Miller Center

George W. Bush: Foreign Affairs

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In the second presidential debate of the 2000 campaign, moderator Jim Lehrer asked Al Gore to explain the justification for American military interventions in a host of places, including Kosovo to Haiti. Lehrer then turned to Bush and asked him specifically about Somalia. "Started off as a humanitarian mission and it changed into a nation-building mission, and that's where the mission went wrong," Bush replied."The mission was changed. And as a result, our nation paid a price. And so I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation-building. I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win war. I think our troops ought to be used to help overthrow the dictator when it's in our best interests. But in this case it was a nation-building exercise, and same with Haiti. I wouldn't have supported either."As President, Bush developed a more benign view of the value of nation-building—a reaction, he explained, to the attacks of 9/11—but looking back there is something buried in Bush's comment in that debate which proved more telling: his matter-of-fact statement about using American military force to "overthrow the dictator."


The Twin Towers had not yet collapsed before CIA director George Tenet was telling subordinates that the attacks had Osama bin Laden's fingerprints all over them. The Al Qaeda leader was then holed up in Afghanistan where the Taliban had given him sanctuary. The United States immediately demanded the Taliban turn him over, but Bush and his foreign policy advisers knew this was unlikely to happen; the night of the attacks, Tenet told the President that in his opinion, the Taliban and Al Qaeda were one and the same.

Nine days later, on September 20, 2001, Bush went to Capitol Hill to deliver a speech that members of Congress understood to be a declaration of war. Bush explicitly demanded that the Taliban surrender to the United States not only bin Laden but all al Qaeda leaders currently operating within Afghanistan. He also called on it to free all foreign journalists, diplomats, and aid workers "unjustly imprisoned" there, close every terrorist training camp, and arrest "every terrorist and every person in (the terrorists') support structure.""They will hand over the terrorists, Bush said, "or they will share in their fate."Emphasizing a theme he would return to many times, Bush took pains to say that Islam was not the enemy; rather, the United States was fighting a "fringe form of Islamic extremism . . . [advocated by those following] in the path of fascism, and Nazism, and totalitarianism.""The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends," Bush added. "Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them."British prime minister Tony Blair attended the speech as a show of solidarity with the United States, and subsequently issued his own ultimatum to the Taliban: "Surrender bin Laden or surrender power," Blair warned.

The war in Afghanistan began on October 7, 2001. "On my order, U.S. forces have begun strikes on terrorist camps of al Qaeda, and the military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan," Bush said in a somber, televised address from the White House Treaty Room. The air assaults, he said, were joined by Great Britain, with assorted intelligence efforts and logistical support coming from several other nations, including France, Germany, Australia, and Canada.

Apparently anticipating U.S. retaliation for 9/11, Al Qaeda had, a few days before the attacks, assassinated Ahmed Shad Massoud, the leader of an anti-Taliban rebel force known as the Northern Alliance. It was widely believed that without Massoud, the Northern Alliance would fracture as a fighting force. Instead, bolstered by U.S. warplanes and U.S. Special Forces, the Northern Alliance helped oust the Taliban, first by taking Mazar Al-Sharif on the northern frontier and then the capital city of Kabul. A fledgling democracy was installed in Afghanistan, but even before that country was truly pacified, the Bush administration had turned its attention to an old adversary, Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein.

"Axis of Evil"

Iraq had not been implicated in the attacks of 9/11. But Bush said that his decision to invade the country and seek to replace its Baathist regime with a democracy was based on several considerations that grew out of that attack.

Convinced by intelligence reports, which later proved erroneous, that Saddam had amassed huge caches of biological and chemical weapons—and was trying to develop nuclear devices—a group of hawks in the Bush administration, led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, argued that Iraq would be a likely source for terrorists to obtain such weapons. These officials argued for a final decisive move against Saddam. The United States had fought a war against Iraq ten years earlier when Bush's father was President—Cheney had been the senior Bush's secretary of defense—but Saddam was allowed to remain in power after his troops were ejected from Kuwait, subject to various considerations. Among these terms were that Iraqi warplanes were not allowed to fly in Shiite areas of the southern part of the country or Kurdish areas in the north, and that Saddam destroy his caches of biological and chemical weapons, and dismantle his nuclear weapons research program.

In his January 29, 2002, State of the Union address, Bush made it clear that he would not allow Saddam to acquire such weapons, and included Iraq in a list of nations—the other two were Iran and North Korea—that he termed "an axis of evil."From that day until March 19, 2003, when the invasion began, Bush spoke publicly about Iraq 164 times. Each time, he cited multiple reasons to replace Saddam's regime:

  • that Saddam was acquiring weapons of mass destruction, and that his gassing of Kurdish towns and Iranian troops in the 1980s had proven his willingness to use them;
  • that Iraq had been defying United Nations resolutions since the end of the Persian Gulf War;
  • that the regime was a destabilizing influence in the region, having invaded Kuwait and Iran, and launched Scud missiles against Saudi Arabia and Israel;
  • that Saddam supported terrorism, even to the point of paying off Palestinian suicide bombers who killed Israeli citizens;
  • that a democracy in Iraq would set a badly needed example for the Arab world;
  • that such a government, in turn, would make it easier to forge a lasting peace in Israel and Palestine;
  • and that Saddam and his sons and his secret police had inflicted unimaginable horrors on the Iraqi people, who have every much as right to be free as Americans.

"Freedom is not America's gift to the world," Bush said many times. "It is the Almighty's gift to every man and woman in this world."

The Road to Baghdad

Bush's decision to invade Iraq became by far the most controversial of his administration, and costly in numerous ways. In October 2002, he presented Congress with a resolution authorizing him to invade Iraq if Saddam Hussein did not surrender what everyone on both sides of the debate assumed to be a reality: its arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.

On October 11, the measure passed both houses of Congress with broad bi-partisan support. In the House, the tally was 296-133. The percentage in the Senate was even greater, where it passed on a vote of 77-23. All Republican senators save one gave it their support; 29 Democrats voted for it, with only 22 in opposition. "America speaks with one voice," Bush said after the vote. Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said much the same thing, but it was never quite that simple."This is the Tonkin Gulf resolution all over again," West Virginia Democratic senator Robert Byrd warned his colleagues. "Let us stop, look, and listen. Let us not give this President or any President unchecked power. Remember the Constitution."From his perch in Baghdad, Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Tawab Al-Mulah Huwaish termed the administration's insistence that Iraq retained chemical and biological weapons "a lie" and offered to let U.S. officials inspect any manufacturing facility it harbored suspicions about. "If the American administration is interested in inspecting these sites, then they're welcome to come over and have a look for themselves," he said.

Those who feared America was rushing needlessly into war asserted that Iraq was not a threat to the United States, and that the no-fly zones, U.N. sanctions, and other measures had put Saddam in a box from which he could not easily maneuver—and that, in any event, no attack appeared imminent. In the White House, Bush believed that one lesson of 9/11 was that you never knew for sure when an attack was coming."Some have said that we must not act until the threat is imminent," Bush said in his January 28, 2003, State of the Union Address. "But trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein is not a strategy and it is not an option."Regarding Iran, the Bush administration deferred to European-led non-proliferation protocols; in North Korea, Bush himself pushed for—and got—multi-party talks designed to pressure Kim Jong Il. But when it came to Iraq, the administration was busy lining up military allies. On November 8, 2002, Bush secured a 15-0 vote in the U.N. Security Council authorizing the return of weapons inspectors and promising "serious consequences" if Iraq did not cooperate. The clock was ticking. On March 17, Bush made a nationally televised speech giving Saddam 48 hours to give up power or face an invasion. Two nights later, the war began. In the midst of his March 19, 2003, speech informing Americans that the invasion had been launched, Bush paused to speak directly to the U.S. armed forces. It was then 4 a.m. in Baghdad. The rationale for war, he told the troops, was based on human rights."To all the men and women of the United States Armed Forces now in the Middle East, the peace of a troubled world and the hopes of an oppressed people now depend on you," Bush said.

Nineteen months later, 1,100 American soldiers, sailors, and Marines had been killed, and 7,500 wounded. Another 138 men fighting in the coalition forces have died, entire cities are off-limits to foreigners, and a terrorist organization affiliated with Al Qaeda has kidnapped and beheaded civilians from numerous countries and detonated bombs that have killed thousands of Iraqi citizens.

The capture of Saddam and the killing of his sons did nothing to alleviate the chaos—and the crisis in Iraq emerged as the central issue in the 2004 general election. "The President has made, I regret to say, a colossal error of judgment," Kerry said in the first presidential debate. He was speaking for millions of disillusioned Americans. Bush responded, as he has throughout the election season, that progress is being made, that elections are coming to Iraq in January, and that someday Americans will look back on the sacrifices that were made with pride."I think it's worth it because I know in the long term, a free Iraq, a free Afghanistan will set such a powerful example in a part of the world that's so desperate for freedom," Bush replied. "It will change the world so we can look back and say we did our duty."

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Carl M. Cannon

Mr. Cannon is the White House correspondent for National Journal. His writings include:

Boy Genius: Karl Rove, the Brains Behind the Remarkable Political Triumph of George W. Bush (Co-authored with Jan Reid and Lou Dubose, Public Affairs, 2003)

The Pursuit of Happiness in Times of War (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005)