3. Everyone on board. A third reason was the overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress, in the media, and among the public — for reasons well beyond WMD. In October 2002, both houses of Congress passed 23 writs justifying the removal of Saddam, an update of Bill Clinton’s 1998 Iraq Liberation Act. Senators Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Harry Reid were among those who not only enthusiastically called for Saddam’s removal, but also warned of intelligence estimates of Saddam’s WMD arsenals. Pundits on both sides, from Thomas Friedman to George Will, likewise supported the invasion, which on the eve of the war enjoyed over 70 percent approval from the American people. Bush, in that regard, had achieved what Clinton had not on the eve of the Serbian War — he had obtained a joint resolution of support from Congress before attacking, and had taken nearly a year in concerted (though failed) attempts to win U.N. approval for Saddam’s removal. Had Bush not gone to Congress, had he made no attempt to go to the U.N., had he had no public support, or had he been opposed by the liberal press, he probably would not have invaded Iraq.
4. WMD. A fourth reason was the specter of WMD. While the Bush administration might easily have cited the persuasive writs of the bipartisan resolutions — genocide against the Kurds, Shiites, and Marsh Arabs; bounties for suicide bombers; sanctuary for terrorists; attempts to kill a former U.S. president; violations of U.N. sanctions and resolutions; etc. — it instead fixated on supposedly unimpeachable intelligence about WMD, a “slam dunk,” according to CIA director George Tenet, a judgment with which most Middle Eastern governments and European intelligence agencies agreed. This concentration on WMD would prove a critical political mistake. Note in passing that the eventual public furor over missing WMD stockpiles (although there is solid evidence that Saddam was perilously close to WMD deployment) did not fully develop with the initial knowledge of that intelligence failure, but only with the mounting violence after a seemingly brilliant victory over Saddam.
The missing vast stockpiles of WMD then became the source of the convenient slogan “Bush lied, thousands died.” Yet had the reconstruction gone well, we would surely not have heard something like “Bush lied — and so there was no need, after all, to depose Saddam and foster consensual government in Iraq.”
The Bush administration apparently believed that, without the worry over WMD, the other writs would not generate enough public urgency for preemption, and thus it would not have invaded Iraq. Note that when Barack Obama talks of “red lines” and “game changers” in Syria that might justify U.S. preemptive action, he is not referring to 70,000 dead, the horrific human-rights record of Bashar Assad, Syria’s past effort to become nuclear, or even the plight of millions of Syrian refugees, but the supposition that Syria is planning to use chemical or biological weapons — a crime Saddam had often committed against his own people, and one that inflames public opinion in the West. As a footnote, we will probably not know the full story of WMD in the region until the Assad regime is gone from Syria — although we are starting to hear the same worries about such Syrian weapons from the Obama administration as we did of Iraqi weapons during the Bush presidency.
5. Nation-building. A fifth reason was the notion of reformulating Iraq, so that instead of being the problem in the region it would become a solution. Since the 1991 war had not ended well, because of a failure to finish off the regime and stay on, and since the aid to the insurgents against the Soviets in Afghanistan had been followed by U.S. neglect and in time the rise of the Taliban, so, in reaction, this time the U.S. was determined to stay. We forget now the liberal consensus that the rise of the Taliban and the survival of Saddam were supposed reflections of past U.S. callousness — something not to be repeated in Iraq.
Finally, America would do the right thing and create a consensual government that might ensure not only the end of Saddam’s atrocities, but also, by its very constitutional existence, pressure on the Gulf monarchies to liberalize and cease their support for terrorism of the sort that had killed 3,000 Americans. While there may well have been neo-cons who believed that the Iraqi democracy would be followed by a true Arab Spring of U.S.-fostered democracy sweeping the Middle East — something akin to the original good blowback of Pakistan’s detaining Dr. Khan, Qaddafi’s surrendering his WMD arsenal, and Syria’s leaving Lebanon, before all this dissipated with Fallujah — most of the Bush administration policymakers believed that democracy was not their first choice, but their last choice, for postwar reconstruction, given that everything else had been tried after past conflicts and just as often failed.