We recently passed the ten year mark since the start of the Iraq War. And so it seems appropriate for me to finally comment on the origins of that controversial event. The general consensus among political scientists and the rest of the foreign policy elite is that the war was a major US blunder, misguided both in origin and execution. Basically, I agree with this fundamental assessment but differ in how I understand the origins of this war from many of these thinkers, many of whom seem content merely to explain US actions as stemming from an arrogant imperialistic mindset or as due to an ideological crusade on the part of a Republican administration. In other words, much of the analysis has been, well, not really analysis but instead has struck me as a sort of "competition of condemnation."
The passionate and partisan nature of this debate about the origins of the Iraq War is a major reason why I’ve been reticent about giving my opinion on the matter. Again, I agree with most in declaring this a huge misstep in US foreign policy that has had many adverse consequences. But I’m not merely satisfied running around self-righteously berating the policy makers involved. Instead I’m much more interested in a level headed analysis of the origins of the war. It is certainly a much more fruitful exercise to determine why and how this ill-advised war began than to simply prattle on about how bad and wrong it was.
At any rate, there are, in addition to the imperialist and ideological motivations mentioned above, many theories about the origins of the Iraq War. One of the more popular is that the war was started by a group of well-placed neoconservative advisers (who are supposedly by disposition quite hawkish) who deftly and sinisterly steered the various policy makers in the administration to war. Sometimes linked with this view is that the neo-cons teamed up with AIPAC (the Israeli Lobby) and some members of the Israeli policy making body to create a war as a means of diverting the world from the rapidly deteriorating situation then occurring in the West Bank (the second Intifada was by this point in full swing). Closer to the conspiracy theory sphere are those that assert that Bush ’43 personally engineered the war as a means of vengeance against Saddam Hussein for his actions against his father, Bush ’41 (or something inane like that) or that the war was started by a military cabal or that it was begun to secure Middle Eastern oil (Desert Shield/Storm was actually more about oil than the Iraq War) or whatever.
Besides being rubbish what all of these theories have in common is the attribution of a pernicious and malevolent element to US geopolitical actions that I don't think existed. However, I’m not going to spend this blog post addressing this matter or any of these other theories. Rather, I want to put forth my own theory. Well, not my own per se since there are a few academics who share a similar viewpoint to mine such as Melvin P. Leffler of the University of Virginia.
The first thing that I need to point out is something that often gets downplayed or outright ignored in much of the discussion surrounding the origin of the Iraq War, namely the place of Iraq and Saddam Hussein in the national security policy of the United States before 9/11. This is crucial because many act as if after the 1991 Gulf War Saddam was of little to no concern in the making of American national security policy, that after the US “whipped” Saddam he basically minded his own business thereafter until the son of his adversary decided out of nowhere to peremptorily finish the job. But the reality is that Hussein remained a major problem, still continuing to top the list of threats that are given in the President’s daily national security brief. What to do about Saddam, who repeatedly was in violation of the no-fly zones, blocked UN weapon inspectors, circumvented the Oil for Food Program, continued to viciously crackdown on the minorities of his country (the Shia and Kurds especially), and more, was of principal concern to the Clinton administration which actually fired ballistic missiles at Iraq in 1998 and continually considered regime change as a proper course of action worth pursuing. The point here is that right up until 9/11 Iraq featured prominently in the discussions and concerns of United States national security policy.
Then 9/11 happened. Now I’ve suggested before that at least in the long term calculus I don’t think 9/11 was all that transformative. But for a brief moment it certainly had a profound effect on American foreign policy in that the paranoia created by the 9/11 attacks caused the US to magnify and exaggerate all other threats, especially those that had been brewing for quite some time. Moreover, 9/11 sent policy makers into such a panic that these major threats which were previously considered contained to one degree or another were instantly transformed into threats that urgently needed to be extinguished. And topping this list was Iraq.
So my thesis is as follows:
1.) Iraq continued to be a major national security concern of the United States after the Gulf War and up to the 9/11 attacks.
2.) The sudden 9/11 attacks created a state of paranoia that caused the US to egregiously augment prior threats from containment to necessary extinction.
3.) Saddam Hussein was considered chief among these threats
4.) Therefore, the United States invaded Iraq to eliminate what it perceived as an immediate threat to its national security.
My position then is that the origins of the Iraq War can be found in legitimate national security concerns that were unfortunately blown out of proportion because of the 9/11 attacks. The sense of urgency that this paranoia created caused policy makers to see connections that did not exist such as the dubious linking of Hussein with Al Qaeda. (The same could be said of the case made for Saddam having WMDs though what often gets overlooked here is the fact that just about EVERYONE, including most of the UN member nations, even France, as well as UN weapon inspectors, believed Saddam did possess WMDs before the war so I find much of the discussion surrounding the WMDs to be quite disingenuous.)
Now I don’t normally dabble in counterfactual history, but a further view of mine is that had Gore been elected I believe it is highly likely that the Iraq War would still have occurred. There are two key assumptions that I’m making here:
1.) Though the rhetoric may be different between Democrats and Republicans on foreign policy issues, when it comes to actually making foreign policy both parties act similarly. Therefore, I think a Gore administration would have fell victim to the same paranoia that the 9/11 attacks caused.
2.) The personality of decision makers may matter a lot less than I used to previously believe. The more and more I have studied the history of foreign policy the closer I’ve come to a sort of fatalistic viewpoint. And so in this sense the Iraq War, because of 9/11, might have ultimately been inevitable.
Topics worth pursuing more fully at a later time perhaps.