As Iraq descends further into sectarian conflict and chaos, the world is witnessing what many view as a fundamental failure of American foreign policy in the region, one pressed by two successive administrations as well as key allies such as the United Kingdom.
It was George W. Bush who essentially argued that the United States needed to intervene in Iraq and end the rule of the dictator Saddam Hussein lest the country become a nesting ground for terrorists who could tap the weapons of mass destruction supposedly on hand. His administration joined with his British counterpart Tony Blair to sell the war on grounds of since-debunked links between Saddam and al Qaeda along with claims about his ultimately nonexistent stocks of WMD. Yet 11 years after Bush began the war, vast swaths of Iraq are now in the hands of ISIS, a Sunni jihadist sect disdained by no less than al Qaeda as excessively violent and dogmatic.
Barack Obama captured the White House in large part on the strength of his credentials as the candidate who had consistently opposed the Iraq war from its inception -- unlike Hillary Rodham Clinton. When he engineered the pullout of American troops in 2011, Obama offered assurances that the Iraqi government was strong enough to defend itself. The merits of that assertion crumbled profoundly in recent days as a small group of ISIS fighters swept across much of northern Iraq: The Iraqi troops trained by the United States stripped off their uniforms and fled, leaving their U.S.-made equipment and arms to the enemy.
The story of the American project in Iraq now appears to be ending in dismal failure. Along the way, scores of powerful officials have offered assurances that victory was attainable and even imminent. Here are a sampling of quotes that stand out:
1. "Liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk." – Kenneth Adelman, a member of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, Feb. 13, 2002
2. “The time has come for decisive action to eliminate the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. … Saddam Hussein’s regime is a grave threat to America and our allies, including our vital ally Israel.” - Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., addressing the U.S. Senate, Sept. 12, 2002
3. “If left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will continue to increase his capacity to wage biological and chemical warfare, and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons. Should he succeed in that endeavor, he could alter the political and security landscape of the Middle East, which as we know all too well, effects American security.” – Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., addressing the U.S. Senate, Oct. 10, 2002
4. "It’s a slam dunk case" – CIA Director George Tenet told President Bush about evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, Dec. 21, 2002
(About two weeks before the decision to invade Iraq was made, Tenet told Bush that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. That statement played a monumental role in leading the U.S. to go to war with Iraq.)
5. "We know where they are. They're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat." –Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, when asked about weapons of mass destruction in an ABC News interview, March 30, 2003
(Rumsfeld later said those locations were “suspect sites” and were not unequivocally linked to WMDs.)
6. "The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on, which was weapons of mass destruction, as the core reason." – Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, during a "Vanity Fair" interview, May 28, 2003
7. "Oh, no, we're not going to have any casualties." — Bush, discussing the Iraq war with Christian broadcaster Rev. Pat Robertson, after Robertson told him he should prepare the American people for casualties, March 2003
(Although this statement is disputed – Karl Rove said Bush never said that – Robertson emphatically maintained that Bush said there would be no U.S. casualties in the war. A total of 4,486 U.S. service members were killed in Iraq between 2003 and 2012.)
8. "My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators. . . . I think it will go relatively quickly, . . . [in] weeks rather than months." – Vice President Dick Cheney in a "Meet the Press" interview, Sept. 14, 2003
9. "We expected, I expected to find actual usable, chemical or biological weapons after we entered Iraq. But I have to accept, as the months have passed, it seems increasingly clear that at the time of invasion, Saddam did not have stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons ready to deploy." – British Prime Minister Tony Blair, July 14, 2004
10. "I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency." – Vice President Dick Cheney, on the Iraq insurgency, June 20, 2005
(Withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq did not begin until June 2009.)
11. "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed." –President Bush, standing under a "Mission Accomplished" banner duriong a speech on the USS Lincoln aircraft carrier, May 2, 2003
(By May 2007, with U.S. troops still very much involved in Iraq, 55 percent of Americans said they thought the war in Iraq was a mistake.)
12. “Thanks to General Petraeus, our leadership and the sacrifice of brave young Americans. To deny that their sacrifice didn’t make possible the success of the surge in Iraq, I think does a great disservice…the progress has been immense.” - Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in an interview with CBS July 22, 2008
13. "The capacity of Iraq's security forces has improved, and Iraq's leaders have made strides toward political accommodation" – President Barack Obama in a speech at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, Feb. 27, 2009
14. "We're leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq with a representative government that was elected by its people. We're building a new partnership between our nations and we are ending a war not with a final battle but with a final march toward home. This is an extraordinary achievement," – President Barack Obama in a speech at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Dec. 14, 2011