The war on Iraq: justifications and motives

The Bush administration has justified its war against Iraq on three grounds: Saddam Hussein’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction, his links to so-called terrorists, and liberating Iraqis from oppression and tyranny.

Dr Najib Ghadban is professor of politics at Arkansas University in the United States. He specialises in Middle Eastern and Arab Gulf studies.

Advocates of war in the US administration claimed that Iraq had continued to develop WMDs, and with Saddam Hussein capable of making them available to organisations such as al-Qaida, it put the US at imminent risk.

However, a closer analysis of US behaviour, as well as the thinking of the pro-war camp inside the Bush administration, reveals that the justifications were convenient excuses for mobilising US public opinion.

The war on Iraq was planned over several years, promoted by an influential group of neo-conservatives, made possible by the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, and marketed by the right-wing pundits and media.

From containment to change

The idea of removing Saddam Hussein dates back to the second Gulf War in 1991. One of its prime advocates was Paul Wolfowitz who argued for regime change by supporting the Iraqi opposition.

Nonetheless, the dominant view within the first Bush Administration was that Saddam would be toppled within six months after suffering a humiliating defeat. 

When that didn’t happen, Bush senior decided that the best course of action was to contain Saddam, and allow him to be strong enough to maintain order domestically, and weak enough not to threaten his neighbours. 

Economic sanctions and the disarmament of Iraq became the twin pillars of the new policy which would be inherited by the Clinton Administration under the new heading of “Dual Containment”.

Both the first Bush and Clinton administrations relied on the UN to carry out the task of disarming Iraq. The UN mandate required that sanctions would not be lifted until Iraq was fully disarmed. 

Frustrated by the lack of cooperation on the part of Saddam Hussein, the US resorted to force several times to compel him to change his behavior.

In spite of Iraq’s lack of cooperation, two points deserve mentioning.

Firstly, Saddam Hussein’s government was given every reason not to cooperate, particularly after the US made it clear that sanctions would not be lifted as long as Saddam remained in power. 

Second, even with the lack of full Iraqi compliance, the UN achieved remarkable results. 

According to Scott Ritter, the former head of the United Nations weapons inspections in Iraq from 1991 until 1998, UNSCOM accounted for and dismantled 94 percent of Iraq’s WMDs.

Before the UN pulled its inspectors from Iraq, which preceded Operation Desert Fox in December 1998, a group of conservative officials and intellectuals associated with the New American Century wrote a letter to President Clinton suggesting that the policy of containing Iraq was failing and proposed a new strategy based on confrontation.

‘what these unelected officials have in common is their strong association with energy and defence industries and their fervent support of Israel’.

According to that suggestion, the US strategy should entail “removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power.”

Among the signatories to this letter were Elliott Abrams, Richard L. Armitage, Francis Fukuyama, Zalmay Khalilzad, Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and R. James Woolsey.

Nucleus of neocons

Almost all of the signatories were given senior posts in the new Bush Administration or were appointed to the newly established Defence Policy Board.

In addition to the influential Vice President Dick Cheney, this group constituted the nucleus of the neo-conservatives, known inside the Beltway as the neocons. 

Beside their advocacy of regime change in Iraq, what these unelected officials have in common is their strong association with energy and defence industries and their fervent support of Israel.

When George Bush assumed office in early 2000, Saddam Hussein was little more than a nuisance for the new administration.

This is mainly because he was still in power and he had succeeded in breaking the unity of the international campaign to isolate him through sanctions.

Then came the attacks of 11 September 2001. While no connection has ever been uncovered between Bin Ladin and the regime of Saddam Hussein, the neocons seized the opportunity to make the hypothetical scenario of a potential connection between Saddam Hussein and Bin Laden.

Such a scenario was based on two erroneous assumptions: One is that Iraq had massive quantities of chemical and biological weapons, and the other that Saddam would be willing to supply such weapons to al-Qaida in the fight against a common enemy.

After the events of 11 September 2001 the change of focus onto Iraq was a natural progression for the neocons. 

No sooner had they gone to war on Afghanistan than they shifted their focus from Bin Ladin and Afghanistan onto Iraq as the next phase in their so-called war on terror. 

To justify targeting Iraq and to dress up their motives in the language of terrorism prevention, the Bush Administration devised the principle of “pre-emptive strike”.

According to the National Security Strategy published in September 2002, the US should strike against hostile states and terrorist groups, acting “against such emerging threats before they are fully formed.”

Selling the war

The next step was to market the war on Iraq. The Bush  administration needed a message and a messenger. The message was framed as following: Saddam continues to develop a vast arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, he used chemical weapons against his own people, Iraq has something to do with 9/11, and Saddam has ties to al-Qaida.


9/11 gave the neocons the excuse
they needed to turn on Iraq

The neocons found in the right-wing media and in pundits such as Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, eager allies willing to publicise and magnify the Iraqi threat. Furthermore, the mainstream media, such as CNN, failed to critically examine the rationale for going to war.

The climate of fear in the aftermath of 9/11 and the apathy and/or lack of knowledge about the Middle East among most Americans, constituted the context for the steady support for the war on Iraq inside the US.

The military campaign to invade Iraq lost some momentum when President Bush acceded to Collin Powell and Tony Blair’s request to seek UN support against Iraq. 

The neocons went along with the proposal counting on Saddam’s intransigence and stupidity, to provide the necessary justification for the US to pursue the military option.

However, Iraq’s acceptance of UN Resolution 1441 and the opposition to the war worldwide complicated the administration’s war plan.

By the time the military preparations were complete, and with each passing day failing to yield weapons of mass destruction, the hawks in the US administration were ready to go it alone. 

‘the neocons’ real objectives have less to do with Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction and more with their vision of a new Middle East devoid of figures like Saddam Hussein.’

The reason why the Bush administration was adamant not to give the UN inspectors more time and resources was because of the risks associated with either not finding illegal weapons or disarming Iraq peacefully. 

In both cases the UN would have no choice but to call for a lifting of economic sanctions imposed on Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War. 

Such a scenario would have prevented the neocons from achieving their real objectives.  These have less to do with Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction and more with the neocons’ vision of a new Middle East devoid of figures like Saddam Hussein.

From the vantage point of the neocons, taking out Saddam and occupying Iraq would achieve several aims.

Firstly, in the aftermath of 9/11, many hawks in the US government wanted to send a strong message to the enemies of the US that the administration was willing to destroy any threat before it materialised.

Secondly, an American military presence in Iraq would allow the US to thwart the emergence of any potential alliance between two members of the axis of evil, Iran and Iraq, and Syria.

Thirdly, it would allow the US to withdraw its forces from Saudi Arabia in order to defuse the rising opposition to the US military presence in that country. 

Fourthly, a combination of US direct control of Iraqi oil and a long-term military presence in Iraq, in addition to the US bases in the surrounding countries, would enable the US to have more control over world oil supplies and policies.

Finally, the neocons believed that toppling Saddam and dismantling his military capability would close off once and for all the ability of any Arab country to challenge the Israeli military and its strategic supremacy. 

Furthermore, Iraq would be added to the growing list of Arab countries to make peace and normalise relations with the Jewish state.

There was no doubt about the military outcome of any confrontation between the US and the demoralised and outdated Iraqi army. However, the neocons’ assumption that Iraqis would welcome the “liberating army” with flowers turned out to be a major blunder. 

There is growing evidence that intelligence information was manipulated to support a political decision already taken.

Furthermore, the over-reliance on Iraqi opposition sources might explain some of the difficulties currently facing the US occupying forces in Iraq.

Together, with an arrogance of power demonstrated by the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq the policies amount to a recipe for disaster for the Iraqi people, and the future of US relations with the Arab and Muslim world.

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Source: Al Jazeera