The Iraq War: Who Got It Right
On August 27, 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney gave a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars that explicitly laid out the case to invade Iraq based on an assumption that “Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.”
Cheney’s speech conflated the threat presented by Saddam Hussein with al Qaeda, as he had been doing since the 9/11 attacks, arguing for a sudden shift in American policy from containment and deterrence to preemption. In doing so, the Bush administration ignored an opportunity to make diplomatic inroads with Iran and instead destabilized the Middle East with an unprovoked disaster that killed and injured more than 100,000 civilians, thousands of U.S. soldiers, and evaporated more than a trillion dollars in American wealth.
From late August 2002 until March 19, 2004, a slow-motion tragedy unfolded in front of the world. American officials made the case for war using dubious intelligence while effectively casting any and all opposition to the effort as unpatriotic and un-American. A complicit media generally repeated the case unquestioned and though millions protested the invasion all over the globe, the American public supported the administration’s lust for a second war in response to 9/11 by a margin of 72-22.
Still, critics of the “the single worst foreign policy decision in American history” (including many liberals in Congress and much of the left-leaning media, including editor-in-chief Joe Conason) did their best to break through the drumbeat, even before the Bush administration’s foolish prosecution of the war made the capricious folly of the Iraq War apparent to the world.
Here are a few of the people who criticized the invasion of Iraq, even as they risked their careers and reputations to do so. (And here are the folks who got it wrong.)
As the head of CIA operations in Europe in the early 2000s, Drumheller found that the Bush administration had no interest in any intelligence that distracted from the narrative that Iraq had a weapons of mass destruction program.
When an investigation by former ambassador Joe Wilson into the claim that Iraq had been seeking uranium in Niger proved the allegation false, Bush still included it in his 2003 State of the Union address. And though the administration quickly disavowed those infamous “16 words” — “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa” — Vice President Dick Cheney’s office leaked “evidence” to bolster the false claim.
Drumheller also says he offered the White House the testimony of Iraqi foreign minister Naji Sabri, who said that Iraq did not have an active weapons of mass destruction program, which they at first seemed interested in, then quickly ignored. Instead, the administration relied on testimony from a source called “Curveball,” whose allegations formed the basis of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s ill-fated presentation to the UN Security Council in February, 2003.
Knight Ridder Newspapers
For readers of Knight Ridder Newspapers, it must have seemed as if reality had split. While the nation trugded toward a war painted as inevitable, again and again the reporting team of Jonathan Landay, Warren Strobel, John Walcott and Joe Galloway told the real story behind the trumped-up case for war. The papers have since been purchased by McClatchy, but an archive of their reporting is still online.
On September 22, 2002, former vice president Al Gore — the man who had won the popular vote in the 2000 presidential election, if not the office that should have come with it — spoke to the Commonwealth Club of California. He gave his own history of supporting the first Iraq War and then questioned both the wisdom of invading Iraq and the Bush administration’s sudden abandonment of Afghanistan to pursue the new war. He also specifically called out the Republican Party for using the march to war as a political asset in the midterm elections:
Nevertheless, President Bush is telling us that the most urgent requirement of the moment —right now—is not to redouble our efforts against al Qaeda, not to stabilize the nation of Afghanistan after driving [Osama bin Laden’s] host government from power, but instead to shift our focus and concentrate on immediately launching a new war against Saddam Hussein. And he is proclaiming a new, uniquely American right to preemptively attack whomsoever he may deem represents a potential future threat.
Moreover, he is demanding in this high political season that Congress speedily affirm that he has the necessary authority to proceed immediately against Iraq and for that matter any other nation in the region, regardless of subsequent developments or circumstances. The timing of this sudden burst of urgency to take up this cause as America’s new top priority, displacing the war against Osama Bin Laden, was explained by the White House Chief of Staff in his now well-known statement that “from an advertising point of view, you don’t launch a new product line until after Labor Day.”
Photo: Kjetil Bjørnsrud
Walter Pincus, Dana Milbank and Maureen Dowd
On May 26, 2004, TheNew York Times published a historic apology for its reporting leading up to the Iraq War. “Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged — or failed to emerge,” the editorial board wrote. The Times was not alone in its negligence, but became one of the few institutions to publicly criticize its own coverage.
Despite the miasma of repetition of false White House claims, lone voices did effectively question the invasion.
Times columnist Maureen Dowd published a stinging op-ed before the invasion:
It still confuses many Americans that, in a world full of vicious slimeballs, we’re about to bomb one that didn’t attack us on 9/11 (like Osama); that isn’t intercepting our planes (like North Korea); that isn’t financing al Qaeda (like Saudi Arabia); that isn’t home to Osama and his lieutenants (like Pakistan); that isn’t a host body for terrorists (like Iran, Lebanon and Syria).
The Washington Post‘s Walter Pincus developed great skepticism of the Bush administration’s claims after reading reports from weapons inspectors and tracking down General Anthony Zinni. But the Post refused to publish his reporting until Bob Woodward stepped in. “U.S. Lacks Specifics on Banned Arms” appeared three days before the invasion on March 16th — on page A17.
On the day of the invasion, Pincus, writing with his colleague Dana Milbank, could not have been clearer:
As the Bush administration prepares to attack Iraq this week, it is doing so on the basis of a number of allegations against Iraqi president Saddam Hussein that have been challenged — and in some cases disproved — by the United Nations, European governments and even U.S. intelligence reports.
Carter — one of the very few U.S. presidents who can claim that during his term, “we never dropped a bomb. We never fired a bullet. We never went to war” — also spoke out about the imminent invasion. He bluntly asserted in a New York Times op-ed on March 9, 2003 that the action would violate American principles:
Profound changes have been taking place in American foreign policy, reversing consistent bipartisan commitments that for more than two centuries have earned our nation greatness. These commitments have been predicated on basic religious principles, respect for international law, and alliances that resulted in wise decisions and mutual restraint. Our apparent determination to launch a war against Iraq, without international support, is a violation of these premises.
Rep. John J. “Jimmy” Duncan Jr., who has represented Tennessee’s 2nd district since 1988, was one of only six House Republicans to vote against authorizing the war in 2002.
“I was called down to the White House for a briefing with Condoleezza Rice and George Tenet and John McLaughlin,” he recalled in a 2005 interview with The American Conservative — a magazine founded to oppose the War. “I asked, ‘How much is Saddam Hussein’s total military budget?’ It was a little over two-tenths of one percent of ours. He was no threat to us whatsoever. He hadn’t attacked us. He hadn’t threatened to attack us. He wasn’t capable of attacking us.” The U.S. invasion, said Duncan, was “like the University of Tennessee football team taking on a second-grade football team—it’s unbelievable.”
In a March 6, 2003 speech, Duncan presented a kind of unassailable logic rarely seen on that side of the aisle, explaining:
It is a traditional conservative position to be critical of, skeptical about, even opposed to the very wasteful, corrupt United Nations, yet the primary justification for this war, what we hear over and over again, is that Iraq has violated 16 UN resolutions.
Well, other nations have violated UN resolutions, yet we have not threatened war against them.
The chance he was taking was not lost on him, however. As he told The American Conservative, “When I pushed that button to vote against the war back in 2002, I thought I might be ending my political career.”
Photo: United States Congress
Joseph C. Wilson and Valerie Plame
In March of 2002, Joe Wilson reported to the Bush administration that in his investigation on behalf of the U.S. government, he’d found no evidence that Iraq had sought uranium in Niger. The following January, Bush’s State of the Union address suggested otherwise.
On July 6, 2003, Wilson published a piece in The New York Times entitled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa.” It questioned the administration’s case for war and offered his own intelligence. In the days after the piece appeared, conservative columnist Robert Novak included Wilson’s wife Valerie Plame’s name and occupation in a column — “agency operative.”
At the time, Plame was under Non-Official Cover, meaning she was an undercover operative. Exposing her effectively ended her career.
An investigation into the leak found that Bush advisor Karl Rove, State Department official Richard Armitage and Dick Cheney’s chief of staff Lewis “Scooter” Libby all spoke to members of the press about Plame’s identity. Libby was eventually convicted of perjury for testimony given during the investigation.
Photo: Hunter Kahn via Wikimedia Commons
Ross was the U.K.’s Iraq expert at the UN Security Council from 1998 to 2002. In 2004, he testified that U.K. intelligence officials were aware that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and that there were alternatives to war. He resigned from the British civil service after his testimony.
On October 2, 2002, then-state senator Barack Obama gave a speech opposing the Iraq War. Though he was not yet in Congress — where the push to vote for the war resolution in order to put pressure on Saddam was intense — Obama’s opposition to the war continued as he moved to Washington D.C. as a U.S. senator. When he ran for president in 2008, his stance helped him win the Democratic primary and eventually led to George W. Bush adopting his timeline for withdrawal.
AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool