In the hours immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, long before anyone was certain who was responsible for them, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld reportedly asked that plans be drawn up for an American assault on Iraq. The following day, in a Cabinet meeting at the White House, Rumsfeld, according to Bob Woodward, insisted that Iraq should be "a principal target of the first round in the war against terrorism." The president reportedly was advised that "public opinion has to be prepared before a move against Iraq is possible" and instead chose Afghanistan as a much softer target.
At first consideration, Rumsfeld's early targeting of Iraq seems odd. Too little was known, too much uncertain. But the Defense secretary's desire to attack Iraq was neither impulsive nor reactive. In fact, ever since the first American war against Iraq in 1991, Rumsfeld and others who planned and executed that war have wanted to go back and finish what they started. They said so in reports written for then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney in the last years of the George H.W. Bush administration, and they continued the push when they were out of power during the Clinton years. In the spring of 1997, their efforts coalesced when Rumsfeld, Cheney and others joined together to form the Project for the New American Century, or PNAC, and began concerted lobbying for regime change in Iraq.
In an open letter to President Clinton dated Jan. 26, 1998, the group called for "the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime from power," and in a letter dated May 29, 1998, to then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), they complained that Clinton had not listened to them and reiterated their recommendation that Hussein be overthrown. They added, "We should establish and maintain a strong U.S. military presence in the region, and be prepared to use that force to protect our vital interests in the [Persian] Gulf -- and, if necessary, to help remove Saddam from power."
Signatories to one or both letters included Rumsfeld; William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard magazine and chairman of the PNAC; Elliott Abrams, the convicted Iran-Contra conspirator whom President Bush last year named director of Middle Eastern policy for the National Security Council; Paul D. Wolfowitz, now Rumsfeld's deputy at the Pentagon; John R. Bolton, now undersecretary of state for arms control; Richard N. Perle, now chairman of the Defense Science Board; Richard Armitage, now Colin Powell's deputy at the State Department; and Zalmay Khalilzad, former Unocal Corp. consultant and now special envoy to Afghanistan.
In addition to the letters, the PNAC made its opinions known in reports, speeches, position papers and books. In the fall of 1998, Wolfowitz addressed the House National Security Committee, chiding the Clinton administration for not mustering "the necessary strength of purpose" to "liberate ourselves, our friends and allies in the region, and the Iraqi people themselves, from the menace of Saddam Hussein." When George W. Bush became president, many core PNAC loyalists found themselves once again government insiders, returning to important positions of power in American foreign policy. They expected that the radical changes in U.S. military policy they favored would have to come slowly in the absence of, as the PNAC report "Rebuilding America's Defenses" put it, a "catastrophic and catalyzing event -- like a new Pearl Harbor." On Sept. 11, 2001, they got their Pearl Harbor.
Still, the Bush administration could not just go to war with Iraq without tying it in some way to the 9/11 attacks. It instead launched an easy war against Afghanistan, where there was at least a demonstrable connection between Osama bin Laden and the Taliban regime -- although it can be argued that United States policies contributed more to Bin Laden's development as a terrorist than Afghanistan ever did. Meanwhile, the White House launched one of the most extraordinary propaganda campaigns of modern times to convince the American public that Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction and presents an imminent danger to the U.S.
Since the return of U.N. weapons inspectors to Iraq, and the distinct possibility that they may come up empty-handed, Rumsfeld has paved the way for ignoring their findings with his sophistry that "the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." Bush has repeatedly stressed his willingness to "go it alone" in Iraq -- meaning, presumably, without either U.N. sanctions or European allies.
And he may well have to. Many of Iraq's neighbors in the region -- Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Jordan, to name some of the most important -- are likely to back away from allowing the U.S. to use their bases as their populations become convinced that the U.S., rather than Hussein, presents the greatest danger.
The Bush administration says that the huge U.S. buildup of weapons, airplanes, ships and soldiers in the Gulf region is necessary to demonstrate to Hussein that the U.S. means business. Officials reiterate frequently that the preparations in no way mean that war is inevitable. I suspect, instead, that the war lovers have succeeded in putting their not-so-secret plan to conquer Iraq into operation and that we will soon have to live with the consequences of their adventurism.