Investigative reporter and essayist Russ Baker (www.russbaker.com ) is a longtime contributor to TomPaine.com. He is currently involved with launching a nonprofit organization dedicated to revitalizing investigative journalism. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The Downing Street memos have brought into focus an essential question: on what basis did President George W. Bush decide to invade Iraq? The memos are a government-level confirmation of what has been long believed by so many: that the administration was hell-bent on invading Iraq and was simply looking for justification, valid or not.
Despite such mounting evidence, Bush resolutely maintains total denial. In fact, when a British reporter asked the president recently about the Downing Street documents, Bush painted himself as a reluctant warrior. "Both of us didn't want to use our military," he said, answering for himself and British Prime Minister Blair. "Nobody wants to commit military into combat. It's the last option."
Yet there's evidence that Bush not only deliberately relied on false intelligence to justify an attack, but that he would have willingly used any excuse at all to invade Iraq. And that he was obsessed with the notion well before 9/11—indeed, even before he became president in early 2001.
In interviews I conducted last fall, a well-known journalist, biographer and Bush family friend who worked for a time with Bush on a ghostwritten memoir said that an Iraq war was always on Bush's brain.
"He was thinking about invading Iraq in 1999," said author and Houston Chronicle journalist Mickey Herskowitz. "It was on his mind. He said, 'One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander-in-chief.' And he said, 'My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and he wasted it.' He went on, 'If I have a chance to invade…, if I had that much capital, I'm not going to waste it. I'm going to get everything passed that I want to get passed and I'm going to have a successful presidency.'"
Bush apparently accepted a view that Herskowitz, with his long experience of writing books with top Republicans, says was a common sentiment: that no president could be considered truly successful without one military "win" under his belt. Leading Republicans had long been enthralled by the effect of the minuscule Falklands War on British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's popularity, and ridiculed Democrats such as Jimmy Carter who were reluctant to use American force. Indeed, both Reagan and Bush's father successfully prosecuted limited invasions (Grenada, Panama and the Gulf War) without miring the United States in endless conflicts.
Herskowitz's revelations illuminate Bush's personal motivation for invading Iraq and, more importantly, his general inclination to use war to advance his domestic political ends. Furthermore, they establish that this thinking predated 9/11, predated his election to the presidency and predated his appointment of leading neoconservatives who had their own, separate, more complex geopolitical rationale for supporting an invasion.
Conversations With Bush The Candidate
Herskowitz—a longtime Houston newspaper columnist—has ghostwritten or co-authored autobiographies of a broad spectrum of famous people, including Reagan adviser Michael Deaver, Mickey Mantle, Dan Rather and Nixon cabinet secretary John B. Connally. Bush's 1999 comments to Herskowitz were made over the course of as many as 20 sessions together. Eventually, campaign staffers—expressing concern about things Bush had told the author that were included in the manuscript—pulled the project, and Bush campaign officials came to Herskowitz's house and took his original tapes and notes. Bush communications director Karen Hughes then assumed responsibility for the project, which was published in highly sanitized form as A Charge to Keep.
The revelations about Bush's attitude toward Iraq emerged during two taped sessions I held with Herskowitz. These conversations covered a variety of matters, including the journalist's continued closeness with the Bush family and fondness for Bush Senior—who clearly trusted Herskowitz enough to arrange for him to pen a subsequent authorized biography of Bush's grandfather, written and published in 2003.
I conducted those interviews last fall and published an article based on them during the final heated days of the 2004 campaign. Herskowitz's taped insights were verified to the satisfaction of editors at the Houston Chronicle, yet the story failed to gain broad mainstream coverage, primarily because news organization executives expressed concern about introducing such potent news so close to the election. Editors told me they worried about a huge backlash from the White House and charges of an "October Surprise."
Debating The Timeline For War
But today, as public doubts over the Iraq invasion grow, and with the Downing Street papers adding substance to those doubts, the Herskowitz interviews assume singular importance by providing profound insight into what motivated Bush—personally—in the days and weeks following 9/11. Those interviews introduce us to a George W. Bush, who, until 9/11, had no means for becoming "a great president"—because he had no easy path to war. Once handed the national tragedy of 9/11, Bush realized that the Afghanistan campaign and the covert war against terrorist organizations would not satisfy his ambitions for greatness. Thus, Bush shifted focus from Al Qaeda, perpetrator of the attacks on New York and Washington. Instead, he concentrated on ensuring his place in American history by going after a globally reviled and easily targeted state run by a ruthless dictator.
The Herskowitz interviews add an important dimension to our understanding of this presidency, especially in combination with further evidence that Bush's focus on Iraq was motivated by something other than credible intelligence. In their published accounts of the period between 9/11 and the March 2003 invasion, former White House Counterterrorism Coordinator Richard Clarke and journalist Bob Woodward both describe a president single-mindedly obsessed with Iraq. The first anecdote takes place the day after the World Trade Center collapsed, in the Situation Room of the White House. The witness is Richard Clarke, and the situation is captured in his book, Against All Enemies.
On September 12th, I left the Video Conferencing Center and there, wandering alone around the Situation Room, was the President. He looked like he wanted something to do. He grabbed a few of us and closed the door to the conference room. "Look," he told us, "I know you have a lot to do and all…but I want you, as soon as you can, to go back over everything, everything. See if Saddam did this. See if he's linked in any way…"
I was once again taken aback, incredulous, and it showed. "But, Mr. President, Al Qaeda did this."
"I know, I know, but…see if Saddam was involved. Just look. I want to know any shred…" …
"Look into Iraq, Saddam," the President said testily and left us. Lisa Gordon-Hagerty stared after him with her mouth hanging open.
Similarly, Bob Woodward, in a CBS News 60 Minutes interview about his book, Bush At War, captures a moment, on November 21, 2001, where the president expresses an acute sense of urgency that it is time to secretly plan the war with Iraq. Again, we know there was nothing in the way of credible intelligence to precipitate the president's actions.
Woodward: "President Bush, after a National Security Council meeting, takes Don Rumsfeld aside, collars him physically and takes him into a little cubbyhole room and closes the door and says, 'What have you got in terms of plans for Iraq? What is the status of the war plan? I want you to get on it. I want you to keep it secret.'"
Wallace (voiceover): Woodward says immediately after that, Rumsfeld told Gen. Tommy Franks to develop a war plan to invade Iraq and remove Saddam—and that Rumsfeld gave Franks a blank check.
Woodward: "Rumsfeld and Franks work out a deal essentially where Franks can spend any money he needs. And so he starts building runways and pipelines and doing all the necessary preparations in Kuwait specifically to make war possible."
Bush wanted a war so that he could build the political capital necessary to achieve his domestic agenda and become, in his mind, "a great president." Blair and the members of his cabinet, unaware of the Herskowitz conversations, placed Bush's decision to mount an invasion in or about July of 2002. But for Bush, the question that summer was not whether, it was only how and when. The most important question, why, was left for later.
Eventually, there would be a succession of answers to that question: weapons of mass destruction, links to Al Qaeda, the promotion of democracy, the domino theory of the Middle East. But none of them have been as convincing as the reason George W. Bush gave way back in the summer of 1999.
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