How Bush Decided on War
Jude Wanniski
April 2, 2003


Memo: To Website Fans, Browsers, Clients
From Jude Wanniski
Re Article by Nicholas Lemann

If you are not reading The New Yorker’s every issue these days, you are behind the curve. In the last two issues there have been sensational reports by Seymour Hersh – one that precipitated the resignation of Richard Perle from the chair of the Defense Policy Board, the second that generated a torrent of criticism of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his planning for the war. The war is either going well or going poorly, depending upon who is doing the spinning in Washington, but in the following article by Nicholas Lemann, we get the best report yet on just how it happened that Mr. Bush came to decide he had to take out Saddam, no matter what. It is not the last word, but Lemann gets close.

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When did Bush decide that he had to fight Saddam?
Issue of 2003-03-31
Posted 2003-03-24

Washington had a vertiginous feeling last week as the endlessly debated war against Iraq finally began. For the previous six months, the capital had surely been the most pro-Iraq-war city in the world: George W. Bush had given a textbook demonstration of Presidential power in bringing Washington into a position of support—or, in the case of many of the Democrats, cowed silence—for a course of action that almost nobody had advocated when Saddam Hussein forced the United Nations weapons inspectors to leave, in 1998. There had been, from the Washington point of view, a satisfying rhythm to the run-up to war, beginning with Bush’s speech to the United Nations in September, continuing through Saddam’s forced readmission of the weapons inspectors in the fall, and culminating in Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation of evidence against Saddam at the U.N. in early February, which, in Washington, at least, caused a wave of liberal capitulations to the cause of war.

Then, to the queasy surprise of the small community of people in Washington who follow American diplomacy with a sense of proprietary interest, things fell apart. There was much more opposition to the war than anybody had expected; seemingly reliable allies jumped ship; the cooperation of the Security Council became unattainable; even the impeccably loyal Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, needed last-minute resuscitation, in the form of a Presidential reiteration of support for Palestinian statehood. Recrimination between hawks and doves, over who was to blame for the failure of diplomacy, and gloom about the death of the international order were in the air—along with martial expectancy. Late Monday morning, after it was announced that President Bush would make a television address that evening, helicopters suddenly began patrolling the skies and streets were shut off. It turned out that a North Carolina tobacco farmer had driven his tractor into a pond on the Mall, but, before people knew that, the city had been alive with alarmed rumors: a peace protester was threatening to blow up the Washington Monument; a terrorist had driven a truck packed with explosives into the reflecting pool in front of the Capitol Building.

With the war only hours away from beginning, I had a long talk with a senior Administration official about how it had come about and what it seemed to portend.

“Before September 11th,” the official said, “there wasn’t a consensus Administration view about Iraq. This issue hadn’t come to the fore, and you had Administration views. There were those who preferred regime change, and they were largely residing in the Pentagon, and probably in the Vice-President’s office. At the State Department, the focus was on tightening up the containment regime—so-called ‘smart sanctions.’ The National Security Council didn’t seem to have much of an opinion at that point. But the issue hadn’t really been joined.

“Then, in the immediate aftermath of the eleventh, not that much changed. The focus was on Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda. Some initial attempts by Wolfowitz”—Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense —“and others to draw Iraq in never went anywhere, because the link between Iraq and September 11th was, as far as we know, nebulous at most—nonexistent, for all intents and purposes. It’s somewhere in the first half of 2002 that all this changed. The President internalized the idea of making regime change in Iraq a priority. What I can’t explain to you is exactly the process that took us from the initial post-September 11th position, which was, Let’s keep the focus on Al Qaeda and Afghanistan, to, say, nine months later, when Iraq had moved to the top of the priority list for us. That’s a mystery that nobody has yet uncovered. It clearly has something to do with September 11th, and it’s clearly consistent with the President’s speech about weapons of mass destruction in the hands of rogues, people with a history of some terror—but, again, how it exactly happened, and what was the particular role of Cheney, among others, I wish you well in uncovering.”

I wondered how the war looked to the American diplomatic community. “I think it’s hard to generalize,” the official said. “It’s my sense that the arguments for going to war are strong enough that people feel comfortable. There’s a good case for going to war. There’s also a respectable case for not. But the case for going to war is strong enough that I don’t think a lot of people at senior levels are going home unable to face themselves in the mirror. A lot of this comes down to how imminent a threat you feel Iraq poses. Everyone agrees that Saddam Hussein is truly evil. Everyone agrees he has these weapons of mass destruction. Everyone is concerned about what he might do with them. And so the real question is, Did we have to do something right away, with military force? Reasonable men and women can disagree, but I think the bottom line is, the arguments that have led the President to this point are strong enough that even those who tilt the other way can still acknowledge the validity of the arguments, and, indeed, even conclude that those who favor going to war now may well be right.”

In terms of the future of American diplomacy, much depends on how the war effort goes. If things don’t go well, the official said, “the price we pay is, first of all, the aftermath inside Iraq is likely to be more costly, in terms of how long, how many forces have to stay. It could be harder to put Iraq right, if what we inherit is a much more destroyed place. Second of all, we could find the world economy in much rougher straits. If things are messy and prolonged, we could find some friendly governments possibly overthrown, or at least in much worse shape. The U.S.’s reputation would be taking a battering. It’s one thing if you challenge the conventional wisdom and are proved right. It’s quite another”—he chuckled mordantly—“if you challenge the conventional wisdom and the conventional wisdom proves to have been right. I just think America’s reputation would have taken a real battering. We’d probably also find increased terrorist attacks, because we’d be seen not as invincible, and bogged down, and all that. This is all—this is a big throw of the dice.”

An odd aspect of the Washington foreign-policy community during the last few months has been that there was less general enthusiasm for the war inside the government than you’d think, and more enthusiasm outside the government, which is where the Democratic foreign-policy specialists are now. Foreign-policy Democrats are a bit to the right of their party, because they feel that it tends to be too hesitant about the use of American power, and foreign-policy Republicans (excepting the hawks) are a bit to the left of theirs, because they feel that it undervalues diplomacy. The result is that the foreign-policy arms of the two parties form a continuum of opinion (excepting, again, the hawks), despite the custom that forbids those who have served in Administrations of one party from serving in Administrations of the other. The consensus after the expulsion of the weapons inspectors in 1998 was that Saddam Hussein was a bad actor, but that his misbehavior had not achieved the status of a grave international crisis. On the other hand, quite a few people in the Clinton Administration wanted to respond to him more forcefully than the United States actually did, with a four-day bombing campaign called Operation Desert Fox.

James Steinberg, who during the last years of the Clinton Administration was the No. 2 man at the National Security Council and is now the head of the foreign-policy division of the Brookings Institution, told me that he would have preferred to try to muster an international disarmament effort against Saddam. Then as now, the chief problem would have been persuading the French and the Russians. “We would have tried to go to the United Nations, but back it up with a more aggressive posture, including moving troops to the region,” Steinberg said. “But a variety of factors made it impossible.” He listed the war in Kosovo and Al Qaeda’s bombing of the American embassies in East Africa as matters that took the focus away from Iraq—and, of course, Clinton had an especially weak hand during this period, because he was being impeached.

By the time of the 2000 Presidential campaign, the flurry of activity that followed the end of inspections had subsided, and on Iraq there was not much apparent difference between Clinton’s position, Al Gore’s position, and Bush’s position. All three men were nominally for “regime change,” without suggesting an immediate way to achieve it. “In any Administration, the question is, How do you raise an issue from one that people with a narrow portfolio worry about to one that people with a broad portfolio worry about,” Stephen Sestanovich, another high diplomatic official in the Clinton Administration, whom I saw in Washington last week, told me. (Sestanovich now works at the Washington office of the Council on Foreign Relations.) “Iraq was a problem the regional specialists saw as very serious, but they could never get their argument accepted above the level of regional specialists.” That was as true in the early Bush days as in the late Clinton ones.

Then, when Iraq did become an issue of Presidential importance, Washington followed George Bush’s lead. The foreign-policy consensus shifted, from the view that Saddam represented a second-order-of-magnitude problem to the view that it was worth a war to get rid of him, but only if it was an international effort like the first Gulf War. And most people believed that’s what would happen, once Bush had acceded to Colin Powell’s request to go to the United Nations to line up support. Surely, people felt, the rest of the world would come around to the new American position—even the balky Russians and French. As Sestanovich put it, “The anti-American stance is a familiar French thing, not entirely cynical, not entirely principled. They’d know when to call it off. After they’d been French for a while, they’d stop being French. People thought they understood the limits of the game and it would be over at a certain point. And then it wasn’t. And it turned out that the Russians were prepared to be French, as long as the French were being French.”

So this was the dizzying progression in the Washington diplomatic world: from believing that Saddam should be taken somewhat more seriously as a threat, to believing that an international coalition was going to oust him from power, to watching the coalition fall apart and the United States go to war anyway—and wondering whether it made a difference anymore what professional diplomats think.

Last week, I went to see Richard Haass, the director of the policy-planning staff at the State Department. Haass is probably the Administration’s most prominent moderate theoretician and is a leading member of the foreign-policy establishment. Before joining the Bush Administration, he had held the job at the Brookings Institution which James Steinberg now holds. (And Steinberg formerly held Haass’s job in the State Department.) Haass will soon be leaving government to take one of the foreign-policy world’s plummiest jobs, as president of the Council on Foreign Relations, in New York. With his departure, it’s hard to think of whom one could call a prominent moderate theoretician in the Bush Administration.

I arrived at the State Department on the day that President Bush made his televised address giving Saddam Hussein forty-eight hours to surrender power. The enormous, usually crowded lobby of the building was deserted, as if to manifest the succession of diplomacy by war. Haass seemed tired but not harried, as you would when a long period of intense preparation had ended and there was nothing left to do.

I asked him whether there had been a particular moment when he realized that war was definitely coming. “There was a moment,” he said. “The moment was the first week of July, when I had a meeting with Condi”—Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national-security adviser. “Condi and I have regular meetings, once every month or so—she and I get together for thirty or forty-five minutes, just to review the bidding. And I raised this issue about were we 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 that decision’s been made, don’t waste your breath. And that was early July. But before that, in the months leading up to that, there had been various hints, just in what people were saying, how they were acting at various meetings. We were meeting about these issues in the spring of 2002, and my staff would come back to me and report that there’s something in the air here. So there was a sense that it was gathering momentum, but it was hard to pin down. For me, it was that meeting with Condi that made me realize it was farther along than I had realized. So then when Powell had his famous dinner with the President, in early August, 2002”—in which Powell persuaded Bush to take the question to the U.N.—“the agenda was not whether Iraq, but how.”

The long, grueling effort at the U.N. now looked like a waste of time—or did Haass disagree? “That’s too negative,” he said. “Resolution 1441”—which the Security Council passed unanimously, and which reopened the weapons inspections in Iraq—“was an extraordinary achievement. It got inspectors back in under far more demanding terms. And it didn’t tie our hands. We never committed ourselves to another resolution. So it was an extraordinary accomplishment. It gave tremendous legal and political and moral authority to anything that we would subsequently do. I don’t see how anyone could fault that. Indeed, any problems that we have today pale in comparison to the problems we would have had if we had not done 1441. Where we had problems was obviously in the aftermath, and the question is why. Well, to some extent, as we got closer to the reality of war, all the visceral antiwar feeling came out. The French and others who voted for 1441 are being disingenuous. When they voted for it, they knew damn well what serious consequences it would have. What they’re doing is listening to their public opinion, rather than leading it.”

There were other reasons besides French opposition that the American effort in the United Nations had failed, Haass said. “A lot of the resentment of American foreign policy over the last couple of years has coalesced. This has become a kind of magnet for resentment. I think we may have been hurt by having a policy toward the Israel-Palestine dispute that was perceived in much of Europe and the Middle East to be biased toward Israel. In any event, we ended up going for the second resolution, quite honestly, not because we needed it. It was seen as nice to have, from our point of view. It was seen as desirable. But it was something that Tony Blair and others felt very strongly that they needed in order to manage their domestic polities.”

After months of official talk about removing Saddam from power, would the United States really have been willing to accept his remaining as the Iraqi head of state if he complied with the weapons inspectors? “That’s a hypothetical,” Haass said. “We said that we would have lived with it. My hunch is that, if you had had complete Iraqi cooperation and compliance, so we had eliminated to our satisfaction the W.M.D.”—weapons of mass destruction—“threat, the question would be, Could Saddam Hussein have survived that? My hunch is, Saddam concluded he couldn’t survive it, which is one of the reasons why we are where we are. It would have been such a loss of face. But, assuming it did not lead to regime change from within, I do not think we could or would have launched a war in those circumstances. Instead, if Saddam survived W.M.D. disarmament, we could have pursued regime change through other tools. That’s why you have diplomacy, that’s why you have propaganda, that’s why you have covert operations, that’s why you have sanctions. You have the rest of the tools. So my recommendations would have been, we pursue regime change and war-crimes prosecution—he still should have been responsible for war crimes—using other tools. But I think you had to reserve the military either for the W.M.D. issue or for incontrovertible evidence of support for terrorism.”

Now people were saying that the United States, by deciding to abandon the Security Council negotiations, had done irreparable harm to the institutional stature of the United Nations. “We’ve not done irreparable harm to anything,” Haass said. “In the case of the U.N., we’ve just once again learned the lesson that the U.N. can only function as an institution when there’s consensus among the major powers. The U.N. was never meant to act with the independence of a nation-state. It was never meant to be the instrument of one great power against another. So, when the great powers can’t agree, that’s when they have to go outside the U.N. Otherwise they’ll destroy the institution to make it relevant. You want to preserve it for those times when the differences between the powers are modest, or they actually agree.”

Therefore, with the United States determined to go to war, it was imperative to avoid a vote on a second resolution, which might have failed and would have been vetoed even if it had passed. “This would have been a much more confrontational situation,” Haass said. “We would have been acting against the U.N. Now we can argue that we are acting pursuant to the U.N., in 1441. This is a way, I believe, quite honestly, of preserving the U.N.’s potential viability in the future. We’ve not destroyed it. We’ve just admitted, though, that it can’t do everything, when the great powers of the day disagree.”

Now that the war is under way, the Washington foreign-policy consensus has shifted again, to the point that Haass’s position on the future of the U.N.—indeed, the future of the United States as a member of lasting alliances—would seem overoptimistic to many people. Washington has stopped debating the merits of the real war in Iraq (that’s one for demonstrators in the streets, not policymakers in offices) and has begun to focus on a possible one in North Korea.