Confronting the Iraq War: Melvyn Leffler, George Bush and the Problem of Trusting Your Sources
Melvyn Leffler, Confronting Saddam Hussein: George W. Bush and the Invasion of Iraq (Oxford University Press, 2023)
Historians have always faced the problem of deciding how much to trust their sources, given that their sources often lie, mislead, sugarcoat, deflect, and rationalize. In the foreign policy realm, this problem intensifies because there are only a few people “in the room where it happened” who can provide insights into the motives, mindsets, and emotions of elite decision-makers. And it is even more acute for histories of the recent past for which there are not robust archival sources against which historians can check leaders’ claims.
Melvyn Leffler’s new book on the roots of the 2003 Iraq War demonstrates the pitfalls of excessive trust in one’s sources, especially memoirs by and interviews with top policymakers. Leffler deploys an impressive bounty of evidence in this book, including a roster of interviewees that features Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Clarke, Scooter Libby, and Michael Gerson. However, he places too much trust in their portrayal of events, motivations, and decisions, failing to adequately critique their self-depictions.
Leffler argues that the Iraq War was motivated by a combination of fear, power, and hubris. He holds that September 11 was a necessary precondition of the war, spending significant time illustrating the emotional reaction of top U.S. officials. Bush and his deputies felt intense outrage, fear, and sadness, as well as a deep sense of responsibility for stopping another mass casualty event. National security threats had to be re-evaluated, which led the administration to focus on states like Iraq that sought weapons of mass destruction and had ties to terrorism, a threat that Bush officials believed could not be managed with containment or deterrence.
Confidence in the ability of U.S. military power to easily destroy threats like Iraq further motivated the decision to invade. The seeming ease of the campaign to topple the Taliban only intensified this feeling of momentum and potency. Finally, Leffler stresses the hubris of top policymakers, which motivated them to believe that the United States could bring down Saddam, quickly install a representative government, and go home. In this context, he shows how a combination of Bush’s poor management and Rumsfeld’s mania for control infected the postwar planning process, creating conflicting objectives and poor understandings of the challenges of occupation.
This book provides a welcome counter to accounts of the Iraq War that stress nefarious oil interests, neoconservative cabals, or outright lies by the administration. Leffler rightfully places Bush at the center of decision-making, although he is far from the first analyst to do so. The book is thorough but concise, and benefits from being attuned to the Iraqi side of the conflict.
Ultimately, though, Leffler’s faith in his sources leads to three major errors of interpretation: First, he never connects the administration’s hubris with the role of specific ideologies in fueling the decision to invade. Second, he fails to place the war’s origins in a wider historical context, especially the experiences of the 1990s. Third, he accepts the questionable claim that top Bush officials gave “coercive diplomacy” a real chance to work before invading.
Ideology and the Iraq War
In contrast to most scholars, Leffler downplays ideology in the road to war because, well, his subjects downplay ideology. He is right that security motives drove the decision to invade more than ideals like democracy promotion. However, he bluntly declares: “Hawkish advisors like Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Libby and their neoconservative friends, like Wolfowitz and Feith, were not inspired by missionary fervor or idealistic impulses. Their motives were more pedestrian and more compelling, ones they have emphasized again and again in their memoirs and their interviews.”
Leffler seems to think of ideology strictly in terms of democracy promotion, but this omits the ways that other ideologies, including belief in U.S. primacy and selective interpretations of terrorism, interacted with democracy promotion. The Iraq War took place in a historical context of U.S. unipolarity and a belief among many political and policy elites that liberal democracy and capitalism were, in the words of the 2002 National Security Strategy, the “single sustainable model for national success.” Bush himself used highly universalistic language in the lead-up to the war, declaring in early 2002 that “America will lead by defending liberty and justice because they are right and true and unchanging for all people everywhere.” Even erstwhile realists like Rice displayed a missionary fervor about spreading universal liberal values.
The Bush administration was also devoted to a hegemonic and unilateralist grand strategy, as shown by top policymakers’ views since the 1990s. The 1992 Defense Planning Guidance, prepared under Cheney and Wolfowitz’s supervision at the Defense Department, called for the United States to prevent “the emergence of any potential future global competitor” by maintaining preponderant military power. Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz all signed the 1997 Project for a New American Century’s founding statement, which advocated maintaining global unipolarity, confronting rivals, and promoting democracy and capitalism. These beliefs were codified in the Bush Doctrine, which asserted a unilateral right to preventatively remove national security threats.
Moreover, following the lead of scholars like Bernard Lewis, the Bush administration interpreted modern terrorism as a product of state sponsorship and hatred for U.S. values. This interpretation, which had evolved on the U.S. right since the 1970s, preserved U.S. leaders’ belief in their country’s innate benevolence by exempting U.S. policies such as support for Arab autocrats from the discussion of terrorism’s root causes. The solution to terrorism, Bush thought, was to sow democracy in the Middle East, which would eliminate it at the roots: “The world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values because stable and free nations do not breed the ideologies of murder.” Democracy promotion did not necessarily drive decision-making, but it intensified the Bush administration’s sense of moral purpose and connected regime change in Iraq to solving the terrorist problem in the long run.
Top Bush officials also viewed terrorism as a response to an opportunistic perception of U.S. weakness and vacillation since Vietnam. Leffler quotes Bush saying that terrorists “interpreted our lack of a serious response as a sign of weakness and an invitation to attempt more brazen attacks.” This ideologically-inflected viewpoint gelled with conservative critiques of modern U.S. culture as decadent and relativistic, which they believed undermined national security and invited foreign aggression. Rumsfeld argued that the solution was to smash an enemy like Iraq to re-establish “generalized deterrence,” or in his more colloquial phrasing, “to prove that we’re big and strong and not going to be pushed around.” Ideological assessments like these enabled the Bush administration to make the logical leap from the terrorist threat to Iraq. Iraq may not have been directly involved in September 11, but Saddam’s defiance preserved the image of the United States as a paper tiger, and removing this menace might push the entire Middle East in a positive direction.
The Iraq War in Historical Context
Casting his story in a wider historical context would also have enabled Leffler to offer a more complete accounting of the actions and ideas of the Bush administration. Leffler argues that most top policymakers, even after September 11, believed that Saddam was contained for the moment but that he might need to be removed to safeguard U.S. security in the long run. For instance, he writes that Bush in early 2002 was “not yet ready to choose between containment and regime change.” For these claims, he mainly cites interviews with Bush officials, who have reason to say in hindsight that they remained open to non-violent solutions to the Iraqi threat.
However, these claims ignore the evolution of the U.S. political conversation about Iraq in the 1990s. As sanctions and inspections, the main tools of containment, ran into more problems, a bipartisan political movement formed to pressure Clinton to replace containment with regime change. Indeed, during this period many policymakers and intellectuals came to believe axiomatically that containment could not deal with a totalitarian regime like Saddam’s Iraq, which was ideologically committed to regional domination and developing weapons of mass destruction. These ideas informed the unanimous passage of the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998 and the Project for a New American Century’s call for regime change, which Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz signed. This letter contended that continuing with containment would “inevitably free Saddam Hussein from all effective constraints.” It concluded, “U.S. policy should have as its explicit goal removing Saddam Hussein’s regime from power and establishing a peaceful and democratic Iraq in its place.”
These policymakers did not come into office wondering whether containment could be restored, as Leffler claims, even if their skepticism of containment surged after September 11. Bush repeatedly stated in 2002 that containment could not handle the Iraqi threat, and in his June 2002 West Point address he contended that containment and deterrence were outdated strategies in the face of the combined threat of rogue states and suicidal terrorists. Rather, with the possible exception of Colin Powell, Bush and his top advisors were predisposed to view containment as a dead letter and regime change as the only feasible outcome for Iraq. They did not push for a military solution until after September 11, but the pre-2001 erosion of support for containment and the formation of what I call the regime change consensus was critical to their decisions on Iraq following September 11.
Consider this illustration: Leffler quotes Wolfowitz saying in 2010 that “I wasn’t worried about what [Saddam Hussein] would do in 2001; I was worried about what he would do in 2010 if the existing containment…collapsed.” Leffler does not critique this self-serving claim, even though Wolfowitz portrayed Iraq as an imminent threat in 2001, arguing in one memo the week after the attacks that “If there is even a 10% chance that Saddam Hussein was behind Tuesday’s horrors, a maximum priority has to be put on eliminating that threat.” Moreover, he spent much of the 1990s writing op-eds and testifying before Congress that containment had failed and that the United States needed to shift to regime change via a dubious “rollback” strategy. Wolfowitz even verged into fantasy by recommending to Defense Department personnel the conspiratorial work of Laurie Mylroie, who wrote that Saddam had orchestrated every major anti-U.S. terrorist attack of the 1990s. Leffler’s neglect of the broader careers and worldviews of his subjects leads him to misrepresent the internal deliberations of the Bush administration and discount the pre-existing fixation many policymakers had on Iraq.
Leffler’s failure to contextualize the Iraq War leads him to be overly charitable in describing Bush’s supposed pursuit of “coercive diplomacy.” Administration officials subsequently claimed that, rather than having decided to go to war, they simply needed a credible military threat to advance diplomacy and restore weapons inspections. Leffler cites numerous interviews and memoirs that claim that Bush had not made up his mind to go to war in the fall of 2002 when he called for U.N. inspectors to return to Iraq. He really believed, these sources maintain, that Saddam might come clean on his weapons programs, making war unnecessary. Leffler states that “Bush’s strategy was more contingent than most observers have acknowledged,” again mainly citing interviews. In particular, Tony Blair, Powell, and many Congressional Democrats hoped coercive diplomacy might avert a war about which they had some doubts.
It is true that Bush did not make a final decision that Saddam would not cooperate with inspectors and that war was necessary until January 2003. Leffler’s argument, however, overlooks several key points that make this outcome appear more predetermined by perceptions than contingent on events in Iraq. First, Bush had already made the case that containment could not handle the threat that ostensibly stemmed from Iraq’s support of terrorism. Second, the Bush administration, building on the dominant “lessons” of the 1990s, distrusted inspections and defined their success so strictly as to guarantee their failure. Bush and his top advisors were highly skeptical that inspections would work, and Cheney even disparaged them in public. They cited Saddam’s relentless obstruction of the inspectors in the 1990s, ignoring the inspectors’ significant success in destroying almost all of Iraq’s weapons programs. Rumsfeld and Cheney argued that the inspectors should be tasked not with actually searching for weapons of mass destruction but merely with verifying “whether the Iraqi leadership has had a change of heart and is actually willing to give up the weapons.” Rumsfeld even suggested that only 1 or 2 inspectors were necessary for this purpose. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, they defined the success of inspections as Saddam demonstrating a change in intentions while arguing that this was impossible given his nature and the experiences of the 1990s. Cheney was so convinced of inspections’ futility that he told the chief U.N. inspector that “we will not hesitate to discredit you” if U.N. reports contradicted what top U.S. policymakers believed.
Thus, when the inspectors declared that Iraq was not fully complying in December 2003, Bush privately decided soon after that the inspections were doomed and war was inevitable. He made this final decision even though the inspectors were calling for more time and had found little proof of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, including no evidence of a nuclear program. Bush may have been less eager to abandon diplomacy than his top advisors, as George Tenet argues, but there is little evidence that he put much stock in coercive diplomacy as a way to resolve the crisis.
Here again, Leffler’s excessive trust in sources becomes a problem. Obviously, Bush himself and most of his former advisors would claim that they had not made up their minds in the fall of 2002 and that coercive diplomacy was a genuine effort at avoiding war. To say otherwise would admit duplicity or fanaticism.
The preponderance of the evidence, however, leads to a different interpretation of the run-up to the Iraq War. Rather than a contest between containment and regime change, the main debate within the Bush administration was about how to best achieve regime change. Should the United States, as Powell and Blair contended, rally an international coalition, gain U.N. approval, and attempt inspections and threats once more before invading? Or, as Cheney and Rumsfeld believed, should the United States simply declare inspections and diplomacy as pointless and knock off Saddam unilaterally? The fact that Powell and Blair won this tactical argument does not prove that Bush was seriously considering a renewed containment policy. The more plausible interpretation is that Bush chose the diplomatic track to gain domestic and international legitimacy for the war as well as aid from allies. Michael Mazarr advances the more compelling argument that by early 2002, the Bush administration had “irrevocably committed itself to the downfall of Saddam Hussein, whatever that would require.”
Leffler seems determined to portray the Bush team as “earnest people and responsible officials” seeking to “do the right thing.” This leads him to almost ignore the administration’s dishonest behavior in the lead-up to war, especially regarding intelligence. So convinced were figures like Cheney and Rumsfeld that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and that war was necessary that they formed alternative intelligence channels, staffed by hawkish neoconservatives, to funnel dubious information that supported the case for war and counteracted the more ambiguous analyses of the intelligence services. They even placed this information in speeches despite protests from intelligence experts, giving the public a more unambiguous depiction of Saddam’s weapons activities than what the evidence justified. Bush asserted that Iraq might hand nuclear weapons to Al Qaeda “on any given day,” cited discredited reports that Iraqi officials had sought uranium from Niger, and stated that Saddam had a “massive stockpile” of biological weapons, even though the CIA had warned that they had no specific evidence about the scope of this program.
Intelligence manipulation may not have been a necessary cause of the Iraq War, as all of Bush’s advisors believed Saddam was a threat at some level. However, such misrepresentation suggests that top policymakers were fixated on war with Iraq, uninterested in contradictory evidence, and willing to distort intelligence to get their way. The Bush administration did not partake in a good faith assessment of Iraq’s weapons programs but rather, in the words of one British official, “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”
Conclusion: Tragic Mistake or Unforced Blunder?
Diplomatic history is often too antagonistic to historical actors, failing to appreciate difficulties like stress, emotion, incomplete information, and the reality that leaders usually have to choose between bad and worse options. Leffler, however, swings to the opposite extreme. He fails to hold the powerful accountable for their mistakes and delusions. By failing to contextualize and critique his sources, he provides a history that is all too palatable to the architects of this unnecessary war. It makes sense that Robert Kagan, a prominent neoconservative backer of the invasion, praised this book, saying “Finally, a serious book about Iraq.”
In the historian’s craft, there is a fine balance between contextualizing and excusing. Yes, the post-9/11 era was one of unprecedented stress, uncertainty, and vulnerability, and any president would have felt compelled to take action to stop future attacks. Yes, most intelligence agencies, even from countries that opposed the war, believed Saddam was pursuing weapons of mass destruction. Yes, the United States needed to rethink national security challenges in light of the horror of September 11.
But none of those contextual factors render logical the Bush administration’s decision to center the response to terrorism on Iraq, a nation that had not attacked the United States, lacked the capacity to do so, and was not supporting al-Qaeda. Leffler’s history lets these leaders off the hook by taking them at their word and depicting the Iraq War as a “tragedy” rather than an unforced blunder. In reality, it required not just fear, power, and hubris to take the United States into Iraq, but ideology and delusion as well.
Joseph Stieb is an assistant professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. He is the author of The Regime Change Consensus: Iraq in American Politics, 1990–2003. He has published articles in Diplomatic History, Modern American History, The International History Review, War on the Rocks, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, American Purpose, and elsewhere.