THE BUSH-CHENEY DEBACE: "The Gates of Hell Are Open in Iraq"
written by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick…
George W. Bush was legendary for his misstatements and malapropisms. But sometimes, through the mangled syntax, a bit of truth would slip out. Such was the occasion in 2004 when he declared, “Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.”
When Bush’s party was unceremoniously booted out of office in 2008, he was rated by historians as among the very worst presidents in U.S. history if not the absolute worst. His popularity and approval ratings set new lows for the modern era, but were actually higher than those of his even less popular vice president, Dick Cheney. Bush and Cheney left the country in a shambles, its economy collapsing and its international reputation at an all-time low. After invading two countries, threatening many others, and undermining the rule of law at home and abroad, the once-admired United States was now universally feared and widely condemned. People wondered whether the wrongheaded policies of the Bush-Cheney administration had resulted from ineptitude, hubris, and blind ambition, or if perhaps there was something more sinister about its plans for the United States and the world.
Although the ever-cautious Barack Obama chose not to investigate the crimes of his predecessor, others would adhere more closely to the strictures of international law. In February 2011, George W. Bush was forced to cancel a speaking engagement in Switzerland for fear of massive protests against his torture policies. Activists were also planning to file a criminal complaint with Swiss prosecutors. Katherine Gallagher of the Center for Constitutional Rights explained, “Waterboarding is torture, and Bush had admitted without any sign of remorse, that he approved its use. … Torturers – even if they are former presidents of the United States – must be held to account and be prosecuted. Impunity for Bush must end.” Protest organizers urged demonstrators to bring a shoe in honor of the Iraqi journalist who was jailed for throwing his shoes at Bush in 2008. Referencing the 1998 London arrest of the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, Gavin Sullivan of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights said, “What we have in Switzerland is a Pinochet opportunity.” Amnesty International announced that similar steps would be taken if Bush traveled to any of the 147 nations that were party to the UN Convention Against Torture.
The events of September 11, 2001, and the United States’ reaction to them, changed the course of history. On that day, Islamic extremists dealt the United States a crushing blow. With the president and his top aides asleep at the switch, Al-Qaeda hijackers flew planes into the premier symbols of U.S. imperial power: the World Trade Center and Pentagon. More than 2,750 people were killed in New York City, including some 500 foreign nationals from 91 countries. The nation watched in horror as flames engulfed the twin towers before their stunning collapse. Another 125 perished at the Pentagon. But the damage to the United States would pale in comparison to the damage the Bush administration wreaked in response to Al-Qaeda’s heinous attack.
Bush subsequently ignored demands to investigate how such a colossal intelligence and leadership failure could have occurred. When the pressure finally became too great, Bush turned to Henry Kissinger to produce an official whitewash. Even the New York Times wondered whether the choice of Kissinger, the “consummate Washington insider,” with his “old friendships and business relationships,” to chair a commission was anything more than “a clever maneuver by the White House to contain an investigation it long opposed.”
Kissinger received a visit from a group of New Jersey women who had been widowed in the attack. One asked him if he had any clients named bin Laden. Kissinger spilled his coffee and nearly fell off his couch. While his visitors rushed to clean up his mess, Kissinger tried to blame his clumsiness on his “bad eye.” The next morning, he resigned from the commission.
Kissinger was replaced by former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, who, along with his co-chair, former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton, delivered the largely exculpatory report in 2004. In his book on the commission, New York Times reporter Philip Shenon placed the principal blame for the commission’s gently treatment of the responsible parties in the White House on the guiding hand of the commission executive director and Condoleezza Rice confidant, Philip Zelikow, whom some of the staff members considered to be a “White House mole.” Washington Post international correspondent Glenn Kessler described as a “one-person think tank for Rice” – her “intellectual soul mate.” Rice’s negligence in ignoring pre-9/11 warning signs that an attack was imminent was undeniable.
For most Americans, 9/11 was a terrible tragedy; for Bush and Cheney it was also an incredible opportunity – a chance to implement the agenda that their neoconservative allies had been cooking up for decades. The Project for a New American Century’s recent report “Rebuilding America’s Defenses” had stated that “the process of transformation…is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor.” Al-Qaeda had given PNACers their Pearl Harbor. Within minutes of the attack, the Bush team, minus the absent president, leapt into action. Vice President and his legal councel David Addington took charge. Addington soon joined forces with Timothy Flanigan and John Yoo to argue that the president, as wartime commander in chief, could act virtually unfettered by legal constraints. Proceeding on that basis, Bush would sharply increase the powers of the executive branch and curtail civil liberties, declaring “I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.”
Bush and the PNACers in his administration knew precisely whose ass they wanted to kick. On September 12, already looking past Al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden and his Taliban collaborators in Afghanistan, Bush instructed counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, “See if Saddam did this. See if he’s linked in any way.” Clarke, incredulous, responded, “But, Mr. President, al Qaeda did this.” Bush persisted. Detailing the encounter, Clarke reported that when Bush walked away, Clarke’s assistant Lisa Gordon-Haggerty “stared after him with her mouth open.” “Wolfowitz got to him,” she said.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz had a lot of help. His boss, Donald Rumsfeld, had already ordered the military to draw up strike plans for Iraq. “Go massive,” he said. “Sweep it all up. Things related and not.” Clarke assumed that Rumsfeld was joking when he said Iraq had better targets than Afghanistan. He wasn’t. On the morning of September 12, CIA Director George Tenet ran into Richard Perle, who was leaving the West Wing of the White House. Perle declared, “Iraq has to pay a price for what happened yesterday. They bear responsibility.” On September 13, Wolfowitz announced that the response to the 9/11 attacks would extend well beyond Afghanistan to “ending states who sponsor terrorism.”
That afternoon, when Rumsfeld spoke of expanding the mission to “getting Iraq,” Secretary of State Colin Powell insisted they focus on Al-Qaeda. Clarke thanked him and expressed his befuddlement over the obsession with Iraq: “Having been attacked by Al-Qaeda, for us to now go bombing Iraq in response would be like our invading Mexico after the Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbor.” Knowing whom he was dealing with, Powell shook his head. “It’s not over yet,” he said.
Powell was right. The neocons would soon abandon the fig leaf of Iraqi involvement in 9/11. On September 20, the PNAC wrote a letter to Bush stating that “even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors much include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power.” The October 15 issue of William Kristol’s Weekly Standard ran a cover story making “The Case for American Empire” in which Max Boot blamed the September 11 attack on the fact that the United States had not sufficiently imposed its will on the world. Boot knew how to remedy that mistake: “The debate about whether Saddam Hussein was implicated in the September 11 attacks misses the point. Who cares if Saddam was involved in this particular barbarity?”
Having been attacked by Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the United States was preparing to retaliate against Iraq, whose leaders, Saddam Hussein, was an avowed enemy of both Al-Qaeda and the anti-U.S. regime in Iran. Clarke admitted, “At first I was incredulous that we were talking about something other than getting al Qaeda. Then I realized with almost a sharp physical pain that Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were going to try to take advantage of this national tragedy to promote their agenda about Iraq.”
Clarke underestimated Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz. Their agenda went far beyond Iraq. From atop the rubble at the World Trade Center, Bush proclaimed, “Our responsibility to history is already clear. To answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”
Cheney appeared on Meet the Press and said, “We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side. … We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we are going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in, and so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.”
The administration moved to the “dark side” with alacrity. The following day, Bush authorized the CIA to establish detention facilities outside the United States where torture and other harsh interrogation techniques would be employed. Four days later Bush announced before a joint session of Congress that the United States was embarking on a global war on terrorism – extending to “any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism.” Through its policy of extraordinary rendition, the CIA began seizing suspects without any legal proceedings being brought against them and flying them to secret “black sites’ around the world.
The CIA requested and received presidential authorization to hunt down, capture, and kill members of Al-Qaeda and other terrorists anywhere in the world. In October, a senior official told the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward that the president had directed the CIA to “undertake its most sweeping and lethal covert action since the founding of the agency in 1947.” “The gloves are off,” the official said. “The president has given the agency the green light to do whatever is necessary. Lethal operations that were unthinkable pre-September 11 are now underway.” Cheney noted another important change. “It is different than the Gulf War was,” he told Woodward, “in the sense that it may never end. At least, not in our lifetime.”
In fact, many things that were unthinkable before September 11 were happening now. First and foremost, the White House began usurping unprecedented powers, power that threatened the U.S. constitutional order. To make that possible, Bush exploited the post-9/11 climate of fear and uncertainty. In the days after 9/11, the government arrested and detained 1,200 men in the United States, most of whom were either Muslims or of Middle Eastern or South Asian extraction. Another 8,000 were sought for interrogation. Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold demanded a halt to such profiling. “This is a dark hour for civil liberties in America,” he warned. “What I’m hearing from Muslim Americans, Arab Americans, South Asians, and other, suggests a climate of fear toward our government is unprecedented.”
Bush rushed the USA PATRIOT Act through Congress. The Senate version went straight to the floor without discussion, debate, or hearings. In this crisis atmosphere, only Feingold had the courage to vote against it, insisting, “It is…crucial that civil liberties in this country be preserved, otherwise I’m afraid that terror will win this battel without firing a shot.” It passed in the House by a vote of 337 – 79, and Bush signed it into law on October 26, 2001. The PATRIOT Act expanded government surveillance and investigative powers. In 2002, Bush empowered the National Security Agency to conduct warrantless wiretaps in violation of the legal reviews required by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) courts and to monitor U.S. citizens' email.
To convince the American people to accept such blatant infringement on their privacy and civil liberties, the administration barraged the public with constant alerts, heightened security, and a five-tier system of color-coded warning that fluctuated based on each day’s danger of terrorist attack. The system was so obviously being manipulated by Rumsfeld and Attorney General John Ashcroft that Bush’s secretary of homeland security, Tom Ridge, felt compelled to resign after one particularly egregious episode. The administration also began identifying points of vulnerability, listing 160 sites as potential terrorist targets. One year later, it stood at 28,360. It jumped to an astounding 78,000 in 2005 and 300,000 in 2007. Even the nation’s heartland wasn’t immune. Amazingly, Indiana led all states with the most potential targets – 8,591 – almost three times as many as California. The national database included petting zoos, doughnut shops, popcorn stands, ice cream parlors, and the Mule Day Parade in Columbia, Tennessee.
Bush made it clear that this was a new kind of war – a war fought not against a nation or even an ideology, but against a tactic: terrorism. As retired Ambassador Ronald Spiers pointed out, framing it that way was deliberate and pernicious. Choosing the “war” metaphor, he wrote in 2004, “is neither accurate nor innocuous, implying as it does that there is an end point of either victory or defeat. … A ‘war on terrorism’ is a war without an end in sight, without an exit strategy, with enemies specified not by their aims but by their tactics. … The President has found this ‘war’ useful as an all-purpose justification for almost anything he wants or doesn’t want to do. … It brings to mind Big Brother’s vague and never-ending war in Orwell’s 1984.”
It was also a new kind of war in that it would require no sacrifice from the overwhelming majority of Americans. The fighting would fall on the members of a volunteer army drawn largely from the lower ranks of society. The cost would be born by future generations.
Whereas, at the start of World War II, Franklin Roosevelt had warned, “War costs money. … That means taxes and bonds and bonds and taxes. It means cutting luxuries and other non-essentials.” Bush saw things differently. He cut taxes on the wealthy and told Americans to visit “America’s great destination spots…and enjoy life the way we want it to be enjoyed.” New York Times columnist Frank Rich captured the unreality: “No one is demanding that the rest of us pay for serious airline or bioterror security, or that we cut down on gas-guzzling to reduce our dependency on the oil of Saudi Arabia, whose other big export is terrorists. Instead we are told to go shopping, take in a show, go to Disneyland.”
Bush asked the American people to make a hard choice: whether to visit Disney World or Disneyland. He gave the Afghan Taliban a different choice: either turn over the Al-Qaeda leaders or be bombed back to the Stone Age, which much of Afghanistan had never left. “Bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age…” wrote Tamim Ansary, an Afghan living in the United States for thirty-five years and a bitter foe of bin Laden and the Taliban, “that’s been done. The Soviets took care of it already. Make the Afghans suffer? They’re already suffering. Level their houses? Done. Turn their schools into piles of rubble? Done. Eradicate their hospitals? Done. Destroy their infrastructure? Cut them off from medicine and health care? Too late. Someone already did all that. New bombs would only stir the rubble of earlier bombs. Would they at least get rid of the Taliban? Not likely.”
Other critics of the rush to war pointed out that no Afghans were among the nineteen hijackers. Fifteen were Saudis, one Lebanese, one Egyptian, and two were from the United Emirates. They had lived in Hamburg and trained and took flight lessons primarily in the United States.
On October 7, 2001, less than a month after the terrorist attacks, the United States and its allies launched Operation Enduring Freedom. The Taliban leaders quickly got the message and scrambled to negotiate. On October 15, Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, whom the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad considered to be very close to Taliban leader Mullah Muhammed Omar, offered to turn bin Laden over to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) for trial. Evidence suggests that Omar had been trying to rein in bin Laden for some time and that relations between the Afghans and Al-Qaeda had been frayed. U.S. representatives had actually had more than twenty meetings with Taliban officials during the previous three years to discuss their turning bin Laden over for trial. U.S. officials concluded that the Taliban were stalling. Milton Bearden, the former CIA station chief who oversaw the 1980s covert war in Afghanistan from his Pakistani base, disagreed, blaming U.S. obtuseness and inflexibility. “We never heard what they were trying to say,” he told the Washington Post. “We had no common language. Ours was ‘give up bin Laden.’ They were saying ‘do something to help us give him up.’” U.S. State Department and Embassy officials met with Taliban security chief Hameed Rasoli as late as August 2001. “I have no doubts they wanted to get rid of him,” Beardon said in October 2001. But the United States never offered the face-saving measures the Taliban needed.
Rumsfeld’s high-tech warfare succeeded in sharply limiting U.S. casualties, but the lack of U.S. boots on the ground allowed bin Laden, Omar, and many of their supporters slip away when the United States had them trapped at Tora Bora in December 2001. Afghan civilians didn’t fare as well, suffering approximately four thousand deaths, according to University of New Hampshire Professor Marc Herold – more than the number killed at the World Trade Center and Pentagon combined. Perhaps five times that number would die from disease and starvation in the months to follow.
Although Bush quickly lost interest in Afghanistan and turned his attention to Iraq, the war dragged on for the remainder of his presidency. Hamid Karzai ruled through brutal warlords and corrupt functionaries who turned Afghanistan into the world’s biggest supplier of opium. By 2004, Afghanistan was supplying 87 percent of the world total. In 2009, the country ranked second only to Somalia on the global corruption index. Fed up with corruption and exhausted by war, many Afghans welcomed back the Taliban, despite their earlier disgust with repressive Taliban policies.
Though the 9/11 plotters slipped easily through their fingers, the CIA and military did round up thousands of others in Afghanistan and beyond. Their treatment would signal just how dark Bush and Cheney were willing to go in the name of the United States – a country that had always considered its humane treatment of prisoners a sign of it moral superiority. Bush branded the detainees “unlawful enemy combatants,” not prisoners of war whose rights had to be respected, and threw them into the U.S. naval station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or into the CIA’s “black-site” prisons, where they could be held indefinitely. The least fortunate were delivered for even worse abuse by allied governments known for their cruelty, like Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt and Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. Bush waived the battlefield hearings required by the Geneva Convention to determine whether captives were civilians or combatants. As a result, many prisoners who had no connection to Al-Qaeda or the Taliban were rounded up by unscrupulous Iraqis or the Taliban seeking U.S. cash bounties. Innocent prisoners had no means of appeal. On the advice of White House legal counsel Alberto Gonzales, Bush declared that the Geneva Conventions on the Treatment of Prisoners of War, which the United States ratified in 1955, did not apply to suspected Taliban and Al-Qaeda members. Among those outraged by Bush’s abrogation of the Geneva Conventions was Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Richard Myers.
The CIA was instructed to employ ten enhanced interrogation methods, the product of five decades of research into psychological torture. The techniques were spelled out in the CIA’s 1963 Kubark: Counterintelligence Interrogation Manual and honed by U.S. allies in Asia and Latin America in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Such psychological torture had been abandoned at the end of the Cold War and repudiated in 1994, when the United States signed the UN Convention against Torture. It was back in force after 9/11 and often went beyond the strictly “psychological.”
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., told journalist Jane Mayer that he considered the new torture policy, as Mayer put it, “the most dramatic, sustained, and radical challenge to the rule of law in American history.” The CIA outlined the procedures in detail. Upon arrest, the suspect would be “deprived of sight and sound” with blindfold and earmuffs. If the detainee proved uncooperative, he would be stripped naked, flooded with constant bright light and high-volume noise up to 79 decibels, and kept awake for up to 180 hours. Once the prisoner was convinced that he had no control, serious interrogation would begin. After guards shackled the prisoner’s arms and legs, placed a collar around his neck, and removed the hood covering his head, interrogators would slap him across the face, sometimes repeatedly, and, using the collar as a handle, slam his head into the wall up to thirty times. Subsequent methods included dousing the prisoner with water, denying him the use of toilet facilities, forcing him to wear dirty diapers, chaining him to ceilings, and requiring him to stand or kneel in painful positions for prolonged periods of time. The International Committee of the Red Cross reported that prisoners at Guantanamo were told that they were being taken “to the verge of death and back.”
Waterboarding was employed in special cases – and sometimes repeatedly, despite the fact that the United States had prosecuted Japanese military interrogators for use of waterboarding against U.S. prisoners during World War II. The process was described by Malcolm Nance, and interrogation expert who had been an instructor with the U.S. military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) program to train U.S. soldiers to withstand interrogation:
Unless you have been strapped down to the board, have endured the agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your gag reflex, and then feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of water to involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of the word. Waterboarding is a controlled drowning that, in the American model, occurs under the watch of a doctor, a psychologist, an interrogator and a trained strap-in/strap-out team. It does simulate drowning, as the lungs are actually filling with water. There is no way to simulate that. The victim is drowning. How much the victim is to drown depends on the desired result (in the form of answers to questions shouted into the victim’s face) and the obstinacy of the subject.
Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded in Bangkok at least eighty-three times over a four- or five-day period in August 2002, even though interrogators were convinced he was telling the truth. Still, CIA officials at the Counterterrorism Center at Langley demanded that the procedure be continued for a month, backing down only when the interrogators threatened to quit. Upon Zubaydah’s capture, Bush identified him as “Al-Qaeda’s chief of operations.” In reality, though, Zubaydah turned out to be a minor operative – not even an official member of Al-Qaeda – who may very well have been mentally ill. The Washington Post reported in 2009, “The methods succeeded in breaking him, and the stories he told of al-Qaeda terrorism plots sent CIA officers around the globe chasing leads. In the end, though, not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zubaydah’s tortured confessions, according to senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations.” And, the Post acknowledged, whatever information investigators extracted that might have had any marginal utility had come out before the waterboarding began. The waterboarding did yield an abundance of information, according to the Post: “Abu Zubaydah began unspooling the details of various al-Qaeda plots, including plans to unleash weapons of mass destruction. Abu Zubaydah’s revelations triggered a series of alerts and sent hundreds of CIA and FBI investigators scurrying in pursuit of phantoms.” One former intelligence official admitted, “We spent millions of dollars chasing false alarms.”
Purported 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times, as if he were going to disclose something on the 183rd time that he hadn’t divulged in the previous 182. Psychologists helped refine techniques, exploiting prisoners’ phobias. Interrogators also exploited Arabs’ cultural sensitivities by subjecting prisoners to public nudity and snarling dogs.
In February 2004, Major General Antonio Taguba reported that his investigation had turned up numerous instances of “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” at Abu Ghraib detention center, including rape of both male and female prisoners. Only four months earlier, Bush had announced, a bit prematurely perhaps, that “Iraq is free of rape rooms and torture chambers.”
After the Abu Ghraib expose created an international uproar in 2004, the Justice Department withdrew the legal memo authorizing torture. The damage done to the United States’ international reputation was incalculable. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., confided, “No position taken has done more damage to the American reputation in the world – ever” that Bush’s torture policy. However, the CIA subsequently captured another Al-Qaeda suspect and again sought permission to employ brutal interrogation methods. Rice responded, “This is your baby. Go do it.”
Journalist Patrick Cockburn interviewed the senior U.S. interrogator in Iraq who had elicited the information that led to the capture of Iraqi Al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He told Cockburn that torture not only produces no useful information, but its use in Iraq “has proved so counterproductive that it may have led to the death of as many U.S. soldiers as civilians killed in 9/11.
Although officials tried to pin the blame on a few “bad apples” – sadistic rogue interrogators who took matters into their own hands – torture was approved by top administration officials. Members of the National Security Council’s Principals Committee – Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, Powell, Tenet, and Ashcroft – met repeatedly to specify which methods would be used on which prisoners. Ashcroft interrupted on NCS discussion and asked, “Why are we talking about this in the While House? History will not judge us kindly.” General Barry McCaffrey agreed: “We tortured people unmercifully. We probably murdered dozens of them during the course of that, both the armed forces and the CIA.” For years, the 770-plus prisoners at Guantanamo and thousands more in Iraq and Afghanistan were denied legal councel and the right to call witnesses to defend themselves. As of late 2008, charges had been brought against only twenty-three. Over five hundred had been released without being charged, often after years of harsh and humiliating treatment. One FBI counterterrorism expert testified that of the Guantanamo detainees, fifty at most were worth holding. Major General Taguba said, “There is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”
The legal groundwork, which dated back to the 1990s, was provided by Justice Department lawyers. In one particularly outrageous memo, John Yoo and Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee defined torture as pain “equivalent in intensity to…organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death” and then only if inflicting the pain was the deliberate purpose of the interrogation.
In 2004, when the Supreme Court ruled that detainees had the right to challenge the legality of their detention in federal courts, Bush established the Combat Status review Tribunal and an Annual Review Board to sidestep the ruling. Finally, in June 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that detainees had a right to federal court review of the basis of their detention.
Americans’ rights were often trampled on as well. In an effort to preempt protests, federal and local authorities conducted sweeping arrests of legal protesters on numerous occasions, including at the Republican conventions in both 2004 and 2008.
Bush did his best to avoid the protests that did occur. On the rare occasions when he ventured out in public, the Secret Service would quarantine critics in protest zones so far away that neither Bush nor the media could see them. Those holding protest signs outside the designated areas were subject to arrest. London’s Evening Standard reported that when Bush visited London in 2003, the White House demanded that the British impose a “virtual three-day shutdown of central London in a bid to foil disruption of the visit by antiwar protesters.”
Taking his cue from Cheney, Bush cloaked White House deliberations in a veil of secrecy so impenetrable that it was unprecedented in U.S. history. Access to documents under the Freedom of Information Act was sharply curtailed, and documents once publicly available were reclassified and disappeared. The government repeated invoked “national security” and “state secrets” to thwart those attempting to bring lawsuits. Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff to Colin Powell, said he had never seen such secrecy and described it as a “cabal” between Cheney and Rumsfeld to bypass normal channels. Conservatives, too, objected. “We see an unprecedented secrecy in this White House that…we find very troubling,” said Judicial Watch director Larry Klayman in 2002. “True conservatives don’t act this way.”
But repressive measures in the United States paled in comparison to the measures Bush inflicted on the rest of the world. And the worst was still to come as U.S. policy makers geared up for the invasion of Iraq, which had actually been on the drawing board long before 9/11. Wolfowitz’s obsession with Iraq dated at least as far back as 1979, when he directed a Pentagon assessment of the Persian Gulf region that highlighted Iraq’s threat to its neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and proposed a buildup of U.S. forces in the region to counter this threat. The report began, “We and our major industrialized allies have a vital and growing stake in the Persian Gulf region because of our need for Persian Gulf oil and because events in the Persian Gulf affect the Arab-Israeli conflict.” Based on that report, the United States had begun positioning cargo ships laden with military equipment in the region.
Wolfowitz nurtured that obsession in the intervening years. He and his allies had made dealing with Iraq a top priority of the PNAC. He fixated relentlessly on Iraq as deputy of defense. A senior administration official observed, “If you look around the world at other issues, he nonexistent. He’s not a major player on any other issue.” In fact, the official commented, he doesn’t know the Defense Department position on other issues.
Iraq rose to the top of administration concerns almost from the moment Bush took office. He opened his first National Security Meeting on January 30, 2001, by asking, “So Condi, what are we going to talk about today? What’s on the agenda?” “How Iraq is destabilizing the region, Mr. President,” Rice replied. Administration neocons were on board from the start. When the NSC principals met again two days later, Rumsfeld interrupted Powell’s discussion of “targeted sanctions” against Iran. “Sanctions are fine,” he blurted out. “But what we really want to think about is going after Saddam.” He later added, “Imagine what the region would look like without Saddam and with a regime that’s aligned with U.S. interests. It would change everything in the region and beyond it. It would demonstrate what U.S. policy is all about.” Looking back, Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill recognized that the die had been cast from the very beginning: “From the start, we were building the case against Hussein and looking at how we could take him out and change Iraq into a new country. And, if we did that, it would solve everything. It was all about find a way to do it. That was the tone of its. The President saying, ‘Fine. Go find me a way to do this.’”
O’Neill told Ron Suskind that as early as March 2001, administration officials were discussing concrete plans for invading and occupying Iraq. Cheney’s Energy Task Force played an important part. Other invasion backers included Wolfowitz proteges I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who was Cheney’s national security advisor; Stephen Hadley, who was Rice’s deputy; and Richard Perle, now head of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board. On September 19 and 20, Defense Policy Board members decided to put Iraq in the crosshairs as soon as they disposed of Afghanistan. The New York Times reported that the insiders promoting the invasion were called the “Wolfowitz cabal.”
Members of the cabal searched high and low for an Iraqi connection to 9/11. Rumsfeld asked the CIA to come up with evidence linking Iraq to 9/11 on at least ten separate occasions. Prisoners were tortured in the hope that they would divulge such information. But none existed. Rumsfeld and Cheney reviled the CIA analysts who pointed out this inconvenient fact.
Lacking evidence, the manufactured their own. Cheney and Libby pointed repeatedly to a meeting in Prague between the hijacker Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence officer, even though Tenet had proved that Atta was in the United States at the time of the alleged meeting, living in Virginia in the shadow of CIA headquarters.
Wolfowitz turned to Laurie Mylroie, whose thoroughly discredited writings had tied Iraq to practically every terrorist episode in recent memory, including the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Mylroie complained that the Clinton administration had dismissed her as “a nut case.” CNN analyst Peter Bergen called her a “crackpot,” a view shared by the intelligence community. He mocked her “unified field theory of terrorism.” But Perle and Wolfowitz took her seriously, as did New York Times reporter Judith Miller, with whom she coauthored a 1990 book about Saddam Hussein. Wolfowitz sent former CIA Director James Woolsey on a wild-goose chase overseas to try to corroborate her wild theories. Though most of the administration neocons stopped short of Mylroie’s assertion that “Al-Qaeda is a front for Iraqi intelligence,” Bush and Cheney repeatedly alluded to Iraqi involvement in the 9/11 attacks. In September 2003, Cheney told Meet the Press’s Time Russert that Iraq was the “heart of the base, if you will, the geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault for many years, but most especially on 9/11.”
The CIA, meanwhile, was conjuring up its own perverse and outlandish ways to discredit both Saddam and bin Laden. The CIA’s Iraq Operations Group considered fabricating a video showing Saddam have sex with a teenage boy and then “flood[ing] Iraq with the videos.” “It would look like it was taken by a hidden camera,” said a former official. Very grainy, like it was a secret videotaping of a sex session.” The CIA did actually produced a video simulating bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda buddies around a campfire imbibing liquor and sharing tales of sexual encounters with boys.
Such undertakings were only slightly less bizarre than the actual “intelligence” collected during the buildup to the war. One of the administration’s favorite intelligence sources was Ahmed Chalabi, who headed the Iraqi National Congress (INC). the INC, which received millions of dollars from the Bush administration, relayed fanciful reports of ongoing WMD programs from Iraqi defectors, many of whom were clearly out to instigate a U.S. attack. Later, with the Americans occupying Baghdad, Chalabi boasted, “We are heroes in error. As far as we’re concerned, we’ve been entirely successful.”
One former top Defense Intelligence agency official, Colonel Patrick Lang, saw Defense Department fingerprints all over this. “The Pentagon has banded together to dominate the government’s foreign policy, and they’ve pulled it off,” he complained bitterly. “They’re running Chalabi. The D.I.A. has been intimidated and beaten to a pulp. And there’s not guts at all in the CIA.”
Using this kind of notoriously false information, the administration challenged the findings of CIA analysts and UN weapons inspectors and tirelessly made its case for invading Iraq. “We know they have weapons of mass destruction,” Rumsfeld insisted. “There isn’t any debate about it.” In early October 2002, Bush, echoing a similarly warning from Rice a month before, announced, “we cannot wait for the final proof – the smoking gun – that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” But no one could outdo Cheney when it came to outright fabrications and dire prognostications:
The Iraqi regime has…been very busy enhancing its capabilities in the field of chemical and biological agents, and they continue to pursue the nuclear program. … Armed with an arsenal of these weapons of terror and a seat at a top [sic] 10 percent of the world’s oil reserves, Saddam Hussein could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of a great portion of the world’s energy supplies, directly threaten America’s friends throughout the region and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail. Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction; there is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us.
Based upon this fictitious threat assessment, which the Intelligence Community echoed in its National Intelligence Estimate of October 2002, Bush readied for war while maintaining the façade of seeking a peaceful resolution. In March 2002, he popped unexpectedly into a meeting between Rice and a bipartisan group of senators and exclaimed, “Fuck Saddam. We’re taking him out.” In may, he told Press Secretary Ari Fleisher, “I’m going to kick his sorry motherfucking ass all over the Mideast.”
But some experts knew that Bush’s claims about Iraqi WMD were grossly exaggerated, if not completely false. Former chief UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter told CNN in 2002, “No one has substantiated the allegations that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction or is attempting to acquire weapons of mass destruction.” CNN Fionnuala Sweeney pointed out, “It is hard to account if you cannot get into the country.” Ritter’s response to that and subsequent questions shed important light on the administration’s use of WMD as a casus belli:
That’s right. Then why did the United States pick up the phone in December 1998 and order the inspectors out – let’s remember, Saddam Hussein didn’t kick the inspectors out. The U.S. ordered the inspectors out 48 hours before they initiated Operation Desert Fox – military that didn’t have the support of the UN Security Council and which used information gathered by inspectors, to target Iraq. … As of December 1998, we had accounted for 90 to 95 percent of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capability – “we” being the weapons inspectors. We destroyed all the factories, all of the means of production and we couldn’t account for some of the weaponry, but chemical weapons have a shelf-life of five years. Biological weapons have a shelf-life of three years. To have weapons today, they would have had to rebuild the factories and start the process of producing these weapons since December 1998.
“How much access did you get to the weapons inspections sites? Sweeney asked. “One-hundred percent,” Ritter assured her.
Though Ritter was persona nongrata within the administration and could be easily dismissed, there was no excuse for ignoring the cautionary words of General Tommy Franks, the head of the U.S. Central Command, whom Rumsfeld tasked with drawing up war plans. At a September 2002 meeting of the NSC, Franks stated bluntly, “Mr. President, we’ve been looking for Scud missiles and other weapons of mass destruction for ten years and haven’t found any yet.”
Leading establishment figures, including several linked to the president’s father, tried to convince Bush that an invasion would be pure folly. The dissenters included General Brent Scowcroft, who had been George H. W. Bush’s national security advisor, James Baker, Lawrence Eagleburger, and George Kennan. Military opposition also ran deep. Marine Lieutenant General Gregory Newbold, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recalled, “I can’t tell you how many times senior officers said to me, ‘What the hell are we doing?’” They asked, “Why Iraq? Why now?”
British Prime Minister Tony Blair stepped forward to lend a hand. In September 2002, Blair, who would be widely mocked as “Bush’s poodle,” released a dossier about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction that was so riddled with falsehoods, it would later prove scandalous. Blair insisted, however, on getting a UN resolution to provide him with political cover in Britain, where antiwar sentiment remained strong.
The UN Security Council voted to send inspectors into Iraq. Saddam accepted unconditionally. Inspections began in November. Over the next three and a half months, UN inspectors visited five hundred sites, some repeatedly. The list included those identified by the CIA as the most likely locations for concealing WMD. Nothing turned up. UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix wondered, “If this was the best, what was the rest? …could there be 100 percent certainty about the existence of weapons of mass destruction but zero percent knowledge about their location?” Blix later compared Bush administration officials to medieval witch hunters, who “were [so] convinced there were witches, when they looked for them, the certainly found them.”
In the midst of this latest round of inspections, Iraq submitted it 11,800-page weapons dossier to the United Nations. “Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction,” declared Lieutenant General Hossam Mohammed Amin. But Bush, having already stipulated that any weapons declaration that did not admit to having WMD would be fraudulent, dismissed it scornfully. “The declaration is nothing, it’s empty, it’s a joke,” he told visiting Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. “At some point, we will conclude that enough is enough and take him out.” Iraq’s UN ambassador, Mohammed Aldouri, challenged the United States to provide evidence of its allegations. Not only did the United States have no reliable evidence, it edited out more than 8,000 pages from Iraq’s report before passing it on to the ten non-permanent members of the Security Council – in part, to hide the role the U.S. government and twenty-four major U.S. corporations in supporting Iraq’s weapons programs.
Between 1991 and 1998, UN inspectors supervised the destruction of 817 of Iraq’s 819 proscribed medium-range missiles, 9 trailers, 14 launchers, and 56 fixed missile-launch sites. Iraq also destroyed 73 of 75 chemical or biological warheads, 163 warheads for conventional explosives, 88,000 filled and unfilled chemical munitions, 4,000 tons of precursor chemicals, more than 600 tons of weaponized and bulk chemical agents, and 980 pieces of equipment essential for production of such weapons. The Iraqis destroyed Al Hakam, the main facility producing and developing biological weapons, plus 60 pieces of equipment taken from three other facilities and 22 tons of growth media for biological weapons.
If Middle Eastern and South Asian countries having WMD were by itself sufficient reason to justify a U.S. invasion, there were several other potential targets in the area. In the 2002 report titled, “Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East,” Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies listed Egypt (chemical), India (chemical, biological, nuclear), Iran (chemical, biological), Israel (chemical, biological, nuclear), Libya (chemical), Pakistan (chemical, biological, nuclear), and Syria (chemical, biological).
In fact, Iraq posed no threat. It had destroyed so many weapons between 1991 and 1998 that it had become one of the weaker states in the region. Its military expenditures were just a fraction of that of some of its neighbors. In 2002, Iraq spent approximately $1.4 billion on its military. The United States spent more than three hundred times that amount.
Nevertheless, the scare tactics worked. To make sure they would, the administration deliberately timed the congressional vote to occur before the 2002 midterm elections and threated to brand all who opposed the rush to war as unpatriotic and cowardly at a time of grave national crisis. Many caved in to the pressure, including Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. On October 2, 2002, the Senate voted 77 – 23 to authorize the use of force. The House did likewise, 296 – 133. The resolution connected Iraq to Al-Qaeda and alleged that Iraq posed a threat to the United States.
Only one Republican – Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island – voted against the resolution in the Senate. He later condemned the spinelessness of top Democrats who had succumbed to Bush’s blackmail: “They were afraid that Republicans would label them soft in the post-September 11 world, and when they acted in political self-interest, they helped the president send thousands of Americans and uncounted innocent Iraqis to their doom.” Chaffee watched as cowering Democrats repeatedly “went down to the meetings at the White House and the Pentagon and came back to the chamber ready to salute. With wrinkled brows they gravely intoned that Saddam Hussein must be stopped. Stopped from what? They had no conviction or evidence of their own. They were just parroting the administration’s nonsense.”
Among the groups lobbying Congress to support the war was the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), an influential organization that was considerably to the right of mainstream American Jewish opinion and generally in lockstep with the neocons on Middle East policy. In January 2003, AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr told the New York Sun that “‘quietly’ lobbying Congress to approve the use of force is Iraq” had been of “AIPAC’s successes over the past year.”
Much has rightly been made of the administration neocon’s fierce defense of what they perceived as Israeli interests, which, in their minds, included toppling Saddam Hussein. Again, Wolfowitz led the way. The Jerusalem Post reported that Bush’s appointment of Wolfowitz as deputy secretary of defense had “the Jewish and pro-Israeli communities…jumping with joy.” In 2002, the Forward described his as “the most hawkishly pro-Israeli voice in the administration.” If his was the most hawkishly pro-Israeli voice, other including Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith’s, Perle’s, Libby’s, and Bolton’s were close behind.
Having pushed the resolution through Congress, the administration continued peddling fraudulent and thoroughly discredited claims. Bush unveiled one of the most infamous in the January 2003 State of the Union address, declaring, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” an allegation that Joseph Wilson, former Deputy Chief of Mission to Iraq and former ambassador to three African countries, had already shown to be false. When Wilson later exposed the administration’s mendacity, top officials, including Libby, retaliated by illegally outing Wilson’s wife as a covert CIA operative, destroying her career and putting many people in jeopardy.
Relying of “evidence” provided by Feith, which had been repeatedly refuted point by point by CIA and DIA analysts, Cheney and Libby made frequent visits to Langley, pressing CIA analysts to reconsider their assertion that Iraq had no ties to Al-Qaeda. Tension between administration hawks and intelligence analysts escalated. As national intelligence officer for the Middle East, Paul Pillar was in charge of the intelligence community’s assessments on Iraq. HE described the “poisonous atmosphere” in which administration supporters were accusing him and other intelligence officers of “trying to sabotage the president’s policies.” On one occasion, when Hadley demanded that the deputy director for intelligence revise the “link” paper, Tenet phoned Hadley in a fit of pique and shouted, “We are not rewriting this fucking report on more time. It is fucking over. Do you hear me! And don’t you ever fucking treat my people this way again. Ever!”
But the most ignominious moment came on February 5, 2003, when Secretary of State Colin Powell, the most respected and trusted member of the administration, went before the United Nations and made the case for war. Bush had handpicked Powell for the job. “You have the credibility to do this,” he told Powell. “Maybe they’ll believe you.”
Powell spoke for seventy-five minutes. He brought an array of props, including tape recordings, satellite photos, artists’ rendering, and a small vial of anthrax-like white powder to illustrate how little would be required to cause tremendous loss of life. He assured the delegates:
My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence. … We have first-hand descriptions of biological weapons factories on wheels and on rails. … We know that Iraq has at least seven of the mobile biological agent factories. The truck-mounted ones have at least two or three trucks each…the mobile production facilities…can produce anthrax and botulinum toxin. In fact, they can produce enough dry biological agent in a single month to kill thousands upon thousands of people. … Our conservative estimate is that Iraq today has a stockpile of between 100 and 500 tons of chemical-weapons agent. … [Saddam] remains determined to acquire nuclear weapons. …what I want to bring to your attention today is the potentially much more sinister nexus between Iraq and the Al-Qaeda terrorist network.
It was a thoroughly shameful performance that Powell later called a low point in his career. Many of the claims had already been rejected by both the intelligence community and UN inspectors. Other relied on information provided by known fabricators like Chalabi and “Curveball,” an alcoholic cousin of one of Chalabi’s aides. Curveball had earlier been exposed as a fraud by German intelligence, to which he had provided over a hundred false reports on WMD. “I had the chance to fabricate something to topple the regime,” Curveball later admitted. German officials alerted the CIA that Curveball could not be trusted. Powell actually resisted pressure from Cheney’s office to make an even more direct link between Saddam and Al-Qaeda, dismissing many of the assertions sent over by Libby and company as “bullshit.”
Members of the intelligence community were outraged over Pentagon neocons’ hijacking, distorting, and fabricating intelligence. When the nonexistent WMD later failed to materialize, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof described them as “spitting mad” and eager to have their say. One lashed out, “As an employee of the Defense Intelligence Agency, I know how this administration has lied to the public to get support for its attacks on Iraq.”
Whereas Powell’s speech largely fell flat overseas, it had the desired impact on U.S. public opinion. The Washington Post described the evidence as “irrefutable.” Prowar sentiment jumped from one-third of the public to one-half. When Powell visited the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the next day, Joseph Biden gushed, “I’s like to nominate the Secretary of State for President of the United States.
The United States still needed to secure approval from nine of the fifteen Security Council members, and it needed to dissuade France from exercising its veto. It applied enormous pressure on developing countries, which were all aware of what happened to Yemen in 1990 after it joined Cuba in opposing the use of force against Iraq. The UN gambit might have succeeded had not courageous young British intelligence officer Katherine Gun, at great person risk, exposed an illegal NSA operation to spy on and pressure UN delegates to support the war measure. The expose shocked Britain but went almost unreported in the U.S. media. Despite threats and bribes, and after weeks of unrelenting pressure, only the United States, Great Britain, Spain, and Bulgaria supported the resolution. Among those defying the United States were Cameroon, Chile, Guinea, Angola, and Mexico.
U.S. official sneered at France and Germany for opposing the war. Rumsfeld dismissed them as “old Europe.” In a move reminiscent of World War I vilification of all things German, the House of Representatives cafeteria named French fries “freedom fries.” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called for replacing France on the UN Security Council with India: “France, as they say in kindergarten, does not play well with others.”
Bush remained bitter for years over “old Europe’s” refusal to support the war. In his 2010 memoirs, he accused German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of having reneged on a January 2002 promised to back an invasion. Schroeder angrily refuted those charges, shooting back, “As we know today, the Bush administration’s reasons for the Iraq war were based on lies.” That view was seconded by other German officials. Uwe-Karsten Heye, who was Schroeder’s spokesman at the time, disparaged Bush’s understanding of the international situation: “We noticed that the intellectual reach of the president of the most important nation at the time was exceptionally low. For this reason, it was difficult to communicate with him. He had no idea what was happening in the world. He was so fixated on being a Texan. I think he knew every longhorn in Texas.”
The decision to invade on March 10 had already been made. Meeting with Blair five days before Powell’s speech, Bush proposed several ways to provoke a confrontation, including painting a U.S. surveillance plane in UN colors to draw Iraqi fire, producing a defector to publically disclose Iraq’s WMD, and assassinating Saddam.
As the drums of war beat louder, U.S. media abandoned any pretense of objectivity, trumpeting the militarists and silencing the critics, who vanished from the airwaves. MSNBC, which was owned by General Electric, canceled Phil Donahue’s prime-time show three weeks before the invasion. An NBC memo explained that Donahue “seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration’s motives.” NBC officials feared that the show would provide “a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”
And wave the flag they did. CNN, Fox, NBC, and other television networks and radio stations paraded a stream of retired generals, who, it was later revealed, were being given Pentagon talking points. The Pentagon recruited over seventy-five officers, almost all of whom worked directly for military contractors that would profit from the war. Rumsfeld personally approved the list. Many were flown to Baghdad, Guantanamo, and other sites for special tours. A 2008 expose in the New York Times reported, “Internal Pentagon documents repeatedly refer to the military analysts as ‘message force multiplier’ or ‘surrogates’ who could counted on to deliver administration ‘themes and messages’ to millions of Americans ‘in the form of their own opinions.”
Victory would be easy, the former military officials assured gullible listeners and fawning television anchors, whose networks paid their faux informants between $500 and $1,000 per appearance. Brent Krueger, a senior aide to Torie Clarke, the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs who oversaw the effort, crowed, “You could see they were taking verbatim what the secretary was saying or what the technical specialists were saying. And they were saying over and over and over.” On some days, he noted, “We were able to click on every single station and every one of our folks were up there delivering our message. You’d look at them and say, ‘This is working.’”
Some later regretted having peddled lies to sell a war. Fox analyst Major Robert Bevelacqua, a retired Green Beret, complained, “It was them saying, ‘We need to stick our hands up you back and move your mouth for you.’” NBC military analyst Colonel Kenneth Allard called the program “psyops on steroids,” “I felt we’d been hosed,” he admitted.
Major newspapers spouted the same drivel. In 2004, New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent savaged the Times for having printed stories that “pushed Pentagon assertions so aggressively you could almost sense epaulets sprouting on the shoulders of editors.”
For the neocons, Iraq was just the appetizer. After devouring Iraq, they planned to return for the main course. In August 2002, a senior British official told Newsweek, “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.” Undersecretary of State John Bolton voted for Syria and North Korea. PNACer Norman Podhoretz urged Bush to think bigger still. “The regimes that richly deserve to be overthrown and replaced are not confined to the three singled-out members of the axis of evil,” he wrote in his journal, Commentary. “At a minimum, the axis should extend to Syria and Lebanon and Libya, as well as ‘friends’ of America like the Saudi royal family and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, along with the Palestinian Authority, whether headed by Arafat or one of his henchmen.” Michael Ledeen, a former U.S. national security official and neocon strategist, mused, “I think we’re going to be obliged to fight regional war, whether we want to or not. It may turn out to be a war to remake the world.”
When retired General Wesley Clark visited the Pentagon in November 2001, he discovered that this was more than a pipedream. A senior military officer told him, “we were still on track for going against Iraq. … But there was more. This was being discussed as part of a five-year campaign, he said, and there were a total of seven countries, beginning with Iraq, then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Somalia, and Sudan. So, I thought, this is what they mean when they talk about ‘draining the swamp.’”
People knowledgeable about the region, including those in the State Department and CIA, tried to dispel this neocon fantasy. “It’s a war to turn the kaleidoscope, by people who nothing about the Middle East,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Charles Freeman. “It may be excusable as a fantasy of some Israelis…,” said Anthony Cordesman. “As American policy, however, it crosses the line between neo-conservative and neo-crazy.” Princeton international relations expert G. John Ikenberry marveled at the “imperial ambition” of neocons, who foresaw “a unipolar world in which the United States has no peer competitor” and in which “no state or coalition could ever challenge it as global leader, protector, and enforcer.”
With war approaching, some noticed how few of the war enthusiasts had served their country during the Cold War or in Vietnam, earning them the label of “chickenhawks.” Despite heartily supporting the Vietnam War, most went out of their way to avoid combat. Now they were blithely sending other young men to kill and be killed. Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a Vietnam veteran who opposed the administration’s warmongering, remarked, “It is interesting to me that many of those who want to rush this country into war and think it would be so quick and easy don’t know anything about war. They come at it from an intellectual perspective versus having sat in jungles or foxholes and watched their friends get their heads blown off.” Highly decorated Marine General Anthony Zinni found it “interesting to wonders why all the generals see it the same way, and all those that never fired a shot in anger and really hell-bent to go to war see it a different way. That’s usually the way it is in history.”
It was even more so now. Dick Cheney called Vietnam a “noble cause,” but after leaving Yale for Casper Community College in Wyoming, he applied for and received four student deferments and then another one for being married. “I had other priorities in the 60s than military service,” he explained. Some think it not accidental that the Cheney’s had their first child in July 1966, nine months after the Johnson administration announced it would begin drafting married men without children. George W. Bush used family connections to get into the National Guard, which was only 1 percent African American. Bush failed to complete is six-year commitment and got himself assigned to Alabama, where he engaged in politics. Four-star General Colin Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in his 1995 autobiography, “I am angry that so many sons of the powerful and well placed…managed to wrangle slots in Reserve and National Guard units. Of the many tragedies of Vietnam, this raw class discrimination strikes me as the most damaging to the ideal that all Americans are created equal and owe allegiance to their country.” Future House Speaker Newt Gingrich got a student deferment. He told a reporter that Vietnam was “the right battlefield at the right time.” When asked why it wasn’t right for him, he replied, “What difference would I have made? There was a bigger battle in Congress than in Vietnam.” But he wasn’t elected to Congress until four years after the United States pulled out its troops. John Bolton supported the Vietnam War by attending Yale but enlisted in the Maryland National Guard to avoid combat. He later wrote in his Yale twenty-fifth reunion book, “I confess I had no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy.” Paul Wolfowitz, Scooter Libby, Peter Rodman, Richard Perle, former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, John Ashcroft, George Will, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Phil Graham, former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, Joe Lieberman, Senator Mitch McConnell, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Trent Lott, Richard Armey, and former Senator Don Nickles got deferments. John Ashcroft got seven of them. Elliot Abrams had a bad back, former Solicitor General Kenneth Starr psoriasis, Kenneth Adelman a skin rash, Jack Kemp a knee injury – though he managed to play quarterback in the NFL for another eight years. Superhawk Tom DeLay, the future Republican majority leader, had worked as a pest exterminator. He assured his critics that he would have served but that minorities had already taken the best positions. Rush Limbaugh missed Vietnam because he had a pilonidal or anal cyst.
As war drew near, protestors took over the streets of over 800 cities around the world. Estimates range from 6 million to 30 million. Three million came out in Rome alone in what Guinness World Record lists as the largest antiwar rally in history. More than a million protesters marched in London. Hundreds of thousands marched in New York. In most of Europe, more than 80percent opposed a U.S. invasion of Iraq. Ninety-four percent did in Turkey. Opposition in Eastern Europe ranged from the mid-60s in the Czech Republic to the high 70s in Poland.
In the Arab world, where the United States waged an aggressive campaign for public opinion, opposition was greatest. Polling firm Zogby reported that the percentage of Saudis with an “unfavorable opinion” of the United States rose 87 to 97 percent in one year. A Time magazine survey of over 300,000 Europeans found that 84 percent considered the United States the greatest threat to peace and only 8 percent considered Iraq the greatest threat. Columnist Robert Samuelson wrote, “To foreign critics, [Bush’s] Rambo-like morality confirms their worst stereotypes of Americans: stupid, incautious, and bloodthirsty.”
Contemptuous of global opinion, Bush unleashed a massive aerial assault on March 20. The strategy was labeled “Shock and Awe,” based on a 1996 study by Harlan Ullman and James Wade, who wrote,
“Shutting the country would entail both the physical destruction of appropriate infrastructure and the shutting down and control of the flow of vital information and associated commerce so rapidly as to achieve a level of national shock akin to the effect that dropping the nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had on the Japanese.”
The goal, they explained, was to,
“impose a regime of Shock and Awe through delivery of instant, nearly incomprehensible levels of massive destruction directed at influencing society writ large, meaning its leadership and public, rather than targeting directly against military or strategic objectives.”
The warned that this strategy will be “utterly brutal and ruthless,” and “can easily fall outside the cultural heritage and values of the U.S.”
But under Bush and Cheney, the cultural heritage and values of the United States had fundamentally changed. NBC anchor Tom Brokaw effervesced, “One of the things we don’t want to do is to destroy the infrastructure of Iraq because in few days we’re going to own that country.” Rumsfeld went to Baghdad to thank the troops for their sacrifice, declaring, perhaps a trifle prematurely, “unlike many armies in the world, you came not to conquer, not to occupy, but to liberate and the Iraqi people know this…many…come to the streets to welcome you. Pulling down statues of Saddam Hussein, celebrating their newfound freedom.”
The carefully orchestrated images of U.S. power and Iraqi jubilation to which Rumsfeld alluded quickly gave way to images of Iraqis looting ancient treasures from Baghdad museums. It turned out that the jubilation wasn’t so jubilant or so spontaneous. The famous scene of Iraqis toppling the Saddam Hussein statue in Firdos Square was actually staged by a U.S. Army psychological warfare team who recruited the Iraqis and brought the statue down for them.
With Iraq in the win column, potential targets for future regime changed included Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, the PLO, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia. Perle had earlier gloated, “We could deliver a short message, a two-word message: ‘You’re next.’” In The War over Iraq, William Kristol and Lawrence Kaplan wrote, “we stand at the cusp of a new historical era.” They considered it “a decisive moment” that was “so clearly about more than Iraq. It is about more even than the future of the war on terror. It is about what sort of role the United States intends to play in the world in the twenty-first century.” “The mission begins in Bagdad,” they acknowledged, “but it does not end there.”
No wonder Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told an Arab League summit meeting on March 1, “We are all targeted. … We are all in danger.” North Korea drew a similar lesion but proposed a different solution. Kim Il Jong II said that Iraq’s big mistake was not having nuclear weapons. If it had such weapons, he argued, the United States would never have invaded. North Korea’s official party newspaper, Radong Shinmun, insisted that North Korea, it decided, “would have already met the same miserable fate of Iraq’s had it compromised…and accepted the demand raised by the imperialists and its [sic] followers for nuclear inspection and disarmament. … No one should expect [North Korea] to make any slightest concession or compromise.”
Besides possessing nuclear weapons, North Koreans had one other “advantage” over the Iraqis: they weren’t sitting on top of the world’s second largest known oil reserves. Iraqis had no illusions about the United States’ motives. The more U.S. leaders spoke about freedom, the more Iraqis heard the word “oil.” More than three-quarters of Iraqis told pollster that the U.S. invasion was motivated by a desire to control Iraqi oil. In a November 22002 radio interview, Rumsfeld categorically denied this: “Nonsense. It just isn’t. There are certain things like that, myths, that are floating around. … It has nothing to do with oil, literally nothing to do with oil.”
Alan Greenspan, the long-serving chair of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, thought such denials absurd. “I am saddened,” he wrote, “that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everybody knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.”
Experts estimated that Saudi Arabia, with 259 billion barrels of proven reserves, and Iraq, with 112 billion barrels, sat atop approximately one-third of the world’s supply of oil. Some thought that Iraq might actually have over 400 billion barrels of reserves.
PNAC cofounder Robert Kagan believed that securing that oil would likely require a long-term military presence. “We will probably need a major concentration of forces in the Middle East over a long period of time,” he said. “When we have economic problems, it’s been caused by disruptions in our oil supply. If we have force in Iraq, there will be no disruption in oil supplies.” Michael Klare, who had written extensively on the subject, took a broader view than Kagan. “Controlling Iraq is about oil as power,” he observed, “rather than oil as fuel. Control over the Persian Gulf translates into control over Europe, Japan, and China. It’s having our hand on the spigot.”
Those who wanted to dismantle Iraq’s state-run companies and turn the oil over to the international oil companies ran into a buss saw of defiance, replete with sabotage by insurgents, resistance by unionized oil workers, and opposition by the Iraqi parliament. Kellog, Brown & Root, the Halliburton subsidiary, did receive a $1.2 billion contract in 2004 to reconstruct Iraq’s southern oil facilities, but the Iraqis retained operational responsibility. The United States continued to pressure the Iraqi government to pass the long-stalled petrochemical bill.
U.S. victory celebrations proved premature. Defeating Iraq’s demoralized army was simple. Imposing order proved impossible. Arrogant war planners ignored warnings from civilians and military alike that governing an occupied Iraq would not be the cakewalk they anticipated. In January 2003, the National Intelligence Council produced two lengthy assessments of what to expect following the invasion based on the views of the sixteen different intelligence agencies. Titled “Principle challenges in Post-Saddam Iraq,” and “Regional Consequences of Regime Change in Iraq,” they warned that a U.S.-provoked war would increase Iran’s influence in the region, open the door to Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq, awaken dormant and potentially violent sectarian rivalries, spark a resurgence of political Islam, and facilitate fund-raising by terrorist groups “as a result of Muslim outrage over U.S. actions.” Establishing democracy would be “a long, difficult and probably turbulent challenge” because Iraq had “no concept of loyal opposition and no history of alternation of power.”
Similar conclusions had been drawn after a series of April 1999 war games known as Desert Crossing that were designed to assess the aftermath of a U.S. invasion. General Zinni, who led the effort, became adamantly opposed to the war. He lambasted hawks who belittled the importance of public opinion in the Muslim world: “I’m not sure which planet they live on, because it isn’t the one that I travel.” Michael Scheuer, the first head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, concurred, noting that “the CIA repeatedly warned Tenet of the inevitable disaster an Iraq war would cause – spreading bin Ladenism, spurring a bloody Sunni-Shiite war and lethally destabilizing the region.”
The information apparently never entered into the calculations of the president when planning for war. Shortly before the invasion, Bush met with three Iraqi Americans, one of whom later became postwar Iraq’s first representative to the United States. As they elaborated on concerns about a post-Saddam Sunni-Shiite split, they realized that the president had no idea what they were talking about and explained to him that Iraqis were divided into two potentially hostile sects. Bush evidently did not understand that he might be handing a suddenly Shiite-dominated Iraq to Iran on a silver platter.
Al-Qaeda leaders thanked Allah for the colossal blunder, both tactical and strategic, of the United States’ neocon strategists. In September 2003, on the second anniversary of 9/11, Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri exulted, “We thank god for appeasing us with the dilemmas in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Americans are facing a delicate situation in both countries. If they withdraw they will lose everything and if they stay, they will continue to bleed to death.” The following year, gin Laden drew on the same “bleeding” metaphor to explain his strategy for having “bled” Russia for 10 years until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat.” He was, he claimed, “continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy,” noting that the half-million dollars Al-Qaeda spent on the 9/11 terrorist attacks resulted in a U.S. “economic deficit” of over a trillion dollars.
Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld made a series of calamitous decisions. Overriding the State Department, the Pentagon flew neocon favorite Ahmed Chalabi and hundreds of his supporters back to Baghdad shortly after Saddam’s fall. U.S. Lieutenant General Jay Garner, to his credit, refused to allow Chalabi to play the role Rumsfeld and Cheney envisioned. The Americans would later learn how suspect Chalabi’s loyalties really were. Evidence surfaced of his ties to Iranian leaders and to the Iranian-linked Shiite militant League of the Righteous, which was implicated in the kidnapping and murder of foreigners, including the 2007 execution-style slaying of five U.S. marines. The U.S. government severed its ties with Chalabi in May, 2008. Three months later, it arrested one of his top aides on suspicion that he had served as a liaison to the League.
From President Bush on down, administration officials were simply delusional. In April 2003, Nightline’s Ted Koppel was incredulous when Andrew Natsios, the administrator of the Agency for International Development, told him that the total cost to U.S. taxpayers would be $1.7 billion. Wolfowitz insisted that Iraqi oil revenues would be sufficient to finance the postwar reconstruction. As he observed, Iraq “floats on a sea of oil.” By the time Bush left office, the United States had spent some $700 billion on the war, not including interest payments on borrowed money and long-term care for veterans, many of whom suffered crippling physical and psychological injuries.
Conditions in Iraq went from bad to worse when L. Paul Bremer replaced Garner in early May. Bremer swiftly dissolved the Iraqi army and police force and ordered former Baath Party members fired from government posts. Looting swept Baghdad as undermanned coalition forces could not maintain order. While national treasure disappeared from Iraq’s museums, U.S. troops and tanks protected only the Oil Ministry building. The country rapidly descended into chaos as electricity failed, water supplies dried up, sewage ran in the streets, and the sick and wounded overwhelmed hospitals. While Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), operating out of the heavily fortified Green Zone, issued upbeat reports, the insurgency, fueling by armed and disgruntled former Iraqi soldiers, whom Rumsfeld contemptuously dismissed as “dead-enders,” grew and war costs skyrocketed. The Pentagon requested an additional $87 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan.
By November 2003, coalition forces were suffering thirty-five attacks per day. Angry insurgents flooded in from throughout the Islamic world intent upon ousting the infidels. Bin Laden and Zawahiri urged fellow Muslims to “bury [the Americans] in the Iraqi graveyard.” In September, between one thousand and three thousand were thought to have arrived, with thousands more on the way. One highly placed U.S. official noted, “Iraq is now Jihad Stadium. It is the place for fundamentalists to go now, it is their Super Bowl, where you go to stick it to the West…there are an infinite number of potential new players.”
Bremer set about reorganizing the Iraqi economy, which essentially meant privatizing the oil company and two hundred other state-owned companies. Planning for this had begun before the invasion, when the U.S. Agency for International Development drew up its “Vision for Post-Conflict Iraq.” Contracts for $900 million had been awarded to five infrastructure engineering firms, including Kellogg, Root & Brown, and Bechtel. The Treasury Department had been busy circulating a program for “broad-based Mass Privatization” among financial consultants.
On May 27, 2003, Bremer announced that Iraq is “open for business again” and began issuing orders. Order no. 37 set a flat tax rate of 15 percent, slashing the tax burden on wealthy individuals and on corporations, which had been paying around 45 percent. Order no. 39 privatized state enterprises and permitted 100 percent foreign ownership of Iraqi firms. The profits, in their entirety, could be removed from the country. Leases and contracts could last for forty years and then be eligible for renewal. Order no. 40 privatized the banks. Rumsfeld testified that those reforms created “some of the most enlightened – and inviting – tax and investment laws in the free world.” With estimates of reconstruction costs reaching $500 billion, it is no wonder that The Economist called it “a capitalist dream.” According to Nobel Prize-winning, former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz, Iraq was getting “an even more radical shock therapy than pursued in the former Soviet world.”
Caught off guard by the strength of the insurgency, the Pentagon sent U.S. troops into combat without sufficient armor to protect vehicles that were targeted with improvised explosive devices. The sheer incompetence of officials sent by the Bush administration sometimes strained credulity. The Washington Post reported that job seekers were chosen based on right-wing political views and loyalty to the Bush administration, not expertise in development, conflict resolution, or the Middle East. Jim O’Beirne, a Bush political appointee, asked job applicants if they have voted for Bush, if they approved of his war on terror, and even if they supported Roe v. Wade. According to the Post, “A twenty-four-year-old who had never worked in finance – but had applied for a White House job – was sent to reopen Baghdad’s stock exchange. The daughter of a prominent neoconservative commentator, and a recent graduate from an evangelical university for homeschooled children, were tapped to manage Iraq’s $13 billion budget, even though they didn’t have any background in accounting.” The Post reported that many of those tasked with rebuilding Iraq focused instead on “instituting a flat tax,…selling off government assets,…ending food rations,” while the economy collapsed and unemployment skyrocketed.
In May 2003, law enforcement experts from the Justice Department that Iraq needed six thousand foreign advisors to revamp its police forces. The White House sent former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik to be the interim interior minister, along with a dozen advisors. Keri, who would later be imprisoned after pleading guilty to eight felony counts, lasted three months before departing, leaving Iraq in worse shape than when he found it. The Bush appointees proved to be the Keystone Kops of nation building. With a gut-level belief that governments were not capable of providing for their people, they set out to prove their convictions right. By September 2004, conditions had deteriorated so dramatically that Amr Moussa, head of the Arab League, announced, “The gate of hell are open in Iraq.”
Lacking sufficient troops to carry out basic functions, the government hired an army of private security guards and civilian contractors to do much of the work, often at outrageous cost and with little oversight. By 2007, they numbered 160,000. Many Blackwater security guards had served in right-wing militias in Latin America. They and other foreign personnel had been granted immunity from arrest by Iraqi authorities. Other support operations were outsourced to companies like Halliburton, which raked in profits in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait. With 40,000 employees in Iraq alone, it earned more than $24 billion by 2008, much of it coming from questionable no-bid contracts. After the invasion, Halliburton jumped from number nineteen to top spot on the U.S. Army’s list of contractors. When Senator Patrick Leahy confronted Cheney on the floor of the Senate about Halliburton’s shameless profiteering, Cheney erupted, “Fuck yourself.” Not only were Halliburton and its subsidiary KBR found to have repeatedly overcharged the government, buy KBR’s shoddy electrical work on U.S. bases resulted in hundreds of electrical fires and the electrocution of numerous soldiers.
Conditions deteriorated further on February 22, 2006, when a bomb destroyed the golden dome of the Shiite shrine in Samarra. Enraged Shiites attacked Sunni and their religious sites throughout the country. Suicide bombings and murders of civilians became commonplace. The country teetered on the edge of civil war.
Award-winning journalist Helen Thomas confronted George Bush: “Mr. President, you started this war, a war of your choosing, and you can end it alone, today. … Two million Iraqis have fled their country as refuges. Two million more are displace. Thousands and thousands are dead. Don’t you understand you brought the al-Qaeda into Iraq?” “Actually, I was hoping to solve the Iraq issue diplomatically,” Bush responded. “That’s why I went to the United Nations and worked with the United Nations Security Council, which unanimously passed a resolution that said disclose, disarm, or face serious consequences.”
Bush had earlier said he invaded Iraq after giving Saddam “a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn’t let them in. Even the Washington Post felt compelled to comment: “The president’s assertion that the war began because Iraq did not admit inspectors appeared to contradict the events leading up to the war this spring: Hussein had, in fact, admitted the inspectors and Bush had opposed extending their work because he did not believe them effective.”
Bruce Bartlett, who served in both the Reagan and first Bush administrations, described George W. Bush’s psychology to journalist Ron Suskind in 2004:
That is why George W. Bush is so clear-eyed about Al Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes you have to kill them all. They can’t be persuaded, that they’re extremists, driven by a dark vision. He understands them, because he’s just like them. … This is why he dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts. He truly believes he’s on a mission from God. Absolute faith like that overwhelms a need for analysis. The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence. But you can’t run the world on faith.
Suskind noted that when people questioned Bush’s policies that appeared to fly in the face of reality, “The president would say that he relied on his ‘gut’ or his ‘instincts’ to guide the ship of state, and then he ‘prayed over it.’” One of Bush’s senior advisors accused Suskind of being “in what we call the reality-based community.” He informed him, “That’s not the way the world works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. … We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Not everyone was so sanguine about denying reality. Seven noncommissioned officers with the 82nd Airborne described the Iraqi situation to the New York Times in August 2007:
Viewed from Iraq at the tail end of a 15-month deployment, the political debate in Washington is indeed surreal. … To believe that Americans, with an occupying force that long ago outlived its reluctant welcome, can win over a recalcitrant local population and win this counterinsurgency is farfetched. … Sunnis…now find themselves forming militias, sometimes with our tacit support. … The Iraqi government finds itself working at cross purposes with us on this issue because it is justifiably fearful that Sunni militias will turn on it should the American leave. …a vast majority of Iraqis feel increasingly insecure and view us an occupation force that has failed to produce normalcy after four years and is increasingly unlikely to do so as we continue to arm each warring side. …the most important front in the counterinsurgency, improving basic social and economic conditions, is the one on which we have failed most miserably. Two million Iraqis are in refugee camps in bordering countries. Cities lack regular electricity, telephone services and sanitation. … In a lawless environment where men with guns rue the streets, engaging in the banalities of life has become a death-defying act. Four years into our occupation, we have failed every promise. …the primary preoccupation of average Iraqis is when and how they are likely to be killed. …our presence…has…robbed them of their self-respect. They will soon realize that the best way to regain dignity is to call us what we are – an army of occupation – and force our withdrawal.
In early 2008, Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard economist Linda Bilmes calculated that the cost of the Iraq War would actually reach $3 trillion, or 1,765 times what Natsios had estimated. What did Iraqi citizens and U.S. taxpayers receive in return? In 2008, the International red Cross reported a humanitarian “crisis” in Iraq leaving millions without clean water, sanitation, or health care: “The humanitarian situation in most of the country remains among the most critical in the world.” Twenty thousand of the 34,000 doctors who had practiced in Iraq in 1990 had left the country; 2,200 had been killed or kidnapped. In 2010, Transparency International ranked Iraq the fourth most corrupt country in the world, just behind Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Somalia.
But the starkest display of what the United States achieved came in March 2008, a month in which Baghdad received two prominent visitors: Dick Cheney and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Cheney sneaked into Baghdad under a veil of secrecy, protected by a massive security force, and then beat a hasty retreat before his presence was known. Ahmadinejad broadcast his plans in advance and drove in a motorcade from the airport. The Chicago Tribune reported:
Ahmadinejad was greeted with hugs and kisses on the first day of his historic visit to Iraq…, marking a dramatic break with the past for the two former foes and a new challenge to U.S. influence in Iraq. …Ahmadinejad…planned to spend two days in Baghdad. He is sleeping outside the relative safety of the Green Zone. … Iraq and Iran are expected Monday to announce a series of bilateral agreements concerning trade, electricity and oil. “There are no limits to the cooperation that we are going to open up with our neighbor Iran,” al-Maliki told reporters. Ahmadinejad was the first national leader to be given a reception by Iraq’s government. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Ahmadinejad held hands as they inspected a guard of honor, while a brass band played brisk British marching tunes. Children presented the Iranian with flowers. Members of Iraq’s Cabinet lined up to greet him. … At every step, Ahmadinejad and his Iraqi hosts underlined the common interests the two countries, whose long-hostile relationship has been transformed by the installation of a Shiite-led government following the U.S.-led invasion. … “The two people, Iraqi and Iranian, will work together to bring Iraq out of its current crisis,” Ahmadinejad pledged. “…Iraq is already in the hands of the Iranians. It’s just a matter of time,” said independent Sunni parliamentarian Mithal al-Alusi. “Ahmadinejad’s message is Mr. Bush, we won the game, and you are losing.”
Standing in the U.S.-controlled Green Zone alongside the Iraq prime minister, Ahmadinejad dismissed Bush’s repeated allegations that Iranian agents were arming and training Shiite militias and demanded that the United States “accept the facts of this region: the Iraq do not like or support the American.”
He was right. The Americans were the big losers, and Iran turned out to be the big winner. Its principle enemy had been eliminated, and its influence was now paramount in the region.
Already bogged down in two disastrous wars, there was little the United States could do about Iran, a charter member of Bush’s “axis of evil,” besides repeatedly decrying its expanding nuclear program, its meddling in Iraq, its support for terrorism, and the inflammatory statements by its president. Because Bush was ben on confrontation with Iran, he missed an historic opportunity to mend relations in the early part of the decade, and to do so on the United States’ terms.
Following 9/11, Iran assisted the United States in its fight against the Taliban – their mutual enemy – in Afghanistan. Then, after extensive informal discussions, Iran proposed a brand bargain in May 2003. In exchange for enhanced security, mutual respect, and access to peaceful nuclear technology, Iran offered recognition of Israel as part of a two-state solution; “full transparency” on its nuclear program; help in stabilizing Iraq; action against terrorist groups in Iran; the halting of material support for Palestinian opposition groups, including Hamas, and pressuring them to “stop violent actions against civilians” in Israel; and a concerted effort to transform Hezbollah into a “mere political organization within Lebanon.” But because the administration neocons were intent on toppling the Iranian regime, not improving relations with it, they rejected the Iranian initiative and girded for war. It was a blunder of epic proportions.
In 2005, Philip Giraldi, a former senior CIA official, reported, “The Pentagon, acting under instructions from…Cheney’s office,” has ordered the U.S. Strategic Command to prepare plans for a “large-scale air assault on Iran employing both conventional and tactical nuclear weapons.” Nuclear weapons were reserved for hardened and underground facilities and the uranium enrichment plant at Natanz. Vehement objections by the Joint Chiefs forced Bush and Cheney to remove this option. In 2007, the Bush administration again began stirring the pot with Iran. As late as October of that year, Bush warned that Iran was intent on acquiring nuclear weapons and that its doing so might cause World War III. His effort to drum up war sentiment was derailed in early December when the intelligence community released a new National Intelligence Estimate concluding with “high confidence” that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, repudiating its findings of only two years earlier.
The greater threat to the U.S. came from neighboring Pakistan, which had played such a crucial role in creating and sustaining the Taliban. Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), had also maintained close ties with Al-Qaeda, even sending Islamic militants for training in Al-Qaeda camps. The militants were then deployed to wage a war of terror to dislodge Indian control of the disputed territory of Kashmir. Just two days after 9/11, Bush gave the Pakistanis an ultimatum. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage handed General Mahmood Ahmad, head of the ISI, a list of seven non-negotiable demands, including ending Pakistani support for and diplomatic relations with the Afghan Taliban, granting overflight rights to U.S. airplanes and access to naval bases and airports, and publicly condemning terrorism. According to President Pervez Musharraf, Armitage told Ahmad that Pakistan would be bombed “back to the Stone Age” if it didn’t comply. Though the Pakistanis mistrusted the United States and blamed it for many of their problems – “After the Soviets were forced out of Afghanistan,” said Shamshad Ahmad, Pakistan’s UN ambassador and a former foreign secretary, “you left us in the lurch with all the problems stemming from the war: an influx of refugees, the drug and gun running, a Kalashnikov culture” – Pakistan had little choice but comply. Pakistan’s acquiescence, though halfhearted at best, opened the door to a flood of U.S. military aid as Bush lifted the ban on arms sales to India and Pakistan that Clinton had put into place following their 1998 nuclear tests. Despite Pakistan’s promise to assist U.S. efforts, its primary focus remained on India, and the ISI continued to support anti-U.S. Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.
Tension between India and Pakistan had flared anew when Islamic militants staged an attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001. War between the two nuclear-armed states seemed imminent. A million soldiers confronted each other across the Line of Control in Kashmir. Experts feared that the Indian army would overrun its Pakistani counterpart and that Pakistan would retaliate, as it threatened, with nuclear weapons. The Pentagon estimated that 12 million people could die almost immediately if nuclear weapons were exchanged. The insanity of the situation was driven home by the comments of General Mirza Aslam Beg, a retired chief of Pakistan’s armed forces, who said, “I don’t know what you’re worried about. You can die crossing the street, hit by a car, or you could die in a nuclear war. You’ve got to die someday anyway.” The Indians were almost as obtuse. General Sundararajan Padmanabhan, India’s army chief, remarked, “If we have to go to war, jolly good. If we don’t, we will still manage.”
The U.S. arms that began pouring into Pakistan further inflamed tensions. Though the crisis was temporarily resolved, large-scale U.S. arms transfers to Pakistan increased to over $3.5 billion in 2006 alone, ranking Pakistan first among U.S. arms recipients. This was even more galling following the disclosure, in 2003, that A. Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb industry, had run a network that sold nuclear bomb designs and bomb-making materials to North Korea, Libya, Iran, and possibly other nations over a fifteen-year period. Khan and his associates were known to have also visited Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Chad, Mali, Nigeria, Niger, and Sudan. Evidence indicates that senior Pakistani military and government officials had supported Khan’s activities. And the United States had turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s bomb project in return for Pakistani aid against the Soviets in Afghanistan – a policy suggested by Brzezinski but enacted under Reagan. Khan confessed publicly to his transgressions, and, the very next day, Musharraf pardoned him, calling him “my hero.” Khan remained under de facto house arrest for five years, but Pakistani authorities never brought charges and refused to allow U.S. officials to question him. A Pakistani senator chortled, “America needed an offering to the gods – blood on the floor. Musharraf told A.Q., ‘Bend over for a spanking.’”
That was more than the United States demanded of Musharraf. A former senior U.S. intelligence official complained to journalist Seymour Hersh, “Khan was willing to sell blueprints, centrifuges, and the latest in weaponry. He was the worst nuclear-arms proliferator in the world and he’s pardoned – with not a squeak from the White House.” The United States instead lavished military aid and political support on Musharraf, who had seized power in a military coup in 1999 and ruled with an iron fist until he was ousted in 2008. U.S. support for the dictator and his military did little to win friends in that impoverished Islamic republic. A 2007 Pew poll found that only 15 percent of Pakistanis had a favorable view of the United States, significantly less than the 23 percent who the previous year had reported a favorable view of Pakistan’s archenemy, India, against which Pakistan had fought four wars. In 2007, 46 percent of Pakistanis held a favorable view of Osama bin Laden. Nine percent viewed Bush favorably.
Nor was Bush making many friends in Russia. Although he said he had looked into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s soul and liked what he saw, Bush, as had Clinton before him, treated Russia with contempt. Shortly after taking office, Bush, ignoring strong Russian opposition, withdrew from the 1972 ABM Treaty to pursue his missile defense initiative. But he and Putin had a surprisingly friendly meeting in June 2001. After the September 11 attacks, Putin was one of the first foreign leaders to phone Bush and express condolences. On September 24, he announced a five-point plan to support the U.S. war on terrorism. Not only would he share intelligence and open Russian airspace to the United States, he said, but he would acquiesce in and even facilitate the stationing of U.S. troops in the Middle East, which many in Russia’s military and intelligence community strongly opposed.
Bush repaid Putin’s largesse by breaking his father’s promise to Gorbachev and expanding ever closer to Russia’s borders, effectively encircling Russia with U.S. and NATO military bases, some in former Soviet territories. The second wave of expansion began in late 2002 and concluded with the admission of Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia in March 2004. The Russians objected vehemently. Extending NATO to former Warsaw Pact nations like Bulgaria and Romania was objectionable enough, but extending NATO to former Soviet republics like Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia was adding insult to injury.
Openly contemptuous of Russian opinion, Bush pressed NATO to expand even further. Croatia and Albania joined in 2008. And he made it clear that he also wanted to add Georgia and Ukraine, despite protests by Russia and warnings from other NATO members that this would seriously damage relations between Russia and the West. Russians were convinced that U.S. democracy programs in Ukraine, Georgia, and Belarus were simply a ploy to further expand NATO and isolate Russia.
U.S.-Russian relations, which had looked so promising in 2001, were badly damaged in 2003 when the United States decided to invade Iraq. Russian officials threatened to veto a war resolution in the United Nations if Bush chose to go that route. Russia’s mistrust of the United States ran so deep that it withdrew the strategic arms treaty designed to eventually mandate substantial cuts in nuclear stockpiles.
In April 2005, Putin used his annual state of the nation address to parliament to lament the breakup of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical disaster of the last century.” Given the Russians’ hardships under capitalism, many ordinary Russians also looked back nostalgically to life in the Soviet Union. In parts of Russia, a Stalin revival was even under way as many citizens wanted to honor his contribution to the Soviet Union’s history, especially his role in World War II, and were willing to downplay his crimes. “They never miss a chance in the West to rewrite history and diminish our country’s role in the victory over fascism, so that’s even more reason not to forget Stalin now,” said Lyubov Sliska, a parliamentary first deputy speaker.
The Russians also felt threatened by Bush’s nuclear policies. While inveighing against non-existent WMD in Iraq, Bush substantially and dangerously lowered the threshold for the use of real WMD. His 2002 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) deliberately blurred the line between nuclear and conventional weapons and began targeting nonnuclear nations, which not only eliminated the incentive for such nations not to acquire nuclear weapons, it encouraged them to do so to avoid being targeted. The NPR asserted that the United States had the right to use nuclear weapons (1) if WMD of any sort were used against the United States; (2) to penetrate hardened or underground targets that couldn’t be destroyed with conventional weapons; and (3) if the United States encountered “surprising military developments.” Recognizing the terrifying implications to this new policy, the New York Times ran a powerful editorial on March 12, 2002, titled “America as Nuclear Rogue,” which insisted, “If another country were planning develop a new nuclear weapon and contemplating pre-emptive strikes against a list of non-nuclear powers, Washington would rightly label that nation a dangerous rogue state. Yet such is the course recommended to President Bush by a new Pentagon planning paper that became public last weekend. … Where the Pentagon review goes very wrong is in lowering the threshold for using nuclear weapons and in undermining the effectiveness of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. According to the Treaty, the United States and other nuclear powers were legally obliged to move toward eliminating their nuclear arsenal. Not only did Bush ignore that provision, he advocated developing a new generation of miniature nuclear weapons and bunker-busting bombs whose smaller size would make them more usable in combat situations.
Bush’s nuclear policy threatened to destabilize the entire nonproliferation regime. In his riveting Peace Declaration of August 6, 2003, Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba lashed out at the United States’ recklessness: “The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the central international agreement guiding the elimination of nuclear weapons, is on the verge of collapse. The chief cause is U.S. nuclear policy that, by openly declaring the possibility of a pre-emptive nuclear first strike and calling for resumed research into mini-nukes and other so-called ‘usable nuclear weapons,’ appear to worship the nuclear weapons as God.”
Russian leaders took issue with several aspects of the NPR, but their reaction was muted compared to the shock caused by a spring 2006 article in the March-April issue of Foreign Affairs, the journal of the Council on Foreign Relations, the seat of the nation’s foreign policy establishment. In the article, Keir Lieber of Notre Dame and Daryl Press of the University of Pennsylvania analyzed the relative strengths and weakness of U.S., Russian, and Chinese nuclear forces and concluded that the dramatic post-Cold War improvement in U.S. nuclear capabilities, combined with the “precipitous decline of Russia’s arsenal, and the glacial pace of modernization of China’s nuclear forces,” created a situation in which neither the Russians nor the Chinese could effectively retaliate against a U.S. nuclear attack. That gave the United States its long-sought first-strike capability. The United States could destroy Russia or China with impunity. The United States’ long-standing adversaries were unable to retaliate and would remain so for the foreseeable future.
The authors also conjectured about the real reasoning behind U.S. insistence on a missile defense shield. Such a shield would not, as typically assumed, be of value in a defensive context as a “stand-alone shield” against a large-scale Russian missile barrage. Its value would come in an offensive context, protecting the United States against a retaliatory attack by a tiny number of Russian or Chinese weapons that might survive a U.S. first strike.
Lieber and Press had actually been floating these ideas for a couple of years in academic circles. But their publication in Foreign Affairs hit like a sledgehammer. The Washington Post reported that the article “sent heads spinning” in Russia “with visions of Dr. Strangelove.” Russian economist and former acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar wrote in the Financial Times, “The publication of these ideas in a respectable American journal has had an explosive effect. Even those Russian journalist and analysts who are not prone to hysteria or anti-Americanism took it as an outline of the official position of the U.S. administration.”
Putin immediately announced that Russia would spend whatever was necessary to maintain its deterrent capability. But the publication was “a major blow to Putin’s prestige,” said Vitaly Shlykov, a strategic analyst formerly with the Soviet military intelligence agency GRU. “Now he will pull out all the stops and spend whatever necessary to modernize Russia’s nuclear deterrent,” Shlykov predicted. Some Russian experts pointed to the fact that a new generation of nuclear missiles was about to come on line. They had been developed in response to Bush’s abrogating the ABM treaty in 2001 and included Topol-M ICBMs and, a little later, Bulava missiles for nuclear submarines.
Russian experts debated the article’s timing and the message the CFR was trying to convey. “Many people think it’s not a coincidence that such an article was ‘ordered’ by someone,” explained Dmitri Suslov, an analyst with the independent Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow. Because it was substantially true, he said, it had made security experts “very nervous.” He thought it odd that with all the nuclear powers in the world, only the United States still had arsenals pointed and primed to wipe each other out. But publication of the article meant that the situation was not about to change. “At the very least,” he noted, “this article has postponed any chance of talking about removing the MAD framework from our relations with the U.S.”
Others thought it was designed to send a warning about Russia’s growing ties with China. Viktor Mikhaylov, director of the Institute of Strategic Stability and a former Russian nuclear energy minister, dismissed allegations that Russia’s capabilities had deteriorated and offered an alternative explanation: “This was done during our president Vladimir Vladimirovish Putin’s visit to the People’s Republic of China…the Americans probably look at this drawing closer together by our two countries maliciously and malignly. … But it exists and it will be developing.” If that was the intention, Gaidar thought, it would backfire. “If someone had wanted to provoke Russian and China into closer cooperation over missile and nuclear technologies, it would be difficult to find a more skillful and elegant way of doing so,” he wrote.
The Bush administration scrambled to calm the tense situation. Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy Peter Flory released a statement in a follow-up forum in the September-October Foreign Affairs that took issue with both the article’s accuracy and its interpretation. He claimed that the United States was actually weakening its first-strike capability. Keith Payne, deputy assistant secretary of defense for forces policy from 2002 to 2003, insisted that the United States had consistently rejected developing a “credible first-strike capability” since the days of Robert McNamara was secretary of defense. Payne charged angrily, “They cherry-pick and misstate information about U.S. force developments…to fit the policy they have so miscast, while ignoring or dismissing U.S. force reductions and glaring deficiencies that do not fit their characterization. …their message is a gross distortion of U.S. policy, and that distortion is destabilizing U.S.-Russian relations.”
Alexei Arbatov, director of the Center on International Security Studies at the Institute for World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences, thought that Lieber and Press were making a very important point. He acknowledged that Russian nuclear weapons were mostly Cold War relics that had outlived their usefulness and would soon be removed from service. The modern arsenal consisted of three or four new ballistic-missile submarines and a hundred Topol-M missiles, which would suffice as a minimal deterrent but only if kept on dangerous hair-trigger alert. In light of this growing strategic imbalance, Arbatov feared that a crisis could easily result in an accidental nuclear war. He warned, “if Russia feared a U.S. first strike, Moscow might make rash moves (such as putting its forces on alert) that would provoke a U.S. attack. …Lieber and Press” he concluded, “are rightly concerned about that risk.”
Lieber and Press replied convincingly to Flory and Payne, as well as to Pavel Podvig, a Stanford expert on Russia’s nuclear program, who argued that Russian capabilities were far more potent than suggested. Lieber and Press conceded that the Pentagon had cut the size of the ballistic-missile submarine fleet but pointed out that the yield of SLBM warheads had more than quadrupled and their accuracy had markedly increased. As a result, an SLBM warhead used to have a 12 percent chance of destroying a hardened Russian missile silo, whereas now one type of SLBM warhead had a 90 percent chance and the other had a 98 percent chance. A similar situation prevailed with the upgraded Minuteman III ICBMs.
The next responded to Payne by showing that the United States had retained first-strike options in its nuclear war plans, pointing to a recently declassified 1969 document containing five full-scale nuclear attack options, three of which were preemptive. In response to Podvig, they argued that the gap in Russia’s early-warning system was large enough for the United States to launch SLBMs through and hit targets across Russia. Their response did nothing to calm Russians’ fears. Nor did U.S. plans to install a missile defense system in Eastern Europe.
Russia also took sharp issue with Bush administration efforts to weaponized space. Bush appeared to be realizing the vision of the head of the U.S. Space Command, who had predicted in 1996, “We will engage terrestrial targets someday – ships airplanes, land targets – from space. … We’re going to fight from space and we’re going to fight into space. … That’s why the U.S. has development programs in directed energy and hit-to-kill mechanisms.” The rest of the world united in opposition to U.S. plans to expand the realm of conflagration. In 2000, the United Nations, by a vote 163 – 0, passed a resolution on the Prevention of an Outer Space Arms Race, with Micronesia, Israel, and the United States abstaining. Defying world opinion, In January 2001, a commission led by Rumsfeld warned that the United States could face a “Space Pearl Harbor” if it didn’t dominate space and recommended that the military “ensure that the president will have the option to deploy weapons in space.” That year, Peter Teets, undersecretary of the air force, told a space warfare symposium, “We haven’t reached the point of strafing and bombing from space – nonetheless, we are thinking about those possibilities.”
In 2006, UN members voted 166 – 1 in favor of the resolution, with only the United States opposed. At the UN Conference on Disarmament, the United States consistently thwarted efforts by Russia and China to ban weaponization. Among the more bizarre programs the air force was looking into was one called “Rods from God,” which would deploy solid tungsten cylinders twenty or thirty feet long and one or two feet in diameter, that would be fired from satellites at tremendous speeds, easily destroying any target on earth.
Between NATO expansion, U.S. nuclear and space policies, and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S.-Russian relations took a sharp turn for the worse. The hopes for Russian-American friendship and a different world so eloquently articulated by Gorbachev had now definitely been relegated to the junk heap of history. It was as if the Bush administration were creating the nightmarishly militarized nation that Eisenhower had so poignantly warned about in 1961. During Bush’s years in office, military spending more than doubled to reach $700 billion. The Pentagon had increasingly usurped the role of the State Department in foreign policy making, a process that had begun under the Kennedy administration.
It also encroached upon CIA intelligence gathering and had become increasingly involved in overseas covert operations. After marginalizing the agency in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Bush largely completed the decades-old process of destroying the nation’s intelligence-gathering capabilities when he appointed Congressman Porter Goss to replace George Tenet in July 2004. Goss had joined the Agency as a Yale undergraduate forty-five years earlier. But he had become an unbridled critic who, according to Howard Hart, denounced the agents as “a bunch of dysfunctional jerks” and “a pack of idiots.” As director, he undertook the biggest purge in the Agency’s history. According to Tim Weiner in his Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the CIA, “The new director surrounded himself with a team of political hacks he had imported from Capitol Hill. They believed they were on a mission from the White House – or some higher power – to rid the CIA of left-wing subversives.” The agency was further emasculated later that year when Bush appointed John Negroponte to the newly created position of director of national intelligence (DNI).
When former CIA Director Robert Gates became secretary of defense late in 2006, generals were ensconced as director of the CIA, both undersecretary and deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence, chief of the State Department’s counterterrorism operations, and head of CIA covert operations – all positions long held by civilians. Retired Admiral Mike McConnell soon replaced Negroponte as DNI.
The Pentagon also owned or leased over 75 percent of all federal building. And it ran a vast, far-flung network of over 700 – by some counts over 1,000 – bases in some 130 countries that spanned every continent but Antarctica, plus 6,000 bases in the United States and its territories. The Department of Defense Base Structure Report for FY 2008 stated, “The Department of Defense (DOD) remains one of the world’s largest ‘landlords’ with a physical plant consisting of more than 545,700 facilities (buildings, structures, and linear structures) located on more than 5,400 sites, on approximately 30 million acres.” Its thirteen naval task forces patrolled the oceans and seas. The American Enterprise Institute called for turning this network of overseas bases into a system of “frontier stockades,” housing a “global cavalry,” which, “like the cavalry of the Old West,…is one part warrior and one part policeman.”
Douglas Feith outlined the new military posture: “We are performing the most thorough restructuring of U.S. military forces overseas since” 1953, he informed the House Armed Services Committee. “We want…greater flexibility for our forces, their ability to deploy powerful capabilities rapidly anywhere in the world where they are needed.” Feith regretted that September 11 had made the current posture obsolete. “much of our current posture,” he testified, “still reflects the mentality and reality of the Cold War – forward deployed forces configured as defense, tripwire unites and expected fight near where they were based.” But now those forces would be required to “project power into theaters that may be far from where they are based.” “The lessons of the last 15 years tell us,” he elaborated, “that we often are required to conduct military operations in places that were not predicted. … Our goal is to have forces deployed forward in such a way that they can quickly reach crisis spots as necessary in the future.” This would require a rethinking of current basing arrangements. He noted, for example, “Our plans for our posture in Europe include lighter and more deployable ground capabilities, leading-edge air and naval power, advanced training facilities, and strengthened special operations forces, all positioned to deploy more rapidly to the Middle East and other hot spots.”
“The administration has instituted what some experts describe as the most militarized foreign policy machine in modern history,” wrote James Sterngold in the San Francisco Chronicle. “The policy has involved not just resorting to military action, or the threat of action, but constructing an arc of new facilities in such places as Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Qatar, and Djibouti that the Pentagon calls ‘lily pad.’ They are seen not merely as a means of defending the host countries – the traditional Cold War role of such installations – but as jumping-off points for future ‘preventive wars’ and military missions.”
The United States was not only the world’s policeman, it was also the world’s arms supplier, often fueling the conflicts in which it ultimately intervened on “humanitarian” grounds. In 2008, it signed agreements to sell $37.8 billion in arms, representing over 68 percent of the world total. Italy came in second at $3.7 billion. Almost $30 billion of that total went to developing nations, which purchased over 79 percent of their arms from the United States.
It fell to none other than Zbigniew Brzezinski to accurately assess the toll taken on American democracy Bush’s disastrous war on terrorism. Brzezinski was in a good position to know, having played a similar role in stirring up Cold War fears of the Soviet Union. He wrote in March 2007 that the so-called war on terror, by deliberately creating a “culture of fear,” had had a “pernicious impact on American democracy, on America’s psyche and on U.S. standing in the world.” The damage was “infinitely greater” that than inflicted on 9/11. He worried that the administration was exploiting public fear to justify war with Iran and contrasted the United States’ “five years of almost continuous national brainwashing on the subject of terror” with the “more muted reactions of” other victims of terrorism, including Britain, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Japan. He mocked Bush’s “justification for his war in Iraq” and his absurd claim “that he has to continue waging it lest al-Qaeda cross the Atlantic to launch a war of terror here in the United States.” Bush’s fearmongering was reinforced by “terror entrepreneurs…experts on terrorism [whose] task is to convince the public that it faces new threats. That puts a premium on the presentation of credible scenarios of ever-more-horrifying acts of violence.” As a result, “America has become insecure and more paranoid.” For proof, he pointed to Congress’ ever-growing list of potential targets across the United States for would-be terrorists. He also deplored the madness of proliferating “security checks,” “electronic billboards urging motorists to ‘Report Suspicious Activity’ (drivers in turbans?),” and television shows with “bearded ‘terrorists’ as the central villains” that “reinforce the sense of the unknown but lurking danger that…increasingly threaten[ed] the lives of all Americans.” Television and films had stereotyped Arabs, he regretted, “in a manner sadly reminiscent of the Nazi anti-Semitic campaigns,” opening Arab Americans to harassment and abuse.
He noted the impact that the Bush administration’s appalling civil rights records had had on citizens at home and the grave damage the war on terror had done to the United States internationally. “For Muslims,” he wrote, “the similarity between the rough treatment of Iraqi civilians by the U.S. military and of the Palestinians by the Israelis has prompted a widespread sense of hostility toward the United States in general.” He singled out “a recent BBC poll of 28,000 people in 27 countries” that ranked Israel, Iran, and the United States “as the state with ‘the most negative influence on the world,’ Alas, for some,” he emphasized, “that is the new axis of evil!”
Brzezinski concluded by asking, “Where is the U.S. leader ready to say, ‘Enough of this hysteria, stop this paranoia’?” and urged that “even in the face of future attacks, the likelihood of which cannot be denied, let us show some common sense. Let us be true to our traditions.” As Brzezinski repeatedly made clear, terrorism is a tactic, not an ideology, and declaring war on a tactic made absolutely no sense.
Meanwhile, behind the ideological veil of free-market capitalism, the riches Americans continued to plunder the national wealth. Bush and Cheney did everything they could to facilitate the effort, knowing the consequences full well. Shortly before the 2000 presidential election, Bush joked with some of his wealthy followers, “This is an impressive crowd – the haves and the have-mores. Some people call you the elite; I call you my base.”
Within months of taking office, Bush signed a bill cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans. He passed additional tax cuts in 2002 and 2003. Meanwhile, federal spending rose sharply, increasing 17 percent in his first term alone. Under Clinton, federal spending had increased by 11 percent in constant dollars over two terms. By 2004, Bush turned the $128 billion surplus he inherited into a $413 billion deficit. The New York Times reported that for Wall Street, the Bush years were the new Gilded Age. Bankers, the Times revealed, celebrated their obscene bonuses with five-figure dinners. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that between 1998 and 2005, two-thirds of American corporations, at least a quarter of which had assets in excess of $250 million, paid no income taxes. These years saw the sharpest rise in income inequality in the nation’s history. The 44.3 percent of the nation’s income that went to the top 10 percent in 2005 exceeded the 43.8 percent that had gone to the top 10 percent in 1929 and was a far cry from the 32.6 percent of 1975. In 2005, the richest 3 million had as much income as the bottom 166 million, who comprised more than half of the population. The ranks of American billionaires swelled from 13 in 1985 to more than 450 in 2008. Two hundred twenty-seven thousand people joined the ranks of millionaires in 2005 alone. But workers’ wages barely kept pace with inflation, and 36 million were below the poverty line. Almost all the new wealth created went directly to the top 10 percent of the population, with most going to the top one-tenth of 1 percent. In 2006, the twenty-five top U.S. hedge fund managers earned an average of $570 million each. In 2007, their average earning jumped to $900 million.
The International Labor Organization reported that between 2003 and 2007, executive managers’ pay increased by 45 percent in real terms while that of the average executive grew by 15 percent and that of the average worker grew by only 3 percent. In 2003, executive managers in the top fifteen U.S. firms earned 300 times as much as the average American worker. By 2007, that number was up to more than 500 times.
Bush cut the top tax rates on income, on capital gains, which were mostly stock profits, and on dividends, which typically fell from 39.6 percent to 15 percent. The 36 percent marginal tax rate on the richest Americans was the lowest it had been in over eighty years and a far cry from the 91 percent under Eisenhower. But few hedge fund or private equity managers paid the 36 percent rate. Treating their earnings as capital gains, they paid at an average rate of 17 percent. The situation got so bad that billionaires, including Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, publicly decried the “inequality gap.” Buffett, the third richest man in the world, noted that he was taxed at 17.7 percent on his taxable income while his secretary was taxed at 30 percent of hers. Estate taxes, which only the top 2 percent paid, had also been slashed.
Meanwhile, the minimum wage stagnated at $5.15 an hour from 1997 to 2007. In 2007, at the other end of the scale, some 2 million households were worth between $10 million and $100 million, and thousands were worth more than that amount.
Labor Secretary Elaine Chao was the most openly anti-labor occupant of that office in more than a hundred years. She effectively dismantled the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Unions were put under unprecedented scrutiny by Department of Labor agents, while employers were allowed to flout regulations with impunity. As a result, union membership plummeted to record lows, as barely 12 percent of the workforce was represented at the end of the Bush presidency, most of whom were government workers.
Global inequality was even more extreme. A December 2006 report by economists in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Finland found that the richest 1 percent owned 40 percent of global wealth and the top 10 percent owned 85 percent, while the poorest 50 percent struggled to survive with only 1 percent. Per capita wealth ranged, in 2000, from $180,837 in Japan and $143,727 in the United States to $1,100 in India and $180 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. By 2008, the net worth of the world’s richest 1,100 people – its billionaires – was approximately double that of the poorest 2.5 billion people. Some analysts estimated that the world’s richest 300 people had more wealth than the poorest 3 billion.
Despite the wildly erroneous perception of the American people, U.S. foreign aid was doing little to rectify this situation. In fact, according to the OECD, U.S. development aid in 2008 totaled less than .2 percent of gross domestic product, the lowest among twenty-two advanced industrial nations, which averaged .47 percent. Sweden gave more than five times the rate the United States, with Luxembourg, Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands not far behind. Even Ireland gave at more than three times the U.S. rate.
During Bush’s tenure, administration officials and their allies on Wall Street and conservative groups like the American Enterprise Institute sang the praises of unregulated financial markets, which they trusted to generate economic abundance and private fortunes. They turned a blind eye to financial shenanigans and unbridled speculation as the national debt skyrocketed from $5.7 trillion at the end of the Clinton administration to over $10 trillion by the time Bush left office.
Economic conditions declined precipitously with the downturn that began in December 2007. Income and wealth plummeted, and poverty registered a sharp increase. Harvard economist Lawrence Katz put the situation succinctly when he stated, “For the typical American family, the 2000s have been a disaster.” Even before the collapse of 2008, the Bush years had produced the lowest jobs and income growth in the post-war period.
By late 2009, over 40 million Americans were living in poverty. In 1988, 26 percent of Americans told Gallup pollsters that the country was divided between haves and have-nots, with 59 percent identifying themselves as haves and only 17 percent as have-nots. When Pew asked that same question in the summer of 2007, 48 percent responded that the country was so divided, with 45 percent considering themselves haves and 34 percent have-nots.
The United States had become a plutocracy, with almost a quarter of income going to the top 1 percent and the richest one-tenth of 1 percent earning as much as the poorest 120 million. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich identified the new plutocrats: “With the exception of a few entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, they’re top executives of big corporations and Wall Street, hedge-fund managers, and private equity managers.”
By November 2008, it was clear to most Americans that Bush-Cheney foreign and domestic policies had been an unmitigated disaster. A CBS News/New York Times poll placed Bush’s final approval rating at 22 percent, down from 90 percent following the 9/11 attack. Cheney’s stood at an abysmal 13 percent.
Americans hungered for change. They were fed up with the United States’ wars, tired of runaway defense spending, concerned about assaults on constitutional rights, angry over policies that favored the very wealthy, and worried about the deepening economic collapse. But few people realized how powerful the beneficiaries of the United States’ military-industrial complex and national security state had become and how fiercely they would resist any change to their rule. They would soon find out the hard way.
Next, Chapter 14: OBAMA – Managing a Wounded Empire