Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, knows what selling a war looks like.
Fifteen years ago this week, Mr. Powell gave his now-infamous speech to the United Nations detailing Iraqi weapons programs that turned out not to exist but were cited as a major justification for the American-led invasion.
Mr. Powell has expressed regret for that speech, as has Mr. Wilkerson, who wrote in The Times’ Op-Ed pages this week that he fears the Trump administration may be “using much the same playbook” to build the case for war with Iran.
Mr. Wilkerson draws compelling parallels. He details Trump administration claims about Iranian misdeeds that fell apart on scrutiny . He highlights unproven claims of Iranian support for terrorism against the United States homeland and overinflated assessments of Iran’s threat. And he worries about administration pledges to violate the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, which would bring both countries closer to conflict.
No one can say for sure what is in the minds of President Trump and his top advisers except for Mr. Trump and his advisors, but Mr. Wilkerson presents worthwhile evidence that they may indeed intend to build support for a war with Iran.
Still, as we say in international relations, capability and intent are not the same thing. While it is difficult to challenge Mr. Wilkerson’s expertise on the art of selling a war on false pretenses, the Trump administration is skipping much more of the 2003 playbook than it’s following. We don’t think this looks like a repeat of the buildup for invading Iraq — not yet, anyway.
For one thing, the Trump administration is making barely one percent of the noise about Iran than the Bush administration made about Iraq.
It’s easy to forget now, but the talk of war with Iraq was everywhere in 2002 and 2003. It was constant. You couldn’t turn on your TV without hearing about Iraq and it’s supposedly imminent threat to the United States, even to the entire world. The sense of panic had seeped into every crevice of the culture. Max remembers turning on /a nature channel/ and seeing a documentary warning about Iraqi missiles supposedly aimed at American cities (no such missiles existed, of course).
Today, however, Iran and the accusations against it probably rank about 25th in the list of national discussion topics. Americans are far more preoccupied with the endless domestic political dramas or, when they do look abroad, with Russia or North Korea.
For another, the buildup to war took /five years/ of laser-like American focus on Iraq’s supposed threat and the need to destroy its government. That process, which built on itself over dozens of miniature crises, played out in American domestic politics as well as on the international stage.
Americans often misremember the buildup to war as beginning after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but in fact it had begun in 1998 under President Bill Clinton. Iraq hawks in Congress, who openly advocated for a war of choice against Iraq, maneuvered Mr. Clinton into signing the Iraq Liberation Act, which stated that regime change was U.S. policy. Iraq retaliated by expelling United Nations weapons inspectors, which the United States punished by bombing military targets.
That crisis continued into the next administration, which considered Iraq’s government an ongoing threat that, regardless of whether it was responsible for the 2001 attacks, needed to be deposed. Though 2001 provided another set of justifications, as did Mr. Powell’s 2003 speech, both were mere stops along a much longer road from peace to war.
American relations with Iran are bad, but they’re nowhere near as bad as 1998 American-Iraqi relations. The United States is not currently bombing Iran. Neither its president nor its Congress have formalized overthrowing Iran’s government as policy. Iran is not embroiled in any major crises with the United Nations.
In fact, both the United States and the United Nations Security Council are currently locked into a substantial arms control agreement with Iran, which provides a meaningful brake on any escalation to war. Even if Mr. Trump violates or withdraws from that agreement, a 1998-style crisis is hardly guaranteed. The other signatories (the United Kingdom, France, European Union, Russia and China) would most likely try to contain any fallout so as to avoid war. And even if a 1998-style crisis did break out, it still took five years for that to build into war.
There’s another big difference: Americans today are deeply polarized and Mr. Trump has very low approval ratings. But President George W. Bush built the case for invading Iraq in a time of rare national unity and sky-high presidential approval ratings, both due to the 2001 attacks. Without this mood of consensus — not to mention national panic and outrage — it’s difficult to imagine Mr. Bush having won sufficiently broad bipartisan support for the war.
While we think of presidents as all-powerful, they are tightly constrained by institutions and by domestic politics. This again gets to the difference between capability and intent. Mr. Trump’s administration struggles to enact basic policy or wrangle its own policy. It is hard to imagine it pulling off the kind of political victories Mr. Bush needed to go to war.
There is another aspect of our Iraq war history that Americans have largely forgotten: the intellectual buildup
The case for the war started, before it ever reached mainstream domestic politics, within a cloistered but influential group of conservative thinkers. A library of policy papers and op-eds constructed a complete ideology whose first precept was the need for invading Iraq.
In the late 1990s, members of this study group successfully deposed the Republican party’s foreign policy brain trust, installing themselves in its place. They won over Mr. Bush, who put them in positions of great power when he entered office.
That group, neoconservatives, has fallen from power. It has been replaced by another faction of insurgents, who variously call themselves nationalists, populists or the alt-right. And while they are hardly keen on Iran, the country ranks far lower on their priority list than Iraq did for the neoconservatives, below items such as restricting legal immigration. Mr. Trump has largely followed their agenda in office, not that of the neoconservatives, with whom he is on terrible terms.
Maybe most important, we do not today see the physical and diplomatic steps toward war that we saw in 2002 and 2003. The United States has not significantly increased its troop presence in the region as a show of intent. It has not built a legal case for war. It has not even attempted to build support from allies, who remain invested in the nuclear deal.
None of this is to dismiss the possibility of war. There is always the risk that an accident or miscalculation could spark an unintended escalation to war. And Mr. Wilkerson may be right that Mr. Trump intends, or could one day decide, to follow the 2003 playbook. Maybe he really is already on its first few pages. But he would have many pages left to go.
The Interpreter newsletter, by Max Fisher and Amanda Taub