The second Iraq War, the one that began in March 2003, ended up as one of the most damaging debacles of American foreign policy ever, nearly as ruinous as the Vietnam War. As far as U.S. Middle East policy is concerned, it was more damaging than the Vietnam War, for it eliminated the regime–Ba’athi Iraq–most useful in blocking the aspirations of the Iranian clerical regime, which then and since had proved itself to be the region’s largest source of instability and violence. It needn’t have been that way.
The strategic rationale–or as we shall see, rationales–behind the war was not entirely crazy, however distorted the arguements became and however mismanaged the operational aspects of the war clearly were. But here we encounter the category of not what is wrong in the conventional history, but to the category–mooted in Part I of this essay series–of what has somehow gone missing from all of the main accounts.
The George W. Bush Administration’s principals gave several reasons for the war at various times in the lead-up to it, and those rationales changed in emphasis as the initial combat period ebbed and the Iraqi uprising and sectarian civil war commenced. For example, some have argued that Bush’s “forward strategy for freedom”–the speechwriter’s locution for the fool’s delusion that the democratization of the Arab world could easily be achieved on a compact timetable relevant to the challenge of mass-casualty terrorism–only arose after the weapons-of-mass-destruction rationale collapsed for failure to find tonnes of WMD stockpiles.
This is not true. Bush’s February 2002 speech to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) showed that a form of armed idealism was already much on his mind during the heady and nervous interregnum between September 2001 and March 2003. As a reformed alcoholic, Bush was prone to dewy-eyed idealist incantations, in this case delivered, among other messengers, via a private Oval Office audience or two with former refusnik-become-Israeli political figure Natan Sharansky. As President he thought in terms of general redemption, not tactics. That rationale did gain more prominence after no great stockpiles of Iraqi WMD were discovered, however.
During that interregnum President Bush was the target of several attempts at persuasion. The reason was politics. Some officials high in the Administration wanted war–in some cases against the background of unrequited angst over how the 1991 war ended with Saddam still in power–and they understood that unless Iraq were attacked and defeated soon, the run-up to the 2004 election would incline the President to wait. No one wants to run for re-election when body bags, whether many or few, are coming home.
Worse from their perspective, the pro-war party inside the Administration feared that if Bush lost re-election in November 2004, the Democratic victor–Senator John Kerry, as it might have been–would not decide for war. That was the main reason for the full-court press on President Bush, largely organised by Vice-President Cheney, reluctantly endorsed by Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld (more on him and his thinking later), but avidly pursued by Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz and others beneath him in DOD.
Bush himself, later calling himself “the decider”, was notoriously cautious about making decisions, and the decision to go to war in Iraq was one of them. He had campaigned on behalf of a humbler foreign policy, and he meant it; while September 11 crushed his opportunity to implement such a policy, his thinking was still influenced by his earlier determination, such that going to war made him inherently anxious.
Former Pentagon official Richard Perle–of whom also more below–once referred to Bush’s decision style in a private conversation as “episodically decisive”, which had it exactly right. When Bush was sure he understood a subject, he preened with decisiveness in announcing and directing it; but when he did not know his own mind, he procrastinated and evaded decision, leaving his senior aides to knock each other about the head and neck in perpetuity. That affected decision points about North Korea and Iran, for example. So some of the Administration’s protracted internal convolutions were the fault of the President’s own personality.
The logic for waiting was sound, since the threat of an Iraqi WMD breakout, especially on the nuclear weapons side, was not urgent. Yes, the no-fly zone and the sanctions regime imposed on Iraq by the UN Security Council after the 1991 war were both fraying. Administration officials worried that any day the Iraqis might succeed in shooting down an American plane patrolling the no-fly zone–and what then? But those concerns were several kilometers short of justifying a major preemptive military operation, or even anything on the scale of the Clinton Administration’s ill-conceived Desert Fox bombing extravaganza of December 1998, which had the effect of shutting Iraq off completely to UN inspectors, thus increasing the level of uncertainty about what the Iraqis were up to and what they were achieving.
Besides, the war in Afghanistan was not over, and the construction of a stable government in Kabul, along with the reconstruction and development of a country that had suffered much from civil war and a decade-long Soviet occupation and insurgency, was just beginning. This is what led President George H.W. Bush’s National Security Advisor, General Brent Scowcroft, to argue in a prominent Washington Post essay against attacking Iraq. And that, most likely, is what prompted Vice-President Dick Cheney to make several extreme and unsupported claims about Iraq’s progress toward a nuclear weapons capability in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) not long after.
That speech, and an off-the-cuff comment by then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice about “mushroom clouds”, was as close as any Bush Administration official came to stating mistruths about Iraqi WMD programmes. These were exaggerations meant, in Cheney’s case if not also Condi’s, to contribute to the case for a decision to go to war, not deliberate lies about facts pertaining to Iraqi WMD. Of those there were errors but not lies, urban legends notwithstanding– more on that later.
It is remarkable that so many respected and otherwise worthy accounts of the sources of the Iraq War make no mention of the timing, or of the political calculations that set the timing, for the war. But the reason is no great mystery: Those who have never served in government are apt to overlook the nexus between policy and politics; those who have typically find it the better part of discretion not to mention it. But it is a critical factor in this and many other instances. In both cases, Scowcroft’s essay and Cheney’s speech, the main audience for the argument was George W. Bush, a man who certainly understood the implications of the political calendar. Ignoring the political dimension means misunderstanding the influence of Scowcroft’s column at a critical moment and misunderstanding the intent of Cheney’s exaggerations. It also makes it impossible to explain what the protraction of the battle for Bush’s brain enabled.
Even the great, if by then aged scholar of the Middle East, Bernard Lewis, was pressed into service, in this case through the ministrations of a DOD employee named Harold Rhode. Harold, once Lewis’s student at Princeton, was close to Wolfowitz and Cheney confident Scooter Libby. How persuasive Lewis even wanted to be at the time isn’t clear to me; I was not privy to what he and the President discussed. But I had attended a talk Professor Lewis gave at AEI during the spring of 2002 during which he said, very clearly in answer to a question, that while democratizing a country like Iraq from the outside was not impossible, it would be very difficult and take a long time, for few if any of the attitudinal predicates of a democratic culture were present in Iraq’s history. The cost of such a project, Lewis implied, would only be worth the candle under extreme circumstances.
If Lewis later came to support a war against Iraq for that or some other reasons, he did not say so in public. It would have been unlike him to assert a policy preference on a contemporary matter in any case. He thought of himself as an historian, not a policy wonk; he had a very healthy respect for the contingency and difficulty of policymaking.
He did not say so, to me at least, in private either. During 2004, I got permission from the State Department Chief of Staff to invite Professor Lewis to address a private audience of senior officials. (One of my duties at Policy Planning was to run a kind of floating seminar related to Middle Eastern matters.) Professor Lewis, whom I had known for several years, was grateful, explaining that the Bush Administration was the first in a long line of administrations that had not invited him to speak at State.
I knew that, but changed the subject. Lewis, alas, had become collateral damage in the DOD-State Department squabble that plagued the Interagency throughout Bush 43’s first term. I tried to bring a bit of peace via my bringing him to State; it didn’t work, for all I could tell. During a private lunch after his presentation, just the two of us at the 8th Floor dining facility, I tried but failed to elicit any statement from Lewis that indicated his support for having gone to war. But maybe by then, with the WMD rationale undermined and the insurgency gaining stream, he felt no compulsion to recall advice perhaps unwisely tendered. He may have even regretted abandoning his “I’m an historian, not a prophet” mantra. Probably, it still seems to me.
Another rationale for war was the more general but influential argument, made outside the Administration at the time, by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Friedman reasoned that bringing down the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was not sufficient to establish the seriousness of the U.S. determination to prevent another attack, not just on the United States but also on Israel, NATO members, and other U.S. allies. America, wrote Friedman, “had to take a pawn” in the Arab world to establish its reputational profile for the long effort to come. And this leads to what else has gone missing.
It has become a minor urban myth that Israeli officials were part of the pro-war party back in 2002-2003. Some were, but wiser heads in Israel understood that the main benefactor of the Ba’ath’s demise would be the clerical regime in Iran. Israeli officials were concerned about Iraqi WMD efforts, but not as concerned as they were about Iranian ones. The same went, and still goes, for most of the Arab governments on decent terms with the United States.
Israeli strategists and military professionals have an idiomatic language for discussing operations. One of those concerns the distinction between a major operation, called a Big Snow (sheleg gadol), and a minor one, a Little Snow (sheleg katan). If the Americans were going to attack Iraq, most Israeli experts preferred the kind of snow that would result not in helping Iran but in constraining it. If the United States had a significant troop presence in Afghanistan, on Iran’s eastern frontier, acquiring another one in Iraq on its western frontier would constitute a pincer posture or, if one likes, an anvil waiting to be tightened. Having knocked off the Afghan and Iraqi regimes with relative ease, that posture could be prelude to reading the riot act to the mullahs: No more support for terrorism and no more surreptitious nuclear weapons work, or else…..
As it happened, this basic notion occurred to some Americans, too. One was Richard Perle, who was my first boss in Washington when in 1977 and again in 1979 I worked briefly for Senator Henry M. Jackson (D., Wash.). Richard had no formal position in the Bush 43 Administration as he had in earlier Republican Administrations, but he knew all the principals. His thinking carried weight, and with U.S. power on a roll, it was a vision with considerable logical appeal to some. It was always going to be fraught to introduce a major American ground force into the heart of the Arab world. The only thing that could possibly justify it, in this view, was a goal as large as the risk, a policy understood as a major opportunity, not as a defensive reaction to a threat.
But it would have taken a very large number of U.S. troops to put the squeeze on Iran, and it would have had to be a presence sustained possibly for a long time. The benefits might have been prodigious, for it could have presaged a major reform of and perhaps even the end of the Iranian regime. That might have reduced the spread of jihadi doctrine and appeal worldwide, Sunni as well and Shi`i. It might therefore have allowed a greater degree of political liberalization at least in some Arab countries. It might have opened the door to an Israeli-Syrian accommodation, and prevented Hizballah from taking Lebanese politics hostage all these years. But the people involved, Rumsfeld in particular, and the politics made pursuing such a far-reaching policy impossible, and the logic of a Big Snow, discussed only inside parts of the government as far as I am aware, rapidly faded from consideration as the interregnum ebbed toward war.
That left as by far the main rationale, the one with the greatest political traction including with Democrats, the danger that terrorist organisations might get hold of and use weapons of mass destruction against the United States. This concern was amplified by the mysteriously sourced anthrax scare that followed closely on the September 11 attacks. The most likely source of the WMD materials, everyone assumed, was Iraq.
The logic was that Saddam Hussein wished to take revenge on the United States for the 1991 expulsion of the Iraqi Army from Kuwait, and, for some, that he wished to attack Israel–and so become the hero-king of the Arabs–not with mere Scud missiles, as in 1991, but with weapons of genocidal scale.
Intelligence analysis credited the possibility, and judged that Saddam’s personal identification as a Sunni and as a secularist would not necessarily deter him from cooperating, in an entirely transactional mode, with Shi`a or Sunni Islamist groups if it suited his purpose. If one credited the intelligence about Iraqi WMD programmes and stockpiles at the time, as almost everyone in and around the U.S. government did, and if one accepted the logic outlined just above, and especially if one had taken an oath of office to defend the nation and hence was inclined to err on the side of safety, it is easy to understand the general tilt of U.S. thinking at the time. It is also easy to understand why, in the pulse of national unity engendered by the September 11 attacks, this tilt–which placed the Iraqi WMD threat at the very center of several rationales–was embraced in a largely bipartisan manner.
Partly for that reason, no one back then, in the final months of 2002 and into the thick winter of 2003, imagined unmitigated disaster were there to be a war. But imaginations often fail, especially in groups. The result is always the same: surprise. Find out how that happened in Part III, coming soon.
Mending the Historical Record of the Iraq War:
Part I: “Donald Rumsfeld (July 9, 1923-June 29, 2021)”, published July 8, 2021
Part II: “War Rationales”, [add date posted]
Part III: “Jumping the Track”, to come
Part IV: “Intelligence Failures, Not Lies”, to come
Part V: “Abu Ghraib”, to come