As the 10th anniversary of OIF arrives, Peter Feaver goes through some of the most prevalent myths regarding the wrongful narrative that “Bush lied, people died”:
1. The Bush administration went to war against Iraq because it thought (or claimed to think) Iraq had been behind the 9/11 attacks. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Bush Administration did explore the possibility that Hussein might have collaborated with al Qaeda on the attacks. Vice President Dick Cheney (along with some officials in the secretary of defense’s office) in particular believed this hypothesis had some merit, and in the early months gave considerable weight to some tantalizing evidence that seemed to support it. However, by the fall of 2002 when the administration was in fact selling the policy of confronting Hussein, the question of a specific link to 9/11 was abandoned and Cheney instead emphasized the larger possibility of collaboration between Iraq and al Qaeda. We now know that those fears were reasonable and supported by the evidence captured in Iraq after the invasion. This has been documented extensively through the work of the Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC), which examined the captured files of the Hussein regime. A 2012 International Studies Association panel sponsored by the CRRC on “Saddam and Terrorism” was devoted to this topic and spent quite a bit of time demonstrating how those who insist that there were no links whatsoever simply rely on a poorly worded sentence referencing “no smoking gun” of a “direct connection” in the executive summary of the 2007 “Iraqi Perspectives Project – Saddam and Terrorism: Emerging Insights from Captured Documents” report and ignore the evidence of links and attempted connections uncovered in the report itself as well as subsequent work by the project.
It is heartening whenever I see someone link or make reference to the Iraqi Perspectives Project, since it went largely ignored by the media (aside from misrepresenting its contents, thanks to lazily piggying on McClatchy’s summary report).
My own contribution in regards to what President Bush and VP Cheney actually said in regards to Saddam and 9/11, and why there is confusion: Did President Bush Link Saddam Hussein to 9/11?
Feaver’s myth #2 has to do with the belief that we went to war for the sake of democratizing Iraq:
(1) Bush was committed to confronting Iraq because of the changed risk calculus brought about by 9/11, which heightened our sensitivity to the nexus of WMD and terrorism (believing that state sponsors of terrorism who had WMD would be a likely pathway by which terrorist networks like al Qaeda could secure WMD); (2) Bush was also committed not to making the mistake of Desert Storm, namely stopping the war with Hussein still in power and concluded that confronting Hussein must end with either full capitulation by Hussein or regime change through war; (3) given regime change, the best option for the new Iraq was one based on pluralism and representative government rather than a “man on horseback” new dictator to take Hussein’s place. To be sure, the Bush administration greatly underestimated the difficulty of the democratization path, but democratization was not the prime motivation — confronting the WMD threat was. Democratization was the consequence of that prime motivation.
It’s true that the political language changed after it was becoming embarrassingly clear that the wmd stockpile we believed would be found in Iraq wasn’t likely to turn up. Douglas Feith in his book points out that this was a mistake on the administration’s PR, not to reiterate to the American public and defend the original arguments for why we went into Iraq and removed Saddam’s regime:
it was a strategic error for the President to make no effort to defend the arguments that had motivated him before the war. We were in a U.S. presidential election year, and President Bush’s political opponents were intent on magnifying the Administration’s mistakes regarding WMD in Iraq. On television and radio, in print, and on the Internet, day after day, they repeated the claim that the undiscovered stockpiles were the sum and substance of why the United States went to war with Saddam. At first they argued that the war was based entirely on error. Now critics had escalated to the accusation that the war was based on lies.
Electoral politics aside, I thought it was important for national security reason that the President refute his critics’ mistatements. The CIA assessments of WMD were wrong, but they had originated in the years before he became President. The same intelligence assessments had been accepted by Democratic and Republican members of Congress, as well as UN and other officials around the world. And, in any event, the erroneous intelligence was not the entire rationale for overthrowing Saddam.
It would be useful to “make clear the tie-in between Iraq and the broader war on terrorism”- in the following terms: The Saddam Hussein regime “had used WMD, supported various terrorist groups, was hostile to the US and had a record of aggression and of defiance of numerous UN resolutions.” In light of 9/11, the “danger that Saddam’s regime could provide biological weapons or other WMD to terrorist groups for use against us was too great” to let stand. And other ways of countering the danger- containment, sanctions, inspections, no-fly zones- had proven “unsustainable or inadequate.”
-Douglas Feith, War and Decision, Pg 491-2
You know, the lore out there was we went to war to bring democracy to the Iraqi people. That was not the case. We went to war to achieve some hard national security objectives.
Before we went to war the president had, in the situation room, a conversation about, once we topple Saddam, what is our obligation to the Iraqi people? Is it simply to substitute an authoritarian who will not move against our interests by supporting terror, invading neighbors, pursuing WMD? Or do we have an obligation because we are the United States of America, and because they’ve suffered under 30 years of a brutal authoritarian. Do we have an obligation to give the Iraqi people a chance, an opportunity, to build a democratic future for themselves?
The president decided on the latter, and I actually think we achieved that objective. It wasn’t pretty, and Iraq today is not pretty, but it has an opportunity to build a democratic future despite the enormous pressure that Syria and other events are putting on Iraq.
Read more from the FP roundtable.
Reflecting back to pre-war debates:
When the Bush administration did put the Iraq issue on the front-burner over the summer of 2002, I found the arguments of Bush opponents to be over-drawn and unconvincing — in particular, the anti-Bush position seemed not to take seriously enough the fact that the U.N. inspections regime had collapsed nor that the sanctions regime was in the process of collapsing — and so I found myself often critiquing the critics. I found the Bush argument that Hussein was gaming the sanctions and poised to redouble his WMD efforts when the sanctions finally collapsed to be a more plausible account of where things were heading absent a confrontation (and as we now know from the interviews with Hussein after his capture that was exactly what he was planning to do).
Feaver’s Myth #3 addresses the conspiratorial claim that Bush and Cheney went to war to make their friends rich and steal Iraqi oil.
#4 has to do with the notion that those dreadful neocons, like Feith and Wolfowitz, held such power of the Administration as to steer us to war.
Feaver, citing Frank Harvey, points out that he:
painstakingly reconstructs the decision process in 2002 and documents all of the ways that the Bush administration took steps contrary to the “neoconism” thesis — eg., working through the United Nations and seeking Congressional authorization rather than adopting the unilateralist/executive-only approach many Iraq hawks were urging. (Leffler makes similar points in his lecture).
Given how President Obama has in some ways perpetuated, escalated, and even “out-Bushed” Bush when it comes to the GWoT (or, if you will: “Overseas Contingency Operations”), it begs the question: Would a President Gore have authorized an Iraq invasion? Certainly he would not have had the same players advising him; however, given past statements during his Clinton years:
“Remember, Peter, this is a man who has used poison gas on his own people and on his neighbors repeatedly. He’s trying to get ballistic missiles, nuclear weapons, chemical and biological weapons. He could be a mass murderer of the first order of magnitude. We are not going to allow that to happen.”
- Al Gore , December 16, 1998.
“[I]f you allow someone like Saddam Hussein to get nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, chemical weapons, biological weapons, how many people is he going to kill with such weapons? He’s already demonstrated a willingness to use these weapons; he poison gassed his own people. He used poison gas and other weapons of mass destruction against his neighbors. This man has no compunctions about killing lots and lots of people.”
- Al Gore , December 16, 1998.
…And given the current PotUS in perpetuating “endless war” rather than ending it, Feaver and Harvey entertains the notion:
Harvey goes on to make an intriguing case that had Al Gore won the election in 2000, he would have likely authorized the Iraq war just as Bush did. Harvey has not fully convinced me of the latter, but he usefully rebuts much sloppy mythologizing about Gore’s foreign policy views, documenting how Gore was, in fact, the most hawkish of officials on Iraq in the Clinton administration. At a minimum, Harvey proves that the Iraq war owed more to the Clinton perspective than it did to then-candidate George W. Bush’s worldview as expressed during the 2000 campaign. The neoconism myth serves a politically useful function of fixing all blame on a specific group of Republicans, but, as Harvey shows, the truth is not quite so simplistic.
Feaver’s myth #5 has to do with “Bush lied”:
I have addressed this myth before. It is a staple of the anti-Iraq/anti-Bush commentary — and not just of the pseudonymous trolls in blog comment sections. John Mearsheimer, one of the most influential security studies academics, has written a book built around the claim that leaders regularly lie and that Bush in particular lied about Iraq. Mearsheimer claims “four key lies,” each one carefully rebutted by Mel Leffler.
The first is the question of links between Iraq and al Qaeda. As I noted above, while the Iraq files contain no “smoking gun” of an active operational link, the record includes ample evidence of overtures originating from either side — each pursuing precisely the kind of enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend alliance of convenience that Bush worried about. The second is the Bush administration statements of certainty about Iraq’s WMD programs. It turns out the Bush administration officials were wrong on many of those particulars and should have been less certain about how they were reading the intelligence, but there is no compelling evidence that they knew they were reading the intelligence incorrectly, which is what is logically required to prove the charge of “lying” rather than being “mistaken.” The third is the charge that Bush claimed Saddam was behind the attacks of 9/11. Here Mearsheimer ignores the explicit and repeated explanation by President Bush (and countless administration figures) about what they meant — namely that the links they saw were (i) how 9/11 had changed their risk calculus and (ii) how terrorist groups and states sponsors of terror should be treated as part and parcel of the same war. Again, the Bush administration may or may not have been wrong to view things that way but these are disputes of reasoning and policy, not fact. The fourth is the charge that Bush “lied” about sincerely pursuing a diplomatic solution short of war in 2002-2003. In fact, Bush was committed to a final resolution of WMD issue, which he believed would require either abject capitulation by Hussein or forcible regime change. Bush was not open to a wide range of face-saving and half-way diplomatic measures, but he never claimed to be. In other words, Bush was not willing to accept diplomatic solutions that others might have accepted, but he did go to great lengths to secure the diplomatic solution he was willing to accept but Saddam was not.
Charles Duelfer also has a write-up in yesterday’s Foreign Policy, claiming that No Books Were Cooked:
Certainly, there were plenty of mistakes made then that should be avoided in the future. However, many of these arguments seem grounded in politics rather than reality.
One of the most obvious examples is the widely accepted statement that President George W. Bush lied about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) stockpiles. But here’s the thing: If Bush knew that Saddam did not have such weapons, he would have been the only one — even Saddam wasn’t 100 percent certain about what resided in his stockpiles. In reaction to insistent U.S. and British statements about Iraq’s WMD, at an October 2002 Revolutionary Command Council meeting, Saddam asked his own staff whether they might know something he did not about residual WMD stocks.
The intelligence wasn’t cooked or slanted to make policymakers happy. It was just wrong. That made Bush mistaken — but it doesn’t make him a liar.
Intelligence agencies around the world erred in their assessments about Iraqi WMD. Some were more wrong than others. But the broadly held view by intelligence practitioners was that Saddam had capabilities that exceeded the limitations placed on him by the United Nations after the 1991 Gulf War. And in fact, Saddam was not fully compliant with the United Nations: He had ballistic missiles that exceeded permitted range limits and he had certainly had a long track record of blocking and deceiving U.N. weapons inspectors. His cooperation was always less than needed. But as it turned out, by 2002, the Iraqi president did not have militarily significant stocks of chemical or biological agents, and his nuclear program had been halted years earlier.
Given Saddam’s history, it wasn’t crazy for the intelligence community to believe that he would reconstitute his WMD programs. Consider these data points: In the 1980s, Saddam employed massive amounts chemical munitions to the front in his war with Iran. It saved Iraq (and his regime) from Iranian “human wave attacks.” Later, in the 1991 Kuwait war, Saddam deployed and authorized the use of chemical and biological missiles and bombs, should the United States advance on Baghdad. It did not; Saddam believed his possession of WMD deterred President George H. W. Bush. So Saddam had two experiences where WMD saved him. That’s a pretty good incentive to hang on to as much of it as possible. And for years he did everything possible to do just that-as evidenced by his indisputable track record of lying and deception to U.N. inspectors from 1991 to 1997.
In the context of the days after the 9/11 attacks, when concern over the next attack on the U.S. homeland was palpable, America’s tolerance for risk was dramatically lowered. There was no appetite for minimizing any threat that could repeat the trauma of the 9/11 attacks. Saddam was one of those threats.
The intelligence community also was right that Saddam hadn’t lost his desire for WMD. He stated clearly during our debriefings of him after his capture that he intended to recreate these capabilities once conditions permitted — that is, after sanctions were lifted.
Intelligence reports should not be the only basis for making decisions, and they were not for the Bush administration. Vice President Dick Cheney was correct to meet directly with intelligence analysts — it’s a good way to get a feel for what they really know. High-ranking officials were also right to think they may know more than the analysts. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for instance, had much more experience with Iraqis than the analysts. He met with Saddam personally. He had multiple meetings with Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz.
There were massive errors made in the run-up to the Iraq war. Some seemed even at the time to be avoidable. But the historical record doesn’t support today’s conventional wisdom: Bush did not lie. He made decisions based on incomplete and incorrect assessments. All presidents do this, and some decisions work out well and some do not.
So who lied? Well, Valerie Plame’s husband Joe Wilson, for one. So much so that he was rebuked in one of the Senate Select Intell Committee reports.
And yet, even to this day, I see those who perpetuate the distorted narrative regarding those “16 words” in President Bush’s SotU address.
Another myth: That we were never greeted as Liberators.
Iraqi children greeted McLaughlin’s tank in Baghdad on April 12. “People were pretty happy with us until about August of 2003,” he says today. “In April they were really happy.”
I strongly believe that history will vindicate the Bush Administration record in regards to what led them to opt for the decision in removing Saddam from power.