Tuesday, February 19, 2013

“We Will Be Greeted As Liberators,” Why The Bush Administration Saw Iraq As A War Of Liberation

Before 2003, many members of the Bush White House held a rosy image of what the Iraq war would be like. Kenneth Adelman of the Defense Policy Board for example wrote an op ed for the Washington Post entitled “Cakewalk in Iraq.” Vice President Dick Cheney told NBC’s Meet The Press that Iraqis would see the Americans as liberators. These scenarios were based upon several factors including advice officials received from Middle East scholars and Iraqi exiles. Most importantly, President Bush and others were driven by their conviction that what they were doing was right, and therefore would have a positive affect in the end. The reality of what the invasion wrought in Iraq would quickly change Washington’s view of things.

Professors Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami were key in convincing Vice President Cheney that Iraq and the Middle East were ripe for democratization and a war of liberation (Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa)

The Bush administration was largely bereft of any high officials that knew about Iraq. There were several who were involved in the 1991 Gulf War such as Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, but actual knowledge of Iraq’s internal politics was lacking. Following the attacks on 9/11 Vice President Cheney attempted to fill in some of these gaps by asking experts to brief him about the Middle East and Islam such as Princeton Professor Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami then of Johns Hopkins. Lewis and Ajami held the view that the Middle East was a backward region, because of its dictatorships, corruption, extremists, and lack of cultural and economic development. They held Saddam Hussein as a prime example of the problems facing the Arab world. The two advocated the use of American military force to overthrow Saddam, and begin the process of modernization and democratization of the entire area. This would be greeted by locals they argued, because Arabs knew they had difficulties, but could not solve them themselves. In August 2002, the Vice President went public with some of these ideas in a speech at the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “Regime change in Iraq would bring about a number of benefits to the region. When the gravest threats are eliminated, the freedom-loving peoples of the region will have a chance to promote the values that can bring lasting peace. As for the reaction of the Arab “street,” the Middle East expert Professor Fouad Ajami predicts that after liberation, the streets in Basra and Baghdad are ‘sure to erupt in joy in the same way the throngs in Kabul greeted the Americans,’” said Cheney. This dovetailed with beliefs held by neoconservatives that the domestic policies of countries determined their foreign agendas. Countries that were run by autocrats who did not care about their own populations would not care about other countries, and were therefore more likely to cause problems in the international system such as wars. They also believed in the forceful promotion of democracy and human rights around the world using the American military. The ideas of thinkers like Lewis, Ajami, and the neoconservatives gave some ideological support to the President’s agenda of overthrowing Saddam Hussein. They gave moral weight to the administration’s argument that the invasion of Iraq would help not only the Iraqi people, but the region and the world in general.

Iraqi exiles also assured the president that Iraq would welcome the overthrow of Saddam. On January 10, 2003, author and member of the Iraqi National Congress Kanan Makiya, head of the Iraq Foundation Rend Rahim, and head of the Iraqi National Movement Hatem Muklis met with President Bush, Vice President Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and White House representative to the Iraqi opposition Zalmay Khalilzad in Washington. Makiya said that the invasion of Iraq would change America’s image in the Arab world from being a supporter of dictators to one of liberators, and that Iraqis were modern professionals who were waiting for the yoke of oppression to be thrown off them. He told the gathering that, “People will greet the [U.S.] troops with sweets and flowers.” Muklis on the other hand believed that if the Americans did not win over the public immediately after the overthrow of the regime they would turn on them, a warning that went unheeded. Cheney would later mention this meeting an interview with Tim Russert on NBC’s Meet The Press in March, just before the invasion. Russert asked the Vice President what would happen if the public did not welcome the Americans, and Iraq turned into a long and bloody occupation. Cheney responded, “I don’t think it’s likely to unfold that way, Tim, because I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators. I’ve talked with a lot of Iraqis in the last several months myself, had them to the White House. … The read we get on the people of Iraq is there is no question but what they want is to get rid of Saddam Hussein and they will welcome as liberators the United States when we come to do that.” The meeting with Makiya, Rahim, and Muklis reassured the president and other administration officials that their course of action was a righteous one. For Cheney, their views only supported what he had already been hearing from Lewis and Ajami. Iraq was prime for regime change, something that the Iraqis themselves had been waiting for a long time.

Other members of the administration shared these ideas. In early 2003 for example, the CIA believed that the Shiites of southern Iraq would greet the Coalition forces after years of harsh treatment by Saddam. Operatives at the Agency even suggested that American flags should be sneaked into Iraq so that they could be waved as U.S. troops entered the country. That would be filmed and used as part of a propaganda campaign in the Arab world. The plan never got off the ground. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told Congress in February 2003 that post-war Iraq would be easier than the invasion, because Iraqis would embrace America. “I am reasonably certain that [Iraqis] will greet us as liberators, and that will help us to keep [post-war] requirements down,” he remarked. “We can say with reasonable confidence that the notion of hundreds of thousands of American troops [being necessary for post-invasion Iraq] is way off the mark,” the Deputy Defense Secretary continued. His comments came in response to Chief of Staff of the Army General Eric Shinseki who warned Congress that America’s experience in the former Yugoslavia pointed to a large occupation force being necessary to maintain order after initial military operations were over. Wolfowitz was a neoconservative who was one of the strongest advocates of spreading democracy throughout the Middle East by invading Iraq. CIA Director George Tenet threw his support behind the President’s Iraq policy, and set up several groups within the Agency to deal with it. This showed that both true believers in the war, and some members of the long-term bureaucracy saw post-war Iraq as being the easy part of the war, because the Coalition would be embraced by the public opening the way for a quick conflict and an early exit.

Polling of Iraqis after the 2003 invasion showed that many did welcome the U.S, but quickly turned against it. In April 2003, nearly 50% of Iraqis saw the Americans as liberators. Half a year later in October, that had dramatically changed as only one in six held that view. In April 2004, a USA Today/CNN/Gallup survey found that 71% of Iraqis saw the U.S. as occupiers, 46% said that they had done more harm than good in Iraq, while only 19% said the U.S. were liberators. In June, only 2% of the public had a favorable opinion of the Coalition. As the polls showed, many people were happy that Saddam was overthrown. The post-war chaos that followed in the wake of the Coalition forces quickly spoiled that mood. It seemed as if Muklis was prophetic when he warned the White House that Iraqis would quickly turn on the Americans if they didn’t see immediate benefits from the invasion. 

President Bush believed in the liberation of Iraq and the spreading of democracy. Several members of his administration such as Vice President Cheney and Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz shared those views. Middle Eastern experts and Iraqi exiles assured the White House that Iraq was ready for freedom, and could transform the region. Those predictions proved partially true when Coalition forces were initially welcomed in Iraq. The problem was the United States had no plans for what to do after the fall of Saddam, and things quickly turned sour. With no authority running the country anymore, Iraqis took matters into their own hands, and started looting and murdering as the Iraqi bureaucracy and police disappeared. Chaos was what the Americans ended up bringing to Iraq, which cost them any good will that might have initially been generated. This change in mood took a while to work its way up from the U.S. soldiers on the ground to Washington, but the White House did eventually give up its vision of Iraq as a quick war of liberation, and thereafter saw it as a long-term occupation that would hopefully end in a democracy in time.


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Benjamin, Daniel and Simon, Steven, The Next Attack, New York: Times Books, 2005

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Diamond, John, Keen, Judy, Moniz, Dave, Page, Susan and Slavin, Barbara, “Iraq course set from tight White House circle,” USA Today, 9/11/02

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

Fukuyama, Francis, America at the Crossroads, Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy, Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 2006

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San Francisco Chronicle, “Majority of Iraqis eager to see foreign troops go, poll finds,” 5/1/04

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