Frank Rich: Karl and Scooter’s Excellent Adventure

Once again, I want to present a complete NYT unlinkable article, this one by Frank Rich, my favorite of the Times pundits. We went to war at an unbelievable cost. Isn’t it time we all ask why?

Karl and Scooter’s Excellent Adventure
By Frank Rich

There were no weapons of mass destruction. There was no collaboration between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda on 9/11. There was scant Pentagon planning for securing the peace should bad stuff happen after America invaded. Why, exactly, did we go to war in Iraq?

“It still isn’t possible to be sure – and this remains the most remarkable thing about the Iraq war,” writes the New Yorker journalist George Packer, a disenchanted liberal supporter of the invasion, in his essential new book, “The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq.” Even a former Bush administration State Department official who was present at the war’s creation, Richard Haass, tells Mr. Packer that he expects to go to his grave “not knowing the answer.”

Maybe. But the leak investigation now reaching its climax in Washington continues to offer big clues. We don’t yet know whether Lewis (Scooter) Libby or Karl Rove has committed a crime, but the more we learn about their desperate efforts to take down a bit player like Joseph Wilson, the more we learn about the real secret they

wanted to protect: the “why” of the war.

To piece that story together, you have to follow each man’s history before the invasion of Iraq – before anyone had ever heard of Valerie Plame Wilson, let alone leaked her identity as a C.I.A. officer. It is not an accident that Mr. Libby’s and Mr. Rove’s very different trajectories – one of a Washington policy intellectual, the other of a Texas political operative – would collide before Patrick Fitzgerald’s grand jury. They are very different men who play very different White House roles, but they are bound together now by the sordid shared past that the Wilson affair has exposed.

In Mr. Rove’s case, let’s go back to January 2002. By then the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan had succeeded in its mission to overthrow the Taliban and had done so with minimal American casualties. In a triumphalist speech to the Republican National Committee, Mr. Rove for the first time openly advanced the idea that the war on terror was the path to victory for that November’s midterm elections. Candidates “can go to the country on this issue,” he said, because voters “trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America’s military might and thereby protecting America.” It was an early taste of the rhetoric that would be used habitually to smear any war critics as unpatriotic.

But there were unspoken impediments to Mr. Rove’s plan that he certainly knew about: Afghanistan was slipping off the radar screen of American voters, and the president’s most grandiose objective, to capture Osama bin Laden “dead or alive,” had not been achieved. How do you run on a war if the war looks as if it’s shifting into neutral and the No. 1 evildoer has escaped?

Hardly had Mr. Rove given his speech than polls started to register the first erosion of the initial near-universal endorsement of the administration’s response to 9/11. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup survey in March 2002 found that while 9 out of 10 Americans still backed the war on terror at the six-month anniversary of the attacks, support for an expanded, long-term war had fallen to 52 percent.

Then came a rapid barrage of unhelpful news for a political campaign founded on supposed Republican superiority in protecting America: the first report (in The Washington Post) that the Bush administration had lost Bin Laden’s trail in Tora Bora in December 2001 by not committing ground troops to hunt him down; the first indications that intelligence about Bin Laden’s desire to hijack airplanes barely clouded President Bush’s August 2001 Crawford vacation; the public accusations by an F.B.I. whistle-blower, Coleen Rowley, that higher-ups had repeatedly shackled Minneapolis agents investigating the so-called 20th hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui, in the days before 9/11.

These revelations took their toll. By Memorial Day 2002, a USA Today poll found that just 4 out of 10 Americans believed that the United States was winning the war on terror, a steep drop from the roughly two-thirds holding that conviction in January. Mr. Rove could see that an untelevised and largely underground war against terrorists might not nail election victories without a jolt of shock and awe. It was a propitious moment to wag the dog.

Enter Scooter, stage right. As James Mann details in his definitive group biography of the Bush war cabinet, “Rise of the Vulcans,” Mr. Libby had been joined at the hip with Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz since their service in the Defense Department of the Bush 41 administration, where they conceived the neoconservative manifesto for the buildup and exercise of unilateral American military power after the cold war. Well before Bush 43 took office, they had become fixated on Iraq, though for reasons having much to do with their ideas about realigning the states in the Middle East and little or nothing to do with the stateless terrorism of Al Qaeda. Mr. Bush had specifically disdained such interventionism when running against Al Gore, but he embraced the cause once in office. While others might have had cavils – American military commanders testified before Congress about their already overtaxed troops and equipment in March 2002 – the path was clear for a war in Iraq to serve as the political Viagra Mr. Rove needed for the election year.

But here, too, was an impediment: there had to be that “why” for the invasion, the very why that today can seem so elusive that Mr. Packer calls Iraq “the ‘Rashomon’ of wars.” Abstract (and highly debatable) neocon notions of marching to Baghdad to make the Middle East safe for democracy (and more secure for Israel and uninterrupted oil production) would never fly with American voters as a trigger for war or convince them that such a war was relevant to the fight against those who attacked us on 9/11. And though Americans knew Saddam was a despot and mass murderer, that in itself was also insufficient to ignite a popular groundswell for regime change. Polls in the summer of 2002 showed steadily declining support among Americans for going to war in Iraq, especially if we were to go it alone.

For Mr. Rove and Mr. Bush to get what they wanted most, slam-dunk midterm election victories, and for Mr. Libby and Mr. Cheney to get what they wanted most, a war in Iraq for reasons predating 9/11, their real whys for going to war had to be replaced by fictional, more salable ones. We wouldn’t be invading Iraq to further Rovian domestic politics or neocon ideology; we’d be doing so instead because there was a direct connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda and because Saddam was on the verge of attacking America with nuclear weapons. The facts and intelligence had to be fixed to create these whys; any contradictory evidence had to be dismissed or suppressed.

Mr. Libby and Mr. Cheney were in the boiler room of the disinformation factory. The vice president’s repetitive hyping of Saddam’s nuclear ambitions in the summer and fall of 2002 as well as his persistence in advertising bogus Saddam-Qaeda ties were fed by the rogue intelligence operation set up in his own office. As we know from many journalistic accounts, Mr. Cheney and Mr. Libby built their “case” by often making an end run around the C.I.A., State Department intelligence and the Defense Intelligence Agency. Their ally in cherry-picking intelligence was a similar cadre of neocon zealots led by Douglas Feith at the Pentagon.

THIS is what Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s wartime chief of staff, was talking about last week when he publicly chastised the “Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal” for sowing potential disaster in Iraq, North Korea and Iran. It’s this cabal that in 2002 pushed for much of the bogus W.M.D. evidence that ended up in Mr. Powell’s now infamous February 2003 presentation to the U.N. It’s this cabal whose propaganda was sold by the war’s unannounced marketing arm, the White House Iraq Group, or WHIG, in which both Mr. Libby and Mr. Rove served in the second half of 2002. One of WHIG’s goals, successfully realized, was to turn up the heat on Congress so it would rush to pass a resolution authorizing war in the politically advantageous month just before the midterm election.

Joseph Wilson wasn’t a player in these exalted circles; he was a footnote who began to speak out loudly only after Saddam had been toppled and the mission in Iraq had been “accomplished.” He challenged just one element of the W.M.D. “evidence,” the uranium that Saddam’s government had supposedly been seeking in Africa to fuel its ominous mushroom clouds.

But based on what we know about Mr. Libby’s and Mr. Rove’s hysterical over-response to Mr. Wilson’s accusation, he scared them silly. He did so because they had something to hide. Should Mr. Libby and Mr. Rove have lied to investigators or a grand jury in their panic, Mr. Fitzgerald will bring charges. But that crime would seem a misdemeanor next to the fables that they and their bosses fed the nation and the world as the whys for invading Iraq.

The Discussion: 26 Comments

For Mr. Rove and Mr. Bush to get what they wanted most, slam-dunk midterm election victories, and for Mr. Libby and Mr. Cheney to get what they wanted most, a war in Iraq for reasons predating 9/11, their real whys for going to war had to be replaced by fictional, more salable ones. We wouldn’t be invading Iraq to further Rovian domestic politics or neocon ideology; we’d be doing so instead because there was a direct connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda and because Saddam was on the verge of attacking America with nuclear weapons. The facts and intelligence had to be fixed to create these whys; any contradictory evidence had to be dismissed or suppressed.

The thing that pisses me off is that any person with a single shred of intuition could have written this when it mattered. Unfortunately, the media was too scared to stir things up in 2002-2003.

Now, instead of preventing a bogus war, preserving the American image, and saving scores of lives, the best one can hope for is that the administration gets taken down–which is really just peanuts in comparison.

October 23, 2005 @ 8:10 am | Comment

As I recall, Rich, to his credit, was a skeptic from the beginning. It’s just that the few skeptics’ voices were drowned out in a sea of false patriotism put in the service of propaganda.

October 23, 2005 @ 12:14 pm | Comment


I think the real goals that we went to war in Iraq are :
1. To remove a tyrant.
2. To set an example to the rest of the Middle East dictators that if they misbehave, they will be toasted like Saddam.
3. To establish a democratic society stronghold in an Arab country.

Goal number one has been achieved.

Goal number two has largely been achieved. Witness the good behavior of colonel Kadafi of libya. He turned in his nuclear making materials and equipments to court better relations with the west. This is very important because if terrorists ever get a hold of a nuclear weapon and detonate it in the US, that will make 9/11 look like a child’s play.

Goal number three has yet to be achieved. And the way that Bush chose war to achieve democracy in Iraq is certainly debatable. On one hand, it is very expensive in terms of human lives and finance. On the other hand, it is supposedly to be the quickest way to accomplish the goal. Where it’s gone wrong is that the post-war planning and execution have been terrible. The US failed to ensure a secure environment in Iraq. Without security, every day life for Iraqi is very grim. Iraqis really cannot rebuild their infrastructure and goverment if they are facing death everyday. That said, I think they (the US and Iraqi govetnment) all recognize the problem and hopefully they will come up with a solution. But that is going to take time and lots of effort. So I think the verdict is still out on goal number three. But I am encouraged that most Iraqis are happy to see Sadam gone and love democracy by bracing violence to vote.

October 23, 2005 @ 12:46 pm | Comment

Keep on playing that shell game Dennis!

October 23, 2005 @ 1:29 pm | Comment


“This (Kaddafi disarming) is very important because if terrorists ever get hold of a nuclear weapon…”

…um, Dennis, do you know where MOST of the world’s missing and/or unsecured nuclear materials are? In Central Asia, that’s where, especially in and around the former Soviet states like Kazakhstan.

Do you have ANY idea just how big, how wild, and how anarchic Kazakhstan is?

Look at a map.

Do you think the Iraq war has made ONE IOTA of difference in securing nuclear materials in the vast, wild anarchic regions of Central Asia?

All it takes is a bottle of vodka and a few hundred dollars to bribe someone in the Central Asian (former Soviet) “stans”, to hand over the stuff.

October 23, 2005 @ 1:51 pm | Comment


I have no doubt that the demise of Saddam regime is a very powerful deterrence to any dictators who dare to sell WMDs to terrorists. Imagine yourself in their shoes. If you sell A-bomb to Al Qaeda and they in turn detonate it in the West, then your days will be numbered because you will find the most powerful military in human history trying to annihilate you in your own backyard in no time. This is such common sense that why so many people who fail to understand it is beyond me. Maybe they have a political vendetta.
As to your claim that it is easy for terrorists to procure WMDs given a little bribe, then I wonder why I haven’t seen any large mushroom cloud over any city in the US or Europe considering that the Soviet disintegrated over a decade ago and Al Qaeda’s hatry of the West.

October 23, 2005 @ 2:27 pm | Comment

Oops, it shoud read “hatred of the West” in stead of “hatryof the West”.

October 23, 2005 @ 2:30 pm | Comment

Of course by not securing Iraq properly post-invasion, the Iraqi armory, including god knows how many tons of high-explosives, has been dispersed throughout Iraq, into the hands of insurgents of every stripe.

Mission accomplished, all right.

October 23, 2005 @ 2:49 pm | Comment

And can we all say it one more time? Iraq didn’t have WMDs. The sanctions worked.

Now, let’s talk about another candidate for Greatest Modern American Intelligence Failure – and that would be letting Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan spread nuclear materials/information all around the world, to god knows who – the extent of the damage is still unknown.

Once again, Mission Accomplished. Thank you, President Bush, for making the world safer.

October 23, 2005 @ 2:51 pm | Comment

“Imagine yourself in their shoes. If you sell A-bomb to Al Qaeda and they in turn detonate it in the West, then your days will be numbered because you will find the most powerful military in human history trying to annihilate you in your own backyard in no time.”

I’m not sure how effective the Iraq war will be as a deterrence. Two wars one after another has taken a lot of stuffing out of the Bush administration, and the U.S., as powerful as it is economically and militarily, simply cannot afford to wage wars on terrorism all the time. The cost is too high, the target is too mobile, and public sentiment is against it…surely there are insurgents who would be banking on such restraints on US power to commit further acts of terrorism?

October 23, 2005 @ 4:37 pm | Comment

“the U.S., as powerful as it is economically and militarily, simply cannot afford to wage wars on terrorism all the time.”

We cannot afford NOT to fight a war against terrorism. Our cherished way of life will be changed for the worse forever if they ever detonate an A-bomb in our soil. In democracy such as ours, it is understandable that some segment of the public is against it because of the high cost. But I am glad that the people in power are firm in their resolve.

October 23, 2005 @ 5:11 pm | Comment

We cannot afford NOT to fight a war against terrorism.

Oh no, where did this guy come from? A war on terrorism is great and necessary – but if there’s no strategy and no end goal it is meaningless and doomed to failure.

We have a neo-con puppet in our midst. Strikingly similar to Cultural Revolution-era sloganeering.

October 23, 2005 @ 5:43 pm | Comment

I believe there is copyright on that article, so I wonder if you can copy this entire piece to your site.

October 23, 2005 @ 5:45 pm | Comment

Copyright? I didn’t know that….

October 23, 2005 @ 5:48 pm | Comment

“We have a neo-con puppet in our midst.”

On the contrary, I am an independent, neither Republican nor Democrat. I judge each viewpoint by its own merit unlike some people who are dogmatic to the right or left.

October 23, 2005 @ 6:13 pm | Comment

Huh, so you’ve judged Cheney/Rummy/Wolfie/Feith’s argument and swallowed it whole?

Interesting. Especially because that pesky real-world evidence keeps coming in to disprove it.

October 23, 2005 @ 6:18 pm | Comment

Richard and Other Lisa, the problem with you people is that you view the world through the prism of either conservative or liberal view. For your information, I am an independent thinker. I don’t belong to any political party. I take each issue on its own merit. So Other Lisa, where do you get the idea that I “judged Cheney/Rummy/Wolfie/Feith’s argument and swallowed it whole”. I take the issue of Iraq and come to the conclusion that it is best for Americans and the Iraqis that they become a democracy. If you read my argument carefully, I said that it is debatable whether the use of force is the right choice to accomplish the goal. (Another way to achieve that is through trades like what we’re doing with China although the liberals will complain that it will take too long. You can’t win either way.) The goal of democracy in an Arab nation is still, yes, a noble one.
As for the “neo-con puppet” label that Richard hung on me, I don’t agree with lots of things that the Cheney/Rummy cabal did. If you remember, prior to invading Iraq, there’s been widespread agreement that Iraq possessed some forms of WMDs. (Even the French agreed on that.) But they deliberatley misled the public and exaggerated the danger. However, now that we are already in Iraq, it makes no sense for us to cut and run. I simply believe that we should stay behind to ensure that Iraqis can build a reasonably stable democractic government. Now, one may argue that by staying behind, we simply exaggerate the problem and the Iraqi government will not grow up and will wait for us to fight the battle for them. I admit there’s merit to that argument.

October 23, 2005 @ 11:01 pm | Comment

Dennis, you’re really bugging me. If you haven’t noticed, I once supported the war in Iraq (huge mistake, I admit it) and try to keep a open mind. I never see things in terms of liberals right/conservatives wrong, and readers here fall into all different political molds. Anyway, if you think this war was worth it and that it was honestly presented to the American people, more power to you. I just hope that once Iraq falls into civil war or becomes an Iran-style theocracy you’ll finally admit it was a catastrophe in every conceivable way.

October 23, 2005 @ 11:07 pm | Comment


You say “other powerful dictators”

Don’t you GET it?

I said most of the unsecured nukes are in places like the wilds of Kazakhtan, and they are NOT SECURED!

I repeat: the main danger of nuclear proliferation/terrorist access to nukes, is NOT from “dictators” selling them – because those “dictators” DO NOT HAVE CONTROL OVER THE MATERIAL!

The problem isn’t “dictators”, it’s anarchy and vast wilderness where there’s no control and nobody cares about the trial of Saddam.

October 23, 2005 @ 11:32 pm | Comment

To make this more clear (well, not to Dennis, who obviously does NOT “think outside the box”) but to the rest of the readers:

Most Russian and CIS (former Soviet states) military officers are poorly paid. I mean, like way under the US poverty line in US dollar terms. Given the lethal mix of lax supervision and temptations to take bribes (or even better, actually to sell the stuff themselves), what you really have to worry about is some frustrated old impoverished officer accepting a case of vodka and a wad of cash and saying to a prospective buyer:

“Here’s the key. Take as much as you can carry.”

Or other such scenarios. My point is that MOST of the most easily accessible to terrorists are NOT IN THE MIDDLE EAST and NOT under the control of ANYONE!

And these little chickenhawks like Dennis (who obviously has never heard a shot fired in anger – if he did he wouldn’t speak so abstractly about war) just chatter on repeating what the TV and Free Republic have told them.

Funny thing is, in the “Cultural Revolution” thread below, Dennis was one who said Americans can think outside the box. Well, yes, some of us can. But Dennis, you’re not thinking outside the box. Your box is a childish notion that “evil dictators” are the main danger. No.
Today, ANARCHY is the main danger and the principal source of nuclear proliferation.

October 23, 2005 @ 11:55 pm | Comment

I’m guessing Dennis doesn’t get out much…

October 24, 2005 @ 12:05 am | Comment

….Lisa you might be right. I get the impression “evil dictator” is what he calls his father whenever he’s grounded.

October 24, 2005 @ 5:12 am | Comment

Also, around 200 nukes from the former USSR have already gone missing.

We don’t quite know where they are, yet.

You ask, why haven’t we seen NY nuked yet?
Jesus Christ, Dennis, is THAT the ONLY thing which would get your attention?

October 24, 2005 @ 5:19 am | Comment

And one more thing. God help us – there’s no hope left for the world except prayer – if the Bush administration has been replacing our intelligence operatives/analysts with the likes of Dennis.

Old Fashioned Spy: “200 nukes have gone missing from the former USSR, and the clock is running for us to track them down and prevent more from going missing.”

Dennis, Playground Spy: “I wanna kick some ass! Let’s teach those evil dictators a lesson!”

October 24, 2005 @ 5:23 am | Comment

Well, I maybe “neo-con puppet”, “does NOT think outside the box”, “doesn’t get out much”, and call my father “evil dictator,” but at least I didn’t resort to ad hominem. For awhile I was under the mistaken impression that I was engaging in an intellectual discussion.
Ivan, I happen to agree with you that the evil dictators are not the main danger right now. But that is in large part because of Iraq war, with Saddam grounded, Kaddafi more pliable, and the evil Kim contained at least so far. Yes, anarchy is very danagerous today but that is a discussion for another topic.
Richard, Iraq war is not a sporting event. One does not bet on the outcome before the war starts and admits wrong if the result ends up being horrible. I truly believe the struggle to establish a democratic Iraq is worthwhile. Could it turn out horribly? Of course. I admire Bush for his resolve and determination but fault him for his incompetence. But regardless of the outcome, I strongly believe it’s worthwhile to establish a democratic stronghold in an Arab country.

October 24, 2005 @ 9:49 am | Comment

Democracy established at gunpoint rarely works well…

And PUH-LEESE don’t make the bogus WW2 comparison.

October 24, 2005 @ 2:41 pm | Comment

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