The Speechwriter

Article excerpt

Byline: David Frum

My youngest daughter was born in December 2001: a war baby. When my wife nursed little Beatrice in the middle of the night, she'd hear F-16s patrolling the Washington skies.

A few weeks before, a sniper had terrorized the Washington suburbs. Anthrax attacks had killed five people and infected 17 others. What would come next?

In October, I attended a crowded briefing in the fourth-floor auditorium of the Executive Office Building, at which the Secret Service explained its plans to protect the White House against a biological attack. They weren't very reassuring. Basically, we'd all be dead. Even more disturbing were the small-session briefings by staffers for the new Homeland Security adviser. They warned of simultaneous car bombings at strategic intersections, targeted assassinations of officials as they retrieved their morning papers from their stoops, and poisonous gases released in Metro stations.

Like many Washingtonians, my wife and I had prepared an emergency kit in the basement: canned goods, bottled water, flashlights, batteries. We had an evacuation plan, a rendezvous point two hours outside the city, and a stipulated wait time after which she was to presume I was a casualty.

These anxieties may sound luridly overdramatic today, but they suffused the mental atmosphere of the government of the United States as President Bush made the fateful decision to launch the Iraq War.

Yet it was not only fear that drove the administration's thinking about Iraq. It was also passionate enthusiasm for a new Middle East.

The first time I met Ahmed Chalabi was a year or two before the war, in Christopher Hitchens's apartment. Chalabi was seated regally at one end of Hitchens's living room. A crowd of nervous, shuffling Iraqis crowded together at the opposite end. One by one, they humbly stepped forward to ask him questions or favors in Arabic, then respectfully stepped backward again. After the Iraqis departed, Chalabi rose from his chair and joined an engaged, open discussion of Iraq's future democratic possibilities.

The last time I saw Chalabi was in his London apartment, on the very eve of war. My little group arrived past midnight. Chalabi was listening to the evocative strains of Sufi music. He showed me a black-and-white photograph of seven men, wearing the clothes of the 1940s. They were the board of directors of a company his father had founded: a mixed group of Sunni, Shiite, and Christian, and even a Jew. Chalabi remarked that this picture was taken while Europe was tearing itself apart in genocidal violence. He didn't add that it was taken shortly after British forces defeated a pro-Axis coup in Baghdad--but failed to prevent a murderous pogrom against Baghdad's Jewish population.

I was less impressed by Chalabi than were some others in the Bush administration. However, since one of those "others" was Vice President Cheney, it didn't matter what I thought. In 2002, Chalabi joined the annual summer retreat of the American Enterprise Institute near Vail, Colorado. He and Cheney spent long hours together, contemplating the possibilities of a Western-oriented Iraq: an additional source of oil, an alternative to U.S. dependency on an unstable-looking Saudi Arabia.

You might imagine that an administration preparing for a war of choice would be gripped by self-questioning and hot debate. There was certainly plenty to discuss: unlike the 1991 Gulf War, there was no immediate crisis demanding a rapid response; unlike Vietnam, the U.S. entered the war fully aware that it was commencing a major commitment.

Yet that discussion never really happened, not the way that most people would have imagined anyway. For a long time, war with Iraq was discussed inside the Bush administration as something that would be decided at some point in the future; then, somewhere along the way, war with Iraq was discussed as something that had already been decided long ago in the past. …