The United States and its coalition partners launched the Iraq War in March 2003, and twenty years later pundits and participants alike still disagree as to why, exactly, they did so. Was it (as the Bush administration claimed) to halt Saddam Hussein’s acquisition of WMDs and stave off a 9/11-like terrorist attack? Was it to end Iraqis’ suffering under a murderous dictator? Or was it part of a more ideologically driven agenda to ensure energy security in the Persian Gulf, pacify the Middle East, and show the world that the US was willing to use force to ensure a Washington-dominated regional order?
Whichever explanation one prefers, one thing is clear: America’s political and media elites overwhelmingly supported this war of choice. And despite the conflict’s substantial costs to the US, Iraq, and the region, its architects have not been held to account, and few of its most influential supporters have publicly copped to their mistakes.
Prologue: Before the Invasion
Turn-of-the-century America was at the high-water mark of what the political analyst Charles Krauthammer called “the unipolar moment.” The United States stood as the lone military and economic superpower, largely unchallenged by a greatly diminished Russia, a still-developing China, a militarily defanged Japan and Western Europe, and minor revisionist regimes in places like Iran, Syria, and North Korea.
Yet, power did not eliminate threats; it may, in fact, have invited them. In the decade before 9/11, high-profile terrorist attacks on American targets included the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1995-96 bombings in Saudi Arabia, the 1997 Karachi attack, the 1998 al Qaeda bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the 2000 al Qaeda attack on the USS Cole in Yemen. It was not unreasonable for the national security community to be vigilant about such hazards.
Nor was it unreasonable to detest Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi dictator had ruled his nation with an iron fist since 1979 and had subjected countless Iraqis to torture and selective murder. He attacked Iran in 1980, invaded Kuwait in 1990 (emboldened, in part, by his massive cache of US-provided weapons), used chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds in 1988 and 1991, launched missiles at Israel in 1991, and provided some support to revolutionary nationalist, liberationist, and pan-Islamist organizations.
Yet, while all agreed that Saddam was a killer, it was not so clear that he was a threat to the United States. Following the 1991 Gulf War, the US had pursued a containment policy against Iraq which included stationing troops in Kuwait, enforcing no fly zones, launching airstrikes on Iraqi targets, and supporting UN sanctions and weapon inspections. The 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, passed by overwhelming majorities in Congress and signed by President Clinton, made “regime change” the official policy of the United States.
So it was that when George W. Bush assumed the presidency in 2001, he stood atop a political class that was already committed to Saddam’s ouster, even though Iraq was isolated, marginal, and greatly weakened after a decade of sanctions. Insiders initially found the self-proclaimed “realist” Bush remarkably incurious about terrorist threats, but after 9/11 he was completely obsessed, and his administration declared a global War on Terror in which the world’s governments, intelligence services, and militaries would cooperate to root out terror networks before they committed mass murder.
The ideological assumptions of Bush and his closest advisors were paramount. Turn-of-the-century neoconservatism entailed an assertive foreign policy, a strong role in the Middle East, ardent support to Israel, and the use of military power to protect national interests and promote ideals. Like liberal internationalists, they believed that America should promote democracy, human rights, and the rule of law; but unlike the liberals, they eschewed international institutions as a hindrance to American ambitions. Having already concluded that they could only accomplish their goals by removing Saddam from power, they eventually developed the “Bush doctrine” of unilateralism and pre-emptive war. As Joshua Micah Marshall wrote in 2002 of those who held key US foreign policy posts, “all are united by a shared idea: that America should be unafraid to use its military power early and often to advance its interests and values.”
These insiders counted among their ranks Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Under Secretary of State John Bolton, Chairman of the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee Richard Perle, CIA director James Woolsey, and special assistant to the president Elliott Abrams. Their intellectual locus was PNAC, Project for the New American Century, a think tank whose backers included all of the above-named officials, as well as prominent opinion-shapers William Kristol, Robert Kagan, and Norman Podhoretz. PNAC’s position was the catalyst for the US government’s regime change policy.
The Establishment Media Embraces War
While the Bush administration made the case for war, the nation’s newsrooms went along. John R. MacArthur noted in 2003 that Bush’s successful PR campaign depended on “a compliant press” that “uncritically repeated almost every fraudulent administration claim” about the threat of Saddam Hussein. In a 2005 study of the pro-war public relations campaign, David L. Altheide and Jennifer N. Grimes concluded that TV networks were “tightly aligned with the war scenario;” that journalists were under tremendous pressure “to conform and not rock the boat;” and that there was almost no coverage of congressional opposition.
Neoconservative proponents of war—including the writers and pundits Charles Krauthammer, David Frum, William Kristol, David Brooks, Max Boot, Robert Kagan, Fred Hiatt, and Bret Stephens—began their regime-change advocacy immediately after 9/11. “Who cares if Saddam was involved in this particular barbarity?,” asked Boot in his October 2001 “Case for American Empire.” “Once Afghanistan has been dealt with, America should turn its attention to Iraq. . . . Once we have deposed Saddam, we can impose an American-led, international regency in Baghdad, to go along with the one in Kabul.” In SFRC testimony in February 2002, Kristol called removing Saddam “a genuine opportunity . . . to transform the political landscape of the Middle East.” Two months later, Kristol and Kagan wrote that “President Bush needs to stay focused on Iraq. . . . the road that leads to real security and peace [is] the road that runs through Baghdad.”
Most conservative media figures agreed, promoting an image of Iraq as a “rogue state” that posed an imminent threat to America. These included radio host Rush Limbaugh, historian Bernard Lewis, realist author Robert D. Kaplan, figures at Fox News (Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Judith Miller), and the writers and editors at The National Review and The Wall Street Journal (Larry Kudlow, Paul Gigot, et al.). Plenty of self-described liberals joined the chorus, including Jacob Weisberg, Andrew Sullivan, George Packer, Timothy Noah, Jeffrey Goldberg, William Saletan, Josef Joffe, Fred Kaplan, Kanan Makiya, Fareed Zakaria, and Christopher Hitchens—all regular contributors to The New York Times, The New Republic, Slate, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and Vanity Fair.
Against this groundswell, skeptical journalists like John R. MacArthur, Jonathan Landay, Warren Strobel, and John Walcott were voices in the wilderness. Meanwhile, although a few cautious souls in the Bush administration suggested that war and occupation would be far too costly (Secretary of State Colin Powell, Deputy Secretary of State Dick Armitage, former Commander in Chief of CENTCOM Anthony Zinni, director of policy planning Richard Haass, and others in the Pentagon and intel agencies), it seems that none of these figures really stood up for their cause. Powell presented himself as an advocate of caution in interviews and in his 2012 quasi-memoir, It Worked for Me, but his biographer Christopher D. O’Sullivan concluded that his actions in 2002-03 “seemed more geared toward seeking international legitimation for an inevitable war with Iraq.” Powell played a major role in selling the invasion when he insisted to the UN Security Council in February 2003 that Saddam’s regime had WMDs and was pursuing more. “These are not assertions,” he declared. “What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.”
While the hawks won out in the Executive Branch, Congress gave Bush the power to wage war. The 2002 authorization passed the Senate 77-23 with 58% of Democrats voting in favor, including Joe Biden (DE), Chuck Schumer (NY), John Kerry (MA), and Hillary Clinton (NY) (a decision that may have hurt Clinton in the 2016 election). Robert Byrd (WV) and Ted Kennedy (MA) were among the few vocal antiwar Democrats, while Lincoln Chafee (RI) was the lone GOP senator to vote no. Things were closer in the House, where the resolution passed 296-133 with 126 Democrats and 6 Republicans voting against. Almost none of the 535 members of Congress visited the secured room in which they could examine the full National Intelligence Estimate before their vote.
The only substantial opposition to the invasion existed outside of government and the establishment media. These opponents fell along a wide spectrum. An “antiwar right” coalesced around diplomats and national security specialists (Brent Scowcroft, Joseph C. Wilson, John Brady Kiesling, Scott Ritter, Karen Kwiatkowski), realist intellectuals (John Mearsheimer), traditionalists and “paleoconservatives” (Robert Novak, Pat Buchanan, The American Conservative), and small-government libertarians (Ron Paul), while the antiwar left included new NGOs (United for Justice and Peace, ANSWER), journalists and filmmakers (Robert Scheer, Alexander Cockburn, Michael Moore, The Nation, Z, Counterpunch), socialist and Marxist organizations, celebrities, liberal Protestant and Catholic leaders (USCCB), and dissident intellectuals (Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Howard Zinn, et al.). And of course, there were plenty of opponents globally: France, Germany, Canada, and Russia opposed the war, and huge demonstrations formed in major cities around the world.
This opposition mattered little, as the decision to invade was likely cemented by mid-2002. In the July 2002 Downing Street memo, the head of MI6 reported that the Americans now saw military action as “inevitable” even though “the case was thin” and there was little in the way of postwar planning. “Bush wanted to remove Saddam,” concluded the author, and “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” Even as early as November 2001, Rumsfeld instructed CENTCOM to update a war plan for Iraq including (per Rumsfeld’s notes) “decapitation of government.”
We now know plenty about the Bush administration’s motivations, but much about their perception remains elusive. Joshua Micah Marshall painted a portrait of over-eager ideologues who lacked military experience and Middle East expertise. “The hawks’ first priority is not how it is done or even that it is done right,” he concluded, “it is ensuring that the opportunity to finish off Saddam does not, once again, slip away.” Richard Haass wrote that the president was “too committed to turn back” from his war footing. “How did George W. Bush reach this point? I will go to my grave not fully understanding why,” wrote Haass. Bush “wanted to destroy an established nemesis of the United States” and “change the course of history.” Paul Pillar, who had overseen Middle East intelligence at the National Intelligence Council, concluded that the decision to invade was driven by “the desire to shake up the sclerotic power structures of the Middle East and hasten the spread of more liberal politics and economics in the region.” To suit these goals, argues Pillar, the administration cherry-picked evidence and ignored the work of experienced intelligence analysts.
To their credit, a few figures later expressed regret for their support. “How could we have been so off the mark?,” Powell asked in his 2012 book. “I am mad mostly at myself for not having smelled the problem. My instincts failed me.” Several “liberal hawks” issued public meae culpae. George Packer wrote of his earlier support for the war, “I can’t say that it was a rational deduction.” Richard Cohen pointed to supporters’ collective ignorance: “We, journalists and government alike, listened to the wrong people and came away smug in ignorance. . . . I was miserably wrong in my judgment and somewhat emotional.” The most recent such reflection comes from Robert D. Kaplan, who wrote in his 2023 book The Tragic Mind, “I was a journalist who had gotten too close to my story. I had let my emotions overtake dispassionate analysis.”
But the war’s architects have offered no apologies and have suffered no punishments. The US government never held a formal inquest on par with the UK’s Chilcot Inquiry. Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld all wrote exculpatory memoirs and enjoyed uneventful retirements, and even the most penitent figures assign lots of blame to others. Powell, e.g., relies heavily on the first-person plural (“If we had known there were no WMDs, there would have been no war.”), and he assails the intelligence community (“Why and how did the CIA fail so massively?”). The career arcs of other key administration and media figures were all upward, while the pre-invasion skeptics are largely forgotten. Sadly, John R. MacArthur’s lament of a decade ago still stands: “I’m struck by how little credit was accorded my fellow dissidents and how well, relatively, the wrongheaded hawks fared.”
Joe Renouard is Resident Professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Nanjing, China. He is the author of several books, articles, and book chapters on American foreign policy, history, and politics.
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