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Commentary

A War in Search of a Reason


     
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Paul O’Neill, George W. Bush’s former Secretary of the Treasury, has confirmed what many critics of the Iraq war had already suspected to be a cynical and self-serving Bush administration myth: that the September 11 attacks had moved a reluctant president, who during his campaign had advocated a “more humble U.S. foreign policy,” to invade and occupy Iraq. Despite campaign rhetoric accusing the Clinton-Gore administration of being overly interventionist, O’Neill asserts that going after Saddam Hussein was the most important topic on the National Security Council’s agenda 10 days after the president’s inauguration and eight months before September 11. O’Neill, a former member of the council, also alleges that rather than conducting a debate about why Saddam should have been deposed and why the removal was so urgent, the initial council meetings in January and February 2001 centered on how to get rid of Saddam and plans for a post-Saddam Iraq.

And there’s more cynical manipulation to come. Rather than talking about democratizing Iraq and then the Middle East by invading and occupying Iraq—the public face of the intervention—the council meetings focused more on divvying up Iraq’s oil booty. Surprise, surprise. So how does this situation differ from Imperial Japan’s invasion of other countries during the 1930s to grab their resources?

O’Neill also characterized President Bush, in his decision-making and communication at cabinet meetings, as being like a “blind man in a room full of deaf people.” But this sorry state of affairs is better than the Bush administration’s pre-war assessment of the threat to the United States posed by Iraqi weapons of mass destruction—which could be deemed “the blind leading the blind.” The U.S. intelligence community and other allied intelligence agencies had little new information about Iraqi nuclear, biological, chemical and missile programs since the U.N. inspectors left in 1998. But according to a study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, intelligence reports on such unconventional weapons programs did not ring alarm bells until mid-2002. The authors of the study allege that the Bush administration put the screws to the U.S. intelligence community to get the conclusions they wanted. Also, the authors accuse the administration of spinning intelligence estimates by marginalizing dissenting opinions and eliminating caveats.

Another inquiry, by Washington Post reporter Barton Gelman, examined Iraqi documents and interviewed Iraqi scientists and members of the American team searching for Iraqi unconventional weapons. Gelman reported that such weapons programs were a long way from fruition—belying the need for an immediate invasion of Iraq. The Iraqis had long-range missiles only on paper and likely would have taken at least six years to build them. Similarly, he uncovered a letter from Iraq’s chief of unconventional weapons programs reporting the destruction of all Iraqi biological weapons in 1991—contradicting U.S. intelligence estimates predicting that Iraq had retained large stockpiles of such weapons. Most important, Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was largely terminated after the Gulf War and never restarted—contrary to the administration’s pre-invasion claims that the Iraqis could have a nuclear weapon within a year. It would have probably taken the better part of a decade before the nuclear program would have produced a weapon.

But such wild exaggerations should not be surprising from an administration on a mission in need of justification. Other rationale for the U.S. invasion have also collapsed. Both the president and Secretary of State Colin Powell have admitted that the implied link by administration officials between Saddam and al Qaeda or the September 11 attacks has no concrete evidence to support it. Finally, by preferring indirect non-representative caucuses to ensure a friendly Iraqi government rather than a democratic one with an interim assembly directly elected by Iraqis—which is being advocated by Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, the administration has exposed the hypocrisy of its “democratize Iraq and then the Middle East” war justification.

Wars for legitimate and well thought out reasons usually foster the formulation of effective plans for both the conflict and its aftermath. In Gulf War II, the rush to war on flimsy grounds has made difficult the development of sound U.S. strategy and tactics to fight the continuing guerrilla war. It has also complicated post-war reconstruction efforts. Most important, if the pillars of your house are built with soft wood, they will probably collapse if there is an earthquake. That is, if the fighting continues to go badly in Iraq, the American public is liable to eventually awake from its slumber and demand a withdrawal of U.S. forces from a war whose justifications were questionable. In the wake of September 11, public opinion was willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt on an invasion of Iraq. That tolerance may evaporate now that the pillars justifying the invasion and occupation have been weakened one-by-one. The guerrillas can figure out that much. Paul O’Neill’s revelations about a war in search of a reason may have sawed through the last timber.


Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.


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