Why Iraq 2.

During the run-up to the attack on Iraq, the Bush Administration insinuated that Saddam Hussein had covert ties to al Qaeda and that Iraq had been involved in the 9/11 attacks.  The administration more forthrightly claimed that Iraq’s stockpile of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) had to be put out of potential action.  So either retribution or pretribution.  Later on, both of these justifications were proved false.[1]  Deputy Secretary for Defense Paul Wolfowitz is the villain in many accounts.  He felt confident–without any hard evidence–that Iraq bore guilt for the 9/11 attacks.  Early on, Wolfowitz seems to have talked President Bush into sharing this belief.  The inability of the intelligence agencies to find significant evidence to support this belief then led to a manipulation of the intelligence that did exist.  Then the WMD justification surged forward.  Most of all, group-think and hierarchy led to a spreading certainty that Iraq posed a danger.  Later in his time as president, George W. Bush, battered and enlightened by experience, might well have stopped this “log roll.”  In the first years of his crisis-ridden presidency, however, he lacked the maturity and the experience needed to do his job. 

One striking element in the movement toward war came in the lack of push-back from responsible quarters.  In the House, 81 Democrats voted for the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, while only 6 Republicans voted against it; in the Senate, 29 Democrats voted for it, while only one Republican voted against it.  When the war went wrong, many people weaseled.  Furthermore, the claims about Iraq-al Qaeda contacts and Iraq’s possession of WMD went largely unchallenged by the media.  Later, feeling twice deceived by “lies and the lying liars who tell them,”[2] journalists and academics rejected out of hand the war-for-democracy claims.  They went in search of other motives for war.  They suggested an attempt to dominate the world oil industry,[3] faulty or manipulated intelligence gathering and analysis, and the effect of “victory culture.”[4]  What they didn’t do was to look at the history. 

After the first two justifications collapsed (along with the careers of some of the people who had offered the justifications), the Bush Administration began to claim that the war’s purpose had always and only been to replace tyranny with democracy in Iraq.  From there it would spread to the rest of that benighted region.[5]  Why hadn’t they led with this argument, since it was so close to what they actually believed? 

Perhaps the “neo-cons” believed that Americans would not support a war for democratization, while they would support a war for vengeance.  If so, they were ignoring the arguments of an eminent predecessor, both scholar and presidential adviser, Robert E. Osgood.  Osgood had believed that Idealism and Self-Interest could be reconciled in foreign policy.[6] 

[1] The former had been incredible from the start.  Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a secular state and equal-opportunity oppressor.  Al Qaeda was a movement of Sunni zealots.  When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia, Osama bin Laden had offered to lead an Islamist foreign legion against him in defense of Islam’s holy places.  Nor could the intelligence community offer much in the way of evidence supporting tales of contact between the two enemies of the United States.  The second justification seemed to have more substance.  The United Nations weapons inspectors for Iraq believed that Hussein’s government had concealed large stockpiles of WMD.  However, that is true of many anti-American countries (China, Russia, Pakistan, Israel).  Why attack only Iraq? 

[2] The title of Al Franken’s 2003 “fair and balanced look at the Right.” 

[3] A bunch of this material is displayed at Rationale for the Iraq War – Wikipedia 

[4] On the latter, see Tom Engelhardt, The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation (2007). 

[5] Max Fisher, “Two Decades Later, a Question Remains: Why Did the U.S. Invade?” NYT, 19 March 2023.

[6] Robert E. Osgood, Ideals and Self Interest in America’s Foreign Relations (1953).  Got a copy on my shelf. 

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