Did We Fabricate the Pretext for War?

Fact & Fiction

Mr. Gerteis, a visiting professor of East Asian history at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, is a writer for the History News Service.

If you like the service HNN provides, please consider making a donation.

Once again the United States has squandered its international credibility on a war that most of its closest allies do not believe was justified. And even if the war's military phase is winding down, credibility diminishes even more with each day that American and British forces fail to unearth more than circumstantial evidence of the terrorist training camps and weapons of mass destruction claimed by the Bush Administration.

Despite what the administration says, much of the world still doesn't recognize that Iraq was a significant threat to the international community. Why is that? Because, the United States -- from the Tonkin Gulf to the banks of the Yalu River -- has often exaggerated the threat to national or international security to justify military actions that would otherwise overstep international law.

While most Americans seem to have forgotten, much of the world did not forget how the U.S. government lied its way into the Vietnam war. In August 1964, the American military claimed that the North Vietnamese had launched an unprovoked attack against a U.S. warship on patrol in the Tonkin Gulf. Two days later, President Lyndon B. Johnson asserted that additional attacks by North Vietnamese torpedo boats had forced him to launch retaliatory air strikes against North Vietnam. Congress underscored the president's call to escalate the war by authorizing him "to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression."

The problem was the second attack never occurred. Naval commanders couldn't even confirm whether their ships had been hit, much less whether North Vietnamese patrol boats had struck them. James Stockdale later recalled that "our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets -- there were no PT boats there . . . nothing there but black water and American fire power."

Now, images of American firepower again dominate the nightly news, and one is left to wonder what threat the disintegrated Iraqi military posed to the international community. Although military press briefings report that American forces stumbled across a small cache of chemical weapons, military personnel have not yet shown evidence of the kind of threat they argue justified preemptive invasion. It looks increasingly likely that the Bush administration made false claims to win domestic support for its war plan.

Much of the world at this moment is wondering why the United States was in such a hurry to invade Iraq. Pro-invasion commentators usually say that the United States could not risk the chance that Saddam Hussein might have marshaled enough force to attack the United States or its allies. But, now that the United States has taken Baghdad, where's the evidence?

Oddly, some members of the Bush administration have been talking glibly about how the United States should be prepared to escalate this war into a regional conflict. Not only does this dash any hope, as did the Tonkin Gulf affair, of rebuilding American credibility, but it also demonstrates an American propensity for wanting to bite off more than we can chew.

American officials have a history of overstating the need for, as well as their ability to handle, a preemptive invasion. In July 1950, just two weeks into the Korean War, Gen. Douglas MacArthur told President Truman that with tactical nuclear weapons he could not only end hostilities in Korea but also "strike a blocking blow to international Communism." MacArthur asserted that in the wake of a pre-emptive nuclear attack, his troops could easily sweep across China and put an end to the threat of communism in Asia.

Truman said no, later explaining that he was "trying to prevent a world war -- not to start one." As the only world leader yet to authorize the use of nuclear weapons in wartime, Truman wanted to explain to the American public why he would not allow the Korean War to cross into China. "You may ask why can't we take other steps to punish the aggressor? Why don't we bomb Manchuria and China itself? If we were to do these things, we would become entangled in a vast conflict . . .and our task would become immeasurably more difficult all over the world."

The issue now is American credibility, or rather a lack thereof. The United States has a history of inventing grounds for wars it could not otherwise justify. To borrow the poker metaphor first used by the Bush administration, it's time President Bush showed us his cards. It's unlikely that the United States will escape unscathed the worldwide backlash if the Bush administration has gambled American lives and resources on a war it cannot justify.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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More Comments:

kimbrighon - 12/19/2003

think that if bush is elected we willsee more wars and troubles

c - 11/4/2003

If you'd like some additional information on all this, I'd be happy to provide it.>>>

If you could provide me with links to information that would support the US putting Sadaam in power i would like to see it.

please email it to cleenup@aol.com

ty in advance.

dan - 6/3/2003

So, whose day, exactly, were you trying to spoil?

William J Carter - 5/13/2003

It would be interesting to compare the film of Bush's demeanor on that aircraft carrier with the famous news footage of Hitler's demeanor at the fall of Paris.

E - 4/25/2003

So if it is part of the larger "War on Terrorism" when do we invade Northern Ireland?

Theodoric - 4/24/2003

I will type slow for those that don't realize I am addressing the threads and not the articles.

This is NOT a war against Al-Qaeda, and it is NOT a war against Iraq. Those are just campaigns in the "Global War on Terrorism", the medals have been named.
We were attacked by a 60 country coalition on 9/11. Many of those countries have since dropped out of that allaince( and joined us) when they saw that what the loonies had done, and that the US was going to get serious now. We will institute "Regime Change" on every Nation that sponsors Terror, one country at a time, at our own pace, in the order we determine is in our best interest. None here can predict if the Saudi's will be number 5 or number 1, we do not have access to the intelligence reports. The Saudi's ( and the others) will fall when WE are ready. We are strong enough to be patient, and not take on too much at one time.It is EASY to get off the list...stop supporting Terrorists! Our diplomats are repeating that message daily.

Saddams payments to Pali hamaside bombers was reason enough for us to institute "Regime Change". The WMD argument was for foreign consumption, and the UN resolutions already in place were a legal basis for us to invade and to acertain who were allies and who were enemies.
Those who keep blindly mouthing the WMD argument can be ignored, and those who shout it was "about the oil" should litigate against any educational institutions they happened to attend....for malpractice.

Gerry Regan - 4/21/2003

I agree. Otherwise, the inference is that we cost all those lives simply because we needed to document Iraq's destruction of all its WMDs. Think about the implication of that assertion.

Gerry Regan - 4/21/2003

You wrote: ... 678 empowered all states to enforce them.

Elaborate please, e.g., the phrase "all states." The UN empowered member states, on their own hook, to enforce them, is that what you are inferring?

Homer Simpson - 4/21/2003

Hey Commies:

If you are on the other side, why don't you go live there?

I may be a Homer, but I know better than that.

The day of the traitorous left is over. It ain't glamorous any more, and it ain't gonna be in the future. Give up, commies!! The great and glorious Soviet Union ain't coming back.

Homer Simpson - 4/21/2003


Now that all you smart guys turned out to be completely wrong, I don't know who to believe.

I think I'll become a Marxist. Then, I'll be just as smart as you guys -- right!!

John Moser - 4/20/2003

What Mr. Cook's argument boils down to is this: there are three types of people in the world--those who are evil, those who are stupid, and those who agree with him.

Is this the liberal respect for diversity we've heard so much about?

Kevin Russell Cook - 4/18/2003

Why did we ask the UN to support our war in Iraq?
Because Saddam was a ruthless dictator?

No. Our basis was, SH had defied UN resolutions by forsaking post-Gulf War agreements not to develop WMD's.

No such 'agreement breaking' of any significance has yet been made public. But some say, our war is justified anyway, for we did overthrow a despot. And, we let the world know, those countries which make us uncomfortable must not developed WMD's

Those who believe that this sort of simpleton's reasoning provides a defensible basis for going to war should now be actively advocating a whole series of wars to follow this one. Most of you are smarter than that. Regarding those who are not, these types truly are frightening. Trying to engage them in a rational dialogue will introduce you to the real meaning of the word “futility“.

Ed Seaton - 4/17/2003

Why isn't there an investigation as to why there weren't any weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq? If there were any at all don't you think they would have used them against our troops.

Matt Chapman - 4/17/2003

Considering the number of Arab states in the UN, a large number of people outside the Middle East had to agree with the resolutions for them to get passed. I assume you don't consider any nation but the United States credible.

George A. Stroebel - 4/17/2003

After watching TV and reading newspapers covering the warI have yet to see an Iraq soldier. Did Iraq have an Army?

John Moser - 4/17/2003

I visited the three websites that Mr. Wing mentioned, and was appalled. What I found was the lowest form of conspiracy-mongering, a series of paranoid fantasies based on nothing more than speculation.

This looks to me like the left-wing version of the scurrillous accusations thrown at Bill Clinton in the 1990s--that he was a rapist, and involved in secret drug deals. I never considered myself a Clinton supporter, but this sort of thing was simply out of line. Perhaps for folks on the Left this is payback time.

If this is what Mr. Wing counts as journalism, I'm afraid we have nothing to say to one another.

John Moser - 4/17/2003

And I suppose Mr. Monroe has accurate figures regarding how many Iraqi civilian lives were lost? That is, figures that were not provided by Saddam Hussein's Propaganda Minister?

William Monroe - 4/16/2003

Amazingly little loss of life?! Only when you use the
American method of counting, i.e. only American lives
count. This morally bankrupt administration has even
taken it a step further in saying that it will not even
make an attempt to estimate how many Iraqis have died.
You see, they just don't matter. If we use the same
method to calculate the effectiveness of the 9/11 attacks,
there was little loss of life there, too -- only 19
people died! If it seems outrageous, it is.

John Talbot - 4/16/2003

Gee, I guess imitation is the sincerest form of flattery too bad you play the part so well. Wake up buffoon, er, Homer! You can't change the channel on this one!

Homer Simpson - 4/16/2003

Wow, this guy is really smart.

They shoulda made him president. I betcha he'd fix things up, good and proper.

This guy is even smarter than Ned Flanders. Maybe even smarter than Mr. Burns.

Can I have your autograph?

Chris Wing - 4/16/2003


You wrote "Are all of you folks so twisted by hatred for the president that you can't be happy that millions of people have a chance for freedom for the first time in nearly 25 years?"

You simplify the subject.

It is always important to ask how and why a situation occured to fully understand that situation. The simple truth is (and I advise you to investigate what happened, don't just take my word for it) that American and British governments put Sadaam in power in the first place. They gave/sold hime the weapons that we now claim he still has (that it turns out he doesn't really still have.)

I can't be happy for the Iraqi people, because they are not happy. John, there were but 100 or so Iraqis at the fabled toppling of the statue, out of a city of 5 million people. That's an awfully low percentage of happy people. The vast majority of Iraqis (as is evidenced by the growing anti-US protests in the region) do not want the US there. John, they remember what happened the last time the US "liberated" their country. It's a shame that people in the US can't remember.

John, quite simply put, the ends does not justify the means. The people who are resposible for bringing Sadaam to power are STILL running the US government, and are about install ANOTHER puppet government, which we will have to "fix" in another 20 or so years.

And although you may have a taste for it, I don't enjoy being lied to. George Bush has lied about every subject he's discussed, from the Clinton's trashing of the White House to Funeral Gate, to his drunk driving and coke snorting, to the economy, to the tax cuts, to chemical weapons facilities in Iraq,and so on.

If you'd like some additional information on all this, I'd be happy to provide it. In the meantime, check out Buzzflash.com, Commondreams.org, and whatreallyhappened.com for a change of pace.

John Moser - 4/16/2003

Forgive me for asking a naive question, but why does all this matter? A bloody dictator has been overthrown with amazingly little loss of life. Where those jubilant crowds gathering in Baghdad scratching their heads and asking themselves what the Bush administration's motives were? Are all of you folks so twisted by hatred for the president that you can't be happy that millions of people have a chance for freedom for the first time in nearly 25 years?

Ken Hartman ,PhD - 4/16/2003

I am a ww2 vfw(Europe) who has seen
every "fabrication", since then,to
send American boys their death.
Buzzflash.com carried your article today.

Laura - 4/16/2003

Well quite frankly it was about Iraq being a threat, so we were told. That indeed was the rationale given for the war.

Laura - 4/16/2003

Those UN resolutions against Israel are put forth by hostile, despotic arab regimes who repress their own people. It's completely absurd to put any credibility into them.

Stephen Kriz - 4/16/2003

Bill Clinton may have lied about his sex life, but the abject failure of a man that currently occupies the Oval Office lies about everything and takes responsibility for nothing. Iraq had no significant stockpiles of any WMDs - and our intelligence agencies knew it. Iraq was a threat to no one besides the makers of cheap velvet paintings that Saddam and his boys worked overtime to produce the trash "art" they hung on their walls.

The fact that Abu Abbas was living in Iraq is less significant than the fact that many terrorists, including the Cuban terrorist who blew up a plane with 90+ people aboard, are safely living in Florida. Hypocrisy, thy name is Republican.

Bush is a filthy liar and the worst excuse for a president in American history. He is verminous.

ctmac - 4/16/2003

How many UN resolutions are against Isreal? Isreal flaunts International law.

Samuel Wells - 4/16/2003

I have another "one word" for you -- BULLSHIT. NO WMDs have been found, you fearmonger.

Let us review, shall we? (the follwing is courtesy of Walden3.org)

1991 Gulf War Facts:
Satellite Photos a Lie
The US Government lied about an imminent invasion of Saudi Arabia by Iraq to justify the 1st Gulf War. General Norman Schwarzkopf tells about it in his book, "It Takes A Hero." The Bush Administration claimed Satellite photos showed 260,000 troops & 1,500 tanks were on the Saudi border. There were none.
Powell Admits Wrong
Powell admitted the "numbers were wrong". There was no imminent invasion of Saudi Arabia by Iraq.
Baby Murders Faked
The Kuwait Ambassador's daughter, coached by a Washington PR firm for $2 million, lied to US Congress, the UN, and the American people about the infamous "Incubator Baby" murders. Please go to this webpage to read the story behind the headlines above by the Guardian Unlimited Newspaper: http://www.walden3.org/No_casus_belli_Invent_one!.htm
US OK'd Kuwait Invasion
April Glaspie of the US State Department told Saddam, "I have a direct instruction from the President to seek better relations with Iraq... But we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait."
Please go to the web page below to see the story:
Iraqi Poison Gas Use Not Proven
"There were never any victims produced. International relief organizations who examined the Kurds -- in Turkey where they had gone for asylum -- failed to discover any. Nor were there ever any found inside Iraq."
Please go to the web page below to see the story:
2003 Gulf War Facts:
Iraq Uranium Purchase A Lie
" 'The IAEA has concluded ... that these documents, which formed the basis for the reports of recent uranium transactions between Iraq and Niger, are in fact not authentic,' El Baradei told the U.N. Security Council. Britain and the United States have alleged that Iraq had tried to revive an ambitious atomic weapons program that was neutralized by the United Nations before inspectors left in December 1998."
Please go to this webpage to see the story:
No "Poison Factory"
Powell testified to the UN that there was a "Poison Factory" in northern Iraq. Foreign Journalists were invited in two days later and found nothing, not even aspirin.
Please go to this web page to see the story:
Iraqi Reactor Parts Evidence Faked
"A key piece of evidence linking Iraq to a nuclear weapons program appears to have been fabricated, the United Nations' chief nuclear inspector said yesterday in a report that called into question U.S. and British claims about Iraq's secret nuclear ambitions."
War Will Increase Terrorism - CIA
George Tenet of the CIA testified to Congress that attacking Iraq would greatly increase the chance of terrorism and Saddam unleashing any weapons of mass destruction he might have.
Please go to this webpage to see the story:
Wall Street: Casualty of War
Alan Greenspan and practically all economists have stated that
the imminent war is causing the current crash on Wall Street.

Vatican: War Immoral, Not Legal
The Pope, through Cardinal Pio Laghi, has told President Bush that a preemptive strike
against Iraq is immoral and illegal and not supported by God.
Please go to this webpage to see the story:
Jesus said to him, "Put your sword back into its place ;
for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.
Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and
He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?"
"Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one getting burned." -Buddha

Richard Henry Morgan - 4/16/2003

Israeli compliance with what? Israel is not a signatory of the NPT. Israel is not under mandatory UNSC resolution to disarm from WMD, AND ACCOUNT FOR HUNDREDS OF KIDNAPPED KUWAITIS. The easy and lazy equivalence drawn between Israel and Iraq ignores the distinction between Chapter 6 and Chapter 7 resolutions (the one mandatory, the other hortatory), but it doesn't mask the agenda of the speaker. Fact remains that, Blix aside, Iraq was out of compliance with mandatory resolutions on a whole range of issues, and 678 empowered all states to enforce them. The position of France, and of Blix, was that the inspection regime was not really designed to accomplish its expressed purpose (disarmament), but really just a tool of containment. You get the picture. The US picks up the tab for containment, while France cuts itself profitable deals with Iraq for carrying their water in the UNSC. Too bad for France the whole elaborate scheme broke down, and now France has nothing to show for it.

T. Pinschmidt - 4/16/2003

While reading in recent months about The American Enterprise Institute and Policy for a New American Century, etc. I've wondered when the participants in these think tanks change from being useful and valued advisers, researchers, etc to being PLOTTERS. Can anyone elaborate on this as I don't know enough about the subject matter/background, but am very uneasy that The National Good may not have been served by some of these think tanks participanats...

Tacitus - 4/16/2003

Late Breaking news.....
WASHINGTON (April 15) - U.S. commandos in Baghdad have captured Abul Abbas, the leader of the violent Palestinian group that killed an American on the hijacked cruise liner Achille Lauro in 1985, U.S. officials said Tuesday.

Abbas was taken by American special operations forces during a raid Monday night on the southern outskirts of the capital city, U.S. Central Command said in a statement.

Several of his associates were also detained during raids at several sites around Baghdad, defense officials said. Commandos, tipped off by U.S. intelligence to Abbas' whereabouts, also seized documents - including Yemeni and Lebanese passports - and weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades, officials said.

American officials would not say whether Abbas would be held inside Iraq, taken to a third country or detained at a U.S. base. They also would not say whether he would face charges in the United States. Abbas was sentenced in absentia to life in prison in Italy for masterminding the Achille Lauro hijacking.

The man known as Abul Abbas, whose name actually is Mohammed Abbas, led a faction of the Palestine Liberation Front, a Palestinian splinter group.

His faction operated out of Tunisia until the October 1985 attack on the Achille Lauro, after which it relocated to Iraq. His group was also responsible for some attacks in Israel.

''He got away from us, and we've been chasing him ever since,'' said Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism chief. ''He's a big catch for us. It's an old score to settle.''

The PLF faction under Abbas was a conduit for Saddam Hussein's payments to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. Israel's Shin Bet intelligence service reported earlier this year that Israel captured several Palestinians who trained at a PLF camp in Iraq and were told by Abbas to attack an Israeli airport and other targets.

Abbas, whose age has been reported between 55 and 62, had eluded arrest since his four of his followers hijacked the Achille Lauro as it sailed from Egypt to Israel in October 1985. They demanded that Israel release 50 imprisoned Palestinians.

During the hijacking, his followers shot and killed Jewish American passenger Leon Klinghoffer, 69. The hijackers then tossed Klinghoffer and his wheelchair off the cruise ship.

Klinghoffer and his wife, Marilyn, along with nine friends from the New York area, took the cruise to celebrate their 36th wedding anniversary. They were among 500 passengers taken hostage. Klinghoffer's wife died of cancer just four months after the hijacking.

The hijacking ended Oct. 9 after Egypt negotiated with the hijackers. Abbas, who helped negotiate the surrender, and the four hijackers were flown out of Egypt on a jet that was intercepted by U.S. Navy fighters and forced to land in Sicily.

Tensions arose as soon as the plane landed. Armed U.S. and Italian soldiers faced off, each side demanding custody of the hijackers. The situation was only resolved after feverish telephone calls between Premier Bettino Craxi and President Reagan.

During the affair, Reagan told reporters, ''Terrorists everywhere - you can run but you can't hide.''

The Italians took custody of the four and promised to try them, but refused to detain Abbas, saying the evidence compiled by Washington was insufficient and that he held an Iraqi diplomatic passport. Within two days, he slipped out of the country.

Two weeks later, Italian magistrates filed charges against Abbas and issued an arrest warrant, which has remained outstanding.

In June 1986 he was tried in absentia, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for masterminding the hijacking. The sentence was upheld on appeal.

Ten years later, Abbas apologized for the slaying.

''The killing of the passenger was a mistake. ... We are sorry,'' he said.

Abbas was a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee from 1984 but left in 1991, according to the U.S. State Department.

In 1994, the Achille Lauro caught fire in the Indian Ocean off Somalia and sank.

The U.S. Justice Department has said it has no grounds to seek Abbas' extradition, as there is no outstanding warrant against him. The American warrants were dropped after his conviction in Italy.

A so-called ''long-arm'' U.S. statute, to aid in prosecution of those committing terrorism against American citizens overseas, was not enacted until after the Achille Lauro hijacking.

In the 1990s, Baghdad, largely out of reach to western security services, had become home to both Abbas and Abu Nidal, another once-feared terrorist mastermind.

Last year, Abu Nidal died violently in Baghdad. Iraqi officials said he committed suicide; Abu Nidal's supporters say the Iraqis killed him.

AP-NY-04-15-03 2116EDT

Kevin Darby - 4/15/2003

You got that right. Only problem is you point to the wrong culprit. For 6 months we heard nothing but weapons of mass destruction this, weapons of mass destruction that and weapons of mass destruction the other thing. We heard the phrase weapons of mass destruction so many times that hearing it was starting to give me a headache. Then 2 days after the bombs start falling, it's suddenly all about Iraqi liberation? Please. Sounds like they were determined to bombard us with a rationale to convince us war was necessary, then when the war started they decided to bombard us with a rationale that would convince us the war was justified. Obviously, the same rationale couldn't be used for both. Bait and switch indeed.
By the way, if the real issue was Iraqi compliance, then why bother with Syria? Israel should be next on our list. Or maybe that wasn't the real rationale either.

Richard Henry Morgan - 4/14/2003

Great timing there, Gerteis. BTW, the question wasn't whether Iraq was a threat, but whether it had complied with the resolutions. This bait and switch technique follows closely the script laid down by Villepin, and followed by Blix. After the US withdrew the latest resolution, and went into Iraq anyway, Villepin complained that the inspections were containing Iraq. And just within the past few days, Blix stated the inspections were containing Iraq. Both statements are something of a sub rosa admission that the inspections weren't doing what was promised and intended -- document the destruction of WMD and WMD capacity. That certainly explains why Blix keeps listing failures of the Iraqi regime to comply, without stating that they are out of compliance.

Wesley Smart - 4/14/2003