Path of Lies: 9/11 to Iraq
On the second anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, George Bush will publicly mourn the nearly 3,000 men and women we lost on that terrible day. But there are others who have paid an equally high price for that tragedy whose names the president is not likely to include in his speeches. The 288 American soldiers and countless Iraqis who have since died in a pointless, bloody war will not be mentioned, nor will the administration's own responsibility in their deaths.
For those in the White House who have long supported regime change in Baghdad, the national tragedy was a window of opportunity through which they aggressively, repeatedly, and ruthlessly rammed their plans for a spectacular sequel to the first Gulf War.
The story of the war in Iraq begins on Sept. 11. It is a story of how a small group of men within the Bush administration led a frightened nation down a long, treacherous road from Ground Zero to a bloody, no-exit war on the streets of Baghdad.
Turning Tragedy into War
Until 9/11, despite Saddam's many excesses, there was simply no cosmic argument to spend precious taxpayer money to overthrow a blustering paper tiger who roared and ranted as he paced behind his bars. But then the twin towers came crashing down, and "changed everything."
In the aftermath, even many liberals discovered their inner hawks, beating their chests in rage and seeking hot, bloody revenge against the murderers. Shocked out of their post-Cold War illusion of omnipotence, many Americans sought reassurance of their security, revenge on a hostile, invisible enemy, and affirmation of their own goodness. The White House offered them the perfect panacea to all their needs -- the endless war of terror, the new crusade that would wreak havoc on America's enemies.
The Iraq war, however, was no gimme. To steer the balky U.S. citizenry and ship of state toward war with a country 6,000 miles away that most Americans saw as little more than a sad, battered joke would require a systematic campaign of carefully chosen lies.
To sell a war to the American people, presidents need at least two basic ingredients: self-defense and moral duty. In terrorism, the Bush administration found the perfect enemy -- shadowy, insubstantial, and infinitely malleable to interpretation. In his 2002 State of the Union speech, flushed with the resounding victory in Afghanistan, Bush proclaimed: "Thousands of dangerous killers, schooled in the methods of murder, often supported by outlaw regimes, are now spread throughout the world like ticking time bombs, set to go off without warning. ... So long as training camps operate, so long as nations harbor terrorists, freedom is at risk and America and our allies must not, and will not, allow it."
Forget the Taliban. It was now time for a full-blown "axis of evil" -- a wish-list of targets who could be picked off one by one in this unending war.
Unfortunately for Saddam, Iraq was number one on the list. Within four days of the 9/11 attacks, the gears were already in motion. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told the President and his assembled National Security Council that there simply weren't enough good targets to hit in Afghanistan.
Why not target Iraq as well, he suggested.
Over the coming year, the Bush administration would work to convince the American public that: one, Saddam has already attacked the United States through his connections with Al Qaeda; and two, he plans to do so again using his biological and chemical weapons, or if we waste any more time, a nuclear bomb.
The leading members of the administration would continually string together "9/11," "Al-Qaeda," and "Iraq" in the same sentence, rarely making a direct connection, but always implying it. When Sen. Mark Dayton, of the Senate Armed Services Committee, asked Donald Rumsfeld why the U.S. needed to invade Iraq "now," he snapped back, "What's different? What's different is 3,000 people were killed."
The lie proved highly effective. Shortly before Congress voted to authorize U.S. military action against Iraq, a CBS News poll found 51 percent of Americans believed that Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks, and soon afterwards, the Pew Research Center reported that two-thirds of the U.S. public agreed that "Saddam Hussein helped the terrorists in the Sept. 11 attacks."
While establishing Saddam's credentials as a bona fide WMD-carrying terrorist required the "imaginative" use of intelligence, the moral card was much easier to play in the post-9/11 era. The national tragedy brought out the less attractive side of American exceptionalism: the need to objectify entire nations as "evil." Whatever the motives for war, we Americans have always needed to believe in our essential goodness in waging it. That's why Ronald Reagan described the Soviet Union as the "evil empire." Not coincidentally, the words, "evil" and "evildoers," became the hallmark of a Bush speech after 9/11, especially when he spoke of foreign policy.
If the looming threat of a bomb-dealing Saddam and self-inflated moral rhetoric were not enough to seal the deal with the American people, the Bush White House also threw in an added incentive: The invasion of Iraq was not just necessary and good; it would also be a "cakewalk."
The stupendous military success of the war in Afghanistan, buttressed by the seemingly easy-as-pie Gulf War, had left Americans under the dangerous impression that they could simply bomb countries into submission; that missiles could not just win the war but also impose the peace. We had become accustomed to television wars, carefully sanitized of bloodshed and loss, thanks to the media's infatuation with the Pentagon's high-tech gadgetry.
If the desire for blood fueled support for the Afghan war, the ease of victory made such support easier to marshal the next time around. Unlike the first Gulf War, a majority (58 percent) of Americans supported invading Iraq on the eve of war -- despite reservations about the costs of going it alone. The 9/11 attacks only hardened our blind faith in the power of Predator drones, Tomahawk missiles and NightHawk fighters -- technology would set us free. All we needed to conquer our fears was the right kind of smart bomb.
Betrayal of Faith
Of all the lies this administration has told its people, one false promise resonated most deeply with frightened Americans -- the promise that a war with Iraq would make us safer.
On the second anniversary of the terrorist attacks, the high price of betrayal is painfully obvious. The reality is that the billions of dollars and hundreds of lives lost in the Iraq war have left Americans more vulnerable than ever. Not only has the war in Iraq not advanced the fight against terrorism, it has helped Al-Qaeda to regroup and recover. While Iraq remains in chaos, terrorist cells are regrouping in Afghanistan and along its border with Iran. There is no doubt that many of them will try to find their way into Iraq.
The White House is right in describing the U.S. presence as a "terrorist magnet." As former Clinton national-security official Jessica Stern pointed out in the New York Times, "America has taken a country that was not a terrorist threat and turned it into one." The president who taunted the terrorists to "bring 'em on" -- from the safety of the White House -- has turned his soldiers into human bait. Poorly manned and equipped, they are mired in a country that may become the epicenter of a global war.
In the months to come, the president will no doubt make the necessary adjustments to resuscitate his plunging approval numbers. Perhaps the U.S. will broker a deal with the United Nations, soothe our allies, and put an Iraqi face on the occupation to bring more of our soldiers home. But neither he nor the ideologues who surround him are willing to take responsibility for betraying a nation in its greatest hour of need. Not once has Bush admitted any error or wrongdoing -- or the high price the rest of us are paying for his failure. It is now clear that the greatest obstacle in the very real war against global terrorism is the president himself.
This article is adapted from the forthcoming book "The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us about Iraq" by Christopher Scheer, Robert Scheer and Lakshmi Chaudhry. The book is due out in early October via Seven Stories Press and Akashic Books in conjunction with AlterNet and in part supported by AlterNet readers.