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Foible or fable? You decide
By Ehsan Ahrari

Washington is notorious for its "kiss and tell", whereby insiders with official or unofficial status, when they are no longer part of that privileged corps, decide to spill their guts to the media for a variety of reasons. Former treasury secretary of the Bush administration, Paul H O'Neill, has emerged as the most recent practitioner of that art. His rationale for going public: because the Bush administration has been too secretive about how decisions are made.

In a book entitled The Price of Loyalty, authored by a former Wall Street Journal reporter, Ron Suskind, O'Neill becomes the only former government official to go on the record in passing unflattering remarks about President George W Bush, his decision-making style, and about his obsession to topple Saddam Hussein from power. This last mentioned issue will receive worldwide attention, especially O'Neill's claim that Bush made the decision to invade Iraq in January or February of 2001, immediately after entering the White House, and way before the terrorist attacks of September 11, as has been understood up until now.

Suskind's book is also viewed as a credible source on Bush's decision-making style and other sensitive issues of his administration because the author claims to have spoken with a number of current members of the Bush cabinet on a "background basis".

On Bush's decision-making style, O'Neill states: "The president did not make decisions in a methodical way: there was no free flow of ideas." He describes Bush as "disengaged", at least on domestic issues. But he went beyond that description and noted Bush was "like a blind man in a room full of deaf people". Consequently, cabinet officials were forced to act "on little more than hunches about what the president might think".

Regarding Iraq, O'Neill states that going after the Iraqi dictator was "topic A" 10 days after the inauguration - eight months before September 11. He describes the very first meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) as follows: "From the very beginning there was a conviction that Saddam Hussein was a bad person and that he needed to go." From then on, adds O'Neill, "It was all about finding a way to do it. That was the tone of it. The president saying, "Go find me a way to do this." What bothered O'Neill was, for him, "the notion of pre-emption, that the US has the unilateral right to do whatever we decide to do, is a really huge leap". The most troubling aspect of this issue was, according to him, no one at the NSC meetings ever asked the questions, "Why Saddam?" and "Why now?"

Coming soon after the fact that no weapons of mass destruction were uncovered in Iraq, the topic of when the decision to invade Iraq was really made is likely to become a subject of national debate. A related issue that is likely to spring up is whether reasons to topple Saddam were truthfully stated by the Bush administration.

But it is hard to consider O'Neill's claims about Iraq in a vacuum. Reading Bob Woodward's book, Bush At War, one gets a clear and repeated message that Bush did not make up his mind about toppling Saddam's regime before deciding to topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. In a number of places in that book, Woodward describes Bush as stating something to the effect that "let's concentrate on Afghanistan and we'll worry about Iraq at a later date". Apparently, a journalist of Woodward's caliber could not have been deceived. At the same time, a related question is whether the Bush officials have purposely fed him wrong information on the subject.

Another controversial aspect of Suskind's book is that plans to occupy Iraq were discussed in January and February of 2001. According to the documents examined by the author, the Bush administration discussed plans for peacekeeping troops, war tribunals and even divvying up Iraq's oil wealth. One Pentagon document entitled "Foreign Suitors for Iraqi Oilfield Contracts" includes a map of potential areas of exploration. If true, these revelations will once again start the global debate that the Bush administration had its eyes on the Iraqi oil all along, and that Saddam's predilections to develop weapons of mass destruction for toppling his regime was only a ruse to gain control of those awesome oil reserves.

If the US had plans for peacekeeping and other related matters in Iraq, why did Washington appear unprepared about the entire issue of nation-building after the collapse of the Iraqi government? Bush was never secretive about this antipathy toward nation-building as a presidential candidate. Is it possible that all that antipathy dissipated once he entered the White House? But events after the collapse of the Iraqi government did not prove that the US government had any elaborate plans for rebuilding Iraq.

As the dust storm created in the aftermath of the release of Suskind's book settles, a number of questions related to the US invasion of Iraq will be raised. However, no one is making any bets that the future of Bush's reelection depends on finding answers to any of those questions.

Ehsan Ahrari, PhD, is an Alexandria, Virginia, US-based independent strategic analyst.

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