Revisiting how and why on anniversary of the Iraq War

Just about twenty years ago (March 20, 2003) the United States and its coalition partners invaded Iraq and began one of America’s worst wars in terms of furthering the goal of making the world a safer place.  Since then, our natural tendency to forget, aided by the wish of some people who want us not to remember the reality of a war that lasted too long and was quite disastrous, have numbed us to how and why it began.

A refresher is in order.

George W. Bush, in his state-of-the-union speech in 2002, his first after the awful events of September 11, 2001, stated, “Terrorists who once occupied Afghanistan now occupy cells at Guantanamo Bay.  And terrorist leaders who urged followers to sacrifice their lives are running for their own.”  He then set new goals, to counter the activities of the “axis of evil,” North Korea, Iraq, and Iran — none of which countries had furnished any of the terrorists who had bombed America.  Claiming that any of the three could “provide arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred,” specifically “weapons of mass destruction,” he left no doubt as to America’s next target: Iraq.

By then, invasion plans were being pushed by Vice-President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and the neo-conservatives who had taken over the direction and execution of American military and foreign policy.   For at least a decade they had been preparing such an invasion on strategic grounds, as detailed in my 2009 book, “The Forty Years War: The Rise and Fall of the Neocons.”  And George W. Bush wanted to finish the job left undone by his father, George H. W. Bush – to topple Saddam Hussein.

In 2002-2003, when cooler heads such as General Eric Shinseki, the army’s chief of staff, and Thomas White, secretary of the army, objected to the proposed invasion, Shinseki was forced to retire early and White to resign.  Others who should have known better, such as Secretary of State Colin Powell, a former general, mounted few objections.

Many rationales were put forth for the war: that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction; that Al Qaeda was operating there in great force; that we would be spreading democracy by means of our invasion; and that Iraq was no longer necessary to the U.S. as a counterweight to the more dangerous Iran.   In subsequent years all would be shown to have been false.  And the U.S. admitted they were false before the invasion.  In July 2002, the head of British Intelligence Service MI6 was told by his American counterparts during meetings in Washington, as recorded in the latterly-famous Downing Street Memo of July 23, 2002: that “Bush wanted to remove Saddam Hussein through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD (weapons of mass destruction). But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”

On Aug. 15, 2002, President H. W. Bush’s former chief military advisor, Brent Scowcroft, published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “Don’t Attack Saddam.”  Scowcroft cited a “virtual consensus in the world” against such an invasion, on the grounds that it “would seriously jeopardize, if not destroy, the global counter-terrorist campaign we have undertaken” in the wake of 9/11.

Internally, an August CIA memo to the president and other top officials upheld its title, “The Perfect Storm: Planning for the Negative Consequences of Invading Iraq” by naming those bad consequences: anarchy in Iraq, a surge in terrorism around the world, deepening Islamic antipathy to the U.S., Al Qaeda exploiting the circumstances to find new safe havens, declining European confidence in U.S. leadership, a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan, and chaos in Pakistan.   Almost all of these would eventually come to pass.  The memo was ignored.

In November of 2002, in the first national election since 9/11, Republicans gained control of the House and the Senate for the first time under a Republican president since Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s. That effectively sealed the push for invasion, enabling the pro-war clique in the White House to override any Congressional objections to beginning a pre-emptive war without a declaration of war from Congress.


Salisbury resident Tom Shachtman has written more than two dozen books and many television documentaries.  His website is

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