What Really Took America to War in Iraq

A fatal combination of fear, power, and hubris

An illustration featuring an image of George W. Bush with part of his face redacted.
Alex Cochran

At the Pentagon on the afternoon of 9/11, as the fires still burned and ambulances blared, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld returned from the smoke-filled courtyard to his office. His closest aide, Undersecretary Stephen Cambone, cryptically recorded the secretary’s thinking about Saddam Hussein and Osama (or Usama) bin Laden: “Hit S. H. @same time; Not only UBL; near term target needs—go massive—sweep it all up—need to do so to hit anything useful.”

The president did not agree. That night, when George W. Bush returned to Washington, his main concern was reassuring the nation, relieving its suffering, and inspiring hope. Informed that al-Qaeda was most likely responsible for the attack, he did not focus on Iraq. The next day, at meetings of the National Security Council, Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz advocated action against Saddam Hussein. With no good targets in Afghanistan and no war plans to dislodge the Taliban, Defense officials thought Iraq might offer the best opportunity to demonstrate American resolve and resilience. Their arguments did not resonate with anyone present.

The following evening, however, President Bush encountered his outgoing counterterrorism expert, Richard Clarke, and several other aides outside the Situation Room in the White House. According to Clarke, the president said, “I want you, as soon as you can, to go back over everything, everything. See if Saddam did this. See if he’s linked in any way.” Clarke promised he would but insisted that al-Qaeda, not Hussein, was responsible. Then he muttered to his assistants, “Wolfowitz got to him.”

The cover of Melvyn P. Leffler's forthcoming book, Confronting Saddam Hussein
This article is adapted from Leffler’s forthcoming book.

There is no real evidence that Wolfowitz did get to Bush. The president may have talked about attacking Iraq in a conversation with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Friday, September 14. But when Wolfowitz raised the issue again at Camp David over the weekend, Bush made it clear that he did not think Hussein was linked to 9/11, and that Afghanistan was priority No. 1. His vice president, national security advisers, and CIA director were all in agreement.

Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was neither preconceived nor inevitable. It wasn’t about democracy, and it wasn’t about oil. It wasn’t about rectifying the decision of 1991, when the United States failed to overthrow Hussein, nor was it about getting even for the dictator’s attempt to assassinate Bush’s father, George H. W. Bush, in 1993. Rather, Bush and his advisers were motivated by their concerns with U.S. security. They urgently wanted to thwart any other possible attack on Americans, and they were determined to foreclose Hussein’s ability to use weapons of mass destruction to check the future exercise of American power in the Middle East.

Bush resolved to invade Iraq only after many months of high anxiety, a period in which hard-working, if overzealous, officials tried to parse intelligence that was incomplete and unreliable. Their excessive fear of Iraq was matched by an excessive preoccupation with American power. And they were unnerved, after 9/11’s shocking revelation of an unimagined vulnerability, by a sense that the nation’s credibility was eroding.

In Bush’s key speeches during the first week after 9/11, he did not dwell on Iraq. When reporters asked the president if he had a special message for Saddam Hussein, Bush spoke generically: “Anybody who harbors terrorists needs to fear the United States … The message to every country is, there will be a campaign against terrorist activity, a worldwide campaign.” When General Tommy Franks, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, suggested to Bush that they begin military planning against Iraq, the president instructed him not to.

Rumsfeld and his top advisers remained more concerned about Iraq—a regime, wrote Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith on September 18, “that engages in and supports terrorism and otherwise threatens US vital interests.” But even they weren’t advocating a full-scale invasion. Instead, Wolfowitz favored seeding a Shia rebellion in the south, establishing an enclave or a liberation zone for organizing a provisional government, and denying Hussein control over the region’s oil. “If we’re capable of mounting an Afghan resistance against the Soviets,” Wolfowitz told me, “we could have been capable of mounting an Arab resistance.”

Bush was not entirely unsympathetic to this approach, but neither Rumsfeld nor Wolfowitz could persuade him to divert his attention from Afghanistan and the broader War on Terror. Wolfowitz deferred to Bush’s priority, ultimately helping devise the strategy that toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan. But he, Feith, and their civilian colleagues at the Pentagon did not relinquish the idea of regime change in Iraq. They were incensed by Hussein’s gloating over the 9/11 attack. And they were convinced that he was dangerous.

Bush’s attention did not gravitate to Iraq until the fall, after anthrax spores circulated through the U.S. mail, killing several postal workers, and turned up in a Senate office building and at a facility handling White House mail. On October 18, sensors inside the White House alerted staff to the presence of a deadly toxin; it was a false alarm, but one that intensified worries about an attack with biological or chemical weapons.

Bush and his advisers were troubled by what they thought they knew about Iraq, though assessing Hussein’s intentions and capabilities was difficult. The Iraqi dictator had expelled international inspectors in 1998, leaving the CIA unable to collect information. But analysts were convinced that Hussein could not be trusted to have destroyed all of the weapons of mass destruction he’d previously possessed. Their suspicions were reinforced when an Iraqi defector claimed that Iraq had established mobile biological-weapons-production plants and now possessed “capabilities surpassing the pre–Gulf War era.”

Michael Morell, the president’s CIA briefer, insisted to me that someone reexamining the available evidence at the time would still conclude that Hussein “had a chemical-weapons capability, that he had chemical weapons stockpiled, that he had a biological-weapons-production capability, and he was restarting a nuclear program. Today you would come to that judgment based on what was on that table.” But what was on the table, Morell told me, was circumstantial and suspect, much of it coming from Iraqi Kurdish foes of the regime. Morell acknowledged that he should have said, “Mr. President, here is what we think … But what you really need to know is that we have low confidence in that judgment and here is why.” Instead, Morell was telling the president that Hussein “had a chemical-weapons program. He’s got a biological-weapons-production capability.”

Bush and his top advisers were predisposed to think that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. This was true not only of the hawks in the administration. Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice believed that Hussein possessed WMDs. So did State Department analysts and their counterparts in the CIA and at the National Security Agency. They disagreed about the purpose of aluminum tubes and about Iraq’s acquisition of uranium yellowcake, and they were aware that Hussein would need five to seven years to develop a nuclear weapon once the regime began working on it again. Nevertheless, they thought they knew that Iraq had biological and chemical weapons, or could develop them quickly, and that Hussein aspired to reconstitute a nuclear program.

Foreign-intelligence partners concurred. Tony Blair and his most trusted advisers felt the same way. Nobody told Bush that Hussein did not have WMDs.

Hussein had been seriously hampered by sanctions and the presence of inspectors. But now the inspectors were gone, and the sanctions were disappearing. The conundrum facing U.S. policy makers was how to contain Hussein if the sanctions regime ended and if United Nations monitors did not return. “I wasn’t worried about what he would do in 2001,” Wolfowitz told me. “I was worried about what he would do in 2010 if the existing containment … collapsed.”

Hussein was not doing much to allay American fears. He was using his oil revenues to leverage support from France, China, and Russia to end UN sanctions. He had not ceased providing support for terrorist activity in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, some of which targeted American aid workers. And reports of his pervasive repressions inside Iraq persisted.

At the same time, Hussein was investing his growing financial reserves in strengthening Iraq’s military-industrial complex and acquiring materials that could be used for chemical and biological weapons. According to British intelligence, the Iraqis were still concealing information about 31,000 chemical munitions, 4,000 tons of chemicals that could be used for weapons, and large quantities of material that could be employed for the production of biological weapons.

Such assessments held through the winter. “Iraq continues to pursue its WMD programmes,” concluded the British Joint Intelligence Committee in February 2002. “If it has not already done so, Iraq could produce significant quantities of biological warfare agents within days and chemical warfare agents within weeks of a decision to do so.”

“I have no doubt we need to deal with Saddam,” Blair had written to Bush in the fall of 2001. But if we “hit Iraq now,” Blair had warned, “we would lose the Arab world, Russia, probably half the EU and my fear is the impact on Pakistan.” Far better to deliberate quietly and avoid public debate “until we know exactly what we want to do; and how we can do it.” Bush agreed.

“President Bush believed,” Rumsfeld subsequently wrote, “that the key to successful diplomacy with Saddam was a credible threat of military action. We hoped that the process of moving an increasing number of American forces into a position where they could attack Iraq might convince the Iraqis to end their defiance.” As Stephen Hadley, the deputy national security adviser during Bush’s first term, told me: “We thought it would coerce him … to do what the international community asked, which is either destroy the WMD or show us that you destroyed it. That was it. Either do it or, if you’ve already done it, show it, prove it.”

Bush wanted to use the threat of force to resume inspections and gain confidence that Iraq did not possess WMDs that might fall into the hands of terrorists or be used to blackmail the U.S. in the future. But he also wanted to use the threat of force to remove Hussein from power. He did not really know which of these goals had priority. He never clearly sorted out these overlapping yet conflicting impulses, even as each seemed to become more compelling.

“The best way to get Saddam to come into compliance with UN demands,” wrote Cheney in his memoir, In My Time, “was to convince him we would use force.” Prominent Democrats did not disagree. In early February 2002, Senator Joseph Biden, the Democratic chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, held hearings dealing with the State Department’s request for the 2003 budget. Secretary Powell emphasized that the War on Terror was his No. 1 priority. There were regimes, Powell said, that not only supported terror but were developing WMDs. They “could provide the wherewithal to terrorist organizations to use these sorts of things against us.”

Biden asked whether this meant that the president was announcing a new policy of preemption, as foreign allies thought he was doing. After Powell denied this allegation, Biden proclaimed his own fears about the proliferation of WMDs, especially in Iraq. “I happen to be one that thinks that one way or another Saddam has got to go and it is likely to be required to have U.S. force to have him go,” he said. “The question is how to do it, in my view, not if to do it.”

Intelligence reports over the following months did not ease Bush’s anxieties. What alarmed the president was new information that al-Qaeda was seeking biological and chemical weapons, alongside the knowledge that Iraq had had them and used them.

In late May 2002, analysts reported that al-Qaeda operatives were moving into Baghdad, including the high-ranking jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. “Other individuals associated with al-Qaida,” the head of the State Department’s intelligence office informed Powell, “are operating in Baghdad and are in contact with colleagues who, in turn, may be more directly involved in attack planning.” Since 9/11, there had been little al-Qaeda activity in Iraq, and experts disagreed about the nature of the relationship between the Iraqi dictator and Osama bin Laden. Hardly anyone thought Iraq had anything to do with 9/11, but, according to a postwar Senate investigation, there were “a dozen or so reports of varying reliability mentioning the involvement of Iraq or Iraqi nationals in al-Qa’ida’s efforts to obtain” chemical- and biological-warfare training.

Al-Zarqawi was a known terrorist, a Jordanian who had fought in Afghanistan, met with bin Laden, and managed his own training camps in Herat. Already notorious for his toughness, radicalism, and barbarity, he lusted to wreak revenge on Americans. Reports of al-Zarqawi’s presence in Iraq came shortly before U.S. policy makers received information about an Iraqi procurement agent’s activity in Australia. Allegedly, this agent was seeking to buy GPS software that would allow the regime to map American cities. Might the Iraqi dictator be plotting a WMD attack inside the United States?

Al-Zarqawi was also collaborating with Ansar al-Islam, an Islamist extremist group that was battling a mainline Kurdish party for control of northeastern Iraq. A small CIA team had infiltrated the region near the city of Khurmal and reported in July that al-Zarqawi had begun experimenting with biological and chemical agents that terrorists could put in ventilation systems. According to one of the CIA agents, “they were full-bore on biological and chemical warfare … They were doing a lot of testing on donkeys, rabbits, mice, and other animals.”

In Washington, the Joint Chiefs of Staff favored military action in Khurmal. So did Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz. They did not believe that al-Qaeda would be in Iraq—even a part not controlled by Hussein—without the dictator’s acquiescence. Their suspicions grew when information placed al-Zarqawi and other al-Qaeda fighters in Baghdad. The CIA agents in Iraq saw no evidence that the al-Qaeda operatives were linked to Hussein, but everyone they spoke with believed that Hussein had WMDs.

Bush said he would act with “deliberation,” employing only the best intelligence. But the intelligence was murky, leading to contentious assessments, conflicting judgments, and uncertain recommendations. Sometimes, the president overstated the evidence he had. Hussein’s a threat, Bush told the press corps in November 2002, “because he is dealing with al-Qaeda.” Although this was an exaggeration, Bush did know that al-Zarqawi had been in Baghdad, had links to al-Qaeda, and was experimenting with biological and chemical weapons. And he knew that Hussein supported suicide bombings and celebrated their “martyrs.”

Bush chose not to authorize military action in Khurmal. On July 31, he told Blair that he had not yet decided on war—that he might give the Iraqi dictator one more chance to abide by his promises to allow inspections and destroy his weapons of mass destruction. At the same time, however, the president instructed General Franks to proceed with his war planning.

Although Bush had not resolved whether he meant to disarm or depose the Iraqi dictator, he mobilized public and congressional support for his policies. In October, the House approved a resolution authorizing him to use military force, by a vote of 296–133, and the Senate did the same, 77–23. The political effort in Washington was matched by a diplomatic one in New York. On November 8, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1441, which demanded inspections and stipulated that the Iraqi regime was already in breach of past resolutions. In the administration’s view, this provided justification for the U.S. to take unilateral action if it chose to do so.

Bush was practicing coercive diplomacy, hoping to achieve his goals through intimidation. “We were giving Saddam one final choice,” his British partner in this policy, Blair, explained in 2011. If Hussein proved recalcitrant, the president’s credibility—and America’s—would be at risk, in which case coercive diplomacy would have to end with a military intervention. The costs of that intervention, however, had not been calculated.

Bush did want a free, democratic Iraq to emerge if he resorted to military action, but he had spent little time discussing the institutions, policies, and expenditures that would be required to translate the liberation of Iraq into a better life for its citizens. In a meeting with General Franks, Bush asked, “Can we win?”

“Yes, sir,” said Franks.

“Can we get rid of Saddam?” the president asked again.

“Yes, sir,” said his general.

The president did not ask, “What then?”

After the invasion turned into a chaotic, dysfunctional occupation and Iraq’s alleged WMDs were not found, Bush instructed his director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet, to establish a special mission named the Iraq Survey Group to investigate what had happened to these deadly armaments. The group’s first director, David Kay, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee on January 28, 2004: “Let me begin,” he admitted, “by saying that we were almost all wrong” about Iraqi WMD programs. Though chastened by the misreading of Iraqi capabilities, Kay did not think that intelligence analysts had misled policy makers about the fundamental threat. “I think the world is far safer with the disappearance and removal of Saddam Hussein.”

The survey group’s second chief, Charles Duelfer, oversaw part of the interrogation of Saddam Hussein after U.S. forces captured him in December 2003. Duelfer dwelled on Hussein’s “controlling presence.” Hussein “was not a cartoon,” Duelfer emphasized. “He was catastrophically brilliant and extremely talented in a black, insidious way,” much like Joseph Stalin, the leader whom Hussein most wanted to emulate. And his aspirations were clear: to thwart Iran, defeat Israel, and dominate the region. To achieve these goals, Hussein yearned to acquire WMDs.

That was Duelfer’s conclusion when, in September 2004, he delivered the final, comprehensive report of the survey group. The evidence appeared conclusive: Iraq did not have WMD stockpiles, nor any active programs. But “it was very clear,” Duelfer later wrote in his memoir, Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq, “that Saddam complied with UN disarmament restrictions only as a tactic.” Hussein’s overriding objectives, the survey group affirmed, were to bring sanctions to an end and to move ahead with securing WMDs. “Virtually” no senior Iraqi leader “believed that Saddam had forsaken WMD forever.” Denied his desire to be executed by firing squad, Hussein was hanged in prison on December 30, 2006.

Bush decided, initially, to confront Hussein—not invade Iraq. The president feared another attack, one perhaps even more dire than 9/11. Rogue states like Iraq, Bush worried, might share the world’s deadliest weapons with terrorists who desperately wanted to inflict pain on America, puncture its air of invincibility, undermine its institutions, and make Americans doubt the value of their freedoms.

Yet fear alone did not shape the president’s strategy. Bush’s faith in American might was equally important. From the outset of his administration, he aimed to expand American military capabilities, which already far exceeded those of any other nation. The use of airpower, special forces, and new technologies to expel the Taliban from Kabul in 2001 reinforced his sense of strength. America’s reach appeared to have no bounds. Washington, he felt, must not be dissuaded from helping its friends and protecting its interests, especially in regions harboring crucial raw materials and energy reserves. The U.S. had the power to do so and needed to demonstrate it.

Fear and power were reinforced by hubris. Bush insisted that all people wanted to live by American values—to be free to say what they pleased and pray as they wished. If the United States overthrew a brutal dictator, American officials could take satisfaction in knowing that they were enriching the lives of his benighted subjects.

Spurred by fear, growing confidence in American power, and a sense of moral virtue, Bush embraced coercive diplomacy. The strategy was appealing because almost everyone surrounding Bush believed that Hussein’s defiance would not cease until he was confronted by superior force. But the strategy was adopted without a clear goal—regime change or WMD elimination.

When, after the invasion, those weapons were not found, Bush shifted to a more ideological discourse. “The failure of Iraq democracy,” he warned, “would embolden terrorists around the world … Success will send forth the news, from Damascus to Teheran—that freedom can be the future of every nation.” When the U.S. got locked in an insurrectionary struggle and Islamic fundamentalism surged, neither Bush’s goals nor his strategy appeared to make sense. His critics mocked his naivete, accused him of dishonesty, and ridiculed his democratic zealotry.

These critics underestimated Bush’s qualities and misconstrued his thinking. Bush failed not because he was a weak leader, a naive ideologue, or a manipulative liar. He was always fully in charge of the administration’s Iraq policy, and he did not rush to war. He went to war not to make Iraq democratic but to remove a murderous dictator who intended to restart his weapons programs, supported suicide missions, and cultivated links with terrorist groups (even if not, actually, al-Qaeda).

In those narrow aims, Bush succeeded. Another attack on American soil did not occur and he did eliminate a brutal, erratic, and dangerous tyrant. But he did not achieve that at an acceptable cost. The war proved catastrophic for Iraq. Over the ensuing years, more than 200,000 Iraqis perished as a result of the war, insurrection, and civic strife, and more than 9 million people—about a third of the prewar population—were internally displaced or fled abroad.

The intervention also exacted a human, financial, economic, and psychological toll on the United States that hardly anyone had foreseen. The war enhanced Iranian power in the Persian Gulf, diverted attention and resources from the ongoing struggle inside Afghanistan, divided America’s European allies, and provided additional opportunity for China’s rise and Russia’s revanchism. The conflict besmirched America’s reputation and heightened anti-Americanism. It fueled the sense of grievance among Muslims, accentuated perceptions of American arrogance, complicated the struggle against terrorism, and dampened hopes for democracy and peace among Arabs and Jews in the Middle East. Rather than having spread liberty, the president and his advisers left office witnessing the worldwide recession of freedom.

Fear, power, and hubris explain America’s march to war in Iraq. By thinking otherwise, by simplifying the story and believing that all would be well if we only had more honest officials, stronger leaders, and more realistic policy makers, we delude ourselves. Tragedy occurs not because our leaders are naive, stupid, and corrupt. Tragedy occurs when earnest and responsible officials try their best to make America safer and end up making things much worse. We need to ask why this happens. We need to appreciate the dangers that lurk when there is too much fear, too much power, too much hubris—and insufficient prudence.

This article is adapted from Confronting Saddam Hussein: George W. Bush and the Invasion of Iraq.