WASHINGTON (CIRCA) — President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003 is still one of the most criticized conflicts in modern history, and its echoes still loom over the Middle East and United States today. But to fully understand the motivation behind the most defining war of the 21st century, it is important to revisit the era in which it occurred.
The years leading up to the invasion on March 20, 2003, were fraught with fear and a profound sense of vulnerability with which Americans were unfamiliar. Memories of the 9/11 attack were still fresh, the following anthrax attacks brought the threat from weapons of mass destruction from theory to reality, and the petrifying rampage of the D.C. snipers had just stopped months earlier.
Saddam Hussein, then dictator of Iraq, had been a thorn in the side of the U.S. and international community for decades, and the Bush administration was convinced he was hiding weapons of mass destruction, a violation of United Nations resolutions. But what was supposed to be an expedient destruction of the Hussein regime in late March 2003 quickly became an eight-year-long occupation that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, nearly 5,000 U.S. and coalition troops and billions of dollars in reconstruction.
The decision to invade Iraq is still one of the most hotly debated subjects in politics, but national opinion was quite different leading up to the war in 2003.
"I do think it was an inevitability, primary driven by Saddam's character," said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. "The type of commander in chief that Saddam was ... meant that at some point in time, he was going to collide with the major external balancer of the region, which was the United States."
In the years before the 2003 invasion, Hussein had engaged in a brutal eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s, invaded neighboring in Kuwait 1990 and gassed his own people in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1988. After the U.S. went to war with him for the first time in 1991, Hussein scammed the Oil for Food program to enrich his regime and kicked out inspectors responsible for ensuring his compliance with UN mandates on his weapons program. His actions eventually led Congress to pass legislation making it U.S. policy to support regime change in Iraq in 1998.
"It was still a fraught moment," said Michael O'Hanlon, director of foreign policy research at the Brookings Institution. "And it was a time when a lot of people had reservations, but the overall center of gravity was in the direction that the Bush administration ultimately went. And now we know of course that part of that argument was based on a flawed premise."
That flawed premise was the administration's assertion that Hussein was concealing weapons of mass destruction from the international community. In February 2003, fewer than two months before the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration sent then-Secretary of State Colin Powell to the U.N. to make the case for the U.S. position in Iraq.
"Everything that we have seen and heard indicates that instead of cooperating actively with the inspectors to ensure the success of their mission, Saddam Hussein and his regime are busy doing all they possibly can to ensure that inspectors succeed in finding absolutely nothing," said Powell, in his speech to the U.N. Security Council.
Powell made the case that Hussein had a covert weapons program, a claim he said was supported by evidence from intelligence and other sources.
"Most people knew that he did not have nuclear weapons," O'Hanlon said. "But most of us, including myself, certainly felt that he must have chemical and biological weapons because he had them before. And why else impede inspectors if not trying to keep them away?"
The invasion, and subsequent occupation, set off a series of disastrous events, some of which are still being felt today.
"All that central authority that had gathered up in Baghdad all of a sudden was melted down," Taleblu said. "And that open space became a jurisdiction of weak central authority, which allowed Iraq, which for so long had been kind of tightly guarded, to be punctuated by all of these forces."
In the years following the wars with Iran and the U.S., Hussein consolidated power in a country that was remarkably diverse. Iraq was home to a majority Shia Muslim population ruled by a Sunni minority. Ethnic Kurds inhabited the north, while much of the rest of Iraq was comprised of various tribal groups. It was not long after the invasion that Iran, seeing an opportunity to weaken an old adversary, began supporting Shia militias. The result was years of sectarian conflict that eventually helped spawn the rise of the ISIS.
The Bush administration invested billions of dollars in an attempt to rebuild a shattered Iraq. Money was poured into everything from programs rebuilding the Iraqi army to basic services. Ambassador Barbara Leaf headed up a reconstruction team in Basra at the tail end of the occupation in 2010 and noted the corruption and violence still present at the time.
"It was a very kinetic environment," said Leaf. "I had to go out and under armed military escort. And I was trying to wrap up a lot of projects that were born of throwing a lot of money around without ... the local society to absorb it, run it [and] manage it."
The situation in Basra was so poor, according to Leaf, the city only had four hours of electricity per day, despite sitting on top of 85 percent of the country's enormous energy wealth. These were the kinds of issues Leaf and her colleagues worried would result from the invasion.
"Those of us who had worked in the Middle East, I would say there was a large degree of uneasiness about the notion," Leaf said.
But that sentiment was not necessarily shared throughout Washington.
"I would say there was a general receptivity to going into Iraq on the part of a significant part of the Congress, significant parts of the media and significant parts of the public," Leaf said.
She noted that while 9/11 altered the political landscape, it did not alter the mindset of many in government who "believed that we were set on a very disastrous path."
But given Hussein's history of deception and notorious aggression, some believe the path to conflict was already set.
"The type of commander in chief Saddam was ... meant that at some point in time, he was going to collide with the major external balancer of the region, which was the United States," Taleblu said.
It became clear not long after the invasion that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Hussein was captured by the end of 2003, and eventually tried and hung for his crimes against the Iraqi people.
Today, Iraq still remains a fragile state. The country is recovering after losing large parts of its northern regions to ISIS fighters in 2015. Basic services like electricity and clean water are less than reliable, and political corruption runs rampant.
"We opened the door to just a huge amount of instability and human wreckage. And that's something I, you know, as an American, will always regret," Leaf said.
Proponents of the invasion within the Bush administration today are divided. Powell expressed regret for his U.N. speech in 2016, calling it a "blot" on his record. Paul Wolfowitz, Bush's then-No. 2 at the Pentagon and an early supporter of removing Hussein, admits there were missteps during the occupation, but has not gone as far as to call the invasion a mistake. Bush himself admitted at the end of his presidency in 2008 that the intelligence failure leading to the invasion was his biggest mistake. Today, Iraq remains a scar on the administration's record that still divides politicians of all stripes.
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