Volume 14, Issue 3.   March 1, 2003.

Why Iraq?

When a country goes to war, one question that already should have been answered is "why?" But many people in the United States, Europe and elsewhere are genuinely perplexed about why the Bush administration is so determined, even at the cost of war, to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. In their public statements, administration officials have, if anything, increased the puzzlement. They have portrayed their campaign against Iraq as a continuation of the war against terrorism. They have claimed to have evidence of close ties between Hussein and al-Qaeda, but outside of a few scattered citations, they have failed to make a case that Hussein is an active ally of Osama bin Laden.

By offering an implausible rationale, the administration raises suspicion, particularly outside the United States, that it must have a secret agenda for ousting Hussein. Many people think that President George W. Bush wants to control Iraq's oil fields on behalf of U.S. companies. In mid-January, the German weekly Der Spiegel ran a cover story titled, "Blood for Oil." But anyone familiar with positions taken by American oil companies knows that this is implausible. In the late 1990s, oil companies lobbied to remove sanctions on Iraq. And most oil executives are extremely wary about the Bush policies toward Iraq, which they fear will destabilize the region.

What, then, explains the administration's Iraq policy? I offer here my own account, based on interviews with administration officials, press reports and, where necessary, speculation. It's not an explanation that will satisfy anyone looking for a single cause such as "blood for oil." Like many policy decisions, this one was the complicated and compromised product of different views and different factions within the administration. At any given point, it has contained contradictory aspects, wishful thinking and irrational fears, as well as the more conventional geopolitical calculations.

Three factions in the administration have been involved in formulating the Iraq policy: The first and most important has consisted of Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. They are Republican unilateralists who disdain international organizations and have been reluctant to intervene overseas except when they saw America's interests clearly at stake. The second faction is led by Secretary of State Colin Powell, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and CIA Director George Tenet. They adhere to the classic blend of realism and internationalism that had characterized the Bush Senior and Clinton administrations. And the third faction has been the neoconservatives, led by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz.

Before September 11, neither Bush nor Powell favored confrontation with Iraq. At the United Nations, Powell advocated "smart sanctions" designed to revive the Iraqi economy. Only the neoconservatives favored confronting Iraq, but they were preoccupied with China and were not represented within the cabinet itself. By last winter, however, opinion on Iraq had shifted dramatically. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld joined the neoconservatives in favoring confrontation. But they didn't share the neoconservative scenario of using an invasion of Iraq to install a model regime that would threaten its Arab neighbors, including Saudi Arabia. Instead, they were moved by two major considerations.

The first was geopolitical. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld were not concerned about enriching American oil companies, but they were worried that if Iraq acquired nuclear weapons, Hussein could achieve dominance over a region vital to world economic stability. Quipped one State Department official in explaining their reasoning, "If the Gulf produced kumquats, would we be doing this? I have my doubts." They also feared that if Iraq acquired nuclear weapons, Israel would either attempt a preemptive strike of its own or develop a second strike capability that would destabilize the region. In his State of the Union address, Bush vowed that Hussein "will not be permitted to dominate a vital region and threaten the U.S.," but the administration generally has avoided any statements of purpose that explicitly included either oil or Israel. To do so, administration officials feared, would be to invite misunderstanding and opposition. Not to do so has equally invited misunderstanding.

The second consideration was more psychological. The September 11 attacks, combined with the subsequent anthrax episodes, created a national trauma -- a feeling of powerlessness in the face of the unknown. Bush and his administration were certainly not exempt. After the al-Qaeda and anthrax attacks, the administration sought to counter or eliminate any possible threat, and administration explanations invariably invoked America's newfound "vulnerability." Bush stated his own recurring nightmare in his State of the Union address: "Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans -- this time armed by Saddam Hussein. It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known." This scenario, seemingly far-fetched to many Europeans, was not just for public consumption but rather reflected fears in the White House about another September 11. (Indeed, some CIA officials continue to believe that Iraq was responsible for the anthrax attacks after September 11.) Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld believed that by knocking out Hussein they would reduce America's vulnerability to attack. Of course, an attack against Iraq could increase the incidence of terrorism in the Middle East and against the United States by creating a new Islamic martyr. But Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld may have been convinced otherwise by neoconservative arguments that an attack would scare Arab leaders into cracking down on their own native terrorists and curbing anti-Americanism in their schools and media.

Powell and his allies did not share these views. They continued to believe that Hussein could be contained without risk to the United States. Last summer they provoked a debate within the administration that was finally resolved (with pressure from British Prime Minister Tony Blair and congressional Democrats) when Bush agreed to seek a UN resolution that would focus on disarming Hussein rather than overthrowing him. From that point on, the administration no longer spoke of regime change as its objective. But the resulting decision reflected at best a compromise between Powell and the other two factions. Bush outwardly embraced Powell's strategy but continued to act as if the administration's real objective was regime change. He didn't just send troops to the Mideast but leaked war plans, and even had a military general boast that troops were already inside Iraq. He sought to bully rather than work with the United Nations.

Of course, Hussein would never have allowed inspectors back into Iraq if Bush hadn't produced a credible threat on Iraq's borders. But Bush never signaled to wary allies or to Baghdad that if the Iraqi dictator were to comply with UN Resolution 1441, the United States would withdraw from Iraq's immediate perimeter (and find the will to coexist with Hussein). He never sent his secretary of state, as his father had sent James Baker on the eve of the Gulf War, to make clear to Hussein that disarmament was an alternative to war. Instead, administration officials told reporters that they had no faith in the United Nations and that war was inevitable.

Bush was also unwilling to rest his case against Hussein solely on the Iraqi's refusal to abide by the post-Gulf War disarmament resolutions. Instead, the administration released in September, after the president's UN speech, an official strategy paper that sanctioned preemptive attacks against "emerging threats." The paper also stated that "while the United States will constantly strive to enlist the support of the international community, we will not hesitate to act alone." To Europeans who already believed that the United States was out to capture Iraq's oil fields, these words suggested that America aspired to be the new Rome.

Bush's September UN strategy was a hodgepodge of contradictory intentions. When Powell, the good soldier, finally abandoned any attempt to stop the administration's rush to war, Bush's goal became abundantly clear. But the reason for its urgency remained unclear and susceptible to misinterpretation, particularly outside the United States. The administration's Iraq strategy may yet turn out to be a success -- if, for instance, Hussein is forced into a last-minute exile. But Bush appears to have squandered an opportunity either to avoid a war or to fight one on the most favorable terms. If the administration had made clear that it would accept a disarmed Iraq without Hussein's ouster, it might have eventually forced the Iraqi dictator to comply with UN Resolution 1441. If Hussein still refused to comply, the administration would have enjoyed the broad support of a powerful coalition with which to go to war. Instead, the United States is likely to obtain at best a grudging acceptance of its war plans. And erstwhile allies, as well as implacable foes, will characterize the war as George W. Bush's attempt to take over the Middle East. In this interdependent world, that's not a reputation the United States wants to have.

John B. Judis

Copyright © 2003 by The American Prospect, Inc. Preferred Citation: John B. Judis, "Why Iraq?," The American Prospect vol. 14 no. 3, March 1, 2003. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@prospect.org.