September 11 transformed U.S policy on Iraq. Beforehand, the Bush administration had discussed the country, but the president had set no policy and allowed each agency to follow its own path. After the terrorist attack however, the top officials in the White House from the president on down focused on Iraq almost as much as Al Qaeda. Bush eventually decided that Afghanistan would be the first target on the war on terror, but Iraq would be next.
For many in the administration the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon immediately brought Iraq to mind. Five hours after the hit on the Pentagon Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered plans to strike Iraq. He wrote a memo saying, “Best info fast. Judge whether good enough to hit S.H. [Saddam Hussein] at same time. Not only UBL [Osama bin Laden],” followed by, “Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not.” Rumsfeld then asked the acting Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers to look into Iraq as well as Al Qaeda, and told Pentagon lawyer Jim Haynes to get Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz to come up with some information linking Iraq and Al Qaeda. Later in the day there was a National Security Council meeting at the White House where Rumsfeld brought up bombing Iraq because it had better targets than Afghanistan. Wolfowitz believed that Al Qaeda had a state sponsor, and that was likely Iraq. The president himself said that the U.S. should get rid of Saddam. Finally, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice mentioned to the British Ambassador to the U.S. Christopher Meyer that the White House was investigating whether Iraq was involved in 9/11. Right after the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington D.C. the administration was being told that Al Qaeda was the likely culprits. Still, that didn’t stop the president, the Defense Secretary, and his deputy from all bringing up Iraq as an alternative. The Pentagon especially seemed more interested in Saddam than Osama bin Laden.
The next day at the White House it was more of the same. At a meeting the CIA said it was sure that Al Qaeda was behind 9/11. Wolfowitz again brought up his theory that Iraq was actually the force behind bin Laden. Secretary of State Colin Powell questioned his argument saying that he was against any plan that would attack Iraq instead of Al Qaeda. Rumsfeld complained that there were no good targets in Afghanistan to bomb so the U.S. should consider attacking Iraq instead. He added that Saddam should be removed as well. Joint Chiefs Chairman General Hugh Skelton rebutted the secretary saying that only a full scale invasion would be able to get rid of Iraq’s dictator. After the meeting Bush took a few people aside and told them to look into connections between Iraq and Al Qaeda. Counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke told the president that Al Qaeda was responsible for 9/11 and that people had looked into Iraq several times and found nothing. Finally, the White House asked CIA Director George Tenet to come up with a covert plan against Iraq. Clarke would alter write, “Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were going to try to take advantage of this national tragedy to promote their agenda about Iraq.” He also thanked Powell for rebuffing Wolfowitz, but the secretary warned that the Defense Department wasn’t finished. The Secretary of State was right, as Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz would continue
On September 13 at a meeting of the National Security Council all the main actors went at it again over Iraq. Bush asked Tenet if the CIA was looking into any Iraq-Al Qaeda connections. Rumsfeld said attacking Iraq could deter other countries from supporting terrorism. Bush then told Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs head General Shelton to come up with plans and costs of military action against Iraq. That led Rumsfeld to send a memo to the Third Army headquarters to draw up scenarios for seizing Iraq’s southern oil fields.
The big debate on how the United States was to respond to 9/11 occurred on September 15-16 at Camp David. Bush was going to hear from all of his security, foreign policy, and political advisers on the best course of action. The Defense Department prepared a paper for the meeting that laid out three priority targets for the war on terror: Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Iraq. It claimed that only Al Qaeda and Iraq were strategic threats to America, and that Saddam was a long time supporter of terrorism, and possessed weapons of mass destruction.
On the first day of the conference the Defense and State Departments went at it again. Rumsfeld asked what the U.S. should do about Iraq, while his deputy Wolfowitz made the case for striking Iraq as part of countering terrorism. Wolfowitz argued that there was a 10-50% chance that Iraq was behind 9/11, and that the U.S. would eventually have to go after Saddam if it was serious about a war on terror. Powell countered that attacking Iraq without firm evidence would undermine the United States’ position in the world. He also demanded that Wolfowitz back his assertion that Saddam had anything to do with the September attacks. Like Clarke earlier, Powell believed that the deputy Secretary of Defense was using the terrorist attacks to push his own agenda about Iraq.
During the second day at Camp David the arguments over Iraq and Afghanistan were tackled again, and Bush made his final decision to tackle the latter, and plan for the former. Rumsfeld brought up his earlier belief that Iraq was better than Afghanistan because it didn’t have any good targets. Wolfowitz went further pushing a plan for the U.S. to seize Basra and its oil fields, and using it as a base for Iraqi opposition groups. Vice President Cheney noted that Iraq would have to be dealt with, but right now it was a distraction, and would cost U.S. support if it were the focus. General Shelton agreed adding that attacking Iraq would hinder attempts to build a coalition for Afghanistan and there were no Iraq-Al Qaeda links. The president ended the session calling for a show of hands and the majority agreed that the focus should be on Al Qaeda and Afghanistan. Bush said “I believe Iraq was involved, but I’m not going to strike them now. I don’t have the evidence at this point.” He would later call Rice telling her, “We’re putting Iraq off. But eventually we’ll have to return to that question.” He finished by asking her to come up with courses of action against Iraq. That was made official on September 17 when Bush signed a top secret paper directing the military to plan for military action versus Iraq. The White House staff agreed that Al Qaeda was the perpetrator of 9/11 and that it should be dealt with, but the minority view would not give up on Iraq. It had a powerful ally in the president who continued to harbor fears that Saddam was involved.
Back at the Pentagon Wolfowitz continued to make his case against Iraq. He sent a memo to the Defense Secretary called “Preventing More Events” arguing that even if there was a 10% chance that Iraq was behind 9/11, and there was, the U.S. should act. He added that Saddam praised the attacks, was a long time supporter of terror, and that he believed Ramzi Yousef who was involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing was an Iraqi agent working for Baghdad. That final remark about the 1993 bombing was based upon a conspiracy theory formulated by Laurie Mylroie that had gained weight amongst neoconservatives like Wolfowitz who had been arguing for a stauncher policy against Saddam.
After the president’s request, Richard Clarke sent his initial findings on Iraq and 9/11 to Rice on September 18. The paper, “Survey of Intelligence Information on Any Iraq Involvement in the September 11 Attacks,” found no connection between the two. Rice’s Afghan staffer Zalmay Khalilzad agreed with the conclusion believing there was only anecdotal evidence of any Iraq involvement in 9/11, and that the two were unlikely to work together since bin Laden did not like Saddam.
There were other elements within the Pentagon pushing Iraq such as members of the Defense Policy Board, which acted as a kind of consultancy group for the Defense Department. On September 19 the head of the Iraqi National Congress Ahmed Chalabi and Bernard Lewis professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton spoke to the board. Lewis said that 9/11 could have been worse if Al Qaeda had WMD and that the U.S. should support democratic reformers like Chalabi in the Middle East. The INC chief pushed for taking on Iraq instead of Afghanistan, and creating a modern, stable, pro-western government in Baghdad. Chalabi and his staff had been working on building up its connections with Washington elites since the 1990s, and now it appeared he would get a wider audience then ever before. Lewis on the other hand believed that the Middle East was caught in a clash of civilizations between Islam and modernization, and supported the use of force to break that deadlock. He provided the intellectual justification for many Republicans who wanted to take on Iraq.
Bush finally received the intelligence community’s findings on Iraq and 9/11 during his daily brief on September 21. It found that Iraq did not cooperate with Al Qaeda, but it did have sporadic contracts since the 1990s. It was believed that the two did not trust each other and had different goals. The paper was sent to Cheney, Rice, deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, Powell, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz.
There was pushback at the Pentagon about the briefing. A DIA analyst was sent to Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith who said that the report was good on details, but that its analysis was bad. The analyst argued that the belief that Al Qaeda and Iraq had not cooperated should be ignored. Feith wrote a report on his briefing and forwarded it to Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld. Feith was another anti-Saddam member of the Defense Department who had been arguing against the dictator for years. Earlier he wrote a memo to Rumsfeld saying, “The president has stressed that we are not defining our fight narrowly and are not focused only on those directly responsible for the September 11 attacks. … That is one of the reasons why I still favor an early focus on Iraq as well.”
By the end of the month the strategy was settled. Rice told CNN on September 23 that Iraq would be stage two in the war on terror. Six days later Rumsfeld asked General Myers to prepare war options for Iraq. Afghanistan and Al Qaeda would be the immediate response to 9/11, but after that was over Washington would move onto Iraq.
This series of events begs the question about why there were so many in the Bush administration, including the president thinking about Iraq in the aftermath of 9/11, especially if there was no strong evidence that Saddam was involved. Some have argued that this was the result of the neoconservatives in the White House who had been pushing for action against Saddam since the 1990s. The problem with that theory was that Bush, Rumsfeld, and others were not from this camp. What then can be the explanation? Almost all of the main players in the Bush presidency felt like Iraq was unfinished business. Many had taken part in the 1991 Gulf War when the U.S. called on Iraqis to rise up and overthrow the government, but then did nothing when revolts started. They all shared the belief that Saddam should have been overthrown. They also believed in a more forceful foreign policy after eight years of the Clinton administration, which they felt had diminished American power in the world. Together these two strains of thought opened the door for Iraq to be put on the agenda, and become the second stage on the war on terror even though it was not part of 9/11, and was not a supporter of Al Qaeda. Many felt Afghanistan was not enough and Iraq had been on their minds for several years, so why not use the opportunity to get rid of Saddam.
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