Friday, September 16, 2011

Indecision Over Iraq Policy In Pre-9/11 Bush Administration


There are some that believe that President George Bush was set upon invading Iraq from the first day he was in office. While it is true that Iraq was one of the first foreign policy issues discussed within the new administration, the leading officials in the White House were divided on what to do about it. Some wanted to continue with the containment policy of the previous presidents, while others advocated military options to overthrow Saddam. The president never decided on which path to follow, so there was no clear Iraq policy early on in the Bush administration.

Even before George Bush was elected president, future members of his cabinet were discussing Iraq. In the January/February 2000 issue of Foreign Affairs, Condoleezza Rice wrote an article about what Bush’s foreign policy would be like if he won the election. She wrote that Iraq and North Korea could both be deterred, and if they acquired weapons of mass destruction (WMD) they would not dare to use them because they would face total destruction at the hands of the United States. Later in the year, Dick Cheney took a harder line saying that Iraq had been ignored for too long, implying that something needed to be done about it. The differences in opinion between Rice and Cheney would be a harbinger of what the new Bush administration would be like. The White House staff would be deeply divided over Iraq, and that would be shown right from the beginning. Each major official had his or her own opinion about what to do, which was never really resolved.

The new Bush administration pushed Iraq as being at the center of its Middle East policy, but could never decide on what to do. Vice President elect Dick Cheney expressed this early interest when he asked outgoing Defense Secretary William Cohen to brief president elect Bush on Iraq. Then when the National Security Council (NSC) held its first meeting on January 30, 2001 one of the main topics was coming up with a new Iraq policy. Rice said that Saddam Hussein was a destabilizing force in the region, and that if the government was changed it could transform the entire Arab world. CIA Director George Tenet went over the intelligence he had on Iraq. He showed a photo of a factory he claimed was producing weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neil asked what evidence Tenet had that the facility was doing that. Tenet said that it was constantly receiving shipments, but that he actually couldn’t confirm that it was producing weapons. Tenet pointed out that Saddam was giving money to families of Palestinian suicide bombers as well. Secretary of State Colin Powell then gave his presentation on sanctions. He said they were failing because while Saddam was hoarding billions of dollars, the sanctions were blocking common goods like medicines from entering the country, and causing mass hardships. Iraq was manipulating the latter, and turning international opinion against the embargo. Powell advocated for more targeted sanctions that would block dual use military equipment, and allow other goods to go to Iraq. Tenet noted that Iraq was selling oil to Syria and Jordan at cut-rate prices to undermine the sanctions. At the end of the meeting, the president called for more action on the sanctions and Iraq’s WMD programs. He then told everyone to continue on with their work. Powell and the State Department would explore revising the sanctions regime, the Pentagon would look into rebuilding an international coalition against Iraq, and ways to support the Iraqi opposition, Tenet and the CIA would make a report about how to collect more intelligence on Iraq, and Treasury Secretary O’Neil would look into cutting off Iraq’s international finances. Which of these options the United States would ultimately follower was not decided upon. This initial discussion pointed to all of the problems the administration would have dealing with Iraq. First, the State Department and Pentagon had diametrically opposed visions of what to do about Saddam. Powell wanted to strengthen and maintain the previous containment policy, while Defense was pushing for some type of military option. It had not mentioned an invasion yet, but people like Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was pushing for the United States to support a Shiite and Kurdish uprising that would involve American air support and arming the rebels. Treasury Secretary O’Neil also pointed out that the administration was only dealing with what to do about Saddam Hussein, and never asked the big question of why they were doing it. From the very first days of the new White House team it was simply taken for granted that Iraq was a problem that had to be dealt with. There was absolutely no questioning of this general assumption. It was these ingrained biases that would lead the U.S. government to eventually push for an invasion after the 9/11 attacks. Finally, the Bush team lacked strong leadership and management. National Security Advisor Rice was never able to handle the strong personalities in the cabinet such as Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Powell, so the government often ended up working at cross purposes, and suffered from extreme in-fighting. President Bush was also responsible for this state of affairs because he would often not make a decision about which policy he supported. Rather he often let his top officials do what they wanted. This was seen in the first nine months of the administration when it was supposed to come up with a new Iraq policy. None was every formulated.

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld did seem to give his own reason for why Iraq was a priority in a January 30 memo. It was entitled, “National Security Policy Issues – Post Cold War Threats,” and outlined what the Pentagon’s future priorities would be. It listed Iraq along with several other countries as being the new developing threats to America’s power. Rumsfeld argued that the spread of technology was allowing smaller countries to become more and more dangerous by acquiring advanced weapons such as WMD. The memo said these were the types of nations that the United States would have to deal with in the post-Cold War world. Iraq would obviously become the poster child for Rumsfeld’s theory.
Divisions between Secretary of State Powell (left) and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld (right) over Iraq  emerged early on in the Bush administration, leading to deadlock over forging a new policy (Open Letters Monthly)
The second National Security Council meeting was held on February 1, and emphasized the deep divisions that were already emerging within the cabinet. The goal of the meeting was to go over the plans for Iraq discussed in the first NSC conference. Powell passed around a paper outlining the State Department’s proposal for strengthening sanctions. It was a comprehensive plan that tried to bring together the disparate ideas bandied about in January. When Powell started his presentation however, Rumsfeld interrupted him. The Defense Secretary said that the goal of the United States should be getting rid of Saddam rather than sanctions. He continued that with Saddam gone, the entire Middle East could be transformed. He claimed that would send a message to the world about America’s aims and power. Tenet then talked about a coup as a possibility to achieve those goals, but said the chances of one succeeding were slim. Powell responded that the U.S. did not want to replace Saddam with another person like him if there was a military takeover. Rumsfeld then brought up supporting the Iraqi opposition, saying that the no-fly zones could be used to aid any opposition groups if they tried to overthrow the government. He finished by saying that his main goal was to get rid of Iraq’s WMD, not replace Saddam. Treasury Secretary O’Neil thought that Rumsfeld wanted to make an example out of Iraq to stop other countries from acquiring chemical and biological weapons. There was no mention of an invasion, but Rumsfeld had put the idea of regime change on the table. Like the first NSC meeting, no decision was made on what America’s stance should be towards Iraq.

The policy debate continued into the rest of February. On February 5 and 7 there were NSC meetings where Iraq was discussed, but the only decision made was to collect more intelligence on Iraq’s WMD programs. On February 16, Bush told one of his chief speechwriters David Frum that he was going to get rid of Saddam Hussein, but he never mentioned how. On February 27, at his Senate Confirmation hearing, Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz said that a U.S. invasion had not been discussed, but that the administration was reviewing its Iraq policy, and was looking into how to support opposition groups like the Iraqi National Congress (INC). In staff meetings, Wolfowitz argued that the U.S. should arm the INC, and back their attempt to overthrow Saddam. That included an option to send in troops to defend them if they were able to start an uprising against the regime. This was an idea that Wolfowitz had been advocating for since the early 1990s. Rumsfeld also mentioned a war for the first time, saying that an incident over the no fly zones might be used as a justification to attack Iraq. In the second month of the administration, the Defense Department was making it clear that it was the strongest supporter of getting rid of Saddam. It hadn’t decided how to achieve that goal like the rest of the government, but it was willing to use the American military.

In April, the Pentagon’s emphasis upon Iraq got caught up with a discussion over what the Bush administration’s stance on terrorism should be. That month the NSC had its first meeting on terrorism, which was marked by an argument between the White House’s counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke and Paul Wolfowitz. Clarke started by arguing for the U.S. to target Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Wolfowitz complained that Clarke was talking about Osama bin Laden too much. Clarke responded that Al Qaeda was a direct threat to the United States. Wolfowitz claimed that Iraq and its support for terrorism was a threat too. Clarke, supported by the Deputy CIA Director John McLaughlin, stated that there was no evidence that Iraq was backing any attacks upon the United States. Wolfowitz then said that Clarke was trying to exaggerate bin Laden’s importance, and that he had to be supported by a foreign government. Wolfowitz implied that Iraq must have been that state sponsor, and claimed that Baghdad was behind Al Qaeda’s 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. This was a theory advocated by Laurie Mylroie of the American Enterprise Institute who believed that Iraq was the leading force behind international terrorism. The CIA and FBI had looked into Mylroie's theory and found no support, but Wolfowitz said that didn’t mean there was no connection. Here, Iraq as an obsession of some leading officials such as Wolfowitz came to the fore. He knew little about terrorism, but wanted to blame Iraq for it. His use of the Mylroie argument, which was little more than a conspiracy theory that had been discounted by America’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies, showed that he would believe just about anything that pointed a figure at Saddam. Second, his insistence that states like Iraq, not terrorists like bin Laden were the real problem showed how Wolfowitz had a traditional view of international relations. That stance emphasized the role of the nation state as being the ultimate actor upon the world stage, and there was little thrift given to terrorists or other non-state actors. More importantly, Iraq had derailed the first discussion about Al Qaeda and terrorism, which would prove a much more pressing threat.

In May, the debate over Iraq continued in another NSC meeting. The State Department presented some of its memos it had written about conditions within Iraq. The Defense Department talked about what Iraq would be like if Saddam were overthrown, Treasury said that it was holding talks with banks in Jordan and Syria to cut off doing business with Baghdad, while the CIA presented its latest intelligence on Iraq’s WMD programs, which was mostly speculation. Four months into the Bush administration, and little had progressed past the first NSC meeting in January.

Summer proved to be no different with no concrete Iraq policy emerging. The National Security Council met on June 1, and was simply told to look into new ways to pressure Saddam. In meetings on June 22, July 13, and August 1, Wolfowitz and the Pentagon pushed for providing training to the Iraqi opposition again in the hopes that it could pull off a revolt against Saddam. Wolfowitz discussed the INC’s Liberation Strategy, which involved a Kurdish and Shiite uprising in northern and southern Iraq that would lead to a provisional government being formed. Powell disagreed with that plan, because State did not trust Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the INC. On July 27, Rumsfeld sent a memo to Rice and Cheney saying that the United States needed to come up with a completely new Iraq policy. He sad that the U.S. could end the no fly zones and sanctions, and work with its Arab allies to formulate a new stance. He said that this was necessary because Iraq was working on its chemical, biological, and nuclear programs, which meant that the United States was going to have to deal with Iraq sometime in the future. In early August, the CIA created the Joint Task Force on Iraq as part of its new focus upon the country. The Task Force’s new chief carried out a review of the Agency’s options, which decided that a coup would not work, and only an invasion could get rid of Saddam. Just as in previous months, the Pentagon was pushing for some sort of direct action against Iraq. Wolfowitz was close to Chalabi and the INC, so he advocated for giving them support. The Pentagon’s stance was running into direct opposition from Powell and the State Department, which believed that giving aid to the INC was foolish. That was because Chalabi had failed at leading uprisings in the 1990s, and State had lost faith in him. Eight months into the Bush administration, and there had been lots of talk, and some arguments about what to do about Iraq, but President Bush had made no decision.

As 9/11 approached Iraq policy was still adrift. On April 9, there was a NSC meeting about terrorism. Richard Clarke and George Tenet both pushed for going after Al Qaeda. This time Rumsfeld, parroting Wolfowitz’s argument back in April, claimed there were other sources of terrorism in the world such as Iraq, and that the United States should focus upon them rather than Al Qaeda. The Secretary’s claim was not supported by the State Department, which in its April 2001 report, “Patterns of Global Terrorism,” said that Iraq had not attempted any anti-Western terrorism since 1993, when it attempted to assassinate the first President Bush on a trip to Kuwait. One again, divisions were coming out within the administration. For the second time, the chief counterterrorism officer Clarke, had his argument for targeting Al Qaeda blocked by the Pentagon that wanted to talk about Iraq instead. At this time, the Bush White House had neither an Iraq policy, nor a counterterrorism one. The reasons for that was the top officials were increasing disagreeing over what to do, and there was no leadership from the top about what to do.

What this series of events showed was that while Iraq was a heated topic within the new Bush administration, the debate had deadlocked. All parties were concerned about Iraq’s WMD programs and Saddam Hussein, but no one agreed about what to do about them. The Defense Department wanted to support the Iraqi opposition, and was talking about regime change one way or another. The State Department wanted to continue on with the previous containment policy, just improve it with new sanctions. The CIA was upping its intelligence collection against Iraq, but it was largely working off of assumptions, rather than hard evidence, and found that a coup would not work. Coming up with a terrorism policy was also being delayed because the Pentagon kept on emphasizing Iraq and dismissing Al Qaeda. National Security Advisor Rice was not mediating any of these growing disagreements, and Bush was not leading. They both just let every official follow their own path. The argument then that the president was set upon invading Iraq from the very outset of his term is not founded. That topic had been mentioned, but there was no decision on anything. The attempt to form an Iraq policy, whether it was a military move or not, had completely floundered in the first nine months of the Bush presidency. It would take the aftermath of 9/11 for the government to finally decide upon regime change.  

SOURCES

Battle, Joyce, “The Iraq War – PART I: The U.S. Prepares for Conflict, 2001, Timeline,” National Security Archive, 9/22/10

Benjamin, Daniel and Simon, Steven, The Next Attack; The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting It Right, New York: Times Books, 2005

Bergen, Peter, “Armchair Provocateur,” Washington Monthly, December 2003

Burrough, Bryan, Peretz, Evgenia, Rose, David and Wise, David, “Path To War,” Vanity Fair, May 2004

Clarke, Richard, Against All Enemies, Inside America’s War on Terror, New York, London, Toronto, Sydney: Free Press, 2004

Coile, Zachary, “Ex-aide’s charges spark blame game on 9/11, Iraq,” San Francisco Chronicle, 3/23/04

Cortright, David, Millar, Alistair, Gerber, Linda, “Unproven: The Controversy over Justifying War in Iraq,” Fourth Freedom Forum, June 2003

Elliott, Michael and Carney, James, “First Stop, Iraq,” Time, 3/31/03

Feith, Douglas, “Why We Went to War in Iraq,” Wall Street Journal, 7/3/08

Gordin, Philip, “The End of the Bush Revolution,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2006

Hersh, Seymour, “The Iraq Hawks,” New Yorker, 12/24/01

Isikioff, Michael and Corn, David, Hubris, The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, New York: Crown Publishers, 2006

PBS Frontline, “Rumsfeld’s War,” PBS, 11/10/04
- “The War Behind Closed Doors – Transcript,” War Behind Closed Doors, 2/20/03

Suskind, Ron, The One Percent Doctrine, Deep Inside America’s Pursuit Of Its Enemies Since 9/11, New York, London, Toronto, Sydney: Simon & Schuster, 2006
- The Price of Loyalty, London, Sydney: Free Press, 2004

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