The Road to Baghdad

In 1998, a group of 40 conservatives wrote an open letter to President Clinton calling for the United States to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Today many of the signers of that letter hold important government posts, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his chief deputy Paul Wolfowitz, and Richard Perle, chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board. Together with right-wing activists in the private sector, they see the post-September 11 military campaign as the perfect opportunity to achieve their goal of toppling the Iraqi leader. "Saddam Hussein engages in acts of terrorism, he hates the United States and we know he has weapons of mass destruction," says Perle. "To ignore all that is too big a risk."

Wolfowitz and Perle, the two names most closely associated with the Get Saddam crowd, both have hard-line Cold War pedigrees and are close to Israeli right-wing political leaders -- including Ariel Sharon -- who are as anxious to get rid of Hussein as they are. They remain angry that the United States didn't finish off Saddam after driving his troops from Kuwait. "It grates on them that Saddam is still in power," says one retired military officer who is well plugged into conservative circles. "One reason they want to get him so badly is so they can set their own records straight."

During the Clinton years, conservatives saw the Iraqi National Congress (INC), an opposition group that has received military aid from Congress, as the proper vehicle for an assault on Hussein. With a Republican administration in office and Rumsfeld running the Pentagon, they now call for the U.S. to direct the campaign. During a CNN interview six weeks before the September 11 attacks, Wolfowitz called Hussein a primary threat to national security and said the U.S. should go after him as soon as "we find the right way" to do so.

The right way presented itself with the destruction of the World Trade Center. Within the week, Perle's Defense Policy Board had sent the Pentagon a proposal that suggested that Iraq be targeted by U.S. forces.

The Get Saddam faction commands significant, though not necessarily majority, support in the Bush administration. Based on interviews with conservative insiders and past public statements of the various players, it's clear that the top civilian leadership at the Pentagon -- Defense Undersecretary Douglas Feith and Assistant Secretaries J.D. Crouch and Peter Rodman -- is solidly on board. So, too, are Air Force Secretary Jim Roach; Undersecretary of State John Bolton, a close friend of Perle's; Gen. Wayne Downing at the National Security Council, who during the Clinton years offered military advice to the INC; and I. Lewis Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney.

To win further administration converts, conservatives based outside of government have been vigorously working the media and Washington political circles. One of the most active has been ex-CIA Director James Woolsey, who has been feeding material to journalists, writing pieces of his own for publications like The New Republic, and appearing regularly on TV talk shows and think tank panels. In September, Woolsey undertook a controversial trip to London where he dug for evidence that could link Hussein to the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. His trip was reportedly paid for by Wolfowitz -- Woolsey declined to comment on this or any aspect of his London jaunt -- which is said to have infuriated officials at the CIA, the State Department and even annoyed Rumsfeld.

The Project for the New American Century and the American Enterprise Institute -- where Perle remains a resident scholar -- have also been hotbeds of anti-Saddam lobbying. The Project's directors are William Kristol of The Weekly Standard, Bruce Jackson, a vice president at Lockheed Martin, and Robert Kagan, a writer and analyst who was the chief architect of the 1998 letter to Clinton, and of a second one to Bush released last September 20. The latter, which was signed by 37 endorsers, called for the death or capture of Osama bin Laden, an all-out attack on the Taliban, a large increase in defense spending, and expanding the war to Iraq even if no evidence emerges to link Hussein directly to the September 11 attacks. "Failure to undertake such an effort will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism," the letter says.

Kagan, like others in the Get Saddam faction, is not concerned about geopolitical fallout that could come from a strike against Iraq, such as anger in the Arab world or the potential collapse of the shaky coalition supporting the current military campaign. "If our goal is to preserve the coalition then we should stop bombing Afghanistan," he says. "Iraq is a fundamental threat to our national security, and that's more important than keeping the coalition together." Perle takes the same sanguine view, saying that the coalition is a means, not an end. "If it becomes an impediment to winning the war than what good is it?" he asks. "The confusion about this is pathetic."

Though they consider Hussein's involvement, or lack thereof, in the attack on the World Trade Center irrelevant, the conservatives recognize that evidence of his guilt would hugely advance their cause. Hence, a number of activists have been relentlessly promoting that idea, most notably Laurie Mylroie, an adjunct fellow at American Enterprise Institute and publisher of the online newsletter Iraq News. In addition to expressing certainty about Iraqi links to September 11, she says he's lurking behind the anthrax scare as well. "We should declare victory in Afghanistan now and take the war to Iraq," she says. "Saddam Hussein is a far bigger threat than the Taliban."

Yet while Hussein may be involved in the recent terrorist incidents, neither Mylroie nor anyone else has thus far presented any clear evidence. Edward Peck, a former ambassador to Iraq, has suggested that some of the charges being tossed about are reckless. Of Mylroie, Peck recently said on Crossfire, "If she possibly could, she would accuse [Hussein] of being responsible for male pattern baldness in the United States."

Andrew Cockburn, co-author of Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein, is equally dubious. Hussein, he points out, is the ultimate survivor and he surely knows that if his fingerprints are found, his days are numbered. "Until September 11 everything had been going his way," Cockburn says. "The anti-sanctions movement was gaining ground and U.S.-Iraq policy was in shambles. There's no coherent rationale for him to have been involved in this."

Despite its efforts, the Get Saddam lobby still confronts significant political opposition. The most important source is Colin Powell at the State Department, but perhaps more important is quiet opposition from military officers, who believe it will require at least 500,000 U.S. troops to topple Hussein. "Some day I'd love to get Saddam Hussein but right now we have bitten off more than we can chew in Afghanistan," says the retired military man cited above. "The stupidest thing we could do right now is add Iraq to our menu."

Perle, on the other hand, argues that a military strike on Hussein would be a relative cakewalk, and sees it as only the first expansion of the current war. Other possible targets on his list include Sudan, Syria, Iran, North Korea and Hezbollah units operating in southern Lebanon. "In some cases, the example of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein might be enough to convince these people not to support terrorism," he says. "In cases where someone doesn't get the message, we would have to seek other means."