Bush sought to make up for his own lack of preparation by naming what seemed a strong national security team. Appointment of the immensely popular Colin Powell as secretary of state, the first African American to hold that position, cheered internationalists perhaps more than it should have given his stalwart opposition to using force for humanitarian purposes. But the real power rested with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney. The two had worked together since the Nixon years. They shared their former boss's view that national security policy was the top priority. Gloomy in outlook and countenance, conservative in his politics, secretive almost to the point of being sinister, Cheney sought to restore to the presidency the power he believed had been lost through Watergate. He would become the most powerful vice president ever. The dynamic, hard-driving Rumsfeld was a master of bureaucratic warfare. The two men had been deeply disturbed by U.S. failure in Vietnam, the denouement of which they had witnessed from the Ford White House. They had opposed Kissinger's policy of detente. They believed that the United States must maintain absolute military supremacy and use its power to promote its own interests, not permitting the niceties of diplomacy or the scruples of allies to get in the way. Above all, they shared an especially assertive form of nationalism.67 Less noticed at the outset but equally important was the presence in key second-level positions of neo-conservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz, "Scooter" Libby, and Douglas Feith, men who passionately believed that America's power must be used to reshape the world in its image.
From the start, the new administration took a decidedly unilateralist turn. Top officials expressed contempt for Clinton's bumbling internationalism. They believed that the United States, as the world's only superpower, could best protect its interests by shedding international constraints and acting alone, even preemptively if necessary, to eliminate potential threats. They revived and gave top priority to developing the missile defense system that Reagan had initiated, a project of dubious practicality and reliability that offered the allure of invulnerability but also violated treaties with the former Soviet Union. In the first months, they seemed to go out of their way to thumb their noses at other nations and international institutions. Bush spurned the Middle East peace process Clinton had nurtured. Without any prior consultation, Rice informed the European ambassadors that the Kyoto Protocol on global warming was dead, thus drastically weakening an admittedly flawed agreement the Clinton administration had helped negotiate but had not submitted to the Senate. The new administration also suspended talks with North Korea aimed at stopping the development of longrange missiles. State Department spokesperson Richard Haas euphemistically labeled it "a la carte multilateralism." "We'll look at each agreement and make a decision, rather than come out with a broad-based approach," he said.68 Critics at home and abroad deplored the administration's rude manners and go-it-alone methods as a new isolationism. In the early morning hours of September 11, 2001, an unusually clear and crisp late summer day, nineteen Arab terrorists operating under orders from Osama bin Laden hijacked four commercial airliners and used them as missiles to strike New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A planned attack on the Capitol or White House was thwarted when a revolt of courageous passengers forced a crash landing on Pennsylvania farmland. After two enormous explosions, Manhattan's landmark twin towers crumbled, killing 2,603 people, filling the city with smoke, and leaving a massive pile of rubble at what came to be called Ground Zero. The attack on the Pentagon left another 125 people dead; an additional 246 died on the aircraft. The 9/11 attacks were not random acts of violence. Bin Laden's al Qaeda organization aimed to restore traditional Islam to its rightful place in the universe. The immediate goal was to eliminate the "near enemy," "apostate states" like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, and Jordan. Because the United States backed the rulers of these nations—indeed ensured their survival—it became the "far enemy." America's long-standing support for Israel and its "occupation" after 1991 of Saudi Arabia, site of Islam's most holy places, further branded it as the font of evil. Bin Laden and his followers hoped by striking the United States in a spectacular manner to rally jihadists across the world. By exposing U.S. vulnerability, they sought to destroy the aura of its power. They also hoped to goad it to invade a Muslim country where its killing of the faithful would provoke rage and rally more adherents. America might also bog down as the USSR had and be forced to abandon the "apostate" states.69 For the United States, September 11, 2001, ranks with Pearl Harbor as a colossal intelligence failure. After the fact, as with December 7, 1941, numerous clues pointed to a possible terrorist action and even to its type and target. Bin Laden was known to be responsible for earlier attacks on U.S. interests, most recently the Cole. Some of the hijackers had entered the United States illegally; the names of several were in databases with lists of potential terrorists. Some had violated the rules of their immigration status. Hijackers aroused suspicions by inquiring at flight schools about learning to fly passenger aircraft but admitting they would not need to know how to land. In 1998, an NSC counterterrorism group had carried out an exercise in which hijackers took over aircraft and loaded them with explosives to attack Washington. The World Trade Center had been the target of one terrorist explosion and was mentioned as a candidate for another. During the summer, U.S. intelligence intercepted al Qaeda communications promising that "something spectacular" was going to happen. "Bin Laden Determined to Attack in U.S." screamed the headlines of one section of the CIA's August 6, 2001, President's Daily Briefing.70
A government lulled into a false sense of security by a decade of peace, riven by bureaucratic rivalries, and focused on other matters missed the signals. The various agencies responsible for counterterrorism, the FBI, CIA, Defense Department, and NSC, did not communicate and, worse, sometimes concealed information from each other, preventing them from putting together the pieces of the puzzle. Despite a pattern of terrorist attacks up to the Cole, the agencies had not assigned high priority to the issue and even sought to shift responsibility elsewhere. Top officials were focused on missile defense and a possible threat from Iraq. They dismissed warnings of terrorist threats passed on during the transition. It was a classic case of lack of interest, imagination, and communication leading responsible officials to look past plain if not always distinct signs of a deadly terrorist attack.71 Nine-eleven worked dramatic changes in the national psyche. For the first time since 1814, the continental United States came under foreign attack. In one fiery moment, the intellectual and emotional baggage left from Vietnam and the complacency that marked the 1990s were swept aside in a surge of fear and anger. An already faltering economy suffered further damage. In their shock and grief, Americans suddenly felt vulnerable. Speaking with a single voice for one of the few times since the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Congress granted the president sweeping new authority to combat international terrorism. An administration seemingly unfocused and floundering suddenly found purpose and direction. Experts warned that terrorism represented a new kind of non-state threat not to be dealt with by conventional means, but Bush and his advisers responded in entirely traditional ways. Confounding those who only recently had dismissed him as a lightweight, the president gave a powerful address before a joint session of Congress, rallying the nation behind an all-out global war "to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil." The analogue of war was familiar to Americans and therefore reassuring, but it proved problematic in confronting a very different enemy. Responding slowly and deliberately, the administration mobilized military forces to strike bin Laden and the fundamentalist Taliban regime that sheltered him in Afghanistan. In the parlance of the Old West, the president vowed to bring back the "evil one" dead or alive."72
September 11 evoked an outpouring of sympathy from abroad. "We are all Americans," the French newspaper Le Monde eloquently opined. "We are all New Yorkers." Officials who only recently had spurned collaboration with other nations now under Powell's leadership began cobbling together an unwieldy coalition composed of old allies such as Britain and France, former enemies Russia and China, and even pariah states such as Pakistan to attack on a variety of fronts and in different ways a new kind of foe and its backers, hinting, mistakenly as it turned out, that the summer's unilateralism was a thing of the past. The president's stark and tactless warning that "either you are with us or you are with the terrorists" more accurately reflected the direction the administration would take.73
The first phase of the war confounded military experts. Because of its forbidding geography, harsh climate, and fierce tribal rivalries, Afghanistan was historically a graveyard of great-power ambitions, most recently, of course, the Soviet Union's. Applying on a much larger scale the new high-tech methods of warfare used in the Balkans—"the first cavalry charge of the twenty-first century," Rumsfeld called it—the United States relied on air power and Afghan proxies to eliminate the despised and surprisingly weak Taliban and destroy bin Laden's training camps. Small numbers of U.S. special forces slipped into Afghanistan and sent signals to B-52 bombers to direct laser-guided bombs against suspected Taliban and al Qaeda bases. Americans on horseback worked with the friendly Northern Alliance to attack enemy fighters. In less than four months the Taliban was on the run and al Qaeda's operations in Afghanistan were crippled. Only one U.S. casualty was incurred from enemy fire. The United States in December 2001 installed Hamid Karzai as head of a new interim government. Administration supporters sneered at those who had warned of a quagmire.74
In fact, the war managers made crucial errors that turned tactical success into strategic failure. Properly worried about getting bogged down in Afghanistan and determined to convert the armed services to a new form of warfare, Rumsfeld and his civilian planners relied on air power and local forces to do what otherwise would have required large numbers of Americans. Without sufficient U.S. forces on the ground, bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar, along with numerous supporters, eluded capture near Tora Bora in December 2002 by paying off or evading Afghan fighters. They slipped away into the impenetrable mountains of Pakistan, an event of huge symbolic importance. Never enthusiastic about the job of reconstruction, the administration engaged in what critics called "nation-building lite," making inadequate preparations and providing insufficient funds for a formidable task. United States officials were already contemplating an invasion of Iraq, and preparations for that war diverted attention and resources from Afghanistan. Large parts of the country fell under the control of local warlords. Opium production regained its place as the nation's major cash crop. The government's authority barely extended beyond the capital, Kabul. Afghanistan, in time, disappeared from the front pages; an administration that had vowed to take the "evil one" stopped using bin Laden's name in public statements.75 While the war in Afghanistan lagged amid claims of victory, the White House unveiled a new national security doctrine. Even before the end of 2001, top officials had turned from the complicated task of destroying terrorist cells to the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). To the shock of many observers, in his January 2002 State of the Union address, Bush identified an "axis of evil" composed of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea and sounded alarms that weapons of mass destruction produced by such rogue states might get into the hands of terrorists. He thus connected the global war on terrorism (GWOT in bureaucratese) with the danger of nuclear proliferation. Coming without any consultation, the speech caused consternation among major allies. In a June 2002 commencement address at West Point, the president affirmed that "in the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action."76
In September, the administration issued the new doctrine. Prepared mainly in Rice's NSC and written, at Bush's instruction, in words "the boys in Lubbock" could understand, the strategy paper used 9/11 and the war on terrorism to elevate to doctrine ideas conservative and neo-conservative Republicans had been discussing for years. It drew heavily on the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance Document repudiated by the first Bush administration. It manifested the influence of Wolfowitz and those neoconservatives who viewed 9/11 as a "transformative" moment that put "events in much sharper relief."77 The new document combined ringing reaffirmations about spreading democracy with tough-minded statements about the use of U.S. power. It admitted to only one "sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise," vowed to "use this moment of opportunity to extend the benefits of freedom across the globe," and pledged to "defend liberty and justice because these principles are right and true for all peoples everywhere." The United States would do what was needed to prevent any single nation or combination of nations from challenging its military preeminence. The document paid lip service to cooperation with allies but also affirmed that the nation would "act apart when our interests and unique responsibility require." Threats must be met before they reached U.S. shores. The United States would not wait until it had "absolute proof" of danger from weapons of mass destruction. It would not "hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting preemptively." The principles of military preeminence, unilateralism, and preemptive war departed sharply from the realism of the first Bush administration and the basic principles that had guided Cold War strategies.78 The new doctrine provoked a varied and often emotional response. Conservatives cheered and insisted that what public intellectual Robert Kagan called a "Behemoth with a conscience" would not abuse its power. John Gaddis hailed a "truly 'grand' strategy" to transform the Middle East by bringing it into the modern world. The "world must be made safe for democracy," he concluded, "because otherwise democracy will not be safe in the world."79 On the other side, the New York Times complained that what was already being called the Bush Doctrine struck a tone of arrogance worthy of the Roman Empire or Napoleon. "The boys in Lubbock may want to pause before signing on for the overly aggressive stance Mr. Bush has outlined," it concluded.80 Harvard international relations specialist Stanley Hoffmann branded Cheney and Rumsfeld "High Noon sheriffs" and scored the Bush Doctrine as "Wilsonianism in boots."81 Critics warned that the doctrine of preemption would encourage other nations to do the same, shattering any hope of world order.
Long before releasing the new doctrine, the administration began to contemplate war with Iraq. Dictator Saddam Hussein had somehow survived the crushing defeat of 1991 and a decade of UN sanctions, a glaring irritant to those like Cheney who had hoped to topple him in the Gulf War. Even in the first days of the second Bush administration, there was talk of Iraq. On the night of September 12, 2001, a still-shaken president wandering the White House Situation Room asked Richard Clarke "to go back over everything. See if Saddam did this. . . . I want to know any shred."82 Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz actually pressed for war with Iraq immediately after 9/11, but Powell urged focusing on Afghanistan, and Bush prudently concurred, although he did initiate war planning in November. Once the Afghan conflict appeared won, Iraq immediately resurfaced. Officials dismissed continued diplomatic pressure as too slow, a coup unlikely. Certain that Saddam had or would soon have weapons of mass destruction and fearing he might give them to terrorists, they were set on removing him. "A decision was not made," Haas later observed, "a decision happened, and you can't say when or how."83
"Why Iraq? Why now?" These were questions often asked in the days ahead, and the answers are as complex as the individuals who pushed for war. The easy response, of course, was oil, but the reasons went much deeper. For the neo-conservatives, war satisfied deep philosophical convictions as well as immediate practical concerns. The neo-cons, as they came to be called, included Wolfowitz, Defense Department adviser Richard Perle, and journalist William Kristol. Along with Cheney's chief of staff, Libby, Undersecretary of Defense Feith, and Undersecretary of State John Bolton, they formed a sort of "cabal" under the younger Bush. Utopian in outlook, they believed that the United States had a moral duty to oppose tyranny and spread democracy. In their view, Saddam Hussein was behind world terrorism and would soon have WMD. Many of them had close ties to Israel and insisted that Saddam's overthrow would make that vital ally more secure. They fervently believed that extending democracy to Iraq would set off a reverse domino effect throughout the Middle East, thereby eliminating a major breeding ground for terrorism.84 The neo-con position complemented the views of other top officials. Powell also wanted to get rid of Saddam, although he accepted war only as a last resort and insisted on international backing. By January 2003, he had concluded that war was inevitable and went along. Assertive nationalists Cheney and Rumsfeld saw a chance to complete the unfinished business of 1991, eliminate a nuisance and potential threat, and demonstrate the efficacy of modern, high-technology warfare. Cheney was even more alarmed by an anthrax scare in the United States in the fall of 2001 than by 9/11 and viewed Saddam Hussein's biological weapons as a threat for which the United States was completely unprepared.85
Advocates of war found a receptive audience in the White House. Thinking in mundane but for this administration crucial terms, White House political adviser Karl Rove saw in rallying the nation for war a chance to exploit the Democrats' post-Vietnam vulnerability on defense and national security issues, seal the Republican alliance with the Christian right, win the Jewish vote, help the party in the congressional elections, and build a permanent Republican majority.86 Bush combined the Old West mentality of his native Texas with the missionary spirit of evangelical Christianity. He was neither a deep thinker nor particularly curious and could be remarkably ill-informed. Toppling Hussein would permit him to succeed where his father had failed and avenge the Iraqi dictator's 1993 attempt on his father's life. A born-again Christian, he saw the world in terms of good and evil and was certain he had been "called" to defend his country and extend "God's gift of liberty" to "every human being in the world."87 His faith helped him choose a course. Once he had decided, there was no second-guessing. A war with Iraq would protect the security of the United States and eliminate a force for evil.
By the summer of 2002, after virtually no internal debate and apparently little discussion of whether war with Iraq might be counterproductive in terms of Afghanistan or the larger struggle with terrorism, an administration fixated on removing Saddam and carried away with hubris was deeply committed to war. Conflict was "inevitable," a high British official reported to his government; "intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."88 Outmatched in Bush's first term, Rice's NSC did not play its intended role of giving the president a variety of options and questioning proposals from the agencies. Intent on invading as soon as possible, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the neo-cons refused to subject their assumptions to close scrutiny. They were certain of what they knew, even in the face of contrary evidence and inconvenient facts. They dismissed opposing views from what they called "the realitybased community." "We're an empire now," one official boasted, "and when we act we create our own reality."89 They placed more stock in what they learned from the shady Ahmad Chalabi and other Iraqi exiles than in their own intelligence agencies (they also funded Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress to the tune of $36 million in 2002–3). They "cherry-picked" evidence that fit their preconceptions. They put subtle—and sometimes not so subtle—pressure on intelligence providers to come up with the right answers. Sometimes the providers tailored their assessments to fit their bosses' prejudices. CIA director George Tenet once famously called the case for weapons of mass destruction a "slam dunk," but in fact it was quite weak. There was no firm evidence that Saddam Hussein was close to acquiring WMD or indeed that he had anything to do with 9/11. But defeating Iraq seemed the next logical step in the larger war against terrorism, and preemptive war appeared justifiable.90