Juan Cole badly misunderstands a recently declassified set of documents regarding decision-making within the Bush administration between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Nowhere does the memo by Donald Rumsfeld, that Cole highlights, recommend starting a war "under false pretenses," either through "baiting Saddam into an attack on the Kurds in the north" or "breathlessly announcing from the White House" a connection between Saddam and Osama Bin Laden.
Rather, the notes from November 2001, which discuss a contingency plan for a potential war as a debate continued at the time over the best way to implement a policy of regime change, suggest using the triggers outlined to initiate a war only if Saddam actually acted out of aggression against the American-protected enclave of the north, or if a real link between Saddam and 9/11 could be ascertained.
The notes do not imply provoking Saddam to attack the Kurds or fabricating links between the Ba'athist regime and Al-Qa'ida.
The memo, entitled "Focus on Iraqi WMD," illustrates that the administration sincerely believed that Saddam's regime had WMDs and therefore posed a potential threat to the stability of the region. For instance, the memo emphasizes the importance of preventing the "movement of WMD materials." To suggest, however, as Cole does, that the administration knew that the primary rationale for the war was false, is contradicted by the notes themselves: In deciding to remove Saddam's regime by a full-scale invasion in 2003, and in feeling certain that the war would be a quick operation, administration officials knew that the question of whether those WMDs actually existed would be unequivocally resolved at least by the end of the year.
It is illogical, therefore, to claim that Bush, as a first-term president at the time, sent in troops on a rationale he knew would be proven wrong by the time of the next election, especially as he was seeking re-election himself.
Most importantly, when it was becoming clear that no significant stockpiles of WMDs were being found, the administration admitted it was wrong; it did not try to cover up the mistake.
Cole's hypothesis would also have to explain why troops were sent in with protective gear against chemical weapons, and why the Iraq Study Group was commissioned by the coalition forces to find out what had happened to those supposed WMDs.
Cole then goes on to suggest his oft-repeated statement that the drive toward war was mainly the work of officials whom Cole alleges to have been part of "the Israel Lobby in the Bush administration, whose obsession with Iraq derived from their right-Zionist commitments." This assertion ignores the fact that the Israeli government at the time, supported by pro-Israel lobby groups such as AIPAC, repeatedly warned officials in the Bush administration not to invade Iraq -- arguing instead, as former administration official Lawrence Wilkerson noted, that the U.S. "should not be distracted by Iraq and Saddam Hussein" from the threat of Iran.
Further, the Israeli government and Likud party generally thought that removing Saddam's regime would shift the balance of power in the region in favor of Iran. As late as October 2002, the IDF Chief of Staff and the head of military intelligence made it clear that they disagreed with the Bush administration's contention that Saddam's alleged quest for nuclear weapons made him the main threat in the region.
Even Noam Chomsky appreciates the absurdity of the thesis, originating from Mearsheimer and Walt, that the "Israel lobby" was responsible for pushing the administration into invading Iraq: it contradicts their contention that the lobby persuaded the U.S. to accept Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, and thereby undermined support for war with Iraq. Does Juan Cole realize how alone he is in his advocacy of Mearsheimer and Walt's baseless argument?
When Defensive Shield was launched to counter Palestinian terrorist operations against Israel, Arabic media portrayed the ongoing battle between the IDF and Palestinian militants in Jenin as akin to the Sabra and Shatila massacre, so Arab leaders made clear their feelings of resentment to Washington. Walt and Mearsheimer then contend that this dampened support amongst some U.S. officials at the time for invading Iraq for fear of further provoking popular resentment in the Arab world. Walt and Mearsheimer thus suggest that the "Israel Lobby" somehow undermined support for what Bush administration officials saw as being in the U.S. interest (i.e. invading Iraq)- yet their suggestion contradicts their other idea that the "Israel Lobby" was responsible for driving the U.S. to war with Iraq, which Walt and Mearsheimer claim to have arisen not because U.S. officials thought it was in U.S. interest, but because they caved in to pressure from the "Israel Lobby" and Israeli interests. It is a strange thesis, but Juan Cole is a big fan of it.
Of course, by persisting in these distortions, Juan Cole distracts attention from the real lessons that are to be drawn from the evidence that has since emerged regarding pre-war decision-making: that Western governments and intelligence agencies should never engage in "groupthink" when evaluating potential threats to national security or interests, or try to reach a dogmatic consensus at the expense of critically examining ideas and lines of empirical data.
Such mistakes have occurred before: the failure to anticipate a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, for example, in spite of abundant evidence, was the product of the same sort of mentality.
Promoting conspiracy theories, as Juan Cole does, only leads to even more "groupthink" -- often inaccurate -- rather than its abandonment.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is an intern at the Middle East Forum.