Was the Iraq War Conceived in a Secret 1992 Document?

Was the Iraq War Conceived in a Secret 1992 Document?

The 1992 Defense Planning Guidance's ties to the 2003 Iraq invasion

Instead, I concluded that we needed a strategy of American leadership. The strategy would be designed to preserve peace among the major world powers and galvanize collective action among allies as challenges—like Iraq—arose.

I thought it was critical to expand what we called the democratic “zone of peace,” which provided the basis for an open international system. This meant that we could not allow a hostile power like Iraq or other major regional powers to take control over key regions like the Middle East. These goals, I assumed, required the United States to preserve its military preeminence and forward presence, as well as its economic strength.

While we believed that there had to be a floor beneath which defense spending could not fall, we understood how important it was to maintain the health of the economy at home. I did not see defense spending as a threat to the economy, but too large a budget would drag down economic growth. And even with a large military, I thought we had to be judicious in the use of force. Alliances were critical to share the burden of global leadership. Otherwise, public support in the United States would not permit American presidents to carry out this strategy.


The DPG went through multiple drafts and revisions. It was reviewed extensively within the Pentagon bureaucracy, particularly by the Joint Staff, which reported to Powell. The military services viewed all of these activities as a high-stakes game. For the most part, they were willing to concede the strategy development process to the civilians, but they were intensely interested in any decisions on force structure and resources that would affect their individual services. In the end, the civilian policy team produced the first strategy that guided America’s post–Cold War policy, which fit well with the advice on forces and resources that Powell and his team were offering.

Though the draft DPG remains classified, important parts of the document have been published in the press and released by the Pentagon. The strategy reiterated U.S. intentions to uphold our alliances and multilateral collective security institutions. However, it also contained new, far-reaching strategic ideas.

The most important idea in the document, while pertinent to Iraq, was most obviously concerned with Russia. It argued that the United States must prevent the rise of a peer competitor: “Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union.” The DPG wanted to preclude the emergence of bipolarity, another global rivalry like the Cold War, or multipolarity, a world of many great powers, as existed before the two world wars. To do so, the key was to prevent a hostile power from dominating a “critical region,” defined as having the resources, industrial capabilities, and population that, if controlled by a hostile power, would pose a global challenge.

Values were an important part of the strategy. The DPG saw “increasing respect for international law” and “the spread of democratic forms of government” as critical factors in “deterring conflicts or threats in regions of security important to the United States.”

Among the more challenging issues was how to establish criteria for sizing military forces. Some thought that sizing forces for one large contingency—a second Gulf War, for example—would be enough. But we argued that this was insufficient. What if a crisis were to erupt elsewhere or an adversary tried to take advantage of our preoccupation in one region? To be a credible global partner, I thought U.S. forces needed to be prepared for aggression in more than one region.


The military was ultimately directed to maintain sufficient forces for two major regional contingencies—or 2MRCs. This still represented a major peace dividend, but did not amount to the even larger downsizing that many were advocating.



Initial reviews of the DPG inside the Pentagon were positive, so I had been unprepared for the controversy that erupted when the New York Times ran a front-page story on the document: “U.S. Strategy Plans Call for Insuring No Rivals Develop: A One-Superpower World.” The Times reported that the Pentagon had a secretary strategy document that advanced the “concept of benevolent domination by one power.”

When the Times story was published, I was in Germany for a NATO security conference with my Pentagon colleague Stephen Hadley, who had contributed to the DPG. Having seen the Times article, the French were wondering why the Pentagon was developing a strategy to “keep Europe down.”

The leak had generated such an outcry that it became an issue in the 1992 presidential campaign. Governor Bill Clinton’s spokesman George Stephanopoulos—a former student of mine at Columbia—attacked the paper as “one more attempt” by the Defense Department “to find an excuse for big budgets instead of downsizing.”

The leaked scenarios drew particular ire on Capitol Hill. Senator Joe Biden dismissed the strategy as “literally a Pax Americana.” While he conceded that “American hegemony would be nice,” he asserted with characteristic confidence that, “It won’t work.” Senator Carl Levin quipped, “You have to have insurance against unlikely events. Having a fire in our house is an unlikely event but it’s a plausible event. Some of these threats are implausible.” Senator Ted Kennedy complained that the contingency planning was aimed “at finding new ways to justify Cold War levels of military spending.”

Even inside the Bush administration, the draft DPG had come under fire. National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft considered the paper to be “nutty” and “kooky.” At a staff meeting the morning after the leak, he had made clear his unhappiness. Unnamed officials from State and the National Security Council lambasted the “dumb report,” telling reporters that they wanted it to go “down in flames.”

As word got around the administration that I had drafted the leaked document, I began receiving phone calls from State Department and White House officials. My counterpart at the State Department protested that formulating a national security strategy was not “DoD’s business.”

“Of course it is not DoD business!” I replied. “It should be happening at the presidential level.” Ideally, I believed, State would take the lead, and then the interagency process would review it. The State Department, however, had been missing in action in terms of formulating post–Cold War strategy.

A senior director on the NSC staff also reached out to tell me that the White House did not appreciate the document’s provocative language and unilateralist theme. “Look,” I responded, “I’d be more than happy to withdraw the text, but I need more material for a defense strategy. I need a strategy for force-sizing. Why don’t you schedule an interagency review so we can agree on language?”

I had never before been the focus of a Washington policy tempest. While I told myself that this was exactly the kind of debate the country needed, I was disconcerted. I took solace in some of the positive review of the draft DPG. Charles Krauthammer, for one, praised the DPG in his Washington Post column. His was the minority view, however.


It was for this reason that I had felt demoralized when Cheney asked several of us who had worked on the DPG draft to come to his office. As the meeting was about to start, Scooter Libby, my immediate boss, leaned over and joked, “We’re all in trouble with Cheney because of you.”

When Cheney endorsed the draft, much to our surprise, Wolfowitz and Libby jumped in and recommended that we change some of the more controversial wording before finalizing the draft. Cheney concurred but underscored that he wanted to keep the basic contours of the strategy.

When Cheney received a revised draft, he asked for a “sharper” rewrite. Much of the original, assertive language returned to the draft.

Even with Cheney’s blessing, the DPG was not reviewed at senior levels of the interagency process. When Cheney realized that the rest of the administration did not want to conduct a full strategic review, he asked us to produce an unclassified version of the DPG with his name as the main author.


Looking back at the controversy, it seems oddly ironic. Many of the scenarios we mentioned in our document came to pass. President Clinton launched Operation Desert Fox in December 1998 to destroy Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction programs and considered going to war against North Korea to stop its nuclear weapons program. Entreaties by every post–Cold War president have failed to prevent the emergence of an aggressive Russia, which has launched wars against Georgia and Ukraine. Leaders in the Baltic states, including Lithuania, fear that they might be next, and today the United States has a treaty obligation to come to their defense. President Obama’s “pivot to Asia” was based on the recognition that China’s rise requires the United States to increase its presence in the region.

The DPG’s prescience on these issues, however, is not the reason the document remains such a source of historical intrigue over a quarter century later. A simple Google search of the 1992 DPG pulls up countless articles citing the document as evidence that Cheney and his Pentagon colleagues had laid the seeds of the 2003 Iraq War many years earlier.