The issue of how the Iraq War began will likely engage future historians as much as the beginning of World War I. It still remains, in a way, a mystery: Packer poignantly cites Richard Haass, the former director of policy planning at the State Department, as saying he will go to his grave not knowing why the United States invaded Iraq. "A decision was not made -- a decision happened, and you can't say when or how."
One way to emphasize the mysteriousness of why we're in Iraq is to point out how contrastingly well understood were the reasons behind a not wholly dissimilar war: Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia. Here's how my 1971 Encyclopedia Britannica begins its article on the "Italo-Ethiopian War 1935-1936):
The motives of Fascist Italy in attacking and annexing the ancient, independent Christian state of Ethiopia (Abyssinia) were complex but easily intelligible. They included the desire for national greatness and empire; the personal megalomania of Benito Mussolini and glorification of his regime; the need for new resources for crowded and impoverished Italy; vengeance for the humiliating defeat of Adowa (1896); and the ambition to substitute Italian civilization for the black barbarism alleged to be dominant in Europe. [Emphasis mine]
I'm not saying that the reasons for the Iraq Attaq were similar to, or worse or better than, the reasons for Mussolini's Ethiopian adventure. What I am saying is that few would declare that the motives for our current war are "easily intelligible."
I want to offer a factor stemming from George W. Bush's character that hasn't gotten the attention it deserves.
We know Bush the Younger was thinking about invading Iraq at least as far back as 1999 when he was discussing his campaign autobiography with his potential ghostwriter, Texas journalism legend Mickey Herskowitz:
“He was thinking about invading Iraq in 1999,” said author and journalist Mickey Herskowitz. “It was on his mind. He said to me: ‘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 said, ‘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.”
Herskowitz said that Bush expressed frustration at a lifetime as an underachiever in the shadow of an accomplished father. In aggressive military action, he saw the opportunity to emerge from his father’s shadow. The moment, Herskowitz said, came in the wake of the September 11 attacks. “Suddenly, he’s at 91 percent in the polls, and he’d barely crawled out of the bunker.”..
According to Herskowitz, George W. Bush’s beliefs on Iraq were based in part on a notion dating back to the Reagan White House – ascribed in part to now-vice president Dick Cheney, Chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee under Reagan. “Start a small war. Pick a country where there is justification you can jump on, go ahead and invade.”
Bush’s circle of pre-election advisers had a fixation on the political capital that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher collected from the Falklands War. Said Herskowitz: “They were just absolutely blown away, just enthralled by the scenes of the troops coming back, of the boats, people throwing flowers at [Thatcher] and her getting these standing ovations in Parliament and making these magnificent speeches.”
Republicans, Herskowitz said, felt that Jimmy Carter’s political downfall could be attributed largely to his failure to wage a war. He noted that President Reagan and President Bush’s father himself had (besides the narrowly-focused Gulf War I) successfully waged limited wars against tiny opponents – Grenada and Panama – and gained politically. But there were successful small wars, and then there were quagmires, and apparently George H.W. Bush and his son did not see eye to eye.
The idea of beating up on a sure loser like Saddam may have especially appealed to GWB because of the President's personal qualities. Bush sees himself not as a manager (which is certainly correct), but as a leader, one who makes tough decisions based on intuition where other men who worry about getting the facts first would suffer paralysis through analysis.
In other words, Bush doesn't particularly like to work hard, and he's not that interested in learning what it takes to administer the government. Spending eight grueling years on the blocking and tackling of effectively running the government like Dwight Eisenhower did is not for Bush. Instead, he's going to throw the Bomb, so he can then coast. And the Iraq Attaq sounded to him like a pushbutton war -- all Bush had to do was tell the Pentagon to go conquer Iraq and they'd go do it without bothering him with a lot of tiresome questions about minor details.
Bush's big gamble is a little reminiscent of Boris Yeltsin's style of governing. Boris achieved something monumental -- the destruction of the Soviet Union and Communist rule -- by a death-or-glory gamble. This gave him quite an aura, one that endured longer outside of Russia than inside.
The problem Yeltsin faced during his eight year rule of Russia was that he was in either a hospital or an alcoholic haze, or both, for most of his two terms. So, because he was incapable of doing much hard work, he became addicted to the Grand Gamble. Every so often he'd pop out of his fog and use artillery to blow up the legislature building or invade Chechnya or fire his entire cabinet or declare some incredible privatization scheme. All through the 90s, I recall NPR would feature one breathless announcement after another of Yeltsin's latest stunner. At first, it seemed like Yeltsin truly held the whip hand, but over the years, it became clear that he was thrashing about, trying to find a short cut to regain mastery since he couldn't achieve the concentration and energy necessary to win a lot of small victories.
Bush isn't as blotto as Yeltsin, but the Iraq Attaq could have come out of the Yeltsin playbook -- Greatness in 1 EZ Step!