Thinking

Why did the United States invade Iraq?

MidEast

Bush’s decision to depose Saddam has always perplexed the Policy Tensor. I have previously argued that US policy with respect to Iraq after 1990 was inconsistent with foreign policy realism; that, during the 1990s, US foreign policy was guided by the rogue states doctrine that served as the justification for the forward-deployment of US forces around the globe (and defense spending high enough to allow for garrisoning the planet after the threat from the Soviet Union vanished into thin air) by inflating the threat posed by confrontation states; that Saddam became a poster child of the rogues’ gallery that the foreign policy elite in Washington said they were determined to contain; and that the US policy consensus on the threat posed by the person of Saddam Hussein meant that Saddam was most at risk from a revisionist policy innovation in Washington.

So when George Bush went about “searching for monsters to destroy,” Saddam was the most tempting target. The consensus in policy circles against Saddam explains why the US invaded Iraq and not Cuba, North Korea, Iran or Libya; or any other confrontation state that could, more or less convincingly, be framed as a “rogue state”, “outlaw state”, “backlash state”, or “Weapon State” (as Krauthammer put it in Foreign Affairs). In short, Bush was following the path of least resistance when he chose to overthrow President Hussein.

But why did Bush want to depose Saddam in the first place? The US veto on potential rivals’ access to gulf energy was already secured by the United States’ impregnable maritime power in the region. That is, with or without a friendly regime in Baghdad, the US could deny any challenger access to gulf energy simply using its overwhelming maritime power.

Moreover, almost any conceivable US national interest could’ve been more easily secured by bringing Saddam in from the cold. If Bush wanted his friends in the oil industry to benefit from access to Iraqi oil, Saddam could easily have been brought in from the cold on that very condition. If Bush wanted to ramp up Iraqi oil production to lower oil prices (and perhaps undermine Saudi Arabia’s position as the swing producer and its hold on OPEC), the easiest way to do that would’ve been to allow Western oil firms to invest in Iraqi production capacity. If Bush wanted an Iraqi regime that was a geopolitical ally of the United States and Israel, even that was within the realm of possibility with Saddam at the helm in Baghdad.

Suppose that for whatever reason it was impossible for the United States to work with Saddam. Then, any conceivable US interest would’ve been better served by replacing the regime led by Saddam Hussein with a more compliant military junta. For a democratic regime in Baghdad was ethno-demographically guaranteed to fall within the orbit of Iran.

In fact, what I found after combing through the archives of the 1990s was that US-Iraq relations had been personalized to an extraordinary degree and that there was an overwhelming consensus in the foreign policy establishment that the ideal scenario would be a military coup by a more accommodative general. The idea was that if Saddam were deposed by a more accommodative general, we would get the best of both worlds. An iron-fisted junta would provide stability in the sense that Iraq would serve as a bulwark against Iran and keep a lid on both ethnic nationalism (Shia, Sunni and Kurdish) and salafi jihadism. And a more accommodative leadership in Iraq would remove Iraq from the ranks of the confrontation states and thereby enhance the security, power and influence of the United States and its regional allies.

These considerations explain why, after kicking Saddam’s army out of Kuwait, Bush’s dad left Saddam in power and watched from the sidelines as Saddam crushed the Iraqi intifada. Bush Senior later explained the decision in his book that he coauthored with Scowcroft:

While we hoped that a popular revolt or coup would topple Saddam, neither the United States nor the countries of the region wished to see the breakup of the Iraqi state. We were concerned about the long-term balance of power at the head of the Gulf. Breaking up the Iraqi state would pose its own destabilizing problems.

The core of the Bush revolution in foreign policy was the decision to break with this policy consensus. Specifically, Bush Jr’s policy innovation was to overthrow Saddam Hussein without replacing him with a more accommodative military junta. What possible US interest could be served by that policy? What did principals in the Bush administration hope to accomplish? What was their grand-strategy? I think I finally have an answer.

My interpretation builds on the findings and arguments of a large number of scholars. For the sake of conciseness, I’ll focus exclusively on the excellent anthology edited by Jane Cramer and Trevor ThrallWhy Did the United States Invade Iraq? In what follows, I’ll summarize their findings before presenting my interpretation. All quotes that follow are from this book unless otherwise specified.


Cramer and Thrall argue that the core foreign policy principals in the Bush administration were President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. It’s plausible to imagine that they came under the sway of neocons and to the neocons’ well-known strategy of regime change in Iraq in the heightened threat environment after 9/11. But that story is inconsistent with the facts.

The record indicates they did not even make a decision after 9/ 11; they apparently had already made up their minds so they did not need to deliberate or debate. Instead they discussed war preparations and strategies for convincing the public and Congress, with no planning for how to make democracy take shape in Iraq.

Cheney played an extraordinary role in the administration. In particular, he handpicked almost all the neocon hawks who led the drumbeat to war:

Cheney helped appoint thirteen of the eighteen members of the Project for the New American Century.… Cheney lobbied strongly for one open advocate of regime change—Donald Rumsfeld—who was appointed to be Secretary of Defense. And then, Cheney and Rumsfeld together appointed perhaps the most famous advocate for overthrowing Saddam Hussein in order to create a democracy in Iraq, Paul Wolfowitz, as Undersecretary of Defense. Cheney created a powerful dual position for Scooter Libby …John Bolton as special assistant Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security; David Wurmser as Bolton’s chief assistant; Robert Zoellick as US Trade Representative; and Zalmay Khalilzad as head of the Pentagon transition team…. [Cheney appointed] Elliot Abrams, Douglas Feith, Richard Perle and Abram Schulsky.

But, Cramer and Thrall argue, quite convincingly in my opinion, that “the neoconservatives and the Israel lobby were “used” to publicly sell the invasion, while the plans and priorities of the neoconservatives were sidelined during the war by the top Bush leaders.”

The State Department and the oil industry were becoming increasingly alarmed about the neoconservatives’ oil plan and Chalabi’s open advocacy for it. In the eyes of the mainstream oil industry, an aggressive oil grab by the United States might lead to a destabilization of the oil market and a delegitimizing of the Iraq invasion. This was argued in an independent report put out on January 23, 2003 by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Baker Institute entitled Guiding Principles for U.S. Post-Conflict Policy in Iraq. The report cautioned against taking direct control of Iraqi oil, saying, “A heavy American hand will only convince them (the Iraqis), and the rest of the world, that the operation in Iraq was carried out for imperialist rather than disarmament reasons. It is in American interests to discourage surch misperceptions….

The State Department plan triumphed over the neoconservatives’ plan, and this helps demonstrate that Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush did not allow the neoconservatives and the Israel lobby to dominate US foreign policy even from the inception of the invasion. In fact, Bush appointed Phillip Carroll, the former chief of Shell Oil, to oversee the Iraqi oil business. Carroll executed much of the oil industries’ preferred plans for Iraqi oil. Revealingly, when L. Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, ordered the de-Ba’athification of all government ministries in Iraq, Carroll refused to comply with Bremer’s order because removing the Ba’athist oil technocrats would have hindered the Iraqi oil business. In the end, the Baker plan (aligned with US oil industry interests) was implemented in its entirety. The US official policy was to use Production Sharing Agreements (PSAs) that legally left the ownership of the oil in Iraqi government hands while attempting to ensure new long-term multinational oil corporation profits.

On de-Ba’athification, on Chalabi, on Iraqi participation in OPEC, on the privatization of Iraqi oil, on bombing Iran and Syria, on threatening Saudi Arabia or giving the Saudis access to advanced weaponry, the administration went counter to the neoconservatives’ proposals and policy desiderata. In fact, the “neoconservatives realized that they had been used to sell the war publicly but were marginalized when it came to the creation of Middle East policy. In 2006 prominent neoconservatives broke with the administration and resoundingly attacked Bush’s policies.”

So, if the neoconservative vision of an expanding zone of democratic peace was not the motivation for the invasion, what was? “Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush,” Cramer and Thrall argue, “were US primacists and not realists.”

Cheney authorized Paul Wolfowitz to manage a group project to write up a new Defense Planning Guidance (DPG) drafted by various authors throughout the Pentagon in full consultation with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell (Burr 2008). The DPG was leaked to the New York Times on March 7, 1992 (Tyler 1992). The radical plan caused a political firestorm as it called for US military primacy over every strategic region on the planet.

The draft DPG leaked in 1992 was widely perceived as a radical neoconservative document that was not endorsed by the high officials in the George H. W. Bush administration. Dick Cheney sought to distance himself from the document publicly while heartily endorsing it privately. Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams claimed that Cheney and Wolfowitz had not read it. Numerous other Pentagon officials stepped forward to say that the report represented the views of one man: Paul Wolfowitz. The campaign to scapegoat Wolfowitz for the unpopular plan was successful and the press dubbed the DPG as the “Wolfowitz Doctrine.” However, recently released classified documents show that the document was based on Powell’s “base force” plan and was drafted with the full consultation of Cheney and many other high Pentagon officials (Burr 2008). In the days after the leak, Wolfowitz and others worried that the plan would be dropped altogether. But in spite of the controversy, Cheney was very happy with the document, telling Zalmay Khalilzad, one of the main authors, “You have discovered a new rationale for our role in the world.”

Cramer and Thrall conclude:

We think a gradual consensus is forming among scholars of the war that Cheney, and to a lesser degree Rumsfeld, were the primary individuals whom Bush trusted. These three leaders together shared the desire to forcefully remove Saddam Hussein, they made the decision, and they made the key appointments of the talented advisers who crafted the arguments to sell the war to the American people. We have shown that President Bush was a zealous participant in the decision to invade, but he was likely not a primary architect to the extent the much more seasoned Cheney and Rumsfeld were. We find that the recently released documents proving intentional intelligence manipulation (especially from the British Iraq Inquiry, see Chapter 9), combined with the long career paths of Cheney and Rumsfeld and the actions of these top leaders before and after 9/ 11, belie the perception that the administration was swept up by events and acted out of misguided notions of imminent threats, Iraqi connections to Al Qaeda, or crusading idealism. The United States did not emotionally stumble into war because of 9/ 11. On the contrary, the top leaders took a calculated risk to achieve their goals of US primacy, including proving the effectiveness of the revolution in military affairs, and strengthening the power of the president.


The Policy Tensor agrees with the characterization of principals in the Bush administration as primacists. The problem is that invading Iraq does not follow from the grand-strategy of primacy. The primacists’ argument is straightforward and indeed compelling. The idea is that it was in the US interest to prolong unipolarity as long as possible and that required an active policy to prevent the reemergence of a peer competitor. As the authors of the Defence Planning Guidance put it in 1992,

Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union. This is a dominant consideration underlying the new regional defense strategy and requires that we endeavor to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power. These regions include Western Europe, East Asia, the territory of the former Soviet Union, and Southwest Asia.

Separately, in combination, or even in an alliance with a near-peer, the so-called rogue states were never (and never would be) in a position to pose “a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union.” The combined GDP of the “rogue states”—Iraq, Iran, Libya, North Korea, and Cuba—never exceeded that of California, Texas, or New York. Even if Saddam conquered the Arabian peninsula and consolidated control over its oil resources, he would be in no position to “generate global power.” In any case, the unipole could quite easily deter an Iraqi invasion of the Arabian peninsula.

Even a nuclear-armed Iraq would be in no position to impose its will on US protectorates in the region, much less on the United States itself. Those who argue that a nuclear-armed Iraq or Iran cannot be deterred simply don’t understand the logic of nuclear deterrence. If Saddam has successfully acquired a nuclear deterrent, the United States would not have been able to invade and occupy Iraq. But the Iraqi deterrent would have been useless for the purposes of aggression, conquest, or regional domination. Had he retaken Kuwait, the United States would still have been able to kick him out simply because he would’ve been in no position to threaten the use of nuclear weapons against US forces for then he would be making the incredible threat of suicide to hold on to his conquests. Put more formally, extended deterrence is hard enough for the unipole; it is well-nigh impossible for a regional power like Iraq under Saddam.

If the United States under Bush had acted in accordance with the grand-strategy of primacy, she would have cared little about minor confrontation states and much more about actual potential rivals. In particular, the United States would have tried hard to thwart the emergence of a peer in the two extremities of eurasia. A more aggressive strategy to maintain primacy would see the United States not only preventing the consolidation of either of these two regions under a single power, but also undermining the growth rate of the only power that has the potential to become a peer of the United States without conquering a strategically important region. That is, if the Bush administration had followed the grand-strategy of primacy, it would’ve blocked China’s admission into the WTO, and more generally, prevented China’s emergence as the workshop of the world. That would’ve prolonged US primacy with much more certainty than the destruction of the entire rogues’ gallery.

So what was the grand-strategy that made the decision to invade intelligible?

Jonathan Cook has argued for a much more radical proposal in Israel and the Clash of Civilizations. He argues that it was in the Israeli interest to have its regional rivals disappear from the ranks of the confrontation states and be broken up into statelets that would not pose any significant threats to Israel’s regional primacy; and that the Israelis managed to convince principals in the Bush administration of the merits of their revisionist agenda for the region:

I propose a different model for understanding the [Bush] Administration’s wilful pursuit of catastrophic goals in the Middle East, one that incorporates many of the assumptions of both the Chomsky and Walt-Mearsheimer positions. I argue that Israel persuaded the US neocons that their respective goals (Israeli regional dominance and US control of oil) were related and compatible ends. As we shall see, Israel’s military establishment started developing an ambitious vision of Israel as a small empire in the Middle East more than two decades ago. It then sought a sponsor in Washington to help it realise its vision, and found one in the neocons. (p. 91.)

Yinon’s argument that Israel should encourage discord and feuding within states – destabilising them and encouraging them to break up into smaller units – was more compelling [than Sharon’s status-quo, state-centric vision of Israeli regional primacy]. Tribal and sectarian groups could be turned once again into rivals, competing for limited resources and too busy fighting each other to mount effective challenges to Israeli or US power. Also, Israeli alliances with non-Arab and non-Muslim groups such as Christians, Kurds and the Druze could be cultivated without the limitations imposed on joint activity by existing state structures. In this scenario, the US and Israel could manipulate groups by awarding favours – arms, training, oil remittances – to those who were prepared to cooperate while conversely weakening those who resisted. (p. 118.)

Israel and the neocons knew from the outset that invading Iraq and overthrowing its dictator would unleash sectarian violence on an unprecedented scale – and that they wanted this outcome. In a policy paper in late 1996, shortly after the publication of A Clean Break, the key neocon architects of the occupation of Iraq – David Wurmser, Richard Perle and Douglas Feith – predicted the chaos that would follow an invasion. ‘The residual unity of the [Iraqi] nation is an illusion projected by the extreme repression of the state’, they advised. After Saddam Hussein’s fall, Iraq would ‘be ripped apart by the politics of warlords, tribes, clans, sects, and key families.’ (p.133.)

I think Cook is mistaken about the importance of Israeli influence but he is onto something. Even if Israel managed to persuade principals in the Bush administration, there is no evidence to suggest that the Israel lobby, or even the neocons more generally (the lines between the two are blurred), had decisive influence over the Bush administration’s Middle East policy. (My position here is congruent with Cramer and Thrall’s). But what is clear is the frame of reference in which smashing Israel’s rivals would be in the US interest.

More precisely, I think principals in the Bush administration figured that Israel was nearly guaranteed to be a strong ally of the United States is a difficult region. After the reorientation of Egypt (mid-1970s) and the Islamic revolution (1979), three regional poles prevented total US-Israeli domination of the Middle East: Iran, Iraq and Syria. Smashing these confrontation states would guarantee Israel’s regional primacy and therefore, I think principals in the Bush administration reckoned, further the US interest in more easily dominating the region in a permanent alliance with its junior geopolitical ally. In other words, the grand-strategy of the Bush administration was to remove, by threats or by the use of force, Israel’s regional rivals in the Middle East.

They hoped to overthrow or cow into submission, the regimes of Iraq, Iran and Syria; and thereby establish unchallenged US-Israeli supremacy in the Middle East. What I am saying is that the United States’ grand-strategy was based on an ill-informed regional variant of offensive realism—one whose logic was conditional on a permanent alliance with a regional power—as opposed to the global and unconditional variant of offensive realism assumed by the grand-strategy of primacy (as put forward, say, by Mearsheimer).

It is clear that regional primacy was in the Israeli interest. It’s a bit of stretch to argue that it was it was also in the US interest. The problem is that, military primacy or not, Israel simply does not have that much influence in the region. Because it is a pariah in the Middle East, few actors try to seek its patronage (the Kurds are the main exception); most look to Iran, Saudi Arabia, or global powers. It is nearly impossible for Israel to play the role formerly played by Iran under the Shan or Egypt under Nasser. The United States has no choice but to work with other regional powers (Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran) to work out regional problems. Moreover, from the perspective of a global power trying to minimize the costs of ensuring stability in a multipolar region of strategic significance, a balance of power is considerably more attractive than the precarious primacy of a pariah; perhaps even one guaranteed to be a permanent ally.

But the fundamental flaw of the grand-strategy pursued by the Bush administration was not the conflation of US and Israeli interest. (It can be argued, after all, that since Israel was basically guaranteed to be a permanent ally, Israeli regional primacy was squarely in the US interest.) No, the fundamental flaw of the revisionist strategy was the outright dismissal of the costs of the ensuing instability. No matter how far the prewar consensus was from foreign policy realism, at least the unbounded costs of regional instability were understood. When Bush broke with the consensus and smashed the Iraqi state, he clearly did not appreciate just how bad things could get.

Breaking up confrontation states into ethnic statelets and zones of weakness may sound like a splendid idea to half-baked geopolitical analysts. But instability and weakness are a source of insecurity, not power; as both the United States and Israel have since discovered.

To wrap up: The grand-strategy pursued by the United States when it invaded Iraq was to smash the regional poles that acted as confrontation states in the Middle East, whose removal from the equation promised unchallenged US-Israeli supremacy in this strategically-relevant region. Principals in the Bush administration simply did not appreciate the unbounded costs of the regional instability that would ensue.

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