Two years ago today, the first American bombs fell on Afghanistan. It was the opening of the military segment in the war on terrorism, coming just a few days short of one month after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
America and the world had waited expectantly for this shoe to drop; it was well accepted that the attacks were the work of Osama bin Laden and his followers -- and that they were being shielded by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
The world was with the United States two years ago; indeed, it was eager to help. Since then, that unity has crumbled to dust, not least because of the go-it-alone arrogance the Bush administration demonstrated from the outset. But by far the largest fracture occurred because of the administration's efforts to portray the preemptive attack it wanted to mount against Iraq as part of the post-Sept. 11 war on terror. Links were alleged and insinuated between Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and Bin Laden, to the point that most Americans came to believe Iraq was behind the attacks.
That wasn't true, but making that connection served larger goals of the Bush administration -- goals that predated Sept. 11 by at least four years. Chief among them was removing Saddam Hussein from power by means of military action. Sept. 11 provided a convenient rationale.
Chief proponent of this strategy was a group called the Project for the New American Century. PNAC is headed by William Kristol, editor of a neoconservative magazine, the Weekly Standard. Prominent associates of PNAC in the late 1990s included: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz; Under-Secretary of State for nonproliferation John Bolton; U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick; former chairman and current member of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board Richard Perle, plus several other DFDP members; current National Security Council staffer and alum of Iran-Contra Elliott Abrams, and Vice President Dick Cheney.
During the last years of the Clinton administration, PNAC associates were scathing in their review of U.S. policies toward Iraq: Attempts to contain Saddam had failed. Iraq was within as little as three months of being a biological weapons threat to its neighbors and Israel. Only military action against Saddam would be effective. A sampling:
• "The only solution to the problem in Iraq today is to use air power and ground power, and not to stop until we have finished what President Bush began in 1991." -- Robert Kagan, Weekly Standard, Feb. 2, 1998.
• "If military force were used, there was a real possibility of American casualties and prisoners, or endless pictures of civilian victims in Iraq. There was also a risk that the American public would finally see through the inadequacy and hypocrisy of Clinton's policies in the Persian Gulf. ... The key to the administration's fondness for 'multilateralism' is that such an approach offers cover and allows the White House to duck tough decisions." -- John R. Bolton, Weekly Standard, March 9, 1998.
• "The only acceptable strategy is one that eliminates the possibility that Iraq will be able to use or threaten to use weapons of mass destruction. In the near term, this means a willingness to undertake military action as diplomacy is clearly failing." -- Letter from PNAC principals to President Bill Clinton, reprinted in the Washington Times, Jan. 27, 1998.
The PNAC adherents also predicted that Russia, China and France would raise a stink about unilateral action, but quickly would come around when the dust settled. They also asserted that the other nations in the Middle East would demonstrate heightened respect for a United States willing to use its military power.
As is clear now, France and the others didn't come around. Nor have other nations in the region professed great admiration for the United States for its actions in Iraq.
As is clear now, Saddam was nowhere near achieving a WMD capability. The best evidence suggests his WMD programs ended following the Gulf War and the arrival of U.N. inspectors, and were never restarted.
As is clear now, Clinton's policy of containment had worked pretty well.
As is clear now, the American people were sold a bill of goods by a small cadre of PNAC ideologues, bent on attacking Iraq, who latched onto the opportunity provided by Osama bin Laden and his crew of suicidal, airplane-hijacking terrorists. The price? Scores of billions of dollars, hundreds of young American lives, the standing of the United States in the world, plus the credibility of President Bush and his neocon cronies.
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