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

It is true that many of the DPG’s far-reaching and controversial ideas were gradually adopted as U.S. policy under both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. The national security strategies of those administrations emphasized the need to maintain alliances, partnerships, and forces needed to maintain the balance of power in key regions.

The notion that the 1992 DPG presaged the Iraq War, however, ignores a more fundamental reality: It was the 9/11 attack, not any earlier history, that explains the decision to invade Iraq.

Had Cheney and his colleagues been intent on waging war against Iraq, an early policy review in the Bush administration over Iraq policy would have been quite different. I was quite involved in Iraq policy during this period as a senior National Security Council aide to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. I was tasked with overseeing the Iraq review after the Defense Department vetoed the idea of giving the State Department the lead on Iraq. My views on Iraq were well known. I was dissatisfied with the status quo and how it had left Iraqis with the worst of both worlds—Saddam and sanctions. Throughout the 1990s, I had advocated publicly for regime change through greater support for the Iraqi opposition to Saddam. But neither I, nor any of my colleagues from the DPG period, had ever argued for a full military invasion of Iraq.

I saw in the Iraq policy review how difficult it was for the United States, even under a new administration, to undertake a bold policy departure in the absence of a crisis of major policy failure. Policymakers tend to live within existing constraints rather than challenging them. Policy reviews tend to conclude with minor revisions of the status quo. This was the story of the Iraq review in 2000.

The situation was troubling. Saddam had been throttled in the Gulf War and Operation Desert Fox but remained belligerent and dangerous. The consensus in the intelligence community was that he had retained stockpiles of chemical weapons and preserved the capability to restart his weapons programs if and when international pressure relented. Support for the sanctions was waning, even among U.S. allies, and Iraq had developed ways to skirt their constraints. U.S. forces continued to enforce no-fly zones in the north and south of Iraq. Efforts to orchestrate a military coup had failed, and the United States was providing only minimal support to Iraqi opposition groups. It was increasingly difficult to keep Saddam “in a box.”

The principals and their aides who had contributed to the 1992 DPG—notably Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Powell—brought different concerns to the table this time around. They disagreed on which Iraqi opposition groups to support, whether to maintain no-fly zones, and how to enforce international sanctions against Iraq. But none even broached the possibility of an invasion of Iraq.

Early discussions on Iraq left me with the impression that the principals were unsatisfied with the tit-for-tat engagements that characterized our Iraq policy. But in terms of adopting a new strategy, they were not even united on the goals we should be prioritizing. Did we want to contain Saddam or press for regime change? Did we want to increase pressure or reduce it through narrower sanctions and less activity in the no-fly zones? I knew that, in the absence of clear guidance from the principals, it would be difficult to develop robust policy recommendations at my level.

In the Deputies Committee, the Defense Department and vice president’s office, represented by Wolfowitz and Libby, respectively, argued that Iraq was a looming threat—one that continued to grow as the containment regime against Saddam weakened. They doubted that the international community had the desire or will to keep pressure on Saddam. That the Iraqi regime continued to seek weapons of mass destruction and support terrorism, they warned, only exacerbated the threat.

The Pentagon and office of the vice president argued for an invigorated policy of regime change, though not a full-scale invasion of the sort that the President chose after 9/11. Instead, they urged that the United States increase support for the Iraqi opposition, create U.S.-enforced safe havens in Shia-dominated southern Iraq similar to the ones in the Kurdish north, and recognize a provisional government for areas of Iraq outside of Saddam’s control.


With no policy agreement among the major players—either on goals or strategy—my NSC colleagues and I drafted a tactical paper with an escalating three-step plan for liberating Iraq. As a starting point, it called for taking advantage of the Iraq Liberation Act by allocating all of the assistance to the Iraqi opposition that Congress had already made available. The next step would involve arming the opposition. The final measure would entail direct U.S. military action to protect southern Iraq, weaken Saddam, and foment an uprising.

When we first presented the proposal to Deputy National Security Advisor Hadley, he was understandably reluctant to endorse it without a presidential decision on U.S. goals in Iraq.


The plan’s key elements were eventually incorporated into an NSC paper entitled “A Liberation Strategy,” which the principals received in early August 2001. The document laid out a series of options—short of a full-scale invasion—that the president could consider if he decided to topple Saddam’s regime.

In the absence of a clear decision, however, our Iraq policy continued largely unchanged.


The tenor of the Iraq debate changed dramatically after 9/11. I was a member of Hadley’s Deputies Committee meetings on Iraq, comprised of a small group of senior officials. Attendees could not reveal even the existence of the meetings, and we processed papers through special channels to avoid press leaks.

At the deputies level, a consensus now existed on three points. First, Iraq needed to be disarmed. Second, if Saddam refused to disarm, the United States would pursue a serious policy of regime change in Iraq. Containment was no longer a viable alternative. Third, our policy of regime change would seek a broad-based representative in Iraq, even if a coup ousted Saddam during our planning.

On December 2, 2002, President Bush appointed me as his “Special Presidential envoy to the Free Iraqis.” I was to work with the Iraqi opposition to prepare for a post-Saddam Iraq. I concluded around this time that the President had decided to invade Iraq.


While I hope that my memoir will endure as a window into a critical period in American foreign policy, I also wrote it with the country’s current bout of cynicism in mind. The United States fell far short of its aspirations in Iraq—a reality that weighs deeply on me. While it will take some time before the true impact of the United States’ efforts in Iraq become clear, in the near term, it is perhaps inevitable that the region’s conflicts and the threat they pose will dominate our relations with the Middle East.

I am deeply concerned by how contentious our foreign policy debates have become and hope, as we formulate an approach for the region, that we can pull back from our growing division at home. Case in point is the recent debate in our presidential campaign about the origins of the Iraq War, and whether the Bush administration “lied” in the run-up to the war.

It is clear from the record that the Iraq War was hardly conceived in the decades prior to the 2003 invasion. Many of the architects of the war did indeed work together in previous administration and reached similar conclusions about the U.S. role in the world and the capabilities it needed to underwrite global security. But their views on Iraq in the years before 9/11 were neither uniform nor substantially at odds with the assumptions that had formed around Iraq policy since the Gulf War.

It was the shock of 9/11 and the risks posed by Saddam’s dangerous regime—not the 1992 DPG, or anything else—that led the President and his advisors to reconsider our approach to Iraq, and, ultimately, to support an invasion of the country.

Zalmay Khalilzad was the Head of Policy Planning in the Defense Department from 1991-1992. He was the Special Presidential Envoy to Free Iraqis from 2002-2003 and later was the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the UN. He is the author of The Envoy, published by St. Martin’s Press.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Air Force