Historic Documents of 2003

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    Overview of 2003

    Iraq was at the forefront of the world's agenda all through 2003, dominating public debate and roiling international diplomacy as had no single matter since the height of the Vietnam War more than three decades earlier. The year began with an intensely bitter dispute over a plan by President George W. Bush to invade Iraq and oust its president, Saddam Hussein. At year's end, having achieved that goal, Bush was presiding over the biggest, most complex, and most problem-fraught nation-building exercise the United States had tackled since the post-World War II period.

    The war in Iraq was supposed to be a fairly simple affair, at least according to the prewar rhetoric of Bush administration officials. Long-repressed Iraqis, glad to be released from Saddam's clutches, would greet invading U.S. troops as liberators and then coalesce around Washington's vision of a unified, democratic Iraq, lighting a beacon of hope for the entire Middle East. The United States, with aid from Britain and a small number of allies, needed just three weeks in late March and early April 2003 to topple Saddam and another three weeks to dismantle the rest of his regime.

    Both the prewar and postwar periods, however, were anything but simple. Before a single shot was fired in Iraq, European leaders fought among themselves over whether to support Bush's call for war. The United Nations, which had been remarkably unified on its approach to Iraq in late 2002, again became the scene of diplomatic squabbling that had paralyzed it many times in the past.

    Postwar Iraq resembled none of the scenarios that Pentagon officials had envisioned during the lengthy planning of the war and its aftermath. While most Iraqis appeared delighted to be rid of Saddam and his brutal regime, most also appeared eager to see the backs of their new American overlords.

    U.S. administrators repeatedly shifted their plans in response to grim realities, most importantly the military's inability to guarantee security in a nation where ethnic and religious factions suddenly had freedom to assert themselves. Almost from the day—May 1, 2003—that Bush declared an end to major combat in Iraq, the people of Iraq found themselves victimized by terrorism. Car bombings, suicide bombings, mortar attacks, sniper shootings—these were among the weapons that kept Iraq on edge all through the last eight months of the year. Many of the victims were international soldiers and aid workers whose stated missions were to help Iraqis rebuild their wounded society. Among them were employees of the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, whose neutrality offered them no protection. The majority of the victims of postwar bombings and other violence were Iraqis, many of them Iraqis who cooperated with the occupying powers. Those responsible for the attacks did not make themselves known but were assumed to be diehard loyalists of Saddam's regime and religious extremists who seized an opportunity to strike at the West. Saddam himself disappeared from view for eight months but was found on December 13, bearded and grubby, hiding in a hole in the ground near his hometown.

    American soldiers had an easier time finding Saddam than his alleged weapons of mass destruction. In the months before the war, Bush had said Iraq's programs to develop biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons posed a “grave and gathering danger” to Americans and, therefore, justified a war to oust Saddam from power. Bush's aides also insisted before the war that they knew exactly where the Iraqi regime was building and storing those weapons, discounting UN weapons inspectors who had been unable to find the weapons during a three-month search. Starting in April teams of U.S. soldiers and weapons experts combed through the locations where Iraq's weapons were supposed to be hidden, but none were found. Undaunted, the administration asserted that Iraq had been developing “weapons of mass destruction-related programs,” if not the weapons themselves, and that the removal of Saddam made Americans safer in any event.

    At least three other countries—North Korea, Iran, and Libya—apparently had been trying to develop similar weapons, but the Bush administration used diplomatic, rather than military, means to deal with them. North Korea's program was by far the most dangerous. Western experts were convinced the communist regime of Kim Jong Il already had built at least one or two nuclear bombs, and in 2002 North Korean officials announced plans to develop more. In this case, the U.S. administration had an important ally, China, which hosted two series of multinational talks in 2003 attempting to persuade North Korea to halt its weapons programs. The talks failed to produce that result by year's end, but they did offer a reasonable prospect for a negotiated solution.

    Another member of the “axis of evil” that Bush had identified in his 2002 State of the Union address (along with Iraq and North Korea) was Iran, where a moderate, elected government was struggling to gain authority from the Islamist clerics who had been in charge since 1979. U.S. officials had long suspected Iran was trying to build nuclear weapons, but Tehran insisted it was developing only nuclear power. An intervention by European diplomats in October secured Iran's agreement to open its nuclear facilities to UN inspection. The first inspections appeared to verify U.S. suspicions, leading to more inspections—and the prospect for another diplomatic standoff—at the end of the year.

    Libya made a surprise appearance in 2003 on the list of countries whose weapons programs came under international scrutiny. Libya and its erratic leader, Muammar Qaddafi, had topped the list of “rogue” regimes routinely denounced by the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, but it had long since been supplanted by others, notably Iraq. In March Qaddafi initiated a diplomatic overture to Britain that ultimately led to his agreement to renounce his programs to develop chemical and nuclear weapons. Inspections uncovered a sizable stockpile of chemical weapons and a nuclear weapons program that was more advanced than U.S. officials suspected—but still years away from producing a bomb.

    The attention paid to Iraq and these other nations tended to obscure the struggle for stability in Afghanistan, which had been the opening chapter in Bush's war against terrorism. An interim government headed by moderate leader Hamid Karzai had some modest success in extending its authority beyond the capital, Kabul, and curbing the influence of powerful warlords who ruled much of the countryside. At year's end leaders of Afghanistan's many factions were negotiating a new constitution intended to set the stage for the country's first-ever elections in mid-2004. As in Iraq, the political process was in constant danger of being overwhelmed by violence, in this case from supporters of the ousted Taliban regime and the al Qaeda terrorist network. Al Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden, remained at large, presumably in the rugged mountains of Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan.

    Bin Laden and fellow extremists had gained substantial sympathy in Islamic countries with an agenda of complaints about the United States and other “infidel” Western countries. One of bin Laden's main complaints—the presence of U.S. military bases in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam—was removed from that agenda in 2003. Apparently by mutual agreement, the Bush administration and Saudi leaders decided in April to close those bases and withdraw the 5,000 or so U.S. personnel who had been stationed there. The U.S. military did not move far, however—just down the Persian Gulf to Qatar and to other countries in the Gulf region and East Africa.

    The other principal item on bin Laden's stated agenda was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which remained a festering sore. For the first time since the current violence began in September 2000, there was a brief flurry of hope for a diplomatic settlement in mid-2003. The hope had two sources: Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat's agreement to appoint a prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, to negotiate peace with the Israelis, and Bush's embrace of an internationally supported “roadmap” to peace. Bush met jointly in June with Abbas and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, and he promised to “ride herd” on them as they took the difficult journey along the roadmap.

    A suicide bombing in August, coupled with hesitations on both sides, threw the peace talks off track, and Bush quietly withdrew. Moderate Israelis and Palestinians drew up counterproposals that demonstrated the technical possibility of achieving peace, but these efforts had no formal backing from decision makers. Sharon in December threatened to impose a unilateral solution based on what he called “disengagement” from the Palestinians.

    Ending Wars in Africa

    Aside from the Middle East, the region that had been most troubled by conflict in the early years of the twenty-first century was sub-Saharan Africa. More than a dozen countries had been plagued by wars over political power, natural resources, ethnic differences, or a combination of those factors. Many of these conflicts appeared to be headed to peaceful conclusions as of 2003, leaving a legacy of hundreds of thousands of deaths, unbelievable misery, and ravaged natural resources. The biggest war of all—for control of the Democratic Republic of the Congo—wound down to a low level as leaders from various factions began competing for political power in possible elections in 2005.

    One of the year's most remarkable developments was the relatively prompt international response to two crises in Africa that had threatened to become immense humanitarian tragedies, as had so many other conflicts on the continent. In May UN officials warned of a possible genocide in eastern Congo, where the last embers of a huge international war were still glowing. After just a few weeks' hesitation by the great powers at the United Nations, France and other countries responded with an emergency peacekeeping force that prevented a small-scale massacre from developing into a much bigger one. Similarly, a conflict in Liberia was contained by the presence of a small contingent of U.S. Marines—bolstered by three warships that Bush posted off the coast. Liberia's warlord-president, Charles Taylor, fled the country and went into exile, opening the possibility that the long-troubled West African country might finally enjoy a respite of peace.

    Neither of these interventions was costly in terms of lives or money, but together they may have saved many lives and soothed the consciences of Western policy makers still troubled by the failure to act against the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Rwanda itself held its first-ever contested presidential election in August. Although far from a model of democracy, the election victory for incumbent president Paul Kagame, the man who had doused the fires of genocide, appeared to reflect the will of Rwanda's still-conflicted people.

    Deficits, Controversies, and Threats

    After two years of disappointing growth following a mild recession in 2001, the U.S. economy showed signs of getting back on track in 2003. Interest rates and inflation remained low, business investment picked up toward the end of the year, and investors began to return to the stock market. Two disturbing trends raised questions about the durability of the recovery, however. Job creation remained stagnant throughout the year, with the country in the longest hiring slump since the end of the Great Depression in the 1930s. The federal budget, which had been in surplus in 2000, had sunk to a $374 billion deficit in 2003—the highest dollar level in history. The hangover from the recession and spending to finance the war on terrorism and the invasion of Iraq contributed to the deficit, as did the massive tax cuts pressed by President Bush and passed by the Republican-led Congress in 2001 and 2003.

    Jobs and the deficit were clearly going to be issues on the presidential campaign trail in 2004. A field of contenders for the Democratic nomination was already challenging the president on both issues, arguing that he had not done enough to put Americans back to work and that Bush was irresponsible for pursuing tax cuts when the deficit was spiraling out of control. Bush defended the tax cuts as the best way to promote economic growth and job creation, claimed that the deficit was “manageable” and justified in the face of economic slowdown and security threats, and vowed that he would not be satisfied until every American who wanted a job had one.

    Politics was also at the core of a major overhaul of the Medicare program. The legislation, which Bush triumphantly signed into law at an elaborate ceremony in Washington, provided a prescription drug benefit for retirees starting in 2006, at an estimated cost of $435 billion over ten years. Passage of the reform was a crucial boost for Bush's impending run for reelection—allowing him to claim credit for expanding a popular social program originally put in place and long-championed by Democrats. Although enough Democrats supported the bill to enable its passage, others, including its leading opponent, Massachusetts senator Edward M. Kennedy, said the law did more for the insurance and pharmaceutical companies than for seniors. They pledged to try to repeal some of the more controversial elements of the bill, including provisions that effectively barred importation of cheaper prescription drugs from Canada and that prohibited the U.S. government from directly negotiating with the drug companies for price discounts.

    Another matter poised to become a campaign issue was same-sex marriage. In December the Massachusetts supreme court ruled that the state's ban on gay marriage violated the state constitution. Gay couples would be able to marry in that state starting on May 17, 2004, pending action by the state legislature. The decision renewed calls for passage of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning same-sex marriages and put both Bush and his Democratic rivals in a political hot seat—any position they took was likely to offend some segment of the voting public. Bush, who had repeatedly said he was opposed to gay marriage, avoided taking a stand on a constitutional amendment until mid-December and then gave it only qualified support.

    The Massachusetts ruling came five months after the U.S. Supreme Court reversed an earlier decision and struck down a state law that criminalized sexual relations between two people of the same gender. The Court majority said the constitutional guarantee of liberty extended to the right of mutually consenting adults to engage in private sexual activity without fear of government intervention. In another important and controversial civil rights case, the Supreme Court endorsed the limited use of affirmative action in college and university admissions policies aimed at creating a diverse student body. The decision was widely hailed by corporations, professional associations, and prominent members of the armed forces, all of whom said that well-educated and well-trained students of all races and ethnicities were crucial to the continued vitality of the country.

    The sweeping breadth of the majority opinions in the sodomy and affirmative action cases was matched by the majority opinion in a ruling, issued at the end of the year, that upheld the key elements of the 2002 campaign finance reform. That measure was aimed at curbing the influence of big money in federal elections. The majority unequivocally endorsed Congress's authority “to anticipate and respond to concerns about circumvention of [campaign finance] regulations,” squarely rejecting the challengers' claims that the new law violated the right of free speech.

    Key elements of President Bush's controversial handling of terrorist suspects were being challenged in court throughout 2003. The administration scored an important victory in June when a federal appeals court upheld the Justice Department's right to keep secret the identities of 726 immigrants—most of them Muslims—it had detained while it looked for information linking them to terrorists. The Bush administration said the confidentiality was required to help foil future terrorist attacks.

    On another issue, appeals courts took opposite views on the question of whether foreign nationals captured by American troops in Afghanistan during the war there in 2001 and held at a military prison at Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba should have access to U.S. courts to challenge their detention. One court said that under the Constitution the courts had no jurisdiction over foreign nationals held on foreign territory; the other said the courts were obliged, even in national emergencies, to ensure that the executive branch did not ride “roughshod” over the rights of citizens and aliens. The Supreme Court agreed in November to review the issue. At year's end the Court was still considering whether to hear a similar issue raised by Yasir Esam Hamdi, a U.S. citizen who was captured in Afghanistan in 2001 and labeled an “enemy combatant.” Hamdi was held incommunicado by the U.S. Navy until December 3, 2003, when the Bush administration reversed course and said that he would be allowed to consult a lawyer.

    As controversial as the handling of terrorist suspects was the Justice Department's use of its domestic police powers to hunt down and detain those suspects. Civil liberties advocates said the new powers given to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other law enforcement agencies were too broad, cloaked in too much secrecy, and not subject to enough checks and balances. A month-long national speaking tour by Attorney General John D. Ashcroft to defend the USA Patriot Act against allegations that it was infringing on civil liberties appeared to do little to quell anxieties about the law. Congress gave scant attention to President Bush's proposals for strengthening the law—made public on the eve of the second anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington—and new support appeared to be gathering for repealing some parts of the law that its opponents found most objectionable.

    Two health scares erupted in 2003. A previously unknown, highly infectious respiratory disease, known as SARS (for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) broke out in China in 2002 and spread to some thirty countries before being contained in mid-2003. The disease infected more than 8,000 people, mostly in Asia, left nearly 800 people dead, rocked the global economy for several months, and sent waves of panic throughout the world. In late December the U.S. secretary of agriculture announced that a dairy cow in Washington state had tested positive for mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE). Consumption of certain parts of infected cattle could cause a rare but incurable wasting brain disease in humans. The government assured consumers that the food supply was safe and quickly introduced new rules to keep infected cows from contaminating the food chain. Nonetheless, consumers were frightened, and more than thirty countries banned imports of American beef.

    Corporate Corruption

    A wave of corporate scandals that began with the bankruptcy of the Enron Corporation in late 2001 continued all through 2003. The year's major new development was the revelation that some of the nation's largest mutual funds had allowed special favors for select investors, often at the expense of the vast majority of their clients. More than 70 million Americans had invested in retirement accounts and other forms of savings with mutual funds—largely because they were relatively easy to use and had appeared to be bastions of integrity. An investigation by New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer sparked numerous inquiries that raised serious questions about the practices at dozens of mutual funds. Some investors responded by pulling their money out of the funds targeted by the investigations, but most Americans had few attractive alternative options for investing their savings.

    Other cases of misdeeds in the nation's executive suites and boardrooms came to light during the year, as well as additional information about some of the major scandals that had arisen in 2002. Among the most notable companies joining the scandal parade were Freddie Mac, the nation's second largest financier of home mortgages; HealthSouth, owner of a chain of rehabilitation nursing centers; and Parmalat, one of Europe's major food producers.

    Investigative reports detailed how some leading corporate officials had mismanaged their companies and how their boards of directors let them get away with it. Perhaps the most graphic description of corporate misbehavior came in a blow-by-blow report on the events leading to the bankruptcy of telecommunications giant WorldCom; that report said the company's board had routinely rubber-stamped decisions by executives and approved billion-dollar deals without examining any of the details. By 2003 the company was taking aggressive steps to reinvent itself.

    JohnFelton and MarthaGottron

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