The 12 Year Itch

Dick Cheney likes to read history, especially military history. He disappears into his well-stocked library at the vice president's mansion for hours at a time, reading about Churchill and World War II or other war leaders in other crises down through the ages. Last fall, the vice president read "An Autumn of War" by Victor Davis Hanson, a classicist who lives on a farm in California. In his book, a collection of columns published online by National Review in the weeks after 9-11, Hanson writes that war is the natural state of mankind. Great leaders understand this, according to Hanson. They are not fooled by utopian visions about world peace; they face evil and deal with it. Cheney told his aides that Hanson's book reflected his philosophy.

Before Christmas, Hanson was invited to dine with Cheney and talk to his aides, who also read his book. Cheney was his usual taciturn self, says Hanson, but his questions seemed to indicate that he was interested in statesmen who became warriors, who realized, reluctantly but surely, that military force was unavoidable and necessary. He also seemed intrigued by leaders who were vilified in their own time for being brutal--like General Sherman on his march through Georgia--but whom historians later vindicated for acting audaciously, and decisively.

Hanson was impressed with Cheney's "tragic view of mankind," akin to the ancient Greeks. A man of few words, Cheney may have more in common with the Lone Ranger than Pericles. "It's more Wyoming, the code of the West," said a top aide to the vice president. "It's 'You're welcome around here, neighbor. But don't run your cattle on my land. I'm not going to sit back for that'." Whether ancient Greece or Old West, the vice president has a world view, and it is not the one shared by members of the East Coast foreign-policy establishment, men and women of moderation who believe in reason and dialogue, who think that problems can be talked out. Cheney believes that the world is a dangerous place, that diplomacy can be a trap, that force is sometimes the only choice. Many, probably a majority of Americans, particularly those living in the "red states" between the coasts, agree with Cheney. More to the point, so does President George W. Bush of Midland, Texas.

With his strong religious faith, President Bush has a more upbeat, soul-saving Christian take on life than his somewhat Hobbesian vice president. Bush had something like a conversion experience after 9-11; he went from a politician who was glad, and perhaps a little surprised, to be president, to a war leader with a providential sense of duty and destiny. Together, Bush and Cheney have presented an unwavering determination to rid the world of Saddam Hussein. Almost messianic in their conviction, Bush and most of his top advisers have frightened or perplexed their European allies and many opinion makers in the United States.

The media elites have regularly complained that the Bush administration has failed to give a compelling or even adequate reason to rush into war with Iraq. Saddam has weapons of mass destruction, yes, but he does not seem poised to use them or share them with terrorists. Earlier administrations, including that of Bush's father, were willing to live with Saddam. Is there some underlying explanation why this President Bush was hellbent on war?

The Bush administration is not known as a hotbed of intellectualism, and that may be one reason that so much attention has been paid to the "neocons," the group of neoconservative thinkers who have important posts at the Defense Department and in the vice president's office, especially Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith and the vice president's chief of staff, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, who was once Wolfowitz's deputy in an earlier administration. The neocons have a grand dream, possibly farfetched, of knocking off Saddam Hussein as the first step in reshaping the Middle East and making it free and democratic. It is widely whispered around Washington that Wolfowitz &Co. are in some nefarious way fronting for Israel, putting Zionist interests over those of the United States. The neocons are an important presence in the councils of power, and Wolfowitz has been smart about pushing his views. But neocon ideology would still be limited to interesting think-tank seminars were it not for a far more powerful force driving America down the road to Baghdad.

Bush and Cheney are caricatured by Europeans, and not a few Americans, as "cowboys." The president, with his John Wayne "dead or alive" metaphors, and the vice president, with his Gary Cooper terse-but-tough pronouncements, do sound like a couple of sheriffs, telling the bad guys they have 10 minutes to come out of the bar or "we're coming in to get you." On "Meet the Press" last week Cheney actually embraced, as he put it, "the notion that the president is a cowboy." Cheney said: "I don't think that's necessarily a bad idea. I think the fact of the matter is, he cuts to the chase, he is very direct."

Too blunt, it seems, for the requirements of diplomacy. The mishandling of the U.N. vote by the Bush administration, the undercurrent of indifference to international support, may isolate America the Hyperpower for years to come. The swagger of the White House hawks, as well as the bluster of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, are easy to mock. But it is a mistake to belittle or misunderstand (or, as Bush might say, "misunderestimate") the roots of the Bush administration's determination to go to war.

Bush and Cheney may have trouble articulating (or admitting) it, but they come from a deep and wide tradition of American foreign policy. To understand why America has sent several hundred thousand troops after Saddam and his poisonous weapons, it is essential to grasp the code that Bush and Cheney--and a great many of their countrymen--live by. Americans through much of their history have been uninterested in world affairs. But if their honor and security are threatened, most Americans have been more than willing to use force, and plenty of it, to defend themselves. Op-ed writers may not regard Iraq as an immediate threat, and they may wring their hands about the Bush administration's failure of diplomacy, but most Americans--by a 2-to-1 margin, according to the latest Gallup poll--were willing to go to war to get rid of the Iraqi strongman, with or without the United Nations.

Americans are peace-loving and at times isolationist, but they can also be violent and warlike. As historian Walter Russell Mead points out, "Since the Vietnam War, taken by some as opening a new era of reluctance in the exercise of military power, the United States has deployed combat forces in, or used deadly force over, Cambodia, Iran, Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Turkey, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Sudan, Afghanistan, the South China Sea, Liberia, Macedonia, Albania and Yugoslavia. This is a record that no other country comes close to matching."

Politicians, notes Mead, usually don't get into trouble for using too much force; they are punished by the voters for using too little. The Korean and Vietnam wars lost public support in part because American leaders were unwilling to go all-out to win those wars. President George H.W. Bush was not unpopular for sending ground troops into Kuwait, but as time went on he was blamed for not finishing the job by marching to Baghdad and knocking off Saddam.

These lessons are not lost on George W. Bush, who may not read as much as Dick Cheney but who has an instinctive feel for popular values and attitudes. Bush is not going to war to win votes, but he knows that a war is not politically unpopular. It is simplistic, and probably wrong, to say that George Bush the Son is going to war to accomplish what his father could not. Neither psychology nor politics adequately explains Bush's unwavering resolve to remove Saddam from power. Rather, the president is in the mainstream of a deep and mighty American river, a slow and reluctant but overwhelming desire to fight when Americans feel that their lives and freedom are in danger. The threat from Saddam may not have been immediately obvious to many Americans, but a clear majority has taken Bush at his word that Saddam must be removed for the safety of America's "skies and cities," as Bush has put it.

For almost a decade, Iraq was a disagreeable problem that most policymakers preferred to pass on to their successors. (To some degree, Saddam is a problem of America's own making; during the 1980s the United States aided Iraq in its war against Iran, even helping Saddam get the ingredients for bio-chem weapons.) America has, in effect, been at war with Saddam for 12 years, ever since it drove the Iraqi dictator from Kuwait in 1991 and imposed a "no fly" zone over two thirds of his country. The CIA has tried, off and on, to get rid of Saddam, and "regime change" in Iraq has been the official policy of the United States government since 1998. But despite occasional volleys of cruise missiles and periodic spasms of determined talk, the war against Saddam was--until September 11, 2001--a phony war, an exercise in wishful thinking, buck-passing, denial and equivocation. For much of that time, Saddam was able to declare victory and probably believe it himself.

The delusions began with Bush's father. Defenders of the administration of "41," as the Bush family calls the 41st president of the United States, never tire of repeating that the goal of Operation Desert Storm was to drive Saddam from Kuwait, not to oust him from power. Nonetheless, it is also true that Bush and his advisers expected Saddam to fall after the war. The theory, says former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Thomas Pickering, was, "if you beat him badly enough in Kuwait and chased him out of there he would fall like a ripe plum from the tree, because his Army and everyone else would become totally discouraged with the brilliance --of his leadership and do him in." Pickering adds: "It didn't work."

The first mistake was to end the war at least a day early. Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, forcefully argued to the president that Saddam's forces were utterly defeated after 100 hours of ground combat. Powell had been misinformed by the field commander, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. In fact, most of Saddam's Republican Guard escaped back into Iraq. It was a bad sign when Saddam himself did not show up to sign the ceasefire papers but instead sent second-rank generals. The message was, or should have been, perfectly clear: Saddam wasn't surrendering.

In the days after the gulf war, the Butcher of Baghdad used his Republican Guard to smash the rebellions by the Shiites in the south and Kurds in the north. Although the United States still had tens of thousands of troops in the region, Washington decided not to intervene (except to provide relief to Kurdish refugees in the north). The explanation offered by administration briefers was that the international coalition assembled to drive Saddam from Kuwait would not support rebellions that might dismember Iraq. Civil war in Iraq would be "destabilizing," said Bush administration officials. The Shiites might make common cause with Iran, threatening Sunni-controlled Saudi Arabia. The concern was justifiable and remains one of the worries about post-Saddam Iraq today. But it overlooked a larger reality. According to a top Saudi diplomat, in 1990, when King Fahd gave permission to the United States to use Saudi bases to oust Saddam from Kuwait, the Saudi king added, "But he must not get up off the floor again." In other words, Saddam could not be contained; he must be killed. According to a knowledgeable source, the Saudis proposed that the CIA run a covert operation to depose Saddam after the war. The Bush White House decided that the CIA lacked the resources.

Instead, the international community moved to contain Saddam with arms inspections and economic sanctions. Saddam did not wait long to begin his campaign of "cheat and retreat," hiding his weapons programs and from time to time openly defying U.N. inspectors. President Bush, running for re-election, was unwilling to try to pull together another international coalition to finish the job.

To Bill Clinton, Saddam was a dangerous annoyance, but not one worth going to war over. Clinton had run on "It's the economy, stupid," and he had no desire to take on vast and expensive military commitments. The Clinton policy was, in the words of Martin Indyk, a White House Middle East specialist, "whack-a-mole," after an old penny-arcade game. "Saddam would stick his head up, and we'd whack him." When Saddam was caught plotting an assassination attempt against former president Bush in 1993, Clinton ordered a cruise-missile attack against the headquarters of his intelligence service in Baghdad.

The attack, as well as two more bombing raids on Iraqi military targets in 1996 and 1998, seems to have only emboldened Saddam. He continued to defy and evade U.N. weapons inspectors, finally forcing their withdrawal in 1998. He made a mockery of economic sanctions. As early as 1991 the U.N. Security Council approved an "oil for food" deal under which Iraq could export regulated amounts of oil and spend the proceeds, under U.N. supervision, on food imports. For five years Saddam rejected the program, calculating that the resulting hardship would, in time, destroy the sanctions regime entirely. He was right. "Saddam was taking his own people hostage," says Charles Duelfer, the U.S. diplomat who helped run the U.N. arms-inspection program. "It was like one of those airline hijackers in the old days: shoot a passenger every 15 minutes until their demands are met. That's in effect what he did, and the Security Council had no stomach for it."

The Clinton administration finally gave in and allowed Saddam to export more oil to alleviate his people's suffering. The strongman promptly pocketed secret kickbacks, which he used to build more palaces--and fund his secret WMD program. "We could see this happening," said one Clinton administration official, "but there wasn't a whole lot we could do about it."

The Clinton administration did make covert attempts to overthrow Saddam, but they were halfhearted. A swashbuckling CIA case officer named Bob Baer helped organize a coup plot in Baghdad in 1996 and a revolt by the Kurds in 1995, but both collapsed. The reasons for the failure are revealing. The Pentagon was extremely wary of CIA plotting. The top brass feared that stage two of any coup attempt would require the U.S. military to back the coup plotters with a full-scale invasion. Gen. Anthony Zinni, the then commander of CENTCOM, dismissed covert action against Saddam as a "Bay of Goats," a biting reference to the Bay of Pigs, the failed CIA invasion of Cuba in 1961. Skeptical of Clinton, who was regarded in the ranks as a draft dodger, the top military leadership in the years after the gulf war was extremely reluctant to commit troops and take casualties without the most fervent reassurances of support and success from the White House. National-security adviser Tony Lake found out about Bob Baer's plots in Iraq only at the last minute. "What we had always feared was about to happen," Martin Indyk recalls. "The CIA has some cowboy out there making commitments we know nothing about, to guys we know nothing about." When intelligence sources learned the plot had been compromised, Lake pulled the plug on the operation.

Baer, a spook not easily discouraged, proceeded to organize another plot under a CIA-created exile group. Iraqi intelligence thoroughly penetrated the operation, even obtaining one of the supersecret satphones that the CIA had given the plotters. On June 26, 1996, one of those phones rang in the CIA station in Amman, Jordan. It carried a message from Iraqi intelligence: "We have arrested all your people. You might as well pack up and go home." That was the end of covert attempts to get rid of Saddam. Shortly thereafter, NEWSWEEK has learned, the CIA discovered that Saddam was buying large quantities of Viagra in Amman. The spooks thought about "spiking" the dictator's sexual stimulant but rejected the idea.

By the time George W. Bush became president in January 2001, Saddam Hussein had every reason to believe he was winning his long war against the United States. At the United Nations, the French and Russians, eager for oil contracts, were pushing to do away with sanctions altogether. The U.N. arms inspectors were gone, and no one was agitating very hard to send them back. The national-security bureaucracy in Washington appeared to have no appetite for a Gulf War II. And President Bush, though he clearly harbored some animus toward the man who had tried to kill his father, seemed to have other things on his mind than getting Saddam Hussein.

There was, however, one group in the new administration bound and determined to achieve regime change in Baghdad. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and several other well-placed officials at Defense, State and the office of the vice president were ardent neoconservatives. Strongly pro-Israel, they believed that peace would never come to the Middle East until the Middle East truly changed--until the repressive Arab regimes stopped trying to deflect popular blame at their own failed policies toward hatred of the Jews. The key to this strategy was a reformed, post-Saddam Iraq. The Iraqis had a middle class and oil; liberated and empowered with free markets and the rule of law, they could become a beacon and a model for the whole region. Wolfowitz and his cohorts pushed for Bush administration support for Iraqi exiles who could foment a coup or revolt against Saddam. But the CIA, burned before, was dubious. So were the risk-averse State Department and Defense Department bureaucracies.

The neocons had the ear of Vice President Cheney, but the veep was not, at the outset, one of them. Cheney has long been regarded a cautious and skeptical man. As Defense secretary during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, he did not press to march to Baghdad. He seemed comfortable with the moderates in charge, men like Secretary of State James Baker and national-security adviser Brent Scowcroft. Even in George W. Bush's White House, at least initially, Cheney was not pushing for the overthrow of Saddam. Although he respected Wolfowitz and his own chief of staff, Scooter Libby, both ardent neocons, he was not optimistic that the Middle East could be transformed, and he was in no rush to mount an invasion or order up risky covert operations.

Nor, for that matter, was president Bush. In his first few months in office, Bush was much more worried about the coming threat from China than he was about Iraq. He had no desire to be an interventionist president, to play GloboCop. His foreign-policy pronouncements during the 2000 campaign had stressed the need for humility by the world's only superpower.

Then came 9-11. Almost instantly, everything changed. Bush seemed staggered, but only for a moment. By the time he climbed onto the rubble at the World Trade Center on the afternoon of Sept. 14 to vow revenge, he had dedicated his presidency--and apparently his whole being--to making sure such an attack never happened again. Without much consultation or debate, Bush formulated his own "doctrine," holding that the United States would go after not only terrorists but countries that harbored them as well. At the first meetings to plan the war on terror, held at the president's retreat at Camp David on the weekend after 9-11, Wolfowitz saw his chance. He argued that the United States should remove Saddam as the greatest threat to supply terrorists with WMD.

Wolfowitz was a step ahead of the pack. The decision was made to first drive the Taliban, hosts to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, from Afghanistan. But the idea of taking on Saddam had merely been postponed, not rejected.

Later, when Bush administration officials interviewed by NEWSWEEK tried to recall how and when the president decided to invade Iraq, they had a hard time picking out one turning point. "We never had a decisive moment. It was like water dripping," said one senior State Department official. The public outline can be fairly clearly discerned by Bush's speeches, first his State of the Union when he identified the Axis of Evil to include Iraq, Iran and North Korea--rogue regimes with WMD--then at West Point in May, when he announced that the United States would pre-empt threats from such regimes. But more revealing are the underlying attitudes of Bush and his top advisers--and how those attitudes evolved and changed.

Vice President Cheney was never very fond of the ceremonial aspects of his job, the "traveling to funerals" that the elder George Bush joked about during his time as Ronald Reagan's veep. After 9-11, for security reasons, Cheney was free to vanish to an "undisclosed location." The vice president was busy educating himself. He brought in scholars like Victor Hanson, who taught him about the gloomy burden of the ancient Greeks, and Princeton professor Bernard Lewis, the author of "What Went Wrong?" his best seller describing why the Islamic nations failed to keep up with the West. The Arabs have never been very receptive to Western idealism, Cheney was told. But they fear and respect force. Cheney also dipped deeply into the technical and medical literature on bio-chemical weapons. He read about the ravages of smallpox and anthrax and plague.

Cheney decided that America could not wait to be attacked. He found a powerful ally in the secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. Cheney and his old friend "Rummy" had been comrades in arms in the White House of Gerald Ford during the mid-'70s; Cheney had succeeded Rumsfeld as Ford's chief of staff after Rumsfeld became secretary of Defense. (Rumsfeld holds the distinction of being the youngest--at 43--and oldest--at 70--Defense secretary in history.) Both Cheney and Rumsfeld lamented the weakening of American power and resolve in the years after Watergate and Vietnam. The threat to America posed by terrorism signaled to both men--now at the end of their careers, with nothing to lose--that this was the time to reassert American will in the world. According to aides to both men, Cheney and Rumsfeld talked often in the days and months after 9-11 about the need to be bold.

For Rumsfeld, the war on terror was an opportunity to reform the slow-moving, risk-averse Pentagon bureaucracy. A former fighter pilot and a restless, probing questioner, Rumsfeld had grown frustrated in his first few months in office trying to "transform" the military to fight the wars of the 21st century. But a real war gave him the urgency he needed to make the military "lean forward," in Rumsfeld's favorite phrase. Rumsfeld, a self-described realist, was leery of some of the grander dreams of his deputy Wolfowitz for a renewed and revitalized Middle East. But he was determined to create a renewed and revitalized American military machine that could and would win wars.

Rumsfeld strongly believed that the United States was seen around the world as a paper tiger, a weak giant that couldn't take a punch. He believed that the rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Somalia after the death of 18 servicemen in the battle of Mogadishu in 1993 had emboldened America's enemies. (Rumsfeld was not wrong about this; Al Qaeda had helped organize Somali resistance to the American GIs and exulted at the Clinton administration's hasty exit.)

In January 2001, just before Bush's Inauguration, the then Secretary of Defense-designate Rumsfeld told the president-elect that a crisis would surely come, somewhere in the world, and the world would be watching how the new president would respond. According to Rumsfeld, Bush responded that he was ready to lean forward, to erase any impression of American softness. It took almost no time after the planes plowed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon after 9-11. By nightfall, Bush had decided that he was going to strike back against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan--not with a few cruise missiles, like his predecessor Bill Clinton, but with the full force of the military.

Bush never wobbled. His resolve was strengthened every morning at 8, when the president received his daily intelligence briefing, usually with CIA Director George Tenet present. Bush read a "threat matrix" that showed all the raw intelligence about Al Qaeda's movements and actions around the world. On most days, it was a truly frightening document. Raw intelligence is not precise and is often wrong, but the cumulative effect on the president was to force him to look at a world seething with danger, every morning after breakfast. It did not matter if there was no hard evidence that Saddam was building a nuke or consorting with terrorists. There were plenty of signs from electronic intercepts and other intelligence that he might be. Bush, who by his faith and instincts prefers to see black and white, and not shades of gray, was not about to take the risk.

There was one voice for restraint. Colin Powell, a Vietnam veteran, had been a reluctant warrior as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, initially resistant to the invasion of Kuwait in 1991 and to any engagement by military forces in the Balkans. In his approach to diplomacy and foreign affairs, Powell had been tutored and to some degree shaped by the moderates who ran foreign policy in the first Bush administration, men like Scowcroft and Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger. Powell was in no hurry to go to war in Iraq, at least not without a strong coalition like the one forged for Operation Desert Storm.

At a meeting with the president in August at his ranch at Crawford, Texas, Powell insisted that the United States could not go it alone in Iraq, that allies were essential to any campaign to disarm Saddam. Administration officials now say that the significance of this meeting, first reported in Bob Woodward's book "Bush at War," has been overblown. The White House says it had always intended to go to the United Nations before taking on Iraq.

But there was considerable disagreement within the administration over what might be accomplished at the United Nations. Powell apparently believed that Saddam could be forced to disarm without war--that a firm stand by the United Nations, backed by the threat of U.S. military power, could compel Saddam to back down and give up his WMD. It was a long shot, perhaps, but worth trying. Bush's other top advisers, however, were dubious that Saddam would ever surrender, and saw the reintroduction of U.N. arms inspectors as a snare.

Partly because of this fundamental internal contradiction, the White House gave off confusing and mixed signals last fall and this winter. Was the real goal disarmament or regime change? Was the threat from Saddam building a nuclear weapon or sharing his bio-chem arsenal with Al Qaeda? The evidence and the arguments coming from the administration were never wholly convincing. Moderates from the Bush 41 administration strongly fault national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice for failing to pull together a coherent message and a clear game plan. Rice is a "yes man," says one former top government official. "She thinks her job is just to figure out what the president is trying to say and then to say it more articulately." The splits between Defense and State, between Powell on the one hand and Cheney and Rumsfeld on the other, have been allowed to spin out of control. At interagency meetings set up by the national-security staff to iron out policy differences, the Defense Department sometimes doesn't even bother to show up.

Powell was caught in a bind, painfully exposed by the administration's failed diplomatic dance with the French. Powell had hoped to bring along the French to sign on to a war resolution if inspections failed. But in January the French, claiming that the Americans never had any intention of making the inspections work, began publicly denouncing the Bush administration as, in effect, warmongers. Powell was reported by aides to be truly angry at the French. But he could just as easily have been furious at his own untenable position.

Both the president and the secretary of State have come under fire for bungling the diplomacy, for lacking the finesse of the Bush 41 team that put together the gulf-war coalition. Scowcroft publicly warned that an invasion of Iraq without wide international support would isolate and endanger the United States. President Bush did work the phones like his father in '91. But father and son have very different world views and experiences. Bush Senior, a former ambassador to the United Nations and China, and CIA director as well as a well-traveled vice president and president, is at heart a moderate internationalist, perfectly comfortable with foreign heads of state. Bush Junior, far less worldly, is much more a creature of Midland. President Bush and his father talk all the time on the phone, says a source close to 41. But "his father is not going to say, 'Now, son, you've got to do this'," says the source. "And the son has tried to draw lessons from where the father went wrong." According to this source, President Bush believes that one of his father's biggest mistakes was failing to get rid of Saddam Hussein when he had the chance.

Bush will be remembered as the war leader who finally stepped up to the hard problem and confronted Saddam. The question is whether a nimbler, less heavy-handed approach could have brought America into war with a strong coalition of allies, and not as a lonely and seemingly arrogant superpower. The Bushites are hoping that success will bring round the doubters and naysayers. But a crude, bloody victory could leave the world divided and America in the unenviable role of imperial policeman. That would be a political as well as a strategic disaster for the president. Most Americans, when threatened, are willing to go to war. But then they like to come home.