The War Behind Closed Doors


This report traces the story behind the Bush administration's abandonment of a long-standing policy of "containment" for Iraq in favor of a more aggressive "preemption" policy -- to be used on Iraq or any nation or group believed to threaten U.S. security. From the long-running policy battle between Secretary of State Colin Powell and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to the evolution of the "Bush Doctrine" after Sept. 11, culminating in the September 2002 release of his National Security Strategy, this program recounts how administration insiders -- calling themselves "neo-Reaganites," "neo-conservatives," or simply "hawks" -- set out to achieve a new and muscular foreign policy for America.



Timeline: Chronology of the evolution of the Bush Doctrine
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Readings and links
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Feb. 28, 1991
The Gulf War's Ragged Ending; U.S. Decides on Containment Policy for Iraq

With a Gulf War cease fire declared, President Bush, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell believe Saddam's hold on Iraq is tenuous. Bush urges Iraqis to rise up. They do, and within days Saddam has lost control of southern Iraq. But the rebellion is soon overwhelmed by Saddam's forces, which include helicopter gunships, and Bush orders U.S. troops not to intervene. It is estimated that thousands of Shiites were killed.

The failed uprising is a defining moment for neo-conservatives such as Richard Perle, William Kristol, and Paul Wolfowitz. Wolfowitz complains that the U.S. inaction is comparable to "idly watching a mugging."

With Saddam clinging to power, Bush decides on a containment strategy towards Iraq: tough U.N. inspections, economic sanctions, and no-fly zones to protect the Kurds in the north and south of the country.

First Hints of a Preemption Strategy

Paul Wolfowitz, under secretary of defense for policy (the Pentagon's third-highest ranking civilian), takes the lead in drafting an internal set of military guidelines, called a "Defense Planning Guidance," which is routinely prepared every few years by the Defense Department.

Wolfowitz's draft argues for a new military and political strategy in a post-Cold War world. Containment, it says, is a relic of the Cold War. America should talk loudly, carry a big stick, and use its military power to preempt the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). And if America has to act alone, so be it. (Read excerpts from the Wolfowitz draft.)

Controversy erupts after the draft is leaked to the press. The White House orders Defense Secretary Cheney to rewrite it. In the new draft there is no mention of preemption or U.S. willingness to act alone.

Jan. 20, 1993
Bill Clinton Becomes President; Iraq Containment Policy Continues

During the Clinton administration, Saddam repeatedly pushes the envelope on U.N. inspections and sanctions.
For a detailed chronology of Saddam Hussein's battles with U.N. weapons inspectors, see FRONTLINE's 1999 report "Spying on Saddam."

In 1995, Saddam's son-in-law, who is head of Iraq's WMD program, defects and tells inspectors about Iraq's arsenal. Armed with the new information, the U.N. inspectors raid Iraq's main biological weapons plant and destroy the equipment and growth medium. But most of the chemical and biological weapons the inspectors believe to have been manufactured is never found.

Jan. 26, 1998
Hawks Send Open Letter to Clinton

A group of neo-conservatives, who have formed The Project for a New American Century, argue for a much stronger U.S. global leadership exercised through "military strength and moral clarity."

In an open letter to Clinton, the group warns that the policy of containing Iraq is "dangerously inadequate." They write:
The only acceptable strategy is one that eliminates the possibility that Iraq will be able to use or threaten to use weapons of mass destruction. In the near term, this means a willingness to undertake military action as diplomacy is clearly failing. In the long term, it means removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power. That now needs to become the aim of American foreign policy.

The letter's signatories include Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, William Kristol, and other current members of George W. Bush's administration, including Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Under Secretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton.

Summer-Fall 1998
Saddam Blocks Weapons Inspectors

In early August, Saddam suspends cooperation with weapons inspectors and on Oct. 31 shuts down all inspections. The inspectors say they have evidence that Saddam had created thousands of tons of chemical and biological agents and that he is working on a nuclear device.

In November, Clinton -- in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal -- orders a bombing campaign against Iraq, but calls it off at the last minute when U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan works out a deal in which Iraq promises to unconditionally cooperate with U.N. inspectors. Within days of the inspectors' return, however, Iraq returns to intimidation and withholding information.

Dec. 16-19, 1998
Operation Desert Fox

U.S. and British military forces launch a four-day air and cruise missile campaign against approximately 100 key Iraqi military targets to punish Saddam for defying U.N. weapons inspections.
On Dec. 16, the day the bombing begins, the U.N. withdraws all weapons inspectors. [Inspections will not resume in Iraq until November 2002, following passage of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441.]

March 1999
George W. Bush Considers Presidential Run

Bush sets up an exploratory committee for a presidential campaign and foreign policy experts descend on Austin, Texas, to help prepare him for a White House run.
His tutors include both neo-conservative hawks, such as Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld, and pragmatic realists, including Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. During the campaign, neither side will really know where it stands with the candidate.

Jan. 20, 2001
The George W. Bush Presidency Begins

Both hawks and realists present Bush with candidates for foreign policy posts in the new administration. The hawks end up with three important jobs: Lewis "Scooter" Libby becomes Cheney's chief of staff, Donald Rumsfeld becomes secretary of defense, and Paul Wolfowitz becomes deputy secretary of defense. But Colin Powell's nomination as secretary of state is viewed as a formidable counterweight to the Pentagon hawks.

The two groups express varying views on how to deal with Saddam Hussein. The hawks develop a military option and push for increased aid to the Iraqi opposition. Colin Powell advocates "smart sanctions" that would allow more humanitarian goods into Iraq, while tightening controls on items that could have military applications.

Sept. 11, 2001
Terrorists Attack World Trade Center and Pentagon

In his address to the nation on the evening of Sept. 11, Bush decides to include a tough new passage about punishing those who harbor terrorists. He announces that the U.S. will "make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them."

To many observers, the president's words set the tone and direction for the Bush administration's policy on Afghanistan and Iraq.

Sept. 13, 2001
Wolfowitz versus Powell

Two days later, Wolfowitz expands on the president's words at a Pentagon briefing. He seems to signal that the U.S. will enlarge its campaign against terror to include Iraq:
"I think one has to say it's not just simply a matter of capturing people and holding them accountable, but removing the sanctuaries, removing the support systems, ending states who sponsor terrorism. And that's why it has to be a broad and sustained campaign."

Colin Powell and others are alarmed by what they view as Wolfowitz's inflammatory words about "ending states." Powell later responds during a press briefing: "We're after ending terrorism. And if there are states and regimes, nations that support terrorism, we hope to persuade them that it is in their interest to stop doing that. But I think ending terrorism is where I would like to leave it, and let Mr. Wolfowitz speak for himself."

Sept. 15, 2001
Camp David Meeting: Iraq Debated

Four days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush gathers his national security team at Camp David for a war council. Wolfowitz argues that now is the perfect time to move against state sponsors of terrorism, including Iraq. But Powell tells the president that an international coalition would only come together for an attack on Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, not an invasion of Iraq.
The war council votes with Powell. Rumsfeld abstains. The president ultimately decides that the war's first phase will be Afghanistan. The question of Iraq will be reconsidered later.

Sept. 20, 2001
Speech by President Bush to Joint Session of Congress

Bush's address to Congress builds on his speech on the night of Sept. 11:
"We will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime."

Bush's speech also outlines a vision for a strong American leadership in the world, a leadership that would project America's power and influence:
"Freedom and fear are at war. The advance of human freedom -- the great achievement of our time, and the great hope of every time -- now depends on us. Our nation -- this generation -- will lift a dark threat of violence from our people and our future. We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail."

Jan. 2002
State of the Union Speech Signals Possible Action in Iraq

Bush's State of the Union address introduces the idea of an "axis of evil" that includes Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, and signals the U.S. will act preemptively to deal with such nations.

"We'll be deliberate, yet time is not on our side. I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."

June 2002
Bush Calls for a Policy of Preemption

In a graduation speech at West Point, Bush cites the realities of a new post-Cold War era and outlines a major shift in national security strategy -- from containment to preemption.
"Our security will require all Americans to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives."

The president also calls for an American hegemony: "America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge." Both strategic aims -- preemption and hegemony -- echo the recommendations Paul Wolfowitz made back in 1992 in his controversial Defense Planning Guidance draft.

August 2002
Within Administration, Open Debate on Iraq

Powell reports trouble getting U.S. allies on board for a war with Iraq and wants to consult the U.N. At a private dinner with Bush on Aug. 5, Powell warns the president that the U.S. should not act unilaterally and must fully consider the economic and political consequences of war -- particularly in the Middle East.

Powell's view is championed by Brent Scowcroft, former National Security Adviser in the Bush I administration, who publishes an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on Aug. 15 in which he argues that Bush is moving too quickly on Iraq, and advocates pressing for the return of U.N. inspectors.

Soon after, Vice President Cheney emerges as the administration voice advocating action against Iraq. In a Nashville speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Cheney warns that "a return of inspectors would provide no assurance whatsoever of [Saddam's] compliance with U.N. resolutions."

Cheney also outlines a larger, long-term strategy whereby regime change in Iraq could transform the Middle East:
"Regime change in Iraq would bring about a number of benefits to the region. When the gravest of threats are eliminated, the freedom-loving peoples of the region will have a chance to promote the values that can bring lasting peace. As for the reaction of the Arab 'street,' the Middle East expert Professor Fouad Ajami predicts that after liberation, the streets in Basra and Baghdad are 'sure to erupt in joy in the same way the throngs in Kabul greeted the Americans.' Extremists in the region would have to rethink their strategy of Jihad. Moderates throughout the region would take heart. And our ability to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process would be enhanced, just as it was following the liberation of Kuwait in 1991."

As Bush leaves for an August vacation in Crawford, Texas, he agrees to take his case to the U.N. and asks his advisers to start preparing the speech.

Sept. 12, 2002
Bush U.N. Address on Iraq

In the United Nations speech, Bush seems to be siding with Powell in calling for a new U.N. resolution on Iraq. But the president also warns:
"The purposes of the United States should not be doubted. The Security Council resolutions will be enforced -- the just demands of peace and security will be met -- or action will be unavoidable. And a regime that has lost its legitimacy will also lose its power."

Sept. 17, 2002
U.S. National Security Strategy Released

Twenty months into his presidency, George W. Bush releases his administration's National Security Strategy (NSS). It is the first time the various elements of the Bush Doctrine have been formally articulated in one place. The 33-page document presents a bold and comprehensive reformulation of U.S. foreign policy. It outlines a new and muscular American posture in the world -- a posture that will rely on preemption to deal with rogue states and terrorists harboring weapons of mass destruction. It states that America will exploit its military and economic power to encourage "free and open societies." It states for the first time that the U.S. will never allow its military supremacy to be challenged as it was during the Cold War. And the NSS insists that when America's vital interests are at stake, it will act alone, if necessary.

Policy analysts note that there are many elements in the 2002 NSS document which bear a strong resemblance to recommendations presented in Paul Wolfowitz's controversial Defense Planning Guidance draft written in 1992 under the first Bush administration.


Sept. 12, 2001
Europe Offers Support After Sept. 11

Immediately following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, NATO offers the U.S. European troops to help fight the coming war in Afghanistan.

But the Bush administration is cautious, not wanting to relive the U.S. military's frustrating experience with NATO during the Kosovo war.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz tells NATO: "If we need collective action, we'll ask for it," Wolfowitz says. "We don't anticipate that at the moment."

Jan. 29, 2002
Bush's 'Axis Of Evil' Speech Unnerves Europe

With the Taliban's defeat in Afghanistan, President Bush gives his January 2002 State of the Union address and expands the list of states who pose a threat to the U.S. to include both states supporting terrorists and those developing weapons of mass destruction. Citing North Korea, Iran, and Iraq, Bush says, "states like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world."

April 5, 2002
British Prime Minister Tony Blair urges the president to build a coalition of partners through the U.N., and offers to serve as a bridge between the U.S. and Europe.

June 2002
Alarm Over U.S.'s New Pre-emptive Policy

In a graduation address at West Point, President Bush reveals his vision for a new world order and a new national security approach. "For much of the last century, America's defense relied on the Cold War doctrines of containment and deterrence," Bush says. "Our security will require all Americans to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for pre-emptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives."

Early August 2002
Powell Urges President to Go to U.N.

The British are doing everything they can to bolster U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's position on taking a multilateral approach on Iraq.

In early August, Powell arranges a private dinner with Bush in the White House and tells him that having allies for a war on Iraq is important to the success of the operation. He tells Bush he should go through the U.N. on Iraq.

Aug. 26, 2002
Cheney Challenges U.N. Process

Vice President Dick Cheney publicly declares his opposition to the return of U.N. inspectors to disarm Iraq. "There is a great danger that it would provide false comfort that Saddam was somehow 'back in his box,'" Cheney says. "What we must not do in the face of a mortal threat is to give in to wishful thinking or willful blindness."

Sept. 7, 2002
Blair Secures Bush's Commitment to go to the U.N.

Bush decides to go through the U.N., but he exacts a high price. "By the time Bush committed to the U.N. route," says Matthew D'Ancona of the Sunday Telegraph, "he had obtained a private assurance from Blair that he would go to war with him, pretty much no matter what."

Sept. 12, 2002
Bush Confronts the U.N. on Iraq

Bush says that he will go to the Security Council for a new resolution to disarm Saddam. But he avoids saying that he will abide by the will of the United Nations if it vetoes such a resolution.

December 2002
Inspectors Return to Iraq; Military Build-Up Begins

Saddam Hussein agrees to let the inspectors back in and says Iraq will fully comply with Resolution 1441. As the inspectors work, the U.S. begins deploying troops to the Middle East, sending 25,000 in late December and 62,000 more in early January.

Many in Europe see the military build-up as proof that the U.S. never intended to do anything but go to war. Across much of Western Europe, public opinion is running strongly against an American-led war to disarm Iraq. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's recent reelection is largely due to his tough anti-war platform.

January 2003
France and Germany Make a Stand Against U.S.

With tempers fraying on both sides of the Atlantic, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld bluntly discounts the influence of France and Germany in the debate. "You're thinking of Europe as Germany and France," Rumsfeld says. "I don't. I think that's Old Europe. If you look at the entire NATO Europe today, the center of gravity is shifting to the east."

Jan. 31, 2003
Bush Agrees to a Second U.N. Resolution

Fearing a political backlash, Blair returns to Washington to secure the president's commitment to weather the storm and continue on the U.N. route. Bush agrees to try for a second Security Council resolution on Iraq.

However, following his meeting with Blair, a clearly frustrated Bush states: "This thing needs to be resolved quickly. Should the United Nations decide to pass a second resolution, it would be welcomed. ... But 1441 gives us the authority to move without any second resolution."

Feb. 5, 2003
Powell Presents Evidence to U.N.

Although Powell's report is extensive and detailed about what Iraq is hiding, the French and other Europeans are not swayed. They feel that the U.N. inspectors are dealing with the weapons question, and have deep doubts about Powell's claims of connections between Iraq and Al Qaeda.

March 6, 2003
Bush's Last Effort at U.N.

Blair asks a reluctant Washington to try one more time at the U.N. and Bush, at a rare primetime news conference on March 6, challenges the members of the Security Council to support a second resolution. "We'll call for a vote [on the second resolution]," says Bush. "It's time for people to show their cards, to let the world know where they stand when it comes to Saddam."

March 19, 2003
War on Iraq

At 9:33 p.m. EST, the war to oust Saddam Hussein officially begins. The U.S. and Britain are now fighting the war virtually alone.