War Powers, War Lies: Part 11: Why We Fought

The Big Picture Home Page | Previous Big Picture Column |  Next Big Picture Column 
War Powers Page | Previous War Powers ColumnNext War Powers Column

War Powers, War Lies: A Series

Part 11: Iraq: Why We Fought

Published in the Maryland Daily Record January 24, 2006

            The lies that led us into the Iraqi war are a large subject, one which cannot be discussed in a single piece.  Everyone knows we and the rest of the world were lied to; exactly who was lying and in what respect has proven a complicated subject, however.

            Even though our President was the Liar-in-Chief, it will not be very helpful to focus on his own psychological state, to focus on his individual mendacity.  This is peculiar and unusual, because ordinarily when we speak of liars, we are speaking of individuals who understand that they are uttering falsehoods.  George W. Bush may not usually have lied in this sense, even when he was uttering falsehoods. 

            He certainly did consciously lie on some occasions.  For instance, in the 2004 book Plan of Attack, even Bob Woodward, criticized for being Bush’s oversympathetic chronicler, recounts a continuous stream of dishonesty by Bush in late 2002 and early 2003.  At that point Bush was pretending not to have made a definitive decision for war, pretending that he was giving the UN and the weapons inspectors a chance to prove him wrong about WMDs, and pretended that he was giving Saddam a chance to remain in power through compliance with the inspection regime.  (“Fuck Saddam,” Bush had, in a moment of candor, told three senators and Condoleeza Rice back in March 2002, “We’re taking him out.”  And everyone in the White House knew by then that the decision was already final.)[1]  The discontinuity between the government’s public stance of waiting on the one hand and full-tilt military preparations for war on the other, both of which Bush was leading, are said to have been both fatiguing and frustrating for Bush, though they did not, so far as Woodward reports, cause the slightest pang of compunction.  Bush was not then or apparently ever a man who felt badly about consciously lying to the public in and of itself.

            But the central justifications offered for the war itself may have been lies of a less self-aware sort for Bush.  Novelist E.L. Doctorow has well described our President as a “fabulist,”[2] a term which not only means a creator of stories, but has as well a psychiatric sense of one whose tales are an attempt to make up explanations of realities only dimly recalled or understood. Bush has set up a system in which only those who look at matters a certain way have independent access to him.  He has been widely reported to be resolutely incurious about what lies beyond the margins of his highly concentrated briefings. He prides himself on decisiveness without a corresponding fund of information, wisdom or insight, and as a result is told and has a semi-plausible basis for believing things that nonetheless stand little objective chance of being so.  He is blind if he fails to understand that, lacking much basis, his words are reckless, even though he may not have specific knowledge contradicting what he says at the moment.  (E.g., “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”)  But that may still be a little different from what most of us mean by lies.

            It leaves us most of the time not knowing and not caring if the lies start with Bush or someone else.  He created the dishonest system for which he is the prime spokesman.  If its work product is lies, he still deserves the blame.  That said, let’s talk about what those lies are.

            The first essential lie about Iraq was that the stated reasons for going were the real ones.  And here it seems that while Bush was indispensable to the process of going to war, it may not really have been his project or his reasons.  Indeed, coming to office, Bush was prominent among American Presidents for the shallowness of his experience or interest in matters military or geopolitical.  But war on Iraq had been the decade-long project of a team of highly influential hawks, most with Pentagon ties (even though in a sense they were revolutionaries within the Pentagon, opposing the theory and ultimately wrecking the practice of the great military rebuilding so painstakingly undertaken since Vietnam).[3]  Many of them are described in James Mann’s 2004 book Rise of the Vulcans.  George Packer’s 2005 book The Assassins’ Gate is an also an excellent source about them.  They included Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith.

            As Packer recounts, the Iraq project had spiritually begun in 1992, with the creation of a document commissioned by then-Secretary of Defense Cheney and overseen by the Undersecretary for Policy Wolfowitz.  This document, the Defense Planning Guidance, was leaked to the New York Times in March of that year and the resultant outcry forced the Pentagon to revise it (under “Scooter” Libby’s supervision).[4]  But the document embraced the notion that the United States should actively pursue the status of sole superpower, and to that end should be free to engage in preemptive war.  Among the purposes of such war: to preserve “access to vital raw materials, primarily Persian Gulf oil.”  The U.S. had just fought a non-preemptive war with Iraq to further these goals; Wolfowitz and others of the group believed that the war should have been pursued to the death, i.e. Saddam’s death.[5]  Another war, this time preemptive, could accomplish what the Gulf War had failed to do.

            In 1996 an American group involving Perle and Douglas Feith (later architects of the Iraq war) produced a paper to provide a similar “guidance” to the new Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, which unapologetically suggested that as a matter of its security Israel attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein, replacing him with the Jordanian royal family.

            A group called the Project for the New American Century, which included Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Elliot Abrams, and Perle, successfully prevailed upon Congress to pass the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, making it official U.S. policy “to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime.”

            In January 2001, Cheney, now incoming Vice President, asked outgoing Defense Secretary William Cohen to brief Bush about “some things,” including “Iraq and different options.” According to Bob Woodward, Cohen was told that “Topic A should be Iraq.”[6] And at that point Iraq was tied up with sanctions and no-fly zones, and at war with no one.  But Cheney, like many of his colleagues, was fixated.

            In short, Iraq had had a bull’s-eye painted on it for some time, and not by Bush, but by the team he brought in. 

            Not that George W. Bush was ever friendly towards Iraq (unlike Rumsfeld, who had famously been photographed in December 1983 shaking Saddam Hussein’s hand).  His instincts were probably dominated by reaction to the purported 1993 assassination attempt on George H.W. Bush, his father, supposedly by Iraqi agents.  Whether this really was an Iraqi plot is still far from clear; most of the 14 men arrested were Kuwaitis, and, as Seymour Hersh pointed out in an article trying to get to the bottom of the matter, Kuwait had a huge problem with telling lies about the Iraqis and a penchant for shoddy police work.  The FBI investigation that confirmed the Iraqi role was only politically vetted, not technically.  The bottom line seems to be that the “signature” of the car bomb intended to be used, and said to be the same as that of known Iraqi bomb, was probably the work of mass-producing circuit board manufacturers in South Asia with no connection to Iraq. [7]  Their work would naturally be identical, but hardly indicative of Iraqi involvement.  It seems that President Bush nonetheless believed there was an Iraqi plot; he called Saddam “the guy who tried to kill my dad” in September 2002.

            Still, the development of the plan to attack Iraq was the “baby” of the hawks who came to power with Bush, not Bush himself.  And when, on September 11, 2001, radical Muslims who had no connection to Saddam Hussein evident then or later, struck the United States, these hawks opportunistically seized on the occasion to birth their baby.  Richard Clarke, at the time the “terrorism czar” (his title was National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection and Counterterrorism), recounted in his 2004 memoir Against All Enemies the amazing scene in the White House on September 12.  An extended quote is the best way to convey the jaw-dropping fecklessness of it:

I expected to go back to a round of meetings examining what the next attacks could be… Instead, I walked into a series of discussions about Iraq.  At first I was incredulous that we were talking about something other than getting al Qaeda.  Then I realized with almost a sharp physical pain that Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were going to try to take advantage of this national tragedy to promote their agenda about Iraq….

CIA was explicit now that al Qaeda was guilty of the attack, but … Wolfowitz … was not persuaded.  It was too sophisticated and complicated an operation, he said, for a terrorist group to have pulled off by itself, without a state sponsor – Iraq must have been helping them…

By the afternoon … Secretary Rumsfeld was talking about broadening the objectives of our response and “getting Iraq.”… “I thought I was missing something here, “ I vented.  “Having been attacked by al Qaeda, for us now to go bombing Iraq in response would be like our invading Mexico after the Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbor.”…

Later in the day, Secretary Rumsfeld complained that there were no decent targets for bombing in Afghanistan and that we should consider bombing Iraq, which, he said had better targets. [8]

These excerpts well illustrate the depth of the pre-existing commitment to what Rumsfeld called “getting Iraq” and the identity of the group who held that commitment.  The real reasons for the war were their reasons.

            What were the real reasons, then?  There never was an authoritative statement.  But it seems clear enough that some kind of what social psychologist Irving Janis in 1972 dubbed “groupthink” was going on.  This is a kind of cognitive failure that can occur in a group when its members are similar in background, and the group is insulated from outside opinions, and can result in irrational conclusions about other groups, in this case the Iraqi leadership. 

            To read the groupthinkers’ policy statements from the decade preceding 9/11, it appears that they believed it was time for the U.S. to establish that it had the military power to do anything it pleased in the Middle East.  Somehow this would guarantee our access to oil, assure Israel’s survival, and perpetuate our ascendancy over what the hawks’ fellow-traveler journalist Christopher Hitchens has called “Islamo-fascism,” by inflicting military humiliation upon it and ultimately forcing it to accountability at the ballot box.  And apparently Iraq was to be the showcase for this program.  But within the echo-chamber that was the hawks’ ruminations, the fundamental truth is that there is no fundamental truth.  As George Packer put it: “Why did the United States invade Iraq?  It still isn’t possible to be sure – and this remains the most remarkable thing about the Iraq War.”[9]

            Of course, one could not sell a war based on such vague and apocalyptic thoughts.  And it had to be sold.  So the Bush administration embarked on a quest for plausible and winning rationales.  In subsequent pieces, those rationales will be considered.


[1]    George Packer, The Assassins’ Gate at 45 (2005)

[2]   Adam Liptak, Truth, Fiction and the Rosenbergs, New York Times 1 /21/06 quoting Doctorow at Fordham Law School presentation at Park Café in Time Warner Center 1/19/06

[3]   See Andrew Bacevich, The New American Militarism (2006).

[4]   Mann at 213.  And see here and here.

[5]    Mann ca. 191-94.

[6]    Bob Woodward, Plan of Attack (2004) at 9.

[7]    I read this piece at one URL before the New Yorker put it behind a pay wall.  I cannot locate it now.

[8]    Clarke, 30-31.

[9]    Packer at 46.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

The Big Picture Home Page | Previous Big Picture Column |  Next Big Picture Column 
War Powers Page | Previous War Powers ColumnNext War Powers Column

Leave a Reply