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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.