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 longstanding foe.
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
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,
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 endorse one?
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 to use.
"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
"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
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
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 damn many."
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
"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 world.
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
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
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 May 1998.
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 disruption."
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
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
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."