January 29, 2003 - It was 2:40 p.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, and rescue
crews were still scouring the ravaged section of the Pentagon that
hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 had destroyed just five hours
On the other side of the still-smoldering Pentagon complex, Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was poring through incoming intelligence reports
and jotting down notes. Although most Americans were still shell-shocked,
Rumsfeld's thoughts had already turned to a longstanding foe.
Rumsfeld wrote, according to a later CBS News report, that he wanted
"best info fast. Judge whether good enough [to] hit S.H. at the same
time. Not only UBL" - meaning Osama bin Laden. He added: "Go
massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not."
"S.H.," of course, is Saddam Hussein. The White House has
long insisted its strategy for a war against Saddam's Iraq - a war that
could now begin in a matter of days - arose from the rubble of the deadly
attack that day.
But in reality, Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, and a small band
of conservative ideologues had begun making the case for an American
invasion of Iraq as early as 1997 - nearly four years before the Sept. 11
attacks and three years before President Bush took office.
An obscure, ominous-sounding right-wing policy group called Project for
the New American Century, or PNAC - affiliated with Cheney, Rumsfeld,
Rumsfeld's top deputy Paul Wolfowitz and Bush's brother Jeb - even urged
then-President Clinton to invade Iraq back in January 1998.
"We urge you to... enunciate a new strategy that would secure the
interests of the U.S. and our friends and allies around the world,"
stated the letter to Clinton, signed by Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and others.
"That strategy should aim, above all, at the removal of Saddam
Hussein's regime from power." (For full text of the letter, see www.newamericancentury.org/iraqclintonletter.htm)
The saga of Project for the New American Century may help answer some
of the questions being asked both across the nation and around the world
as Bush seems increasingly likely to call for military action to remove
Saddam from power.
Why does the Bush administration seem hell-bent on war in the Middle
East when key world powers and U.S. allies - such as France, Germany,
Russia and China - don't support it right now? Or when most Americans say
they don't want war, either, as long as the United Nations won't endorse
Why the rush, and why now, when Saddam seems weakened by a decade of
The answers are complicated, but most arise from the concept - endorsed
by many of the key players in the Bush administration - that America, as
the world's lone superpower, should be putting that power to use.
"The history of the 20th century should have taught us that it is
important to shape circumstances before crises emerge, and to meet threats
before they become dire," says the PNAC's statement of principles.
"The history of this century should have taught us to embrace the
cause of American leadership."
Ian Lustick, a University of Pennsylvania political science professor
and Middle East expert, calls the Cheney-Rumsfeld group "a
cabal" - a band of conservative ideologues whose grand notions of
American unilateral military might are out of touch and dangerous.
"What happened was 9/11, which had nothing to do with Iraq but
produced an enormous amount of political capital which allowed the
government to do anything it wanted as long as they could relate it to
national security and the Middle East," Lustick said.
Gary Schmitt, the executive director of PNAC, laughs at the notion that
his group is a secretive force driving U.S. policy, even as he
acknowledges that the current plan for ousting Saddam differs little from
what the group proposed in early 1998.
"We're not the puppeteer behind it all," said Schmitt, noting
that before Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration had adopted the
moderate policies on Iraq favored by Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Policy draft on U.S. power
Still, the most hawkish members of the Bush administration, who are
clearly in the driver's seat, have ties to PNAC. Their ideas about the
aggressive use of American clout and military force arose more than a
decade ago, in the wake of the collapse of communism and victory in the
Persian Gulf War.
When the United States routed Saddam's occupying army from Kuwait in
March 1991, most aides - including Cheney - approved of the senior Bush's
decision to not push forward to Baghdad and oust Saddam.
Cheney asked at a May 1992 briefing: "How many additional American
lives is Saddam Hussein worth? And the answer I would give is not very
Yet shortly before that, in February 1992, staffers for Wolfowitz - who
was deputy defense secretary under Cheney at the time - drafted an
American defense policy that called for the United States to aggressively
use its military might. The draft made no mention of a role for the United
The proposed policy urged the United States to "establish and
protect a new order" that accounts "sufficiently for the
interests of the advanced industrial nations to discourage them from
challenging our leadership," while at the same time maintaining a
military dominance capable of "deterring potential competitors from
even aspiring to a larger regional or global role." The draft caused
an outcry and was not adopted by Cheney and Wolfowitz.
But in the years immediately following Bush's election defeat by Bill
Clinton in 1992, Saddam's tight grip on power in Iraq, and his defiance of
U.N. weapons inspectors, began to grate on the former Bush aides.
"They wanted revenge - they felt humiliated," said Penn's
Lustick. He recalled the now infamous 1983 picture of Rumsfeld as an
American envoy shaking hands with Saddam, at a time when U.S. officials
had thought the secular dictator to be a "moderating" force in
the Arab world.
At the same time, the heady years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall
gave rise to the notion that the removal of Saddam and the establishment
of an Arab-run, pro-American democracy might have a kind of "domino
effect" in the Middle East, influencing neighbors like Saudi Arabia
At the United Nations last November, Bush said that if Iraqis are
liberated, "they can one day join a democratic Afghanistan and a
democratic Palestine, inspiring reforms throughout the Muslim world."
The neo-conservative ideas about Iraq began to come together around the
time that PNAC was formed, in spring 1997. Although the group's overriding
goal was expanding the U.S. military and American influence around the
globe, the group placed a strong early emphasis on Iraq.
In addition to Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, early backers of the
group included Jeb Bush, the president's brother; Richard Armitage, now
deputy secretary of state; Robert Zoellick, now U.S. trade commissioner;
I. Lewis Libby, now Cheney's top aide; and Zalmay Khalilzad, now America's
special envoy to Afghanistan.
In addition to Clinton, the group lobbied GOP leaders in Congress to
push for Saddam's removal - by force if necessary.
"We should establish and maintain a strong U.S. military presence
in the region, and be prepared to use that force to protect our vital
interests in the Gulf - and, if necessary, to help remove Saddam from
power," the group wrote to Rep. Newt Gingrich and Sen. Trent Lott in
Many of the best-known supporters have ties to the oil industry - most
notably Cheney, who at the time was CEO of Halliburton, which makes
oil-field equipment and would likely profit from the need to rebuild
While oil is a backdrop to PNAC's policy pronouncements on Iraq, it
doesn't seem to be the driving force. Lustick, while a critic of the Bush
policy, says oil is viewed by the war's proponents primarily as a way to
pay for the costly military operation.
"I'm from Texas, and every oil man that I know is against military
action in Iraq," said PNAC's Schmitt. "The oil market doesn't
Lustick believes that a more powerful hidden motivator may be Israel.
He said Bush administration hawks believe that a show of force in Iraq
would somehow convince Palestinians to accept a peace plan on terms
favorable to Israel - an idea he scoffs at.
Both supporters and opponents of a war in Iraq agree on one thing: That
the events of Sept. 11 were the trigger that finally put the theory in
"That pulled the shades off the president's eyes very
quickly," said Schmitt, who'd been unhappy with Bush's initial
policies. "He came to the conclusion that the meaning of 9/11 was
broader than a particular group of terrorists striking a particular group
The fact that many U.S. allies, particularly in western Europe, and
millions of American citizens haven't reached the same conclusion seems to
matter little as the war plan pushes forward.
A frustrated Lustick sees the war plan as the triumph of a simple
ideology over the messy realities of global politics.
"This is not a war on fanatics," he said. "This is a war
of fanatics - our fanatics."