The Ides of March 2003
TOMORROW night is the fourth anniversary of President Bush’s prime-time address declaring the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. In the broad sweep of history, four years is a nanosecond, but in America, where memories are congenitally short, it’s an eternity. That’s why a revisionist history of the White House’s rush to war, much of it written by its initial cheerleaders, has already taken hold. In this exonerating fictionalization of the story, nearly every politician and pundit in Washington was duped by the same “bad intelligence” before the war, and few imagined that the administration would so botch the invasion’s aftermath or that the occupation would go on so long. “If only I had known then what I know now ...” has been the persistent refrain of the war supporters who subsequently disowned the fiasco. But the embarrassing reality is that much of the damning truth about the administration’s case for war and its hubristic expectations for a cakewalk were publicly available before the war, hiding in plain sight, to be seen by anyone who wanted to look.
By the time the ides of March arrived in March 2003, these warning signs were visible on a nearly daily basis. So were the signs that Americans were completely ill prepared for the costs ahead. Iraq was largely anticipated as a distant, mildly disruptive geopolitical video game that would be over in a flash.
Now many of the same leaders who sold the war argue that escalation should be given a chance. This time they’re peddling the new doomsday scenario that any withdrawal timetable will lead to the next 9/11. The question we must ask is: Has history taught us anything in four years?
Here is a chronology of some of the high and low points in the days leading up to the national train wreck whose anniversary we mourn this week [with occasional “where are they now” updates].
March 5, 2003
“I took the Grey Poupon out of my cupboard.”
— Representative Duke Cunningham, Republican of California, on the floor of the House denouncing French opposition to the Iraq war.
[In November 2005, he resigned from Congress and pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from defense contractors. In January 2007, the United States attorney who prosecuted him — Carol Lam, a Bush appointee — was forced to step down for “performance-related” issues by Alberto Gonzales’s Justice Department.]
March 6, 2003
President Bush holds his last prewar news conference. The New York Observer writes that he interchanged Iraq with the attacks of 9/11 eight times, “and eight times he was unchallenged.” The ABC News White House correspondent, Terry Moran, says the Washington press corps was left “looking like zombies.”
March 7, 2003
Appearing before the United Nations Security Council on the same day that the United States and three allies (Britain, Spain and Bulgaria) put forth their resolution demanding that Iraq disarm by March 17, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, reports there is “no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons program in Iraq.”. He adds that documents “which formed the basis for the report of recent uranium transaction between Iraq and Niger are in fact not authentic.” None of the three broadcast networks’ evening newscasts mention his findings.
[In 2005 ElBaradei was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.]
March 10, 2003
Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks tells an audience in England, “We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.” Boycotts, death threats and anti-Dixie Chicks demonstrations follow.
[In 2007, the Dixie Chicks won five Grammy Awards, including best song for “Not Ready to Make Nice.”]
March 12, 2003
A senior military planner tells The Daily News “an attack on Iraq could last as few as seven days.”
“Isn’t it more likely that antipathy toward the United States in the Islamic world might diminish amid the demonstrations of jubilant Iraqis celebrating the end of a regime that has few equals in its ruthlessness?”
— John McCain, writing for the Op-Ed page of The New York Times.
“The Pentagon still has not given a name to the Iraqi war. Somehow ‘Operation Re-elect Bush’ doesn’t seem to be popular.”
— Jay Leno, “The Tonight Show.”
March 14, 2003
Senator John D. Rockefeller, Democrat of West Virginia, asks the F.B.I. to investigate the forged documents cited a week earlier by ElBaradei and alleging an Iraq-Niger uranium transaction: “There is a possibility that the fabrication of these documents may be part of a larger deception campaign aimed at manipulating public opinion and foreign policy regarding Iraq.”
March 16, 2003
On “Meet the Press,” Dick Cheney says that American troops will be “greeted as liberators,” that Saddam “has a longstanding relationship with various terrorist groups, including the Al Qaeda organization,” and that it is an “overstatement” to suggest that several hundred thousand troops will be needed in Iraq after it is liberated. Asked by Tim Russert about ElBaradei’s statement that Iraq does not have a nuclear program, the vice president says, “I think Mr. ElBaradei frankly is wrong.”
“There will be new recruits, new recruits probably because of the war that’s about to happen. So we haven’t seen the last of Al Qaeda.”
— Richard Clarke, former White House counterterrorism czar, on ABC’s “This Week.”
[From the recently declassified “key judgments” of the National Intelligence Estimate of April 2006: “The Iraq conflict has become the cause célèbre for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of U.S. involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.”]
“Despite the Bush administration’s claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, U.S. intelligence agencies have been unable to give Congress or the Pentagon specific information about the amounts of banned weapons or where they are hidden, according to administration officials and members of Congress. Senior intelligence analysts say they feel caught between the demands from White House, Pentagon and other government policy makers for intelligence that would make the administration’s case ‘and what they say is a lack of hard facts,’ one official said.”
— “U.S. Lacks Specifics on Banned Arms,” by Walter Pincus (with additional reporting by Bob Woodward), The Washington Post, Page A17.
March 17, 2003
Representative Henry Waxman, Democrat of California, who voted for the Iraq war resolution, writes the president to ask why the administration has repeatedly used W.M.D. evidence that has turned out to be “a hoax” — “correspondence that indicates that Iraq sought to obtain nuclear weapons from an African country, Niger.”
[Still waiting for “an adequate explanation” of the bogus Niger claim four years later, Waxman, now chairman of the chief oversight committee in the House, wrote Condoleezza Rice on March 12, 2007, seeking a response “to multiple letters I sent you about this matter.”]
In a prime-time address, President Bush tells Saddam to leave Iraq within 48 hours: “Every measure has been made to avoid war, and every measure will be taken to win it.” After the speech, NBC rushes through its analysis to join a hit show in progress, “Fear Factor,” where men and women walk with bare feet over broken glass to win $50,000.
March 18, 2003
Barbara Bush tells Diane Sawyer on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that she will not watch televised coverage of the war: “Why should we hear about body bags and deaths, and how many, what day it’s going to happen, and how many this or what do you suppose? Or, I mean, it’s, it’s not relevant. So, why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?”
[Visiting the homeless victims of another cataclysm, Hurricane Katrina, at the Houston Astrodome in 2005, Mrs. Bush said, “And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this — this is working very well for them.”]
In one of its editorials strongly endorsing the war, The Wall Street Journal writes, “There is plenty of evidence that Iraq has harbored Al Qaeda members.”
[In a Feb. 12, 2007, editorial defending the White House’s use of prewar intelligence, The Journal wrote, “Any links between Al Qaeda and Iraq is a separate issue that was barely mentioned in the run-up to war.”]
In an article headlined “Post-war ‘Occupation’ of Iraq Could Result in Chaos,” Mark McDonald of Knight Ridder Newspapers quotes a “senior leader of one of Iraq’s closest Arab neighbors,” who says, “We’re worried that the outcome will be civil war.”
A questioner at a White House news briefing asserts that “every other war has been accompanied by fiscal austerity of some sort, often including tax increases” and asks, “What’s different about this war?” Ari Fleischer responds, “The most important thing, war or no war, is for the economy to grow,” adding that in the president’s judgment, “the best way to help the economy to grow is to stimulate the economy by providing tax relief.”
After consulting with the homeland security secretary, Tom Ridge, the N.C.A.A. announces that the men’s basketball tournament will tip off this week as scheduled. The N.C.A.A. president, Myles Brand, says, “We were not going to let a tyrant determine how we were going to lead our lives.”
March 19, 2003
“I’d guess that if it goes beyond three weeks, Bush will be in real trouble.”
— Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel teaching at Boston University, quoted in The Washington Post.
[The March 2007 installment of the Congressionally mandated Pentagon assessment “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq” reported that from Jan. 1 to Feb. 9, 2007, there were more than 1,000 weekly attacks, up from about 400 in spring 2004.]
Robert McIlvaine, whose 26-year-old son was killed at the World Trade Center 18 months earlier, is arrested at a peace demonstration at the Capitol in Washington. He tells The Washington Post: “It’s very insulting to hear President Bush say this is for Sept. 11.”
“I don’t think it is reasonable to close the door on inspections after three and a half months,” when Iraq’s government is providing more cooperation than it has in more than a decade.
— Hans Blix, chief weapons inspector for the United Nations.
The Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that 71 percent of Americans support going to war in Iraq, up from 59 percent before the president’s March 17 speech.
— Ari Fleischer
[Asked in January 2007 how Americans have sacrificed, President Bush answered: “I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night.”]
Pentagon units will “locate and survey at least 130 and as many as 1,400 possible weapons sites.”
— “Disarming Saddam Hussein; Teams of Experts to Hunt Iraq Arms” by Judith Miller, The Times, Page A1.
President Bush declares war from the Oval Office in a national address: “Our nation enters this conflict reluctantly, yet our purpose is sure.”
Price of a share of Halliburton stock: $20.50
[Value of that Halliburton share on March 16, 2007, adjusted for a split in 2006: $64.12.]
March 20, 2003
“The pictures you’re seeing are absolutely phenomenal. These are live pictures of the Seventh Cavalry racing across the deserts in southern Iraq. They will — it will be days before they get to Baghdad, but you’ve never seen battlefield pictures like these before.”
— Walter Rodgers, an embedded CNN correspondent.
“Coalition forces suffered their first casualties in a helicopter crash that left 12 Britons and 4 Americans dead.”
— The Associated Press.
Though the March 23 Oscar ceremony will dispense with the red carpet in deference to the war, an E! channel executive announces there will be no cutback on pre-Oscar programming, but “the tone will be much more somber.”
March 21, 2003
“I don’t mean to be glib about this, or make it sound trite, but it really is a symphony that has to be orchestrated by a conductor.”
— Retired Maj. Gen. Donald Shepperd, CNN military analyst, speaking to Wolf Blitzer of the bombardment of Baghdad during Shock and Awe.
[“Many parts of Iraq are stable. But of course what we see on television is the one bombing a day that discourages everyone.”
“The president may occasionally turn on the TV, but that’s not how he gets his news or his information. ... He is the president, he’s made his decisions and the American people are watching him.”
[The former press secretary received immunity from prosecution in the Valerie Wilson leak case and testified in the perjury trial of Scooter Libby in 2007.]
“Peter, I may be going out on a limb, but I’m not sure that the first stage of this Shock and Awe campaign is really going to frighten the Iraqi people. In fact, it may have just the opposite effect. If they feel that they’ve survived the most that the United States can throw at them and they’re still standing, and they’re still able to go about their lives, well, then they might be rather emboldened. They might feel that, well, look, we can stand a lot more than this.”
— Richard Engel, a Baghdad correspondent speaking to Peter Jennings on ABC’s “World News Tonight.”