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Context of 'May 30, 2003: Wolfowitz: WMD Used to Justify War because ‘Everyone Could Agree on’ It as a Rationale'

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Bush administration neoconservatives begin blaming Saddam Hussein for the 9/11 attacks (see September 16, 2001). One, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, says at a press briefing that “ending states who sponsor terrorism” is a priority for the administration. Secretary of State Colin Powell is so irate at Wolfowitz’s remarks that he complains to General Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “What are these guys thinking about? Can’t you get these guys back in the box?” [Unger, 2007, pp. 216-217]

Entity Tags: Colin Powell, Saddam Hussein, Paul Wolfowitz, Henry Hugh Shelton

Timeline Tags: Neoconservative Influence

In the upcoming issue of Vanity Fair, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz admits that the Bush administration chose the issue of Iraqi WMD as its primary justification for war, not because it was necessarily a legitimate concern, but because it was, in the words of reporter David Usbourne, “politically convenient.” Wolfowitz also acknowledges that another justification played a strong part in the decision to invade: the prospect of the US being able to withdraw all of its forces from Saudi Arabia (see August 7, 1990) once Saddam Hussein’s regime was overthrown. “Just lifting that burden from the Saudis is itself going to the door” towards making progress elsewhere in achieving Middle East peace, says Wolfowitz. The presence of US forces in Saudi Arabia has been one of the main grievances of al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups. The most controversial statement by Wolfowitz is his acknowledgement that, “For bureaucratic reasons we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on.” Usbourne writes, “The comments suggest that, even for the US administration, the logic that was presented for going to war may have been an empty shell.” He notes that finding a rationale for attacking Iraq that was “acceptable to everyone” may refer to Secretary of State Colin Powell, the most prominent Cabinet member to vocally, if privately, oppose the invasion. Powell relied on the WMD issue in his February presentation to the UN Security Council (see February 5, 2003), which many consider to be a key element in the administration’s effort to convince the American citizenry that the invasion was necessary and justified. [Independent, 5/30/2003]
Democrats: WMD Scare 'Hyped' by Administration - Many Congressional Democrats echo the sentiments of Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE), who says of the administration’s push for war: “I do think that we hyped nuclear, we hyped al-Qaeda, we hyped the ability to disperse and use these weapons. I think that tends to be done by all presidents when they are trying to accomplish a goal that they want to get broad national support for.… I think a lot of the hype here is a serious, serious, serious mistake and it hurts our credibility.” [Washington Times, 5/30/2003]
British Official: Clear That Rationale for War Was False - Former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who quit as leader of the House of Commons to protest the war, says he never believed Iraq had the WMD claimed by US and British government officials. “The war was sold on the basis of what was described as a pre-emptive strike, ‘Hit Saddam before he hits us,’” he says. “It is now quite clear that Saddam did not have anything with which to hit us in the first place.” Former Danish Foreign Minister Niels Helveg Petersen says he is shocked by Wolfowitz’s claim. “It leaves the world with one question: What should we believe?” he says. [Associated Press, 5/30/2003]
Wolfowitz Claims Misquoting - After the initial reports of the interview and the resulting storm of controversy and recriminations, Wolfowitz and his defenders will claim that Vanity Fair reporter Sam Tanenhaus misquoted his words and took his statements out of context (see June 1-9, 2003).
Press Official: Selection of WMD as Primary Focus a 'Marketing Choice' - In 2008, current deputy press secretary Scott McClellan will write, “So the decision to downplay the democratic vision as a motive for war was basically a marketing choice.” Reflecting on this choice, he will add: “Every president wants to achieve greatness but few do. As I have heard [President] Bush say, only a wartime president is likely to achieve greatness, in part because the epochal upheavals of war provide the opportunity for transformative change of the kind Bush hoped to achieve. In Iraq, Bush saw his opportunity to create a legacy of greatness. Intoxicated by the influence and power of America, Bush believed that a successful transformation of Iraq could be the linchpin for realizing his dream of a free Middle East. But there was a problem here, which has become obvious to me only in retrospect—a disconnect between the president’s most heartfelt objective in going to war and the publicly stated rationale for that war. Bush and his advisers knew that the American people would almost certainly not support a war launched primarily for the ambitious purpose of transforming the Middle East.” [McClellan, 2008, pp. 131-133]

Entity Tags: Vanity Fair, Paul Wolfowitz, Robin Cook, Bush administration (43), Colin Powell, David Usbourne, Joseph Biden, Niels Helveg Petersen, Sam Tanenhaus, Scott McClellan

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

Conservative defenders of the Bush administration contend that Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was misquoted by Vanity Fair reporter Sam Tanenhaus. In an upcoming profile of Wolfowitz, Tanenhaus quotes him as saying, “For bureaucratic reasons we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on” (see May 30, 2003). [Jamieson and Cappella, 2008, pp. 150] According to a Defense Department transcript of the original May 9, 2003 interview, Wolfowitz’s actual words were: “The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the US government bureaucracy we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason, but… there have always been three fundamental concerns. One is weapons of mass destruction, the second is support for terrorism, the third is the criminal treatment of the Iraqi people. Actually I guess you could say there’s a fourth overriding one, which is the connection between the first two.” [Vanity Fair, 5/9/2003] Some of the controversy centers on which portions of the interview were on the record and which were not. [Talking Points Memo, 6/7/2003] Neoconservative pundit and columnist William Kristol is at the forefront of the counterattacks on Wolfowitz’s behalf. After appearing on Fox News where he accuses Tanenhaus of “misquot[ing]” Wolfowitz’s words and “taking [them] out of context,” he writes a column railing against “[l]azy reporters” who don’t bother to accurately report Wolfowitz’s words, and noting, “Tanenhaus has mischaracterized Wolfowitz’s remarks,… Vanity Fair’s publicists have mischaracterized Tanenhaus’s mischaracterization, and… Bush administration critics are now indulging in an orgy of righteous indignation that is dishonest in triplicate.” Kristol concludes: “In short, Wolfowitz made the perfectly sensible observation that more than just WMD was of concern, but that among several serious reasons for war, WMD was the issue about which there was widest domestic (and international) agreement.… Tanenhaus has taken a straightforward and conventional observation about strategic arrangements in a post-Saddam Middle East and juiced it up into a vaguely sinister ‘admission’ about America’s motives for going to war in the first place.” Kristol is joined by the Wall Street Journal editorial board, which calls the Tanenhaus piece “spin.” [Weekly Standard, 6/9/2003; Jamieson and Cappella, 2008, pp. 150]

Entity Tags: William Kristol, Sam Tanenhaus, Paul Wolfowitz, Bush administration (43), US Department of Defense, Wall Street Journal

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

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