Today marks the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. This anniversary is a milestone that most of Washington would probably like to forget. But it is important that we do not forget. Ten years after the invasion, and nearly a year and a half since the last U.S. troops withdrew, it is important that we reflect on the Bush administration’s long march to war. It is important that we remember, so that we can guard against it happening again. As George Santayana remarked, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
There was no formal declaration of war. Nevertheless, at 5:34 a.m. Baghdad time on March 20, 2003 (9:34 p.m. EST on March 19, 2003), the United States, joined by the United Kingdom, Australia, Poland and Peshmerga, began the military invasion of Iraq. The invasion was codenamed “Operation Iraqi Liberation.” It was only later renamed “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” The initial aerial campaign was given the name “Shock and Awe.”
According to Ret. U.S. Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq had seven primary objectives. First, topple the Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein. Second, “identify, isolate and eliminate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.” Third, neutralize the terrorist threat within Iraq. Fourth, gather intelligence on the global terrorist networks operating within Iraq. Fifth, gather intelligence on the illicit transfer of weapons of mass destruction. Sixth, provide humanitarian support to the Iraqi citizens. And finally, seventh, create the conditions for a transition to a representative Iraqi self-government.
Although the invasion occurred on March 19, 2003, the U.S. had been laying the groundwork for the invasion for quite some time. The first Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) invasion team entered Iraq on July 10, 2002, and was instrumental in persuading several Iraqi military commanders to surrender rather than oppose the invasion and organize the Kurdish Peshmerga to become the northern front of the invasion. The Bush administration, however, had had its eye on Iraq long before 2002. And even before September 11th.
In his first inaugural address on Jan. 20, 2001, President George W. Bush declared that the United States “will confront weapons of mass destruction, so that a new century is spared new horrors. The enemies of liberty and our country should make no mistake: America remains engaged in the world by history and by choice, shaping a balance of power that favors freedom. We will defend our allies and our interests.”
Although Bush did not mention Iraq by name, his words reflected the hawkish approach to foreign policy that was dominant among senior officials in the new Republican administration. The 2000 election had focused almost exclusively on domestic policy, leaving important foreign policy questions unanswered. Quickly after the November election, however, hawkish neoconservatives eagerly stepped in to fill the void.
Prominent leaders within the Bush administration had been stoking fears about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq for years. In 2000, for example, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Rumsfeld’s Deputy Paul Wolfowitz contributed to a report from the Project for the New American Century lamenting that “the Pentagon has done almost nothing to prepare for a future that promises to be very different and potentially much more dangerous.” The report warned that “adversaries like Iran, Iraq and North Korea are rushing to develop ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons as a deterrent to American intervention in regions they seek to dominate.”
To respond to this perceived threat, the report argued for using an invasion of Iraq as a means for the United States to “play a more permanent role in Gulf regional security . . . .” After Bush’s contentious election in 2000, these men would get the chance to implement their hawkish agenda.
It didn’t take long.
Three days after Bush’s inauguration, Secretary of State Colin Powell asked his staff for background on Iraqi regime change policy. At the first meeting of the new administrations agency heads, the topic of discussion was the Middle East. One of the presentations was entitled “How Iraq is destabilizing the region.” Soon after, President Bush ordered the CIA to improve its intelligence on Iraq and directed the Pentagon to explore military options for Iraq. On February 1, Donald Rumsfeld told committee members that “Sanctions are fine, but what we really want to think about is going after Saddam . . . Imagine what the region would look like without Saddam and with a regime that’s aligned with U.S. interests. It would change everything in the region and beyond it. It would demonstrate what U.S. policy is all about.” And five months before 9/11, when counterterrorism chief Richard Clark attempted to bring the administrations focus to Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, Paul Wolfowitz abruptly changed the subject to Iraq.
There is no shortage of quotations similar to those above. However, while concerning, there is no indication that the Bush administration viewed these preparations as anything other than, in the words of President Bush himself, “good contingency planning.” All of this changed after September 11.
After 9/11, President Bush immediately assumed that Saddam Hussein was involved. Despite evidence to the contrary, Donald Rumsfeld instructed Pentagon lawyer Jim Haynes to talk to Wolfowitz in order to get information establishing a link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. On the evening of September 11, at a meeting with the president, Richard Clark and others, Rumsfeld said, “You know, we’ve got to do Iraq . . . there just aren’t enough targets in Afghanistan.”
“September 11th gave them the opportunity, and now they’re in heaven. They believe the intelligence is there. They want to believe it. It has to be there,” said Vincent Cannistraro, Director of Intelligence Programs for the United States National Security Council from 1984 to 1987.
The administration was convinced of the necessity to invade Iraq. But it still needed a way to convince the American people. “For reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on, which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason,” Wolfowitz said in May 2003.
he administration then embarked upon a massive “influencing campaign” designed to convince the American people and international community that war was the proper recourse. To the administration, Iraq’s WMD program must be stopped, and nothing short of military intervention would succeed in achieving this goal.
As for the American people, that campaign was largely successful. A collective groupthink emerged among the American media, and critics of the war were dismissed as ignorant and irresponsible. However, the push to invade Iraq was not warmly received by the international community. Today, the invasion is widely regarded throughout the world as illegal and illegitimate under international law. Nobody, however, has been held accountable.
We now know that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. “After more than 18 months, the WMD investigation and debriefing of the WMD-related detainees has been exhausted,” wrote Charles Duelfer, the CIA’s top weapons inspector in Iraq, in the CIA’s final report in 2005. “As the matters now stand, the WMD investigation has gone as far as feasible.” Moreover, we also know that, at the time the Bush administration was making its pitch to the American people and international community, it had little basis for its claim.
But it is too simplistic to argue that the American people were duped, sold a bill of bad goods, or somehow tricked into war. It is more accurate to say that our jingoistic, xenophobic tendencies after the September 11th attacks were taken advantage of by a group of individuals with a determined policy agenda. What is remarkable, however, is that ten years after the invasion, after nearly 5,000 American casualties and $2 trillion added to the national debt, we have yet to learn the important lessons from its history.
Proponents of the Iraq war continue to be regarded as “credible” on national security. John McCain, a vocal supporter of the Iraq war, is still a fixture on Sunday talk shows. Dan Senor, who’s signature foreign policy credential is his 15 months in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 as “senior adviser” to the occupation government installed in Iraq by the Bush White House, was tapped as “lead” Middle East advisor to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. Donald Rumsfeld, though he has kept a relatively low profile in recent years, still works his way into the spotlight from time to time. Paul Wolfowitz now works at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
As for our former President and Vice President, the fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has not caused any self-reflection. In 2008, President Bush said that he regretted the tough rhetoric he had used, but that he remained convinced that “removing Saddam Hussein made the world a safer place.” Dick Cheney, meanwhile, has no “regret” over the decision to invade Iraq. “I did what I did, it’s all on the public record, and, um, I feel very good about it,” Cheney says at the end of a newly released documentary, “The World According to Dick Cheney.” “If I had to do it over again, I’d do it in a minute.”
To be sure, the Iraq war was not an unmitigated disaster. But when the primary justification for an endeavor that cost thousands of American lives and mountains of treasure turns out to be hollow and unsubstantiated, questions must be asked and individuals must be held accountable. It is 2013, and our response has been wholly inadequate.
As Mother Jones wrote in 2006, “the American people . . . allowed ourselves to be suckered into the most audacious bait and switch of all time.” Ten years after the invasion, we have still not come to grips with this fact. We will eventually have to, however, to prevent it from happening again. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.