Tracking Why We Went to War
By William Raspberry
Monday, May 31, 2004; Page A23
Heard any good rationales for the war lately?
If not, maybe you ought to talk to Devon Largio, a new graduate of the University of Illinois, who says her research turned up 23 different rationales offered by the Bush administration in the year following the Sept. 11 attacks.
They're all laid out in her 212-page senior honors thesis, "Uncovering the Rationales for the War on Iraq: The Words of the Bush Administration, Congress and the Media from September 12, 2001, to October 11, 2002."
The work is largely a computer-driven analysis of the available public statements of Bush administration officials and key members of Congress during the run-up to war. By searching key words, she was also able to map the administration's shifting interest from Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein and Iraq -- and also the news media's response to that shift.
Largio, who is from the west-central Illinois town of Gillespie, is neither Bush-basher nor committed dove, she said. But war is an obvious watershed in the life of a 22-year-old, and she "really just wanted to figure out why we went to war." So she decided to kill two birds with one stone: She would answer the question that was nagging her and produce a senior honors thesis in the process.
Many of the key rationales she knew already -- the weapons of mass destruction, Iraq's treatment of weapons inspectors, the administration's interest in "regime change." Others seemed to ebb and flow -- setting an example for other tyrants, protecting Iraqis (or the region or the world) from Hussein, completing the work of Desert Storm, spreading Western-style democracy, and compensating for international institutions so ineffectual as to render the phrase "United Nations resolution" an oxymoron.
As Largio acknowledges, several of the rationales might have been in play at any given time (WMDs, Hussein's support of international terrorism and Iraq's role in the "axis of evil" were all cited in the president's State of the Union message on Jan. 29, 2002). Others seemed to gain currency while earlier rationales faded -- as war over WMDs gave way to war to transform the architecture of the Middle East and war to liberate the Iraqi people.
Largio, who will attend law school at Vanderbilt University this fall, also traced the role of the media, which, she said, often introduced ideas about the dangerousness of Iraq and its leader even before the Bush administration did. It was the media that, as early as the fall of 2001, "brought the idea that Iraq may be connected to 9/11 to the forefront, asking questions of [administration] officials on the topic and printing articles about the possibility," she said.
In other words, hype isn't the sole province of government officials. Just last week, the New York Times acknowledged in an editor's note that some of its reports on evidence that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction appeared to have been driven by questionable sources and the desire for "scoops." Scott Althaus, Largio's political science professor, said Largio's thesis was "an extraordinary piece of work, involving plowing through official documents, speeches and transcripts of Sunday talk shows for most of two full semesters."
And did she ever "figure out why we went to war"?
"I didn't include this in my paper," she said, "but I'm as torn now as I was when I started. I tend to accept the good intentions of the president, and it's tempting to say that if they have 23 reasons for going to war, we probably should have gone. On the other hand, I find myself thinking that if they had to keep coming up with new reasons for going to war, we probably shouldn't have done it. It's almost like the decision came first, then the rationales."
All 23 of them.
It's tempting to take liberties with the famous "Dr. Fell" verse of English satirist Tom Brown:
I must blast Saddam to Hell.
The reason why, I cannot tell.
But this I know, and know full well,
I must blast Saddam to Hell.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company