07/30/2010 03:27 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

America's Iraqi Strategic Blunder

In 2002, the full weight of the United States Executive Branch was dispatched to tell the people and the world that Iraq was a growing threat to the security of post-9/11 America.
Saddam Hussein, senior Bush Administration officials like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice told us, was behind the 9/11 attacks -- and at that very moment was so dangerous, so focused on revenge against the United States that we had only one option: take-him out.
But even in 2002, in the midst of the fear campaign unleashed by the White House to create public support for an invasion, credible voices in the American mainstream questioned the Administration's claims. The respected Brookins Institution, bucking a mainstream media that mindlessly echoed the Administration's war drums, cautioned:

The claims of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney that Iraq might join with terrorists to strike the United States at any time are far-fetched.
Very little about the historical record or current intelligence lends credence to that view. It cannot be fully dismissed as a possibility, but it appears to be a remote one at worst.

Dick Cheney famously warned on Meet the Press that Saddam was linked to 9/11 and ready and able to pull-off another 9/11 style attack.
Never mind that there was no evidence linking Al-Qaeda to Saddam. Yet Condoleezza Rice famously said on CNN:

"We know that he has the infrastructure, nuclear scientists to make a nuclear weapon... And we know that when the inspectors assessed this after the Gulf War, he was far, far closer to a crude nuclear device than anybody thought -- maybe six months from a crude nuclear device... The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."

The rest, as they say, is history.

But in the United Kingdom, this history is now subject of an exhaustive review.

An official panel is gathering evidence of the rush to war and the efforts of Prime Minister Tony Blair's government, in cahoots with George Bush's White House, to create fear and panic -- a sense that war was the only sensible option unless the world wanted another disaster like the 9/11 attacks.

This panel is interviewing all the key British protagonist of the campaign for war. From Tony Blair on down, members of his government and the non-political heads of key departments are giving their testimony as to what really happened.

In a particularly devastating testimony, Baroness Manningham-Buller, leader of Britain's MI-5 intelligence agency, used a wrecking ball to demolish the public arguments that were used to justify the war.

The New York Times reports that Lady Manningham-Buller has debunked the whole rational for the war. No weapons of mass destruction. No ties between Saddam ties and Al-Qaeda. The Baroness told the panel:

"There was no credible intelligence to suggest that connection, and that was the judgment, I might say, of the C.I.A.," she said.

"Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11," she added, "and I have never seen anything to make me change my mind."

But, she said, "it was not a judgment that found favor with some parts of the American machine" -- namely Donald H. Rumsfeld, the United States Secretary of Defense at the time.

That "is why Donald Rumsfeld started an alternative intelligence unit in the Pentagon to seek an alternative judgment," she said.

Lady Manningham-Buller also said that Britain relied on "fragmentary" intelligence before invading Iraq, and that MI5 had not believed that Mr. Hussein was amassing unconventional weapons in Iraq, as the government contended.

The belief that Iraq might use such weapons "wasn't a concern in either the short term or the medium term to my colleagues and myself," she said.

Moreover, the strategic implications of a war without purpose, a war that was waged based on a lie, are long lasting and still impacting the security of the United States and Britain.

The New York Times goes on to quote the Baroness' assessment of the strategic damage the war has done:

"By focusing on Iraq, we ceased to focus on the Al Qaeda threat or we reduced the focus on the Al Qaeda threat in Afghanistan," she said. "I think that was a long-term, major and strategic problem."

The invasion led to an "almost overwhelming" increase in homegrown terrorism, she said, so much so that MI5 had to have its budget doubled in the following months. And after the invasion, about 70 to 80 Britons traveled to Iraq to join the insurgency, she said, thus creating a threat where there had been none.

"Arguably, we gave Osama bin Laden his Iraqi jihad," she said.

The tragedy of millions of displaced people, thousands of American and Iraqi casualties, almost a trillion dollars of American treasure wasted -- and the emboldening of Iran as the U.S. gave them the time and space to rush forward with their nuclear weapons development -- are a somber reminders of why elections matter.

The Administration of George W. Bush will serve as a reminder that the other branches of government must remain vigilant against power-grabs by the Executive.

But perhaps the biggest lesson of all is that the media must fight its instinct to ingratiate itself with the powerful. Journalists' ultimate clients are the people -- democracy can only thrive when the electorate is properly informed.

Strategic blunders of the magnitude of the Iraqi War will only be avoided when the people have their hands firmly on the helm of the ship of state.