Case Study America's War in Iraq

The war in Iraq provides a useful case study in the limits of American hegemony

The alleged purpose of the war in Iraq was eliminating Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and removing the threat of terrorism, but it turns out he didn’t have any. Then the rationale shifted to creating a pro-American democracy, but Iraq today is at best a quasi-democracy and far from pro-American. The destruction of Iraq improved Iran’s position in the Persian Gulf — which is hardly something the United States intended — and the costs of the war (easily exceeding $1 trillion dollars) are much larger than U.S. leaders anticipated or promised. The war was also a giant distraction, which diverted the Bush administration from other priorities (e.g., Afghanistan) and made the United States much less popular around the world. 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 leading power.

Lessons from the war in Iraq

The ‘war on terror’ was initiated by the attacks of 11 September 2001 (‘9/11’) on landmark targets in New York and Washington, DC. Two war zones were subsequently occupied by the US and allies—Afghanistan (in October 2001) and Iraq (in March 2003)—as part of the war. It is widely accepted that Afghanistan was the base for the leader of the group responsible for planning and carrying out the 9/11 attacks—Osama bin Laden. But how did Iraq come to be part of the ‘war on terror’?

As the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman told Ha’aretz in May 2003: "Iraq was the war neoconservatives wanted… the war the neoconservatives marketed…. I could give you the names of 25 people (all of whom are at this moment within a five-block radius of this office [in Washington]) who, if you had exiled them to a desert island a year and half ago, the Iraq war would not have happened."

The reality was:

Al-Qaeda operatives, most of whom were Saudi nationals (none were Iraqi), were responsible for the 9/11 attacks in the US in 2001. Their leader, Osama bin Laden (also a Saudi national), was based in Afghanistan, which was governed by the Taliban. The Taliban is a Sunni Muslim fundamentalist political movement which had come to power in Afghanistan during a period of civil war. Although Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are quite separate organizations, they share a common religious ideology.

Saddam Hussein, then President of Iraq, had no connection with Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda, or the Taliban. While hostile to the US (although an ally in an earlier period), he actually repressed Islamic fundamentalism in Iraq and promoted secularism.

No weapons of mass destruction were ever found in Iraq, which obviously means that there was never any genuine evidence that they existed there prior to the US-led invasion.

The presence of terrorists in Iraq following the US-led invasion (as evidenced by a relentless campaign of suicide bombing by various factions) was due almost solely to the ‘war on terror’ itself, as is the rise of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ which formed in the chaos created by the Iraq War.

Despite the lack of any evidence linking Iraq to the 9/11 attacks, a widespread belief developed, at least among the US public, that Iraq, along with Afghanistan, was the source of the 9/11 attacks. A Washington Post poll taken almost two years after the attacks, and around six months after the invasion of Iraq, found that about 70 per cent of Americans believed there was a link between 9/11 and Iraq. How did that link get there? One answer is provided in the same newspaper report which quotes Bush on establishing the link, without explicitly telling falsehoods:

If the world fails to confront the threat posed by the Iraqi regime, refusing to use force, even as a last resort, free nations would assume immense and unacceptable risks. The attacks of September the 11th, 2001, showed what the enemies of America did with four airplanes. We will not wait to see what terrorists or terrorist states could do with weapons of mass destruction

(Washington Post, 2003)

Another speech reported just afterwards, declaring major combat in Iraq at an end, and linking the events of 9/11 more closely with Iraq, also claims that Iraq was allied with Al-Qaeda, which it was not.

The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September the 11th, 2001 … The liberation of Iraq is a crucial advance in the campaign against terror. We’ve removed an ally of al Qaeda, and cut off a source of terrorist funding … No terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi regime, because the regime is no more … We have not forgotten the victims of September the 11th. …

This suggests that the power of the presidential office in the US, supported by a largely uncritical media, succeeded in purveying a particular metanarrative about terrorism which was used to justify the war in Iraq despite the lack of evidence (either at the time or subsequently).In contrast, support for the war in the UK was much weaker even though former Prime Minister Tony Blair used similar rhetoric. This may be attributed to greater scepticism about the link with 9/11, a more critical press, a more critical attitude towards political leaders, generally nurtured by a stronger system of government and opposition, and a less nationalistic political world view among the public at large, at least at that time. Cramer, Jane K. and A. Trevor Thrall (eds) (2012), Why Did the United States Invade Iraq? (Abingdon: Routledge).

Exactly why the US invaded Iraq, and why some important allies like the UK and Australia went along with it despite no evidence of links with terrorists or of weapons of mass destruction, has been a matter of much speculation, with various motives and interests being explored

The widespread acceptance of the rhetoric behind the Iraq War may also be linked to a broader historical narrative that sees ‘Islam’ and ‘the West’ as essentially antagonistic. This narrative has been nurtured by figures on both ‘sides’—that is, by those promoting anti-Westernism within the Islamic world as well as by those promoting anti-Islamism from within the West. Almost a decade before the events of 9/11, it was observed that a mass movement based on Islamic fundamentalist principles had ‘erupted into the world political scene’ to challenge ‘Western economic, political, and cultural hegemony in its totality’ Mutman, Mahmut (1992–93), ‘Under the Sign of Orientalism: The West vs. Islam’, Cultural Critique, 23 (Winter): 165–97.

Interestingly, this ‘revolt against the West’ may also be analysed through the lens of Hans Morgenthau’s classical realism, which highlighted, among many other things, the forces driving a ‘revolt against power’. As Morgenthau put it, ‘[T]he very threat of a world where power reigns not only supreme, but without rival, engenders that revolt against power which is as universal as the aspiration for power itself’ (Morgenthau, 1978: p. 231).

More generally, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 must be understood against a wider historical background in which powerful narratives and discourses are embedded and which shape the identities and behaviours of actors in antagonistic relationships. Since 9/11 and the Iraq War, these narratives and discourses have fed into ongoing debates about terrorism and migration, and especially the assumption that ‘Islamic terrorism’ is a major security threat in Western societies.

Global Politics

Stephanie Lawson