March 18, 2003 -- Just one month after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — and only five days after the war in Afghanistan had begun — President Bush signaled his determination to confront Saddam Hussein next.
"There's no question that the leader of Iraq is an evil man. After all, he gassed his own people. We know he's been developing weapons of mass destruction. … And so we're watching him very carefully. We're watching him carefully," Bush said in an Oct. 11, 2001, address.
But the administration had its eye on Iraq long before 9/11.
Even in his inaugural address, Bush — though he did not mention Iraq by name — sounded the themes that underlie his policy today. "We will confront weapons of mass destruction, so that a new century is spared new horrors. The enemies of liberty and our country should make no mistake: America remains engaged in the world by history and by choice, shaping a balance of power that favors freedom."
Those words reflected a tough, hawkish line on Iraq that has dominated administration debates from the beginning.
Bush has stocked his administration with senior officials who have for years supported the United States toppling Saddam, including Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and others.
These officials have expressed their views in no uncertain terms. "Saddam Hussein is a liar. He lies every single day," Rumsfeld said.
A Personal Vendetta?
Some Americans have wondered whether the president's determination to take on Saddam is a personal obsession — one born in the aftermath of the Gulf War his father launched, when Saddam was left in power.
And last fall, in Texas, this president seemed to confirm the personal nature of this conflict.
"There's no doubt his hatred is mainly directed at us," Bush said. "There's no doubt he can't stand us. After all, this is a guy that tried to kill my dad at one time."
But while opponents of Bush say he's simply out for revenge, others say it's not that simple.
"I think if it had been a family obsession, you know, if he was Captain Ahab and Saddam Hussein was the great white whale — we would have heard a lot more of this early on, and we just didn't," said Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Priorities Changed After 9/11
While the president did come into office looking at ways to increase pressure on Iraq to disarm, he was not, officials say, determined to go to war.
"I think regime change was in his mind. I don't think it was number one. I think 'No Child Left Behind' was number one," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan. "But events of the day, again, change things very dramatically."
Those events, the 9/11 attacks, radically altered Bush's sense of the urgency to take on a regime he saw as a potential arsenal for terrorism.
"My vision shifted dramatically after September the 11th, because I now realize the stakes," Bush said following a January meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "I realize the world has changed. My most important obligation is to protect the American people from further harm. And I will do that."
But many Americans — and many allies — say the administration has used the fear of terrorism as cover to achieve their goal of regime change in Iraq.
Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., said, "The Bush administration was wrong to allow the anti-Iraq zealots in its ranks to exploit the 9/11 tragedy by using it to make war against Iraq a higher priority than the war against terrorism."
And the collapse of diplomatic efforts at the United Nations has other critics charging that Bush's relentlessness on Iraq has alienated key allies.
To all these criticisms, however, the president has always had one response: The threat he believes Saddam's Iraq poses must be confronted — now.
In October, Bush spoke resolutely on Iraq. "The course of action may bring many sacrifices. Yet delay, indecision and inaction could lead to a massive and sudden horror. By timely and resolute action, we can defend ourselves and shape a peaceful future," the president said.