A Republican president facing a tough re-election campaign and widely viewed as hopelessly out of his depth. Bureaucrats itching to turn US military firepower on a Middle Eastern regime they claim without evidence is plotting an imminent attack. Compliant sections of the media that put flag-waving jingoism ahead of skeptical scrutiny.
So it was in late 2002, when President George W Bush’s administration built unstoppable momentum towards invading Iraq, promising to destroy weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that never existed. Nearly two decades later the potential target is not Iraq but Iran, with many of the same concerns over false pretexts and official lies.
“The same people cheering on Trump’s reckless, illogical escalation to war with Iran were the ones telling us that democracy would boom across the Middle East as soon as our cake walk invasion of Iraq was done,” tweeted Chris Murphy, a Democrat on the Senate foreign relations committee. “They were wrong then. They are wrong now.”
According to the journalist Bob Woodward’s book Plan of Attack, Bush turned his attention to regime change in Iraq just two months after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, telling the defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, “Let’s get started on this.”
Despite huge public protests, the war started in March. Saddam Hussein was toppled and captured but the WMD intelligence proved to be wrong. Years of violent insurgency and the rise of Islamic State left nearly 5,000 US service members and more than 100,000 civilians dead. It is now regarded by many as the greatest foreign policy blunder since the Vietnam war.
Many senior figures in Washington are now worried the same dynamic is repeating itself.
Leon Panetta, a defense secretary under Bush’s successor Barack Obama, said: “I think the one lesson we’ve learned from the wars of the 21st century is that they’re easy to get into but difficult to get out of. The wars we’ve seen have largely resulted from failed leadership and miscalculations, mixed messages and bad understanding of intelligence and, I think, the false hope that somehow wars could be won quickly. A lot of those elements are now playing out in the relationship between the United States and Iran.”
Trump stunned the world last week with his abrupt decision to order a drone strike that killed Iran’s top general, Qassem Suleimani, at Baghdad airport, plunging the US and Iran closer to war than at any point in the past four decades. The president claimed: “Suleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel, but we caught him in the act and terminated him.”
Evidence for this “imminent” attack remains shaky and has been cast into doubt by US media reports. The official narrative was further undermined when Adel Abdul Mahdi, Iraq’s caretaker prime minister, said Suleimani was in the country to negotiate a de-escalation in tensions with Saudi Arabia.
One of Powell’s successors as secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has repeatedly failed to give specific details. One of Cheney’s successors as vice-president, Mike Pence, tweeted that Suleimani “assisted in the clandestine travel to Afghanistan of 10 of the 12 terrorists who carried out the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States”. The claim has been debunked by fact checkers.
Panetta added: “They often say that truth is the first casualty of war but you could also say that truth may be the first casualty when you’re leading up to war. I think there’s a great deal of concern that the American people, and the world for that matter, is not getting the straight story about exactly what’s happening.”
Historians hear echoes of the Bush administration’s march to war. Jackson Lears, a history professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said: “There certainly are echoes and continuities from the whole global war on terror ethos. The arguments employed 17 or 18 years ago are being dragged out and invoked again.”
Bush was egged on by Cheney, Rumsfeld, the CIA director George Tenet and neoconservatives intent on “democracy promotion” in the Middle East. Similarly, Trump appears to be under the influence of Pompeo and the defense secretary, Mark Esper. Supporters in Congress include Cheney’s daughter Liz.
Before the Iraq invasion, parts of the US media were condemned for getting swept up in cheerleading the troops into battle. Judith Miller, an investigative reporter at the New York Times, wrote a series of articles since criticised for too unquestioningly promoting the administration’s line about chemical and biological weapons and possible nuclear material in Iraq.
This week, Miller, now an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute thinktank, turned up to be interviewed on Fox News. Predictably, some of the conservative network’s hosts have been fiercely defending Trump’s decision.
Some media outlets – and some Democratic presidential candidates – have been reluctant to describe the killing of Suleimani as an “assassination”. Glenn Greenwald, a journalist at the Intercept, tweeted in response: “Nobody loves US militarism and violence more than US journalists. It’s what gets their blood pumping. They demand people be killed. They’re bloodthirsty.”
Even so, there are crucial differences this time. The Iraq war was launched against the backdrop of the 9/11 trauma, while the Iran confrontation is unfolding against the backdrop of Trump’s impeachment. This president’s reputation for mendacity has ensured an extra level of skepticism in many media outlets.
Panetta said: “There’s a lot more cynicism about what’s happening today and a lot more questions being raised, so there isn’t as much flag-waving going on as there was at that time. I think the president’s going to have a much more difficult time trying to somehow unify the country behind this kind of war than what we’ve seen in the past.”