How Neoconservatism Led the US to Invade Iraq
Micah Loewinger Hey, I'm Micah Loewinger and this is the On the Media midweek podcast. It was 20 years ago this week that President George W. Bush announced the beginning of the war in Iraq, setting off an invasion and occupation that cast a long, grim shadow.
TAPE On my orders. Coalition forces have begun striking selected targets of military importance to undermine Saddam Hussein's ability to wage war. These are opening stages of what will be a broad and concerted campaign.
Micah Loewinger Broad, indeed, especially as the decades passed and those responsible refuse to leave the spotlight. Take, for instance, John Bolton, the hawkish talking head for FOX and the former U.N. ambassador who made a brief cameo in government as Trump's third national security adviser.
TAPE We know the ambassador very well. He was one of the cheerleaders for the Iraq invasion in 2003, which ended disastrously, unlike me, who feels very guilty about my support of that invasion back in those days. At that time, it made sense. Well, we like to think so. The ambassador is unapologetic about it. He still believes it was a good idea.
Micah Loewinger Raldo was correct, because as we cling to what we like to think about in Iraq, there's a crucial lesson still unlearned. In 2018, on the 15th anniversary of the start of the conflict. Brooke spoke to New York Times columnist Max Fisher, who, as Brooke put it at the time, gently schooled us.
Max Fisher I think if you ask most Americans, how did this war actually start? Democrats will typically tell you, well, George W Bush, for cynical reasons, wanted to go to war in Iraq. So he made up this lie of Iraqi WMD to justify it. And then if you ask Republicans, the more common answer is he meant well, but he was misled by faulty intelligence.
Brooke Gladstone You wrote that in 2016 we could actually see both narratives collide in various Republican primary debates. For instance, let's hear what Trump said.
TAPE I want to tell you they lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none. And they knew there were none.
Brooke Gladstone And here's Jeb Bush.
TAPE With faulty intelligence and not having security be the first priority when when we invaded. It was a mistake.
Max Fisher And what these two answers have in common is they personalize everything down to one or two people. Someone lied or someone was innocently misled. It's a little bit more complicated. It was really ideology. We've all heard this word neoconservative. And I think that we sometimes use that to just mean a hawkish conservative. But it really is this very specific ideological movement that comes out of the Cold War that says that it is America's mission in the world to bring democracy to all people, that allowing any anti-American government to exist is a threat to the entire global order.
Brooke Gladstone So this ideology, does it arise out of. Arrogance, this absolutely bulletproof belief in American exceptionalism and its role in the world. Or does it arise out of fear?
Max Fisher It's both. I find it totally fascinating, this belief that there is something totally different about the United States that makes the presence an imposition of American military power a source of absolute good, and that we need to bring freedom to all people and they really crave American dominance. But it also comes from this Cold War fear that if unfriendly governments are allowed to exist, that the entire world will turn against us and everything could collapse.
Brooke Gladstone So tell me how the focus shifted specifically to Iraq. We know that in the first Gulf War in the nineties, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. George Bush gets together an international coalition and pushes him out. Then what?
Max Fisher He encouraged the Iraqi people to rise up against their government. He didn't really mean it. So then when they rose up expecting American help, they were slaughtered by Saddam's forces. For the neoconservatives in the George H.W. Bush administration, what happened to the people of Iraq that rose up was just a metaphor for what would happen to the entire world if the United States ever faltered in toppling an adversary and replacing it with a democratic government, which then curdled into this obsession that we had to go back to Iraq and finish the job.
Brooke Gladstone Who were the key players that were pushing this ideology?
Max Fisher It's all your favorites, Brooke. It's a handful of Republican defense officials from the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administration, people like Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz. But the really big leaders were these kind of elbow patched academics, mostly based in Washington, D.C. and New York, and they didn't really have a constituency. But after the 1986 election, Newt Gingrich is kind of the party leader. He's really desperate for some way to show that the GOP is still the party of ideas. And I think he was less concerned with the policy implications of those ideas than whether they were ideas-y enough to kind of rebrand the party as the brilliant, intelligent party. So here is this ideology out of the academy, and it works great as well politically, because at this point, Saddam Hussein is being very, very difficult with the United States about weapons inspections. And he's kind of like thumbing his nose at the Americans left and right, which we know now, was because he feared domestic unrest and felt like he needed to make a big show of toughness in order to avoid a coup. But the Republicans were able to seize on this to embarrass Bill Clinton and to say, you know, look at this. This dictator is humiliating our country.
Brooke Gladstone And this was in the midst of the Lewinsky scandal. So he's particularly vulnerable.
Max Fisher Right, Exactly. So Republicans pass something called the Iraq Liberation Act, and Clinton signs it. And what it says is that United States policy is now to seek regime change in Iraq.
TAPE A new government that is committed to represent and respect its people, not repress them, that is committed to peace in the region.
Max Fisher Which I think to a lot of people at the time, probably including Republican lawmakers, including the Clinton White House, this kind of just looked like an empty gesture. For the neoconservatives who actually wrote the act, this was the culmination of something they had fought for for years.
Brooke Gladstone We all know what happened next. George W Bush was elected and he brings a stable of neocons and fellow travelers like Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney into his administration. Then comes 911. And then?
Max Fisher So if you're George W Bush and this thing happens, you probably respond the way that most of us did, which is to be just totally baffled. Neoconservatism presents a fully formed, complete, footnoted ideology and worldview for understanding the September 11th attacks. The reason that this happened, the reason that there's extremism really anywhere in the world, but especially in the Muslim world, is because the United States let Saddam Hussein stay in power. And the administration starts looking for proof that Saddam had specifically sponsored the attack. When you're in that moment of panic and you have this answer at hand, it's what everybody ended up reaching for.
Brooke Gladstone You wrote in your 2016 Vox article that the Bush-Cheney White House didn't seek to trick America into that war, but rather tricked themselves. When challenged on this, you offer how actively they tried to find the evidence of weapons of mass destruction once they got into Iraq.
Max Fisher Right. Look at the way that they feed themselves raw intelligence. Right. They cut out the CIA. They don't trust them. CIA doesn't get it. Only we understand. We're going to look at the raw intelligence and they find these crazy sources, these Iraqi exiles in Egypt, who tell them what they want to believe. And they trot these guys out and they hold up in front of the entire world this evidence that they have found and I don't think they would do that unless they believe that it would stand up to scrutiny.
Brooke Gladstone Okay. But even if they were true believers, Max, they did still try to trick the American people. Right. Because as you wrote, they told us that it was about weapons of mass destruction. And then they told us it was about connections to Al Qaeda when in fact it was this preexisting ideology all along.
Max Fisher I think that's true. I think that's true. But I don't think they saw it as presenting a disingenuous case. I think that they believed that saying that Saddam has or will develop weapons of mass destruction that will threaten the United States, arguing that Saddam is sponsoring terrorists, whether or not it's per se true, it is, in their view, true in the deeper sense that allowing Saddam to exist will naturally lead to terrorism. None of this is true, to be clear.
Brooke Gladstone What do you say to people on the left who say you're being a little too generous? That neoconservatism has always been about money or oil or American geopolitical dominance and all the humanitarian stuff about how it makes the world a better place is just a flimsy cover.
Max Fisher I've heard that criticism. To me, the hubris and the arrogance in believing that you are so superior to the rest of the world that going into other people's countries and using violence and force to bring them into chaos is actually not just good, but morally necessary. I mean, that strikes me as such a more dangerous idea than the notion that we went in to steal the oil because then it could lead to a war anyplace, because it says that no country can legitimately make a choice to be aligned against the United States, that that's not just threatening to us, but that is inherently a threat to the entire world in a way that morally compels the destruction of that government. It's amazing to me.
Brooke Gladstone So what about the people who pushed for it and are still very much with us? The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol, because of his anti-Trump stance, is a popular talking head on MSNBC. Former Bush speechwriter David Frum, who coined the term axis of evil, now weighs in on outlets like Slate and Vox. And of course, there's John Bolton in the White House. Why hasn't there been a more serious reckoning with the consequences of this war and who pushed for it?
Max Fisher There's really not incentive for a kind of Republican cleaning house because you wouldn't have anybody left. And even among the Democratic Party, Barack Obama, he would always say, look forward, not backward. And that was specifically in regards to prosecuting torture. But it became more of a mantra of, you know, the party's interests are not served by trying to excise this ideology from polite Washington policy circles. DC is a really small town. Everybody is friends with somebody who either was or works for someone who was involved in launching the Iraq war. It's not easy to clean house like that, and nobody wants to do it.
Brooke Gladstone But I mean, you don't have to clean house if people just change their minds.
Max Fisher Yeah, but then you would have to confront how wrong you were. I mean, could you imagine waking up in the morning and thinking I had some really wrongheaded beliefs and it got tens of thousands of Americans and potentially hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed in a war that really is still raging. Or you could wake up and say, you know, I did my best and I was misled by faulty intelligence and I don't need to worry too much about it. We're all going to make the latter choice.
Brooke Gladstone When the Post came out about the Pentagon Papers, we called up Les Gelb, who was the person in the Pentagon who put the Pentagon Papers together, who talked about how he had ultimately changed his mind about the war. But it was too late. And there's this tremendous echo because you say it wasn't about Bush lying, but about being a true believer. Gelb said the lesson of the Pentagon Papers was was more or less the same.
Leslie Gelb The story has been put out that the Pentagon Papers showed they were all lying. But while the papers show some lies, the main message is that our leaders from Truman onwards didn't know hardly anything about Vietnam and Indochina. They were ignorant. And it also shows that the foreign policy community believed that if we lost Vietnam, the rest of Asia would fall. And that was kind of a given. And look, because we never learned that darn lesson about believing our way into these wars. We went into Afghanistan and we went into Iraq.
Max Fisher You really do hear ideological echoes in the way that these officials in the Trump administration, some of whom were the same ones around for the Iraq invasion, talk about Iran and North Korea. It's not just about do they pose an immediate threat to U.S. interest. It's about the need for us to impose American power on the world. American foreign policy has always been so ideological. I mean, if you go back to some of the very first wars against Native Americans, right, it was driven by Manifest Destiny and this belief that we're special and we're different. It's core to who we see ourselves as being. But we keep making the same mistakes and, you know, we're going to make it again.
Brooke Gladstone Max, thank you very much.
Max Fisher Thank you.
Brooke Gladstone New York Times writer Max Fisher.
Micah Loewinger Thanks for listening to the OTM podcast on this week's big show. We're airing the final part of our award winning series, The Divided Dial. It's an investigative look at the rise of right wing talk radio. I'm Micah Loewinger. See you.
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