What Bush Got Right on Iraq — and What Obama Can Learn from It

Before pulling the trigger on Iran, the U.S. should review how Bush nearly drove Saddam Hussein from power without an invasion

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SAUL LOEB / AFP / Getty Images

Former President George W. Bush arrives to speak on the war in Iraq at the White House in Washington, D.C., on April 10, 2008.

This article was updated with Condoleezza Rice’s response at 10:50 am

When George W. Bush became President in January 2001, American policy towards Iraq was in free fall and the United Nations sanctions against Saddam’s regime, in place since the first Gulf War, were in tatters. By early 2003, Bush had achieved something most analysts had thought impossible: sanctions on Iraq were tighter than ever and inspectors were back in the country. Most surprising, Saddam Hussein had reportedly offered to go into exile, as long as he could take $1 billion with him.

And then Bush threw that diplomatic progress aside and committed the U.S. to a war that would cost thousands of American lives, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi ones, and more than $700 billion in American treasure. If you factor in veterans care and other costs, the price runs to the trillions. As President Obama heads down his own path to war over Iran’s nuclear program, it’s worth reviewing not only what Bush did wrong as he confronted Iraq ten years ago–but what he did right.

(MORE: Saddam Hussein Would Have Survived the Arab Spring)

In Jan. 2001 the collapse of the Iraq sanctions regime was obvious. Passed in the wake of the Gulf War, the sanctions were intended to enforce provisions of Iraq’s 1991 surrender requiring the destruction of all of its chemical and biological weapons and prohibiting its pursuit of a nuclear program. All Iraqi oil sales were to be controlled by the U.N. But throughout the Clinton administration, Saddam violated the surrender terms and the U.N. sanctions regime. In Oct. 1998 he permanently kicked out U.N. inspectors. By November 2000, Syria had opened an unauthorized pipeline from Iraq. Oil and refined petroleum were flowing across the Turkish border in long convoys of tanker trucks. International flights, also banned under the sanctions, were starting up again. “The U.S. position is deteriorating by the day,” Ken Katzman, the long-time Middle East analyst for the Congressional Research Service, told TIME late in 2000.

By Jan. 22, 2003, things could hardly have looked more different. The year before, the U.S. had won a replacement sanctions regime at the United Nations allowing civilian supplies into Iraq while cracking down on material that could be used for WMD programs. These so-called smart sanctions brought renewed international cooperation and opened the way for more aggressive U.S. enforcement of the embargo. Soon the New York Times reported that the U.S. Navy was “taking a very, very energetic posture” on the enforcement of sanctions in the Gulf, at the same time that U.S. forces were patrolling borders from the air.

(PHOTOS: A Decade of War in Iraq — The Images That Moved Them Most)

After mounting threats of war from the Bush administration in the summer of 2002, Saddam agreed to let U.N. inspectors back into Iraq for the first time in nearly four years. Congress authorized Bush in Oct. 2002 to go to war to disarm Iraq, and the following month the United Nations unanimously adopted a resolution threatening “serious consequences” if Iraq did not allow inspectors full access to all suspected weapons sites. When U.N. and IAEA inspectors returned to Iraq, their access was not complete: in testimony in Jan. 2003, the inspection leaders said weapons inspectors had been harassed and prevented from viewing some sites. But Bush had put Saddam under new scrutiny, and inspectors were learning more about his activities every day.

Though few remember it today, the pressure nearly drove Saddam from power without war. On Feb. 22, Bush had a telephone conversation with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, a Bush ally in much of the pre-war diplomacy, in which Bush said that Saddam had been speaking with the Egyptians about possible exile. “The Egyptians are talking to Saddam Hussein,” Bush said, according to a transcript obtained by the Spanish paper El Pais. “It seems that he’s indicated that he’s willing to go into exile if they let him take $1 billion and all the information that he wants about the weapons of mass destruction,” Bush said. Further, Bush said, Libyan leader Muammar “Gaddafi has told Berlusconi that Saddam Hussein wants to go.” A senior Bush administration official who was on the call confirms that it took place.

The official does not remember what, if any, effort was made by the Bush administration to encourage Saddam’s departure. But when Aznar asked Bush if he thought exile was possible “with some guarantee”, Bush responded, “No guarantee. He’s a thief, a terrorist, a war criminal.” Two days later, Saddam gave an interview to Dan Rather of CBS News saying that exile was out of the question. “We will die here. We will die in this country, and we will maintain our honor,” Saddam said.

Less than a month later, Bush ordered the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Even if Saddam had stayed in power, says Katzman today, Bush made remarkable diplomatic progress through his threats of war and could have effectively contained Iraq by solidifying the gains he had achieved over two years. “He could have easily accomplished his objectives without actually launching the invasion,” Katzman says. That was a contested point at the time–hawkish analysts in the administration and around Washington argued that once the moment of confrontation had passed, the sanctions regime and Saddam’s cooperation with inspectors would end.

(MORE: Are Today’s Vets Better Off?)

But a leading sanctions expert and Bush administration official says that in retrospect it is clear that sanctions pressure, combined with pre-invasion air strikes by the Bush and Clinton administrations, had already accomplished the administration’s goals. “Iraq actually did give up the pursuit of WMD, at least for as long as it was under sanctions,” says Meghan O’Sullivan, a former Bush administration National Security Council staffer now at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “The sanctions, because they were complemented by the [pre-invasion] use of force and other policy tools, did bring about the desired result,” she says, but “no one knew about it because Saddam wanted [his regional enemy] Iran to believe he in fact still had these capabilities.”

Which brings us to the current stand off between the U.S. and Iran. Could Obama reproduce Bush’s successful policy moves without the tragic mistake at the end? There are some similarities. When Obama took office, sanctions against Iran were failing to constrain Iran’s nuclear program or penalize its violations of U.N. resolutions. In June 2010, the U.S. successfully imposed tough new sanctions on Iran, and while they have failed to change Tehran’s commitment to its nuclear program, they are increasingly affecting its economy. U.N. inspectors remain in the country, though they are not allowed completely unfettered access to various suspicious sites.

There are also important differences. The threat of force was more credible in 2002, with Bush’s cabinet full of hawks like Dick Cheney and with 9/11 still freshly seared in the world’s mind. It’s not clear whether Obama–who, among other things, chose for his new Defense Secretary a man who has warned against attacking Iran–could threaten his way to real concessions by Iran’s Supreme leader. So far, notes O’Sullivan, “Iran hasn’t budged on the issue of policy concern: its pursuit of nuclear weapons.”

Obama and his advisors swear they will go to war to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. And they may well. But the lesson from Iraq is clear ten years later. Before pulling the trigger, Obama will need to convince himself that war won’t turn a diplomatic victory into a military defeat.

Update: Bush’s former National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice responded Wednesday morning by email regarding the Bush administration’s follow up with the Egyptians on Saddam’s interest in going into exile. Says Rice: “We actually did go back to the Egyptians — nothing every materialized.”

(VIDEO: Iraqis Reflect on the American Invasion, 10 Years On)

296 comments
SupermedSmi
SupermedSmi

so according to this article, it was WORTH THE PRICE (or at least some of it) the world+USA paid for the war?

the only good thing (or bad, time will tell) coming out of this is USA has become more cautious in using military force, gradually. USA helped 'create' the arab spring which goes nowhere; helped lybia, which got US govt officials & recently a teacher killed... after her hand was burnt, she stopped short of touching syria AND PRC. 

i really thought biden would say to xi jinping: "we r going to bomb u or else." oh well, he didn't. and he later also said:"conflict with PRC NOT inevitable."


i wonder how a republican US admin would behave in future yrs, realizing g w bush DID NOT touch N Korea.

manstrato
manstrato

The US would have clearly won the war in Iraq if we left almost immediately after the invasion.  It is always the treat of war that gets things done, never the war itself, so all one needs to do to make the threats believable is to follow through with credible force.  We accomplished nothing by staying in Iraq or Afghanistan for 10 years, but we scared the bejesus out of every petty dictator on earth when we showed the world that we could overthrow them by force if we wanted to.

If we had left Iraq 3 months after the invasion we would likely still be looked at as heroes (I am not saying we should have been looked at that way, only that we may have).  But much more importantly, Iran, Syria, North Korea, all would have done almost anything we asked of them in regards to WMD programs.  The Iraq invasion was a huge mistake, no question, but even that mistake could have had useful results, if we didn't waste the credibility it gave to our ability to demand an end to WMD development. 

Dayanithi19
Dayanithi19

 Reading "Decision Points" of President Bush would throw more light into the circumstances under which  "Operation Freedom" was initiated. Bush Government, indeed, offered opportunities to Saddam to leave Iraq with his notorious Sons with a pre-arrangement with Saudi Rulers and this was rejected by Saddam.

When CIA interrogated Saddam after his arrest from Tikri Hole and asked about why he did not flee before the War, he had said that he did not believe the threat of American Boots in his soil real. Also, when he was questioned about the WMD which he never had hidden anywhere in Iraq, his reply was that it was a false propaganda by his own Government to deter his neighbour Iran to not to attack Iraq.

congressistheproblem
congressistheproblem

what a crock the article is; is all this recent revisionism to help gw's image (and condi et al) as the worst president of all time - for his betterment or jeb's - or both?

Marcelo
Marcelo

Bush was man bad. he did all for just people, no for humanity. Without God and marcy.

byrontx
byrontx

What b. s. Bush did not get anything right. The article assumes Iraq was an enemy to the U. S. and that was not the case. It had a secular government and was not in cahoots with Islamist terrorists at all. Hussein was near the top of their hit list. 

YehudaElyada
YehudaElyada

Enterprising the war was a mistake that could be predicted ahead of the invasion, simply by learning from the Israeli intervention in the civil war in Lebanon in 1982. You cannot save a people from its dictator and terror regime employing external power, whilst the local enjoy the spectacle without committing to the struggle. Democracy require either, a strong internal popular movement - like the democratization of The Philippines, central Europe and others – or a total destruction of the evil government by a horrible war – like Germany and Japan at the end of WW2. Otherwise you get what becomes apparent in Iraq, Egypt, and Afghanistan. But not all is lost. The so called Arab Spring is the direct consequence of the demonstration in Iraq how weak and rotten are dictators powerbase. Just as the defeat of Germany in WW1 was a prelude to WW2 and the final victory of Democracy, the Iraqi Champaign will result in a lot of turbulence before a far greater tragedy will make the Arabs (not just Iraqis) embrace Democracy, Peace and Human Rights as their top political aspirations.

Don_Bacon
Don_Bacon

The "tough new sanctions" on Iran have been counter-productive, in fact they have encouraged Iran to expand its nuclear program. The sanctions have also served to benefit Iran's growing expertise in oilfield equipment manufacturing, shipping and insurance in the petroleum industry. In other field, Iran has increased domestic manufacturing and export of other products and services.

Meghan O’Sullivan, speaking of Iran's "pursuit of nuclear weapons," which differs from the testimony of DNI Clapper recently, is of course dead wrong. Charging Iran with "ambitions" and "pursuit" is a fool's game.

So what can Obama learn from ignorant fools? Nothing.

rybo1
rybo1

Bush got nothing right in Iraq and there's nothing to learn from him, except, maybe, try not to be a war criminal, who should be facing the ICC along with his henchmen and henchwoman, Condoliza.

ShamsAci
ShamsAci

Would that Iraq War had never happened the world would have been something positively quite different today!

 - A.R.Shams's Reflection - Press & Online Publications - Moral Messages for Humanity.  http://www.arshamssreflection.blogspot.com

leon_fan
leon_fan

.@TIME Nothing Al-Qaeda has done or could do, including 9\/11, would hurt & diminish US power more than Bush's catastrophic invasion of Iraq

HappyJack
HappyJack

How about these currents statistics: The United States has spent 1.7 trillion dollars on this war.  Over 134,000 Iraq dead.  Over 4000 Us soldiers dead and over 30,000 wounded.  President Bush said "mission acomplished"!???  What a moron that goof was.

GarlandNicholas
GarlandNicholas

%s %s Answer: don't be a wimp. Grow a pair. His %s ruined everything. Mid East doesn't respond well to weakness

AlexVallas
AlexVallas

Bush did nothing right with respect to Iraq.  He let Cheney, Rumsfield, Perle, Wolfowitz and a host of others in the Pentagon and White House to make the decision to go to war based on lies and deceptions.  I cannot contain my anger when thinking how many lives were lost due to his incompetency.  What did we actually accomplish?  Getting Iraq and Iran to kiss and make up. 

RazllDazll
RazllDazll

http://edition.cnn.com/2013/03/18/opinion/iraq-war-hans-blix/index.html

It's just not true that GB Junior started the sanctions! They were in place before GBJ and were working! Here's the real skinny on  how well the sanctions were doing before GB junior stuck his finger in the pie for his Oil friends and WMD builders benefit and started a war that killed 100's of thousands of military and civilians, JUST FOR THE OIL!! and to BOOST MILITARY SPENDING on WOW (weapons of war).

Shearnut
Shearnut

I was watching Fahrenheit 911 last night -- and trying to stay objective -- as I realize there can always be embellishing when someone learns too much either direction.  The movie really does make me wonder what the real motivation was behind invading Iraq.  Did Bush really declare war to make a quick couple bucks, all all while assuming the mission would end quickly?  It seems unfathomable that he and his crew would sacrifice so much -- the lives of so many soldiers, the destruction of another country, his integrity -- to make money quick and fast.  In any case, I do question more now why he did declare war.  It's saddening if true that it was only for the all-mighty dollar.  

Letskeepontrack
Letskeepontrack

I was in the US Foreign Service when Saddam rose to power in the mid-70s.  I vividly remember being convinced by a classified report at the time that Saddam would, long term, be our worst nightmare.  I was appalled to find out we supported Saddam during his war with Iran, and in early 1991 I thought ill of GHW Bush for not having taken Saddam out.  So in 2002/early 2003 I was all for GW Bush threatening Saddam and I was irritated by the "No Blood for Oil" yard signs I saw at the time.  But here's the thing:  I didn't dream GW would actually invade Iraq when he did, because he was getting results without invading.  Few seem to recall that Saddam, under UN pressure, was midway through destroying some of his missles when we invaded.  We clearly hadn't seen the limits of how far we could pressure Saddam without going to war, so why would we cut that short by going to war?  Just because our soldiers were getting seasick waiting offshore??  I was thunderstruck by the stupidity of that, and I watched Bush's announcement of the invasion in horror.  There was also the little matter that we hadn't quite wound things up in Afghanistan.  There was absolutely no reason not to follow Lincoln's dictum of "one war at a time".  So while I may have supported an eventual invasion of Iraq, the timing of it, and most definitely the execution of it, were utterly, outrageously unforgivable.

kortee
kortee

nation building in the Middle East, brought to us by the worse planners in American history---civilian and military alike.  

carmel
carmel

I find it amusing, albeit sad, that Bush said that Saddam was ..." a thief, a terrorist, a war criminal.”  Funny that's exactly how I feel about Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice.


Heteroric
Heteroric

Stupid article. Sanctions were working and they predated Butch. The moron and his fellow draft dodging henchmen screwed up the sanctions and launched a need less war. Arguably they are mass murderers.

PeterFrohwein
PeterFrohwein

The Bush Administration lied to us, every step of the way, to get us into a completely unjustified war.   How could ANYTHING be right about that ?   This is how flawed some of our press reporting has become.    This article is an attempt to justify the unjustifiable ! 

RumpleStiltzken
RumpleStiltzken

Liar Liar Pants On Fire. Glad you and the Bin Ladens got rich!

Fla4Me
Fla4Me

The scariest part of this whole terrible event was how easily the great "fee society" with the "free press" and the "educated" population was led down a path of lies into hell.  We teach classes that talk about the events the led to Hitler taking power in Germany and what came after.  Now we can have classes that talk about bush coming to power and what came after.  When do the war crime trials start?

jmac
jmac

Today's NY Time oped by John A. Nagl, retired Army officer and a research professor at the U. S. Naval Academy:   "THERE WAS NO LINK BETWEEN AL QAEDA AND SADDAM HUSSEIN, AND NO QAEDA PRESENCE IN IRAG UNTIL THE AMERICAN INVASION,  which caused social order to collapse and provided the terrorist group with a powerful recruiting message and a dangerous new base from which to attack."

Why is this retired Army office who works for the Naval Academy lying, Groenhagen?   He's not.    History is not going to repeat your lies, no matter how often you come on and link to Republican propaganda.  

jmac
jmac

Richard Perle in an interview on NPR:    " What we did at the time was done with the belief that it was necessary to protect this nation. You can’t a decade later go back and say we shouldn’t have done that."

That's a lie.   It was not done to protect this nation.  Saddam was never a threat to this nation.  He had nothing to do with 9/ll.  Al Qaeda was not in Iraq.  This recent splurge to rewrite history is a strange push.  There was nothing done right about moving the war from those who hit us on 9/ll to a petty dictator in the Middle East.   

SupermedSmi
SupermedSmi

@manstrato "...we scared the bejesus out of every petty dictator on earth..." but NOT the one in N Korea. he launched some nuclear devices AFTER g w bush started the 2 wars.

Nowhere1111
Nowhere1111

@Letskeepontrack The majority of W's cabinet were members of the PNAC- Cheney, Wolfie, Rummie etc. Their publicly announced intent was to take over a ME country and create a democracy. This was in the 90's!!!!! Goggle it.

bobcn
bobcn

@Letskeepontrack

You arrived at the position that Hillary had at the time.  Hillary explained her vote for the resolution like this:

 "We can have this Jesuitical argument about what exactly was meant. But when Chuck Hagel, who helped to draft the resolution said, 'It was not a vote for war,' What I was told directly by the White House in response to my question, 'If you are given this authority, will you put the inspectors in and permit them to finish their job,' I was told that's exactly what we intended to do"

Bush was given the power to get everything he claimed he wanted without war.  He deceived the country into believing he would behave responsibly and honorably.   The description of Saddam's willingness to capitulate in the article above further proves that Bush and the neocons were not willing to be deterred from the carnage they inflicted on the world.

PeterFrohwein
PeterFrohwein

Want the truth ?    Read:  Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War (Isikoff/Corn)

evil.aaronm
evil.aaronm

@Fla4Me When will the war crimes trials start?  Never.  He's a son-of-a-bitch, but he's ours.  Ergo, he's untouchable.  Unfortunately.

KevinGroenhagen
KevinGroenhagen

@jmac The Clinton admin left office saying that Saddam was a threat to the U.S. We're they lying? If not, why do you believe that made that claim?

An al Qaeda affiliate was indeed in Iraq prior to the invasion.

Ivy_B
Ivy_B

@jmac I heard that this morning too and thought what a liar. Perle has a lot of blood on his hands.

Nowhere1111
Nowhere1111

@gary @Shearnut Of course, but that does not mean Bush is innocent of invading for oil and money for the military industrial complex (Cheney was on the board at Halliburton)

carmel
carmel

 @KevinGroenhagen @jmac It's always so interesting to hear Bush's lackeys blaming Clinton for everything.  You couldn't stop the Saudis from crashing their planes into the World Trade Centers and then you launch a totally ill-advised, ill planned (well actually no plan) war that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people and is a breeding ground to terrorist thanks to your ilk.  You ruined the good name of the United States and created millions of terrorists who will, no doubt, strike here again.  I don't know how you sleep at night.

jmac
jmac

@KevinGroenhagen @jmac  Saddam was scared to death of al Qaeda.   He had his own private army.   It's one of the reasons that he justified chemical warfare on the Kurds - he thought al Qaeda were helping them. 

The Clinton administration did everything it could to tell Cheney/Bush the threat of al Qaeda.  They ignored it.   In the meantime, Clinton was ignoring the neocons who were pushing him into war.   

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@KevinGroenhagen @BenevolentLawyer For a serial internet stalker you sure seem to like throwing around the line anonymous coward an awful lot. Get a life Kevin. Start talking like an adult instead of acting like an insecure thirteen year old on a school playground.

KevinGroenhagen
KevinGroenhagen

@BenevolentLawyer@KevinGroenhagen They're not half truths, anonymous coward. Everything I wrote can be verified.

"Bush did nothing good but plunge us into war and debt using the WORST prevarication in the history of American wars."

Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and other Democrats are on record noting that the intelligence regarding Iraq's WMD was consistent from the Clinton admin, which left office saying Saddam had WMD and, thus, was a "clear and present danger at all times, to the Bush 43 admin. So did you believe that prevarication began with Clinton?


BenevolentLawyer
BenevolentLawyer

@KevinGroenhagen Your lengthy rendition of half truths do nothing to rebut the facts. The Iraqi war was unjust and unnecessary. Bush, whom I supported, at least initially, for president was a woeful failure. He led a bunch of war mongering maniacs who lied to us and have cost thousands of American and Iraqi lives and destroyed a sovereign nation. America acted as a world wide BULLY during the Bush years. Bush did nothing good but plunge us into war and debt using the WORST prevarication in the history of American wars.

May history judge him, Cheney, Rice and Rumsfeld as harshly and mercilessly as they deserve. The blood of so many innocents is stained on their faces. They will never know true glory or profound personal peace because of their reckless and heinous disregard for human life.

And you, and other long winded misguided zealots are simply a pathetic bunch of hyper partisan picadors!!!  

KevinGroenhagen
KevinGroenhagen

@carmel @KevinGroenhagen @jmac Your comment is based on colossal ignorance. Let's look at the facts:

- The Clinton admin kept sanctions on Iraq even after others on the UNSC wanted to lift them.

- The UN FAO reported that those sanctions caused the deaths of 567,000 Iraqi children under five.

- Bin Laden told CNN in 1997 that, in response to those deaths, he would send Clinton "messages with no words." He didn't mean he was going to blow kisses to Clinton.

- On August 7, 1998, the 8th anniversary of Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, al Qaeda sent to of those messages when they bombed to U.S. embassies in Africa. This occurred less than a year after our ambassador to Kenya, Purdence Bushnell, warned Madeleine Albright that security at her embassy was inadequate. It also occurred three months after a disillusioned al Qaeda member walked into the embassy in Nairobi to tell U.S. officials about the plot. Both Bushnell and the al Qaeda member were ignored.

- The 9/11 Commission notes that al Qaeda planned for the attack on 9/11 during late 1998 and early 1999. Instead of focusing on the threat that al Qaeda posed at that time, Clinton instead launched a preemptive attack against Iraq and an illegal war of choice in Kosovo.

- Bin Laden sent another "message with no words" when al Qaeda bombed a U.S. ship at a port in Yemen in October 2000. There was still more than three months left in the Clinton admin, yet Clinton failed to retaliate against al Qaeda after 20 sailors on that ship were murdered. This sent the message to bin Laden that he could act with impunity.

Given the facts, how is 9/11 not Bill Clinton's fault? He provided bin Laden with a "reason" for sending him "messages with no words," and then Clinton took no serious action to counter the threat posed by al Qaeda. The Clinton-Gore admin did not prevent a single al Qaeda attack and there is no reason to believe Gore would have prevented 9/11 if he had been elected.

As far as Iraq, it was on the State Department's short list of state sponsors of terrorism. In addition, it was on another list of nations believed to have WMD. There was a bipartisan consensus in this country and a consensus among intelligence agencies throughout the world that Saddam had WMD. Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and other Democrats are on record noting that the intelligence regarding Iraq's WMD was consistent from the Clinton admin, which left office saying Saddam had WMD and, thus, was a "clear and present danger at all times, to the Bush 43 admin. Given that, the question is not why we invaded Iraq, but why did we wait so long? There is a great deal of evidence indicating that Saddam sent his WMD to Syria. He was able to do so because we gave him a year and half to do that.

I sleep well at night because, thanks to Bush, I know Saddam Hussein, bin Laden, and other top al Qaeda members are now taking dirt naps.

jmac
jmac

@KevinGroenhagen @jmac The bush admin was focused on Star Wars.  They ignored all mention of al qaeda.  When we were hit on 9/11, the first thing Bush told his terrorist tsar was - tell me Saddam did this. 

 Or else, his terrorist tsar lied.   Why would Bush's Terrorist Tsar lie about what Bush said, Groenhagen?   We all know who lied and who joked about it at a Correspondence Dinner.  That joke should have been played over and over this week on the tenth anniversary of a very sorry time in our history.  Maybe Bush is still laughing as he proudly displays Saddam's pistol in his Library.