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12 Years of Diplomacy: Was the Invasion of Iraq Really a Last Resort or Just Unfinished Business?

By David McNair
September 22, 2003

In a speech to the United Nations on the day after the first anniversary of 9/11, President Bush officially demonized and targeted Saddam Hussein in the war on terror. He called the dictator a "grave and gathering danger" to world peace and security and demanded that the nations of the world deal with him immediately. Bush suggested that Iraq might have links to groups like Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda and said that America's greatest fear was that terrorists would "find a short cut to their mad ambitions when an outlaw regime supplies them with the technologies to kill on a massive scale." But President Bush didn't stop there. "Should Iraq acquire fissile material," he went on to say, " would be able to build a nuclear weapon within a year."

Thus began the massive build-up of arms and rhetoric around Iraq. Ships were deployed to the Gulf, and Bush Administration officials were deployed to the news talk shows to talk about the clear and present danger that Saddam posed. Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. was charged with forming the White House Iraq Group (WHIG) to set up a strategy for selling the war against Iraq. Asked by reporters why the President was waiting until September to emphasize the Iraq problem, Card famously replied, "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August." To push their product, Card formed a "strategic communications" task force and began emphasizing two main themes: Iraq's nuclear capabilities and its ties to al Qaeda. To those who wanted more evidence of this supposed threat, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said we couldn't wait for a smoking gun because we "don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud." And even before Bush raised the nuclear specter in his U.N. speech, Vice President Dick Cheney said he foresaw a time in which Hussein could "subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail." Later on, Cheney said, "We now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. Among other sources, we've gotten this from firsthand testimony from defectors, including Saddam's own son-in-law." (But according to official U.N. transcripts of the son-in-law's testimony, the opposite was true. He said all efforts to acquire nuclear weapons had ceased before the start of the Gulf War in 1991.) Then Cheney said definitively, "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction." Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld asked listeners on CBS's Face the Nation to  "imagine a September 11th with weapons of mass destruction," which would kill "tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children." In November 2002, Gen. Tommy R. Franks, Chief of U.S. Central Command, said that failing to act might bring "the sight of the first mushroom cloud on one of the major population centers on this planet." As we moved closer to war, the Bush Administration became even more confident. "We know for a fact there are weapons there," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. And then, of course, came the infamous 16 words in Bush's State of the Union speech about Iraq acquiring uranium from Africa, which turned out to be false.

Along with summoning the image of a mushroom cloud over America, the Bush Administration also continued to link Hussein with al Qaeda at every opportunity, often in the same breath. "Both of them need to be dealt with," Bush told reporters at the White House in September 2002. "You can't distinguish between al Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror." When Defense Secretary Rumsfeld  was asked by reporters traveling with him in Warsaw if there was a connection between al Qaeda and Iraq, he said, "I have no desire to go beyond saying the answer is yes." Shortly after Bush's speech to the U.N., National Security Advisor Rice told reporters there was evidence that Saddam Hussein had sheltered al Qaeda terrorists in Baghdad and helped train some members in chemical weapons development, even though various intelligence officials admitted there was no definitive evidence to support that claim. Between his U.N. speech in Sept. 2002 and his State of the Union address in Jan. 2003, President Bush claimed there was a direct connection between Iraq and al Qaeda in speeches and appearances in Ohio, Michigan, New Mexico, Colorado, New Hampshire, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Minnesota, South Dakota, Missouri, and Arkansas. And in the State of the Union, Bush said, "Evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications, and statements by people now in custody reveal that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al Qaeda." Although careful never to directly assert that Saddam had anything to do with 9/11, the Bush Administration strongly alluded to that possibility in the months leading up to the President's State of the Union address.  But all this was only a prelude to Bush's prime-time address to the nation on March 17, 2003, in which the President announced the decision to invade Iraq. "Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised," Bush declared. "Before the day of horror can come, before it is too late to act, this danger will be removed."

Suddenly, after a 12-year hiatus, Saddam was again the world's Hitler, miraculously replacing Osama bin Laden as our public enemy number one.

Six months and one invasion later, U.S. soldiers in Iraq asked Defense Secretary Rumsfeld how the search for these lethal weapons was going. An evasive Rumsfeld, who was on a 5-day trip to Iraq and Afghanistan and who had always insisted that such weapons existed, told the troops that they would continue to "work the problem" and that "there were several hundreds of suspected WMD sites. Nothing actionable in the way of intelligence, but suspected."  That's a long way from mushroom clouds and "leaves no doubt." In fact, it tends to leave little doubt that the Bush Administration wildly exaggerated the threat that Saddam posed.

The question is, why?

"Iraq is unfinished business," said Lee H. Hamilton, director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in a June 3, 2000, Washington Post article. "One of the difficulties our (Iraq) policy confronts is that it's very difficult to reconcile our goals. On the one hand, we want to resume inspections of Saddam Hussein's weapons facilities. In order to do that, you have to have a lot of cooperation. But at the same time, we want to overthrow him. It's hard to reconcile those."

Hamilton's comments illustrate the dilemma that our government has faced with regard to Iraq and point toward the schizophrenia of our thinking over the last 12 years. Ironically, you had then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, a cheerleader for the recent invasion, saying this shortly after the Gulf War:

I think that the proposition of going to Baghdad is also fallacious.... I think we'd have had to hunt him down. And once we'd done that and we'd gotten rid of Saddam Hussein and his government, then we'd have had to put another government in its place.

What kind of government? Should it be a Sunni government or Shi'i government or a Kurdish government or Ba'athist regime? Or maybe we want to bring in some of the Islamic fundamentalists? How long would we have had to stay in Baghdad to keep that government in place? What would happen to the government once U.S. forces withdrew? How many casualties should the United States accept in that effort to try to create clarity and stability in a situation that is inherently unstable?

I think it is vitally important for a President to know when to use military force. I think it is also very important for him to know when not to commit U.S. military force. And it's my view that the President got it right both times, that it would have been a mistake for us to get bogged down in the quagmire inside Iraq. (Speech at Soref Symposium, April 29, 1991)

You also had former President George H.W. Bush and his former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft saying:

Going in and occupying Iraq, thus unilaterally exceeding the U.N.'s mandate, would have destroyed the precedent of international response to aggression we hoped to establish. Had we gone the invasion route, the U.S. could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land. It would have been a dramatically different—and perhaps barren—outcome. (Time, March 2, 1998)

But, on the other hand, neo-cons like William Kristol and Robert Kagan of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) were already sounding the alarm about Saddam's supposed weapons of mass destruction and calling for an all-out invasion of Iraq:

Saddam Hussein must go. This imperative may seem too simple for some experts and too daunting for the Clinton Administration. But if the United States is committed, as the President said in his State of the Union Message, to insuring that the Iraqi leader never again uses weapons of mass destruction, the only way to achieve that goal is to remove Mr. Hussein and his regime from power. Any policy short of that will fail.... The only way to remove the threat of those weapons is to remove him, and that means using air power and ground forces, and finishing the task left undone in 1991. ("Bombing Iraq Isn't Enough," The New York Times, January 30, 1998)

In addition, neo-cons like Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Perle, who were now in positions of power, had been talking about and pushing for an invasion long before 9/11. In a letter to President Clinton in 1998, the three men, along with other neo-cons associated with PNAC, rejected the policy of containment and called for Hussein's overthrow by military force:

The only acceptable strategy ... is one that eliminates the possibility that Iraq will be able to use or threaten to use weapons of mass destruction. In the near term, this means a willingness to undertake military action as diplomacy is clearly failing. In the long term, it means removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power. That now needs to become the aim of American foreign policy.

Most disturbingly, all this suggests that our government's sudden focus on Iraq in September of 2002 was a bit of a charade to justify a war that had been contemplated and headed our way as far back as 1998. Never mind those WMDs, never mind the exaggerations, what about using the anniversary of 9/11 (and alluding to Saddam's involvement in that tragedy) as an opportunity to demonize Saddam once more, to settle old scores, and to push forward a radical U.S.-Iraq policy initiative that had been brewing in neo-con circles for years? What if our invasion of Iraq really had nothing to do with 9/11?

According to recent polls, most Americans believe that Saddam played a role in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, even though there is no strong evidence to support this. That goes a long way in explaining why the public continues to support our presence in Iraq, despite the enormous cost, the loss of American lives, the seemingly impossible task of restoring order and installing a working democracy, the absence of WMDs, and the fact that the Bush Administration may have misled the public about Iraq's nuclear capabilities. As long as Americans continue to believe that Saddam might have had something to do with 9/11, or that he could have caused another 9/11, then support for our occupation/liberation is secured. But what if our country has been made the victim of a large and terrible lie? After all, as Hitler once remarked, "The great masses of the people ... will more easily fall victims to a big lie than to a small one." But what exactly is the big lie about Iraq?

During his speech announcing the start of the war, President Bush told the nation:

For more than a decade, the United States and other nations have pursued patient and honorable efforts to disarm the Iraqi regime without war. That regime pledged to reveal and destroy all of its weapons of mass destruction as a condition for ending the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Since then, the world has engaged in 12 years of diplomacy.... Our good faith has not been returned.

For anyone with a casual interest in history, that "diplomacy" and "good faith" involved 12 years of brutal economic sanctions and almost daily bombings in the northern and southern no-fly zones. In 1997, U.S. Department of State spokesman James P. Rubin said the economic sanctions on Iraq were "the toughest, most comprehensive sanctions in history." Of course, Saddam should also be to blame for the suffering of his people by refusing to cooperate with the sanctions regime, but this is most definitely a shared tragedy. To call it "12 years of diplomacy" in which we acted "in good faith" is extremely misleading. After resigning as the first U.N. Assistant Secretary General and Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq in 1998, Denis Halliday said of the economic sanctions:  "We are in the process of destroying an entire society. It is as simple and terrifying as that." Indeed, much of the data supported that statement. According to a U.N. Report in March of 1999, infant mortality rates in Iraq were among the highest in the world, malnutrition in Iraqi children under five almost doubled from 1991 to 1996 (from 12% to 23%), average shop prices of essential commodities stood at 850 times the July 1990 level, and only 41% of the population had regular access to clean water. Overall, the report determined that during the sanctions regime, "the country had experienced a shift from relative affluence to massive poverty."

In addition to the economic sanctions, over 280,000 military sorties were conducted in the no-fly zones that covered more than two-thirds of the country. The no-fly zones were established by the U.S./U.K. coalition (France also joined on to patrol the no-fly zones but later pulled out in protest) after the 1991 Gulf War under the premise of protecting the Kurds in the north and the Shias in the south from Saddam's brutality and securing the Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti borders. Slowly, U.S. policy in the no-fly zones went from a humanitarian effort to protect the Kurds and Shias to a military effort to "keep the pressure" on Saddam. Some have even suggested that patrolling the no-fly zones also served to contain the Shias and the Kurds and prevented them from taking over the country, a scenario that Cheney alluded to in the speech that was quoted earlier in this article.

In essence, sanctions and the no-fly-zones allowed the U.S. to keep its boot-heel on Saddam's neck without destroying him entirely.  It has been estimated that well over 100,000 bombs and missiles have been dropped in the no-fly zones during those 12 years of "diplomacy" at a cost to the U.S. of over a billion dollars a year. Whether you think the no-fly zones and sanctions were justified or not, it's impossible to ignore the fact that their enforcement over the years amounted to an undeclared war on Iraq.

An entire generation of Iraqis who have grown up under the U.S.-led sanctions regime have also been listening to the roar of U.S. and British planes flying overhead and dropping bombs. After 1998, when President Clinton launched Operation Desert Fox, bombing in the no-fly zones steadily intensified. In 1999 alone, the United Nations reported that air strikes in the no-fly zones had killed 73 Iraqi civilians and wounded another 257 between December 28, 1998, and May 31, 1999. (Iraqi authorities put the number at 300 civilians killed and 800 wounded.) They also reported that several residential areas had been hit, as bombing missions broadened to include civilian as well as military installations. During the 2000 U.S. presidential election year, the U.S. bombed Iraq 98 times, which went virtually unnoticed by the mainstream media. And in February 2001, President Bush ordered air strikes on radar installations and anti-aircraft sites near Baghdad (and outside the southern no-fly zone), not in response to any direct action by Saddam, but simply to reduce the growing danger to pilots who patrolled the southern no-fly zone. (By the way, in 12 years of patrolling the no-fly zones, not a single U.S. or U.K. aircraft was hit, and not a single U.S. or U.K. casualty was reported.)  Those strikes also included dropping controversial cluster bombs from 20,000 feet to avoid any risk of being shot down. That's to say nothing of the increased bombing that occurred in the no-fly zones after President Bush's Sept. 12, 2002, speech at the United Nations.  From August 2002 to December 2002, there were 62 attacks by U.S. and U.K. aircraft, an average of one bombing raid every two days, despite the fact that Bush repeatedly said he considered war a last resort.

Of course, there are those who argue that 9/11 simply brought the problem of Iraq to the forefront and had in essence proven the ongoing neo-con argument for invasion right. Indeed, Robert Kagan miraculously penned an article in the Washington Post on September 11, 2001, called "We Must Fight This War." It's hard to  believe that Kagan didn't have this one sitting in a desk drawer for some time. It is almost a perfect description of the Bush Administration's reaction and response to 9/11. Kagan writes:

Please let us make no mistake this time. We are at war now. We have suffered the first, devastating strike. Certainly, it is not the last. The only question is whether we will now take this war seriously, as seriously as any war we have ever fought. Let's not be daunted by the mysterious and partially hidden identity of our attackers. It will soon become obvious that there are only a few terrorist organizations capable of carrying out such a massive and coordinated strike. We should pour the resources necessary into a global effort to hunt them down and capture or kill them. It will become apparent that those organizations could not have operated without the assistance of some governments, governments with a long record of hostility to the United States and an equally long record of support for terrorism. We should now immediately begin building up our conventional military forces to prepare for what will inevitably and rapidly escalate into confrontation and quite possibly war with one or more of those powers. Congress, in fact, should immediately declare war. It does not have to name a country. It can declare war against those who have carried out today's attack and against any nations that may have lent their support.

This is pretty good for a same-day analysis of an event that had most of us shocked and confused.

Again, what if our invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11? What if it simply presented an opportunity for our government to solve "unfinished business" in a way that was morally unjustified before the image of those burning towers made us a little more angry, righteous, and vengeful? What if it was simply a way to correct our government's squeamish and schizophrenic Iraq policy and bring the war we had already launched out of the shadows? What, then, do we make of the Bush Administration's elaborate sales pitch for war? Was it really necessary to scare us all half-to-death so we would swallow the lies about the threat that Saddam posed and his connection to 9/11?

Given what an invasion of Iraq looks like without those things, maybe it was.



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