Americans were told by President Bush and his administration that the U.S. was going to war with Iraq because of the imminent threat of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and ties to terrorism. Yet to date, no such weapons or ties have been revealed. Did the U.S. launch a war of necessity in Iraq, or a war of choice? In these excerpts from their interviews, critics and defenders of the war -- former Defense Policy Board Chairman Richard Perle, former State Department official Richard Haass, former intelligence official Greg Thielmann, INC advisor Kanan Makiya, and former ambassador Joseph Wilson -- discuss the rationales behind it.
What Sept. 11 taught us is that we can wait too long in the presence of a known and visible threat. Saddam was a known and a visible threat, and we kept deferring dealing with him. The previous administration had, and even the incoming Bush administration was conducting a rather leisurely review of Iraq. Sept. 11 said, "Be careful. You don't have unlimited time to deal with these threats." So naturally attention focused on a threat that we had known and understood, but hadn't acted on.
But a rationale emerges for why we need to go to war, and weapons of mass destruction becomes the leading reason. There were other reasons, as well. Give me a sense of why it was that weapons of mass destructions was preeminent and what the other reasons were?
Weapons of mass destruction were, of course, an important part of the rationale. We knew that Saddam had them. The U.N. had determined that he had chemical and biological weapons, that he had a nuclear program that was discovered in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. He refused to account for those weapons.
The inspectors had been constructively dismissed from Iraq in 1998. We knew there was activity hiding things. We knew the organization responsible for hiding them. So the picture was reasonably clear, although incomplete. He had weapons, he was moving them around, he had an organization to hide them and he wouldn't account for them. So it was an obvious concern. Sept. 11 had focused everyone's attention on what terrorists could do if they were to employ weapons of mass destruction. …
But there was a larger, more ambitious plan, too, to remake the Middle East; that establishing a democracy in Iraq would be an important change in the world order.
There's no question that liberating Iraq from this vicious tyrannical regime was thought by many of us to be a good thing in itself. The added benefits -- if one could bring democratic political process to Iraq -- of shaping opinion in the Arab world, which is woefully devoid of democratic political institutions, would also be a good thing.
If you say would we have taken this action in Iraq, if the only purpose had been to try to bring democracy to Iraq, I think the answer is no. We didn't even consider using force to bring democracy to any other Arab country. But the combination of Saddam Hussein -- who had made war in the past, who had weapons of mass destruction, who was an avowed enemy of the United States-- When you put all of that together, that was a very powerful case for the action we took. …
Were you surprised that we didn't find weapons of mass destruction after the statues fell?
No, I wasn't surprised. I was surprised at how ineptly we searched for them.
You're on the Defense Policy Board. Why did we not do a better job of looking for weapons?
You'll have to ask the people who made the decisions about how to search for them. But going to known sites was the least promising way of finding these weapons, the least promising. It's what Blix was doing, who was a complete failure, and was bound to be a failure. Saddam is not stupid, and he didn't leave things in sites that he knew were on our lists. …
But we've taken over 20 people in the deck of 55, and we still don't have any weapons of mass destruction to show for it.
We've got a lot of people in Guantanamo. Most of them are not talking, either. It's not easy to get information of the kind that we need. But we will.
Wasn't the American public told, or given the impression, that this would be a lot easier than it's been?
Not by me.
By this administration?
I don't know. I'd have to look at the statements. If anyone suggested it would be easy to find these things, they were they were quite wrong to suggest that. It was clear it was going to be hard.
Why did we go to war?
I think the first thing to say about this war is that it was an elective war. It was a war of choice. We didn't have to go to war against Iraq; certainly not when we did, certainly not how we did it. I think the principal reason we did, from my point of view, was weapons of mass destruction. We knew that the Iraqis had chemical and biological weapons. They had a history of using chemical weapons. We obviously also knew their history of trying to acquire nuclear weapons. For many of us, a powerful argument was simply that we did not want to live with that uncertainty about what the Iraqis might do with it, whether they'd use them directly, whether they'd hand them off to terrorists. So war, if you will, was a policy choice to essentially interrupt the possibility that the Iraqis would either use or hand off weapons of mass destruction.
Was it necessary to go to war when we did?
When we did, no. That was a question of choice. Obviously, you could have delayed it a day, a week, a month, a year. There was no necessity then. It wasn't as though the Iraqis were poised to suddenly do something or break out. So the decision to go to war -- which obviously was the president's decision -- like everything else about this war, was an elective decision.
Your view on that puts you out of line with the administration in some regard in that they were claiming it was a growing, gathering danger, an imminent threat. There was urgency, in other words.
The question, I think, for lots of people was whether time would improve your position. For those who felt that going to war at that time was a wise thing to do, from their point of view, nothing was going to get improved with the passage of time. That's a legitimate argument. I thought the argument to go to war when we did was a respectable argument.
On the other hand, I also thought the arguments on the other side were quite strong as well. You know, often in government, you're faced with situations where it's totally one-sided, totally black or white. This was not one of those situations. …I thought that this was one of those that there were pretty good arguments on both sides.
So as a result, for me the real question was not so much whether we went to war. To me, at least as important was how we did it. Did we put in place all the diplomatic dimensions of the policy? Did we essentially have this set up, teed up in the optimal way? Because that was at least as important as the question of whether to go to war because, again, there were arguments on both sides. …
Some people say that Ahmed Chalabi played a role beyond what he should have in suckering the Americans into this war. At the time that we did it, rushing us to war based on intelligence that he was paid to deliver to the Pentagon. … [Was there] inappropriate reliance on intelligence that was coming out of the INC?
I don't think so. I obviously can't talk in any detail about intelligence, even now, even though I'm out of government. But I would simply say that, for example, when one looked at the intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, and when one looked at the intelligence about chemical and biological weapons, it was not based upon one single source. It was not some narrow information. Rather, it was something that had been put together over the course of months and years from a number of different sources. So, to me, that wasn't an issue. The idea that we were somehow -- to use your word, suckered -- into going into the war, or unduly influenced by any one individual, I don't think that's the case. …
The reason I say that is because, especially on links with Al Qaeda and an ongoing nuclear program, a major source of intelligence on this came from defectors. Those defectors often came out of from the INC. Richard Perle himself has been quoted as saying that Ahmed Chalabi was the best single source of intelligence the United States government had on Iraq under Saddam. That's now looking like perhaps a mistake.
I would simply say this. The intelligence on the terrorist links and on the nuclear program was never that great, in terms of volume, or in terms of how much it impressed. The key intelligence, about which there was virtually no debate, because I think everybody pretty much bought into it, and agreed, was on the chemical and biological.
We didn't need intelligence to persuade us ourselves of what a monster Saddam Hussein had been. So that wasn't an issue. Where there was controversy was over the issue of how significant were any terrorist links, particularly links between Al Qaeda and Iraq, and secondly, how far along was Iraq on its nuclear program.
From where I sat, the links on the terrorism side were pretty thin. Second of all, while Iraq certainly had ambitions on the nuclear program from what I could see, [it] was not very far along at all on the nuclear side. So for someone like me, the intelligence that was most significant, again, was almost all centered on the chemical and biological program. That really was what I thought motivated the policy, what really drove the policy. For others, they may have seen the nuclear or terrorism as supportive intelligence. But, at least in the meetings I was in, and if you look at the public debate, the intelligence and the nuclear angles were really quite modest.
But they were mentioned early and often. Beginning in the fall of 2002, the vice president's talking about meetings in Prague.
People mentioned it, in part because one, you never know what you don't know. Second of all, people viewed them differently. Intelligence is something to be perceived. You and I could look at the same piece of intelligence, and read into it differently. So it's not as though there's a right and wrong way to read intelligence. … But that's the nature of intelligence. That's why this is more of an art than a science.
There were also caveats that were made by the Defense Intelligence Agency, at least on chemical and biological, that the capability wasn't such to comprise an imminent threat.
Again, "imminent" would mean that you had tactical intelligence that the Iraqis were about to use it--
Could launch in 45 minutes, as the British told us.
But there you get into questions not simply of capabilities, but intentions. Could the Iraqis have done something in very short order? Of course they could have. They have used chemical weapons on several occasions before. Could they have started another war if they'd wanted to against somebody? Of course they could have.
What I didn't see was the tactical intelligence that they were about to do that. Again, it's a question of, what sort of uncertainty are you prepared to live with? This is almost like an insurance premium. By that, I mean for those who felt we had to fight the war then, they were simply unwilling to live with this degree of uncertainty about Iraqi capabilities and Iraqi intentions. …
Why are we having this debate now?
I really think it's the combination of two things. One is that, in spite of all of our efforts, we haven't found any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Secondly, instead of just being an interesting historical issue of whether or not the intelligence was right or wrong, Americans are being killed every week in Iraq. So there is an immediacy in the issue because of the combination of those two things. …
Was there an imminent threat? Was there a grave and growing danger, in your view?
... I thought that there was never an imminent threat. This was a long-term security concern, if the international community did not limit carefully the Iraqis, that the interest remained in these kind of programs, and there was a lot of knowledge in the minds of Iraqi scientists that would allow them to pursue these kind of programs. That was the nature of the threat, but that's not the way the threat was described to the American people. …
You're saying that this was a clear case, in this last year, of politicization of intelligence.
As reluctant as I am to try to understand the motives of people using the intelligence, my bottom line on this subject is that while the intelligence community did not do a good job, in my view, in being very careful to be precise for both decision makers and for the American public, the primary blame is in the way that senior officials of the administration made statements -- which I can only describe as dishonest statements -- about the nature of what the intelligence was saying.
And that criticism would be applied to the president, but also to the secretary of state?
I would, very reluctantly, have to include the secretary of state in that judgment. I've always said that the secretary of state is much more careful at not exaggerating than his Cabinet colleagues, as well as the vice president and the president.
But yet he took the tubes argument before the United Nations, when he had been expressly told by his own intelligence people that it didn't hold.
That's right. And if one looks now, if one goes back to that very long presentation, point by point, one finds that this was not a very honest explanation. I mean, you had terrorist activity described that was taking place in Iraq without the mention that it was taking place in an area under the control of the Kurds, rather than an area under control of Saddam.
You had this very tenuous link made between Saddam and Osama bin Laden in the remarks of Secretary Powell, when his own terrorist officials and virtually everyone else in the U.S. intelligence community said there is no significant connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.
You had statements about missiles that Saddam allegedly had when, in fact, the intelligence community said that we cannot account for the destruction of all of the 819 Scud missiles that Iraq had acquired over the years. That was transmogrified into statements that Iraq has a small number of Scud missiles, with no qualification. Secretary Powell said that with no qualification, just as George Tenet, director of Central Intelligence, said it with no qualification. There is a big difference between saying, "We cannot prove that every last one of these missiles has been destroyed," and saying, "We know Saddam has these missiles."
What conclusion do you come to? Is he lying?
I don't like to use the word "lying" because, again, it implies that I know what was in his mind on these issues. All I can say is that I have to conclude he was making the president's case. He works for the president. The president had gone way out on a limb in making a lot of what I regard as unjustified characterizations of the intelligence, and Secretary Powell was being a loyal secretary of state, a "good soldier," as it were, building the administration's case before the international community. ...
Were you uncomfortable in the run-up to the war in the dependence on the imminent threat, weapons of mass destruction, rationale for the war?
I wasn't uncomfortable. I genuinely thought it was true. I held it to be a legitimate rationale. But I never held it as a primary rationale, nor did any other Iraqi that I know of.
Well, that's my question. It was the primary rationale for the American people. It was sold as the primary rationale for the war to the American public.
It should not have been. Mind you, let me say something very important here. I don't think we know the full answer to what happened there. I know people are backing away from this question; even the administration is backing away from it. I still claim we don't know the full answer to what happened with these weapons of mass destruction. ...
You said it was unfortunate that that became the primary rationale for going to war.
Yes. Because post-Sept. 11, if we go back to the basic strategic change in the nature of American foreign policy, that should have been put to the American public more obviously, more straightforwardly. That, I think, would have been clearly ... more honest.
This particular military action -- the invasion, conquest and occupation of Iraq -- was not justified by the weapons of mass destruction threat objective, and was not justified by the so-called links to terrorism. [Resolution] 1441 was working perfectly. If in fact there were concerns about how rapidly it was progressing and whether there was a need to adjust it to be more effective, there were many steps that could have been taken short of sending Jessica Lynch driving off to Baghdad.
The links to terrorism was a very weak link to begin with; so weak, in fact, that the United States government could not bring itself to act unilaterally based upon its concerns about those links. [Under the ] United Nations charter… self defense would have permitted the United States to act had there been links to terrorism. The Patriot Act gave the president full authority to act on behalf of the United States where he thought that there was an operational link between a foreign government and Al Qaeda, which had perpetrated this terrible attack against the United States. The U.S. government could not convince itself that those links were sufficient to justify a war on "links to terrorism" grounds. …
The President says there was a moral imperative.
The moral imperative is fine. We don't normally engage in moral wars. We generally structure our military forces, we pay our taxes to our defense establishment to defend the United States against enemies foreign. That's what we do. …
But that's the old thinking, they would say. The neo-cons would say, "Things must change. The Cold War's over. We're the lone superpower. We should act when we have a moral right to act."
Moral right or moral obligation-- Who determines what is a moral right? Is it going to be the neo-conservatives? Under what basis are they going to make those determinations?
You said Saddam is a brute. He was killing his people.
There are lots of brutes out there. Are we going to take them all down? When are we going to decide which brute is worthy of U.S. military forces? If you're going to engage in moral wars, we have, every four years, a requirement to produce a new doctrine for the use of military forces. One has been produced by this administration. Moral wars didn't meet the cut line in their conception of how we use the U.S. military forces, either.
Now, I'm perfectly willing to entertain that Saddam is a special case, that in fact, Saddam's use of chemical weapons against his neighbors, against his own population, his brutal murder of his citizens, constituted genocide. There's a convention that has been accepted by the world in the United Nations called the Genocide Convention. We could have acted. We could have gone to the United Nations and had the debate on those terms. That would have been the way we did it. …
It was not until late in the game that the so-called moral war came into being as a further justification. But the people, the neo-conservatives who brought this war upon us, who were the biggest supporters of this war, did not mention the moral case when they wrote the Project for the New American Century, when they wrote their 1998 letter to then-President Clinton, when Mr. Perle and company wrote their paper for BB-Net and Yahoo, called "A Clean Break, a New Strategy for the Security of the Realm," or even when Mr. Wolfowitz drafted his security statement when he was undersecretary for policy in the Bush I White House, Bush I Defense Department. …
If you talk to the neo-conservatives -- and the argument I like the best is the one that's been put forward by Max Boot in an article that he wrote -- that the United States should not shy away from a jodhpurs and pith helmet imperial policy. So it is essentially illiberal imperialism. It's the idea that we can go in, and by virtue of our moral might and our moral right, we can reshape the Middle East so that it will in fact be flourishing pro-Western, pro-Israeli democracies.
home + introduction + interviews + why did we go to war? + what went wrong? + what's at stake?
watch online + discussion + links & readings + teacher's guide + producer's chat
FRONTLINE + wgbh + pbsi
posted october 9, 2003
photo copyright © benjamin lowy/corbis
web site copyright 1995-2013 WGBH educational foundation