Why Are We Here?

To protect America. To disarm a madman. To topple a tyrant. To secure oil. To liberate a repressed people. To bring democracy to a region. To impose a Pax Americana. To reshape the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East. To bolster Israel. To thwart the threat of potential terrorism. To get even. To do something. All of these motivations — held in varying combos by different players within the Bush administration and within the pro-war cheering section outside government — have coalesced since 9/11 to create perfect-storm conditions for war against Iraq.

There have been, roughly speaking, three gusts pushing the administration toward this inevitable war. They come from Bush the Protector; geostrategists such as corporate-oriented tycoon-hawks like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld; and messianic neoconservatives, those policy wonks (including writer William Kristol and deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz) who are generally propelled by ideology, support for Israel’s hard-liners, and a desire to use American power to project so-called American values.

Let’s start with the president. Before becoming president, he hardly had a history of pursuing grand foreign-policy concerns. After 9/11, he had to develop his own doctrine. That wasn’t too tough: You’re with us or you’re against us; any country that harbors terrorists will be regarded as a foe; pre-emption equals protection. Mostly, though, Bush adopted the view of a sheriff who damn sure will not allow any threat to reach his town. During his recent State of the Union address, he, in a way, even acknowledged the threat from Saddam Hussein is not imminent. Bush said that action had to be taken against Hussein to ensure that a threat is not “permitted to fully and suddenly emerge.” In his world, a potential threat must be treated as an actual threat.

That’s somewhat understandable. He has the burden of safeguarding the nation from al Qaeda. And it’s tough to prosecute a war on terrorism against a diabolical and elusive enemy. He naturally wants to be as proactive as possible. That means not only doing whatever can be done to strike the mass murderers of 9/11. It also entails neutralizing a conceivable foe before he is in position to harm the United States. Adopting such a course would certainly allow Bush to feel he is doing everything imaginable and preventing danger before it blooms. If that foe just happens to be a fellow who embarrassed your old man by remaining in power after being defeated and who may have tried to assassinate Pop and who sits on a large reserve of oil, so be it.

It’s telling that Bush, after 9/11, did not rush to hit Iraq. Back then, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were repeatedly pushing him to blast Hussein, according to Bob Woodward’s book Bush at War. Bush said no, advocating patience. But he told his advisers, “I believe Iraq was involved [in the 9/11 attacks], but I’m not going to strike them now. I don’t have evidence at this point.”


There’s no evidence now. So what has changed? Immediately following 9/11, Bush apparently was foremost in thinking in terms of obliterating the “evildoers” who had committed the specific evil and any government directly supportive of them. The geostrategists in his administration, including Cheney, saw an opportunity to take care of business (perhaps literally) in the Middle East, while supposedly striking at terrorism. De-Saddamizing Iraq and somehow installing a government friendly to the West would not only reduce terrorism, they believed, it could also be a big step toward transforming the region. Their goal was to make the Middle East less of a breeding ground for threats against the United States and Israel, and an area more accepting of U.S. influence, which could be exerted in various matters, presumably including oil politics. (Is the current conflict a war over oil? Maybe not directly. But it’s undeniable that the United States first took on Iraq and expanded its presence in the Middle East because of concerns about oil. Had a resource-poor African nation invaded another 13 years ago, would the first Bush administration have dispatched U.S. troops to push the invaders back and then maintained a large military force in the area?)

Then there have been the neocons (who, in terms of membership, overlap with the geostrategists). For years, they have called for bringing America’s “national greatness” to the rest of the world. They also care fiercely about protecting Israel and strengthening the hawks of Tel Aviv. They share the America-über-alles geostrategic concerns, but also claim they want to liberate the repressed people of Iraq and elsewhere.

Anti-war conspiracy theorists have pointed to a so-called secret plan concocted in 1997 by the Project for the New American Century, a think tank led by neocon kingpin Kristol, as this band’s blueprint for U.S. global domination. They are half-right. The paper, entitled “Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” was not a secret; it was posted on the group’s Web site. It came out of the deliberations of a group of 27 policy wonks, military officials and defense-firm execs that included Kristol, Wolfowitz and I. Lewis Libby, now Cheney’s chief of staff. “At present,” the report noted, “the United States faces no global rival. America’s grand strategy should aim to preserve and extend this advantageous position as far into the future as possible.” It called for the United States to “perform the ‘constabulary’ duties associated with shaping the security environment in critical regions.”

The paper also made clear that any conquest of Iraq would be but one stride toward the larger goal of achieving hegemony in the area: “The United States has for decades sought to play a more permanent role in Gulf regional security. 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.” (The PNAC report was written, in part, as a follow-up to a paper drafted in 1992 by the Cheney-led Defense Department that called for maintaining U.S. pre-eminence and shaping the international security order in line with American principles and interests.) And a year prior to the PNAC report, a group of neocons wrote a paper for Benjamin Netanyahu, then Israeli prime minister, urging him to “focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.” The paper’s authors included Richard Perle, a leading get-Iraq hawk who now chairs the Defense Policy Board; Douglas Feith, the current undersecretary of defense for policy; and David Wurmser, now a special assistant to Undersecretary of State John Bolton.

So the geostrategists and neocons have been angling for this war for years. More recently, the neocons have dressed up their desire to dethrone Hussein with a call for democracy and liberation in Iraq. These not-so-Quiet Americans are not being insincere (just perhaps naive). Their pro-democracy rhetoric, though, does help them peddle hawkish power politics as do-goodism. (At a recent gathering of journalists and policymeisters in Washington, The Weekly Standard’s David Brooks, dripping with earnestness, asked me whether liberals would join with conservatives to support pro-democracy efforts in postwar Iraq.) But there’s little evidence hard-liners like Cheney and Rumsfeld are promoting war to achieve democracy. It’s more likely that they are promising (the possibility of) democracy to achieve war.

For different reasons, then, idealistic imperialists, hard-nosed Pax Americanists and Sheriff Bush arrived at the same answer: invade and occupy Iraq. Bush’s urge to undo a potential threat ended up jibing nicely with the others’ longstanding desire to dominate the world. And in the months after 9/11, he increasingly adopted the reasoning and lingo of both the messianic and the us-first proponents of war against Iraq. Convergence has occurred. All their various roads led to Baghdad and war.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >