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Next week marks the Iraq invasion’s tenth anniversary. It was the first war that our government embraced as being “offensive” and “preemptive.”
The Vietnam War was the defining event of my life. Yet most Americans today don’t understand how it began or that, as the Defense Secretary who presided over its launch later concluded, it need never have happened. So when the bombing began on March 19, 2003, I wept.
I wept for what I had lived through. I wept for people I had loved who died horribly or came home to live miserably. And I wept for what I knew was to come.
George Santyana famously said, “Those who cannot learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.” In the forlorn hope that we might learn from the past, I’d like to revisit it.
In 1998, Dick Cheney, Lewis Libby, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and other “neocons” urged President Clinton to “remove Saddam Hussein from power.” Clinton declined. Although Saddam was a brutal dictator, he was contained. He was an important bulwark against a bellicose and Islamist Iran. And UN inspections, going back to 1991, had found no Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs).
With George W. Bush’s election, Cheney became Vice President, and Libby, his chief of staff. Rumsfeld became Secretary of Defense, and Wolfowitz became his Deputy. They came to their jobs looking for a chance to overthrow Saddam.
The World Trade Center attacks provided that chance. In a still-smoking Pentagon on the afternoon of 9/11, Rumsfeld ordered a senior aide to find evidence linking Saddam Hussein with Osama Bin Laden.
The next day, Bush met with key security staff and told Counterterrorism Director Richard Clark to find a connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam. Clark responded that extensive research had already disclosed no such connection, that Hussein and bin Laden despised each other. Bush angrily ordered those present to establish the connection.
A now unclassified document records a meeting two months later between Rumsfeld and General Tommy Franks, head of Central Command. Its agenda was how to start a war with Iraq. Suggestions included linking Saddam to 9/1 and finessing WMD inspection demands with which Saddam could not comply.
The sixteen U.S. agencies that comprise the “intelligence community” knew that these allegations were nonsense. So Rumsfeld created his own intelligence operation and housed in a vault under the Pentagon.
Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski was its Deputy Director. She later testified to Congress that it was “a propaganda shop” that, “through suppression and distortion of intelligence analysis, promulgated what were in fact falsehoods to both Congress and the executive office of the president.”
Bush administration officials spent much of 2002 fabricating a case for war, which they described among themselves as “selling the product.” On August 26, 2002, Dick Cheney rolled out the product, stating, “There is no doubt” that Saddam has WMDs and intends to use them.
Italy’s military intelligence agency had told the CIA that it had a copy of a contract for Niger to sell Iraq 500 metric tons of yellow cake uranium, suitable for enrichment to weapons grade. The State Department concluded that the contract was a forgery, but Cheney ordered the CIA to dig deeper. The Agency sent former ambassador Joseph Wilson to Niger. His evidence confirmed the hoax, but on September 8, 2002, National Security Adviser Condoleza Rice told CNN that she didn’t “want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”
Czech intelligence officers thought they had a photo of Muhammed Atta, ringleader of the 9/11 attacks, meeting with an Iraqi Intelligence officer in Prague. The FBI determined that the person in the photo was not Atta, who was in Florida at the time. But Cheney went on Meet the Press and said that the Prague meeting had been confirmed.
Condoleza Rice told the PBS News Hour that, “High ranking detainees have said that Iraq provided training to al-Qaeda in chemical weapons development.” In fact, there was one detainee, Faraj al-Libbi. When the FBI interrogated him and found no connection with Iraq, the CIA rendered him to Egypt, where he was tortured into concocting a tale about Saddam’s training al-Qaeda in chemical and biological weapons.
CIA analysts concluded that he had “fabricated” this confession. But on October 7, 2002 President Bush stated it as fact. Al-Libbi subsequently acknowledged that he had made it up.
Meanwhile, a former Iraqi engineer told German intelligence that he had helped to design mobile biological warfare labs. The intelligence community knew him to be a liar and called him “Curveball.” But Bush repeated Curveball’s allegation as fact. In a post-war video interview with the The Guardian, Curveball acknowledged that he had lied in hopes of provoking the war.
Administration officials leaked to the New York Times a story that Saddam Hussein was accumulating atomic bomb parts, even though the Department of Energy had examined samples of the aluminum tubes in question and determined that they could not be used for that purpose. The story ran October 8th. Hours later, Cheney went on Meet the Press and said, “We know…with absolute certainty” that Hussein was acquiring equipment to enrich uranium. He cited the planted Times story.
In September, George Bush and his CIA Director George Tenet began lobbying Congress to authorize war. The Senate Intelligence Committee asked for the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) for Iraq, but the CIA had never prepared one because there was no credible evidence of a threat.
Tenet ordered his staff to slap one together in three weeks and conclude that Saddam Hussein was pursuing WMDs. CIA staff inserted strong dissents throughout the NIE. But while Senators were told its conclusion, only about six actually read it.
On October 16, three weeks before congressional elections, Congress passed the Iraq War Resolution, authorizing the President to use military force. Bush operatives needed a pretext to launch the invasion. They had concluded that their best choice was to impose new sanction-backed WMD inspections and goad Saddam into not complying. So on September 12th, Bush had presented his WMD accusation to the UN General Assembly.
Thereafter, administration officials began intense secret negotiations with key members of the Security Council. On November 8th, it passed Resolution 1441, to give Iraq “a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations.” New inspections began on November 27th led by the UN’s Hans Blix.
Unlike the armchair generals who were running the Pentagon, Secretary of State Colin Powell had actually experienced war and he enjoyed worldwide credibility. Bush wanted Powell to sell the war.
Powell was reluctant and suspected the legitimacy of the “intelligence.” But being the good soldier, he made a ninety-minute presentation to the U.N. Security Council on February 5, 2003. Although he had been assured that everything he presented was legitimate, his Chief of Staff, Larry Wilkerson, later told MSNBC that it had been “cooked” by Bush officials and was a “hoax.” The UN took no action.
In early March, Hans Blix reported that inspectors had found no evidence of WMDs and could be certain whether any existed “within months.” Instead, the U.S. launched a surprise invasion without declaring war on March 19.
Ten years after, the War’s consequences are legion. No WMDs existed, but American dead number 4,487, and veterans kill themselves at the rate of one per day. Approximately 120,000 Iraqi civilians died violently.
The war increased sectarianism to levels never before seen in the region. Both sides despise the U.S
A National Intelligence Estimate, written five years after the invasion, found that the War greatly increased and spread the threat of terrorism.
Undistracted by Saddam Hussein, Iran is building real WMDs. With the shift of focus from Afghanistan to Iraq, the Taliban, who had nurtured the 9/11 attackers, reemerged and cannot now be defeated.
Iraq is ruled by an authoritarian regime. Transparency International ranks it as the third most corrupt country in the world.
Economists estimate that total war costs will run to $3 trillion. Bush declined to pay for it with new revenues, while pushing through sharp tax reductions. Yet the same lawmakers who questioned their political opponents’ patriotism for not supporting the War, now blame them for perpetuating the deficit.
Aside from the Taliban and Iran, who benefited? As the father of a former girlfriend of mine once told Woodward and Bernstein, “Follow the money.”