Bush and his advisers denied that he was driven by the failure of his father to win reelection, but the parallels were too obvious to ignore. In the Gulf War, Bush 41 halted American troops short of a campaign to remove Hussein. At the time, his advisers believed that continuing the war would risk splintering the multinational coalition, and that, in turn, would turn the effort from success to failure. The result was that Hussein remained in power.
George W. Bush and his advisers argued that the Iraqi dictator was building stockpiles of dangerous weapons and that he might very well use them, either directly or by supplying terrorists. They worried in particular that Hussein might acquire a nuclear weapon. Stopping him before he became more fully armed—and even more dangerous—became the administration’s foremost national security goal.
The first part of Bush’s international plan was a huge gamble. It framed a new strategy, christened the “Bush doctrine,” that sought to chart a new role for America in the world. In a speech at West Point, Bush said: “We fight, as we always fight, for a just peace—a peace that favors liberty. We will defend the peace against the threats from terrorists and tyrants. We will preserve the peace by building good relations among the great powers. And we will extend the peace by encouraging free and open societies on every continent.” It built on the argument that communism had fallen, that the Cold War was over, and that the United States was the world’s lone remaining superpower. “America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones,” the president’s national security strategy concluded. Bush expanded the old notion of imminent threat—that a nation was justified in launching an attack when opposing armies mobilized and threatened war. He crafted it into a new strategy of “preemptive attack.” If the United States sensed that the risks of a terrorist attack were rising, the nation would act preemptively to prevent it. It was better, the Bush doctrine suggested, to act first against the new breed of concealed surprise attacks than to risk the mass casualties and catastrophic damage of an attack such as the one that occurred on September 11.
In line with this doctrine, Bush and his foreign policy team believed that Iraq had an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction that could harm the United States and its allies, and that the weapons might find their way into terrorist hands. Better to force Iraq to disarm, this line of thinking went, than to risk the potential catastrophe that such weapons might deliver. And better to go to war with Iraq if Iraq refused to disarm.
Foreign policy experts agreed that an Iraq armed with weapons of mass destruction would be intolerably dangerous. But they disagreed on what weapons Hussein had, when he might develop more, and thus how dangerous he might be. They also disagreed strongly on the “with us or against us,” go-it-alone strategy that underlay the Bush doctrine. But the Bush administration was determined to press ahead.
Perhaps the most notable thing about the decision was the subtle yet crucial shift in strategy. Bush’s foreign policy advisers had identified Iraq as a major threat long before September 11. They had long planned an initiative to disarm Hussein. But then September 11 intervened. Their attention immediately shifted to the war against terrorism, which had widespread political support. With the Bush doctrine, Team Bush sought to shift the focus from terrorists to states that might support terrorists—and, among those states, to Iraq in particular. Team Bush also sought to parlay public support for the war against Osama bin Laden to a campaign against Saddam Hussein. It was a textbook case of the Bush strategy: building capital to use capital.