When President Bush took office in January 2001, Iraq was one of the first foreign policy topics to come to the fore. The President and cabinet all wanted to do something about Iraq, but were deeply divided over what that should be. That led to deadlock in the first nine months of the new Bush term. When the September 11 attacks happened, Iraq again quickly became the focus of the White House. Many officials from Bush on down believed that Saddam Hussein was somehow connected with the terrorists, but had no evidence to supported their claims. While the administration quickly decided to take on Al Qaeda in Afghanistan as the first stage in the war on terror, it also decided that Iraq would be next.
September 11 immediately led to President Bush and the Pentagon to think about Iraq. Right after the attack upon the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the President asked some of his aides whether Iraq was involved since Saddam had supported terrorists. That same idea was prevalent in the Defense Department where Secretary Donald Rumsfeld jotted off a memo saying, “Best info fast. Judge whether good enough hit S.H. [Saddam Hussein] at the same time. Not only UBL [Osama bin Laden]. … Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not.” Rumsfeld later asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff to look into attacking both Al Qaeda and Iraq, and asked Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz for any information on links between the two. Separately Wolfowitz told his deputies that he thought Iraq was involved. Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, and William Luti of the Near East and South Asia division of the Pentagon were in Europe at the time, and both pushed for going after state sponsors of terrorism, with Iraq being the main target. That thought was echoed by Richard Perle, a member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, who called one of Bush’s top speechwriters David Frum about it that night. These advisers and others were instrumental in Bush’s televised speech to the nation later that day when he said, “We will make no distinction between terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.” Iraq was one of the first foreign policy issues discussed by the Bush administration. In those early conversations, the Pentagon became the major proponent of overthrowing Saddam using America’s military. During other meetings on what the United States’ new anti-terrorism policy should be, the Defense Department staff continually derided the threat of Al Qaeda and stressed Iraq instead. When 9/11 happened, those ideas came to the fore again. Iraq was already on the minds of many in the administration, so it was quick to jump on Saddam Hussein as being a participant in the September attacks. It also allowed those that were already supporters of getting rid of Saddam to push their agenda even further because now both the President and American public were more open to using military force in the world.
|Rumsfeld's 9/11 memo (Washington Monthly)|
The next day there was a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) to discuss the implications and responses to 9/11. The White House counterterrorism head Richard Clarke and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) said that Al Qaeda was behind the attacks. Wolfowitz disagreed saying that the operation was too sophisticated for a terrorist group to do by itself. He said a country must be behind it, and then began arguing that it had to be Iraq. Rumsfeld talked about how the Pentagon had been discussing plans for Iraq, and that it should therefore be included in the war on terror. He pushed for bombing Iraq as well, arguing there were no good targets in Afghanistan where Al Qaeda was based. Clarke and Secretary of State Colin Powell both pushed back saying that Al Qaeda and Afghanistan should be the target. Bush agreed that Saddam needed to be removed, while the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Hugh Shelton said that could only be achieved through an invasion. After the meeting adjourned Clarke thanked Powell for his support, but Powell warned him that the Pentagon was not done pushing Iraq. They were not the only ones however, as the President would later pull Clarke over and ask him to investigate whether Saddam was behind 9/11. Clarke told him that it was Al Qaeda, but Bush insisted that Iraq be looked at. Also that day, Wolfowitz sent former CIA Director James Woolsey to England to investigate Iraq-Al Qaeda connections. He found none. The Deputy Defense Secretary had never seen Osama bin Laden as being a major threat to the United States in meetings before September even though he knew little about terrorism. That was because he was so set on Iraq he blamed Saddam for almost any act of terror. The President as well seemed to be convinced by earlier arguments within the cabinet that Iraq was the real problem, not some non-state actor, and that led him to push Clarke to look into the country’s possible involvement in 9/11. Faced with the greatest attack upon America since Pearl Harbor in 1941, the President and others were falling back upon what they knew, Iraq, rather than what they didn’t, Al Qaeda.
|Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz was obsessed with Iraq and would bring it up every chance he could (Wikipedia)|
The focus upon states and Iraq continued on September 13. Wolfowitz gave a press conference repeating the President’s earlier theme that the U.S. would not only go after terrorists, but end their state sponsors. Powell, worried that the Wolfowitz was implying Iraq, said that the Deputy Secretary was speaking for himself, not the administration. That day there was another NSC meeting, where Powell asked for support from the Joint Chiefs chairman General Shelton against Wolfowitz and others who were pushing Iraq. Shelton agreed with Powell that the war on terror should not be expanded to Baghdad. During the meeting, the President asked CIA Director George Tenet whether he was looking into Iraq-Al Qaeda ties. Rumsfeld said that attacking Iraq would deter countries that supported terrorism. Bush then asked the Defense Secretary and General Shelton to come up with new plans and costs for invading Iraq. The next day, the President called England’s Prime Minister Tony Blair, and told him that Iraq was probably involved in the attacks, but Blair was skeptical. Two days after September 11, and there was the first mention of an Iraq invasion by the President. During earlier debates before the attack, the administration had been deadlocked over Iraq with the State and Defense having opposing viewpoints. Powell wanted to continue on with the previous policy of containment, while the Pentagon was pushing for overthrowing Saddam, although it didn’t agree upon how. Now, 9/11 had changed that. The United States had been attacked, and Bush and others were looking for revenge. Since the government was so use to dealing with nation-states Iraq seemed to be a much better target than a terrorist organization like Al Qaeda.
|Cheney, Bush, Powell, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz at Campd David summit to discuss what to do about 9/11 (Flickr)|
From September 15 to 16, the White House staff met at Camp David to finally decide on what the response to September 11 should be. Iraq was included in position papers submitted before the summit. One from the Defense Department for example, listed three targets in the war on terror: Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Iraq. Of those three, Al Qaeda and Iraq were listed as strategic threats. On the first day of the meeting, Rumsfeld asked what the U.S. should do about Saddam. Wolfowitz said that America should strike Iraq because it was the main source of terrorism in the world, and that there was a 10-50% chance that Iraq was behind 9/11. He would later argue that taking on Afghanistan would be too difficult, and that Iraq would be much easier. He then endorsed a plan made by the Iraqi National Congress (INC) that a revolt could be fomented with the Kurds in northern Iraq and the Shiites in the south. Rumsfeld supported Wolfowitz, while he was making these arguments. Vice President Dick Cheney on the other hand, slightly disagreed, saying that Iraq had to be dealt with, but that it would be a distraction now. He said that the United States would lose its standing if it went after Iraq, an idea supported by Powell and General Shelton. Three times, once by White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, once by Vice President Cheney, and by the President himself, Wolfowitz was told to drop Iraq. He didn’t, as he continued to push the issue later in the day, and into the next. On September 16, Bush asked for a show of hands about what to do, and the group agreed that Al Qaeda should be targeted. Bush was quoted as saying, “I believe Iraq was involved, but I’m not going to strike them now. I don’t have the evidence at this point.” With that being done, the President did ask the Pentagon to come up with new military plans for Iraq. Later on September 16, Vice President Cheney made public the administration’s decision. He appeared on Meet The Press where he said that the United States was going to take on Al Qaeda. When asked about Iraq, he said that Saddam was “bottled up.” Rice later claimed that the administration was simply worried that Iraq would take advantage of the September attacks. Powell on the other hand, believed that Wolfowitz was taking advantage of the situation to push his own Iraq agenda. Others like General Shelton and Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neil tended to agree. The Camp David meeting also marked the first time that the President had made a decision about Iraq. It took 9/11 to make him finally make one as before he let his cabinet dilly dally over the issue. He agreed that Afghanistan would be the first stop on the war on terror, but hinted that Iraq would be next when he ordered new war plans be made.
Wolfowitz was still pushing his point the next day. He wrote a memo to Rumsfeld entitled “Prevent More Events,” which stated that even if there was a 10% chance that Iraq was behind 9/11, something that he believed to be true, the United States should attack it. He went on to write that Saddam had praised September 11, was a long time supporter of terrorism, and was behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The last was a conspiracy theory that he subscribed too put forth by Laurie Myrolie of the American Enterprise Institute. Wolfowitz was writing to the true believers as Rumsfeld had been pushing an attack upon Iraq since the beginning of the year. Bush had joined their camp as well as at an NSC meeting that day, he officially ordered the military to plan for an invasion of Iraq.
On September 18, counterterrorism adviser Clarke finished his report on Iraq and 9/11 that the President had requested, and sent it to Rice for review. The memo, “Survey of Intelligence Information on Any Iraq Involvement in the September 11 Attacks” claimed that Iraq was not connected because bin Laden did not like Saddam Hussein’s government. It also stated that there were no confirmed reports that Iraq was working with Al Qaeda on weapons of mass destruction (WMD). President Bush never saw it, and Rice sent it back to Clarke saying, “Wrong answer … Do it again.” Rice too, seemed to believe that Iraq was behind 9/11, and did not want to hear otherwise. She was therefore not going to distribute Clarke’s paper, and ended up rejecting it.
The President too was looking for evidence against Iraq when he met with CIA Director Tenet on September 19. Bush asked the CIA to look into Iraq-Al Qaeda ties, and said that Vice President Cheney had some information about the matter. Cheney later consulted with Tenet, and told him about a report that claimed the chief 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta met in Prague with Iraqi intelligence. Tenet went back to CIA headquarters and ordered an immediate report on the matter. That same day, Cheney was on Meet The Press and said that Iraq was not involved with 9/11. Publicly, the administration did not want people to know that it was focusing upon Iraq instead of Al Qaeda yet. The President however was pushing the matter hard.
That same day, the Defense Policy Board, a consulting group at the Pentagon, held a two-day meeting on the war on terror. Professor Bernard Lewis of Princeton University and Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress (INC) attended. Lewis urged the United States to respond to 9/11 with force, otherwise it would be perceived as weak. Lewis said that the attack could have been worse if Al Qaeda had WMD, an argument that would later be taken up by the administration as a reason to strike Iraq. Lewis then introduced Chalabi as a democratic reformer the White House should stand behind. Chalabi said that Iraq had WMD, and that it should be invaded instead of Afghanistan. He pushed his plan to start an uprising within the country that he claimed would only require some air support and Special Forces from the U.S. to be successful. He stated the result would be a modern, pro-Western, capitalistic Iraq. The second day, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz attended. Board member Richard Perle argued that Saddam should be removed even if he didn’t have ties with Al Qaeda. He and other conservatives would express this view to the President in a letter they sent him. Rumsfeld added that attacking Afghanistan alone wasn’t enough. He wanted the U.S. to do more to deter its enemies. That obviously meant expanding the war on terror to Iraq.
|Pres. Bush phoned and later met with British PM Blair immediately after 9/11, each time talking about Iraq. Blair tried to warn the president to stay focused upon Al Qaeda (EPA)|
On September 20, President Bush met with Prime Minister Blair, Powell, Rice, and the British Ambassador to the U.S. Christopher Meyer. Bush said that he wanted to get rid of Saddam. Blair told Bush that they should not lose focus upon Al Qaeda. Bush said that Afghanistan would be first, but that Iraq would come later. England would later be America’s strongest supporter for the invasion of Iraq, but at this early date Blair thought that it was a distraction.
Back at the Pentagon, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith sent a memo to Rumsfeld urging expansion of the war on terror. He wrote that there were no good targets in Afghanistan, and that the war should not be a narrow one limited just to that single country. Feith argued that the U.S. should bomb Iraq, South America, and South Asia, as a way to surprise terrorists. Rumsfeld liked Feith because of his original thinking, but his memo was bordering on the ridiculous. What it did show was that the leadership of the Pentagon was firmly set upon attacking Iraq.
In Virginia, the CIA issued its first report on Iraq and September 11, as per the request of the President. It was presented as part of the President’s daily intelligence briefing. It found that Iraq had not cooperated with Al Qaeda, but the two did have sporadic meeting since the mid-1990s. Iraq might have offered a non-aggression pact and training to keep tabs on the organization’s activities as well. Finally, it stated that there was nothing behind the story that Mohammed Atta had met with Iraqi intelligence. Overall, the two did not trust each other, and had different goals, which precluded them working together. All the way to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq the Agency proved consistent with this first paper. It never claimed there was an Iraqi connection to 9/11 nor to Al Qaeda, although it did think that some meeting occurred and training might have been offered. The Bush administration made such ties a key piece of its argument for war, but that was only partially based upon the official intelligence it was receiving.
For the rest of September, continuing into the following months, the White House moved closer to war with Iraq. On September 23, Rice said that Iraq would be the second stage in the fight against terror. By October, the war in Afghanistan was going well, and Cheney returned to Iraq. The campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, also convinced Rumsfeld that an invasion of Iraq would be quick and easy. That month, the Third Army was told to revise its Iraq Vigilant Guardian plan that included seizing Iraq’s southern oil fields with just 75,000-100,000 troops. At the beginning of November, Rumsfeld asked Douglas Feith to evaluate ways to get rid of Iraq’s WMD. Feith wrote a memo in response, saying that supporting Ahmed Chalabi and the INC’s plans for an uprising, would be the best way to do that. Later in November, Bush asked Rumsfeld about the Iraq war plans. He responded that he didn’t think the existing ones were good enough. He wanted a lighter and smaller force akin to the war in Afghanistan. On November 21, the Pentagon had gone over those plans, which included a 500,000-man invasion force. Rumsfeld objected to using so many troops. Within a week, the Defense Secretary would fly to Tampa, Florida to meet with General Tommy Franks, the head of the Central Command (CENTCOM), which was in charge of the Middle East to discuss Iraq. Rumsfeld talked about the INC’s revolt idea, but his main point was that he believed a traditional attack upon Iraq was outdated. By December, the Bush administration was getting briefings on the progress of the new plans. That was the same month that the United States believed that most of the fighting in Afghanistan was over. The White House quickly moved to Iraq, making it the number one foreign policy issue going into 2002, until it finally invaded in March 2003.
Iraq was on the minds of all the top Bush administration officials from the day it took office in January 2001. For the first nine months, the Defense and State Departments, along with Richard Clarke, went back and forth on the issue of what to do about Saddam Hussein. The debate went nowhere because the President never made a decision about which policy he wanted to follow. When September 11 happened, it convinced Bush that America’s enemies could attack it, and that therefore the country had to be far more aggressive to protect itself. He, along with many on his staff, also believed that states were what mattered, and that they were ultimately behind terrorism, not organizations like Al Qaeda. Since the President and the Defense Department already believed that Iraq was the greatest security risk in the Middle East and was the prime supporter of terrorism in the world, 9/11 made them immediately think of Saddam. At Camp David, the cabinet decided to deal with Al Qaeda and Afghanistan first, but Iraq was going to be next. Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Rice were all pushing the matter, and Bush needed little convincing. That’s why within a week of the New York City and Washington D.C. assaults, the President had already ordered the Defense Department to review its invasion plans for Iraq. It was only a matter of time before U.S. was going to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
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