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 hours earlier.
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
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
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
"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 American leadership."
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 early 1998.
"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
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
"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
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
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 operation.
"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
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 scoffs at.
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 forward.
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."