“Why did the George W. Bush administration choose to invade Iraq in 2003? For our purposes, drilling down on this question is essential for two reasons. First, doing so situates the Third Gulf War of 2003-2011 within the larger context of America’s War for the greater Middle East. Second, appreciating what Bush actually meant to achieve in Iraq reveals in full the magnitude of the failure that the United States sustained there.
Of course, many answers to that question already exist. The official one offered by the Bush administration itself and seconded by many of the war’s most ardent supporters cited the putative threat posed by Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Yet in reality, this was a cover story. As Paul Wolfowitz acknowledged, WMD offered ‘the one issue that everyone could agree on,’ implying the existence of other, more germane motives.
When the claims of this smoking gun/mushroom cloud school turned out to lack substance, its adherents insisted that good intentions should count more than mere veracity. Rumsfeld subsequently dismissed the emphasis on WMD as ‘a public relations error.’ Carping on erroneous or falsified intelligence reports amounted to pointlessly rehashing issues that the ongoing march of events had rendered moot. More or less simultaneously, Bush loyalists reverted to a ready-made fallback position. Liberating oppressed Iraqis now became the advertised war aim. Pressed by a reporter to explain what had happened to the mushroom cloud hypothesis, White House press secretary Scott McClellan neatly summarized the administration’s revised position. ‘We’re not going to relegate the reasons why we went to Iraq,’ he huffed. That was little history; what beckoned was Big History, in the form of ‘spreading freedom in the broader Middle East.’
Rejecting the official line, critics of Bush’s War advanced a number of alternatives. When Iraq’s WMDs turned out not to exist and liberating the oppressed proved unexpectedly arduous, these alternatives gained added credibility. Among the explanations floated were these: The United States invaded Iraq to ‘get the oil,’ funnel money to the military-industrial complex, provide an excuse for defunding the welfare state, remove a threat to Israel, or allow President Bush the psychic satisfaction of completing a job – deposing Saddam Hussein – his daddy had left unfinished.
Unlike the explanation offered by Bush and his minions, these alternatives had one pronounced advantage: None were self-evidently false. Indeed, each likely contained at least a morsel of truth. Yet neither separately nor in combination do they suffice, for this simple reason: They understate the magnitude of the administration’s actual ambitions.
In reality, the Bush administration invaded Iraq in order to validate three precedent-setting and mutually reinforcing propositions. First, the United States was intent on establishing the efficacy of preventative war. Second, it was going to assert the prerogative, permitted to no other country, of removing regimes that Washington deemed odious. And finally, it was seeking to reverse the practice of exempting the Islamic world from neoliberal standards, demonstrating that what Condoleeza Rice called ‘the paradigm of progress’ – democracy, limited government, market economics, and respect for human (and especially women’s) rights – was as applicable to the Greater Middle East as to the rest of the world. Here in concrete and specific terms was a strategy to ‘change the way they live.’
As a venue to begin implementing this strategy, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, situated in the very core of the Greater Middle East, appeared uniquely attractive. After all, Saddam had made his country an international pariah – few outside of Saddam’s own circle of toadies and dependents were going to mourn his forcible removal from the scene. The Iraqi army was not likely to pose significant opposition, having amply demonstrated its incompetence, even before taking into account the effects of periodic U.S. bombing along with a decade of crippling sanctions. That the Iraqi people were largely secular, upwardly mobile, and united in their yearning for liberation – a fanciful image nursed within the upper reaches of the Bush administration – figured as a bonus. In other words, what made it imperative to invade Iraq was not the danger it posed but the opportunity it presented.
Channeling administration thinking, the journalist Max Boot breezily summarized the argument in an October 2001 essay. ‘Once Afghanistan has been dealt with, the U.S. should turn its attention to Iraq,’ he wrote.
‘It will probably not be possible to remove Hussein quickly without a U.S. invasion and occupation – though it will hardly require half a million men, since Hussein’s army is much diminished since the Gulf War, and the U.S. will probably have plenty of help from Iraqis, once they trust that it intends to finish the job this time. Once Hussein is deposed, an American-led, international regency in Baghdad, to go alone with the once in Kabul, should be imposed.
Over the years the U.S. has earned opprobrium in the Arab world for its backing of repressive dictators such as Hosni Mubarak and the Saudi royal family. This could be the chance to right the scales, to establish the first Arab democracy, and to show the Arab people that the U.S. is as committed to freedom for them as it was for the people of Eastern Europe. To turn Iraq into a beacon of hope for the oppressed peoples of the Middle East. Now that would be a historic war aim.’
So whether or not Saddam actually had anything to do with 9/11 was beside the point. After all, the ultimate objective of administration strategy, a.k.a. the Freedom Agenda, was not merely to defend against the prospect of another 9/11 but to remove the root causes of anti-American terrorism in the Greater Middle East. This meant rendering the region itself congruent with American interests and American values. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq offered the optimum locale for launching this lofty undertaking.
Try this thought experiment. Imagine that President Bush’s famous ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech of May 1, 2003, declaring that ‘major combat operations in Iraq have ended,’ had proven accurate; that Vice President Cheney’s prediction of U.S. forces being ‘greeted as liberators’ had held, along with Rumsfeld’s projection of total war costs coming in at ‘something under $50 billion’; that Wolfowitz’s estimate of Iraq being able to ‘finance its own costs of reconstruction’ had panned out; and that Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith’s promise of U.S. military action putting ‘Iraq on a path to become a prosperous and free country’ had come to fruition. Imagine, in other words, that Operation Iraqi Freedom had played out as the Bush administration had expected.
How would such an outcome have affected America’s standing in the Greater Middle East? In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes wrote, ‘What quality soever maketh a man beloved, or feared of many; or the reputation of such quality is power; because it is a means to have the assistance and service of many.’ As applicable to the twenty-first century as to the seventeenth, this aphorism pithily captures the true rationale for Gulf War 3.0. It did not appreciably differ from the motives prompting Saddam Hussein to launch Gulf War 1.0 in 1980 or 2.0 in 1990. Although victory in Iraq might not induce much love for the United States, it would certainly translate into fear and respect. Put simply, by demonstrating the will and the capacity to deal with Iraq, the United States itself would emerge as Leviathan.
General Wesley Clark tells the story of a senior officer on the Joint Staff apprising him just weeks after 9/11 of a Bush administration plan to ‘take out seven countries in five years,’ starting with Iraq and Syria and ending with Iran. Absent documentary confirmation, we may question the specifics of Clark’s anecdote. We should not, however, doubt the larger thrust of administration intentions, which the anecdote accurately conveys. To ‘take out’ several countries did not necessarily imply a succession of wars, of course. Indeed, per Hobbes, using Iraq to illustrate the folly of resisting American power held the promise of enabling the United States to have its way elsewhere without actually needing to employ that power.
So for all the vituperation U.S. officials heaped on Saddam Hussein, sending him packing was never more than an interim goal. Acting strategically, Rumsfeld believed, meant doing ‘something that was three, four, five moves behind it.’ Intervention in Afghanistan did not lend itself to next moves; intervention in Iraq, by contrast, would. As Feith, the Pentagon’s third-ranking civilian, put it, removing Saddam would ‘make it easier to confront – politically, militarily, or otherwise – other state sponsors of terrorism.’ By way of examples, he specifically cited Gaddafi’s Libya and Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. These regimes had ‘a record of backing down under pressure.’ As such, they presented problems likely to be ‘solvable though coercive diplomacy rather than through military action.’ Vanquishing Saddam Hussein and destroying his army promised to invest American diplomacy with the power to coerce.
In short, the victory in Iraq would open the door to much else. Indeed, the logic of the argument extended even to nominal allies such as Pakistan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Each one an incubator of violent Islamism, they too were going to have to start doing things differently. The overall scope of Bush administration’s domino plan was nothing if not vast. As one Bush administration official remarked, “The road to the entire Middle East goes through Baghdad.’
– Lucas G. Westman
 America’s War For the Greater Middle East, Bacevich, Pg. 239-243