As the U.S. stands at the brink of war with Iraq, many are now warning about the potential consequences: the danger of getting bogged down in Baghdad, the prospect of longtime allies leaving America’s side, the possibility of chaos in the Middle East, the threat of renewed terrorism.
But the Bush administration insiders who helped define the “Bush Doctrine,” and who have argued most forcefully for war, are determined to set a course that will remake America’s role in the world. Having served three Republican presidents over the course of two decades, this group of close advisers — among them Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and perhaps most importantly, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz — believe that the removal of Saddam Hussein is the necessary first act of a new era.
In “The War Behind Closed Doors,” FRONTLINE traces the inside story of how those advisers — calling themselves “neo-Reaganites,” “neo-conservatives,” or simply “hawks” — set out to achieve the most dramatic change in American foreign policy in half a century: a grand strategy, formally articulated in the National Security Strategy released last September, that is based on preemption rather than containment and calls for the bold assertion of American power and influence around the world.
Through interviews with key Republican insiders, foreign policy analysts, and longtime White House observers, the report reveals how America got to the brink of war with Iraq — and how a war and its aftermath will put these advisers’ big idea to the test.
“The War Behind Closed Doors” follows a long-running policy battle between two of Washington’s most powerful insiders and the philosophies they represent: Secretary of State Colin Powell and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. Powell, who held the top military job at the Pentagon under President George H.W. Bush and other powerful posts at the highest levels of government, is a cautious realist who represents the establishment’s abiding belief in diplomacy and the containment of foreign enemies. Wolfowitz, who built a career as a smart and tough hardliner at the Departments of State and Defense, champions the idea of preemption, striking first to defend America and to project its democratic values.
At the time the Gulf War ended in 1991, Powell was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Wolfowitz was deputy secretary of defense for policy, the third-highest ranking civilian in then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney’s Pentagon. Powell was instrumental in stopping the war short of going to Baghdad and removing Saddam Hussein. Wolfowitz and other hardliners were less than enthusiastic about that decision.
“Paul Wolfowitz believed then that it was a mistake to end the war,” says Richard Perle, chairman of the influential Defense Policy Board and a veteran of the Reagan administration. “They underestimated the way in which Saddam was able to cling to power, and the means he would use to remain in power. That was the mistake.”
Soon after the Gulf War, Wolfowitz supervised the drafting of a set of classified policy guidelines, called a Defense Planning Guidance, for how the U.S. should deal with Saddam Hussein and the rest of the world in the post-Cold War era. Wolfowitz believed containment was an old idea — a relic of the Cold War — and that America should use its overwhelming military might preemptively, and unilaterally, if need be. His draft of these policy guidelines was leaked to the press in 1992.
“Inside the U.S. defense planning establishment, there were people who thought this thing was nuts,” Barton Gellman of The Washington Post tells FRONTLINE. “The first draft said that the United States would be prepared to preempt the use of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons by any other nation, even, the document said, ‘Where our interests are otherwise not engaged.’ … It spoke of punishing or retaliating for that use, but it also said ‘preempt.’ This was the first time.”
“Wolfowitz basically authored a doctrine of American hegemony,” says historian and foreign policy expert John Lewis Gaddis, “a doctrine in which the United States would seek to maintain the position that it came out of the Cold War with, at which there were no obvious or plausible challengers to the United States. That was considered quite shocking in 1992. So shocking, in fact, that the Bush administration, at that time, disavowed it.”
As the first President Bush left office, Wolfowitz’s draft plan went into the bottom drawer, but it would not be forgotten.
“The War Behind Closed Doors” goes on to recount how the Clinton administration struggled to deal with Saddam Hussein’s defiance of U.S. and U.N. containment policies, while hawks in the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party grew increasingly impatient.
With the election of George W. Bush in 2000, however, the hawks saw a new opportunity to implement a stronger, forward-leaning American stance in the world. Yet during the new president’s first year in office, skirmishing between Colin Powell’s State Department and Rumsfeld’s Pentagon — where Wolfowitz is now the second-ranking civilian — left the adminstration’s foreign policy stalled in a kind of internal gridlock.
All that would change on Sept. 11, 2001.
Four days after the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, President Bush and his Cabinet held a war council at Camp David. “From the first moments after Sept. 11, there was a group of people, both inside the administration and out, who believed that the war on terrorism should target Iraq — in fact, should target Iraq first,” says Kenneth Pollack, author of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq (2002) and a former member of the National Security Council staff in the Clinton administration.
But Colin Powell and Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, were determined to rein in the hawks. Powell’s argument — that an international coalition could only be assembled for a war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, not an invasion of Iraq — won the day, and Iraq was put on the back burner.
Yet President Bush had made it clear that the U.S. would not stop at pursuing terrorists and bringing them to justice. “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them,” the president told the nation on the evening of Sept. 11.
Four months later, with the Taliban defeated and Al Qaeda largely dispersed, Bush was ready to move on to the next phase of the war on terrorism. In his State of the Union address, he laid the groundwork for an invasion of Iraq, tying Saddam Hussein’s regime to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
“States like these,” Bush declared, “and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil arming to threaten the peace of the world. … The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.”
The stage was set. Phase two was underway, and preemption would get its test case. The president had set a course for the U.S. to use its military power not only to topple Saddam Hussein but to promote democracy in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. Wolfowitz and the hawks, by all appearances, had succeeded.
“I wrote a piece in the Post two days after the State of the Union,” recalls William Kristol, editor of the influential neoconservative magazine The Weekly Standard, “saying we’ve just been present at a very unusual moment: the creation of a new American foreign policy.”
In the thirteen months since that speech, the Bush administration has moved steadily toward war with Iraq, though Colin Powell was able to convince the president to seek U.N. backing. Whether that approval is won or not, it is clear that this administration intends to alter America’s strategic relationship to the world.