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the iraq war decision

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In the end, say many close observers of the president, nothing is so characteristic of the man than his decision to launch a pre-emptive war in Iraq. All the threads of what defines him, all of what is fundamental in his character and personality, seems illuminated in this one decision on which he has staked his presidency. Here are the comments of New Yorker writer Nicholas Lemann, former Counterterrorism Coordinator Richard Clarke, and Bob Woodward, author of Bush at War and Plan of Attack. These excerpts are from their FRONTLINE interviews.


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bob woodward
Author of Bush at War and Plan of Attack.

…if you want to know who George Bush is, look at the Iraq war. It's his war. It was his decision. He went through a very long process. Considered lots of things. Maybe not all of the things that he should have considered.

But you ask anyone who's close to him, in his cabinet, in the White House, a friend. And they just jump and say, "This is a George Bush decision."

What does this decision tell you about him? Who is he? How does his mind work?

The first thing is that he is determined to solve problems. That he identifies. Once he is convinced something is a problem, if he has the power to solve it, he will try to solve it. And we know in my business, journalism, that you live in a world of doubt.

He has no doubt. I asked him. I said, "Do you have any doubt?" And I asked it in the starkest terms. Because Tony Blair had said when he gets hate mail saying, "My son died in your war, and I hate you," Blair said publicly "You can't get letters like that and not have doubt."

I read that to President Bush in the Oval Office, thinking he might even say, "Well you know, Blair's got a point." He just ignited and just said, "No doubt. I have no doubt." And I, as a reporter spent a lot of time looking for doubt, looking for that moment when he kneeled on the floor -- to see if it existed -- And, you know, asked for guidance or forgiveness or something. And I found no such moment.

Do you know anybody else who's that sure of himself?

I really don't. And Bush's argument is, it was a considered decision. It was necessary. That's his job. Only he had all the information and arguments. And in the end -- when you ask him, as I did, "How's history going to judge this?" he kind of shrugs. "History, we won't know. We'll all be dead."

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nicholas lemann
Political correspondent to The New Yorker.

…The big question -- why does he decide to invade Iraq?

First thing to say about the president's decision to invade Iraq is, we will not know for 100 years what really happened. You have to wait for all historical archives to be opened up. Even then, you may not completely know, because this is not a president who writes things down himself. What was the mix of his thoughts, we don't know.

It is clear that, even before 9/11, President Bush wanted Saddam Hussein out of power. President Clinton wanted Saddam Hussein out of power. But President Bush wanted it more, and in a more aggressive form. He said several times during the presidential campaign that he wanted Saddam Hussein out of power. He allied himself with people who thought that his father had made a mistake in not sending American troops during the first Gulf war onto Baghdad to take out Saddam Hussein.

He was highly aware of Saddam Hussein's fairly feeble and unsuccessful assassination attempt in 1993 on his father, when his father was visiting the Persian Gulf region, and he's referred to it repeatedly. So there's a bit of an element of revenge here. There's an element of just moral outrage over Saddam Hussein, an evil man, being in power.

There's an element, as there is often with this president, of thinking "My father wasn't quite tough enough in how he handled something, and I'm going to handle it in a tougher and more aggressive way." So this is all a kind of baseline.

I think in Washington, at the time, it's a testament to Bush's strength as president that he was able to take what had been a kind of fringe position -- that is, an invasion of Iraq -- and make it a mainstream position, almost on his own, by force of will. If you had gotten up in Washington at a dinner party in 2000 and said, "I think the United States should send a large armed force to Iraq, invade it, and conquer it, and occupy it," people would have thought you were nuts. If you objected to that course in the spring of 2003, people in Washington would have thought you were nuts.

It became the consensus, and you just felt the whole city move toward war. I suspect the people in the administration really persuaded themselves about the weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons; that it was possible, it might even be likely, and that if you waited, you couldn't do anything. That was the problem in North Korea and Iran. If you went in early, you could stop the nuclear capacity from being acquired in the first place. I don't know how much Bush thought that Saddam had to do with 9/11. I also think the idea of transforming the Middle East -- and this being the most plausible place to start -- was probably tremendously appealing to the president.

You would hear people in Washington who wanted war, say things like, "Well, it doesn't really matter which country we invade. We need to invade a country in the region and establish an American presence that would be analogous to the American presence in Germany during the Cold War." So I suspect that appealed to him a lot. Beyond that, there's a bit of an element of mystery to it. I think the idea was rattling around in his mind of somehow getting rid of Saddam Hussein when he took office. He had pretty much decided, certainly before 2003, probably sometime during 2002, that an invasion was the way to go.

In retrospect, a lot of people are saying, "Why didn't he perceive the risks?" Do you think he perceived the risks that he was taking on invading Iraq?

First of all, President Bush is a risk taker. And he does things, that put a lot into play, not especially carefully. A much less glamorous example is No Child Left Behind Act. I think one in five Americans is either a public school student, or a public school teacher. Maybe even one in four. It affects a huge part of the country enormously. It just isn't President Bush's way to say, "Well, wait a minute, if I'm going to be touching this many people's lives, I should really be careful about it." He wants to push, to get it.

Nobody thought that conquering Iraq, in the pure military sense, would be a big challenge. Everybody thought that would go fine, with some variation. So I think he felt confident, but had reason to feel confident about that. On the postwar, I suspect he just thought it was going to go a whole lot better than it's gone, and that he thought the people of Iraq will be grateful to be liberated. You know, peace will dawn.

The picture of chaos, which one heard a lot before the war, especially from old Iraq hands, came from a source the president tends not to take seriously -- establishmentarians, moderates, liberals, people like that. So I think he thought, "Oh, these are the same old voices of caution that you always hear, and that my father listened to in the Gulf War. I'm going to try something bolder. I just have a feeling it'll work." …


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Richard Clarke
Former coordinator for counterterrorism in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

…Do you have any indication that the president knows that he made a mistake? You're in touch with people back in the White House.

I think there are a lot of people in the White House who think mistakes were made. They tend to blame it on, "Oh, CIA made mistakes," or "Oh, the Pentagon made mistakes." They don't realize that the mistake was the president's mistake -- the president's mistake of going into Iraq when we didn't have to.

That was the president's mistake?

Yes. Only the president of the United States can decide to go to war. You can't blame it on his advisers. His advisers may have given him advice. But he's supposed to be able to tell the difference between good advice and bad advice on important issues like going to war.

You're supposed to reach out for advice on important issues beyond the little clique around him, supposed to test assumptions and ask, "What if it goes wrong? What are the unintended consequences? How does this idea of going to war with Iraq relate to our struggle against Islamic fundamentalism?"

Those questions were never asked. The biggest decision a president can make, the decision to go to war, was done without due diligence. And that's an appalling error, for which we're going to pay the price for a generation.

It seems to come back to the flaw in his management style?

It may come back to the flaw in his management style. It may also be that he really wanted to do this personally. You know, there are a lot of people who say, "Oh, Cheney whispered in his ear about Iraq, or Wolfowitz," or somebody. I think the president wanted to do it.

The president was clearly in charge; I think the president wanted to do it. He didn't want to get a lot of advice. He didn't want a lot of debate. He informed his secretary of state that we were going to war; he didn't ask him. Colin Powell is an incredible national treasure who could have given the president enormous amounts of advice about the risks involved here. But he didn't get a chance, because the president himself had already decided to go to war. …

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posted oct. 12, 2004

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