Gerald Ford’s Parting Shot

With the death of former President Ford comes the release of a 2004 interview in which he harshly criticized the Bush Administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq:

Former president Gerald R. Ford said in an embargoed interview in July 2004 that the Iraq war was not justified. “I don’t think I would have gone to war,” he said a little more than a year after President Bush launched the invasion advocated and carried out by prominent veterans of Ford’s own administration.

In a four-hour conversation at his house in Beaver Creek, Colo., Ford “very strongly” disagreed with the current president’s justifications for invading Iraq and said he would have pushed alternatives, such as sanctions, much more vigorously. In the tape-recorded interview, Ford was critical not only of Bush but also of Vice President Cheney — Ford’s White House chief of staff — and then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who served as Ford’s chief of staff and then his Pentagon chief.

“Rumsfeld and Cheney and the president made a big mistake in justifying going into the war in Iraq. They put the emphasis on weapons of mass destruction,” Ford said. “And now, I’ve never publicly said I thought they made a mistake, but I felt very strongly it was an error in how they should justify what they were going to do.”

Ford, of course,, was absolutely correct for several reasons. The intelligence on weapons of mass destruction was, as the years have shown, incredibly faulty to begin with. More importantly, though, it became clear within months of the downfall of Saddam’s regime that the United States had absolutely no plan on how to handle the post-war situation. Hence the world we live in today.

And, at one point, Ford shows that, in the not-too-distant past there was some sanity in Republican foreign policy:

“Well, I can understand the theory of wanting to free people,” Ford said, referring to Bush’s assertion that the United States has a “duty to free people.” But the former president said he was skeptical “whether you can detach that from the obligation number one, of what’s in our national interest.” He added: “And I just don’t think we should go hellfire damnation around the globe freeing people, unless it is directly related to our own national security.”

This, I am beginning to thing, is where Bush went wrong on Iraq. The idea of making the Middle East safe for democracy is as foolhardy as was Woodrow Wilson’s idea of fighting World War I to make the world safe for democracy.

And, in case you forgot, World War I accomplished little more than setting the stage for World War II.

  • mike

    Sanctions?!? The sanctions that worked so well the 12 years we had them in action? To say nothing of the fact that the support for sanctions was rapidly collapsing; if the coalition hadn’t acted when it did, the U.N. would have likely lifted the remaining sanctions in a few years.

    The emphasis on WMDs was a bit overplayed by the administration, but where I fault them most is that there was no pushback when the media tried (successfully) to portray this as the only reason we went to war. There were several more reasons, not the least of which is the freedom angle (more on that later.) I will agree that our postwar application was poor; the plan was there, but it wasn’t followed.

    However, the biggest beef I’ve got with the post is that it continues the fallacy that freeing people is completely separate from U.S. security. Look at where all of the 9/11 hijackers came from. Countries that feature a repressive government that is nominally a friend of the U.S. If we went into Iraq, overthrew Saddam and then installed some sort of a hybrid Saudi/Egyptian type government we would simply perpetuate the problem that caused the terrorism of the past 30 years. We had no choice but to try and rebuild the nation in some democratic fashion, based on the rule of law.

  • Doug Mataconis


    WMD’s and, specifically Saddam’s violation of several United Nation’s resolutions, were the primary reason that President Bush and those who supported the war emphasized the run-up to March 2003 as justification for the War in Iraq. The rhetoric about freedom was, at best, filler and never would have sufficed to convince the American public to support an invasion according to all the polling done at the time.

    At the very least, we should be concerned about the fact that American intelligence got it so spectacularly wrong on this particular issue.

    American foreign policy’s primary, I would argue sole, concern should be the protection of the national interests of the United States. Getting involved in wars of “liberation” unconnected with those interests only leads to disaster.

    More importantly, if the Iraq War can be justified solely as a war to liberate oppressed people, then where does it stop ? Do you believe that America should send troops into any nation oppressed by a dictator ?

  • VRB

    I wish someone of wisdom would have spoke out, before we went to the UN.

  • Brad Warbiany


    A war of liberation is fine, when it coincides with America’s security interests. I thought before the Iraq war that it was necessary for our security, and the liberation aspect was an added bonus. I’m still not sure, had we done executed the war better, that it would not have been helpful for our security. I don’t know that it is any more, but that may be more due to the execution than the purpose.

  • Doug Mataconis


    Maybe. I supported the Iraq War in the beginning and cheered the downfall of Saddam along with any other sane person.

    But I think we start getting into dangerous territory when questions of national interest get tangled up with the idea that we have some sort of obligation to liberate the world

    I’m not saying you said this, but it certainly is an undercurrent of the whole misguided neo-con foreign policy that led to the Iraq War.

    War is the extension of politics by other means. More often than not, it is a fight for national survival. It may be necessary at times, but there is nothing moral about it. Turning war into a moral crusade leads, I think history shows, to disaster more often than not.

  • Kevin

    However, the biggest beef I’ve got with the post is that it continues the fallacy that freeing people is completely separate from U.S. security.

    The last thing we want to do in some nations is “free” them. For example, if we brought democracy to Saudi Arabia, Osama Bin Laden would be elected president in a free and fair election. Hamas won free and fair elections in “Palestine”. Iranian puppets won free and fair elections in Iraq.

    Before the Middle East and other parts of the world can even begin to think about freedom and democracy, liberal thought must come to that region. Tom Palmer from the Cato Institute is working with Islamic and Arab scholars to fuse classical liberalism and Arab/Islamic thought. Also, keep in mind our long journey to a free country. The first idea of individual liberty and a limited government came from Ancient Greece around 500 B.C, while the United States, the first liberal state, was founded twenty-one centuries later. It will take centuries, the winning of hearts and minds, and a new intellectual tradition to be born in the Middle East. That will come from people to people contact, increased trade and cultural ties, and things like the Internet and other communications; not the U.S. Military.

    We had no choice but to try and rebuild the nation in some democratic fashion, based on the rule of law.

    Writing a constitution based on Sharia law, an uniquely illiberal code of law, does not accomplish that and that’s why the US will fail in Afghanistan and Iraq.

  • mike

    I agree that we should be concerned that our intelligence was so wrong, but we should remember that everyone in the world, including Saddam and most of his higherups, believed the same thing. In addition, something worth looking into is that we were fed false intelligence by the Iranians.

    Anyway, I think you’re missing my point. I’m not trying to support wars that are completely of a moral nature (although I’m on the fence when it comes to those…I find it hard that we continue to turn a blind eye to atrocities the world over when we have the capability to stop them…but I digress.) My point is that the liberation and democratization/liberalization of Iraq is in the national interest of the U.S., and as such, the security interest and war of liberation are one and the same.

    It goes back to Natan Sharansky’s book, “The Case for Democracy.” The status quo in the Middle East simply won’t do for long term peace and stability; the only way to change that is to try and change a country.

    I guess my basic point is that right or wrong, the decision to go into Iraq and try and rebuild the country and society was, in the minds of policy makers, directly linked to the national security of the U.S.

    The President and his advisors have done a piss poor job of advocating this, but everything I’ve read and seen seems to indicate that this is the case.

  • mike

    I figured someone would bring up the subject that democracy would bring a government unfriendly to U.S. interests.

    I agree that much more than the U.S. military is needed to truly liberate the Middle East. However, I say that liberating a country and improving the situation, while not a perfect fix, is still better than leaving the country to rot for another hundred years while we figure out how exactly the best way is to liberalize the region.