Ahsan I Butt
20 Mar 2019
years after the United States invaded Iraq and left a trail of destruction and
chaos in the country and the region, one aspect of the war remains criminally
under-examined: why was it fought in the first place? What did the Bush
administration hope to get out of the war?
official, and widely-accepted, story remains that Washington was motivated by Saddam
Hussein's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programme. His nuclear
capabilities, especially, were deemed sufficiently alarming to incite the war.
As then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, "We do not want the
smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."
Saddam not having an active WMD programme, this explanation has found support
among some International Relations scholars, who say that while the Bush
administration was wrong about Saddam's WMD capabilities, it was sincerely
wrong. Intelligence is a complicated, murky enterprise, the argument goes, and
given the foreboding shadow of the 9/11 attacks, the US government reasonably,
if tragically, misread the evidence on the dangers Saddam posed.
There is a
major problem with this thesis: there is no evidence for it, beyond the words
of the Bush officials themselves. And since we know the administration was
engaged in a widespread campaign of deception and propaganda in the run-up to
the Iraq war, there is little reason to believe them.
into the causes of the war finds that it had little to do with fear of WMDs -
or other purported goals, such as a desire to "spread democracy" or
satisfy the oil or Israel lobbies. Rather, the Bush administration invaded Iraq
for its demonstration effect.
A quick and
decisive victory in the heart of the Arab world would send a message to all
countries, especially to recalcitrant regimes such as Syria, Libya, Iran, or
North Korea, that American hegemony was here to stay. Put simply, the Iraq war
was motivated by a desire to (re)establish American standing as the world's
even before 9/11, then-Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld saw Iraq through
the prism of status and reputation, variously arguing in February and July 2001
that ousting Saddam would "enhance US credibility and influence throughout
the region" and "demonstrate what US policy is all about".
hypotheticals were catalysed into reality by September 11, when symbols of
American military and economic dominance were destroyed. Driven by humiliation,
the Bush administration felt that the US needed to reassert its position as an
way to send a message so menacing was a swashbuckling victory in war.
Crucially, however, Afghanistan was not enough: it was simply too weak a state.
As prison bullies know, a fearsome reputation is not acquired by beating up the
weakest in the yard. Or as Rumsfeld put it on the evening of 9/11, "We
need to bomb something else to prove that we're, you know, big and strong and
not going to be pushed around by these kinds of attacks."
Afghanistan was a "fair" war, a tit-for-tat response to the Taliban's
provision of sanctuary to al-Qaeda's leadership. Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary of
Defence Paul Wolfowitz, and Under Secretary of Defence for Policy Douglas Feith
considered restricting retaliation to Afghanistan dangerously
"limited", "meagre", and "narrow". Doing so, they
alleged, "may be perceived as a sign of weakness rather than
strength" and prove to "embolden rather than discourage regimes"
opposed to the US. They knew that sending a message of unbridled hegemony
entailed a disproportionate response to 9/11, one that had to extend beyond
the bill both because it was more powerful than Afghanistan and because it had
been in neoconservative crosshairs since George HW Bush declined to press on to
Baghdad in 1991. A regime remaining defiant despite a military defeat was
barely tolerable before 9/11. Afterwards, however, it became untenable.
was attacked for its demonstration effect is attested to by several sources,
not least the principals themselves - in private. A senior administration
official told a reporter, off the record, that "Iraq is not just about
Iraq", rather "it was of a type", including Iran, Syria, and
In a memo
issued on September 30, 2001, Rumsfeld advised Bush that "the USG [US
government] should envision a goal along these lines: New regimes in
Afghanistan and another key State [or two] that supports terrorism [to
strengthen political and military efforts to change policies elsewhere]".
to Rumsfeld in October 2001 that action against Iraq would make it easier to
"confront - politically, militarily, or otherwise" Libya and Syria.
As for then-Vice President Dick Cheney, one close adviser revealed that his
thinking behind the war was to show: "We are able and willing to strike at
someone. That sends a very powerful message."
In a 2002
column, Jonah Goldberg coined the "Ledeen Doctrine", named after
neoconservative historian Michael Ledeen. The "doctrine" states:
"Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small
crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we
It may be
discomfiting to Americans to say nothing of millions of Iraqis that the Bush
administration spent their blood and treasure for a war inspired by the Ledeen
Doctrine. Did the US really start a war - one that cost trillions of dollars,
killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, destabilised the region, and helped
create the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) - just to prove a point?
uncomfortable still is that the Bush administration used WMDs as a cover, with
equal parts fear-mongering and strategic misrepresentation - lying - to exact
the desired political effect. Indeed, some US economists consider the notion
that the Bush administration deliberately misled the country and the globe into
war in Iraq to be a "conspiracy theory", on par with beliefs that President
Barack Obama was born outside the US or that the Holocaust did not occur.
sadly, is no conspiracy theory. Even Bush officials have sometimes dropped
their guard. Feith confessed in 2006 that "the rationale for the war
didn't hinge on the details of this intelligence even though the details of the
intelligence at times became elements of the public presentation".
administration used the fear of WMDs and terrorism to fight a war for hegemony
should be acknowledged by an American political establishment eager to
rehabilitate George W Bush amid the rule of Donald Trump, not least because
John Bolton, Trump's national security adviser, seems eager to employ similar
methods to similar ends in Iran.