It was 2:40 p.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, and rescue crews were
still scouring the ravaged section of the Pentagon that
hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 had destroyed just five
|THE WAR CABINET
On the other side of the still-smoldering Pentagon complex,
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was poring through incoming
intelligence reports and jotting down notes. Although most
Americans were still shell-shocked, Rumsfeld's thoughts had
already turned to a longstanding foe.
Rumsfeld wrote, according to a later CBS News report, that
he wanted "best info fast. Judge whether good enough [to]
hit S.H. at the same time. Not only UBL" - meaning Osama
bin Laden. He added: "Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things
related and not."
"S.H.," of course, is Saddam Hussein. The White
House has long insisted its strategy for a war against
Saddam's Iraq - a war that could now begin in a matter of days
- arose from the rubble of the deadly attack that day.
But in reality, Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, and a
small band of conservative ideologues had begun making the
case for an American invasion of Iraq as early as 1997 -
nearly four years before the Sept. 11 attacks and three years
before President Bush took office.
An obscure, ominous-sounding right-wing policy group called
Project for the New American Century, or PNAC - affiliated
with Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rumsfeld's top deputy Paul Wolfowitz
and Bush's brother Jeb - even urged then-President Clinton to
invade Iraq back in January 1998.
"We urge you to... enunciate a new strategy that would
secure the interests of the U.S. and our friends and allies
around the world," stated the letter to Clinton, signed
by Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and others. "That strategy should
aim, above all, at the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime from
power." (For full text of the letter, see www.newamericancentury.org/iraqclintonletter.htm)
The saga of Project for the New American Century may help
answer some of the questions being asked both across the
nation and around the world as Bush seems increasingly likely
to call for military action to remove Saddam from power.
Why does the Bush administration seem hell-bent on war in
the Middle East when key world powers and U.S. allies - such
as France, Germany, Russia and China - don't support it right
now? Or when most Americans say they don't want war, either,
as long as the United Nations won't endorse one?
Why the rush, and why now, when Saddam seems weakened by a
decade of economic sanctions?
The answers are complicated, but most arise from the
concept - endorsed by many of the key players in the Bush
administration - that America, as the world's lone superpower,
should be putting that power to use.
"The history of the 20th century should have taught us
that it is important to shape circumstances before crises
emerge, and to meet threats before they become dire,"
says the PNAC's statement of principles. "The history of
this century should have taught us to embrace the cause of
Ian Lustick, a University of Pennsylvania political science
professor and Middle East expert, calls the Cheney-Rumsfeld
group "a cabal" - a band of conservative ideologues
whose grand notions of American unilateral military might are
out of touch and dangerous.
"What happened was 9/11, which had nothing to do with
Iraq but produced an enormous amount of political capital
which allowed the government to do anything it wanted as long
as they could relate it to national security and the Middle
East," Lustick said.
Gary Schmitt, the executive director of PNAC, laughs at the
notion that his group is a secretive force driving U.S.
policy, even as he acknowledges that the current plan for
ousting Saddam differs little from what the group proposed in
"We're not the puppeteer behind it all," said
Schmitt, noting that before Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush
administration had adopted the moderate policies on Iraq
favored by Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Policy draft on U.S. power
Still, the most hawkish members of the Bush administration,
who are clearly in the driver's seat, have ties to PNAC. Their
ideas about the aggressive use of American clout and military
force arose more than a decade ago, in the wake of the
collapse of communism and victory in the Persian Gulf War.
When the United States routed Saddam's occupying army from
Kuwait in March 1991, most aides - including Cheney - approved
of the senior Bush's decision to not push forward to Baghdad
and oust Saddam.
Cheney asked at a May 1992 briefing: "How many
additional American lives is Saddam Hussein worth? And the
answer I would give is not very damn many."
Yet shortly before that, in February 1992, staffers for
Wolfowitz - who was deputy defense secretary under Cheney at
the time - drafted an American defense policy that called for
the United States to aggressively use its military might. The
draft made no mention of a role for the United Nations.
The proposed policy urged the United States to
"establish and protect a new order" that accounts
"sufficiently for the interests of the advanced
industrial nations to discourage them from challenging our
leadership," while at the same time maintaining a
military dominance capable of "deterring potential
competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global
role." The draft caused an outcry and was not adopted by
Cheney and Wolfowitz.
But in the years immediately following Bush's election
defeat by Bill Clinton in 1992, Saddam's tight grip on power
in Iraq, and his defiance of U.N. weapons inspectors, began to
grate on the former Bush aides.
"They wanted revenge - they felt humiliated,"
said Penn's Lustick. He recalled the now infamous 1983 picture
of Rumsfeld as an American envoy shaking hands with Saddam, at
a time when U.S. officials had thought the secular dictator to
be a "moderating" force in the Arab world.
At the same time, the heady years after the collapse of the
Berlin Wall gave rise to the notion that the removal of Saddam
and the establishment of an Arab-run, pro-American democracy
might have a kind of "domino effect" in the Middle
East, influencing neighbors like Saudi Arabia or Syria.
At the United Nations last November, Bush said that if
Iraqis are liberated, "they can one day join a democratic
Afghanistan and a democratic Palestine, inspiring reforms
throughout the Muslim world."
The neo-conservative ideas about Iraq began to come
together around the time that PNAC was formed, in spring 1997.
Although the group's overriding goal was expanding the U.S.
military and American influence around the globe, the group
placed a strong early emphasis on Iraq.
In addition to Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, early
backers of the group included Jeb Bush, the president's
brother; Richard Armitage, now deputy secretary of state;
Robert Zoellick, now U.S. trade commissioner; I. Lewis Libby,
now Cheney's top aide; and Zalmay Khalilzad, now America's
special envoy to Afghanistan.
In addition to Clinton, the group lobbied GOP leaders in
Congress to push for Saddam's removal - by force if necessary.
"We should establish and maintain a strong U.S.
military presence in the region, and be prepared to use that
force to protect our vital interests in the Gulf - and, if
necessary, to help remove Saddam from power," the group
wrote to Rep. Newt Gingrich and Sen. Trent Lott in May 1998.
Many of the best-known supporters have ties to the oil
industry - most notably Cheney, who at the time was CEO of
Halliburton, which makes oil-field equipment and would likely
profit from the need to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure.
While oil is a backdrop to PNAC's policy pronouncements on
Iraq, it doesn't seem to be the driving force. Lustick, while
a critic of the Bush policy, says oil is viewed by the war's
proponents primarily as a way to pay for the costly military
"I'm from Texas, and every oil man that I know is
against military action in Iraq," said PNAC's Schmitt.
"The oil market doesn't need disruption."
Lustick believes that a more powerful hidden motivator may
be Israel. He said Bush administration hawks believe that a
show of force in Iraq would somehow convince Palestinians to
accept a peace plan on terms favorable to Israel - an idea he
Both supporters and opponents of a war in Iraq agree on one
thing: That the events of Sept. 11 were the trigger that
finally put the theory in action.
"That pulled the shades off the president's eyes very
quickly," said Schmitt, who'd been unhappy with Bush's
initial policies. "He came to the conclusion that the
meaning of 9/11 was broader than a particular group of
terrorists striking a particular group of cities."
The fact that many U.S. allies, particularly in western
Europe, and millions of American citizens haven't reached the
same conclusion seems to matter little as the war plan pushes
A frustrated Lustick sees the war plan as the triumph of a
simple ideology over the messy realities of global politics.
"This is not a war on fanatics," he said.
"This is a war of fanatics - our fanatics."