At a news conference in Cairo on Feb. 24, 2001, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was asked about the sanctions then in place against Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Powell said, "Frankly, they have worked. He has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors. So, in effect, our policies have strengthened the security of the neighbors of Iraq, and these are policies that we are going to keep in place." He added that the policies were always subject to review to ensure they continued to contain "the Iraqi regime's ambitions and the ability to acquire weapons of mass destruction."
Seven months later, Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization, based in Afghanistan, attacked the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon. The United States struck back quickly and successfully in Afghanistan, although bin Laden is still at large. We now know that while the fighting in Afghanistan was still in progress, preliminary planning began for an attack on Iraq, although there was no evidence that Iraq or Hussein had anything to do with the Sept. 11 attacks.
After Sept. 11, it was certainly prudent to go back over the intelligence about terrorists and nations that harbor them. In so doing, Powell's February 2001 assessment of a contained Iraq was quickly transformed -- by the CIA, Pentagon civilian officials and the White House -- into an Iraq that was publicly described as a grave and immediate threat to this country, with images of mushroom clouds over American cities and with official certainty expressed about chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction and a reconstituted nuclear weapons program.
We now know there were no weapons of mass destruction, and we know that some experts in the U.S. government disagreed, at the time, with the new internal assessments and those presented to the public. And we have been told by bipartisan congressional investigators that there was no "collaborative relationship" between Iraq and al Qaeda.
In last Sunday's column, I wrote that, for me, the question of how it could happen that the United States could be taken to war on the basis of assertions that turned out to be false was still unanswered. Several readers responded to this. Most of those who wrote were in agreement, others were certain that the right course was chosen and some felt that still other aspects of this decision hadn't had enough examination.
"We went to war to reduce the number of nations that could hurt us," said one reader. "The only thing Bush did wrong was to worry too much about the number of civilian casualties we might cause. For that reason, he couldn't end the war quickly enough to take out Iran and North Korea, and help the Israelis take out Syria."
For those who felt more illumination of other factors is necessary before we can understand what really happened and why, here are some of the questions.
Was a desire to control Iraqi oil fields a secret factor in the decision to go to war? Did Sept. 11 tip this president toward finishing off the work of his father in the Persian Gulf War a decade earlier? Were other factors also at work to a much greater degree than we understood, especially the intense, focused and demonstrated preoccupation of several top administration officials, over many years, with remaking the map of the Middle East and, in their view, enhancing Israeli security in the process? That also has appeal among evangelical Christians here as well as parts of the Jewish community.
In 1996 three neoconservative thinkers -- Richard Perle, David Wurmser and Douglas J. Feith, none of whom were in government at the time but all of whom were eventually to occupy important policy or advisory positions in the Bush administration -- were part of an unusual study group that proposed to Israel's then-prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, a strategic plan that included ousting Saddam Hussein. Netanyahu rejected the plan. But it survived, transformed into an American option and neoconservative doctrine by an expanded group of adherents that, eventually, came to include the top of the Bush-Cheney administration.
Did any of this matter? Was the decision to start a war really about being convinced that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and links to al Qaeda and that it was too risky not to invade? That certainly is understandable given the responsibilities weighing on a president in the post-Sept. 11 world.
Or was it something different? Were the alleged weapons of mass destruction a publicly plausible and frightening excuse to do something that a cluster of politicians and policymakers had wanted to do for a long time and that was viewed as certain to lead to another relatively easy military victory? Were the pro-invasion forces in the vice president's office and the civilian Pentagon hierarchy simply too focused, determined and effective -- compared with those harboring doubts -- to be seriously challenged? Were those who had doubts too unsure, insecure or afraid to mount an effective challenge? Would the White House environment have allowed and considered such challenges?
The decision to invade Iraq, one reader wrote, "is the story of the century, much bigger than 9/11."
Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at email@example.com.