Keeping track of the “real reason” for the invasion of Iraq can be quite a chore these days. The Bush administration doggedly maintains that its claims about weapons of mass destruction were legitimate. Yet a litany of apologists has scrambled for other explanations. As it became evident that Saddam’s deadly arsenal was unlikely to ever materialize, these defenders have argued that the invasion of Iraq wasn’t about the danger of Saddam’s imminent attack after all.
This political damage control can make for fascinating reading because, in proposing their alternative rationales, the hawks are not only revealing a lot about the warped ideology of unilateral military adventurism — they are making remarkable admissions about why there should be a public investigation into the president’s lies.
“WMD was never the basic reason for war. Nor was it the horrid repression in Iraq. Or the danger Saddam posed to his neighbors,” writes Daniel Pipes, a conservative columnist for The New York Post. All this should come as a surprise to the American people, who were called upon to invest confidence in each of these ideas. But having ruled out such leading justifications, Pipes goes on to explain that “The campaign in Iraq is about keeping promises to the United States or paying the consequences.”
His point is that, since Saddam Hussein had played cat-and-mouse with weapons inspectors for years, the United States had a right to take him out. Who cares whether he actually had any arsenal? The defiance alone set a precedent that was incompatible with the neoconservative project of projecting U.S. dominance.
“Keep your promises or you are gone. It’s a powerful precedent that U.S. leaders should make the most of,” says Pipes.
While this position may be an important premise for an imperial foreign policy, it’s not diplomatically tenable for the White House to argue it openly. Nor is it clear that the American people would have been willing to put soldiers’ lives on the line if the administration forthrightly admitted that there was no real danger in Iraq, only a petty thug who threatened our ability to look tough.
Thomas Friedman at The New York Times is more moderate than Pipes, but no less adamant a defender of the Iraq War. He, too, argues that the “real reason” for the invasion was America’s need to send a message to “the Arab-Muslim world.”
“Smashing Saudi Arabia or Syria would have been fine,” Friedman writes. “But we hit Saddam for one simple reason: because we could, and because he deserved it and because he was right at the heart of that world.”
Of course, Friedman admits that this rationale contradicts the “stated reason” for the attack: “I argued before the war,” he says, “that Saddam posed no [immediate] threat to America, and had no links with Al Qaeda, and that we couldn’t take the nation to war ‘on the wings of a lie.’”
Wings of a lie? With friends like that, who needs political enemies to call for a Congressional investigation?
Even those who hold closest to the Bush administration’s arguments have been forced to make some startling admissions. Kenneth Pollack, author of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, is no peacenik. Yet, even while contending that troops will find Saddam’s bombs, he admits that such weapons never justified quick action.
“Why was it necessary to put aside all of our other foreign policy priorities to go to war with Iraq in the spring of 2003?… [D]istressingly, there seems to be more than a little truth to claims that some members of the administration skewed, exaggerated and even distorted raw intelligence to coax the American people and reluctant allies into going to war against Iraq.
“Needless to say,” writes Pollack, “if the public felt Iraq was still several years away from acquiring a nuclear weapon rather than just a matter of months, there probably would have been much less support for the war.”
Are these the people White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer had in mind when he labeled critiques of the administration “conspiracy theories” and “nonsense”?
President Bush goes back and forth between claiming that we will certainly locate weapons of mass destruction in the future, and that such weapons have already been found. Poll numbers from the University of Maryland show that at least a third of Americans believe the latter idea, which the right-wing National Review characterizes as a “mistake” made by a “frustrated president.” Then again, 22 percent think that these weapons were actually deployed by Saddam Hussein during the conflict. The Bush administration has a clear self-interest in perpetuating this confusion. But that doesn’t mean the press corps should be playing along. When even the apologists are saying that the president led the country to war on false pretenses, reporters have ample reason to be searching the depths of the WMD scandal. And we all have reason to be outraged. Mark Engler, a writer based in New York City, can be reached via the web site http://www.DemocracyUprising.com. This article first appeared on TomPaine.com. Research assistance provided by Katie Griffiths.