During his campaign for the presidency, Mr. Bush pledged a more “humble” foreign policy. “I would take the use of force very seriously,” he said. “I would be guarded in my approach.” Other countries would resent us “if we’re an arrogant nation.” He sniffed at the notion of “nation building.” “Our military is meant to fight and win wars. . . . And when it gets overextended, morale drops.” International cooperation and consensus building would be the cornerstone of a Bush administration’s approach to the larger world. Given candidate Bush’s remarks, it was hard to imagine him, as president, flipping a stiff middle finger at the world and charging off adventuring in the Middle East.
But didn’t 9/11 reshuffle the deck, changing everything? Didn’t Mr. Bush, on September 12, 2001, awaken to the fresh realization that bad guys in charge of Islamic nations constitute an entirely new and grave threat to us and have to be ruthlessly confronted lest they threaten the American homeland again? Wasn’t Saddam Hussein rushed to the front of the line because he was complicit with the hijackers and in some measure responsible for the atrocities in Washington, D. C., and at the tip of Manhattan?
As Bush’s former Treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill, and his onetime “terror czar,” Richard A. Clarke, have made clear, the president, with the enthusiastic encouragement of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, was contemplating action against Iraq from day one. “From the start, we were building the case against Hussein and looking at how we could take him out,” O’Neill said. All they needed was an excuse. Clarke got the same impression from within the White House. Afghanistan had to be dealt with first; that’s where the actual perpetrators were, after all. But the Taliban was a mere appetizer; Saddam was the entrée. (Or who knows? The soup course?) It was simply a matter of convincing the American public (and our representatives) that war was justified.
The real—but elusive—prime mover behind the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin Laden, was quickly relegated to a back burner (a staff member at Fox News—the cable-TV outlet of the Bush White House—told me a year ago that mere mention of bin Laden’s name was forbidden within the company, lest we be reminded that the actual bad guy remained at large) while Saddam’s Iraq became International Enemy Number One. Just like that, a country whose economy had been reduced to shambles by international sanctions, whose military was less than half the size it had been when the U. S. Army rolled over it during the first Gulf war, that had extensive no-flight zones imposed on it in the north and south as well as constant aerial and satellite surveillance, and whose lethal weapons and capacity to produce such weapons had been destroyed or seriously degraded by UN inspection teams became, in Mr. Bush’s words, “a threat of unique urgency” to the most powerful nation on earth.
More in his Esquire piece….