Last August was when we should have marked as the real 10th anniversary of Bush’s invasion of Iraq. For Aug. 15, 2002, was the day Bush’s cast of insiders discovered America’s 43rd president would not be stopped in his drive to oust Saddam Hussein.
Not even if he thought America’s 41st president thought it was the wrong thing to do.
On that day, Bush received the best-intentioned, red-light warning any president could ever receive. It came in a very public way and turned out to be prophetic. (It may also have been patriarchal, although that never has been proven and we’ll probably never know for sure.) But it was the day that Bush’s insiders learned the son would put his own stamp on his presidency. A rather unusual personal stamp that history would judge to be the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz presidency — a fusion of Washington wrong-think.
That Aug. 15, as the United States was successfully waging its war in Afghanistan (shattering the al-Qaida terrorists that attacked America’s homeland and driving from power the Taliban government that had harbored them), the Wall Street Journal published an editorial commentary unlike any that had ever before appeared on any editorial or op-ed pages.
It bore the byline of retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, formerly national security adviser to presidents Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush. Scowcroft is the elder Bush’s close confidant; they had recently co-authored a book on international policy. Importantly, Scowcroft, a quiet, dedicated man, was loyal to the presidents he served, and protective of them. His column, read by hundreds of thousands, seemed intended mainly for an audience of one: the incumbent president.
“Don’t Attack Saddam,” the headline warned; it was as loud and clear as its author was quiet and concise. “It would undermine our antiterror efforts,” the subhead explained.
“Our pre-eminent security priority — underscored repeatedly by the president — is the war on terrorism,” Scowcroft wrote. “An attack on Iraq at this time would seriously jeopardize, if not destroy, the global counterterrorist campaign we have undertaken.” He added: “But the central point is that any campaign against Iraq, whatever the strategy, cost and risks, is certain to divert us for some indefinite period from our war on terrorism.”
(For the record, Scowcroft always discounted suggestions that he might have written the column at the urging of the elder Bush, who might have been reluctant to give his son such direct, bold counsel. Scowcroft always said the column was his own doing.)
Scowcroft’s warning proved tragically accurate. A decade later, we can all see the true price tag of the younger Bush’s drive to oust the evil Saddam. Bush’s invasion, justified by claims that proved unfounded (that Saddam was amassing weapons of mass destruction) cost the lives of more than 4,000 U.S. troops, wounded 32,000 more and cost $800 billion.
Video archives overflow today with those infamous assertions from the Bush-Cheney-Rummy-Wolfowitz presidency. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney saying American would be hailed as “liberators.” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld rejecting a general’s assertion that several hundred thousand U.S. troops would be needed in Iraq. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz saying Iraq “can really finance its own reconstruction.”
But Bush’s Iraq invasion is most infamous for its disastrous unintended consequences:
• Uncertainty in Afghanistan. Bush’s Iraq invasion diverted troops from the Afghanistan War. The Taliban, once defeated have replenished itself inside Afghanistan. Sadly, they are again a force capable of destabilization — and maybe more after U.S. combat troops leave next year.
• Uncertainty in Iraq: While a nominal democracy, the government rules with a clenched fist and Iraqis fear ongoing bombings and violence.
• Iran gets a gift of influence. Iran, not the United States, wields greatest influence with the Shia-dominated Iraqi government that owes its existence to sacrifices of U.S. treasure of lives and dollars.
The consequences of those miscalculations will be with us for years to come. Today, we can imagine what Republicans would be saying if a Democratic president had so bungled a geopolitical strategy. After all, it’s what we hear the Democrats say loudly about George W. Bush’s presidency, at every opportunity, while Republicans feign political laryngitis.
We’d do well, in this anniversary week, to encourage the few among us who, like Gen. Scowcroft, may still be willing to politely tell truth to power.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.