq: an additional source of oil, an alternative to U.S. dependency on an unstable-looking Saudi Arabia”.

Just talk? Then how to explain why looting of the Iraq Museum, with its millennia of irreplaceable artifacts was allowed, while almost the only public building in Baghdad that was protected was the oil ministry, guarded around the clock by troops, sharpshooters and about fifty tanks, said an Australian source, days after the invasion.

lying for legal cover

The Authorization for Use of Military Force passed by a joint session of Congress three days after 9/11 was “To authorize the use of United States Armed Forces against those responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States”. Iraq had to be linked to terrorism.

So Cheney went on “Meet the Press” three months after 9/11 to announce that “It’s been pretty well confirmed that [Muhammed Atta] did go to Prague and he did meet with a senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service in Czechoslovakia [sic] last April”. The FBI agent assigned to analyze the report had already relayed up the chain that the person in the Prague photos bore no resemblance to Atta, the lead terrorist in the World Trade attack, and was furious enough hearing Cheney say it that for the “first time in my life, I actually threw something at the television”.

Just last June, a CIA document surfaced that said Atta “did not travel to the Czech Republic on 31 May 2000,” and “the individual who attempted to enter the Czech Republic on 31 May 2000 … was not the Atta who attacked the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001”. The document had been delivered to the White House situation room the day before Cheney’s “Meet the Press” appearance, but Cheney chose to lie, and he would lie again in a repeat appearance on that program two years later.

Polling in 2003 showed that as much as 69% of Americans believed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks. They probably still do.

pretending indecision

Bush insisted that the decision to go to war was made at the last minute, but then in 2005 came the leak of the “Downing Street Memo” — minutes of a meeting nine months before the invasion between U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair and his intelligence chief upon the latter’s return from Washington. In meetings with Bush administration officials, he reported that “The case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran", but nevertheless "Bush wanted to remove Saddam through military action...But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy".

Former CIA analysts said that Cheney had made unusual trips to the CIA, where he pressed for that intelligence that could be fixed around the policy.

The Rumsfeld doctrine

Then came the war itself. It was to be invasion lite, as dictated by Rumsfeld, who wanted to try out his new theory of “transformation”, which held that the high-tech weaponry of the day made it possible for smaller, more agile forces to win wars. He chopped away determinedly at
the military’s manpower requests. When Gen. Eric Shinseki said before Congress that the post-war phase in Iraq could require "several hundred thousand troops" to keep civil order, daring to contradict Rumsfeld's plan that would prove so mistaken and costly of lives, Rumsfeld had him booted from his post as Army Chief of Staff and virtually forced his retirement.

Wolfowitz, a Pentagon armchair expert who had never donned so much as private’s uniform, knew better than a general who had the experience of commanding NATO peacekeeping forces in Bosnia. He took Shinseki to task in a House hearing days after Shinseki’s testimony, calling his estimate “quite outlandish...wildly off the mark. It's hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself". A remarkable statement; all military experience indicates the opposite. Battles engage armies. Occupations require keeping order among entire populations.

For Rumsfeld, the Iraq War was to be: in in March, out by August. There was to be no nation-building. The military, under Gen. Tommy Franks, had no plan whatever for the aftermath of the military victory.

On "Meet the Press", in June of 2005, Rumsfeld said that before the war started, he had "presented the President a list of about 15 things that could go terribly, terribly wrong”. Host Tim Russert asked, "Was a robust insurgency on your list that you gave the President?" Rumsfeld answered, “I don’t remember whether that was on there." He had even banned anyone in the Pentagon from using the word “insurgency”, in denial of what had become obvious as Iraq caught fire.

best laid plans mislaid

There had actually been elaborate planning. The CIA in May 2002 embarked on a series of war games, including scenarios dealing with postwar civil disorder. But Rumsfeld’s Pentagon reprimanded Defense personnel who had taken part and ordered them to discontinue.

At the State Department under Thomas Warrick, 17 working groups of mostly Iraqi exiles developed throughout 2002 blueprints of the occupation, tackling questions of water, electricity, "Transitional Justice", "Public Finance", "Oil and Energy", "Water, Agriculture and Environment", etc. It would result in thousands of pages in 13 volumes, plus a summary volume, that became known as the “Future of Iraq Project”. But Rumsfeld’s people were ordered to ignore all of it. There was no way that State would be allowed to run any part of the Iraq program. (When retired general Jay Garner, who was sent to Iraq to reconstruction and humanitarian assistance, heard about Warrick and hired him, he was ordered to fire him).

As the insurgency broke out, the Army then lost control of its mission — removal of Saddam and “regime change” — and began attacking the Iraqi population, especially the 4th Infanty Division under Gen. Ray Odierno, breaking down doors, humiliating Iraqis before their families, turning them into insurgents, indiscriminately sweeping up thousands to ship off to overflowing Abu Ghraib. Odierno would later be made commander in Iraq and now Army Chief of Staff, rewarded for getting it wrong.

But no one topped L. Paul Bremer for ineptitude and its disastrous consequences. Of particular importance to State Department planners was giving the Iraqi army the job of maintaining order. Its headlong flight in the 1991 Gulf War certainly bespoke an army conscripted against its will with no stomach to die for Saddam. It thus represented a force that might well be eager to help build a post-Saddam Iraq.

Yet Bremer began his Iraqi tour as Administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority of Iraq with by disbanding the entire Iraqi army. Thus did he simultaneously force the entire security problem onto the minimalist American invading force, and as well create a new army of 400,000 angry, armed and unemployed soldiers open to recruitment for mayhem.

As well, Bremer purged layers of Ba’ath party technocrats that knew how to pull the levers and turn the wheels of the country's infrastructure. Nothing worked for months: water shortages, electricity blackouts and rationing squandered the goodwill won by toppling Saddam and replaced it with hostility.

the ledger

And thus did we ignite an eight year war that cut short 4,500 Americans lives, wounded over 30,000, many damaged for the remainder of their lives, and cost the country $2.2 trillion, says a recent study by Brown University. (Wolfowitz had estimated $50 to $60 billion, paid for by Iraqi oil.) For Iraq itself, 2 million were displaced and no one knows how many of its people died. Over 190,000, Brown estimates.

Ten years on, with an authoritarian Shi’ite prime minister who practices the politics of revenge, blocking Sunnis from government participation, and aiming for the permanent control of a third term despite protests, the bombs continue to kill dozens almost daily. On the 10th anniversary of the invasion that rid the country of its dictator, car bombs killed 50 and wounded over 200.

There are those who still think it was worth it — those who fought and cannot abide the thought that it amounted to little but harm, and others whose families had not been personally affected. Such as Cheney. In a Showtime film this month he said, “I feel very good about [Iraq]. If I had to do it over again, I’d do it in a minute”.

7 Comments for “Ten Years After: How Bush Took Us to War”

  1. Stephen Delos

    Reader Dean accuses the author(s) of unsupported speculation (although the special protection of the oil ministry was widely reported at the time), then offers speculation of his own on what might have been had we not attacked — at least that seems to be the intent, but it is difficult to follow. And once again, ten years later, he is linking al Qaeda to Iraq, or so it seems by his bringing up al Qaeda in response to an article limited to the Bush administration’s invading Iraq. Speculation about a connection between Hussein’s Iraq and al Qaeda was thoroughly discredited. I thought only Cheney was left believing that.

    • Dean

      Stephen – with all due respect your response is as facile as the media reports have been. I did not make a connection between Hussein and Al Queda. I’m talking about geopolitical strategy. That is what motivated Bush to go to war in Iraq. Not Saddam Hussein.

      There’s a certain amount of speculation in discerning the strategy motives of someone you can’t talk to – the leaders of Al Queda. That’s why I asked people to consider why Al Queda attacked the US. You didn’t answer.

      Why do you think Al Queda attacked the US? Think about that enough to come up with a credible answer. Are you up to it?

      It’s easy to demagogue. It’s easy to repeat mantras. But the demagoguery and mantras are simple minded. Think deeper. What did Al Queda hope to accomplish by attacking the US?

      The anonymous, cowardly authors of this article don’t have a clue.

  2. Dean

    The article is comprised of selective use of facts, qutoes, and innuendo. This is typical of the “analysis” in this piece:

    “Just talk? Then how to explain why looting of the Iraq Museum, with its millennia of irreplaceable artifacts was allowed, while almost the only public building in Baghdad that was protected was the oil ministry, guarded around the clock by troops, sharpshooters and about fifty tanks, said an Australian source, days after the invasion.”

    Speculation with nothing to back it up.

    There’s no discussion of the strategic importance of Iraq in the middle east and how that would affect Al Queda’s goal of reestablishing the califate. No discussion of Saudi Arabia’s intransigence early in the post-9/11 period. Those are complex topics and its easier to repeat the mantra “war for oil” than it is to actually understand complex international relations.

    Consider this question. Why would Al Queda attack the US when it could not hope to defeat us in either a conventional or unconventional war? What was their purpose?

    Here’s a hint. Al Queda’s attack against the US and the US invasion of Iraq were both designed to pressure one country. You’ll find the answer and the strategic reasoning explained in George Friedman’s book “America’s Secret War”.

    If all you consider are simple direct cause and effect in international relations you will often misunderstand international events. The anonymous authors of this article illustrate this point well.

  3. Bob Ford

    Should be required reading in every history class! Excellent!

  4. Kevin Connolly

    This is an excellent and objective article. I knew we were in trouble when in the fall of 2002 Paul Wolfowitz was quoted as sayingn it would only take about 35,0000 troops to take Iraq. The fact is the US was taken to war by a group of “chicken hawks” many of whom never served in the military, i.e Cheney, Wolfowitz, etc. They were happy to be reckless with other people’s lives. Eric Shinseki was correct and was pilloried for speaking the truth. My son served in Iraq during the initial invasion and I am proud of his service. This was, however, an unnecessary war. It makes our actions in Vietnam look well planned.

  5. John

    This is well written, & focused on issues of the day. The day the US invaded Iraq is a day of infamy. This Nation should not hold against the US Military Members any guilt; but to those that put them in “harms way” under a cloak of deliberate misinformation. This Nation must now “fix” those lives that it broke under the guise of “National Security”. In present day, the neocon is blamed for “pricking” the conscience of this Nation; when those “tough questions” were side stepped long ago for an agenda of a few. This thread illustrates how those in decision should always question the answers before taking a final position.

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