America’s unlearned lesson: the forgotten truth about why we invaded Iraq – Vox
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What 9/11 really had to do with the Iraq War
Despite longstanding conspiracy theory to the contrary, it is not the case that Bush came into office secretly plotting to invade Iraq or that he seized on the 9/11 attacks as cynical justification. While there is a line between the attacks and the invasion of Iraq, that line is not as direct as many Americans might think.
The attacks left Bush, a foreign policy neophyte, adrift. He had little experience with the Middle East or the complex social and political forces that had culminated, seemingly out of nowhere, in the deaths of some 3,000 Americans. He grasped for an answer; the neoconservatives in his administration just happened to have one ready.
Since long before 9/11, these officials had argued that terrorism like that of al-Qaeda had to be understood as a symptom of the Middle East’s real problems as they saw it: an absence of democracy and of American-dominated “benevolent hegemony.”
This worldview did not necessarily require that Saddam Hussein had been behind the 9/11 attacks or that he had sheltered Osama bin Laden. Nonetheless, the neoconservatives, so steeped in abstract ideological convictions that put Saddam at the center of the Middle East’s problems, were unable to resist the temptation to see the 9/11 attacks as validating their grand theories about the world.
And those theories inevitably culminated, as they always had, in the need for America to go to war with Iraq.
On 9/11 itself, Packer recounts in his book, “Within minutes of fleeing his office at the devastated Pentagon, Wolfowitz told aides that he suspected Iraqi involvement in the attacks.”
On September 12, 2001, as rescue workers still swarmed the downed Twin Towers, Bush asked his counterterrorism team to investigate Iraqi links. “See if Saddam did this. See if he’s linked in any way. … I want to know any shred,” he said, according to then-counterterrorism chief Richard A. Clarke’s recollection to Packer.
On September 15, at a high-level Camp David meeting to discuss the US response to the attacks, Wolfowitz repeatedly raised Saddam Hussein as not just a possible link but the most important target for retaliation.
On September 17, according to Packer’s account, Bush told his war council, “I believe Iraq was involved.”
In subsequent months, the Bush administration would gesture at a case for Iraqi involvement in 9/11, but would ultimately settle on a very different argument that Saddam possessed WMD programs that threatened the US.
Bush’s flexibility in how he justified the war was telling. It was not any particular issue, whether terrorism or WMDs, that prompted the war; rather, it was always about ideological convictions. Those convictions took on a momentum of their own.
The administration’s neoconservatives argued not just for possible links between Saddam and Osama bin Laden, but that al-Qaeda was an outgrowth of the Middle East’s larger problems as they had long identified them. Toppling Saddam would not just solve these root problems — it would transform the Middle East for the better, and begin an era of welcomed American dominance over the region.
These arguments relied increasingly on a small circle of Middle East scholars such as Fouad Ajami, whose 1998 book Dream Palace of the Arabs had rooted the region’s problems in a self-perpetuating social and political rot. Only a major jolt could end the cycle and awaken the once-proud Arabs. This jolt, Ajami argued, would be best delivered by an American invasion to topple Saddam and “liberate” Iraqis with democracy — thus surely inspiring a regional awakening.
By that December, long before the Bush administration would produce any of the so-called smoking guns proving Iraqi WMDs, it had already begun preparing to sell the public on a war with Iraq. David Frum, the Bush-era speechwriter who would later coin the term “axis of evil,” described this moment in his memoir, The Right Man:
“Here’s an assignment. Can you sum up in a sentence or two our best case for going after Iraq?”
It was late December 2001, and Mike Gerson was parceling out the components of the forthcoming State of the Union speech. His request to me could not have been simpler: I was to provide a justification for war.
Frum clarifies that other speechwriters were working on alternate drafts that were to be less “hawkish”; his assignment, he believes, did not indicate that the administration was yet dead set on war.
But Frum’s anecdote, like so many others from that time, shows the building momentum, within the administration, for war — a momentum, propelled by ideological conviction, that would ultimately overtake reason and critical thinking in the White House.
In March 2002, Bush dropped into a meeting between National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and three senators to tell them, “Fuck Saddam. We’re taking him out.”
That June, Richard Haass, the State Department director of policy planning, visited Rice’s office for their regular meeting. When he raised the State Department’s misgivings about the “bureaucratic chatter” of a possible war, Rice cut him off.
“Save your breath,” she told him. “The president has already made up his mind.”
“It was an accretion, a tipping point,” Haass told Packer, recounting the incident. “A decision was not made — a decision happened and you can’t say when or how.”
How the Bush administration fooled even itself
The neoconservative ideological convictions — a preoccupation with Saddam Hussein, a radical ambition to remake the Middle East from within, an almost blind faith in American military power as a force for positive transformation — led them to desire a war with Iraq as the solution to not just terrorism but a litany of problems, and to see validation for that desire even in the obviously flawed intelligence that would be their justification.
The White House inserted itself directly into an intelligence dissemination and vetting process that is typically handled by the agencies themselves. After 9/11, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney instituted a new system known as “Top Secret Codeword/Threat Matrix,” under which they demanded to personally review raw intelligence.
“The mistake was not to have proper analysis of the intelligence before giving to the president,” Roger Cressey, who served in Bush’s National Security Council, told Jane Mayer for her book The Dark Side. “There was no filter. Most of it was garbage. None of it had been corroborated or screened. But it went directly to the president and his advisers, who are not intelligence experts. That’s when mistakes got made.”
In the months after the attacks, US intelligence agencies came under heavy pressure to investigate the administration’s suspicions of links between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, or of ongoing Iraqi WMD programs.
It does not appear that the administration encouraged them to lie, but rather that deep-rooted biases led top officials to dismiss the mountains of intelligence that undercut their theories and to favor deeply problematic intelligence that supported it.
In 2001, for example, a man named Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, whom the US had picked up in Afghanistan and then shipped to Egypt to be tortured, claimed that Saddam had provided al-Qaeda with chemical and biological weapons training. The Defense Intelligence Agency warned that Libi’s information could not be trusted. But Bush treated it as credible, and repeated Libi’s claim as established fact in his case for war.
The US also relied heavily on claims by an Iraqi exile living in Germany named Rafid Ahmed Alwan, code-named “curveball,” who claimed to have direct knowledge of secret Iraqi WMD programs. Though both German and UK intelligence said Alwan was unstable and his information unreliable, the US embraced his claims, which provided the basis of much of its case for war.
Years later, Alwan admitted he had made it all up to help instigate the American invasion of Iraq. But the White House believed him for the simple reason that it badly wanted to.
Within months, the momentum for war within the administration had overtaken the normal processes of decision-making — and certainly had overtaken the public case for war.
By all appearances, administration officials believed their allegations of Iraqi WMDs were true and that this was indeed sufficient justification. Why else would the US launch a desperate, high-profile search for WMDs after invading — which only ended up drawing more attention to how false those allegations had been?
Rather, they had deceived themselves into seeing half-baked intelligence as affirming their desire for war, and then had sold this to the American people as their casus belli, when in fact it was secondary to their more high-minded and ideological mission that would have been too difficult to explain. That, more than overstating intelligence on WMDs, was the really egregious lie.
The lie bigger than WMDs: claiming the war was because of WMDs
“We know they have weapons of mass destruction. We know they have active programs. There isn’t any debate about it,” Rumsfeld said in September 2002.
“Saddam Hussein still has chemical and biological weapons, and is increasing his capabilities to make more. And he is moving ever closer to developing a nuclear weapon,” Bush said the next month, warning that Saddam would “threaten America and the world with horrible poisons, and diseases, and gases, and atomic weapons.”
Then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice claimed that Saddam was running a clandestine nuclear program that was only “six months from a crude nuclear device.”
In fact, none of this was true. Iraq had discontinued its chemical and biological weapons programs in the 1980s. A 1998 US-led bombing campaign had destroyed much of the remains.
But even if Bush’s allegations had been true, they would not have accurately described his administration’s real reasons for invading Iraq. The neoconservative mission of upending a tyrant and bringing democracy to the Middle East was mentioned only as a secondary benefit, or deployed as a later justification when no WMDs materialized.
This was, in part, how the Bush administration backed itself into such shoddy intelligence — shutting down Iraqi WMDs was never really the point, so Bush officials had little reason to fully vet the intelligence suggesting those programs were already gone.
At the same time, in keeping their actual reasons for war from the public, the Bush administration lost the opportunity for those reasons to be openly debated, at which point more grounded Middle East or military scholars might have revealed them as dangerously misguided.
America needs to finally confront the lessons of Iraq — before we repeat them
As Donald Trump’s stunt showed, America’s public debate over Iraq, now 13 years later, still turns largely on Bush’s claims and their truth. But even if Saddam had turned out to possess weapons of mass destruction, if Bush had been right, what would it really change?
The war would still have cost some 4,500 American lives and well over 100,000 Iraqi lives. It would still have destabilized Iraq, opened up the country for violent extremism, and contributed directly to the rise of ISIS. And it would still have been launched in pursuit of an ideological mission that turned out to be dangerously misguided.
Abstract and radical neoconservative ideas that had developed during the Clinton years, bouncing around a tiny echo chamber of like-minded idealists who had little desire to challenge one another, had suddenly and with no real public debate become the basis of a war that would quickly cost many thousands of lives.
But those ideas are still very much a part of America’s foreign policy discourse, and some day, even as soon as this January, their adherents could return to the White House.
Americans have rightly litigated the question of Bush’s honesty on WMDs. But we have still not interrogated the deeper force behind the catastrophic war: the radical convictions of a neoconservative ideology that remains central to the Republican Party’s foreign policy — particular among establishment-backed presidential candidates such as Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush.
These candidates, in how they discuss hostile nations such as Iran, Russia, and Syria, do not sound so different from the neoconservatives of the 1990s. You hear this in their belief in the power and virtue of unilateral American force, in the need to express hegemonic American dominance over the Middle East, and in the apparently earnest fear that any challenge to American power, no matter how slight, is just the start of a potentially global unraveling.
You see it in Marco Rubio’s highly ideological but analytically groundless belief that dismantling the Iran nuclear deal and adopting a policy of maximal belligerence toward Tehran would advance freedom and peace in the Middle East.
This is not to say that neoconservative candidates are secretly plotting, or would necessarily execute, another war in the Middle East — although it is concerning to see them so focused on Iran as an implacable and grave threat that can only be addressed by subjugating the regime or bringing about its downfall.
It is concerning to see Rubio advocating forceful regime change in Syria and hiring a foreign policy adviser who advocates it in Iran, all along similar high-minded ideological lines as the neoconservative obsession with Iraq 20 years ago. It is worrying to hear hawks like Sen. Tom Cotton, embraced by neoconservative luminaries, explicitly advocate that the US abandon the nuclear deal to instead force regime change or even launch military strikes.
To be clear, neoconservatism is not exclusive to the Republican Party; Democrats such as Hillary Clinton and Samantha Power have pursued similarly high-minded policies, particularly a belief in humanitarian interventions. (Indeed, Clinton voted for the Iraq War.) And many Republicans do oppose neoconservatism, instead advocating a return to the hard-nosed realism of George H.W. Bush.
The lesson is not that neoconservatism should be a disqualification from the presidency. Indeed, the ideology has made important and undervalued contributions to American foreign policy, such as its focus on human rights and its warning that supporting friendly dictatorships is both morally wrong and, in the long term, strategically unviable.
But these ideas, like neoconservatives’ more dangerous faith in the transformative power of American military force, deserve to be evaluated and then either embraced or rejected on their merits.
In the Iraq War, we had the purest possible test of many of this ideology’s core beliefs about the inherent virtue of American military power, about the supposedly transformative power of regime change, and about the supposed demand for American hegemony.
These ideas all proved not just false but disastrously so. We have not taken those lessons into account, preferring instead to litigate the narrower and politically easier question of Bush’s personal honesty.
The lesson, which extends to both parties, is that a potential president’s ideological views are just as important to examine and vet as are his or her policy proposals; that the line between obscure policy journals and American military action can be much shorter than we’d like to think.
That is true of any ideology, but it is especially true of neoconservatism, which we have still not chosen to vet, remarkably, even after we invested billions of dollars and thousands of lives in testing it directly in Iraq, to results apparently so damning we have still not fully absorbed them.
America’s unlearned lesson: the forgotten truth about why we invaded Iraq – Vox