How Not To Sell A War


War is gruesome business. No less gruesome is the business of selling a war, especially an unprovoked attack by the world’s only superpower on a third world country two oceans away. So how did the Bush administration do it?

The story begins with the defeat of George Bush Sr. to Bill Clinton in the presidential elections of 1992. Bush Sr. had been heralded as the victor of the Gulf War just a year earlier. In the aftermath of his electoral defeat, hawkish elements gained control of the Republican Party. They wanted to remake the Muslim Middle East, in order to gain access to the region’s vast energy resources and to cement the security of the state of Israel. The first step in the plan was to deal with the unfinished business of the Gulf War.

After the Gulf War ended, Bush Sr. would often be asked why he had not let the US military march into Baghdad. With no air cover, Saddam’s elite Republican Guard was on the run. Thousands of demoralized Iraqi troops, who had sustained themselves after weeks of incessant bombardment from the air and ground, were slaughtered like sheep on the infamous “Highway of Death.”

Bush Sr. provided his reasoning in his book “A World Transformed,” published seven years after the war. He wrote that a march into Baghdad would have instantly shattered the coalition, turned the whole Arab world against the US, and made a broken tyrant into a latter-day Arab hero. “Assigning young soldiers to a fruitless hunt for a securely entrenched dictator and condemning them to fight in what would be an un-winnable urban guerilla war.”

Just after the war ended, Dick Cheney, then the US defense secretary, said, “Once you’ve got Baghdad, it’s not clear what you would do with it. It’s not clear what kind of government you would put in. How much credibility is that government going to have if it’s set up by the US military?”

A year later, General Colin Powell, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asserted that occupying Baghdad would have come at an “unpardonable expense in terms of money lives lost and ruined regional relationships.”

These statements-now being uttered by anti-war activists throughout the globe-seemed to provide an open and shut case for why the US chose not to march into Baghdad. But not to the hawkish cabal, consisting of people from the Reagan and Ford administrations that were anxious to exploit the vacuum created by the fall of the Soviet Union. The cabal included John Bolton, Elliot Cohen, Douglas Feith, Charles Krauthammer, William Kristol, Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz.

The cabal continued its work during the Clinton presidency but got no media attention. The fullest expression of its views came in 2000, in a paper issued by a little-known Project for the New American Century. Written for Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, it showed how America would establish its primacy around the globe by using its military, which would serve as the “cavalry along America’s frontiers.”

When George Bush Jr. became President, many of these hawks became part of his administration. Within five days of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, they felt empowered to talk openly about their radical vision of remaking the Muslim world, beginning with Iraq. However, credible evidence connecting Iraq with the attacks was lacking. Thus, the administration turned to fighting the Taliban in October 2001. But even though the Taliban was deposed from power in December, the campaign failed to net in the ringleaders of al-Qaeda or Mullah Omar.

The rhetoric of war shifted toward Iraq. Speaking to the graduating class at the West Point military academy, Bush unveiled the doctrine of preventive war. This was further expounded in the National Security Strategy document. The hawks wanted to announce their war plans against Iraq but Karl Rove, the president’s political advisor, counseled them to wait for September, which was the best time to launch new products. The president launched the “new product” at the UN Security Council on September 12, 2002. Congress, seeing that the president was working through the UN, passed a resolution in October authorizing him to use all available means against Iraq. On November 8, 2002, the UNSC passed Resolution 1442.

All through this time, a subliminal message was given to the American people. The US military would attack Saddam, with or without UN approval. Slowly and steadily, the announcements progressed from saying, (a), that while war planning was underway, there was no plan on the president’s desk to saying, (b), that the president had not yet chosen a war plan to saying, (c), that the troops were fully deployed and just waiting for the order to attack. Then came rumblings that 300,000 troops could not be stationed indefinitely in the Gulf: Saddam had to disarm in days not weeks. Insidiously, the message shifted to discussing what post-Saddam Iraq would look like. Krauthammer wrote bluntly: “The war is not just to disarm Saddam. It is to reform a whole part of the world.”

Last Thursday, Bush said he would act to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein even without UN support. “When it comes to our security, we really don’t need anybody’s permission.” Responding to the significant domestic opposition to the war, he used the word “hope” 16 times and said eight times that he would only wage war “if we have to.” He repeatedly used the word “peace” or “peacefully,” declaring that his goal is peace, that Iraq is a threat to peace and that if Hussein were forcibly disarmed, it would be “in the name of peace.” But he also made it clear that war was a fait accompli. “We will be changing the regime of Iraq for the good of the Iraqi people.” To assuage comparisons being made with Vietnam, he said, “We’ll prevail.”

The administration has justified the war by asserting, “Saddam Hussein and his weapons are a direct threat to this country.” Bush has vowed, “I will not leave the American people at the mercy of the Iraqi dictator and his weapons.”

This sales campaign has failed to persuade the majority of Americans, but it has convinced a significant minority. Americans, who were united in the wake of 9/11, are divided. Many are worried about the failing economy and about the acts of terrorism that would flow from the war. According to a new poll, if the presidential election were held today, Bush would lose by a small but statistically significant margin to an un-named Democratic opponent.

The author is an economist in Palo Alto, California.  He lived in Pakistan during the 1965 and 1971 wars.  He has written on Pakistan’s Strategic Myopia in the RUSI Journal, and reviewed Mazari’s book, Journey to  Disillusionment for International Affairs. He has authored “Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan.” He is a Fellow of the American Institute of International Studies in California.

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