Chapter 6 – The Iraq War: American Decision-Making The story of the American decision to go to war against Iraq in March 2003 is straightforward. The attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001 changed the strategic outlook of President George W. Bush. He accepted the arguments of some in his Administration, arguments for which he had previously shown no particular enthusiasm, that a military campaign to unseat Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was a vital American security interest in the context of the new “war on terrorism.” Once that decision was made, arguments were marshaled (with less than rigorous regard for their factual accuracy and unseemly willingness to disregard the complexity and ambiguity of the Iraqi reality) to mobilize international, domestic public and Congressional opinion in support of the decision. The international element of that campaign largely failed, while the domestic element was very successful. With the strong support of Congress and substantial American public opinion support, but with little preparation for what would come after, President Bush took the country to war.1 So why rehearse the story in any more detail? Because there is a strong suspicion that September 11 was simply a pretext for the Bush Administration to implement a pre-existing war policy toward Iraq. This is certainly the import of accounts offered by former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, former counter-terrorism director Richard Clarke, and retired General Wesley Clark.2 The Iraq War has been depicted as part of a larger program of American imperial expansion, as a blatant grab for oil and corporate profits and as part of a plan to secure Israeli dominance of the Middle East.3 All of these explanations share the analytical perspective that 9/11 was simply a pretext, not a cause, for the war. The post-war failure to discover any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the major public rationale for the war, undoubtedly contributes to the sense that it was really about something else.
This chapter examines the sequence of events leading to the Bush Administration’s war decisions, and finds strong support for the centrality of 9/11 as a turning point in President Bush’s views toward Iraq. There is no evidence in the public record indicating a war decision before 9/11, and convincing evidence that the President was undecided on the Iraq issue then. There is compelling evidence that, shortly after 9/11, he decided on a course for war with Iraq. In a textbook example of the well-documented psychological process, once that decision was made, the Administration searched for evidence on Iraqi WMD and Iraqi ties to al-Qaeda to justify the decision, ignoring the weakness and ambiguity of much of that evidence. It bolstered its decision by accepting rosy scenarios about the ease with which a post-war Iraqi transition could be accomplished, despite numerous sources both inside and outside the government calling those assumptions into question.
The chapter goes on to assess the Administration’s case that spreading democracy in the Middle East was an important part of the rationale for the Iraq War, finding that there is considerable evidence to support this contention. The chapter then examines an important alternative hypothesis about the causes of the American war decision: that the real reason for the war was securing Iraqi oil resources. The strategic importance of Persian Gulf oil has always been a factor in American policy in the region. However, the oil argument is absent from the available accounts of Bush Administration deliberations, and American policy in Iraq since the war has not borne out the “centrality of oil” argument.
The War Decision There is no evidence that the Bush Administration had decided on war against Iraq before 9/11. A number of high ranking officials in the Administration had publicly supported, before they entered office, a more confrontational American policy to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, his two top deputies at the Pentagon in the first Bush term, Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Undersecretary for Policy Douglas Feith, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and the national security coordinator for the transition team Zalmay Khalilzad all signed a public letter to President Clinton in February 1998 calling for a “comprehensive political and military strategy for bringing down Saddam and his regime.”4 Neo-conservatives did not hide their preference for a muscular use of American power to bring down Saddam Hussein. They put it on the front page of the Weekly Standard.5 Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill reports that Secretary Rumsfeld, as early as the National Security Council meeting of February 1, 2001, told his colleagues that “sanctions are fine, but what we really want to think about is going after Saddam.”6 However, they were not the only players on the Bush Administration’s foreign policy team. Secretary of State Colin Powell was the informal author of what has come to be known as the “Powell Doctrine,” a very restrictive set of conditions for the use of American force abroad: that it be massive and aimed at gaining a clear military victory, that it have decisive public and Congressional support, that there be a clear exit strategy. As the new Administration came into office, it was hard to see how a new level of American military pressure on Iraq could fit into the “Powell Doctrine.” Even more salient, in terms of the new President’s thinking on Iraq, were the views of Condolezza Rice, who became Mr. Bush's National Security Advisor. She showed no signs of urgency concerning policy toward Iraq in her 2000 article in Foreign Affairs laying out her general foreign policy views. She compared the Iraqi regime to that of North Korea, and said: “These regimes are living on borrowed time, so there need be no sense of panic about them.”7 The central player, President Bush, gave somewhat mixed signals about Iraq before coming to office, but hardly could be said to have focused much on the subject. He supported the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act and argued for vigorous containment, including “tougher” sanctions on Saddam’s regime during the 2000 presidential campaign. Asked during a December 1999 debate what he would do if it were discovered that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, he replied “take him out.” However, he immediately, in the follow up question, asserted that he meant that he would take the weapons out, not Saddam himself.8 His vice presidential candidate, Dick Cheney, was Secretary of Defense during the Gulf War of 1990-91. When asked later, in a 1996 documentary, about Saddam Hussein remaining in power after the war, Cheney said that “the idea of going into Baghdad for example or trying to topple the regime wasn't anything I was enthusiastic about. I felt there was a real danger here that you would get bogged down in a long drawn out conflict.” When asked whether he found Saddam’s continuation in power “personally frustrating,” Cheney replied, “No, I don’t…I think that if Saddam wasn’t there that his successor probably wouldn’t be notably friendlier to the United States than he is.”9 During the campaign Cheney told NBC’s Meet the Press that “we want to maintain our current posture vis-à-vis Iraq.”10 There is no evidence that, once in office and before 9/11, Cheney pushed for a policy of military confrontation with Iraq.11 The differences within the Administration’s foreign policy team on Iraq were clear from the outset. One perceptive reporter identified Iraq as “an especially interesting test case of the new Administration’s foreign policy, for the differences of opinion represent well-established splits in the Republican foreign policy world.”12 The pre-9/11 evidence indicates that Secretary of State Powell, not the Pentagon civilians, had won the first round of the bureaucratic battle. Iraq was on the agenda of the National Security Council almost immediately, at a meeting on January 30, 2001. The discussion, based on the recollection of Treasury Secretary O’Neill, reflected a desire to increase pressure on Saddam Hussein. CIA Directory George Tenet presented photographic evidence of what might have been a chemical or biological weapons facility. O’Neill, in retrospect, believed a major shift in Iraq was underway. However, his own account of the meeting indicated that Secretary of State Powell and General Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were hardly enthusiastic about military action in Iraq. In the end, the President ended the meeting with directions to Powell to draw up a proposal for a new sanctions regime and the Pentagon to “examine our military options,” including how U.S. forces could support Iraqi opposition groups inside the country.13 General Tommy Franks, the commander of American forces in the Middle East (Central Command) told the 9/11 Commission that he “was pushing independently to do more robust planning for military responses in Iraq during the summer before 9/11 – a request President Bush denied, arguing that the time was not right.”14 It is clear that the new president wanted to take a fresh and “tougher” look at Iraq, as he (and Vice President Gore) had promised in the campaign. But in his directions to his Cabinet officials, he seemed to want to expand his range of options on both the diplomatic and military sides.
The first Bush Administration Iraq initiative was not a military response, or even a high-profile increase of support for the Iraqi opposition, but a diplomatic campaign to modify the Iraqi sanctions regime – the “smart sanctions” proposal. The Pentagon civilians were not pleased. Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz reportedly told European diplomats that the proposal was not the last word on the Administration’s Iraq policy.15 Their displeasure indicates that the “smart sanctions” proposal was not a stalking horse for a subsequent belligerent stance toward Saddam, but a loss in the bureaucratic wars for the hardline position. In short, at the outset of his Administration, President Bush chose a diplomatic and multilateral rather than the military and unilateral course on Iraq.
“Smart sanctions” was not a plan to lift sanctions, but rather to change them in an effort to win back international and regional support for the containment of Saddam. Powell’s proposal would have opened up trade in civilian goods, but the UN would still control Iraq’s finances, as oil payments would still be made into the UN escrow account. His proposal also called for international inspectors to be placed in the countries bordering Iraq to enforce the prohibition on “dual-use” imports. The international response to Powell's proposal was not enthusiastic. France was lukewarm and Russia opposed.16 Iraq’s neighbors were also reluctant about a new international inspections regime in their ports and airports. Neither Jordan nor Syria signed on, and Syria continued to import Iraqi oil, in violation of existing UN sanctions.17 Turkey also expressed reservations. So the “smart sanctions” proposal died in the summer of 2001.
Meanwhile, the Bush Administration continued its internal debate on how to increase the military and political pressure on Saddam Hussein. Between the end of May and the end of July, 2001, the deputies’ committee of the National Security Council met four times to work on Iraq policy. On August 1, 2001, the group presented to the NSC an Iraq policy paper entitled “A Liberation Strategy,” but that strategy called for phased increases in economic and diplomatic pressure, carefully calibrated increases in existing military pressure (increased American air patrols over the northern and southern “no-fly zones” in Iraq), and covert efforts to weaken Saddam’s regime and encourage the Iraqi opposition.18 The NSC, still split among its principal members, did not immediately adopt the policy proposed by the deputies. There is no evidence that any policy decisions had been reached by September 11. Bob Woodward, who had access to all the principals and to notes of Bush Administration deliberations, reports that “most work on Iraq stopped for the rest of August” as President Bush went on vacation. “A policy recommendation on Iraq was never forwarded to the president.”19 One senior Administration official told a reporter, shortly before the beginning of the war, “Before September 11, there wasn’t a consensus Administration view about Iraq. This issue hadn’t come to the fore, and you had Administration views.”20 Daalder and Lindsay, after reviewing the long history of neo-conservative support for an aggressive American military policy aimed at deposing Saddam, concluded that this policy line “gained little traction in the first months of Bush’s tenure.”21Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of state, subsequently said, “prior to 9/11 we [the State Department] certainly were prevailing” in the bureaucratic fight over Iraq policy.22 Then September 11 happened. It should not be surprising that such a cataclysmic event would alter a president’s foreign policy perspective. There is every indication it did so for George W. Bush, with direct implications for Iraq policy. The President himself told Woodward that he was not particularly happy with Iraq policy before 9/11, but that “prior to September 11, however, a president could see a threat and contain it or deal with it in a variety of ways without fear of that threat materializing on our own soil.” He went on to say that the attacks changed his attitude toward “Saddam Hussein’s capacity to create harm…all his terrible features became much more threatening. Keeping Saddam in a box looked less and less feasible to me.”23 The Pentagon civilians, with their coherent view of the causes of anti-American terror and their clear prescription of military action to change anti-American regimes, convinced the President. From that point, he joined the hardliners on Iraq. Richard Clark, the senior counter-terrorism official in the White House, reports that on the evening of September 12, 2001, President Bush took him aside and told him to “look into Iraq, Saddam” for links to the attacks.24 Bush told the National Security Council meeting of September 17, 2001: “I believe Iraq was involved [in 9/11], but I’m not going to strike them now. I don’t have evidence at this point.”25 On that same day, Bush signed a directive to the Pentagon outlining the plan to go to war against Afghanistan. The directive included an order to begin planning military options for an invasion of Iraq.26 Woodward identifies November 21, 2001, when the president asked Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld to begin to prepare a war plan for Iraq, as the real beginning of the march to war.27 Ordering that options be prepared is not the same as ordering a war, but it is an indication of a marked change in the President’s thinking, a change that would lead relatively quickly to a war decision. That change was reinforced by the growing concern among senior Administration officials that the next terrorist attack could be with weapons of mass destruction. The anthrax scare, which occurred in September and October 2001, with envelopes laced with anthrax sent to news organizations and Senatorial offices, brought this issue to the top of the public agenda.28 Vice President Cheney, who had been tasked before 9/11 to coordinate plans for defense against WMD, reported to the President shortly after the attacks that the US was essentially defenseless against a biological weapons assault.29 In late October, CIA Director George Tenet briefed the President and his top aides on the possibility that al-Qaeda could get WMD, focusing in part on reports that four Pakistani nuclear scientists were cooperating with Bin Laden’s group. Tenet put Iraq at the top of the list of countries that could assist al-Qaeda in this matter, despite the paucity of solid intelligence on Iraq-al-Qaeda ties. According to the New York Times, the Tenet briefing “sent the president through the roof.”30 At the same time, the Administration passed on to the District of Columbia police and Congressional intelligence committees a warning, based upon intercepted conversations and other intelligence, that terrorists might be planning a “dirty bomb” (a bomb that uses conventional explosives to spew radioactive material) attack in Washington. The Wall Street Journal, in a June 2002 story in which then National Security Adviser Rice was interviewed, concluded that “the knowledge that al-Qaeda was aggressively searching for weapons of mass destruction – and wooing outside support – transformed the President’s thinking about America’s enemies.”31 The terrorism-WMD nexus also brought those closest to the President, Vice President Cheney and National Security Adviser Rice, around to the pro-war position. According to the Washington Post, Cheney became “consumed with the possibility that Iraq or other countries could distribute biological or chemical weapons to terrorists.”32 Woodward reports that the attacks of 9/11 made Cheney a “powerful, steamrolling force” encouraging war on Iraq, with an “intense focus on the threats posed by Saddam.”33 Ron Suskind relates a conversation among Cheney, Rice and Tenet in late November 2001 in which the three discussed reports that Pakistani nuclear scientists had been in touch with bin Laden. Cheney said that if there were “a one percent chance” that al-Qaeda could obtain a nuclear weapon, “we would have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.” He went on to say, “It’s not about our analysis, or finding a preponderance of evidence. It’s about our response.”34 The same Washington Post article referenced above asserts that Rice, within days of 9/11, “privately began to counsel the President that he needed to go after all rogue nations harboring weapons of mass destruction.”35Rice was quoted in the Wall Street Journal in June 2002 arguing that hard evidence of a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda was not necessary to justify targeting Saddam Hussein: “It’s not because you have some chain of evidence saying Iraq may have given a weapon to al-Qaeda…But it is because Iraq is one of those places that is both hostile to us and, frankly, irresponsible and cruel enough to make this available.”36 Those within the Administration recognized the centrality of 9/11 to changing the course of Iraq policy. In background interviews in different media outlets, “senior administration officials” highlighted the point: “Without September 11, we never would have been able to put Iraq at the top of the agenda. It was only then that this president was willing to worry about the unthinkable – that the next attack could be with weapons of mass destruction supplied by Saddam Hussein.”37 “The most important thing is that the president’s position changed after 9/11.”38 George Tenet, the CIA director, held the same view.39 Jack Straw, the British Foreign Minister, came to the same conclusion in a memo to British Prime Minister Tony Blair on March 25, 2002: “If 11 September had not happened, it is doubtful that the US would now be considering military action against Iraq…Objectively, the threat from Iraq has not worsened as a result of 11 September. What has however changed is the tolerance of the international community (especially that of the US), the world having witnessed on September 11 just what determined evil people can these days perpetrate.”40 Serious planning for war on Iraq began before the end of hostilities in
Afghanistan, with Bush’s request to Rumsfeld and Rumsfeld’s subsequent order that the military begin to re-examine its war plan for Iraq. Gen. Franks, in the midst of the Afghanistan war, was less than pleased with the news.41 The quick collapse of the Taliban regime, by early December 2001, allowed the Bush Administration to focus all its military energies on Iraq. On December 28 President Bush met with Gen. Franks to discuss military options in Iraq.42 On January 28, 2002, Bush highlighted the nexus between terrorist groups and states possessing weapons of mass destruction in his “axis of evil” State of the Union address, and vowed to take preventive action against what he called “a grave and growing danger” because “time is not on our side.” Iraq received more attention in that speech than any other country besides Afghanistan, where the war had just ended. The President asserted that Iraq “has plotted to develop anthrax and nerve gas and nuclear weapons for over a decade.”43 In February 2002 he ordered the CIA to undertake a comprehensive, covert program to topple Saddam, including authority to use lethal force.44
During the spring of 2002, the indications that the White House had decided to target Iraq militarily grew. Intensive military planning began, with Gen. Franks visiting the White House to brief the President every three or four weeks.45 By March 2002 the Administration began to shift specialized military and intelligence resources from Afghanistan to the Iraq theater.46 Recognizing that regional and European support for such a war required at least the appearance of American movement on the Arab-Israeli issue, the Administration reversed its year-long “hands-off” policy toward the peace process. It sponsored UN Security Council resolution 1379, adopted in March 2002, calling for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In response to Arab protests against Israeli military reoccupation of parts of the occupied Palestinian territories in late March and early April 2002, the Administration began consultations that would lead, in the fall of 2002, to the formation of a “roadmap” toward that two-state solution by the “quartet” of the US, Russia, the EU and the UN.
Sometime in March 2002 President Bush ducked his head into National Security Adviser Rice’s office as she was briefing three senators on the Iraq issue. “F--- Saddam. We’re taking him out,” the newsmagazine Time reported the President saying.47 In April 2002 President Bush told a British television interviewer that “I made up my mind that Saddam needs to go…The worst thing that could happen would be to allow a nation like Iraq, run by Saddam Hussein, to develop weapons of mass destruction, and then team up with terrorist organizations so they can blackmail the world. I’m not going to let this happen.” When pressed on how he would achieve his goal, Bush replied, “Wait and see.”48 A briefing paper for a July 2002 meeting among British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his foreign policy and security ministers, leaked to the London Times in 2005, stated that Great Britain agreed to a regime change strategy in Iraq that included the use of military force at the April 2002 Bush-Blair summit in Crawford, Texas, provided certain conditions were met: formation of a coalition that could shape public opinion, quiet on the Israeli-Palestinian front and the exhaustion of options to eliminate Iraqi WMD through the UN.49
As spring turned to summer in 2002, indications grew that the White House was preparing to go to war. President Bush in June 2002 gave the graduation speech at West Point, saying that deterrence and containment were no longer sufficient to protect American security against the new threats it faced. While not mentioning Iraq by name, this new strategy of preventive war was clearly designed with Iraq in mind.50 The official White House statement on the new strategy, quickly dubbed “the Bush Doctrine,” was issued in September 2002. At the July 2002 meeting among senior British officials referenced above, the head of British foreign intelligence told his colleagues that in Washington “[m]ilitary action was now seen as inevitable,” a judgment seconded by Foreign Secretary Straw.51 Jordan’s King Abdallah met with the President on August 1, 2002. The King asked Bush, “Can I change your mind?” about war against Iraq. Bush responded, “No.”52 Richard Haass, director of Policy Planning at the State Department, in early July 2002 met with NSA Rice. He asked whether the Administration was “really sure that we wanted to put Iraq front and center at this point, given the war on terrorism and other issues. And she said, essentially, that the decision’s been made, don’t waste your breath.”53
A comprehensive American air campaign to disrupt Iraq’s military command and control system, termed “Southern Focus,” was launched in mid-2002. The strikes were justified publicly as a reaction to Iraqi violations of the no-fly zone in southern Iraq, but were intended to prepare the ground for a land assault.54 On August 29, 2002, President Bush approved the “goals, objectives and strategy” of the military plan for the Iraq war. The document said that the United States would work with an international coalition if possible, but would act alone if necessary.55