January 24, 2023 Editor

What Really Took America to War in Iraq

A fatal combination of fear, power, and hubris

By Melvyn P. LefflerFrom the January/February 209 issue: The George W. Bush years

January 23, 2023

image above: Alex Cochran

WN: This statement in the article highlighted below about sums it up:

Spurred by fear, growing confidence in American power, and a sense of moral virtue, Bush embraced coercive diplomacy.

The result was tragic and never-ending to this day.


This article is adapted from Leffler’s forthcoming book.

The president did not agree. That night, when George W. Bush returned to Washington, his main concern was reassuring the nation, relieving its suffering, and inspiring hope. Informed that al-Qaeda was most likely responsible for the attack, he did not focus on Iraq. The next day, at meetings of the National Security Council, Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz advocated action against Saddam Hussein. With no good targets in Afghanistan and no war plans to dislodge the Taliban, Defense officials thought Iraq might offer the best opportunity to demonstrate American resolve and resilience. Their arguments did not resonate with anyone present.

Over the ensuing years, more than 200,000 Iraqis perished as a result of the war, insurrection, and civic strife, and more than 9 million people—about a third of the prewar population—were internally displaced or fled abroad. . . Rather than having spread liberty, the president and his advisers left office witnessing the worldwide recession of freedom.
Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was neither preconceived nor inevitable. It wasn’t about democracy, and it wasn’t about oil. It wasn’t about rectifying the decision of 1991, when the United States failed to overthrow Hussein, nor was it about getting even for the dictator’s attempt to assassinate Bush’s father, George H. W. Bush, in 1993. Rather, Bush and his advisers were motivated by their concerns with U.S. security. They urgently wanted to thwart any other possible attack on Americans, and they were determined to foreclose Hussein’s ability to use weapons of mass destruction to check the future exercise of American power in the Middle East.

Bush resolved to invade Iraq only after many months of high anxiety, a period in which hard-working, if overzealous, officials tried to parse intelligence that was incomplete and unreliable. Their excessive fear of Iraq was matched by an excessive preoccupation with American power. And they were unnerved, after 9/11’s shocking revelation of an unimagined vulnerability, by a sense that the nation’s credibility was eroding.

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Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

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