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Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

Reflecting on Iraq at Ten Years

Montage of Iraq War Images.

Clockwise from top: Delta Force of Task Force 20 alongside troops of 3rd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, at Uday Hussain and Qusay Hussein’s hideout.; Iraqi insurgents in northern Iraq; an Iraqi insurgent firing a MANPADS; the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue in Firdos Square. PD.

Today’s guest post is by Nicholas Sparks, a Miller Center Student Ambassador and intern in the Presidential Recording Program. Sparks is a fourth year student studying History, Political Philosophy, Policy and Law at the University of Virginia.

This week marks the tenth anniversary Operation Iraqi Freedom. On March 20, 2003, a U.S.-led invasion force entered Iraq through the Persian Gulf and began to secure southern port cities and oil fields in a quick and decisive operation. By April 9, Baghdad had fallen and Saddam Hussein’s 24-year reign was over. The Iraq War, however, would not end until late 2011, by which time it had claimed countless Iraqi lives, over 4,400 American lives, and cost the U.S. economy trillions of dollars, not to mention other geopolitical side effects.

For good or for bad, the War in Iraq will forever be tied to the legacy of President George W. Bush. In his last year in office, Bush marked the ongoing war’s fifth anniversary by praising the coalitions forces that had “removed a tyrant, liberated a country, and rescued millions from unspeakable horrors.” Explaining broad, long-term strategic goals, Bush argued that by nurturing democracy in Iraq, “we will help free societies take root [in the Middle East].” He had stressed similar themes in his 2004 State of the Union address, framing the mission as a means of building goodwill and defeating seeds of terrorism in the region. “As long as the Middle East remains a place of tyranny and despair and anger,” Bush explained, “it will continue to produce men and movements that threaten the safety of America and our friends.”

Ten years later, Operation Iraqi Freedom leaves a complicated legacy for many Americans. Liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman remembers the lack of critical media coverage during the initial months of the invasion in 2003. To oppose the war in the media ten years ago, Krugman writes, was a “career-ending” decision. International news outlets continue to grapple with the ramifications of the Iraq War as well. This month, for instance, London-based The Guardian reported a public inquiry regarding the treatment of Iraqi prisoners by British and American forces in 2004. More noticeable, though, is the general lack of intense media coverage of the anniversary. Krugman calls it suspect. Perhaps it is the product of a people that is eager to move on.

Leffler Assesses Bush Administration’s History and Legacy Ten Years after the Invasion of Iraq

President George W. Bush addresses the nation from the Oval Office at the White House Wednesday evening, March 19, 2003

President George W. Bush addresses the nation from the Oval Office at the White House Wednesday evening, March 19, 2003, announcing the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. PD-USGOV-POTUS

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq. In a new article for Diplomatic History, Melvyn P. Leffler, Faculty Associate in the Miller Center’s GAGE Program and Edward Stettinius Professor of American History in the History Department at the University of Virginia, reviews what officials from the George W. Bush administration have written about selective key foreign policy events during the administration. Leffler acknowledges that while memoirs can be self-serving, they can also offer “valuable insights into the motives, thoughts hopes, fears and personal relationships within an administration.” In the article, Leffler highlights areas of agreement and disagreement between the officials. He also assesses the foreign policy decision-making process in the administration and the leadership style of the president.

According to Leffler, Bush administration officials generally agree that foreign policy was not a top priority when they entered office. Rather, the Bush administration’s main agenda focused on tax cuts and education reform. With regards to national security, the main focus centered on accelerating the ballistic missile defense program and transforming the Pentagon. “Nowhere in these memoirs,” writes Leffler, “is there any indication that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Ashcroft or Rice assigned high priority to a prospective terrorist attack, an omission that would come to haunt administration officials, and no one more than Rice.” After the September 11, 2011 attacks, the overriding concern of President Bush and officials in his administration was to prevent another attack. The memoirs also reveal that after the attack, the administration operated under fear and deep uncertainty.

Despite accounts otherwise, Leffler shows that the memoirs reveal that planning for the war in Iraq only began in the wake of 9/11, the anthrax scares and signs that al Qeada might have been seeking WMD. Leffler finds that not all administration officials believed that Saddam Hussein was linked to 9/11 or even necessarily to al Qaeda. While Vice President Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz did believe it, President Bush did not and Donald Rumsfeld was uncertain. Meanwhile CIA analyst Paul Pillar, Richard Clarke and Colin Powell thought it was nonsense. However, the Bush administration was convinced that they had reason to act and they were impelled by a sense of power to do so. According to Leffler, the memoirs inadvertently illuminate:

the hubris and self-confidence of officials who believed the country had been savagely attacked, and who felt they had the power and right to wage war, wreak revenge, topple defiant (and much weaker) regimes, and spread American values and institutions – values and institutions that in their view had proven their vitality and appeal in the victories over communism, fascism and Nazism.