In April 2003, after he had launched the invasion of Iraq, George W. Bush stood in the Oval Office reception room and watched the televised liberation of Basra, which serves as the country’s main port. Next to him was Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had warned Bush about the dangers of ousting Saddam Hussein from power. Smoke rose from the intelligence service headquarters. The city prison had been opened. Looters were filching desks, chairs and water tanks from state buildings. As he looked at the pictures, Bush was perplexed. He asked, “Why aren’t they cheering?”
In “To Start a War,” which is filled with such telling scenes, Robert Draper carefully examines the Bush administration’s illusions about Iraq. Draper is a writer at large for The New York Times Magazine and the author of “Dead Certain,” a study of the Bush administration that relied on numerous interviews with the president himself. Draper relates that Bush, who was apparently displeased with his depiction in “Dead Certain,” declined to be interviewed for this book. But Bush did not seek to hinder access to his former aides and Draper has performed prodigious research, including conducting interviews with several hundred former national security officials and scrutinizing recently declassified government documents. He does not provide any bold revelations, but offers the most comprehensive account of the administration’s road to war, underscoring that Bush was indeed The Decider when it came to Iraq — there was never any debate about not overthrowing Hussein.
The basis for conflict, Draper reminds us, had already been prepared in the late 1990s by what might be called the military-intellectual complex in Washington. Two key events occurred in 1998: The first was when Congress passed, and Bill Clinton signed into law, the Iraq Liberation Act, which the Iraqi expatriate Ahmad Chalabi and his neoconservative allies like Paul Wolfowitz had championed, and that made it official American policy to topple Saddam Hussein. The second was the establishment by Congress of the Rumsfeld Commission. It provided the former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and other hawks with a high-profile platform to castigate the C.I.A. for its putative shortsightedness about the looming perils posed by North Korea, Iran and Iraq. In particular the commission focused on a variety of doomsday scenarios that might allow Iraq to obtain nuclear weapons and target America “in a very short time.”
In those days, none of this seemed to matter that much. But after 9/11, it did. Drawing on their years of warnings about threats from abroad, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz teamed up with Vice President Dick Cheney to push for war and isolate the reluctant Powell.