Last week, while watching Benjamin Netanyahu unveil secret information that supposedly proved that Iran is deceiving the world about its nuclear-weapons program, I had a flashback. It was to February 5, 2003, when then-Secretary of State Colin Powell unveiled secret information that supposedly proved that Iraq was deceiving the world about its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs. Like Netanyahu’s, Powell’s presentation was dramatic. He informed the United Nations Security Council that some of the material he was about to present came from “people who have risked their lives to let the world know what Saddam Hussein is really up to.” He went on to play a secretly recorded conversation of two Iraqi officials supposedly plotting to mislead weapons inspectors. He later presented a photo of bunkers that allegedly held “active chemical munitions” but were “clean when the inspectors get there.” Saddam, Powell insisted, wants “to give those [of] us on this Council the false impression that the inspection process was working.” Powell’s presentation was designed to prove that it was not.
The parallels between that moment and this one are uncanny. In both cases, American leaders feared that a longtime Middle Eastern adversary was breaking free of the fetters that had previously restrained it. In both cases, American leaders pursued a more confrontational policy, which they buttressed with frightening statements about the regime’s nuclear program. In both cases, international inspectors contradicted those alarmist claims. In both cases, America’s European allies defended the inspectors and warned of the chaos America’s confrontational policy might bring. In both cases, hawks in America and Israel responded by trying to discredit the inspection regime. And in both cases, two leaders of that effort were John Bolton and Benjamin Netanyahu.
Obviously, there are differences between then and now. In 2003, the United States government wanted war. Today, it wants to undo a diplomatic agreement. In 2003, the Israeli government (as opposed to Netanyahu, who was then a private citizen) was wary of America’s confrontational policy. Today, the Israeli government is aggressively lobbying for it. But while history is not repeating itself, it is rhyming in remarkable ways. Which raises a disturbing question: How is it possible—15 years after the launch of one the greatest catastrophes in American history—that so many of the assumptions that guided America’s march to war in Iraq still dominate American foreign policy today?