Iraq on the 'back burner'

Iraq on the 'back burner'

Saddam Hussein refused to comply with U.N. disarmament requirements and had the potential to produce weapons of mass destruction

The George W. Bush administration inherited a policy toward Iraq that was shaped by the country’s refusal to abide by the ceasefire agreement that went into effect in the early 1990s after the Persian Gulf War. The international community had passed a number of U.N. resolutions to deter Saddam Hussein’s aggression, support of terrorism, and violations related to human rights and disarmament. The United States, along with the international community, had enacted a weapons inspection process and economic sanctions to try to force Iraq to comply, but their efforts had met with limited success.

In light of the Iraqi government’s violations of its ceasefire agreement, its refusal to abide by the U.N. resolutions, and the failing economic sanctions, President George W. Bush had been considering how to deal with Iraq since his first meeting of the National Security Council, months before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Since Iraq refused to comply with U.N. disarmament requirements and had the potential to produce weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), the administration considered Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq a dangerous threat. President Bush was clear that if Hussein was developing WMDs, the United States would not stand idly by.

Many members of the Bush administration who had been in office during the Persian Gulf War wanted to make sure that the Iraqi regime adhered to the U.N. resolutions. In the Gulf War, the United States had successfully driven Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, but stopped short of crossing into Iraq, leaving Saddam Hussein’s regime in power. Many senior policymakers had wanted to include Iraq in the immediate response to the attacks of 9/11, but President Bush decided to focus on Afghanistan. The administration temporarily put Iraq on the back burner while it turned its attention to al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Once the Taliban was in retreat by November 2001, Bush and his advisers returned to their concerns about Iraq. Although Bush denied that a specific invasion plan for Iraq was underway, he began receiving briefings from U.S. Central Command on a war plan. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair met privately to discuss options. Blair preferred to wait for additional U.N. weapons inspections, but those could not take place without Saddam’s cooperation. In March 2002, Bush sent Vice President Cheney to a conference of eleven countries in the Middle East to build support for action to force Iraq to abide by its ceasefire obligations. Blair and Secretary of State Powell proposed the U.N. offer another and final disarmament proposition before military action would take place. If Iraq rejected the proposal, it would again showcase its defiance of the international order.

On September 7, 2002, during a war cabinet meeting held at Camp David, Bush allowed Vice President Cheney to debate Secretary of State Powell on the proper route forward. Cheney argued for a quicker move to war while Powell, the former U.S. Army General, counseled an approach involving the United Nations. Professional military advisers also voiced concerns that overthrowing Saddam and reconstructing Iraq would require a long, costly operation. Bush opted for further U.N. action with the knowledge that Iraq would likely not comply and then the United States would pursue war with Iraq.

President Bush went on a public-opinion offensive, stressing that Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction were a threat to U.S. security. In an August 2002 speech, Vice President Cheney made the Administration’s case by laying out Saddam’s efforts over many years to deceive weapons inspectors: “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt that he is amassing them to use them against our friends, against our allies, and against us.” The Bush administration asserted that the United States could not trust Saddam Hussein with WMDs as Iraq continued to violate U.N. Security Council Resolution 687 that required the country to destroy its weapons capabilities, among other requirements.

The President went to Congress with his case to have the power to go to war if he found it necessary. A passionate debate ensued that ended with Congress passing a resolution authorizing the President to go to war with Iraq if Iraq did not comply with the terms of the U.N. resolutions. Bush spoke to the United Nations on the dangers of WMDs in the hands of a murderous dictator, making his case that it would be far riskier not to act, than to act. The United Nations approved a resolution for rigorous new arms inspections in Iraq in November 2002, and inspectors began working in Iraq at the end of that month; they left the country shortly before the invasion began. On March 17, 2003, Bush ordered Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq within 48 hours. In a speech to the nation, Bush noted: “Should Saddam Hussein choose confrontation, the American people can know that every measure has been taken to avoid war, and every measure will be taken to win it.”

Characteristically, Saddam Hussein chose confrontation. On March 19, British and U.S. forces launched a bombing campaign of military and government offices in Baghdad. Ground troops invaded soon after, cleanly destroying the targets with relatively few American casualties. Iraq did not use any weapons of mass destruction against the invading force. The international community later learned that the regime had disposed of much of its WMD capabilities, but had not been open about its actions. Saddam Hussein’s unwillingness to comply with the U.N. resolutions cost him his country and his life, along with the lives of thousands of soldiers and civilians, too.

The Surge and Iraq Exit Plans

Although the United States and its allies quickly overthrew Saddam Hussein and defeated his forces, the situation in Iraq became increasingly unstable over time. Critics charged that the Bush administration did not have an adequate plan for Iraq after the initial war was won and Saddam Hussein was ousted from power. The Bush administration’s strategy had been to reduce the U.S. military presence as Iraq’s stability improved. Yet the goal proved unattainable, owing in part to the power vacuum left by the dismantling of the Iraqi army and the rise of sectarian violence within the two dominant strains of Islam in Iraq.

After the United States toppled the government, Iraq soon began to descend into chaos with increasing instability and violence from suicide attacks, car bombs, kidnappings, and beheadings. Sectarian violence racked the country as religious and ethnic sects battled for control. Insurgent forces targeted U.S. troops and supporters, as they sought to overthrow the new government. By the summer of 2006, an average of 120 Iraqis were dying each day from insurgent attacks. Al Qaeda saw an opportunity to exploit the instability in Iraq, and its recruits flooded into the country to train terrorists.

To counter the deteriorating situation in Iraq, the Bush administration developed a plan for a troop surge to increase the number of U.S. troops in order to stabilize Iraqi society and secure the civilian population. General David Petraeus was appointed to oversee a “surge”  of 20,000 troops in January 2007. American troops patrolled cities on foot with members of the Iraqi military to prepare them to step into a more independent role. The Democrat-controlled Congress vehemently disapproved of Bush’s actions and attempted to pass a war-funding bill mandating a troop withdrawal deadline later in 2007. Bush vetoed the bill, and, on May 25, 2007, he signed a bill fully funding the war with no set withdrawal date. American military deaths were at their highest average for the first several months of the surge, but there was a clear shift in the culture; counterinsurgency tips from Iraqi civilians doubled by May 2007 as U.S. troops created coalitions with Iraqis to increase stability. By the end of 2008, U.S. military and Iraqi civilian deaths had both declined by more than 60 percent.  

Agreements for Withdrawal and Iraqi Security

Bush emphasized a policy of “return on success”; essentially, the more successful the war effort, the more troops that could return home. The administration’s plan for withdrawal was to reduce the number of troops as the situation improved until the number deployed reached pre-surge levels; the United States would then reassess the situation. In 2008, the Bush administration entered into the Strategic Framework Agreement, which established a political, economic, and security relationship with the new government of Iraq; the agreement encouraged Iraqi sovereignty and created a normalized diplomatic relationship with it. Bush also signed the Status of Forces Agreement, defining the security relationship between the United States and Iraq as well as providing a plan for U.S. withdrawal by December 31, 2011, provided that stability continued to increase. In all, more than 4,200 U.S. soldiers died in Iraq during Bush’s presidency. 

Interrogation and Surveillance

After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the Bush administration felt its primary responsibility was to protect America from another attack. It justified many of its subsequent actions as being part of the commander-in-chief powers granted to the President under Article II, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution. Some of the actions that the Bush administration implemented were controversial. Two specific controversial areas were the administration’s treatment of captured prisoners and domestic surveillance. 

 A few days after the 9/11 attacks, Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force, which President Bush signed on September 18, 2001. It allowed the President to use force against those involved in the attacks or to prevent future attacks. Bush signed the USA Patriot Act into law in October 2001 to expand domestic security and surveillance, disrupt terrorist funding by cracking down on activities such as money laundering, and increase efficiency within the U.S. intelligence community.

On November 13, 2001, President Bush signed a military order that established military tribunals to try non-U.S. citizens fighting for al Qaeda or involved in terrorism against the United States. These tribunals functioned differently from courts within the U.S. legal system. The Bush administration decided to hold the accused terrorists at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, without a right to a writ of habeas corpus, that is, they could not challenge whether the U.S. government was holding them legally and therefore could be held indefinitely. The Bush administration also classified those accused terrorists as unlawful enemy combatants instead of prisoners of war, which placed them outside the protections of the Geneva Conventions.

Additionally the Bush administration authored legal memos justifying enhanced interrogation for those accused of fighting against the United States in the war on terror. These enhanced interrogation methods included sleep deprivation, slapping, waterboarding (simulated drowning), and subjecting prisoners to cold in order to extract information. Many critics considered these methods to be torture. The administration’s approval of enhanced interrogation methods led to much debate within and outside the government and along various points, including its legality, effectiveness, ethics, and the precedence created by the U.S. employing such tactics.

Enemy combatant cases gradually made their way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2006), the Supreme Court ruled that President Bush had overstepped his authority by setting up military tribunals without congressional approval. In response, Bush worked with Congress to pass the Military Commissions Act of 2006, although the Supreme Court later ruled part of it unconstitutional because it suspended the writ of habeas corpus.

When photographs emerged in 2004 of prisoners being mistreated in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, it brought heightened worldwide scrutiny of the American government’s policies of treating prisoners. It also came to light that the CIA had been using rendition to move suspected terrorists from one country to another for the purposes of interrogating them. Under the policy of rendition, the CIA transferred prisoners to secret locations around the world that were outside the U.S. legal system to try to extract information about future terrorist attacks and the al Qaeda network, for example. Rendition was not new as it had been used during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, though less frequently.

Another controversial action of the Bush administration was domestic surveillance. President Bush created the Terrorist Surveillance Program, which allowed the National Security Agency (NSA) to monitor electronic communications without warrants to collect information about terrorist activities. Under the program, one of the people being monitored had to be a suspected terrorist, and one of them had to be outside the United States. When the program became public in 2005, critics were concerned that the program violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978, which was passed after the Watergate scandal. After President Richard Nixon ordered domestic spying on U.S. citizens, Congress passed FISA to regulate government surveillance, limiting it to foreign intelligence purposes and requiring that the government obtain warrants from a special FISA court before engaging in surveillance. Many Americans were concerned that the Terrorist Surveillance Program violated privacy rights and civil liberties for U.S. citizens. The Bush administration argued that it did not have to obtain warrants for this wiretapping because it had the authority through the commander-in-chief powers and the Authorization for Use of Military Force Act passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Issues such as enhanced interrogation, military tribunals, rendition, and warrantless wiretapping generated considerable controversy and public discussion. The Bush administration defended these measures with the argument that their priority had to be keeping the American people safe, and in an increasingly dangerous world, extraordinary measures were justified, They also pointed to other U.S. Presidents such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt who relied on strong executive power to conduct war and deal with times of uncertainty. Critics argued that if the United States sanctioned torture and ignored its legal safeguards, the country was turning its back on important founding principles such as the rule of law, the presumption of innocence and the protection of civil liberties. These debates were not fully resolved during the Bush administration and continued into the Obama presidency.