The Iraq war, also known as the Second Gulf War, began in March 2003. By 2007, it was the longest war involving American soldiers after Vietnam, and the costliest after World War II. It’s also the first time in history that American troops have occupied an Arab nation beyond strictly limited military operations such as missions by the U.S. Marines in Lebanon in 1958, 1982 and 1983, and the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. Why did President George W. Bush decide to invade and occupy Iraq in 2003?
The answer has changed as the complexions of the war and the occupation have changed.
“Regime Change” on the Bush Administration’s Agenda From Day One
The Bush administration set its eyes on Iraq beginning in 2001, well before the attacks of September 11, 2001. Paul O’Neill, Bush’s former Treasury Secretary, recalled that the administration’s very first meeting of its principal cabinet members featured a presentation by then-CIA Director George Tenet about suspicions that Iraq was producing weapons of mass destruction. The 9/11 attacks added momentum to the administration’s stated goal—to effect “regime change” in Iraq.
It Was About Weapons of Mass Destruction
Soon after the 2001 attacks Bush began building a case for attacking Iraq. His administration based its case on two assumptions that would prove false: That Iraq was building chemical, nuclear and biological weapons, and that al-Qaeda was forming an alliance with Saddam Hussein.
Both claims had been discredited by various segments of the intelligence community before the invasion. But Bush either neglected to study the intelligence data on Iraq comprehensively, or was deceived by members of his administration, led by Dick Cheney, who controlled Bush’s access to intelligence reports.
It Was About Establishing Democracy
When U.S. inspectors failed to turn up any evidence of an Iraqi program to build weapons of mass destruction of any kind, the administration’s justification for war and occupation shifted to a new focus: establishing democracy in Iraq, which would then spread to the rest of the Middle East. The administration also said that removing Saddam Hussein from power was justification enough.
Democracy, however, didn’t take hold. Instead, an insurgency broke out. Sunni and Shiite militants attacked U.S. and coalition troops with increasing frequency and effectiveness. Then civil war broke out between Sunni and Shiite militants.
It Was About Restoring Security
As violence and American casualties escalated and Iraqi democracy increasingly looked like an elusive pipe dream, the administration’s justification for staying in Iraq shifted yet again. The objective became restoring calm and security to Iraq and preventing a genocidal civil war between Sunnis and Shiites.
Destabilized and dislocated, Iraq proved a fertile ground for terrorist activity by the group that calls itself al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. The terror group’s activity proved to be a self-fulfilling prophesy that the administration could use to strengthen its case not only for remaining in Iraq, but escalating its military presence there.
On the fifth anniversary of the war in spring 2008, however, the objective of remaining in Iraq was not clearer than it had been five years earlier.