Toppling Hussein a priority of Bush since early in term

Aides helped set policy months before 9/11 attacks

March 16, 2003|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush's bid to topple Saddam Hussein did not begin with the Sept. 11 attacks or with the war on terrorism. Rather, it was clear at an early meeting with his national security advisers, soon after he took office, that a post-Hussein Iraq was already a priority for him.

Much of that meeting dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, participants said. But when the subject turned to Iraq, Bush's stance was plain: "Iraq was a priority, and regime change was one of the objectives," recalled Edward Walker, who was assistant secretary of state for the Near East.

Unlike President Bill Clinton, who hoped that covert U.S. backing for a coup or insurrection would rid Iraq of Hussein, Bush was open to the idea of using American ground troops, said Walker, a Clinton appointee who served Bush until May 2001.

"Bush's willingness to use ground forces," Walker said, "was the fundamental difference."

The president has pointed to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as central to his concern about the Iraqi threat. He has warned of the lethal nexus of rogue regimes with weapons of mass destruction and terrorists.

The attacks, Bush said March 6, "showed what the enemies of America did with four airplanes. We will not wait to see what terrorists or terrorist states could do with weapons of mass destruction."

There is no doubt that Sept. 11 gave momentum to the goal of ousting Hussein. But the Bush policy had been set in motion months before, allowing a near-seamless progression from the war on al-Qaida in Afghanistan to the confrontation with Iraq.

White House officials say that there was "no date, no light-bulb moment" when Bush suddenly decided he would probably go to war. Rather, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has told aides of "a series of decisions."

It also appears that no one, including the comparatively dovish Powell, tried to dissuade Bush. From available evidence, Powell did not challenge the idea of toppling Hussein, though he had deep misgivings about the consequences of a pre-emptive invasion and wanted a good chance of success and support overseas. Powell focused on how - not whether - to do it.

Bush's other top advisers - Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser - were all in support.

The groundwork for that early meeting between Bush and his national security advisers had been laid during the previous decade, in the mounting frustration of a group of conservative intellectuals, several of whom now hold influential jobs in the Bush administration. These conservatives had become disturbed by the failure of various coup attempts, insurrections and air strikes to dislodge Hussein.

They shared a goal of reasserting a muscular American role in the Middle East. Some members of the group believed that anti-Western groups and autocratic regimes held back the region's progress and hindered a real peace between Arabs and Israel.

Wolfowitz influence

Few were as passionate about the need to oust Hussein as Paul D. Wolfowitz, a longtime policy-maker who had warned about Iraq's threat to American interests as early as 1979. Wolfowitz had opposed the decision of the first President Bush not to oust the Iraqi leader. In 1992, he drafted a strategy that foreshadowed the new Bush doctrine of pre-emptive force as a legitimate weapon.

Through the 1990s, Wolfowitz lambasted Clinton's policy toward Hussein, and helped build congressional support for "regime change."

Leading Republican policy figures, including Wolfowitz, signed an open letter to Clinton in 1998 calling for "a willingness to undertake military action" and for a long-term plan to remove Hussein's regime.

Other signers included a who's who of the top ranks of the current Bush defense and foreign policy hierarchy, including Rumsfeld; Peter Rodman, an assistant secretary of defense; Elliott Abrams and Zalmay Khalilzad, part of the White House national security team; Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage; and Undersecretary John Bolton.

Wolfowitz and another leading anti-Iraq strategist, Richard Perle, were among the so-called Vulcans who advised the Bush campaign on foreign policy. On Iraq, campaign officials outlined a three-part strategy: strengthening sanctions, backing opposition forces and standing ready to use "decisive force." The long-term goal: "a Saddam-free Iraq."

When asked, Bush defends his father's decision not to carry the 1991 Persian Gulf war to Baghdad. Still, he saw his father stung by widespread criticism of that decision. And the president has remarked that Hussein's purported plot to kill Bush's father underscored the Iraqi leader's cold-bloodedness.

The younger Bush entered office "determined to do something about the Saddam problem," a White House official agrees.

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