Iraq, forge of the 21st century

Bush gave Saddam a kicking, but left Iran to rule over a region infested with terrorists.

They liked to call themselves “the Vulcans” in honour of the Roman god of fire and patron of blacksmiths. Because that was their objective: to forge (with fire and flesh) an American 21st century. They concluded that the United States had ended the 20th century as the world’s sole, uncontested superpower only thanks to the combination of moral clarity and military power with which Ronald Reagan had defeated the Soviet Union, and with it a greater evil: communism. It’s not that they were great admirers of Reagan, a mere actor who played out his part in the mid-20th-century rise of America, but rather they were Reagan: almost all of them had worked in the lower ranks of his administration, and in the early 200s they were in the front rank of Bush Jr’s team. We are talking about Dick Cheney, who was vice president, and Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Richard Perle (dubbed the “The Prince of Darkness” by one biographer) in the Pentagon, and John Bolton at the United Nations. There were also many others, grouped around the powerful think-tank the “Project for the New American Century”.

The smiths had their hammer in the US Army, the most powerful, technologically sophisticated, and well-funded military machine in history, which accounted for 50 percent of global military spending. They lacked two things: a worthy enemy, who would embody absolute evil, and a forge in which to shape history. The first was provided by Bin Laden, whose defiance was rapidly elevated to the status of Islamo-Fascism in order to facilitate the existence of a moral certitude equivalent to that previously held in the face of communism. The second came in the form of Iraq. Despite the fact that the FBI repeatedly certified that there were no al-Qaeda terrorists there, Iraq was the perfect forge for these iron workers. Compared to Afghanistan, a smaller, strategically insignificant country, Iraq and its immense oil reserves offered a unique geopolitical platform from which to control the entire Middle East, including Iran. Many of these neocons criticized the far more pragmatic Bush Sr. for not having “finished the job” in the first Gulf War (1990-91), allowing Saddam to remain in power. Now was the moment. 

According to those present on 1 May 2002, angered by reticence in the press to back the enthusiastic campaign against Saddam, Bush Jr. told his press chief Fleischer: “I’m going to kick his sorry motherfucking ass all over the Middle East.” Bush kept his promise. But along with Saddam’s backside, he kicked the Ba’ath Party, the administration, and Iraq’s armed forces, whose historical role had been to contain tensions between Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis. The region was left littered with terrorists with Iran on high as the leading regional power. We are now picking up the pieces of a century which began with Bush Jr.’s very eloquent statement.

Follow me on Twitter @jitorreblanca and in the blog Café Steiner at This article was originally published in Spanish by El Pais.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow

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