‘Don’t worry, it’s a slam dunk.”
—CIA director George Tenet’s response to President Bush’s demand for intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction to provide to the American people, December 21, 2002.
“The President of the United States and the Secretary of Defense would not assert as plainly and bluntly as they have that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction if it was not true, and if they did not have a solid basis for saying it.”
—Art Fleischer, White House press spokesman, December 4, 2002.
“But for those who say that we haven’t found the banned manufacturing devices or banned weapons, they’re wrong, we found them.”
—President George W. Bush, May 30, 2003.
The U.S. rush to war against Iraq 20 years ago marked the worst strategic decision of any U.S. president in history, and the worst intelligence scandal as well. But the New York Times and the Washington Post would have you believe that the lack of “planning and staffing” was central to our failure. Neither newspaper mentioned the long series of intelligence lies and distortions that marked the run-up to the war nor did they refer to the obvious war crimes that were committed with the support of the White House, the Department of Justice, and the Central Intelligence Agency.
Max Fisher’s essay in the Times on March 19 was particularly obtuse because it dwelt on the inability to determine U.S. motivation. Fisher quoted Richard Haass, a senior official at the Department of State at the time of the invasion, who currently heads the Council on Foreign Relations, concluding inscrutably that the decision to go to war “was not made. A decision happened, and you can’t say when or how.”
But we know exactly who made the decision to go to war, and we certainly know when and why that decision was made. The decision itself had nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction or with the bogus claim that Saddam was somehow involved in the tragedy. The decision was about regime change. CIA prepared a spurious intelligence estimate in October 2022, which served as the basis for the spurious speech that Secretary of State Colin Powell gave to the United Nations in February, 2003. Senior officials at the State Department tried to keep Powell from bivouacking at the CIA where the speech was drafted and pushed by senior Agency officials led by deputy director John McLaughlin.
Fisher, moreover, cites Elizabeth Saunders, a Georgetown University scholar, who argues that “if you want to prevent this from happening again, you need to get the diagnosis right.” Does Saunders really believe that U.S. policy makers actually learn lessons from history? Is Saunders familiar with previous U.S. wars against Mexico in the 1840s, Spain in the 1890s, and North Vietnam in the 1960s that were initiated on the basis of lies and disinformation.
Fisher concludes with the ill-advised argument from Saunders that no matter how much we know about the facts of the 2003 invasion, “some of it will remain fundamentally unknowable.” What is in fact unknowable is whether honest leadership from Secretary of State Powell, CIA director George Tenet, CIA deputy director John McLaughlin, and a CIA willing to tell truth to power could have created more opposition to the war from the Congress, the media, and the public.
In the Washington Post, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the paper’s bureau chief in Baghdad at the time of the invasion, argues that “Iraq is recovering” from what he gently terms U.S. “recklessness.” Chandrasekaran faults the United States for going to war without a “real plan” for the “liberation of Baghdad.” As a senior faculty member at the National War College in 2002-2003, I received classified briefings from the Pentagon that made it clear there was never a plan for the post-war or the so-called liberation because the United States goal was to remove Saddam Hussein and then leave. No senior Pentagon staffer expected U.S. forces to remain in Iraq beyond the four to six months needed to remove Hussein, which explains the absence of “planning and staffing.”
A meaningful retrospective would remind the American people of the efforts of the president, the vice president, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the national security adviser, as well as the director and deputy director of CIA, to create and employ a strategic disinformation campaign to convince Congress and the American people of the need for a war that ultimately took 4,600 lives of American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilian lives. Our motivation seems meaningless in that context; the campaign to manipulate American and global public opinion is dispositive and needs to be fully understood. By any standard, the Bush administration and its key officials throughout the policy and intelligence communities must be judged as reckless in the extreme.
Ironically, the elder Bush, our 41nd president, argued in the 1990s that the misuse of U.S. military power could lead to the breakup of the Iraqi state and compromise the balance of power in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. Even more ironic, Joe Biden, our 46th president, was belittled for championing the “soft partition” of Iraq into a Kurdish north, a Sunni west and center, and a Shiite south, which describes the current state of Iraq. And then there is our 43rd president, the younger Bush, who condemned Vladimir Putin for the “decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq.” Bush quickly corrected himself, but the reference to “wholly unjustified and brutal” certainly resonates.
A serious Iraqi war retrospective would discuss the issue of war crimes, not only the CIA’s programs of torture an abuse and extraordinary renditions, but also the memoranda from the Department of Justice that sanctioned acts of torture and abuse, and—above all—whether the president himself and his senior leadership committed “crimes against the peace.” As James Risen has noted, it would be “difficult to peel back all the layers of deceit that enveloped the war.”