The following essay by Chalmers Johnson, author of Blowback, is adapted from his upcoming book about American militarism, The Sorrows of Empire: How the Americans Lost Their Country (forthcoming in late 2003 from Metropolitan Books). It first appeared on www.tomdispatch.com , a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, a long time editor in publishing, the author of The End of Victory Culture, and a fellow of the Nation Institute.”
“‘From a marketing point of view,’ said Andrew H. Card, Jr., the White House chief of staff on the rollout this week of the campaign for a war with Iraq, ‘you don’t introduce new products in August.’” — New York Times, September 7, 2002
“After all, this is the guy [Saddam Hussein] who tried to kill my dad.” — President George W. Bush, at Houston, September 26, 2002
In the hours immediately following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asked for plans to be drawn up for an American assault on Iraq. The following day, in a cabinet meeting at the White House, Rumsfeld again insisted that Iraq should be “a principal target of the first round in the war against terrorism.”(1) The president allegedly replied that “public opinion has to be prepared before a move against Iraq is possible,” and instead chose Afghanistan as a much softer target.
These statements and their timing, are noteworthy because the United States had not even determined that the suicide bombers came from Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network and it has never published any evidence that al-Qaeda had any connection with Iraq. In fact, the 2001 edition of the U.S. Department of State’s annual report on Patterns of Global Terrorism does not list any acts of global terrorism linked to the government of Iraq. It was not until September 22, 2001 that Secretary of State Colin Powell promised to release to the press proof that al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were guilty of planning and executing the attacks on New York and Washington, and that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told CNN, “Clearly, we do have evidence, historical and otherwise, about the relationship of the al-Qaeda network to what happened on September 11.” But such evidence has never been forthcoming. Until passenger manifests revealed that the airliner hijackers were mostly from Saudi Arabia, I myself thought that the attacks could be blowback from American policies in any number of places. Rumsfeld’s early targeting of Iraq therefore suggests that the Bush administration has had a hidden agenda.
Ever since the first American war against Iraq, the “Gulf War” of 1991, the people in the White House and the Pentagon who planned and executed it have wanted to go back and finish what they started. They said so in reports written for then Secretary of Defense Cheney in the last years of the George H.W. Bush administration; and during the period when they were out of power, from 1992 to 2000, they drafted plans describing what they would do if the Republicans should retake the White House. In the spring of 1997, a number of them organized themselves as the “Project for the New American Century” (PNAC) and began to lobby for a regime change in Iraq.
In a letter to President Clinton dated January 26, 1998, they called for “the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime from power,” and in a letter dated May 29, 1998, to Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Senator Trent Lott, they complained that Clinton had not listened to them, reiterating their recommendation that Saddam Hussein be overthrown. They added, “We should establish and maintain a strong U.S. military presence in the region, and be prepared to use that force to protect our vital interests in the [Persian] Gulf-and, if necessary, to help remove Saddam from power.” The letters were signed by Donald Rumsfeld; William Kristol, editor of the right-wing Weekly Standard magazine and chairman of PNAC; Elliott Abrams, the convicted Iran-Contra conspirator whom Bush appointed director of Middle Eastern policy on the National Security Council in 2002; Paul Wolfowitz, now Rumsfeld’s deputy at the Pentagon; John Bolton, now undersecretary of state for arms control and international security; Richard Perle, now chairman of the Defense Science Board; William J. Bennett, President Reagan’s education secretary; Richard Armitage, now Colin Powell’s deputy at the State Department; Zalmay Khalilzad, former UNOCAL consultant and Bush’s ambassador to Afghanistan; and several other prominent American militarists. In addition to the letter-signatories, Dick Cheney; I. Lewis Libby, now Cheney’s chief of staff; Stephen Cambone, a Pentagon bureaucrat in both Bush administrations; and many others founded PNAC. They have made their ideas readily available in a September 2000 report entitled “Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces, and Resources for a New Century” and in a book edited by Robert Kagan and William Kristol, Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy. (2)
After George W. Bush became president, many of these men returned to positions of power in American foreign policy. For nine months, they bided their time. They were waiting, in the words of PNAC’s “Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” for a “catastrophic and catalyzing event-like a new Pearl Harbor” that would mobilize the public and allow them to put their theories and plans into practice. September 11 was, of course, precisely what they needed. Condoleezza Rice called together members of the National Security Council and asked them “to think about ‘how do you capitalize on these opportunities’ to fundamentally change American doctrine, and the shape of the world, in the wake of September 11th.” She said, “I really think this period is analogous to 1945 to 1947,” when fear and paranoia led the United States into its Cold War with the USSR. (3)
Still, the Bush administration could not just go to war with Iraq without tying it in some way to the 9/11 attacks. So it first launched an easy war against Afghanistan. There was at least a visible connection between Osama bin Laden and the Taliban regime, even though the United States contributed more to Osama’s development as a terrorist than Afghanistan ever did. Meanwhile, the White House launched one of the most extraordinary propaganda campaigns of modern times to convince the American public that an attack on Saddam Hussein should be a part of America’s “war on terrorism.” This attempt to whip up war fever, in turn, elicited an outpouring of speculation around the world on what were the true motives that lay behind President Bush’s obsession with Iraq.
The first and most obvious ploy of the warhawks was to claim, in the words of the president, “He [Saddam] possesses the most deadly arms of our age.” The problem with this argument is that it is probably not true and, even if true, suggests a need to disarm Iraq, not to wage a war to bring down Saddam Hussein. Iraq certainly had such weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) at one time, but between 1991 and 1998 a combination of the Gulf War, UN sanctions, and UN inspectors destroyed almost all or all of them and Iraq’s capabilities to produce more of them. In the words of Scott Ritter, “I bear personal witness through seven years as a chief weapons inspector in Iraq for the United Nations to both the scope of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs and the effectiveness of UN weapons inspectors in ultimately eliminating them.” (4) Never one to give up on any idea that might help his cause, Rumsfeld replied that “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” In fact, the PNAC was never much interested in Saddam’s WMDs except as a convenient excuse. “While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein,” went the relevant passage in “Rebuilding America’s Defenses.” (5)
The way the administration harped on the danger that Saddam would give nuclear weapons to “evil-doers” began to look like a story from the first Iraq war about how Iraqi soldiers had pulled babies from Kuwait’s hospital incubators and, in President Bush pÃ¨re’s words, “scattered them across the floor like firewood.” He made this comment a few days before the UN, on November 29, 1990, authorized the use of “all means necessary” to eject Iraq from Kuwait. After the war it was revealed that Kuwait had hired the big Washington public relations firm of Hill & Knowlton to peddle this story, and on October 10, 1990, arranged for an alleged eyewitness to testify before Congress that it had actually happened. The witness turned out to be the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to Washington, who had not been anywhere near a hospital in Kuwait City in August 1990. Other “witnesses” who claimed to have seen Iraqi atrocities later acknowledged that they had all been coached by Hill and Knowlton. (6)
On October 7, 2002, President Bush contributed what was surely the weirdest of his “homicidal-dictator-with-WMDs” rationales for a war with Iraq. In a speech in Cincinnati, he first noted that “Saddam Hussein is a homicidal dictator who is addicted to weapons of mass destruction” and then warned that “Iraq has a growing fleet of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to disperse chemical and biological weapons across broad areas. We’re concerned that Iraq is exploring ways of using these [unmanned aerial vehicles] for missions targeting the United States.” Presumably Bush was here referring to the Czech L-29 jet training aircraft, 169 of which Iraq bought in the 1960s and 1980s. The L-29 is a single-engine, dual-seat airplane meant to be a basic flight trainer for novices, the Soviet bloc’s version of America’s Cessna. It has a range of about 840 miles and a top speed of around 145 miles per hour. There is some evidence that even before the Gulf war Iraq had experimented with converting these aircraft into unmanned aerial vehicles-but they may have been merely crop-dusters. (7) In any case, Bush did not explain how these slow-moving aircraft might reach Maine, the nearest point on the U.S. mainland, some 5,500 miles from Iraq, or why they would not be shot down the moment they crossed Iraq’s borders.
Another major Bush administration theme in calling for war against Iraq has been that Saddam secretly backed al-Qaeda in the terrorist attacks of September 11. In August 2002, Rumsfeld told Tom Brokaw on NBC News that “there are al-Qaeda in Iraq.” On September 26, 2002, he claimed that the U.S. government had “bulletproof” confirmation of links between Iraq and al-Qaeda members, including “solid evidence” that members of the terrorist network maintained a presence in Iraq. He went on to suggest that Iraq had offered safe haven to bin Laden and the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. In his October 11 speech, President Bush added that “some al-Qaeda leaders who fled Afghanistan went to Iraq.” Since the “solid evidence” has never been released, one must assume that Rumsfeld and Bush are referring to about 150 members of a group called Ansar al Islam (“Supporters of Islam”) who took refuge in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq. The problem is that America’s would-be Kurdish allies, not Saddam, control this area. There is no evidence of links between Saddam and Osama bin Laden, a point often made by the CIA, and such cooperation would be implausible given Osama’s religious commitments and Saddam’s ruthlessly secular regime, whose only object of worship is Saddam himself.
The only instance of Saddam’s support for anti-American terrorism was his alleged attempt to assassinate former President George H.W. Bush during his victory tour of Kuwait in mid-April, 1993. This is the origin of his son’s comment in a 2002 campaign speech that Saddam “tried to kill my dad.” On June 26, 1993, two and a half months after the attempt, President Clinton retaliated by firing cruise missiles into Baghdad, killing several innocent bystanders. However, the evidence strongly indicates that the assassination attempt never occurred and that Kuwaiti intelligence may have covered up its discovery of a smuggling ring working the Iraq-Kuwait border by claiming that the smugglers were after W’s daddy. (8)
Perhaps the least convincing of the official reasons for wanting to get rid of Saddam is the administration’s contention that he has no respect for UN resolutions. On September 30, 2002, Rumsfeld staged a show at the Pentagon featuring gun-camera footage of Iraqi antiaircraft artillery firing at American and British warplanes patrolling the no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq. Rumsfeld said, “With each missile launched at our air crews, Iraq expresses its contempt for the UN resolutions — a fact that must be kept in mind as their latest inspection offers are evaluated.” But Secretary Rumsfeld must know that no UN resolution (or other international authority) exists to legitimate the no-fly zones. The U.S., Britain, and France created them unilaterally in March 1991 in order to protect Kurds and Shi’ites who had risen in revolt against Saddam after the Gulf War. Although this stopped Saddam from using his air power, the Bush administration then stood by as he crushed the uprisings because it feared that a successful Kurdish revolt would destabilize its ally, Turkey, which has long been engaged in a ruthless suppression of its own Kurdish minority. France soon dropped out of the no-fly zone enforcement, but the U.S. and Britain have continued and, more recently, escalated their air attacks, although they are clearly illegal under international law. (9)
Then there is the administration’s assertion that overthrowing Saddam would bring democracy to Iraq and other countries around the Persian Gulf. In an interview with the Financial Times of London, Condoleezza Rice said that freedom, democracy, and free enterprise do not “stop at the edge of Islam” and that after toppling Saddam through the use of military force, the United States would be “completely devoted” to the reconstruction of Iraq as a unified, democratic state. (10) This sounds a bit like the U.S. military’s claim that, having pulverized Afghanistan with high-altitude bombing, it was really trying to liberate Afghan women from the Taliban. If the United States were truly interested in democracy in the Persian Gulf region, it might have begun long ago in Saudi Arabia or in any of the feudal monarchies in which it has built major American military garrisons — Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman.
Since none of these rationales for belligerence toward Iraq makes much sense, some observers around the world have looked elsewhere for the administration’s true motives. One prominent theory concerns Iraq’s oil. Its reserves are the second largest on earth after those of Saudi Arabia. Given that both the president and vice president are former oil company executives and that the president’s father, also a former president, was the founder, in 1954, of the Zapata Offshore Oil Company, it is reasonable to assume that these men are very familiar with Iraq’s oil wealth. The Zapata Company drilled the first well off Kuwait. In 1963, Bush pÃ¨re merged Zapata with another firm to create the oil giant, Pennzoil, and in 1966, he sold off his share, becoming a millionaire in the process. During 1998 and 1999, when Cheney was president of the Halliburton Company of Houston, Halliburton sold Saddam some $23.8 million of oil field equipment. Perhaps the reason Bush junior is obsessed with Iraq, according to this line of thought, is that he wants to seize its oil. The United States needs a lot of oil for its huge automotive sector and also has an interest in controlling other countries whose industrial life is equally dependent on imported petroleum. As Anthony Sampson, the oil expert and author of the classic book on the major oil companies, The Seven Sisters, observes, “Western oil interests closely influence military and diplomatic policies, and it is no accident that while American companies are competing for access to oil in Central Asia, the U.S. is building up military bases across the region.” (11)
The U.S. may be able to oust Saddam, but seizing Iraq’s oil is quite another matter. In any war the U.S. risks seeing Saddam order his oil fields set ablaze, as he did to Kuwait’s in 1991. This would have a powerful effect on short-term oil prices and on the economy of the United States. Perhaps more serious in the long run, France, Russia, China and other countries have multibillion dollar contracts with Saddam that entitle them to drill in Iraq’s oil fields. These contracts are currently in abeyance because of UN sanctions, but the countries holding them clearly want to protect their investments. They would not look kindly on the prospect that the U.S. might freeze them out. Perhaps there is nothing they can do in the face of an American military fait accompli, but extensive litigation, not extensive drilling, is certain if the U.S. does not accommodate their interests. The oil moguls in the White House are probably not giving much attention to this issue. They are mesmerized by thoughts of world domination based on their control of the main sources of oil.
Another popular theory holds that the primary influence on U.S. thinking about the Middle East is the ruling Likud Party of Israel. It is thought that the desire to oust Saddam Hussein reflects the long-range interests of Israeli rightists who want to ensure the country’s continuing regional military superiority. Many of the key figures in the second Bush administration and in PNAC have intimate connections with Likud. Among these are Richard Perle, chairman of the Defense Policy Board, which reports to deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz; Douglas Feith, assistant secretary of defense for policy, one of the Pentagon’s four most senior posts; and David Wurmser, special assistant to PNAC founder John Bolton, who is undersecretary of state for arms control in the Bush fils administration. They all have long records of opposing peace initiatives like the Camp David accords between Israel and the Palestinians, and calling for American wars not just against Iraq but also Israel’s other enemies Syria, Lebanon, and Iran.
Perle is a member of the board of the Jerusalem Post and author of the chapter “Iraq: Saddam Unbound” in the PNAC book Present Dangers. In private life, Feith is a partner in a small Washington law firm that specializes in representing Israeli munitions makers seeking tie-ups with American weapons industries. Before going to the State Department, Wurmser was head of Middle Eastern projects at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of the AEI-published book Tyranny’s Ally: America’s Failure to Defeat Saddam Hussein (1999), which has a foreword by Perle. During the Reagan administration, Feith served as special counsel to Perle, who was then assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. One other figure, Meyrav Wurmser, is David Wurmser’s wife and co-founder of the Middle East Media Research Institute (Memri), which translates and distributes stories from the Arab press that invariably portray Arabs in a bad light.
In July 1996, these four wrote a position paper for then-incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party entitled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm.” It called on Israel to repudiate the Oslo Accords as well as the underlying concept of “land for peace” and to permanently annex the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip. It also recommended that Israel advocate the elimination of Saddam Hussein as a first step toward regime changes in Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. In November 2002, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, also of the Likud Party, echoed these ideas when he urged the United States to turn to attacking or subverting the Iranian government as soon as it had finished with Saddam. There are many other officials and hangers-on of the second Bush administration who hold these or similar views. Given their well-known sympathies, it is not implausible to think that they are attempting to implement them under cover of the “war on terror.” (12)
Still another perfectly reasonable theory is that America’s war fever against Iraq is a concoction of shrewd political operators in the White House. It has been suggested that, whether the U.S. ultimately goes to war with Iraq or not, the campaign against Saddam Hussein was meant to influence domestic American politics and the November 2002 election. It was, according to several commentators, a case of the use of “weapons of mass distraction.” (13) Among the goals of these operatives were bolstering George W. Bush’s dubious legitimacy as president and distracting the American voters from his less-than-sterling record. Faced with 2002 midterm elections, the leaders of the Republican party were desperate to deflect discussion from issues like the president’s and vice-president’s close ties to the corrupt Enron Corporation, the huge and growing federal budget deficit, tax cuts that massively favor the rich, a severe loss of civil liberties under attorney general Ashcroft, the president’s shredding of the anti-ballistic missile and global warming treaties, and the embarrassing fact that al-Qaeda remained anything but a defeated group.
In this view, key White House political advisers Karl Rove and Andrew Card proved far more influential than either Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld or Secretary of State Powell. The evidence suggests that it was Rove who made the decision overruling the unilateralist hawks in the Pentagon and sending the president to the United Nations on September 12 to give a speech calling for renewed inspections in Iraq. Rove had discovered that American opinion was lukewarm on waging a war in the Middle East without allies. This perspective fits well with what we know of recent history. During the Vietnam War, Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon made their foreign policy decisions based almost exclusively on domestic political considerations rather than on grand strategy or intelligence estimates. (14) For George W. Bush, the strategy worked. A rarity in modern American political history, after two years in office, the party holding the White House increased its strength in Congress, gaining control of both houses.
I agree with aspects of each of these explanations. Oil, Israel, and domestic politics have all played a role in the Bush administration’s stance toward Iraq. But I feel the need to put them into a larger historical context. A second American-Iraqi war will also be the culmination of a process that began a half-century ago when the United States for the first time employed its Central Intelligence Agency secretly and illegally to overthrow a democratically elected government. The 1953 CIA-engineered coup d’Ã©tat against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq of Iran started a chain of events that included Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution of 1979 against the Shah and his patron, the United States. This revolution destroyed one of the “twin pillars” of American strategy in the Persian Gulf — cultivation of authoritarian, undemocratic client states in Saudi Arabia and Iran as sources of oil and bulwarks against Soviet influence. The Islamist revolution in Iran demanded a major reorientation of American foreign policy in the area. In that same year, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the United States covertly began to arm anti-Soviet Afghanis, as well as Osama bin Laden. This set in motion a complex series of realignments that would ultimately lead veterans of the anti-Soviet Afghan resistance to organize the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, against New York and Washington.
After the 1979 revolution in Iran, the United States decided to back the sworn opponent of the Islamic clerics who had come to power there — namely, Iraq’s secular tyrant Saddam Hussein. In September 1980, Saddam invaded Iran. When it looked like Iran might defeat him, the Reagan administration covertly began to supply him with satellite intelligence and weapons, including precursors for development of biological weapons and the basic ingredients for the chemical agents he used, in President Bush’s memorable words, “to gas his own people.” The Iraq-Iran war ended with a ghastly loss of life on both sides. In 1990, the U.S. allowed Saddam to think that it would tolerate his seizure of Kuwait. Every Iraqi leader since the 1920s has vowed to invade Kuwait and reunite it with Iraq, and Saddam was no exception. The U.S. then seized the opportunity posed by Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait to vastly expand its empire of military bases in the Persian Gulf. As the Middle East scholar Stephen Zunes observes, “The United States used Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait as an excuse to advance its long-desired military, political, and economic hegemony in the region.” (15) The attacks of September 11 have, in turn, given the United States a renewed opportunity to expand its power and influence in the region — this time potentially to use its new Persian Gulf bases to establish even more bases in the ancient territories between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq.
In short, I believe the true explanation for the American government’s planned second war with Iraq is the same as for its wars in the Balkans in 1999 and in Afghanistan in 2001-2002 — the inexorable pressures of imperialism and militarism. I agree with Jay Bookman, an editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, when he asks, “Why does the administration seem unconcerned about an exit strategy from Iraq once Saddam is toppled? Because we won’t be leaving. Having conquered Iraq, the United States will create permanent military bases in that country from which to dominate the Middle East, including neighboring Iran.” (16)
1. CBS News, as reported in New York Times, September 5, 2002, p. A10; Bob Woodward, Bush at War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002); and Chris Bury, “A Tortured Relationship: U.S.-Iraq relations, Part 2: War,” ABC News, September 18, 2002.
2. Robert Kagan and William Kristol, eds., Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2000).
3. PNAC, “Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” p. 51; and Nicholas Lemann, “The Next World Order,” New Yorker, April 1, 2002, p. 44. I am indebted to John Pilger for drawing my attention to the PNAC’s activities. See New Statesman, December 16, 2002.
4. Scott Ritter, “Is Iraq a True Threat to the U.S.?” Boston Globe, July 20, 2002.
5. PNAC, “Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” p. 14.
6. See Tom Regan, “When Contemplating War, Beware of Babies in Incubators,” Christian Science Monitor, September 6, 2002; and Associated Press, “Not All Iraq Claims Backed by Evidence,” December 22, 2002.
7 See Victoria Samson, “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: Iraq’s ‘Secret’ Weapon?” Center for Defense Information Terrorism Project, October 10, 2002.
8. The most important source on this subject is Seymour Hersh, “A Case Not Closed,” New Yorker, November 1, 1993.
9. Stephen Zunes, Tinderbox: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 2003), p. 86; Robert Dreyfuss, “Persian Gulf-or Tonkin Gulf?” The American Prospect, fol. 13, no. 23 (December 2002); and Eric Schmitt, “Pentagon Shows Videos of Iraq Firing At Allied Jets,” New York Times, October 1, 2002.
10. James Harding, Richard Wolffe, and James Blitz, “U.S. Will Rebuild Iraq as Democracy, Says Rice,” The Financial Times, September 22, 2002.
11. Anthony Sampson, “West’s Greed for Oil Fuels Saddam Fever,” The Observer, August 11, 2002.
12. See, inter alia, Brian Whitaker, “U.S. Thinktanks Give Lessons in Foreign Policy,” The Guardian, August 19, 2002; Jill Junnola, “Perspective: Who Funds Whom?” Energy Compass, October 4, 2002; Eric Margolis, “After Iraq, Bush Will Attack His Real Target,” The Trotonto Sun, November 10, 2002; Margolis, “Bush’s Mideast Plan: Conquer and Divide,” The Toronto Sun, December 8, 2002; Sandy Tolan, “Beyond Regime Change,” Los Angeles Times, December 1, 200; and Jim Lobe, “Neoconservatives Consolidate Control over U.S. Mideast Policy,” Foreign Policy in Focus, December 6, 2002.
13. Dan Plesch, “Weapons of Mass Distraction,” The Observer, September 29, 2002; and Brian J. Foley, “War Cries: Weapons of Mass Distraction,” CounterPunch, November 8, 2002.
14. The best source on this subject is Daniel Ellsberg, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (New York: Viking, 2002).
15. Zunes, Tinderbox, p. 85.
16. “The President’s Real Goal in Iraq,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, September 29, 2002.
Copyright Chalmers Johnson