Frank Rich: 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.
Read the rest of this remarkable collection here.