From building ties to Saddam to removing him from power
The following is a text adaptation of a joint CNN Presents/New York Times special report, "Showdown: Iraq."
(CNN) -- Twenty years ago, the U.S. government was building ties to Saddam Hussein's government -- not trying to overthrow it.
In the mid-1980s, the Reagan administration sent then-private citizen Donald Rumsfeld as a special envoy to improve relations. Rumsfeld is now the U.S. secretary of defense.
Saddam's regime was using much of Iraq's burgeoning oil revenue to improve the daily lives of its people. It even won UN humanitarian awards for its literacy programs.
Amatzia Baram, a professor at the University of Haifa, said Saddam's administration improved the nation's infrastructure, such as roads, electrical grids, hospitals, water systems and -- to an extent -- women's status. "However, all this came at the -- at the expense of personal freedoms," he said.
To the United States, Iraq's secular regime was an important counter-balance to Iran, where anti-American passion mixed with radical Islam had led to the overthrow of the U.S.-backed Shah.
"In the 1980's, our Arab allies in the region and our own assessment convinced us that Iraq might be a new kind of moderate Arab leader, that [Saddam] could be brought into the moderate Arab camp," said New York Times reporter Patrick Tyler.
Favoring Iraq over Iran
When Iraq attacked Iran in 1980 over a border dispute, the United States tilted toward Saddam -- secretly supplying intelligence to hit Iranian positions.
The relationship with Iraq was severely tested after Saddam used chemical weapons against Iranian forces and even gassed rebellious Kurds in the northern part of the country.
"Congress reacted, the public reacted, and this made it all the more complicated for the United States to continue its, its secret assistance to the Iraqi military," Tyler said.
Meanwhile Iraq had begun a secret program of its own: nuclear weapons. In 1981, Israel bombed and destroyed a nuclear reactor near Baghdad believed to be the foundation of the weapons program.
Both the United Nations and the United States denounced the preemptive strike. But the Israeli attack was only a temporary setback.
Iraq went on a multi-billion dollar buying binge, purchasing components for building a nuclear bomb from Western companies eager for cash.
Khidir Hamza headed Iraq's nuclear weapons program before defecting in 1994. He says Iraq used the cover of scientific research to purchase nuclear-related equipment.
"And you tell them you need equipment for research, and they tell you, "What kind of research?" And you make up a story," he said. "A good one.We are scientists; We can make good stories, and they buy it. They buy the story and they sell us the equipment."
Turning against Saddam
It wasn't until Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, that the United States turned against Saddam. Iraq was now seen as big a danger to U.S. interests as Iran.
"Now the same fear was being projected on Iraq -- that he was an alarming, threatening leader in the region who was out to grab the oil weapon and use it against the West," Tyler said.
The resulting Persian Gulf War ended Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, but the U.S forces did not go all the way to Baghdad to overthrow him.
President Bush, the father of the current president, feared that expanding the mission would destroy his international coalition because the goal of the U.N. resolutions backing the armed conflict focused only on removing Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
"We could have rode into Baghdad in 48 hours, and then all hell would have been broken loose," former President Bush said. "And we would have been standing alone making a martyr out of a defeated brute and tyrant, Saddam Hussein."
After the Gulf War, U.S. officials believed Saddam would be overthrown internally.
"After the Gulf War, I went around and talked to a number of very senior Bush administration officials, some of whom are in the new Bush administration, and they all assured me Saddam Hussein would fall in six months, because that was the basic take in the American intelligence community," said New York Times military affairs reporter Michael Gordon.
Now the second President Bush is pushing hard to remove Saddam from power.
"The American people know my position," he said. "And that is that regime change is in the interest of the world."
But after all these years, why now threaten war? The Bush administration believes that in a post-September 11 environment, threats must be dealt with pre-emptively, according to CNN Senior White House Correspondent John King, who has covered the administration since it came into office.
"Everybody knew on September 10th Osama bin Laden was a threat to the United States and its interests. He was not dealt with decisively. Look what happened. That is the president's policy now. See a threat, deal with the threat or pay the price ... and Iraq is test number one."
Over the summer, the administration stepped up its case for a preemptive attack, with President Bush outlining the new doctrine for pre-emptive attacks in a commencement speech at West Point.
"If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long," Bush said.
But prominent members of the president's own party balked. Texas Rep. Dick Armey, a member of the House Republican leadership, said the United States should just let Saddam bluster.
"As long as he behaves himself within his own borders, we should not be addressing any attack of resources against him," Armey said.
Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser during the first Bush administration and mentor of current National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, warned against a "go-it-alone" strategy in the Wall Street Journal.
"An attack on Iraq at this time would seriously jeopardize, if not destroy, the global counterterrorist campaign we have undertaken," Scowcroft wrote in the September 15, 2002, edition on the Journal's editorial page.
Lawrence Eagleburger, who also served in the first Bush administration, also spoke out, saying the nation need answers before any war against Iraq.
"How long do we stay? How much does it cost? What does it do to our conditions within that part of the world? What kind of a regime do we put in his place? How long does it last if it seems that we are the ones that put him in his place?" Eagleburger said during a September 25 interview on CNN's "Late Edition." "I think there are any number of complex questions that simply haven't been examined."
With pressure from critics mounting, the Bush administration took its case to the United Nations. In a September 12 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, President Bush said the UN risked the possibility of becoming irrelevant if it didn't enforce its own resolutions against Iraq.
The president also warned that if the UN did not stand up to Saddam, the U.S. would.
"By heritage and by choice, the United States of America will make that stand," he said. "And, delegates to the United Nations, you have the power to make that stand, as well."
Bush's speech was well-received but support for his approach remains divided. Great Britain has been very supportive, as have other European nations. But Germany is opposing a war in Iraq and many Middle East countries have voiced doubts as well.