Why did President Bush take America to war with Iraq in 2003?

The decision for the United States and its allies to invade Iraq in 2003 is one of the most controversial foreign policy acts in modern US history. The reasons for going to war in Iraq remain at the centre of contemporary debate. Those critical of the war argue that Bush acted irrationally, with some suggesting that the Administration’s judgment was clouded by the tragedy of 9/11. Others suspect that the war effort was an attempt to control Iraq’s oil. I make the case against these theories and argue that Washington’s officially stated reason for invasion- the national security threat posed by Saddam Hussein, remains the most plausible explanation for the war. Though America’s invasion did not find conclusive evidence of Hussein’s alleged Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) or links to Al Qaeda, these threats were reasonably believed at the time and justifiably acted upon by the Bush Administration. The promotion of democracy in Iraq is a further purported reason for the war. I argue that rather than underpinning the decision to go to war, the prospect of a democratic Iraq was merely a supporting factor. 

Then President George W Bush is seen addressing the US Army soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas about the possibility of military action against Iraq in January 2003 [File: Jeff Mitchell/Reuters]

9/11

The devastating effects of 9/11 reflected a turning point in American foreign policy. Some suggest that the decision to invade Iraq was impulsively made by officials who were jaded by the tragedy. However, this accusation does not stand up to scrutiny. The terror attacks demonstrated the capacity of lightly armed terrorists to wreak havoc and destruction on the United States. The Bush Administration’s fears were only heightened by allegations of Saddam Hussein’s WMD capability. The 9/11 attack on America’s homeland induced a visceral response that made Washington more acutely aware of their vulnerability to international terrorism. This awareness fundamentally transformed American foreign policy. The Bush Doctrine assumed that Cold War standards of deterrence and containment were no longer effective in regulating the actions of rogue states in a new age of international terrorism. Aware of the risks that Saddam Hussein could pose to the US, Bush called for assertive US leadership and the strategy of pre-emptive attack ‘against emerging threats before they are fully formed and can appear suddenly in our skies and cities.’

The necessity of pre-emptively attacking rogue states to protect national security was reinforced by the international community. Following the 2002 Bali Bombings which killed 88 Australians, Prime Minister John Howard stated the need to consider pre-emptive action as a last resort. Likewise, the European Union agreed that ‘threats such as terrorism may require action even before crises arise.’ This further strengthens the claim that the US declaration of war in 2003 was a prudent and reasonable response to the threat assessments of the time. In the US, 9/11 provided the wake-up call that thrust national security to the top of the Bush agenda. This change was echoed by policy makers throughout the world who also became more aware of the need to combat international terrorism. Therefore, the decision to invade Iraq was not impulsive or irrational, it was practical and made in accordance with the most accurate threat perceptions of international terrorism at the time.

Oil

Great powers of the past have often been driven by resource control. The interpretation of the Iraq war as a ploy to gain control of Iraq’s oil reserves continues to enjoy widespread currency today. To make this case, critics point to the oil industry links of Bush Administration officials ranging from President Bush himself, to the Secretary of Treasury Paul O’Neill and National Security Advisor Condaleeza Rice. Gaining control of oil in the Middle East would have enabled the US to control the resources of China and India, the fastest growing economies in the world. However suspicious these factors may seem, both indicate a coincidence rather than a conspiracy. Closer examination of the facts leads to the conclusion that the Iraq war was not fought for oil. 

In the wake of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, America did not significantly benefit from Iraqi oil contracts. Despite the deployment of 200,000 US troops to Iraq and the estimated $2 trillion expended during the war effort, American companies were not given preferential treatment in virtue of their country’s involvement. Indeed, companies from nations that were neutral or hostile to the Iraq war were given equal footing to the US during oil negotiations. Only one US company (Exxon-Mobil) was successful in gaining a contract. This deal was no more impressive than the deals achieved by Russia’s Lukoil, Norway’s Statoil, Malaysia’s Petronas or Japan’s Japex. Furthermore, the most significant beneficiary of post-war oil contracts was China, emerging as the largest buyer of Iraqi oil in 2013. Considering that the Iraq war came at such a high cost to the American tax payer, while doing little to fuel the profits of American oil companies, it is extraordinary that the oil conspiracy continues to hold such popularity today. Defenders and detractors of the 2003 decision alike should acknowledge that the ‘oil narrative’ is a selective and speculative account at best.

National Security  

The officially stated and most plausible reason for the 2003 Iraq war was the national security threat that Saddam Hussein posed to the United States. At the time of the war, Saddam Hussein had been a brutal dictator of 25 years and a central threat to peace in the Middle East. Prior to 2003, the US had made ‘honourable efforts’ to contain and deter the threat of Iraq. Notably, the US engaged in diplomacy at the UN, imposing sanctions on Iraq and participating in the passage of 16 UN Security Council resolutions between 1990-1999 which demanded Iraq destroy all WMD and cease support for international terrorism. Hussein repeatedly defied these resolutions and responded to US funded peace keeping initiatives such as the Oil-for-Food Programme with corruption. Hussein also shot down US aircrafts which were in place to protect the Iraqi people from genocide. It was in this context that the Bush administration decided that the containment of Iraq through sanctions and deterrence was ineffective and could no longer ensure the national security of American citizens. The use of American military force was intended to defeat Saddam while also sending a cautionary message to any other nation currently harbouring or enabling terrorists.

From the American perspective, the two most concerning accusations of Saddam Hussein’s regime were his alleged WMD programme and ties to Al Qaeda. Though these allegations have since been discredited, the decision to go to war was based on leading threat perceptions of the Iraqi regime available at the time. While the intel regarding Saddam’s links to terrorism and WMD later proved to be incorrect, Saddam Hussein was a known aggressor of peace within the Middle East who had proven a distain for cooperation with the United States. Even putting the WMD and terrorism threats to one side, this regime was one that posed considerable dangers to the national security of the US. 

WMD Threat 

Saddam’s purported possession of WMD was of great concern to the United States. The reasonable chance that Saddam possessed WMD was a risk that President Bush was unwilling to gamble on. As he stated in the 2002 State of the Union address ‘We must prevent the terrorists and regimes who seek chemical, biological or nuclear weapons from threatening the United States and the world.’ In the case of Iraq, Saddam Hussein had a history of using WMD to murder thousands of his own citizens, ‘leaving the bodies of mothers huddled over their dead children.’ Thus, America only needed to refer to recent history to establish Hussein’s tolerance for utilising WMD. The Bush Administration then had to determine whether Saddam continued to possess WMD. This suspicion was difficult to prove, but equally difficult to rule out as the full account of chemical warfare munitions was never verified and international inspectors were routinely met with obstruction from the Iraqi government.

While the purported WMD were never found in Iraq, this does not mean that their potential existence did not warrant the invasion in the first place. Akin to all major foreign policy decision making, Bush’s declaration of war was a decision made under time-pressure constraints and with intel that was still in the development stages. Only after the war would it become known that Saddam’s deception about his WMD capacity stemmed from his desire to deter adversaries, such as Iran, and intimidate domestic foes, such as the Kurds.

Prior to the declaration of war, US intelligence strongly supported the theory that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD. Critics argue that analysts were bullied into finding evidence to support the Bush Administration’s agenda. However, American bipartisan inquiries such as the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and Robb-Silberman Commission, established to investigate the post-war intelligence, overwhelmingly found that analysts were not forced to manipulate their findings regarding Saddam’s alleged WMD. A further critique is that some intelligence agencies discovered evidence which contradicted the widespread belief of Saddam’s WMD capabilities and that Bush policy makers ‘cherry picked’ intelligence which bolstered the case for war while ignoring contrary evidence. Such claims are significantly weakened by the weight of the international consensus at the time. Suspicions of Hussein’s WMD program were not only supported by American intelligence analysts but also the clear majority of analysts working within the international intelligence community. This included analysts from countries strongly opposed to the war such as France, Germany and Russia. Though intelligence on Saddam’s WMD possession was inaccurate at the time of invasion and Saddam was arguably not as dangerous as the international community had initially believed, the Bush Administration made a time-pressured decision based on the genuine and most commonly held threat perceptions of the day.     

Terrorism Threat 

In light of Washington’s heightened sense of vulnerability to international terrorism, Saddam Hussein’s alleged and substantiated links to international terrorist groups further cemented the case for war in 2003. The Iraqi regime had a history of aiding, training and harbouring terrorists. Captured Iraqi documents published by the Institute for Defence Analyses reveal that although Saddam had no operational links to Al Qaeda, he did have ties to multiple terrorist groups, including the Palestine Liberation Front, Hamas, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and Afghanistan’s Hezb-e-Islami. Bush feared that Saddam’s links to terrorism could result in the deployment of further terrorist attacks against the United States. The risk of another devastating terrorist attack on American home soil was tangible as terrorism continued to destabilise the international community after 9/11. In 2002, journalist Daniel Pearl was beheaded, there was also an assault on a synagogue in Tunisia and American diplomat Laurence Foley was killed in Jordan. In October of the same year, the Bali Bombings killed more than 200 people. As Saddam Hussein was a clear enemy, President Bush could not rule out the potential for him to deploy terrorism against the United States or support another organisation to do so. Though Saddam Hussein was not found to have links to Al Qaeda or the 9/11 terrorist attack, his ties to other Islamic terrorist groups still characterised him as a threat. The US strategy to pre-emptively destabilise the Saddam regime was therefore warranted.   

Democracy 

Fostering democracy in the Middle East, was a supporting reason for President Bush’s campaign to oust Saddam Hussein in 2003. The Bush doctrine at its core advanced the theory ‘that people who are free and prosperous do not fly airplanes into skyscrapers.’ Toppling the Saddam regime gave the US the opportunity to help the Iraqi people build a new democracy. In the same way that post-war reconstruction had been successfully achieved in Germany and Japan, the Bush administration hoped that the instatement of democracy in Iraq would ‘fundamentally reshape the Middle East.’ Though there were considerable failures and setbacks in the reconstruction effort following the war in Iraq, today Iraq is a strategic partner of the United States and a voice of democracy in the Middle East. The war in Iraq enabled the fall of the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein — something that the Iraqi population had not been able to achieve. If Saddam had managed to transfer power to his sons, the regime may have survived for years or even decades. Though the democracy in Iraq remains fragile and imperfect today, the US role in overthrowing the Hussein regime subsequently enabled Iraqis to participate in their first relatively free and fair elections at both the national and local levels in 2005. This was a victory and promising path to freedom for a country that had a history of authoritarian political culture, tribalism and ethnic and sectarian violence.

A woman voted in Najaf, Iraq in 2014, in the first national election after U.S. forces pulled out of the country in 2011.
PHOTO: ALAA AL-MARJANI/REUTERS

There are numerous reasons that are purported to have been behind Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Those critical of the decision argue that the war was motivated by America’s lust for oil or was merely a knee-jerk reaction to the tragedy of 9/11. I have argued against these theories and have instead asserted that the Bush administration went to war first and foremost for the stated national security threat posed by Saddam Hussein. Following the honourable attempts to diplomatically disarm the Iraqi regime, the US and their allies invaded Iraq due to fears of Saddam’s WMD possession and links to terrorism. Both allegations held widespread bipartisan support in the US and were also reinforced by the international intelligence community. Though the accusations against Hussein were not established, 9/11 made the US aware of their vulnerability to international terrorism and the need to quash threats early on. An additional benefit of invading Iraq and winning the war, was the promotion of democracy. Though this was not Bush’s sole objective, it was a strong consideration which supported the final decision to go to war. 

The Iraq war remains a contentious aspect of US foreign policy today. However, most arguments made against the war have been made with the benefit of hindsight. It is important to remember that the war in Iraq was waged on the relevant information and risk assessments available to the Bush Administration in 2003. The US acted under time constraint and developed foreign policy that intended to protect the security of the international community.   


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