Shortly after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the United Nations imposed a set of economic sanctions against Saddam Hussein's regime. Following the Persian Gulf War of 1991, the sanctions were broadened to mandate also a dismantling of Iraq's biological, chemical, nuclear, and missile-based weapons systems, out of fear that Saddam would commit aggression once again. Moreover, the U.S. and the United Kingdom patrolled Iraqi airspace to enforce “no-fly zones” as a means of protecting the nation’s northern Kurds and southern Shiite Muslims from attacks by Saddam Hussein’s regime.
From 1991 through October 1997, the UN regularly conducted weapons inspections in Iraq, in an effort to ensure that Saddam was complying with the ceasefire mandate against the development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). But the Iraqi regime barred inspectors from many so-called “sensitive” sites and vast “presidential palaces.” On several occasions between October 1997 and December 1998, Iraq ordered an end to the inspections altogether, allowing them to resume only after prolonged negotiations. Finally, on December 16, 1998 the UN ordered all weapons inspectors out of Iraq after Richard Butler, chief of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM), which was established to inspect Iraq’s suspected chemical and biological weapons capabilities, issued a report stating that the Saddam regime remained uncooperative.
Just hours thereafter, President Clinton, who had long expressed grave concerns over Iraq’s potential WMD capabilities, ordered four days of air strikes against suspected Iraqi weapons sites. The U.S. Air Force and intelligence agencies believed the December 1998 bombing campaign had succeeded in degrading a number of Iraqi WMD facilities, but, with no more inspectors on the ground to survey the damages, they never knew for certain. “We might have gotten it all,” President Clinton would later reminisce. “We might have gotten half of it; we might have gotten none of it. But we didn’t know.”
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 confronted Americans with the stark reality of a fanatical Islamist enemy obsessed with the goal of destroying their country's institutions, its people, and its civilization. An al Qaeda manifesto titled “Why We Fight America,” which was made public in June 2002, expresses radical Islam’s agenda with abundant clarity:
“What happened to America [on 9/11] is something natural, an expected event for a country that uses terror, arrogant policy, and suppression against the nations and the peoples ... America is the head of heresy in our modern world, and it leads an infidel democratic regime that is based upon separation of religion and state and on ruling the people by ... laws that contradict the way of Allah.... [Therefore], we have the right to kill 4 million Americans – 2 million of them children – and to exile twice as many and wound and cripple hundreds of thousands. Furthermore, it is our right to fight them with chemical and biological weapons ...”
Such was the mindset underlying the terrorist war that was declared against America.
Of course, 9/11 was by no means the first instance of actual or attempted Islamic terrorism perpetrated against U.S. interests:
- On February 26, 1993, al Qaeda terrorists attacked the World Trade Center with a truck bomb that made a crater six stories deep, killed six people and injured more than a thousand. The planners’ intention had been to cause one tower to topple the other and kill tens of thousands of people in the process.
- After the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, unsuccessful attempts were made by al Qaeda groups to blow up the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels and other populated targets, including a massive terrorist incident timed to coincide with the millennium celebrations of January 2000.
- Another scheme to hijack multiple commercial airliners and use them as "bombs" (not unlike 9/11) was thwarted in the Philippines in 1995.
- In 1996 a terrorist attack on the Khobar Towers, a U.S. military barracks in Saudia Arabia, killed 19 American soldiers.
- In 1998, al Qaeda agents blew up U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania -- killing 245 people and injuring 5,000.
- On October 12, 2000, the warship USS Cole was bombed while re-fueling in Yemen; 17 American sailors were killed and 39 were injured.
While these were all acts of war committed during the Clinton administration, President Clinton and his cabinet refused to recognize them as such. Instead, they treated them as law-enforcement matters to be dealt with in criminal court. President George W. Bush broke this pattern and responded to 9/11 as though it were an act of war, not a criminal infraction. Thus began America's War on Terror.
The cornerstone of this War on Terror was the Patriot Act (enacted in October 2001), which removed several Clinton-era restrictions that had prevented intelligence officials and law-enforcement officials from sharing information and working together on investigations. The Patriot Act also gave the Treasury Department more leverage with which to disrupt terrorist financing networks and thereby stem the flow of terrorism's lifeblood.
In 2002, UN weapons inspectors returned to Iraq for the first time in four years. During that four-year interval, British Prime Minister Tony Blair noted that every nation with an intelligence agency believed unequivocally that Saddam had moved forward with his WMD programs. This evaluation was confirmed by European intelligence agencies, particularly those of Germany. Coupled with Saddam’s ties to terrorism, the assumed presence of WMDs caused the U.S. to fear that the Iraqi dictator would one day use his weapons to strike against American interests.
On September 17, 2002, President Bush spelled out the guiding principles of America's War on Terror:
“Defending our Nation against its enemies is the first and fundamental commitment of the Federal Government.... Enemies in the past needed great armies and great industrial capabilities to endanger America. Now, shadowy networks of individuals can bring great chaos and suffering to our shores for less than it costs to purchase a single tank. Terrorists are organized to penetrate open societies and to turn the power of modern technologies against us.
“To defeat this threat we must make use of every tool in our arsenal—military power, better homeland defenses, law enforcement, intelligence, and vigorous efforts to cut off terrorist financing. The war against terrorists of global reach is a global enterprise of uncertain duration. America will help nations that need our assistance in combating terror. And America will hold to account nations that are compromised by terror, including those who harbor terrorists— because the allies of terror are the enemies of civilization.... [W]e will seek to deny them sanctuary at every turn.”
On October 11, 2002, the U.S. Congress passed an Authorization granting President Bush the authority to attack Iraq if Saddam Hussein did not unambiguously give up his WMD programs. Twenty-nine days later, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1441, offering Iraq “a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations” that had been laid out in ten previous resolutions – in particular, to provide “an accurate full, final, and complete disclosure . . . of all aspects of its programs to develop weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles.” Under the terms of this Resolution, UN inspectors were to be granted “immediate, unconditional, and unrestricted access” to sites of their choosing. Iraq’s failure to comply would result in “serious consequences.”
On March 17, 2003, President Bush gave Saddam and his family 48 hours to leave Iraq so that all UN weapons-disarmament decrees could be fully enforced. Saddam failed to leave the country, and on March 20, coalition troops departed from Kuwait and moved quickly toward Baghdad from the west and southwest; they covered 186 miles in less than a week. A few days later, American airborne forces in the north opened a third front. By April 4, the U.S.-led coalition had captured Saddam International Airport near Baghdad, and the capital city was largely under coalition control by April 9. By the middle of the month, the Iraqi military had been entirely defeated or dispersed. During this initial invasion period, fewer than 200 allied service personnel, including 138 Americans, died in battle.
Thereafter began the next phase of the war, where terrorist fighters, many of them al Qaeda-affiliated operatives who had filtered across Iraq’s borders from neighboring nations, launched many hit-and-run attacks, suicide missions, and roadside bombings aimed at both military and civilian personnel. This resistance fueled critics’ charges that the Bush administration was conducting the war poorly; that the conflict had turned into a quagmire; and that too many lives were being lost for a cause that was unjust and unsupportable. The coalition forces’ failure to locate fully developed WMD led many to conclude that Iraq had never even possessed such weapons, and thus had never posed any threat to the United States.
In July 2003, the Democratic National Committee ran a national TV ad whose message was: “Read his lips: President Bush Deceives the American People.” This was the beginning of an unrelenting campaign to persuade Americans and their allies that “Bush lied, people died” -- a popular slogan of the peace movement; that the Iraq War was entirely unnecessary; that Saddam had never posed a credible threat to America; and that the Bush administration had doctored intelligence in order to trick congressional Democrats into supporting the war.
Democrats claimed to have been deceived into supporting the war. But in fact, every Democratic Senator who voted to authorize military action had received, before the vote, a 100-page report titled “The National Intelligence Estimate” summarizing all of the intelligence information that was used to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Moreover, the Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which oversees all of America’s intelligence agencies, had access to any and all pertinent information in the government's possession.
From 2004 through 2006, U.S. forces continued to contend with “insurgents’” roadside bombs and sniper attacks. The American media focused the bulk of their war coverage on these incidents, and public support for the war effort steadily eroded. By 2005, it appeared that the United States was mired in a conflict that could not be won. On June 16, 2005, forty-one Democratic members of the House of Representatives formally established the Out of Iraq Congressional Caucus (OICC), an entity dedicated to agitating for a swift withdrawal of U.S. troops -- and alleging that the American invasion in 2003 had been launched on a pretext of lies and deceit by the Bush administration. The nominal co-founders of OICC were Maxine Waters, Lynn Woolsey, John Conyers, Charles Rangel, Barbara Lee, Jan Schakowsky, William Delahunt, and John Lewis.
But then the tide of the Iraq War shifted again in America's favor in January 2007, as a result of the “surge,” when President Bush decided to deploy an additional 20,000 troops to crush the terrorist insurgency. Democrats in Congress -- including such leading figures as Ted Kennedy, Harry Reid, and Dennis Kucinich -- called on their fellow lawmakers to reject the plan. The surge proceeded nevertheless; each month from January through May of 2007, the U.S. sent to Iraq one additional brigade consisting of nearly 4,000 troops.
In April 2007, Senator Harry Reid, counseling American surrender, stated publicly: “I believe ... that this war is lost, and this surge is not accomplishing anything.” But in fact, the surge succeeded in crushing the terrorist insurgency and allowing Iraq to rebuild.
In the spring of 2009, an authoritative new study showed that the number of civilian casualties resulting from the Iraq War was actually far lower than had been previously believed. Prior estimates had ranged between 600,000 and one million. But this latest research -- based, in part, on figures supplied by the Iraqi Health Ministry -- concluded that 110,600 Iraqis had died since the start of the American invasion six years earlier. And Michael Medved pointed out yet another vital consideration: "[T]he overwhelming majority of the 110,600 dead met their demise at the hands of terrorist violence or sectarian strife; only a tiny minority (perhaps 10% or less) of all casualties occurred at the hands of the Americans or other coalition forces."
A number of the Bush administration's anti-terrorism measures were quickly undone by Barack Obama, who took over the presidency in January 2009. Obama's first act as U.S. President was to order the suspension of all military tribunals that had been established to adjudicate the cases of terror suspects at the Guantanamo Bay detention center. This move was consistent with Obama's view that terrorism is not a matter of war, but rather criminal-justice issue to be resolved in civilian courts.
In March 2009 the Obama administration ordered an end to the use of the phrase "War on Terror," a label that had been adopted by the Bush administration shortly after the 9/11 attacks. In a memo sent from the Defense Department's office of security to Pentagon staffers, members were told: "This administration prefers to avoid using the term 'Long War' or 'Global War on Terror.' Please use 'Overseas Contingency Operation.'"
In a similar spirit, Obama's Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, broke with the tradition of warning the American public about potential terrorist threats. Instead, Napolitano began referring to acts of terrorism as "man-caused disasters."
Also in 2009, Obama's "Terrorism Czar" John Brennan openly rejected the use of the term “War on Terrorism.” Elaborating, Brennan said the U.S. would not seek merely to defeat al Qaeda and its allies, but also to address ignorance, poverty, and repression, since terrorist attacks are often “the final murderous manifestation of a long process rooted in hopelessness, humiliation, and hatred.” Moreover, Brennan maintained that it was wrong to say the U.S. was fighting "jihadists," because “jihad” was “a legitimate term … meaning to purify oneself or to wage a holy struggle for a moral goal.”
In December 2011, America withdrew the last of its troops from Iraq and thereby ended its military presence there. The security of Iraq's civilians would now be the responsibility of Iraqi troops and police, who had begun taking over such duties more than a year earlier, after U.S. forces had withdrawn from Iraq's cities. Though America would no longer have a military presence in Iraq, the relationship between the two nations would continue. Iraqi President Nouri Maliki met with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, where they pledged to proceed with a new, vaguely defined "equal partnership" between their respective countries.