There is a great tendency to reduce the U.S. decision to invade Iraq in 2003 down to a monocausal explanation, or to over-simplify it because this makes it easier to criticize or defend. At the time, the Bush administration spent a lot of time and energy trying to convince the world that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, which it subsequently turned out not to have. When this turned out to be the case, it became common to deride administration "lies" about the weapons, lies which were taken to conceal some hidden agenda, the details of which are sketchy but usually include oil and the profitability of Halliburton. But then, everyone knows that the invasion had something to do with this group of intellectuals called neoconservatives, and everyone knows that their agenda extends somewhat beyond making Halliburton profitable.
Clearly, the answer to why the U.S. invaded Iraq is complicated. And, like with most things - especially things that involve the federal government - it is better explained by incompetence than conspiracy.
When thinking about the current war in Iraq, it is tempting to begin the story on September 11, 2001. This leads to a narrative whereby a group of conspirators within the Bush administration foisted a war with Iraq on a nation traumatized by terrorist attack and looking for an excuse to lash out, especially if they could be convinced that the lashing made them safer. But this is not sufficient as an explanation. Paul Wolfowitz did not just wake up on September 12, 2001 and invent the idea of invading Iraq out of whole cloth. You cannot adequately understand why the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 without appreciating that Saddam Hussein fired the first shot in this conflict when he crossed the border into Kuwait in 1990, and that it was a conflict that the United States has been fighting ever since that date.
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This is not because of some simplistic notion of an eye for an eye, but merely because Saddam's invasion of Kuwait marks the beginning of Iraq as a problem in U.S. foreign policy. And he was a problem for two reasons that are familiar to us today: oil and Israel. Desert Storm had much more to do with these two factors than the invasion in 2003 did. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and his subsequent threats against Saudi Arabia were a problem primarily because they would have given Saddam control over a vast portion of the Middle East's oil supply, in which America has a strategic interest. This interest was explicitly formulated in the Carter Doctrine, where Democrat Jimmy Carter said no single power would be allowed to control the region. Saddam's expansion was also a clear threat to Israel, a staunch U.S. ally. This war was about well-defined, long-standing U.S. interests and would likely have been launched whoever was president at the time.
Everyone knows what happened next: Iraq was driven out of Kuwait, its military was decimated on the Highway of Death, and Saddam was left in power but subject to UN sanctions and no-fly zones over most of his country that restricted his troop movements. What is often not appreciated was that because Saddam was left in power, he remained a long-term problem for U.S. policy. The U.S., along with allies, put together a regime of containment that was designed to keep Saddam in his box, stop him invading his neighbours, and stop him from developing weapons of mass destruction - which he was soon discovered to have in abundance.
This sucked reasonably hard for Saddam but it was by no means the worst outcome for him. He was still in power, and soon almost all of the U.S. troops went home and George H. W. Bush left office. Saddam portrayed the war as a victory. And he concluded privately that, if the U.S. wasn't going to physically remove him from Baghdad for invading Kuwait and bombing Israel, then they probably weren't going to remove him from power ever. And soon he was flouting the UN weapons inspections, and then the sanctions regime, because what really worried him was his old enemy, Iran. He had fought his longest and bloodiest war against the Iranians, and if they thought he was weakened and lacked his most destructive weapons, they could well try and take advantage of the situation. Meanwhile, Bill Clinton had taken office in Washington and did not seem inclined to costly foreign adventures or a strict enforcement of the containment regime.
Saddam's cheekiness escalated throughout the 1990s until he finally ejected all weapons inspectors in 1998. In Washington, foreign policy experts fretted about what Saddam was being allowed to get away with. Everyone knew that if they simply removed the containmnent regime and allowed Saddam to rebuild his military, develop whatever weapons he wanted, and cultivate ties with whatever outside groups he wanted, it was going to be trouble for the whole Middle East. The democratic Kurdish enclave in the north of the country, that U.S. forces protected for the whole decade, would be destroyed; Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Israel would be threatened; and Saddam could pass weapons of mass destruction to a terrorist group. So simply removing the containment regime was never an option. Saddam was as much of a problem in 1997 as he was in 1990 and he was in 2003; this problem was not invented in 2003. It had been around a long time.
In 1998, the problem got so bad that the Clinton administration made it the official policy of the United States government to overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime. He had actually directed the CIA to back a disastrous coup attempt in 1995, but this had been anomalous rather than a consistent policy. But in 1998 - after the weapons inspectors were withdrawn - Clinton signed into law the Iraq Liberation Act, which stated that it was U.S. policy to "remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime."1
Bill Clinton, who at the time was sat at the head of the vast U.S. intelligence apparatus - just as George W. Bush was in 2003 - stated that it was "obvious" that Saddam had acted since 1991 "to protect whatever remains of his capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction" and that if the U.S. weakened the containment regime, "I guarantee you he'll use the arsenal".2 And in December 1998, Clinton launched a bombing campaign against Iraq with the stated goal of degrading Saddam's capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction, which everyone assumed he still had because he had insisted on not co-operating with United Nations weapons inspectors.
Clinton never contemplated invading the country with the U.S. military. And if his heart was not in the law when he signed it, the very fact it was created and that he felt the need to sign it as a political expedient shows that the idea of overthrowing Saddam was gaining traction among important parts of the foreign policy establishment. Kenneth Pollack, who was Clinton's lead man on Iraq from 1995 - 96 and 1991 - 2001, believed that "the Clinton foreign policy team had concluded that the only solution to the problem posed by Saddam Hussein was to topple his regime". He goes on to cite Saddam's circumvention of sanctions, his ease at winning over countries who suddenly realized the U.S. was going to leave him there for ever and so that there was profit in trading with him, and continued uncertainty over his possession of weapons of mass destruction.3
It was this uncertainty, shared by the rest of the world, that ultimately sealed Saddam's fate.
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When George W. Bush came to office in 2001, foreign policy was far down the list of national priorities. Bush had campaigned on a platform of "compassionate conservatism", stressing faith-based initiatives for tackling social problems and education reform. He pledged he would not use the U.S. military for "social work", by which he meant nation-building of the sort the Clinton administration had pursued in places like Bosnia and Somalia. He had little new to say about Saddam Hussein, and few people outside the foreign policy establishment paid attention to what he did have to say, which was mostly about "smart sanctions".
Smart sanctions are economic sanctions that are targeted rather than indiscriminate; they aim to hurt a regime while not harming its people. This was becoming a necessity not only because Saddam was not being sufficiently hurt by the sanctions - he was smuggling billions of dollars of oil - but also because there was a growing perception around the world that the sanctions on Iraq were causing widespread suffering inside the country.
Clinton's ambassador to the UN and future secretary of state, Madeline Albright, had once famously stated that the deaths of up to half a million Iraqis due to the sanctions was "worth it" if it kept Saddam in his box. But the rest of the world was not so sure, and a mixture of humanitarian concern and economic opportunism - there was a lot of money in trading with Saddam - was making the continuation of the sanctions regime tenuous. Smuggling was surging and countries were beginning to brazenly trade with Saddam. It was impossible to find a consensus in the United Nations Security Council for a new sanctions resolution, with notable opposition coming from France and Russia. Furthermore, the co-operation of the states that bordered Iraq was needed to enforce sanctions, but it was precisely these countries that had the most to gain, economically, by not enforcing them. "Smart sanctions" were supposed to address these problems.4
This was the situation as it stood when al-Qaeda blew a hole in the Pentagon. The sanctions against Saddam were deteriorating and the international consensus around the containment regime was falling apart; the weapons inspectors had not been in the country since 1998, and they had never been able to verify that Iraq had disarmed. In 1999, the former head of UNSCOM, the arm of the UN responsible for disarming Iraq, said that Iraq maintained a proscribed weapons capability.5 On 9/11, there had been no weapons inspectors in Iraq for three years, and Saddam had never proven to the world that he had dismantled his weapon programmes.
At this point in the story, it's important to understand a few things about the weapons inspection regime, and exactly what was known and not known in 2003. Firstly, it's important to understand that since the beginning of the weapons inspections in Iraq, the burden had never been on the inspectors to find illegal weapons, but for Saddam to unilaterally and completely prove that he had disarmed. His failure to do so in itself constituted a breach of his obligations under numerous United Nations Security Council resolutions. Here is chief inspector Hans Blix making this point just weeks before the war: "Although I can understand that it may not be easy for Iraq in all cases to provide the evidence needed, it is not the task of the inspectors to find it".6
Secondly, when Saddam had ejected the inspectors in 1998, there had been numerous outstanding issues. These issues derived from the difference between what had been verifiably known about Saddam's WMD capabilities in the past, and what he had verifiably disarmed himself of.7 To make the point again, this gap in itself constituted a breach of Iraq's international obligations. As there had been no inspections since 1998, there was no way for the international community to know that Saddam had addressed these outstanding issues; after all, he had a huge vested interest in the removal of sanctions and the containment regime, which he could have achieved through disarmament, so it would have been counterintuitive to say the least to believe that he had decided to unilaterally disarm without allowing the international community to verify it.
Thirdly and finally, actual stockpiles of WMD - which were not found - were not the only issue. These came to dominate the public consciousness and the media debate, but at least as important as actual stockpiles were the capabilities to manufacture WMD once the sanctions regime was lifted. This point was made in administration statements at the time. Any reading of either Bush's address to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2002 or Colin Powell's address to the Security Council in February 2003 will show the emphasis that was placed not just on stockpiles, but capabilities.8 The Iraq Survey Group concluded after the war that Saddam had retained the capabilities to restart his weapons programmes, and intended to do so after the sanctions regime ended.9
There had not been significant new intelligence findings about Iraq's WMD capability on 9/11; what changed that day was not what was known about this capability, but the calculus of risk that was applied to interpreting the available intelligence. I have written about this at length in intelligence and the Iraq War, but will summarize here: it was simply impossible, in the period 2001 - 3, to know if Iraq had disarmed. To state now that Iraq had disarmed, that the Bush administration knew this, and that they opted to lie about the truth to justify the war, is a monstrous historical fallacy. The Bush administration had a great deal of circumstantial evidence that Iraq still had WMD, a view bolstered by Saddam's complete intransigence in refusing to co-operate with inspectors, and shared by most intelligence services in the world. What they did not have was the "slam dunk" that CIA director George Tenet - a Clinton administration holdover - famously claimed they possessed.
No slam dunk was possible, because slam dunks do not happen in intelligence. The U.S. intelligence community has a terrible record of assessing WMD capability and had scant assets within Iraq, which was one of the hardest societies in the world to penetrate because of the regime's obsession with internal security. The Bush administration took the fact that disarmament had never been verified after the Gulf War and that Saddam continued to attempt to fox the weapons inspectors with every possible tool at his disposal, added the vast circumstantial evidence they had, and concluded that the weapons must still be there. Even if they weren't, the administration reasoned, Saddam was bound to reconstitute the programmes if sanctions were lifted - a conclusion that the Iraq Survey Group shared after the war. Where administration officials erred was in presenting as certainty what was in fact only inference and belief.
According to the commission into intelligence after the war, this error was committed at all levels from the CIA up to the presidency.10 As well as concluding that there was no improper political pressure on the intelligence agencies to tell their masters what they wanted to hear, this commission also pointed out the terrible lack of good sources that the intelligence community had on Iraq. A great deal of the information came from a small number of sources, many of whom were unreliable. Yet given Saddam's history of mendacity with international inspectors - despite the great benefits that compliance would have brought him - the intelligence was taken as corroboration of what logic and history also suggested must be true: that Iraq still had WMD.
The important point here is that U.S. officials were mistaken, not mendacious. Given everything that I have set out above, it is clear that the most peculiar conclusion to reach in 2003 would have been that Saddam did not have WMD. Much has been made about the pre-war intelligence, but intelligence is by its nature fragmentary and unreliable; one only has to ask the intelligence services of many other countries, including those opposed to the war, who also believed Saddam possessed WMD. The case looked almost watertight, but it was also wrong. The two are not mutually exclusive.
* * *
This long digression into intelligence and weapons inspections has been necessary to act as a rebuttal to the simplistic "Bush lied, people died" narrative of why the United States invaded Iraq. I will now return more directly to the main topic of this piece, which is why, given what it thought it knew about Iraq, the United States government decided to invade the country.
As I have already explained, the problem long pre-dated 9/11. There were many things one could say about Iraq on September 10, 2001, and here are a few of them: before being placed under a containment regime, Iraq had invaded three of its neighbours, used chemical weapons against foreigners and its own citizens, launched ballistic missiles at four of its neighbours, nearly completed a banned nuclear weapons programme, and attempted to assassinate two foreign leaders. After being placed under the containment regime, Iraq had violated it in every aspect and was routinely firing at British and American airplanes that were lawfully enforcing the no-fly zones designed to prevent Saddam repressing his own people or preparing for aggression against his neighbours.
As I have also already explained, this had led large sections of the American national security establishment to decide - well before 9/11 - that Saddam would have to be removed if he could not be contained, even though no-one who could remotely be characterized as a neoconservative was in office at the time. Then came 9/11, the day that changed American national priorities. The Bush administration, which had shown little interest in foreign policy up until this point, became focused on the topic like a laser. And suddenly everything that was known about Iraq - the fact it had not verifiably destroyed its WMD, its history of connections with terrorist groups, its history of aggression against its neighbours and the United States, and the fact the collapse of the containment regime was probably only months away - appeared in a very different light.
What became clear to America on 9/11 was the country's vulnerability. Many risks that had previously seen as unlikely or unfeasible suddenly seemed very real, and this applied especially to the risks of terrorism. With the capabilities of al-Qaeda suddenly on display for the world to see, the U.S. government began to focus on the nightmare scenario that the group, or some other, could obtain weapons that would make 9/11 appear as "a prelude to far greater horrors".11 Al-Qaeda had demonstrated that its goal was to inflict the maximum number of casualties possible, and so it was natural to assume it would turn its attention to acquiring such weapons. Such an attack has not yet occurred, but when it does - and it will - we will understand that what could be done to prevent the horrible consequences was worth doing.
The untraceability of terrorist attacks using WMD was particularly worrying, and had been demonstrated in the case of the anthrax letters. While conventional deterrence worked against states that launched attacks on other states, it was not at all clear that deterrence operated in the case of a regime passing deadly weapons to a terrorist group for them to deploy. It would be difficult to determine with any degree of accuracy where the weapons originated, and even more difficult to convince the rest of the world of one's suspicions, complicating the process of retaliation. Given Saddam's presumed stocks of WMD, his known ties to terrorist groups, and his known history of aggression, the prospect of him imminently being loosed from the containment regime imposed after the Gulf War was not a happy one.
Hence what appeared on September 10 as a major annoyance appeared on September 12 as a major threat. It is important to understand the nature of this threat, so as not to exaggerate it. Clearly Saddam was not about to march into Washington; he was not about invade Poland. But what he had repeatedly demonstrated was aggression in his region, the Middle East, an area of major importance to the entire world. When critics of the war say it is all about oil, they are right in the sense that the whole Western interest in the Middle East stems in large part from its natural resources. Saddam had been a major destabilizing factor in this region, and as the sanctions regime eroded, it looked likely he would be again.
Imagine, for instance, if Saddam had possessed a nuclear weapon when he invaded Kuwait; would America have responded? The resolution authorizing the Gulf War passed by a mere five votes in the Senate, and it seems likely the possibility of nuclear attack on U.S. forces or Europe would have tipped the balance against it. What, then, would have happened if Saddam had repeated his escapade in 2006, armed with nuclear weapons, and threatening to pass biological agents to al-Qaeda if America intervened? While these scenarios may appear fanciful, Saddam's Iraq had already revealed itself to be one of the most belligerent states in modern history, not to mention the most ignorant of its international obligations. Given the likelihood of some confrontation with Saddam in the future, the U.S. administration decided it was preferable to have it in 2003, when Saddam was weak, rather than in 2006, when he would be strong.
It is also hard to underestimate the damage that would have been done to the international system if Saddam had essentially been allowed to get away with his decades of malfeasance. The United Nations Security Council had come together over a dozen times to make demands of Iraq, and the country had not met any of them. It was a pattern grimly familiar to students of the League of Nations, and there was a grave danger in allowing the Council to become irrelevant. This point was made time and time again by Bush administration officials, although few journalists seemed to notice. It was an entirely reasonable belief in 2003 that if Saddam were allowed to continue in power despite all of these international efforts, then it would embolden other regimes to follow the path he had taken, hence increasing the risk of deadly weapons falling into terrorist hands, and of more conventional types of instability. It would also have greatly undermined the legitimacy of the Security Council.12
The final reason for the war which is worth citing is that there was a widespread belief that the creation of a democracy in Iraq - which would be the only Arab democracy, as it is today - would be a strategic asset in the war against terror as a whole. Bush administration officials repeatedly stated the belief that in their view groups like al-Qaeda had their roots in internal conflicts in the Islamic world, which in turn were rooted largely in the political and literal poverty of much of the Arab world. They hence came to embrace the idea that a democratic Iraq could act as a beacon of an alternative future for the Arab world, a way to progress - through democracy and human rights - which would sideline both militant Islam and repressive Arab dictatorship. This would contribute to the political progress of the Arab world, channel it in moderate directions, and hence reduce the factors that tended to lead to conflict between the West and militant Middle Eastern groups.
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I have written this write-up with one aim in mind, which is to point out that there was an intellectual case for the Iraq war that was not based on merely on a lust for oil or the pernicious interest of a small cabal of neoconservative intellectuals. In a democracy, it is a common feature of political discourse to portray one's opponent as representing the interests of a small faction, while claiming for oneself the mantle of the people as a whole, and I have never in my lifetime seen this argument deployed more thoroughly or with more effect than in the debate over the Iraq war. The proponents of this argument were so effective that it dominates the popular memory of the war today, even though the actual actions of the United States since the war begun have done little to vindicate it.
The truth was more complex than a conspiracy, and more all-encompassing than the interests of one group. We have to understand the run-up to the Iraq war properly if we are to understand the profound questions it raised. Chief among these questions was how to deal properly with a regime that had committed nearly every imaginable crime against its own people, its neighbours, and the rules of our international system. The American president chose to focus on the perceived risk to the American people's security for obvious, democratic reasons, and these were the same reasons that led the media to stress the same points. But anyone who lived through that period and paid attention to the debates, or goes back to read them now, perhaps using some of the links I cited, can see the debate when far beyond the WMD stockpiles that were never there.
I am sure I will be accused of revisionism for making these points, and I will be accused of constructing a desperate apologia designed to compensate for the lack of stockpiles.
But this is not revisionism. What is revisionism is to claim that the only thing at stake in the Iraq war was the interests of a conspiracy between the oil industry and eccentric intellectuals. What is revisionism is to ignore the profound questions raised by the nexus between the world's deadliest weapons and the world's most aggressive regimes, a problem that still exists today and will perhaps only become obvious when its horrible potential is reified. What is revisionism is to ignore the problem of how we deal with aggressive regimes, about whom we must make the most momentous decision of which we know: whether to make war on them or not. What is revisionism is to ignore the question of how we deal with regimes that repeatedly flout obligations imposed on them by the United Nations over a period of a decade. What is revisionism is to ignore the difference betweeen the world now and the world as it might been had the war not happened, and simply to damn the event without bothering to evaluate it.
It is time to think seriously about these matters, to develop our responses, so that when an event occurs that makes 9/11 appear as only the prelude to far greater horrors, we know properly how to respond, what to do and what not to do. To do this, we have to face the truth about the difficult choices that the world and America faced in 2003, rather than pretending the choice was not tough at all, but merely wrong; it is time to put aside childish things.
Also on the war in Iraq:
Intelligence and the 2003 Iraq War
Our tomorrow starts today: one minute to midnight in Iraq
Iraqi-U.S. status of forces agreement
Refusing to run: the U.S. troop surge in Iraq
Sons of Iraq
1. You can access the text of the law here.
2. Text Of Clinton Statement On Iraq.
3. Kenneth Pollack, The Threatening Storm: The United States and Iraq: The Crisis, the Strategy, and Prospects after Saddam (Washington D.C., 2002), pp. 94 - 104.
4. A contemporary article on smart sanctions that also sheds some light on how the Iraq problem was viewed at the time is "How smart are smart sanctions?". Another notes that smart sanctions "will not finish the job of destroying weapons of mass destruction, the original goal of the embargo." See: "Analysis: Will 'smart' sanctions work?" The peculiar hatred of France that characterized portions of the foreign policy establishment and filtered down into conservative commentators in general during this period has a definite link to France's opposition to reforming the sanctions regime because it wanted to pursue trading opportunities with Saddam.
6. "Hans Blix's briefing to the security council". Here is Colin Powell making the same point: "This council placed the burden on Iraq to comply and disarm and not on the inspectors to find that which Iraq has gone out of its way to conceal for so long. Inspectors are inspectors; they are not detectives."
7. There are two main documents which lay out the outstanding issues after 1998. The first is a letter sent from UNSCOM to the UNSC on January 25, 1999: here. The second is UNSCOM's amorium report dated January 30, 1999: here. Blix referred to these documents in his comments cited in note six, highlighting issues of "anthrax, the nerve agent VX and long-range missiles".
8. Bush's address is here and Powell's is here. Much of the discussion of presumed capabilities also focuses on the "verification gap" - the difference between what Iraq was known at some point to have and what it had verifiably destroyed. It's also noteworthy that most of the evidence Powell presented - the famous radio intercepts - is evidence of Iraqi denial and deception, not actual possession of stockpiles. As noted, this denial and deception in itself constituted a breach of Iraq's obligations. It is also as yet unexplained - presuming the radio intercepts were not merely forged by the United States, what was actually happening during the incidents they record?
9. The final report of the Iraq Survey Group is available here.
10. The Commission's report is available here. It was produced with access to classified material by a bipartisan commission. It also concluded that there had been no improper political pressure on the intelligence services.
11. This phrase was used by Bush before the General Assembly.
12. Of course, as things turned out, the Council's legitimacy was undermined anyway because it refused to endorse the final military action with a second resolution, and the multi-national coalition then did it anyway; this was a double blow. It is arguable that the second resolution was not necessary to authorize force, but on the other hand it is arguable that it was; either way, it has always seemed slightly bizzare to me to portray the Bush administration as implacable and hellbent unilateralists when they sought two resolutions. The fact they went to war without the second, after expending great effort to try to get it, proves nothing more than that they were unwilling unilateralists.