Why Didn’t Bush Say that to Begin With?

One constant meme that resurfaces whenever President Bush makes a speech justifying the war in Iraq is “Why didn’t he say that X years/months ago?!”

Doug at Below The Beltway is among those with that reaction to today’s speech:

[W]hy weren’t we hearing this in January and February of 2003 ?

To a large extent, I think that the War in Iraq is a public realtions problem. The American people are not against making a sacrifice, if the reasons for that sacrifice are clearly explained. By not putting all its cards on the table the beginning, the Bush Administration has painted itself into a corner that it will have a difficult time getting out of.

While I agree that the administration has manifestly not done a good enough sales job (see the update to this post for more on that), it is simply not the case that these arguments haven’t been made previously.

To take just one example, here are some salient excerpts from President’s Remarks at the United Nations General Assembly on September 12, 2002:

In 1991, Security Council Resolution 688 demanded that the Iraqi regime cease at once the repression of its own people, including the systematic repression of minorities — which the Council said, threatened international peace and security in the region. This demand goes ignored. Last year, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights found that Iraq continues to commit extremely grave violations of human rights, and that the regime’s repression is all pervasive. Tens of thousands of political opponents and ordinary citizens have been subjected to arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, summary execution, and torture by beating and burning, electric shock, starvation, mutilation, and rape. Wives are tortured in front of their husbands, children in the presence of their parents — and all of these horrors concealed from the world by the apparatus of a totalitarian state.

In 1991, the U.N. Security Council, through Resolutions 686 and 687, demanded that Iraq return all prisoners from Kuwait and other lands. Iraq’s regime agreed. It broke its promise. Last year the Secretary General’s high-level coordinator for this issue reported that Kuwait, Saudi, Indian, Syrian, Lebanese, Iranian, Egyptian, Bahraini, and Omani nationals remain unaccounted for — more than 600 people. One American pilot is among them.

In 1991, the U.N. Security Council, through Resolution 687, demanded that Iraq renounce all involvement with terrorism, and permit no terrorist organizations to operate in Iraq. Iraq’s regime agreed. It broke this promise. In violation of Security Council Resolution 1373, Iraq continues to shelter and support terrorist organizations that direct violence against Iran, Israel, and Western governments. Iraqi dissidents abroad are targeted for murder. In 1993, Iraq attempted to assassinate the Emir of Kuwait and a former American President. Iraq’s government openly praised the attacks of September the 11th. And al Qaeda terrorists escaped from Afghanistan and are known to be in Iraq.


If all these steps are taken, it will signal a new openness and accountability in Iraq. And it could open the prospect of the United Nations helping to build a government that represents all Iraqis — a government based on respect for human rights, economic liberty, and internationally supervised elections.

The United States has no quarrel with the Iraqi people; they’ve suffered too long in silent captivity. Liberty for the Iraqi people is a great moral cause, and a great strategic goal. The people of Iraq deserve it; the security of all nations requires it. Free societies do not intimidate through cruelty and conquest, and open societies do not threaten the world with mass murder. The United States supports political and economic liberty in a unified Iraq.


If we meet our responsibilities, if we overcome this danger, we can arrive at a very different future. The people of Iraq can shake off their captivity. They can one day join a democratic Afghanistan and a democratic Palestine, inspiring reforms throughout the Muslim world. These nations can show by their example that honest government, and respect for women, and the great Islamic tradition of learning can triumph in the Middle East and beyond. And we will show that the promise of the United Nations can be fulfilled in our time.

Neither of these outcomes is certain. Both have been set before us. We must choose between a world of fear and a world of progress. We cannot stand by and do nothing while dangers gather. We must stand up for our security, and for the permanent rights and the hopes of mankind. By heritage and by choice, the United States of America will make that stand. And, delegates to the United Nations, you have the power to make that stand, as well.

There was also the famous “Democracy will succeed” speech in London in November 2003.

If the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation and anger and violence for export. And as we saw in the ruins of two towers, no distance on the map will protect our lives and way of life. If the greater Middle East joins the democratic revolution that has reached much of the world, the lives of millions in that region will be bettered, and a trend of conflict and fear will be ended at its source.

The movement of history will not come about quickly. Because of our own democratic development — the fact that it was gradual and, at times, turbulent — we must be patient with others. And the Middle East countries have some distance to travel.

Arab scholars speak of a freedom deficit that has separated whole nations from the progress of our time. The essentials of social and material progress — limited government, equal justice under law, religious and economic liberty, political participation, free press, and respect for the rights of women — have been scarce across the region. Yet that has begun to change. In an arc of reform from Morocco to Jordan to Qatar, we are seeing elections and new protections for women and the stirring of political pluralism. Many governments are realizing that theocracy and dictatorship do not lead to national greatness; they end in national ruin. They are finding, as others will find, that national progress and dignity are achieved when governments are just and people are free.

The democratic progress we’ve seen in the Middle East was not imposed from abroad, and neither will the greater progress we hope to see. Freedom, by definition, must be chosen, and defended by those who choose it. Our part, as free nations, is to ally ourselves with reform, wherever it occurs.


There were good-faith disagreements in your country and mine over the course and timing of military action in Iraq. Whatever has come before, we now have only two options: to keep our word, or to break our word. The failure of democracy in Iraq would throw its people back into misery and turn that country over to terrorists who wish to destroy us. Yet democracy will succeed in Iraq, because our will is firm, our word is good, and the Iraqi people will not surrender their freedom. (Applause.)

Since the liberation of Iraq, we have seen changes that could hardly have been imagined a year ago. A new Iraqi police force protects the people, instead of bullying them. More than 150 Iraqi newspapers are now in circulation, printing what they choose, not what they’re ordered. Schools are open with textbooks free of propaganda. Hospitals are functioning and are well-supplied. Iraq has a new currency, the first battalion of a new army, representative local governments, and a Governing Council with an aggressive timetable for national sovereignty. This is substantial progress. And much of it has proceeded faster than similar efforts in Germany and Japan after World War II.

Yet the violence we are seeing in Iraq today is serious. And it comes from Baathist holdouts and Jihadists from other countries, and terrorists drawn to the prospect of innocent bloodshed. It is the nature of terrorism and the cruelty of a few to try to bring grief in the loss to many. The armed forces of both our countries have taken losses, felt deeply by our citizens. Some families now live with a burden of great sorrow. We cannot take the pain away. But these families can know they are not alone. We pray for their strength; we pray for their comfort; and we will never forget the courage of the ones they loved.

The terrorists have a purpose, a strategy to their cruelty. They view the rise of democracy in Iraq as a powerful threat to their ambitions. In this, they are correct. They believe their acts of terror against our coalition, against international aid workers and against innocent Iraqis, will make us recoil and retreat. In this, they are mistaken. (Applause.)

We did not charge hundreds of miles into the heart of Iraq and pay a bitter cost of casualties, and liberate 25 million people, only to retreat before a band of thugs and assassins. (Applause.) We will help the Iraqi people establish a peaceful and democratic country in the heart of the Middle East. And by doing so, we will defend our people from danger.

Bush hasn’t said these things often enough or perhaps eloquently enough. But he’s certainly said them.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. ken says:

    There was nothing new in what Bush said today.

    We’ve heard it all before; we didn’t buy it then, we don’t buy it now.

  2. Doug says:

    I agree that Bush talked about these issues before the war, but what the public remembers about the run-up to the war is the WMD issue, and that, along with Saddam’s refusal to cooperate with meaningful weapons inspections, is what the Bush Administration used as the principal justification for war. There were other reasons to go to war against Iraq, but the Administration choose not to emphasize them.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Doug: Can’t disagree with you there. I thought it was a bad idea at the time and was on his case about it in the early days after the war. (See this May 2003 post, for example.) The problem was one of emphasis, though, not omission.

  4. odograph says:

    Bush and his backers picture themselves as tough guys, but they have always been weak.

    This is not hyperbole. They never had the guts to stand foursquare and ask the nation for the resources for a “total (conventional) war” and “total success.”

    So we’ve had a war on the cheap, with “oh no, we don’t need a draft” and recycling and abusing the troops we have.

    This takes S.N.A.F.U. to a new level. From up-armoring Hummers to hiring “contractors” that are both out of control 2-3 times the price of a soldier.

    Someone on TV last night said they planned for “flowers in the street” and had no back-up plan! They’ve drifted and tried to find things that work, but for every success there is AT LEAST one failure. You show me an Iraqi readiness report and I’ll show you a guy with holes drilled in his body.

    If we were really going to do THIS, and stay the course for a decade, we should have had a draft and filled the pipeline with solidiers, not “trophy video” whack jobs.

    And if we are not going to do this, we should stop pretending.

  5. odograph says:

    Re. emphasis not omission.

    The nice thing about the change in emphasis is that we never would have haWBØis war, and would not be in this position.

  6. Doug says:


    I agree with you that this was a problem of the Bush Administration emphasizing the WMD issue at the expense of others. That’s why I said in my original post that I thought that this was as much a problem of public relations as anything else.

    The other part of the problem is that Bush is not, quite frankly, that great of a communicator. He’s had his moments, most notably after 9/11, but on the whole he just doesn’t seem to be able to use the bully pulpit as well as other Presidents have. Personally, I always thought Tony Blair did a much better job communicating the justifications for the war than Bush did.

  7. John Burgess says:

    I’m basically in agreement with you, but think that Bush’s UN speech was not actually about the “why” of the war so much as the legal basis for the war. He was speaking to an international audience that he knew was not crazy about the idea of war. Europeans, in fact, have grown allergic to the concept.

    He had to demonstrate that the war was authorized and legitimate, as the consequences of the first Gulf War which only ended in a ceasefire, not a peace treaty. Iraq had constantly been in contravention of the terms of the ceasefire, had been given numerous opportunites to change its ways as ordered by various UN resolutions, and had even refused to respond adequately to UNSCR 1441.

    This was the authority that the US and UK used as their “permission slip” to undertake their action.

  8. Bithead says:

    The answer to why he didn’t say that earlier is basic politics and timing. If he’d said this right off, what would have happened? Would the Democrats NOT been complaining?

    No, they simply would have been complaining about something ELSE. As it is, they now look like they’re simply being political idiots, and they’re being exposed as such.

  9. odograph says:

    The polls show a democrat/republican bias, but they don’t show a clear cut democrat/republican division.

    People cross party lines to believe in the war or to call it a mistake. Recent polls have been close to 2:1 calling it a mistake.

    It will be interesting to see to what extent this speech changes that.

  10. You are correct that he hasn’t said them enough. As a couple of your comments prove, the democrats “telling lies often enough and they become true” strategy is working. Which means he needs to be drumming the truth louder, more often.

  11. odograph says:

    You talking to me, Crazy?

    I read something this morning that made me very sad, as an American, and (as it happens) a Republican:


    If that’s correct, the guy the President quoted was back in Iraq for his 3rd tour:

    “I kind of predicted this,” Corporal Starr wrote of his own death. “A third time just seemed like I’m pushing my chances.”

    That, incredibly sadly, is what “support the troops” has come to mean. We send them back, again and again, in a 200X version of “limited war.” We learned that didn’t work in 197X, that you go to win or don’t go.