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Bush administration has used 27 rationales for war in Iraq, study says


If it seems that there have been quite a few rationales for going to war in Iraq, that’s because there have been quite a few – 27, in fact, all floated between Sept. 12, 2001, and Oct. 11, 2002, according to a new study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. All but four of the rationales originated with the administration of President George W. Bush.

The study also finds that the Bush administration switched its focus from Osama bin Laden to Saddam Hussein early on – only five months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

In addition to what it says about the shifting sands of rationales and the unsteady path to war in Iraq, what is remarkable about the 212-page study is that its author is a student.

The study, “Uncovering the Rationales for the War on Iraq: The Words of the Bush Administration, Congress and the Media from September 12, 2001, to October 11, 2002,” is the senior honors thesis of Devon Largio. She and her professor, Scott Althaus, believe the study is the first of its kind.

For her analysis of all available public statements the Bush administration and selected members of Congress made pertaining to war with Iraq, Largio not only identified the rationales offered for going to war, but also established when they emerged and who promoted them. She also charted the appearance of critical keywords such as Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Iraq to trace the administration’s shift in interest from the al Qaeda leader to the Iraqi despot, and the news media’s response to that shift.

“The rationales that were used to justify the war with Iraq have been a major issue in the news since last year, and Devon’s study provides an especially thorough and wide-ranging analysis of it,” Althaus, a professor of political science, said.

“It is not the last word on the subject, but I believe it is the first to document systematically the case that the administration made for going to war during critical periods of the public debate.

“It is first-rate research,” Althaus said, “the best senior thesis I have ever seen – thoroughly documented and elaborately detailed. Her methodology is first-rate.”

Largio mapped the road to war over three phases: Sept. 12, 2001, to December 2001; January 2002, from Bush’s State of the Union address, to April 2002; and Sept. 12, 2002, to Oct. 11, 2002, the period from Bush’s address to the United Nations to Congress’s approval of the resolution to use force in Iraq.

She drew from statements by President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Defense Policy Board member and long-time adviser Richard Perle; by U.S. senators Tom Daschle, Joe Lieberman, Trent Lott and John McCain; and from stories in the Congressional Record, the New York Times and The Associated Press. She logged 1,500 statements and stories.

The rationales Largio identified include everything from the five front-runners – war on terror, prevention of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, lack of weapons inspections, removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Saddam Hussein is evil, to the also-rans – Sen. Joe Lieberman’s “because Saddam Hussein hates us,” Colin Powell’s “because it’s a violation of international law,” and Richard Perle’s “because we can make Iraq an example and gain favor within the Middle East.”

With regard to the administration’s shift from bin Laden to Saddam, Largio found that Iraq was “part of the plan for the war on terror early in the game.”

For example, in his State of the Union speech on Jan. 29, 2002, President Bush declared that Iraq was part of the war against terrorism because it supported terrorists and continued to “flaunt its hostility toward America.” He also claimed that Iraq allowed weapons inspectors into the country and then threw them out, “fueling the belief that the nation did in fact plan to develop weapons of mass destruction,” Largio wrote.

In the same speech, the president called Iraq, Iran and South Korea an “axis of evil,” a phrase that would “ignite much criticism” and add “to the sense that the U.S. would embark on a war with the Hussein state,” Largio wrote.

“So, from February of 2002 on,” Largio said, “Iraq gets more hits than Osama bin Laden. For President Bush the switch occurs there and the gap grows over time.”

Largio also discovered that it was the media that initiated discussions about Iraq, introducing ideas before the administration and congressional leaders did about the intentions of that country and its leader. The media also “brought the idea that Iraq may be connected to the 9-11 incident to the forefront, asking questions of the officials on the topic and printing articles about the possibility.”

The media “seemed to offer a lot of opinion and speculation, as there had been no formal indication that Iraq would be a target in the war on terror,” Largio wrote. Oddly, though, the media didn’t switch its focus to Iraq and Saddam until July of 2002.

Yet, “Overall, the media was in tune with the major arguments of the administration and Congress, but not with every detail that emerged from the official sources.”

“As always, hindsight is twenty-twenty,” Largio wrote in the conclusion to her thesis. “However, there are questions surrounding nearly every major rationale for the war.

“People may wonder, why are our men and women over there? Why did we go to war? Were we misled? In this election year, these questions deserve answers. And though this paper cannot answer these questions definitively, it can provide some insight into the thinking of the powers-that-be during the earliest stages of war preparation and give the American people a chance to answer these questions for themselves.”

Because Largio’s thesis addresses questions of “great public importance,” Althaus said, and “does so in such a detailed manner,” he arranged to have it posted on a public Web site. Largio will graduate on May 16, and will attend law school at Vanderbilt University.

Andrea Lynn | UIUC
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