Certain elements within the Bush administration had been pushing to topple Hussein since shortly after the first Gulf War. The thinking was that turning Iraq into a client state would be a big win for the U.S. for a variety of reasons:
It would provide a democratic model that could be used to push other middle eastern countries in a more liberal direction.
It would put pressure on the mullahs in Iran to behave themselves and not export Islamic revolution.
It would put pressure on Syria, forcing them to moderate their hostility toward Israel.
Thereby weakening the Palestinian position and making a settlement of the Israeli/Palestinian problem easier.
It would allow us to remove our garrison from Saudi Arabia, easing the friction that their presence causes with Islamic hardliners.
They realized – correctly, in my opinion – that Iraq is the lynchpin of the region and that having a friendly, free, prosperous Iraq would be in the best interests of the United States.
However, throughout the Clinton years the regime-change crowd was unable to get much traction. Democrats controlled the White House and while Clinton was willing to intervene in Bosnia on humanitarian grounds, he did so under the Powell Doctrine for military interventions: have clear goals, use overwhelming force, and make sure you have an exit strategy. He wasn’t interested in a grand, risky, open-ended scheme to remake the entire middle east.
When Bush was elected in 2000, the regime-change advocates were back in the White House. But Bush had run on a platform that explicitly rejected “nation building”. So while they were at least being listened to, they were no closer to an invasion than they had been with Clinton.
Then came 9-11.
This gave the regime-change advocates an opening to pitch their ideas all over again. If invading Afghanistan was about taking out one group of terrorists, Iraq would be a grand slam – it would totally remake the political situation of the entire middle east, attacking Islamic terrorism at its roots.
And now Bush listened to them. He was already predisposed to dislike Saddam Hussein for a variety of reasons: the foiled assassination attempt on Bush Sr., his tendency to see international diplomacy as a personal battle of good vs. evil.
Basically by spring of 2002, Bush had made up his mind. We would invade Iraq and “take out” the evil doer.
But the administration didn’t feel comfortable making the case for war with just the justifications I gave above. The neoconservative plan to remake the middle east had been around for years and was viewed skeptically by a number of people who thought that it contained a large amount of wishful thinking.
Yes, it would be really great to have Iraq as a prosperous, democratic ally … but it was far from obvious that an invasion would actually produce that result. It seemed more likely that we’d wind up with an Iran-style theocracy, or a shattered state run by a collection of warlords like Afghanistan, both of which would be WORSE than an Iraq under a secular despot like Saddam Hussein.
Plus, Bush had said he wouldn’t engage in nation-building. And now here he was, planning to remake an entire region. It wouldn’t have played well in the heartland.
So the administration manufactured other reasons for the war – reasons that tied in more directly with 9-11. They cherry-picked intelligence to exaggerate the threat of WMDs, and they also exaggerated the connections between Iraq and Al-Qaeda.
I’m sure at the time they weren’t worried about the exaggerations. Even those of us who were opposed to the war thought we’d find at least SOME weapons of mass destruction. And if the war turned out okay, and if all the things I mentioned at the beginning really came to pass, who would care what our justifications had been? The remaking of the middle east would be a fait accompli and the original reasons for the war would be forgotten.
Unfortunately, the crititics of regime change seem to have been right. Bush probably has succeeded in remaking the politics of the middle east, but in a way that is not in the best interests of the United States. We’re in for a long, expensive, bloody occupation and its not clear that the end result will be to our advantage.
(It’s not about oil, BTW. Or it is, but only in the sense that the only reason that the U.S. cares about the middle east at all is that there’s oil there. If if weren’t for the oil we would ignore it just as we ignore Africa.)