Twenty years ago this month, President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq, the most important foreign policy decision of his eight years in office and, arguably, the most significant since the end of the Cold War. The U.S.-led invasion—and the insurgency, counterinsurgency, and sectarian strife that followed—led to the deaths of over 200,000 Iraqis and the displacement of at least nine million. More than 9,000 U.S. soldiers and contractors sacrificed their lives in the war and it cost U.S. taxpayers over $2 trillion. The invasion besmirched the United States’ reputation, fueled a sense of grievance among Muslims, complicated the "global war on terror,” divided the American people, and sundered trust in government.

A newly declassified 31-page memorandum—released in November 2022 by the National Archives after years of administrative hurdles and legal adjudication—helps explain why the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq and why it went so badly. On April 29, 2004, members of the 9/11 Commission met with Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney in the Oval Office for almost three hours. Philip Zelikow , the executive director of the commission, took notes, which constitute the nonverbatim record of the conversation. The purpose of the interview, like those with many other high-level officials, was to gather information about the attack on September 11, 2001, and to extrapolate lessons to prevent another such tragedy in the future.

The document, kept secret for almost 20 years, reveals a great deal about how leaders perceive threats, the difficulties of interpreting intelligence, the challenges of coordinating the machinery of government, and the political vulnerabilities of the president of the United States. Most important, it helps to illuminate why the United States invaded Iraq and why things went wrong.


Bush—the key decision-maker inside the administration—was relaxed and congenial, spoke without notes, and responded directly to queries. He dominated the discussion with the 9/11 Commission, answering almost all the questions and only occasionally allowing Cheney to insert a few comments. During the interview, he quipped that he and the vice president got along just fine—he knew Cheney did not want his job and he didn’t want Cheney’s.

The president expressed much admiration for George Tenet, the director of the CIA, and for Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser and point person for coordinating policy. But Bush made it clear that he made key decisions during his intelligence briefings with Tenet, Cheney, Rice, and Michael Morell, his daily intelligence briefer. Yet Bush acknowledged that his administration took too long to respond to the warnings of an al Qaeda attack, too long to work out a plan for dealing with the Taliban government in Afghanistan, and too long to address the root causes of terrorism.

Bush hoped the commissioners would not treat the investigation as a “gotcha” moment.

The president said blame should not be assigned for 9/11. He hoped the commissioners would not treat the investigation as a “gotcha” moment. His advisers labored diligently, Bush noted, but they were behind the curve. “His frustration was because it took so long to get a plan on his desk to eliminate the entire threat—the big strategy,” wrote Zelikow. “He knew it was in process. It just took a long time.”

Bush sounded most defensive when commissioners suggested that he ignored intelligence about an impending attack. He insisted that the warnings involved threats outside the United States, not inside. Before 9/11, there was only one report of threats to the homeland, he claimed, and he had asked for it. And that report—the President’s Daily Brief of August 6, 2001—Bush noted, was historical in nature. Bush said the analysts “didn’t see any actionable intelligence.” The briefing simply “reminded [him] that al Qaeda was dangerous, that it was a problem to be dealt with.” The president told the commissioners that he “knew that” and “was developing a strategy to eliminate it.”

The commissioners did not allow Bush off the hook. Again and again, respectfully, they reminded him about the shrill warnings of an impending attack, that his subordinates missed key intelligence information, that the Federal Aviation Agency was not at a heightened level of security, and that there had been many reports that suggested planes could be used for suicide missions. Bush deflected these accusations and reiterated that “there was no actionable intelligence.” But he conceded, “If there was [another] attack on our watch, [I] would bear the responsibility for that.” Bush knew he was the decider.


And there was plenty of reason to expect another attack. The interview highlighted the confusion, the difficulties in communication, and the magnitude of threats in the days, weeks, and months after September 11, 2001. Expecting another assault, the Secret Service minimized the amount of time Bush and Cheney spent together. The Speaker of the House, third in line to the presidency, was temporarily relocated away from Washington, DC. Meanwhile, the president met each day with Tenet, Cheney, Rice, and Morell to sort through ongoing threats and to decide what to do. If a fully developed plan had existed before 9/11, Bush stressed, he would have tried to implement it. It would have been difficult—given the lack of political support prior to 9/11—but he would have tried. He was now being criticized for not preemptively launching military operations in Afghanistan and for preemptively launching them in Iraq—that irony irritated him.

When asked, Bush dismissed the idea that he was inappropriately focused on Iraq on the night after the attack, as claimed by Richard Clarke, a counterterrorism expert at the National Security Council (NSC), in his memoir. In fact, during the interview, the president scarcely mentioned Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s dictator, except to emphasize that suspicions of his complicity should not have surprised anyone given Saddam’s history of funding suicide bombers. “He was a threat,” said Bush.

Yet without discussing Saddam , the interview reveals much about the attitudes, challenges, and decision-making that prompted the invasion of Iraq and the ensuing debacle. The commissioners vented about all the signs that Bush supposedly missed regarding al Qaeda’s intentions, and it was clear, as the president had feared since the fall of 2001, that the bountiful evidence for Saddam’s past use of weapons of mass destruction, his obstruction of inspections, his lust for chemical and biological weapons, and his links to terrorist groups would be used against Bush should another attack take place. Although Bush repeatedly stated during the interview that the collection and assessment of intelligence were formidable tasks open to divergent, ambiguous, indecisive conclusions, he knew that if he erred—and another attack occurred—he would be pilloried by his political foes and repudiated by the American people. More important, if he did not take the intelligence seriously, and if he did not demand that Saddam reveal and destroy his alleged weapons of mass destruction, Bush would have deemed himself negligent about his most fundamental responsibility as president of the United States: to prevent another attack and protect the American people. That he had failed to take effective steps before 9/11 haunted him—the interview makes that clear.


Learning from the failures of his dealings with the Taliban pre-9/11, Bush ordered his defense officials in late November 2001 to prepare plans to confront Saddam. The absence of such plans, he told the commissioners, had hampered his ability to shape an effective strategy toward Afghanistan and al Qaeda before 9/11, and he was determined not to allow that to happen again. The memoirs of his advisers and interviews with many of his aides suggest that he did not know if he would invade Iraq. Nonetheless, he believed he had to confront Saddam with the prospective use of military force in order to get the Iraqi dictator to allow inspectors and relinquish his alleged weapons of mass destruction or face regime change.

Bush developed a strategy after 9/11 known as “coercive diplomacy,” but he did not apply it effectively. He did not set priorities (regime change, elimination of weapons of mass destruction , democracy promotion) or offer inducements to elicit Iraq’s compliance. Nor did he resolve the issues that plagued decision-making within his administration. In the interview with the 9/11 commissioners, he acknowledged the need to integrate his domestic and national security teams, but he seemed unaware that he had failed to address the problems of coordination and planning. The president extolled Rice’s ability to deal with the “stars” in his administration, such as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Tenet. She was “phenomenal,” Bush said in the interview. “She is not afraid to call them to account,” he added. He seemed unconcerned, even in April 2004, with Rice’s inability to deal with the acrimony among Bush’s stars, which led her to shut down the NSC machinery regarding Iraq in the spring of 2003, devolve responsibility to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, and defer to Rumsfeld’s insistence on pruning American forces for the postwar stabilization tasks that he did not care much about—all of which contributed to the chaotic aftermath of the invasion.

During the interview, Bush said his task as president was “to pick a good group [of advisers], then expect them to do their job with the right strategy.” But the history of his Iraq policy shows that despite his many leadership abilities, Bush delegated too much authority to these advisers and did not monitor the design and implementation of plans for the policies he preferred, such as democracy promotion. Indifferent to the nasty bickering among his subordinates—acrimony that went well beyond personality conflicts—Bush let issues linger in bureaucratic wastelands. Motivated by fear, he wanted freedom to prevail in the long run, but nothing in the interview illuminated that he would plan systematically for that outcome.

Immediately after 9/11, Bush was far more interested in killing terrorists and confronting their state sponsors than in bolstering freedom in Afghanistan and Iraq. He had learned, he told the commissioners, that “killing the terrorists was the best strategy. It was the only way to do it. Kill them before they kill us. . . . If bin Laden had weapons of mass destruction, he would likely kill more. In the short term, we had to find them.” And he believed they might be located in Iraq.


As he discussed the events surrounding 9/11 and extrapolated lessons for the future, Bush revealed a great deal about why he would choose to confront Saddam: fear that terrorists who hated the United States might get the world’s most deadly weapons from Iraq and fear that Iraq’s possession of such weapons might in the future check the exercise of U.S. power . During the interview, the president also illuminated, however inadvertently, the factors that would continue to plague his administration and contribute to the post-invasion debacle: ambiguous and inadequate intelligence, inept planning, and bureaucratic feuding.

Since he left office and wrote his memoir, Bush has said little about his thinking and actions before and after 9/11. Although much of the U.S. archival record remains closed, this newly declassified document helps explain the mindset and the dynamics that would set the stage for the “forever wars.” Bush’s fears made sense, his sense of responsibility was laudable, and his preoccupation with the political repercussions was expedient yet understandable. But striving to connect the dots and avert a worst-case scenario, he did not probe the reliability of the evidence that Iraq still possessed weapons of mass destruction; he ignored judgments by some analysts that Saddam would not hand off his weapons to terrorists even if he had them; he provided few incentives and inducements to make his coercive diplomacy work effectively; and he failed to assess the costs and consequences of an invasion should coercive diplomacy fail to elicit a positive response from his adversary. Tragedy occurred not because Bush was deceitful or motivated by missionary fervor but because he overestimated U.S. power and failed to plan wisely and execute effectively.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now