Last week, while watching Benjamin Netanyahu unveil secret information that supposedly proved that Iran is deceiving the world about its nuclear-weapons program, I had a flashback. It was to February 5, 2003, when then-Secretary of State Colin Powell unveiled secret information that supposedly proved that Iraq was deceiving the world about its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs. Like Netanyahu’s, Powell’s presentation was dramatic. He informed the United Nations Security Council that some of the material he was about to present came from “people who have risked their lives to let the world know what Saddam Hussein is really up to.” He went on to play a secretly recorded conversation of two Iraqi officials supposedly plotting to mislead weapons inspectors. He later presented a photo of bunkers that allegedly held “active chemical munitions” but were “clean when the inspectors get there.” Saddam, Powell insisted, wants “to give those [of] us on this Council the false impression that the inspection process was working.” Powell’s presentation was designed to prove that it was not.
The parallels between that moment and this one are uncanny. In both cases, American leaders feared that a longtime Middle Eastern adversary was breaking free of the fetters that had previously restrained it. In both cases, American leaders pursued a more confrontational policy, which they buttressed with frightening statements about the regime’s nuclear program. In both cases, international inspectors contradicted those alarmist claims. In both cases, America’s European allies defended the inspectors and warned of the chaos America’s confrontational policy might bring. In both cases, hawks in America and Israel responded by trying to discredit the inspection regime. And in both cases, two leaders of that effort were John Bolton and Benjamin Netanyahu.
Obviously, there are differences between then and now. In 2003, the United States government wanted war. Today, it wants to undo a diplomatic agreement. In 2002, the Israeli government (as opposed to Netanyahu, who was for much of that year a private citizen) was wary of America’s confrontational policy.* Today, the Israeli government is aggressively lobbying for it. But while history is not repeating itself, it is rhyming in remarkable ways. Which raises a disturbing question: How is it possible—15 years after the launch of one the greatest catastrophes in American history—that so many of the assumptions that guided America’s march to war in Iraq still dominate American foreign policy today?
Answering that question requires remembering the history that Netanyahu, Bolton, and their political and journalistic allies would likely prefer that Americans forget. Powell’s presentation constituted a key moment in the struggle between the Bush administration and international weapons inspectors. President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had taken office convinced that Saddam Hussein—who had spent most of the 1990s subjected to international sanctions and weapons inspections—was breaking free of the constraints that kept him from rebuilding his weapons programs and menacing his neighbors. The sanctions regime was fraying. Inspectors had left Iraq in 1998 after Saddam restricted their access. The answer, they concluded, was regime change.
Empowered by the belligerent public mood following 9/11, and America’s apparent success in toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Bush administration in 2002 turned to that goal. Cheney worried that sending weapons inspectors back into Iraq would complicate the path to war. “Saddam,” he warned in August, “has perfected the game of cheat and retreat, and is very skilled in the art of denial and deception. A return of inspectors would provide no assurance whatsoever of his compliance with UN resolutions.” Netanyahu, no longer in government after having lost his bid for reelection as Israeli prime minister, agreed. “It is not very difficult,” he testified to Congress that September, “to deceive inspectors.” In a Wall Street Journal op-ed later that month, he warned that because Saddam had constructed “centrifuges the size of washing machines … even free and unfettered inspections will not uncover these portable manufacturing sites of mass death.”
But under pressure from British Prime Minister Tony Blair to seek United Nations support, Bush in November procured a Security Council resolution demanding that Iraq allow “immediate, unimpeded, unconditional, and unrestricted access” to international weapons inspectors or face “serious consequences.” And late that month, two groups of inspectors—one from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which focused on Saddam’s nuclear program, and another, called UNMOVIC, which focused on his chemical and biological programs—returned to Iraq.
What followed was an extraordinary diplomatic drama. Germany and France tried to help the inspectors verify whether Saddam was pursing weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration, eager for war, insisted they could not.
On December 21, the inspectors issued their first report. While criticizing Saddam for not being more transparent about his past activities, they claimed to be making progress. The IAEA said it had conducted 68 inspections. UNMOVIC reported that it had visited 44 sites. But the Bush administration, which had begun deploying troops and weaponry to the Persian Gulf, was already getting impatient. The inspectors’ second report was due on January 27. On January 9, John Bolton—a Cheney ally who before joining the Bush administration had attacked the “discredited idea that U.N. weapons inspectors can eliminate Iraq’s ability to produce weapons of mass destruction”— declared that “There’s no doubt if [the inspectors] had enough people in Iraq, if they had enough facilities, that they would find the hidden weapons of mass-destruction production facilities and dual-use items that Iraqis still possess. If they’re not able to do that by the 27th, then we’ll have to take that into account.” In other words, if inspectors don’t find the WMD by January 27th, they will have proved themselves useless. Privately, Bush was blunter: “The inspections are not getting us there.”
On January 27, Hans Blix—the Swedish diplomat who led UNMOVIC—reported that his inspectors had visited more than 230 sites and should be able to verify Iraq’s disarmament “within a reasonable time.” Mohamed ElBaradei—the Egyptian official who led the IAEA—said his inspectors had visited 109 sites. “We have to date found no evidence that Iraq has revived its nuclear-weapons programme,” he declared, and promised that “we should be able within the next few months to provide credible assurance that Iraq has no nuclear-weapons programme.”
Irate, Bush told Powell—the most internationally esteemed member of his national-security team—to publicly undermine the inspectors’ reports and prove that Saddam was still pursuing WMD. But even after Powell’s dramatic, 75-minute UN speech, the inspectors and their European defenders held firm. In his next report, on February 14, Blix rebutted Powell’s claim that Iraq was moving its WMD before inspectors arrived. “All inspections were performed without notice,” he explained, “and access was almost always provided promptly.” ElBaradei reiterated that, “We have to date found no evidence of ongoing prohibited nuclear-related activities in Iraq.” On March 5, Germany, France, and Russia issued a joint statement declaring that they “resolutely support Messrs Blix and El Baradei” and “observe that these inspections are producing increasingly encouraging results.”
Bush had had enough. On March 17, in a primetime speech, he told the American people that the inspectors had been “systematically deceived.” American intelligence, he insisted, “leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.” Two days later, America invaded Iraq.
There’s a postscript to this story. In late 2004, a year and a half after the Iraq War began, ElBaradei—who would soon win the Nobel Peace Prize for his work leading the IAEA—learned that the Bush administration was trying to deny him a third term as head of the Agency. In its effort to find incriminating information, the United States even tapped ElBaradei’s phone. The effort’s ringleader: John Bolton. In his memoir, ElBaradei accuses Bolton, who had “consistently worked behind the scenes to discredit the IAEA,” of having “launched a campaign to block my reappointment.” But by late 2004, the focus of Bolton’s ire had changed. He was no longer attacking ElBaradei and the IAEA for ignoring Baghdad’s nuclear ambitions. He was attacking them for ignoring Tehran’s. ElBaradei, Bolton declared in 2007, after leaving the Bush administration, was “an apologist for Iran.”
Fast forward 11 years. Bolton is back in government as Donald Trump’s national-security adviser. Netanyahu is again Israel’s prime minister. And they are making the same arguments about the futility of the international inspections regime in Iran that they once made about the futility of the international inspections regime in Iraq.
Their argument begins, once again, with the claim that a fearsome adversary is breaking free of the constraints that previously held it in check. In the run-up to the Iraq War, Bolton warned that because of weakening international sanctions and a feckless Clinton administration, Saddam “represents a serious and growing security threat.” Earlier this month, Netanyahu’s Ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, declared that, “as all the sanctions were removed, as all the money has flowed into Iran” because of the nuclear deal, “now you see Iran marching through the Middle East.” Bolton last year claimed that, “Tehran is trying to cement an arc of control from its own territory, through Baghdad-controlled Iraq and Mr. Assad’s Syria, to Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon.” The irony, which neither Netanyahu nor Bolton acknowledge, is that Iran’s growing regional strength stems in large measure from the Iraq War they championed, which turned Iraq from a bulwark against Iranian power into a close Iranian ally.
As with Iraq, Bolton and Netanyahu want the United States to meet this supposedly growing threat with a more confrontational policy. Key to that policy shift is withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal, which would leave the U.S. free to reimpose sanctions, and perhaps, as Bolton has suggested, even bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities.
And, as with Iraq, it’s easier for Bolton and Netanyahu to achieve that goal if they discredit the current system of international inspections. Bolton has called the inspection efforts established by the Iran nuclear deal “fatally inadequate” and declared that “the International Atomic Energy Agency” is “likely missing significant Iranian [nuclear] facilities.” In his 2015 speech to Congress attacking the Iran deal, Netanyahu insisted that “Iran not only defies inspectors, it also plays a pretty good game of hide-and-cheat with them.”
Netanyahu and Bolton’s problem, as with Iraq, is that the inspectors don’t think they’re being cheated. ElBaradei’s successor as director general of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano, has said his organization “now has the world’s most robust verification regime in place in Iran.” The IAEA has certified Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal nine times. And, as in 2003, key European governments are defending the inspectors. Earlier this month, the French Foreign Ministry called the inspection effort in Iran “one of the most exhaustive and robust regimes in the history of nuclear nonproliferation.”
That’s the narrative that Netanyahu—like Powell in 2003—went before the cameras last week to undermine. Like Powell, Netanyahu claimed the weapons inspectors had been duped. Israeli intelligence, he declared, had found “new and conclusive proof” that Iran “didn’t come clean to the IAEA, as required by the nuclear deal.” After Netanyahu’s presentation, Dermer—who can be seen sitting behind Netanyahu in 2002 as Netanyahu testified to Congress about the inadequacy of weapons inspections in Iraq—told CNN’s Erin Burnett that, “The inspections regime in Iran, Erin, is a joke.”
Netanyahu is likely right that Iran hasn’t “come clean” to the IAEA about its past nuclear activities. In 2002, Hans Blix said much the same about Iraq’s incomplete statements about its past WMD programs. But now, as then, inspectors deny that evasion about past nuclear activities equals evasion about current nuclear activities. In fact, international inspectors responded to Netanyahu’s presentation much as they had to Powell’s: By denying that the information constituted anything particularly new.
They’re right. Just as the Bush administration could not prove that Iraq was still pursuing a nuclear-weapons program in 2003, the Netanyahu and Trump administrations cannot prove that Iran is pursuing one today. So, like the Bush administration, they keep shading the truth.
In his presentation last week, Netanyahu cited a secret Iranian nuclear program called Project Amad (which the IAEA had reported on in 2011). The project had been shuttered, he claimed, but “today, in 2018, this work is carried out by SPND, that’s an organization inside Iran’s Defense Ministry.” The implication is that Iran’s nuclear-weapons project continues; all that has changed is its name. But Netanyahu offered no evidence of that. And in the materials his aides distributed to journalists, the present tense was removed.
Similarly, Bolton has repeatedly declared—despite the IAEA’s findings and without proof—that Iran is still actively seeking nuclear weapons. Last September, he said, “Iran’s program continues unhindered.” This March, he spoke about Iran’s “continued effort to get deliverable nuclear weapons.” Which helps explain why the Trump administration keeps suggesting the same thing. After Netanyahu’s presentation, the White House issued a statement declaring that “Iran has a robust, clandestine nuclear-weapons program.” It later changed “has” to “had,” but Trump himself keeps using the present tense. Asked about Netanyahu’s presentation, he declared, “I’ve been saying it’s happening. They’re not sitting back idly.”
How is this possible? How is it possible that Trump—who during the presidential campaign boasted about his supposed opposition to the Iraq War—has now embraced an outlook so similar to the one that guided Bush in 2002 and 2003? How can Bolton and Netanyahu remain unrepentant about their role in promoting war with Iraq and yet be taken seriously when they make similar arguments about the supposed nuclear threat from Iran? Why can’t America learn from its recent past?
There’s no single answer. Part of the explanation is partisanship. Politics is today such a team sport that people often downplay or overlook even the grossest offenses by their own side. More than 60 percent of Republicans, according to a March Pew Research Poll, think the United States was right to invade Iraq. George W. Bush’s approval rating among Republicans, according to a January CNN poll, is 76 percent. I suspect that those numbers reflect tribal loyalty more than any considered judgment about the war’s impact. But they make it easy for Republican officials to claim, as Bolton does, that the real mistake wasn’t Bush’s decision to send troops to Iraq but Obama’s decision to withdraw them. Since many Republicans won’t even admit the Iraq war was wrong, it’s hard to apply its lessons to the current debate over Iran. It’s particularly hard since doing so would mean admitting not only that Bush was wrong in waging war with Iraq but that Obama was right in striking a deal with Iran. When was the last time you heard Trump admit that Obama was right about anything?
The second reason Bolton and Netanyahu can so easily recycle the arguments they made about Iraq in the current debate about Iran is the influence of pro-Israel sentiment in American foreign-policy debate. Whether you believe that sentiment is the result of organized lobbying groups, both Jewish and non-Jewish, or a deep-seated public affinity for the Jewish state (I think it’s a mixture of both), the fervent commitment to Israel’s security creates a natural constituency for any hardline stance against Israel’s greatest adversary, Iran. More than any foreign leader except perhaps the prime minister of Britain, an Israeli prime minister enters America’s foreign-policy debates with a reservoir of goodwill that makes him hard to discount, no matter how wrong he’s been in the past.
The third reason for America’s inability to apply the lessons of Iraq to the current debate over Iran is the media, especially television. It’s rare to see non-Americans on political talk shows. That matters because non-Americans overwhelmingly think pulling out of the Iran deal is nuts. And non-Americans are more likely to raise fundamental questions about American nuclear policy—like why America isn’t pushing for inspections of Israel’s nuclear program, and why America keeps demanding that other nations denuclearize while building ever more nuclear weapons of its own. A more international foreign-policy debate would help Americans to see how insular, self-interested, and hypocritical Bolton and Netanyahu’s views actually are. It might also expose Americans to some of the experts who understand nuclear inspections best. When was the last time you saw Mohamed ElBaradei, Hans Blix, or Yukio Amano on cable?
Television interview shows also focus obsessively on the news of the moment. When Bolton or Netanyahu go on a Sunday show to peddle their current views on Iran, they can be confident they won’t be questioned much about their past views on Iraq. Thus, viewers hear arguments that sound reasonable in isolation without realizing that they’ve already proved disastrous in practice.
I’m not suggesting that political talk shows only book politicians and pundits who’s past predictions have been proven right. (Since I myself supported the Iraq War, I’d fail that test myself.) I’m suggesting that they ask politicians and pundits to reflect on what they’ve learned. If they merely did that, Bolton and Netanyahu’s current arguments about Iran would sound very different than they do now.
It would be comforting to believe that those arguments, which once helped lead to tragedy, are returning merely as farce. But they’re not. Withdrawing from the nuclear deal could easily put the United States or Israel, or both, on the path to war with Iran. As long as John Bolton and Benjamin Netanyahu retain their current influence, another Middle Eastern war is entirely possible. Where it might lead is anyone’s guess. The greatest current threat to American national security is not Iran, North Korea, or ISIS. It’s amnesia. And Americans need a strategy to fight it.
* This article originally misstated the year when Netanyahu was a private citizen. We regret the error.