The Vanishing Case for War

The invasion and conquest of Iraq by the United States last spring was the result of what is probably the least ambiguous case of the misreading of secret intelligence information in American history. Whether it is even possible that a misreading so profound could yet be in some sense “a mistake” is a question to which I shall return. Going to war was not something we were forced to do and it certainly was not something we were asked to do. It was something we elected to do for reasons that have still not been fully explained.

The official argument for war, pressed in numerous speeches by President Bush and others, failed to convince most of the world that war against Iraq was necessary and just; it failed to soften the opposition to war by longtime allies like France and Germany; and it failed to persuade even a simple majority of the Security Council to vote for war despite immense pressure from Washington. The President’s argument was accepted only by the United States Congress, which voted to give him blanket authority to attack Iraq, and then kept silent during the worldwide debate that followed. The entire process—from the moment it became unmistakably clear that the President had decided to go to war in August 2002, until his announcement on May 1 that “major combat” was over—took about nine months, and it will stand for decades to come as an object lesson in secrecy and its hazards.

Any attempt to understand the war on Iraq must begin with the profound psychological shock caused by the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, a reaction which can be traced to two factors—the complete lack of public warning before the attacks, and the apparent ease with which the attackers used four hijacked aircraft to kill thousands of people and to inflict billions of dollars’ worth of damage. Bad as those attacks were, high administration officials concluded that a still greater danger existed—the possibility that terrorists would arm themselves with chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons, something they could hope to acquire only from outlaw regimes. President Bush identified his candidates for this “axis of evil” in his first State of the Union message in 2002—North Korea, Iran, and Iraq.

In a September 2002 paper establishing the administration’s National Security Strategy, President Bush announced an aggressive new policy for dealing with this danger. The United States, he declared, “must be prepared to stop rogue states and their terrorist clients before they are able to threaten or use weapons of mass destruction against the United States and our allies and friends…. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.”

To justify preemptive war on Iraq the administration made three interlocking claims—that Iraq was actively developing weapons of mass destruction including nuclear bombs; that it had a secret working relationship with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda …

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