Iraq and US Leadership

Iraq and US Leadership

Click here to read Katrina vanden Heuvel’s “Kennedy’s Other Speech.”


A year ago, the United States went to war, although Iraq was not an imminent threat and had no nuclear weapons, no persuasive link to Al Qaeda, no connection to the September 11 terrorist attacks and no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. In the months leading up to war, President George W. Bush failed to keep the fundamental bond of trust between the American people and the President by misusing the facts in the push toward war and depriving citizens of an honest debate on the wisdom of that war. The Bush Administration has broken faith with the American people, who expect their Presidents to give them all the facts–not just the convenient ones–as the nation decides on war.

In few election years have voters faced a more important choice than in 2004. When they go to the polls in November, they will be offered not only competing candidates but also fundamentally differing visions of how, when and why America will send its sons and daughters into danger.

Aided and abetted by the Republican majority in Congress, President Bush imposed his agenda on America and the world. In its disrespect for the United Nations and the world community, the Administration squandered the immense good will that other nations extended to our country after the terrorist attacks and that continued strong throughout the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

The debacle cannot all be blamed on flawed intelligence. Numerous specific warnings from the intelligence community were ignored as the Administration looked at the facts through ideological blinders rather than sound analysis. Greg Thielmann, a former senior State Department intelligence officer, placed most of the fault on “the way senior officials misused the information they were provided.” He said, “They surveyed the data and picked out what they liked.” What happened was not merely a failure of intelligence; it was the result of manipulation of intelligence and selective use of questionable intelligence to justify a decision already made. Saddam was an evil dictator, but he was not an imminent threat, and he was not connected to 9/11. David Kay’s exhaustive postwar inspections leave little doubt that Saddam was not close to a nuclear capability and had no weapons of mass destruction at the time the war began.

President Bush and his advisers should have presented their case honestly, so that Congress and the American people could have engaged in the debate our democracy is owed, above all when the issue is war or peace. But Karl Rove convinced the White House that war could bring advantage in the 2002 Congressional elections, saying Republicans could “go to the country” on the war on terrorism.

Election politics trumped foreign policy and national security. As the campaign season entered its final stages, Administration officials appeared repeatedly in public making a case for a war unsupported by the facts. In late August, Vice President Cheney told Americans, “Many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon.” From the Rose Garden in October, President Bush called Iraq “a gathering threat to the security of America and to the future of peace” and said that the Iraqi regime was “a threat of unique urgency.” Numerous other statements were orchestrated to alarm the public by emphasizing the danger of a nuclear Saddam and his ties to Al Qaeda, although the statements had no basis in fact.

The Administration insisted that Congress vote to authorize the war before it adjourned for the November elections, knowing that a debate on Iraq would distract voters’ attention from the troubled economy and the troubled effort to capture Osama bin Laden. These scare tactics worked. Republicans in Congress voted almost unanimously for war and kept control of the House. Democrats were deeply divided and narrowly lost their majority in the Senate. A Republican White House now had solid control of both houses of Congress for the first time in half a century.

President Bush has no interest in continuing the debate. He recently appointed a commission to investigate the Iraq intelligence, but it is designed more to deflect accountability than to assign it. As the 2005 deadline for the commission’s report makes clear, the Administration’s highest priority is to minimize further debate before this year’s election. The President has also asked the commission to address the wrong question: How prewar intelligence on weapons of mass destruction compares with what we are now finding in Iraq. That mandate misses the point. What’s needed most is a full, fair and independent investigation not only of the intelligence itself but also of its use by the Administration to justify its decision to go to war. We need a commission that will make its findings and recommendations available to the public.

We all agree that the Iraqi people are safer with Saddam behind bars. But the Iraq war has not made America safer. It has made us more hated in the world, and it has made the war on terrorism harder to win. We knocked Al Qaeda down in Afghanistan, but we let it regroup while we went to war in Iraq. Eleven times in the two years after 9/11, Al Qaeda attacked Americans and other innocent civilians around the world. The war in Iraq has given Al Qaeda a new recruiting tool and strengthened those who support and encourage terrorists.

Al Qaeda and the Taliban fighters who support them are stepping up their attacks against military personnel and civilians in Afghanistan. The warlords are jeopardizing the stability of the country and earning large sums from the booming drug trade. Humanitarian assistance workers, once considered immune from violence, are targets of a new Afghan insurgency.

As another dangerous consequence of the war, the US Army is overextended. More than 500 of our servicemen and -women have been killed, and more than 3,000 have been wounded. By the end of 2004, eight of ten active Army divisions will have been deployed for a year or more in support of Afghanistan or Iraq. The Army is offering re-enlistment bonuses of up to $10,000 to soldiers in Iraq, but many are turning down both the money and the new tour of duty. Members of the National Guard and Reserves are kept on active duty and away from their families, jobs and communities for over a year. Politics is an ever-present driving force. According to a New York Times op-ed article by Lucian Truscott, a 1969 graduate of West Point reporting from Mosul in December, Army officers now feel that “every order they receive is delivered with next November’s election in mind, so there is little doubt at and near the top about who is really being used for what over here.”

We have paid a high price for the Administration’s war of choice. We have paid with our credibility in the international community, with loss of life, with the individual tragedies of loved ones left behind in communities here at home and with billions of dollars that should have been spent on jobs or housing or healthcare or education or civil rights or the environment or a dozen other clear priorities.

When asked in December 2003 whether Saddam actually had weapons of mass destruction or whether there was only the possibility that he might acquire them, President Bush replied, “So what’s the difference?” The difference is whether we go to war or not. America went to war in Iraq because the President insisted that nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Saddam Hussein were too dangerous to ignore.

War in Iraq was a war of choice, not a war of necessity. It was timed for political advantage, not the result of a serious decision honestly weighed by the President and his top advisers. There was no imminent threat, no national security imperative and no compelling reason for war.

In resorting to misguided ideology and distortions of the truth to take the nation to war, President Bush broke the basic bond of trust between government and the people. If Congress and the American people had known the whole truth, America would never have gone to war. The President deserves to be held accountable. We don’t need a sign on the desk in the Oval Office that says, “The buck doesn’t stop here anymore.”

At our best, America is a great and generous country, ever looking forward, ever seeking a better nation for our people and a better world for peoples everywhere. I’m optimistic that these high ideals will be restored and revitalized by the American people in November. The election cannot come too soon.

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