As a former Washington reporter I've got a question that gnaws at me night and day, and, were I still occasionally hanging around the White House press room, I'd be eager to ask it. It's quite a simple question, really, but no one seems to be asking it and no one's quite sure what the answer might be. So, here goes:
Why are we in Iraq?
It kind of hangs in the air, doesn't it? But every time another American kid gets killed or another 20 Iraqis get shredded into bloody pieces, the question returns with a bit more urgency.
It revisited Washington last week, but only briefly. President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were asked about the Downing Street memo's revelation that Bush had decided eight months before the invasion to use phony evidence as justification to attack Iraq. Neither man explained how or why the head of British intelligence was wrong on that point. Neither man has commented on another secret British memo from the same period, July 2002, which said it would be "necessary to create the conditions" to make the invasion legal.
But even acknowledging that Bush probably lied about his reasons for war leaves unanswered the critical question of why we really invaded, especially the part about why the administration, just as U.S. forces in Afghanistan were in hot pursuit of the terrorists responsible for 9/11, abruptly changed its focus to Iraq.
Despite the apparent lack of curiosity from the press and public on this question, I thought it might be helpful to assemble a list of 15 possible answers.
Q. So, why are we there?
A. To remove the chemical, biological and possibly nuclear weapons that Saddam Hussein was about to hand over to the terrorists, posing an imminent threat to U.S. security.
A. To sever the link between the 9/11 terrorists and the Iraqi dictator.
A. To remove a brutal and despotic menace to stability in the Middle East.
A. To establish an Iraqi democracy as a model for change in the Islamic world.
A. To make the world safer.
A. To "finish the job" that Bush's father started in the Gulf War, and to avenge Saddam's apparent attempt to assassinate the elder Bush.
A. To secure Iraq's oil supply, thus perpetuating America's dependence on petroleum rather than launching a major drive toward energy independence.
A. To divert attention from the fact that we were unlikely to find Osama bin Laden and to concentrate instead on an enemy we could easily defeat on the open battlefield.
A. To attract terrorists from around the world to fight a consolidated war against the United States at a remote site, far from American soil.
A. To create a bigger, more telegenic war than the one in Afghanistan in order to appeal to the rising conservative tide at home -- especially after 9/11 -- and to win back the Senate for Republicans.
A. To slap down a dictator that the United States had helped in the past, especially in his war against Iran, but who then turned on his American benefactors.
A. To launch a latter-day crusade against Islam.
A. To do a favor for Israel.
A. To demonstrate that the United States is the world's only superpower and that it's willing to act in defiance of allies and apart from the United Nations.
A. None, some or all of the above.
The first two possibilities -- the one about weapons of mass destruction and the one about a Saddam-Al Qaida alliance -- have been pretty much disproved. As for the others, who knows? As I said, the question hangs in the air.
The related question about why we must remain in Iraq is easier to answer, and that's that things would be even worse if we left. But that fails to address the original question about why we invaded in the first place and leaves the mystery dangling. Years from now the history books may tell us the answers, but I'm hoping to find out sooner.
© 2005 Star Tribune