Book: Shootdown Floated as Pretense for Iraq War

According to former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Hugh Shelton’s new book, Without Hesitation: The Odyssey of an American Warrior, a member of then-President Bill Clinton’s administration floated the idea of allowing a U-2 to be shot down with the intent of starting a war.  The plan?

what we really need in order to go in and take out Saddam is a precipitous event — something that would make us look good in the eyes of the world. Could you have one of our U-2s fly low enough — and slow enough — so as to guarantee that Saddam could shoot it down? 

Shelton went onto say that he was shocked at the disrespect and audacity of the question and told the cabinet member, “Remember, there is one of our great Americans flying that U-2, and you are asking me to intentionally send him or her to their death for an opportunity to kick Saddam. The last time I checked, we don’t operate like that here in America.”

The General’s reported response is classic:

“The hair on the back of my neck bristled, my teeth clenched, and my fists tightened,” Shelton wrote. “I was so mad I was about to explode. I looked across the table, thinking about the pilot in the U-2 and responded, ‘Of course we can …’ which prompted a big smile on the official’s face.

“‘You can?’ was the excited reply.

“’Why, of course we can,'” I countered. ‘Just as soon as we get your ass qualified to fly it, I will have it flown just as low and slow as you want to go.’

There are two important, if subtle, details in this story:

First, while many have accused the most recent Bush administration of “lying” to create the pretense for the Iraq war, it would appear that the Democratic Clinton administration was searching for a reason to justify a war with Iraq to “take out Saddam.”

Second, in an age before 9/11 and ‘cowboy diplomacy,’ why would anyone be looking for a fight with Iraq?  The answer is not only fairly simple, it’s what many have been saying for years.

Prior to 11 September 2001, the most deployed service was not the Army or the Marines; it was the Air Force.  Since Saddam Hussein was ousted from Kuwait in 1991, the US Air Force and some of its NATO allies had been at a near constant state of war with Iraq, flying over the Northern and Southern “no fly zones.”  This had, in some respects, become a ‘forgotten war,’ with American servicemember fired upon by a hostile foreign force with regularity and yet no change in the political situation.

Thus, in what was likely true for both the Clinton and Bush administrations, there was a desire to fish or cut bait — “finish” the war with Iraq and bring American forces home, or bring them home regardless.  Given that US and some NATO aircraft were the only ones giving teeth to UN resolutions, to abandon those efforts would have handed Hussein a victory.  On the other hand, “starting” a war was politically unpalatable, for both of the following administrations.

So for almost a decade, Americans and their NATO allies traded nearly daily fire with the Iraqis, and nothing changed.

Many take issue with Operation Iraqi Freedom for the Bush administration’s “pretense” of starting a war.  For some, though, OIF wasn’t the start of a war; it simply ended the one that was already going on.