Then, as now, we watched as a US president set the United States on a course for war in the Middle East by politicizing intelligence, making false claims about weapons of mass destruction, overselling the benefits of confrontation and pulling members of Congress-afraid of looking soft on terrorism and WMD-along in his wake.
The result then was the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which ended up costing the United States thousands of lives and billions of dollars, and destabilizing the Middle East.
The question now is whether Congress will learn the lessons of that experience and prevent the president from repeating these same missteps, or if it will again be complicit in a colossal foreign policy debacle.
The similarities with the 2003 Iraq War are striking, starting with the president’s manipulation of facts and intelligence to suit his political purposes.
In his speech last Friday, for example, Trump stretched the evidence to portray Iran as a partner of Al-Qaeda and North Korea, speciously suggested Iran was on the verge of collapse when international sanctions were suspended in 2015, overstated the ‘financial boost’ Iran got as a result of the nuclear deal, falsely asserted Iran was intimidating weapons inspectors, and incorrectly claimed that the deal’s key restrictions disappear “in just a few years”.
Trump also alleged that “the Iranian regime has committed multiple violations of the agreement”, an odd assertion given the repeated conclusions of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Trump’s own intelligence services, that it has not.
In fact, Trump’s main evidence for this last claim, Iran’s temporary and quickly corrected slight excess in its stockpile of heavy water, was an excellent example of the effective functioning of the deal, which in any case had already required Iran to dismantle its only heavy water reactor, whose core is now filled with concrete.
Listening to Trump’s misleading statements, it was hard not to recall President George W. Bush’s famous 2003 State of the Union claim that Saddam Hussein had “recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa”, Vice President Dick Cheney repeatedly and categorically asserting that “Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons” and Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech to the United Nations asserting that Iraq had an active biological weapons program and close links to Al-Qaeda.
Those assertions all turned out not to be true, the result not just of imperfect intelligence but of a desire to build a case for action that was not backed up by facts.
Today, similarly, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Trump’s claims emerged not from an assessment of the facts-after all, Trump had already twice certified to Congress based on intelligence assessments and the advice of his top national security advisers that Iran was complying with a deal that is in the US interest, but rather from his reported tasking of White House officials last July to come up with a rationale for decertification.
The role played by think tanks and other outside experts in developing Trump’s approach also seems highly familiar.
In the run-up to the Iraq War, it was experts at the American Enterprise Institute and Project for a New American Century such as Richard Perle and John Bolton who were making the case that Iraq had links to Al-Qaeda, had resumed its development of weapons of mass destruction, and perhaps most important and most erroneous, that US troops would be greeted as liberators after an invasion.
Today, the lead outside role in selling (and overselling) decertification is being played by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Institute for Science and International Security and their respective directors Mark Dubowitz and David Albright.
Dubowitz in particular has been instrumental in promoting the idea that if Trump threatens to pull out of the nuclear deal, as he did on Friday, the Europeans and other key international actors will join the United States in demanding and achieving ‘fixes’ to the agreement,despite the fact European leaders keep saying the opposite.
In a blunt statement issued right after Trump’s speech, the leaders of Britain, France, Germany and the European Union insisted the agreement was working and they remained committed to its full implementation.
Another striking similarity to 2002 is the role being played by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has himself been pressing the case that the United States must ‘fix or nix’ the nuclear deal. Netanyahu enthusiastically applauded Trump’s speech, asserting inexplicably that ‘under the deal in a few years’ time Iran is guaranteed to have as many as 100 nuclear bombs’.
Netanyahu, however, would perhaps be a more reliable expert witness today had he not testified to Congress in 2002 that there was ‘no question whatsoever’ that Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons and if he had not ‘guaranteed’ that an invasion of Iraq would have “enormous positive reverberations on the region”, especially on Iran.
Finally, we are again hearing the inevitable Hitler comparisons, always useful when trying to rally support for a potential war. In 2002, it was Bush telling students that the perils from Saddam were “just as dangerous as those perils that your fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers faced” and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld equating the reluctance of some US allies to support war in Iraq with appeasement of Nazi Germany in August 2002.
Today, it is Senator Marco Rubio justifying his support for getting rid of the Iran deal by claiming in an October 14 tweet that it was the ‘21st Century equivalent of the Munich Agreement’ — a deal that paved the way for Hitler to conquer all of Europe.
Perhaps the worst thing about the United States potentially going down the same, catastrophic path as it chose in 2002 is that this time there is a viable alternative in place.
In 2003, after all, there was good reason to suspect Saddam was developing weapons of mass destruction, and no doubt that he was a menace to the region and was cruelly mistreating the people of Iraq. That didn’t make the war a good idea, but it did mean the status quo was horrible as well and there were no good alternatives to it.
With Iran today, in contrast, we have a long-term deal in place that prevents Iran from developing nuclear weapons, unites the international community, and-according to the IAEA, all our key partners, and Trump’s own defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff-is working. If we walk away from that deal, not only will we have no viable way, other than using military force, of preventing Iran from resuming its nuclear activities, but we will also have shown the United States to be an unreliable negotiating partner-which could have devastating consequences in North Korea and beyond.
The issue now is in the hands of Congress, which following Trump’s decertification has the power to blow up the Iran deal by reimposing nuclear sanctions, or keep it alive by limiting any new sanctions to those consistent with the deal. In 2002, asked to give President Bush authorization to use military force in Iraq, Congress gave its assent, paving the way for a costly war and one of the biggest foreign policy mistakes in recent American history.
Today, members of Congress are being asked to assume a similar responsibility. As they consider their options they would do well to keep the ominously familiar Iraq precedent in mind.
Philip Gordon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Philip Gordon was White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Persian Gulf Region in 2013-15.