One early evening in November of 2005, I found myself walking through Union Station in Washington, D.C., with then-Sen. Joe Biden. The train that was to ferry us to his resident city of Wilmington, Delaware, had already completed boarding, so we were striding at a very fast clip.
Still, the senator kept talking the entire way. I’d asked him a question as we walked, and he was still answering it as we disembarked in Wilmington 75 minutes later. That question was: Why, three years earlier, had Biden voted in favor of giving President George W. Bush the authority to wage war in Iraq?
Biden’s answer boiled down to this: He had believed that the authorization vote would give the president leverage to force the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to effectively relinquish his illicit weapons program. Further, he had believed that Bush would not blunder recklessly into war. The senator’s windy monologue featured multiple digressions relating to the Bush family’s wealth, to Vice President Dick Cheney’s nefariousness, and to the futile valor of Secretary of State Colin Powell. But those cameos were themselves illustrative of the greater tragedy.
At the time, both of us (and, for that matter, the rest of Washington) were unaware of two rather unusual letters that had been written less than a month after 9/11. The author of them was Tariq Aziz, Saddam’s deputy prime minister. Aziz had sent them one week apart from each other to a former national security advisor to President Ronald Reagan, Frank Carlucci, who in turn dutifully forwarded them to Bush’s assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, Bill Burns. In the letters, Saddam’s right-hand man asked that the dictator’s churlish remarks “be disregarded.” Aziz insisted that the Iraqi regime was “ready to meet any American official, publicly or secretly, to discuss issues of mutual concern. At any rate Iraq has suffered from terrorism”—including, he maintained, several assassination attempts against Saddam and Aziz himself. The deputy prime minister was explicitly imploring the Bush administration: Ignore my boss’s bluster—he’s just playing to his base. We are not your enemy. We should be allies in the war on terror.
Burns didn’t recall anything about the letters (which had been retrieved in a Freedom of Information Act request by George Washington University’s heroic National Security Archive team) when I showed them to him in 2018. The assistant secretary understandably had other preoccupations in the wake of 9/11. And, of course, one should consider the source. Why trust Saddam’s advisor?
At the time of that visit with Burns, Donald Trump had been president for a year. A key to Trump’s astonishing victory over Hillary Clinton was the complete breakdown of public trust in what the Republicans termed the Washington “swamp”—and, as Barack Obama had done in his presidential campaign eight years earlier, Trump repeatedly scorned Clinton and other Beltway sages who had supported Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. The toll of that ill-fated decision, Trump shrewdly recognized, transcended blood and treasure. An entire generation had come of age knowing that Washington was not on the level. Why trust the White House anymore? Why trust intelligence specialists? Why trust Congress? Why trust the media? And so, it followed, why not consider trusting a boastful reality TV star and compulsive disruptor whose Washington inexperience could be cast as a crowning virtue?
That the Iraq War made possible the presidencies of first Obama and then Trump is hard to refute. But this was not why I set out three years ago to write my new book, To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq. Having already written an in-depth book about Bush’s presidency, what continued to eat at me was not so much that consequential decision’s obvious legacy but what the United States failed to learn from it.
Not by design, my book arrives at a time of national crisis, when polls suggest that Americans are fed up with the Trump administration’s pervasive amateurism. But Biden is not yet a shoo-in in the November election. Though the pandemic has revealed a nationwide yearning for straight talk and scientifically validated guidance, recoiling from the White House’s antics has not translated into a reacquired appreciation of old hands on the Hill like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for example—or, for that matter, of the media. Respect for such institutions remains abysmal.
Biden therefore remains afflicted with an indelible weakness—an inability to convince voters that 45 years’ worth of government experience represents a surefire cure for what now afflicts the United States. After all, what did all that expertise get Americans two decades ago? George W. Bush brought with him to the White House a highly skilled staff, featuring a star-studded foreign-policy team that had worked in government going back to the Ford administration. The new president managed to pass major bipartisan legislation with a Congress that was enjoying a relatively even-tempered interval between Newt Gingrich and the Tea Party. Meanwhile, newsrooms were well resourced and not yet convulsed by the internet. All of which is to say that Bush’s first year in office came at a time when Washington was at a peak of functionality.
But the same Washington did not know what it did not know. During Bush’s first eight months in office, not one member of the White House press corps asked any question to press secretary Ari Fleischer about al Qaeda. Fleischer himself had only recently learned of the organization, when Vladimir Putin brought up the subject during Bush’s summit with the Russian leader in June 2001. Bush’s national security team—Cheney, Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice—had each been out of government for eight years or more.
Their experience was shaped primarily by the Cold War and secondarily by the 100-hour-long hot war known as Operation Desert Storm. Saddam’s behavior, before and since the U.S.-led coalition routed Iraqi troops out of Kuwait, was seen as that of a murderous barbarian. At a National Press Club luncheon on Sept. 10, 2001, the featured speaker, Biden, termed the Iraqi dictator a “certifiable maniac.”
“9/11 changed everything,” I must have heard a hundred times in the course of my book reporting. In retrospect, it’s remarkable to see how little change the attacks immediately brought about—and not simply because Bush famously urged Americans a month later “to go about their business.” Though the nation’s capital had suddenly lost its sense of impregnability, its fearful leaders continued to embrace time-honored predilections.
Among these was that Saddam Hussein was a threat to America. Evidence that the dictator had the capability of attacking the U.S. homeland was wafer-thin; that he might confederate with those who had attacked the United States, even less so; that he harbored any ambition to attack the United States himself, nonexistent. Indeed, the letters sent by Aziz to Carlucci shortly after the 9/11 attacks suggesting the opposite—that the Iraqi regime wished to ally itself with the United States against a common enemy—were only the latest such overtures, the others having been previously transmitted throughout the 1990s by Iraq’s United Nations Ambassador Nizar Hamdoon to the CIA.
Now: Should one do business with so unsavory an actor as Saddam? Presidents Jimmy Carter and Reagan had been down this road before, with mixed results. But by 9/11, it was all but universally acknowledged—above all, by Washington’s most experienced hands—that the United States could not do business with Saddam. He was, after all, a “certifiable maniac.”
U.S. history is littered with examples not only of the laxity Americans exhibit toward their morally challenged allies but also of how comically they demonize their adversaries. Saddam was many horrible things, but he was not suicidal. Most everybody in Washington, including the press, failed to see this, and failed as well to appreciate the complicated game of survival he was playing as a secular dictator living next door to the Islamic theocracy of Iran. Instead, went the groupthink: A maniac was capable of anything. A maniac would never dispose of his deadly weapons. A maniac would surely use those weapons—or, as Bush hypothesized about Saddam without a shred of evidence but with little pushback from Democrats or the media, “would like nothing more than to use a terrorist network to attack and to kill and leave no fingerprints behind.”
Even before Feb. 5, 2003, when Powell laid out the soon-to-be-disproven case that Iraq had violated U.N. resolutions by retaining a weapons program, Biden was already sold on the subject, declaring a week before Powell’s speech, “Every world leader in Europe and the Middle East knows he’s in material breach.” This assumption, like that of Saddam being a “certifiable maniac,” was akin to a family fable, a convenient verity that somehow gained credibility over the years even as it took on more hyperbole.
During the campaign, Biden has passed on opportunities to elaborate his lessons learned from the Iraq experience. That’s not to say he hasn’t learned any. A nuclear physicist on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s payroll, Peter Zimmerman, had warned the committee’s chairman, Biden, of flaws in the prewar intelligence. Biden later apologized to Zimmerman for not listening. The question is, who would a President Biden listen to now?
As to who duped whom in the Iraq saga, the blame deserves a wide distribution. Ultimately, however, it’s all in the family—and that, I believe, is the lesson worth absorbing from this tragic episode. Today, even as Americans suffer the latest reminder of what happens when leadership fails them, a long-overdue dialogue about race and power is also underway.
The two conversations belong together. In finally addressing America’s ongoing tolerance of unchecked police brutality, and of the omnipresent monuments to a slaveholding past, Americans are in effect acknowledging an insularity that is racist, but not only that. A democracy whose leaders listen only to each other is as prone to degeneration as any incestuous family. It’s unknowable, of course, whether the United States would have gone to war against Iraq had the so-called experts in the White House Situation Room included smart and accomplished newcomers to Washington who could see the “certifiable” for the tall tale it was. What we do know is that the tale said more about the tellers than most of them will yet admit.
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