• U.S.

First Stop, Iraq

34 minute read
Michael Elliott and James Carney

“F___ Saddam. we’re taking him out.” Those were the words of President George W. Bush, who had poked his head into the office of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. It was March 2002, and Rice was meeting with three U.S. Senators, discussing how to deal with Iraq through the United Nations, or perhaps in a coalition with America’s Middle East allies. Bush wasn’t interested. He waved his hand dismissively, recalls a participant, and neatly summed up his Iraq policy in that short phrase. The Senators laughed uncomfortably; Rice flashed a knowing smile. The President left the room.

A year later, Bush’s outburst has been translated into action, as cruise missiles and smart bombs slam into Baghdad. But the apparent simplicity of his message belies the gravity at hand. Sure, the outcome is certain: America will win the war, and Saddam will be taken out. But what is unfolding in Iraq is far bigger than regime change or even the elimination of dangerous weapons. The U.S. has launched a war unlike any it has fought in the past. This one is being waged not to defend against an enemy that has attacked the U.S. or its interests but to pre-empt the possibility that one day it might do so. The war has turned much of the world against America. Even in countries that have joined the “coalition of the willing,” big majorities view it as the impetuous action of a superpower led by a bully. This divide threatens to emasculate a United Nations that failed to channel a diplomatic settlement or brand the war as legitimate. The endgame will see the U.S. front and center, attempting to remake not merely Iraq but the entire region. The hope is that the Middle East, a cockpit of instability for decades, will eventually settle into habits of democracy, prosperity and peace. The risks are that Washington’s rupture with some of its closest allies will deepen and that the war will become a cause for which a new generation of terrorists can be recruited.

How did we get here? In one sense, this war is easy to explain. Saddam Hussein is a brutal dictator who hates America and has shown a wicked fondness for acquiring and using weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Since Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. has been acutely aware of what can happen when powerful weapons fall into the hands of those with no compunction about their use and no sympathy for those they kill. Put those facts together, and you can argue that Saddam’s days were numbered from the moment the attacks on New York City and Washington happened. But that suggests a fatalistic inevitability to the story and ignores the dramatic shifts in opinion and influence among Washington’s key players. In truth, this war is just as much about an idea–that Iraq is but the first step in an American-led effort to make the world a safer place. For some in the Administration, the principles that have shaped policy on Iraq are generally applicable; they could be used with other nations, like Iran or North Korea, that have or threaten to acquire terrible weapons. The least understood story of the Iraq crisis is how the idea behind it took root and eventually brought America to the edge of Baghdad.

In this battle march of an idea, there are four central players: President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and–least known to the general public–Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. One by one, these men signed on to the imperative of taking on Iraq and its weapons, and sending a message to the world. This story does not start where one might suppose, on the day last year when Bush identified Iraq–with Iran and North Korea–as part of the “axis of evil.” Nor does it start with the horrors of Sept. 11. The confrontation with Iraq can be traced to 1991 and the end of what some Administration officials have since last fall called “the first Gulf War”–the one waged and won by the President’s father.


When senior advisers of the first president Bush–including Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Cheney, then Secretary of Defense–gathered in the Oval Office on Wednesday afternoon, Feb. 27, 1991, they agreed that their military and political objectives in the Persian Gulf had been met. Saddam’s forces, which had invaded Kuwait seven months before, had been routed. General Norman Schwarzkopf, commander in chief of Operation Desert Storm, concurred in the judgment. Bush had a clear goal for the war: it was not to topple Saddam, much less to march on Baghdad, but to drive the Iraqi army out of Kuwait. The President had assembled a grand coalition, including armies from many Arab states, behind that aim, and he was not inclined to deviate from it. “Bush was a firm believer in sticking with his word,” says a former senior aide. “It was his word and his promises that got that coalition together. There was never any doubt in his mind that the war had to end and we couldn’t go to Baghdad.”

None of the four men–Bush, Powell, Cheney and Schwarzkopf–most closely identified with the decision to cease hostilities at midnight, Feb. 27, has ever publicly disowned it. Indeed, of the broader top echelon of decision makers at the end of Gulf War I, only one has cast doubt on how it was concluded–and at the time, nobody asked his opinion. But his misgivings about the cease-fire 12 years ago have arguably had more of an effect on global politics than the certainties of those who are sure they were right. That man was Paul Wolfowitz, then Under Secretary for policy in the Pentagon, the third-ranking civilian under Cheney. He was 47 at the time and already a fixture in the Washington policy village, one of those men who spend their life flitting among government positions, foreign embassies and academia. Wolfowitz has served every President since Gerald Ford except Bill Clinton. A man of great personal charm, he has friends of all political persuasions. Of his many distinctions, the most unusual, perhaps, is this: he is the only Washington bureaucrat who has been fictionalized in a Saul Bellow novel.

That odd fact sheds light on Wolfowitz’s membership in a much smaller subset of Washington officials. In Bellow’s novel Ravelstein, the Wolfowitz character is a brilliant former student of the book’s eponymous hero, who is based on Bellow’s old friend and fellow professor at the University of Chicago, the culture critic Allan Bloom. It was at Chicago, the home of Bloom and the conservative political philosopher Leo Strauss, that Wolfowitz was first exposed to the set of ideas that is now often called “neoconservative.” In their belief system, neoconservatives–or neo-Reaganites, as some prefer to be called–are at once pessimists and optimists. The world, they believe, is a dangerous, threatening place. Civilization and democracy hang by a thread; great beasts prowl the forest, ready to prey on those not tough enough to meet them in equal combat. At the same time–this is the optimistic bit–the U.S. is endowed by Providence with the power to make the world better if it will only take the risks of leadership to do so; if, in the current jargon, it is sufficiently “forward leaning.” At crucial times, they argue, the U.S. has been just that–notably when Ronald Reagan used American technological prowess and cash to challenge the Soviet Union to a contest it could not win.

The U.S., neoconservatives believe, is unique in its power and its principles. It cannot allow its mission to be tied down by international agreements that diminish its freedom of action. At the same time, neoconservatives insist that theirs is a generous and internationalist vision; other nations, other peoples, will willingly support U.S. policies–which, by definition, are good for them as well as Americans–if only those policies are clearly articulated and implemented with determination.

These beliefs are not the work of thoughtless gunslingers. Wolfowitz, like many of his colleagues, couldn’t be less of a cowboy. (Not many cattle in Chevy Chase, Md.) These are men whose shoes are more likely to be penny loafers than hand-tooled boots, who speak foreign languages (even French!) and are at home in rarefied academic environments. They know what they think. In a recent interview Wolfowitz told TIME, “I believe this country is what it stands for, more than anything else. If we’re not true to our principles, we’re not serving our national interest.” He bridles at the way some lampoon him, as if he believes that, with U.S. intervention, Jeffersonian democracy will pop up in the Middle East like mushrooms after a storm. But he explicitly links the growth of democracy to America’s interests. “The tendency toward successful representative self-government,” he told TIME, “works for the benefit of the United States and the world.”

When Wolfowitz heard that Gulf War I was over, he didn’t share the inner circle’s view of a job well done. Although he didn’t suggest that Schwarzkopf should march on Baghdad–and has not done so since–he was disappointed that the war did not continue long enough to ensure Saddam’s downfall. He was horrified when the U.S. stood by as Saddam’s helicopter gunships mowed down the Shi’ites in southern Iraq whom the U.S. had encouraged to rise in rebellion. To Wolfowitz, Saddam’s survival represented an opportunity missed. In a 1998 congressional hearing, he said, “Some might say–and I think I would sympathize with this view–that perhaps if we had delayed the cease-fire by a few more days, we might have got rid of him.”

Regimes like Iraq’s, dictatorial and willing to acquire and use terrifying weapons, have long been a preoccupation of the neoconservatives. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, they argue, it is these states that most threaten the U.S. and other democracies. They are today’s beasts in the forest, and they need to be tamed. Shortly after Gulf War I ended in 1991, Wolfowitz got a chance to show how. Cheney asked him to overhaul the Pentagon’s basic strategic-planning document, known as the Defense Planning Guidance. In March 1992, a draft was first leaked to the New York Times. Forward leaning wasn’t the half of it; the document suggested that the U.S. should discourage other nations “from challenging our leadership.” The U.S., the draft went on to say, “may be faced with the question of whether to take military steps to prevent the development or use of weapons of mass destruction.” Those steps, Wolfowitz argued, might include pre-emptive action–and the Guidance made clear that both Iraq and North Korea were among those at whom the new policy would be aimed.

At a time when the Bush Administration was trying to coax a defeated Russia and a newly unified Germany into becoming full and respected partners in the international system, the draft’s bellicose terms were tactless. Cheney and Wolfowitz were told to tone them down. But from his perch at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, where he waited out the Clinton years, Wolfowitz continued to talk and write about Iraq. Like a traveler struggling to keep his campfire burning amid chilly winds, he took every chance to stoke the fire, reminding all who would listen that there was unfinished business on the Tigris, that Saddam remained in power and still had his weapons. In 1997, as Clinton’s policy on Iraq lurched from crisis to crisis–with U.N. weapons inspectors consistently thwarted by Iraq and support for a more aggressive approach to Saddam ebbing away under French and Russian pressure at the Security Council–Wolfowitz co-authored a Weekly Standard article in which he pondered whether Clinton’s most important foreign-policy legacy would be “letting this tyrant get stronger.” In January 1998, Wolfowitz joined other neoconservatives in signing a letter to Clinton arguing that “containment” of Saddam had failed and asserting that “removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power … needs to become the aim of American foreign policy.” In a prescient note, the letter said, “American policy cannot continue to be crippled by a misguided insistence on unanimity in the U.N. Security Council.”

Of the 18 signatories, eight now hold senior positions in the Bush Administration. But high office in itself was not enough. If they were to rid the world of Saddam and his weapons, they would have to bring on board one influential conservative whose name wasn’t on the letter–who at the time was in thought and deed far removed from the Washington policy village. That person was Dick Cheney, who had good reasons to contest the view that the end of Gulf War I had been mishandled–because he was one of those who ended it.


Of all those responsible for the cease-fire in February 1991, none seemed more comfortable with the decision than Cheney. In many interviews Cheney explained why he opposed marching to Baghdad. If U.S. forces got there, he argued, it would not be clear what they were meant to do. Nor was it evident how a new government would handle divisions among Iraq’s Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds, how long the U.S. would have to stay in Iraq, or what would happen when it left.

Two considerations informed Cheney’s view. The first, according to Dave Gribbin, Cheney’s closest aide at the Pentagon, was practical. Just a few days after the invasion of Kuwait, Bush had assigned Cheney to win support from Saddam’s Arab neighbors. “He was out there early telling the Arab world that the U.S. would come in and do just a couple of things,” says Gribbin. “Get Saddam out of Kuwait and dismantle his ability to harm his neighbors. Since he promised that, he stuck with that. To occupy Iraq wasn’t in the deal.” The second reason–the more interesting one–turned on Cheney’s political philosophy. Cheney is from Wyoming, and in 1991 he was pretty much a straight-up-and-down Western conservative, the kind of man who is skeptical of big, expansive government projects–except irrigation for cattle ranges. He was prepared to go to war in the gulf because it was in America’s national interest to do so, not for any starry-eyed vision (few men have ever had fewer stars in their eyes) that the U.S., as a kindly imperial power, would bring an era of peace, order and good government to the Middle East. “He’s not much for waxing rhapsodic,” says Gribbin of his old boss. In fact, when Cheney left government, he gave the impression that he wasn’t thinking much about Iraq or Saddam. In 1995 he moved to Texas to serve as CEO of Halliburton, the giant oil-services company. A colleague of Cheney’s in both Bush administrations recalled how he would drop by Cheney’s office when he visited Texas. “His interest in policy almost disappeared,” says the colleague. “He was enjoying being out of it and in the business world.”

By the fall of 2000, however, Cheney was back in it–big time. As the vice-presidential running mate of the son of his old boss, he was beginning to focus on problems the Clinton Administration had been unable to solve. High among them was Iraq’s continued defiance of U.N. resolutions requiring it to disarm. And when he broached the topic on the campaign trail, Cheney sounded ever more hawkish. He had been outraged by Saddam’s attempt in 1993 to assassinate former President Bush in Kuwait, and he thought the short bombing campaign after Iraq kicked out the U.N. inspectors in 1998 was a joke. “We have swept that problem under the rug for too long,” he told a campaign aide in 2000, speaking of Iraq. “We have a festering problem there.”

When Cheney was tapped to create the second Bush Administration, he seeded it with men who had once worked for him. Wolfowitz became Deputy Secretary of Defense under Cheney’s old friend and mentor Donald Rumsfeld (another signatory of the 1998 letter). But as is often the case, the new responsibilities of office meant that officials had to postpone trying to implement their most cherished to-do list. In the State Department, Powell was working on a plan for “smart sanctions” on Iraq–tightening the porous U.N. embargo while allowing more humanitarian support for innocent Iraqis. The neoconservatives weren’t impressed, but in those initial months they were able to do little to develop their own strategies for ousting Saddam.

Then Cheney, probably the most influential Vice President in U.S. history, began to pay attention. His interest grew out of the Bush Administration’s obsession with building a system to defend the U.S. against missile attacks. For the neoconservatives, missile defense and Iraq’s possession of WMDs were both examples of a common concern, “asymmetric threats,” or the idea that nations with far less conventional military strength than the U.S. would use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons to redress the balance. Cheney had been charged with developing a policy on homeland security in response to asymmetric threats, which meant that Iraq’s continued possession of WMDs was a problem that landed on his desk. In morning intelligence briefings, says a former Administration official, the Vice President began to raise questions about Saddam’s regime. Cheney and others, says the official, would say things like, “Tell me about Iraq, tell me about Iraq, tell me about Iraq. What’s the status of their WMDs? What’s their support of terrorism?” When senior members of the intelligence community answered that they had little new information on Iraq–no smoking guns on WMDs or terrorism–the message would come back: “Try harder. Need to know more.” In an interview with the New Yorker in May 2001, Cheney in two sentences linked North Korea, Iran and Iraq–the three countries that were later immortalized as the “axis of evil”–as threats to American security. Cheney still didn’t buy into the whole neoconservative analysis. His concern was the national security of the U.S., not some grand design for remaking the Middle East. But after Sept. 11, 2001, it was harder to keep those two thoughts in separate boxes. The attacks on New York City and Washington gave the neoconservatives an opportunity. The logic seemed airtight: Saddam had WMDs; terrorists had attacked America; if al-Qaeda ever got hold of Saddam’s weapons, the future didn’t bear thinking about. The afternoon after the attacks, Wolfowitz, in conference calls with other officials, started voicing suspicions that Iraq might somehow have been involved. Within hours, he was lobbying Cheney on the topic, arguing–a central plank of the neoconservative analysis–that Iraq was also somehow behind the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. Within days, James Woolsey, once Clinton’s head of the CIA but who had joined the neoconservatives on Iraq, was dispatched by the Pentagon to find proof that Iraq was linked to al-Qaeda.

Cheney was skeptical of the claim. (U.S. intelligence has never been able to substantiate a link between Iraq and the 1993 World Trade Center attack–or the assault of 2001.) But Wolfowitz stayed on the case. On the weekend after Sept. 11, Bush convened his national-security team at Camp David. Wolfowitz argued that if military action was to be taken against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which was harboring the leadership of al-Qaeda, it should also be taken against Iraq. Saddam’s regime had WMDs, had shown that it was willing to use them, and harbored a continuing hostility to the U.S. Powell was opposed to anything so ambitious, however, and Cheney didn’t back up his old Pentagon colleague. Rice says the Vice President was a “proponent of doing one thing at a time–Afghanistan first.”

But Cheney wasn’t entirely in Powell’s camp. In fact, in his taciturn, deliberate way, Cheney was starting to go through a shift in his intellectual bearings. “Dick Cheney,” says Wolfowitz, “is someone whose view of the need to get rid of Saddam Hussein was transformed by Sept. 11–by the recognition of the danger posed by the connection between terrorists and WMDs and by the growing evidence of links between Iraq and al-Qaeda.” After Sept. 11, Cheney began running a self-education seminar on Islam and the Middle East, meeting with experts, a Cheney aide says, “to discuss how might a postwar Iraq take shape and what are the prospects for democracy in the region.” Cheney, friends say, has gradually abandoned his former skepticism about the potential for democracy in the Middle East. Among those who have influenced him: Bernard Lewis, a Princeton historian, and Fouad Ajami, a former colleague of Wolfowitz’s at Johns Hopkins. Both men passionately believe that the lack of democracy and pluralism are central to the chronic instability of the Middle East and that any serious policy there must aspire to do more than leave existing autocracies in power.

Republican Congressman Porter Goss recalls a telling moment a few months after Sept. 11, when he was among the guests at a “sort of off-night dinner” at the Vice President’s residence. Lewis was there too, and Cheney, when he arrived, promptly asked the professor to conduct a seminar on Islam, the Koran and Muslim attitudes toward Americans. Cheney expressed his views most forcefully in a major speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Nashville in August 2002. “Regime change in Iraq would bring about a number of benefits to the region,” he said, including “the chance to promote the values that can bring lasting peace.” He quoted Ajami’s conviction that after liberation, the streets of Baghdad and Basra would “erupt in joy in the same way as the throngs in Kabul greeted the Americans.” By last summer, to the surprise of many old critics, Cheney’s intellectual journey was complete. William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, the Koran of neoconservative thought, was critical when Bush chose Cheney as a running mate precisely because of his defense of the way the Gulf War ended. Now, says Kristol, neoconservatives happily “consider him a fellow-traveler.” But a couple of others still had to be persuaded to come along on the journey.


At the time of Gulf War I, George W. Bush was spending a lot more time worrying about the Texas Rangers of the American League than about the Rangers in Army fatigues. During his father’s presidency, Bush was an occasional and important political fixer, but he was never involved–never wanted to be involved, and was never invited to be involved–in foreign policy. When he ran for the presidency in 2000, his team of advisers spent little time on Iraq. To be sure, whenever he was asked about Saddam, Bush had the tough talk down. In an interview with TIME during the campaign, he was asked what he would do if Saddam tested him. “That would be good,” said Bush. “I’ve learned one thing; I’d jump on him.” But despite the aggressive language, there was no sign that he had accepted the logic of a pre-emptive strike against Saddam. After Sept. 11, he initially resisted making Iraq an early target of American might. Wolfowitz, says a Republican lawmaker, “was like a parrot bringing [Iraq] up all the time. It was getting on the President’s nerves.” At one point in the Camp David meeting after Sept. 11, Wolfowitz tried to persuade Bush to back a scheme to lop off the southern part of Iraq, including Basra, its third largest city, and some important oil fields. That went nowhere. And no matter how hard the intelligence agencies looked, they couldn’t come up with a link between Saddam and Sept. 11 that might persuade Bush of the virtues of an early strike.

Yet in January 2002, Bush identified Iraq as a member of an “axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.” The President told Congress that he “would not wait on events while dangers gather”–a clear sign that he was contemplating pre-emptive strikes against those with WMDs. By April 2002, on Bush’s instruction, Cheney toured the Middle East trying to make the case for action against Saddam.

What had changed? What had brought Bush into the get-Iraq-now camp? The most important factor was also the simplest. By the fall of 2001, Bush and other senior policymakers in Washington were scared out of their wits. On Oct. 4 came the first anthrax attacks on New York City and Washington. Again, no evidence was found linking Saddam to the attacks. But Saddam had once admitted developing anthrax weapons to U.N. inspectors, and now anthrax was being used to kill Americans. Even if a link to Baghdad could not be proved, this was enough to stiffen the spines of those who thought Saddam’s WMDs had been left alone too long.

Then, in November 2001, as alliance soldiers combed through al-Qaeda safe houses in Afghanistan, documents and computer records revealed that Osama bin Laden’s network had been trying to acquire WMDs. Administration officials didn’t have to work hard to identify a possible supplier. “Iraq,” says a White House official, “was the easiest place they could get them from.” Says a former senior Administration official: “The eureka moment was that realization by the President that were a WMD to fall into [terrorists’] hands, their willingness to use it would be unquestioned. So we must act pre-emptively to ensure that those who have that capability aren’t allowed to proliferate it.” Those seeking to convince Bush that Saddam should be a target now had important allies. Throughout the 1990s, the uniformed military had been unenthusiastic about intervention in Iraq. After Sept. 11, that changed. “It became clear that these terrorists would kill as many Americans as they could,” says an Army general. “If they could get their hands on chemical, biological or nuclear weapons–from Saddam or from someone else–they would use them against us.”

There was more. By 2002, say advisers to the President, Bush had become increasingly horrified by stories of Saddam’s brutal regime–by the ways in which Iraq’s security services raped and tortured his opponents, gassed Kurds rebelling against rule from Baghdad in 1988 and summarily executed those Saddam mistrusted. This fascination with Saddam’s cruelty, says a source close to the White House, was neither ghoulish nor an expression of Bush’s propensity to identify evil in the world. The point, says this adviser, is that Bush thinks Saddam is insane. “If there is one thing standing between those who want WMDs and those who have them,” says this source, “it is this madman. Depending on the sanity of Saddam is not an option.”

By this point, Bush was on board for action against Iraq. But in what form? It was easy to say Iraq should be disarmed and Saddam unseated from power if he would not abandon his WMDs. But by the spring of 2002, the Administration had no idea how to achieve such a goal. Would the U.S. do it alone? What would Washington tell its allies in the Middle East and Europe? In March, as he did 12 years earlier, Cheney set out on a trip to the Middle East to rally support for an aggressive American policy against Iraq. The trip didn’t go well. Cheney’s hosts wanted to talk about the rising tide of violence in Israel and the occupied territories, not about Iraq. If there was going to be an international effort to disarm Saddam or remove him from power, it would have to be led by the man who, up to now, had steadfastly resisted the neoconservative case–Colin Powell.


When Powell took over at state in 2001, he had no illusions that Clinton’s policy on Iraq was a success, because he had to cope with its failures. Every day news would arrive of another violation of the U.N. sanctions–civilian planes from Arab nations making direct flights to Baghdad, brazen exports of oil and imports of prohibited goods. Powell didn’t want to ditch the sanctions, as he thought they had some value, but he wanted to make them more effective. “Though [the Iraqis] may be pursuing weapons of mass destruction of all kinds,” he said in February 2001, “it is not clear how successful they have been. We ought to declare this a success. We have kept him contained, kept him in his box.”

That analysis, of course, was precisely the one the neoconservatives had long rejected, and it was inevitably subject to revision after Sept. 11. At the Camp David meeting, Powell argued against targeting Iraq, but he too knew the game had changed. There would be no more talk, says a State official, of Saddam being kept “in his box.” By the spring of 2002, the Administration had a new problem. Beyond that nifty phrase “the axis of evil,” it didn’t have a forward-leaning policy on Iraq. It didn’t have anything. Cheney’s trip to the Middle East, designed to start building a coalition for action to disarm Iraq, had fallen well short of his hopes. One of his aides admitted that the team had underestimated Arab anger at Israel’s crackdown on the occupied territories. “We thought [the Arab governments] were exaggerating ‘the street’ for their own purposes,” says the official. “They weren’t.”

After Cheney’s return, the Administration’s incoherence on Iraq began to spill out. Officials started free-lancing. Exiled Iraqi opposition leaders, convinced that war was imminent, began lobbying for favors. Campaigning for congressional Republicans, Cheney started to test the waters for a pre-emptive strike to “remove serious threats to our country before they materialize.” (He never mentioned Iraq by name, but everyone knew what he meant.) Republican congressional leaders, facing an election, fretted that the disarray would hurt them politically. At one point that spring, a senior White House official said in exasperation, “The dirty little secret of Iraq is that there is no plan.” Rice, responding to a request by Democratic Senator Joe Biden for Administration officials to appear before his Foreign Relations Committee, was refreshingly blunt. “We’re not ready yet,” she told Biden, who held the hearings anyway. They were covered widely as a preparation for war, to the consternation of Republican congressional leaders. Trent Lott, then Senate leader of the G.O.P., called Cheney to tell him the media were making the Administration’s Iraq policy for it. “We’ve got to get this thing on track,” Lott said.

Powell was trying to do just that. On Aug. 5, he and Rice had dinner with Bush in the White House. Powell argued that if Saddam was to be disarmed, it was best to do so with the backing of the international community. The Security Council, Powell said, was ready to force Saddam to accept weapons inspectors for the first time since 1998. Bush was hearing the same argument from old colleagues of his father’s, like Brent Scowcroft, Rice’s predecessor and mentor, and from British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was due to visit Camp David at the end of the month. On Aug. 26, in Crawford, Texas, Bush held a meeting of the National Security Council over a secure videoconference system. Powell argued that taking the Iraq issue to the U.N. would maintain international support and close off no options. Reluctantly, Cheney and Rumsfeld agreed. Bush would make the case at the U.N. in September, challenging the Security Council to enforce its resolutions on Iraqi disarmament. But Cheney pushed back. Without informing Powell, he decided that his speech to the V.F.W. convention in Nashville would set out the hard-line case against Saddam–including Cheney’s judgment that the return of inspectors would be a “false comfort” and provide “no assurance whatsoever” of Iraq’s compliance with U.N. resolutions. He spoke openly of what the U.S. would do after a regime change in Iraq–implying that it was prepared to go to war to get Saddam out.

Cheney wasn’t free-lancing. He and Bush had settled on the fine print of the speech together. For the two men, the position that the Administration now held had a certain logic. Multilateral support for action against Saddam in the U.N., they thought, would come only if the Security Council was convinced that the U.S. would go it alone if it had to; inspections would work only if they were backed up by a credible threat of force if Saddam did not come clean on his weapons. After Bush’s speech, Powell and his team set about drafting a text–Security Council Resolution 1441–that would promise Saddam “serious consequences,” meaning war, if he passed up a last chance to disarm. The negotiations were tough. The French were determined that if Iraq was found to be in breach, the Security Council should meet again before going to war. On Nov. 2, as he was waiting to escort his daughter down the aisle at her wedding, Powell received a call from Dominique de Villepin, the French Foreign Minister, and the two men settled on the outlines of a compromise. Six days later, the Security Council voted unanimously in favor of Resolution 1441. The mood at State was ebullient; the Security Council, said a senior official, had “found Iraq guilty and offered it a probation.” Powell, say State Department sources, was convinced that if it came to the crunch and Saddam violated 1441, France and every other significant nation would back the U.S. in a vote for war.

It didn’t turn out that way, and perhaps it never could. Resolution 1441, like so many other diplomatic texts, turned out to have enough ambiguities in it to mean all things to all men. The French insist that they understood the resolution allowed some time for inspections to work. “Maybe six months, maybe 12, maybe 18,” says a top aide to French President Jacques Chirac. By December, Paris was starting to panic. The Americans, says the aide to Chirac, were saying, “We’re putting Saddam to a test that he’s certain to fail. In a few weeks, we’ll have a green light for a military attack.” Every time Saddam did something–accept the weapons inspectors back, provide a report on his WMD–the French saw it as proof that inspections were working. The Americans, by contrast, saw it as continued Iraqi obstruction. “Each time there was progress,” says a French official, “instead of demanding more, Bush portrayed it as deception and trickery.” The real problem, says this official, is that Saddam was canny enough not to make “one big mistake”–a stiffing of the inspectors so egregious that even those most opposed to war would be forced to concede that the time for diplomacy was over.

As late as January, the Administration was convinced that France would come around. “This is what the French do,” said a senior U.S. official. “They resist, and then when the time comes, they move to the head of the parade.” The Administration missed what was happening in Europe. In the summer, to save his skin in federal elections, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder came out against military action in Iraq under any circumstances. He and Chirac had long had chilly relations, but last fall the French and German governments began to work toward a set of common positions on a variety of issues. For the French, this was vital. With Germany set to take a seat on the Security Council in January, Paris would no longer be facing the Americans alone. On Jan. 14, at a meeting to prepare for the 40th anniversary of a treaty of friendship between the two nations, Chirac said France’s position on the need to continue with inspections was “identical” to Germany’s.

Six days later, on Martin Luther King Day, Powell–at de Villepin’s request–attended a Security Council session that was to debate terrorism. The meeting was relatively uneventful, though Joschka Fischer, Germany’s Foreign Minister, said a military strike against Iraq would make fighting terrorism more difficult. But at the press conference afterward, de Villepin dropped his bomb. France, he said, thought that “nothing justifies envisaging military action.” It was the plainest signal possible that so long as the inspectors were getting cooperation from Saddam, Paris would not support a war.

Though it was not clear at the time, the attempt to build a unified international position on Iraq died that day. Everything that followed–the gnomic reports by Hans Blix, the U.N.’s chief biochemical-weapons inspector; Powell’s presentation of new intelligence on Saddam’s WMD capabilities; increasingly frantic British efforts to forge a new resolution that might win a majority of the Council–was no more than flowers on the coffin of Resolution 1441. Powell was furious at the Martin Luther King Day ambush. “He had won an internal debate within the Administration to go to the U.N.,” says a Republican Senator. “But the French ratted out on him. That lowered his stock.” The next weekend Powell flew to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and friends found him despondent. “He was frustrated by the disinterest of the allies,” says a Congressman who spoke to him at Davos. “He had laid out the facts about Iraq’s transgressions. He truly believed we’d done all we could on the diplomatic front. We’d exhausted it.” Resolution 1441, Powell said grimly on the eve of war, set the Security Council a test that it “did not meet.”

Once Powell had shifted his allegiance to the group determined to take out Saddam, the Iraqi dictator’s fate was sealed. The extraordinary power of the American armed forces would see to that. Historians will long debate whether the road to war in Iraq could have been handled a different way–and ask if the U.N. could have formed a united front against Saddam, as it did in Gulf War I, and avoided the bitter breaches between old friends that have characterized the past few months. To be sure, mistakes–as politicians say–were made; American diplomacy was curiously lacking in the weeks after adoption of Resolution 1441, when it might have been possible to maintain the unity that was demonstrated when the resolution passed the Security Council.

But perhaps unity was an impossible dream. For the intellectual roots of the war with Iraq and the personal sensibilities of the four Americans who paved the road to battle took shape in a specific time and place. Everyone sensible–French, American, Russian, German–has known for years that Saddam is a dangerous tyrant who brutalizes his people, is prepared to threaten others and bears abiding grudges. But only one nation–the U.S.–has suffered the thousands of deaths that a few people with a deep hatred could inflict. “I do think 9/11 is a historic watershed,” Cheney told NBC News last week. The U.S., he said, was worried that the next attack on its territory “could involve far deadlier weapons than the world has ever seen. The rest of the world hasn’t had to come to grips with that yet.”

That is true. It is also true that Iraq is not the only nation that either has such deadly weapons or would like to get them. North Korea, Iran, possibly Libya and Syria would all love to have the power that Saddam coveted. The unanswered question of the Iraq story is whether the ideas behind it will one day be used in other places too. –With reporting by Timothy J. Burger, Massimo Calabresi, John F. Dickerson, Mark Thompson, Eric Roston and Douglas Waller/Washington, Mitch Frank/New York and James Graff/Paris

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