The U.S. military's guided bombs brought "shock and awe" to Baghdad in 2003 when American forces invaded Iraq 16 years ago to hunt for weapons of mass destruction. They never found any. Many observers, today, consider that war a failure.
Now, half of all Americans believe the U.S. will go to war with Iran "within the next few years," according to a Reuters/Ipsos public opinion poll released in late May amid increased tensions between the two countries, longtime geopolitical foes.
The latest in the escalating Tehran-Washington crisis occurred Thursday, when Iran's Revolutionary Guard shot down a U.S. surveillance drone it claimed violated its airspace. Iran said the strike sent a "clear message" that it would defend itself from Washington.
The U.S. says the drone was in international airspace. Navy Capt. Bill Urban called it an "unprovoked attack."
The drone attack follows the June 13 international oil tanker attacks that President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed on Iran.
In late May, the White House claimed, without providing detail or public evidence, that Iran poses an increased threat to American forces and facilities in the Middle East – one year after Trump withdrew from an accord between Iran and world powers aimed at limiting Tehran's nuclear capabilities.
Is Iran doomed to be an Iraq redux? This is just one of the questions raised by a crisis that has eerie parallels to the missteps that led to the Iraq War in 2003, where the buildup to conflict was precipitated by faulty intelligence and confrontational foreign policymakers such as John Bolton in President George W. Bush's administration.
To make sense of what's happening now, here's what happened then:
Operation Desert Storm – the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War – came to an end 42 days after a U.S.-led offensive was launched in response to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's invasion of neighboring Kuwait. Iraq's dictator accused Kuwait and Saudi Arabia of conspiring to keep oil prices artificially low for western consumers. President George H.W. Bush declared a ceasefire on February 28, 1991, as Iraqi forces in Kuwait surrendered or fled back to Iraq. About 700,000 American service members were deployed to the Gulf for the short war; 383 were killed.
When President George W. Bush became president in 2001, Hussein was back on the agenda. "There were a number of people in the Department of Defense who wanted to pursue a certain policy course. I don't think they ever took their eyes off of Iraq," former CIA Director John Brennan said in a 2007 National Geographic documentary about the 2003 Iraq War. "There was still a great deal of residual feeling that we should not have stopped the first Persian Gulf War when we did, but rather continue into Baghdad and topple Saddam Hussein," ex-Senator and ex-Florida governor Bob Graham said in the same documentary.
Among the figures Brennan and Graham were referring to: Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Bolton, who had worked as a lawyer for the Bush campaign to block recount efforts in Florida that led to state officials awarding the 2000 election to Bush over Democratic candidate Al Gore.
Bolton was a lifelong staunch conservative with hawkish views on foreign policy. For a start, he abhorred multilateralism. "There is no United Nations. There is an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power left in the world, and that's the United States," he said of the international organization in 1994, adding: "The secretariat building in New York has 38 stories. If you lost 10 stories today, it wouldn't make a bit of difference." Years later, Bolton's nomination to be U.S. Ambassador to the UN was blocked because of his hardline views. He would also call for the U.S. to make pre-emptive strikes against North Korea.
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York City and Washington shifted the Bush administration's focus to hunting Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan, where the ruling Taliban had given shelter to the al-Qaeda's leader, who masterminded the attacks. But Iraq was also on the radar of the Pentagon's military planners, who feared that Hussein might try to support or orchestrate an equally, or worse, catastrophic assault on U.S. soil "We're also working to prepare our nation for the next war," Rumsfeld said at a briefing on Afghanistan in late 2001, referring to Iraq.
In January 2002, Bush branded Iraq part of an "axis of evil" for harboring, financing and aiding terrorists, and for its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Also members of the club: Iran and North Korea. These countries, Bush said, "are threatening the peace of the world." He cast aside more dovish voices in his cabinet who urged him to pursue a diplomatic path in Iraq, saying "we can't wait for the final proof, the smoking gun, that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud."
Around the same time, Bolton, then serving as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs in Bush's administration, was becoming a key player in pushing for a military confrontation with Iraq, saying in a BBC radio debate that he was "confident" that Iraq had "hidden" weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons and production facilities. "The U.S. has already decided the outcome of this story – Saddam will be left with no weapons of mass destruction – but how that point is reached is up to Saddam Hussein," Bolton said in the debate in London. He was also making unverified claims about other countries he wanted included in Bush's "axis of evil," testifying to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs that Cuba was secretly developing a biological weapons program that could be used in warfare against American forces and civilian targets by "rogue states." Bolton provided no details when questioned. A subsequent Senate investigation found no evidence supporting his assertions.
In the months leading up to the Iraq War in 2003, Cheney appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" with a further warning: "The situation, I think, that leads a lot of people to be concerned about Iraq has to do not just with their past activity of harboring terrorists, but also with Saddam Hussein's behavior over the years and with his aggressive pursuit of weapons of mass destruction."
Despite not being able to produce clear "smoking gun" evidence of Hussein's "hidden" program to acquire weapons of mass destruction, Bush, buoyed by key advisors such as Bolton, opted for war with Iraq. When he was not able to get an express United Nations Security Council mandate to do so he pursued a "coalition of the willing" that included Australia, Britain, Japan, Spain and others.
After the U.S. invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003, Hussein spent nine months on the run before he was found hiding in an eight-foot-deep hole near his hometown of Tikrit. An Iraqi court convicted Hussein of crimes against humanity, for using deadly gas against Iraqi Kurds and other transgressions, and he was later executed by hanging. No evidence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was found. The war was viewed as a fiasco, not only of intelligence, but because it further destabilized the region, contributed to the formation of the Islamic State terrorist group and led to the violent deaths of more 200,000 Iraqi civilians and at least 4,500 American troops. It added more than $1 trillion to U.S. government debt. Iraq's economy, security and government remain in a fragile state.
In an opinion article in The Guardian in 2013, Bolton wrote: "Overthrowing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 achieved important American strategic objectives. Our broad international coalition accomplished its military mission with low casualties and great speed, sending an unmistakable signal of power and determination throughout the Middle East and around the world. Despite all the criticism of what happened after Saddam's defeat, these facts are indisputable."
Meanwhile, with the failed outcome of the 2003 Iraq War still plain to see, Bolton started ramping up his outspoken criticism of Iran's Islamic Republic. In 2009, as President Barack Obama's administration entered into what would turn out to be almost five years of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, Bolton said: "Ultimately, the only thing that will stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons is regime change in Tehran." As the deal entered its final stages, Bolton advocated in a New York Times opinion piece that the U.S. join forces with Israel: "Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed. Such action should be combined with vigorous American support for Iran's opposition, aimed at regime change in Tehran," he wrote. The articled was headlined: "To Stop Iran's Bomb, Bomb Iran."
Also troubling: The Iranian opposition group Bolton was referring to in his New York Times opinion article is the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a controversial Paris-based political organization also known as the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, or MEK. Along with Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, Bolton is long-time supporter of the exiled opposition group and has been paid to speak at its annual rallies. The MEK is often described by observers of its activities, including by humanitarian groups and even a U.S. government research document from 2012, as displaying "cultlike behavior." The MEK's reported abuses – vigorously denied to USA TODAY by its senior leadership who claim they result from a vicious and protracted "disinformation campaign" by Iran's clerical rulers – range from torture and forced celibacy to holding members against their will, sometimes in solitary confinement. The MEK says its critics are often spies for the Iranian regime. Bolton's first encounters with the MEK took place in Iraq, where for a period it had aligned itself with Hussein's government, which was fighting a war with Iran.
When Bolton joined the Trump administration as national security adviser in 2018, replacing seasoned former Army officer Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, he continued his public saber rattling and criticism of Iran by releasing a video on the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution via the White House's official Twitter channel. In the video, Bolton calls Iran "the central banker of international terrorism" and accuses Tehran of pursuing nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them and of "tyrannizing its own people and terrorizing the world." The video ends with a direct threat to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader: "I don’t think you’ll have many more anniversaries to enjoy," Bolton says.
Iran's interest in nuclear technology dates to the 1950s, when it received help from a U.S.-backed program promoted by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who wanted to share U.S. nuclear expertise with other countries for peaceful purposes, such as energy production. But after Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution and a U.S. hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran effectively ended relations between the two nations, U.S. intelligence agencies have long suspected, without explicit evidence, that Iran has attempted to use its civilian nuclear program as a cover for clandestine weapons development. Obama's 2015 nuclear accord was designed to prevent that and the UN's nuclear watchdog has repeatedly verified through inspections and other safeguards that Iran has been complying with the terms of the agreement, even after the U.S. withdrew from it and Washington re-imposed sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy. Bolton has regularly decried those inspections as ineffectual, believes the nuclear accord was a sham and has advocated for a far bolder Iran policy that aggressively addresses Iran's support for anti-American shia militias and Tehran's ballistic missile program.
Most Iran experts, political scientists and many U.S. lawmakers believe that it is this – Bolton's desire, like in Iraq, to confront Iran – that underpins a still-unexplained decision by the Pentagon to deploy warships, B-52 bombers and missiles to the Persian Gulf earlier this month in response to unspecified threats from Iran in the region. The U.S. also plans to send 900 additional troops to the Middle East and extend the stay of another 600 who are part of tens of thousands of others on the ground there. "The previous administration appeased the Islamic Republic of Iran. So we are pushing back. And when you push back, tension does increase," U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, another Iran hawk in the Trump administration, said in response to efforts to get clarity over the moves.
In recent days, Bolton also has accused Iran of being behind a string of incidents in the Persian Gulf, including what officials allege was sabotage of oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates and a rocket that landed near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, while Yemen’s Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels launched a string of drone attacks targeting Saudi Arabia. Iran has mostly avoided addressing the allegations, although it has said it doesn't fear a war with the U.S. It has also signaled that its patience with the nuclear deal is wearing thin and threatened to resume uranium enrichment at levels higher than the accord permits. Speaking in Abu Dhabi, Bolton said Wednesday that there had been a previously unknown attempt to attack the Saudi oil port of Yanbu as well. "Who else would you think is doing it? Somebody from Nepal?" Bolton said that there was “no reason” for Iran to back out of the nuclear deal other than to seek atomic weapons.
As for Trump's position on Iran, nobody seems to know the president's mind, not even, perhaps, the president. Trump has oscillated between overtly aggressive rhetoric and seemingly conciliatory statements. "We have no indication that anything's happened or will happen, but if it does, it will be met obviously with great force," Trump said last week at the White House. While on a four-day visit to Japan, Trump denied he wants regime change in Iran and said it's not the goal. Some national security experts believe that Bolton's role in pushing for war with Iran has been exaggerated, and that his influence on the president has been overstated. Still, there have been few Iran-related denials from Bolton, although just hours after the publication of this story, Bolton told a group of reporters while on a trip to London: “The policy we’re pursuing is not a policy of regime change. That’s the fact and everybody should understand it that way.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Iran drone strike: Escalating Iran crisis looks a lot like the path US took to Iraq war