-By Aaron Belkin
March 16, 2013- As we mark the tenth anniversary of the U.S. decision to invade Iraq, surely it makes sense to acknowledge the consequences of our conduct, and just this week scholars at Brown University released new estimates of the war’s cost in treasure and blood: $6 trillion and at least 190,000 lives lost. The magnitude of these costs makes it particularly important to understand why the nation opted for war, and to consider, in particular, former White House Senior Adviser Karl Rove’s contribution to the decision, a contribution that never has attracted much attention.
Although the invasion was not Rove’s idea, he could have stopped it, probably with ease. He failed to do so, however, because he anticipated, correctly, that the war would divide the Democrats down the middle, and that the division would benefit the Bush administration politically. An appreciation of the administration’s political motivations deepens our understanding of why the debate over whether to go to war was so dishonest, in that senior officials’ accurate anticipation of a political windfall reinforced their insensitivity to evidence about risks and costs. The decision for war, in other words, was deeply political and deeply cynical. Explanations of the war that overlook the political dimension are incomplete.
Rove’s green light for war
During a November 2003 meeting, I asked a former official with close ties to the Bush administration if the president had approached Rove during internal administration deliberations over whether to invade Iraq. She responded, “Yes, he did,” and that Rove had expressed support for the invasion. I asked the official how she knew and she responded that “Rove told me so.” Although Rove did not participate in war cabinet meetings, the administration’s decision-making process on Iraq was informal, and Rove’s direct access to the Oval office provided ample opportunities to communicate with Bush. Rove himself acknowledged in April, 2002 that he “expressed opinions to the president on the Mideast crisis.”
The impact of Rove’s green light for war must be assessed in the context of his relationship with Bush and his pivotal role in the formulation of administration policy at the time, a role that is sometimes easy to forget given his subsequent departure from the White House and surprising behavior on-air. While it is possible that Bush might have ignored a red light from Rove, I have been unable to find any record of his ever having done so either as Governor of Texas or as president during the first few years of his administration. Rove’s biographers noted at the time that “every policy… either goes through, or comes from” Rove.
Bush regularly allowed Rove’s views to prevail over positions of other senior foreign policy officials, especially when decisions entailed high political stakes. In June 2001, against Pentagon objections, Rove “took over the simmering issue of U.S. Navy bombing practice of Vieques and engineered the decision to terminate it.” After National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice announced in May 2002 that Bush would not mention a sex scandal among Catholic priests during his meeting with Pope John Paul II, Rove accompanied Bush to Rome to “make sure” that the president discussed the matter with the Pope. In March 2002, Rove played a decisive role in a White House decision to impose import tariffs on foreign steel. And Bob Woodward suggests in Bush at War that Rove put Secretary of State Colin Powell “in the ‘icebox'” many times.
Rove has claimed that he was “not deeply involved in foreign policy” and the White House insisted that Rove’s impact on national security matters was limited to communicating the president’s message and managing relations with domestic groups that maintained an interest in foreign policy. But the veracity of such claims must be evaluated in light of Bush’s history of lying about Rove’s involvement in his affairs. During his 1978 campaign for Congress, for example, Bush said that Rove had “nothing to do with my campaign.” But, as biographer Lou Dubose reports, Rove stated under oath in 1997 that he had worked on the 1978 Bush campaign.
Sometime before finalizing the decision to attack Iraq, Bush asked Rove whether he favored going to war and Rove conveyed his support. Because it is impossible to re-run history, there is no way to ascertain with certainty whether Bush would have taken the country to war in the absence of Rove’s green light. That said, some hypothetical claims are more plausible than others, and Rove would have been able to ally with powerful opponents of war in the State Department, uniformed services, and intelligence community. Moreover, whenever political stakes were high, Bush deferred to Rove’s judgment, even on foreign policy. As such, the administration probably would have refrained from attacking Iraq if Rove had opposed the decision to invade, made a strong case that war would damage the president politically, and joined forces with opponents in the military, diplomatic, and intelligence establishments.