A new book clarifies the reasons for the decision of the George W. Bush Administration to go to war in Iraq while raising ultimately unanswerable but unavoidable questions about foreign policy.
Twenty years ago this past March the United States attacked Iraq, then led by the murderous despot Saddam Hussein. American armed forces routed the Iraqi army, occupied the country, and deposed Saddam’s regime quickly with relatively modest loss of life. Then things began to go wrong. Baghdad, Iraq’s capital, was overtaken by an orgy of lawlessness. An insurrection against the American forces erupted, as did a civil war between two of the country’s three principal constituent groups–Sunni and Shi’a Muslims (the third being the Kurds).
Having occupied Iraq, the administration of President George W. Bush established the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) with the related missions of governing the country and establishing functioning, modern, political institutions for it. The CPA made little headway in achieving either goal. The administration gave as its main reason for launching the attack the need to eliminate Saddam’s stocks of weapons of mass destruction–chemical and biological armaments he was believed to possess in violation of United Nations resolutions prohibiting them. A search of the country turned up no such weapons.
By the time Bush’s successor as president, Barack Obama, withdrew American troops from Iraq in 2011, 4,586 Americans had died and 32,455 had been wounded. Ultimately the monetary cost of the war to the United States, which includes long-term health care for veterans, is projected to reach $2 trillion or more. As many as 300,000 Iraqi civilians died and an estimated nine million became refugees, both inside and outside the country. Although the war had enjoyed robust public support in the United States when it began, by 2023 two-thirds of Americans had come to consider it to have been a mistake.
Because it turned out badly from the American point of view, the war’s origins generated a variety of opinions, explanations, and accusations, few of which reflected favorably on the architects of the war. President Bush, it was said, had been maneuvered into the conflict by a group of advisers known collectively as “neonconservatives.” He, or they, or both, had wanted to attack Iraq from the outset of the administration in January, 2001, or at least since the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. on September 11 of that year. Moreover, it was charged, the administration had known full well that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and had used the pretense that it did as a cover for the pursuit of other goals such as seizing control of Iraq’s oil reserves, spreading democracy to the Middle East, taking revenge on Saddam for having attempted to assassinate the president’s father, former president George H.W. Bush, or some combination of these.
These ideas, widely circulated both in the United States and abroad, are incorrect, as Melvyn P. Leffler’s Confronting Saddam Hussein: George W. Bush and the Invasion of Iraq, an invaluable study of the lead-up to the war and the American occupation that followed, persuasively demonstrates. The author, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Virginia who has written a number of respected books on twentieth-century American foreign policy, has conducted interviews with most of the American officials responsible for Iraq policy. He has also extensively mined the voluminous public record to produce the most authoritative account of the decision to go to war that has yet been written.
Leffler shows that President Bush himself was in full control of Iraq policy: he was nobody’s puppet. While Bush certainly wanted Saddam out of power, he was not determined from the beginning of his time as president to go to war to bring about that result. To the contrary, his chief aim was to deprive Saddam of weapons of mass destruction, not to take Iraq’s oil or promote democracy there; and Bush hoped, until the last moment, to accomplish this goal without war. Moreover, the president and his senior officials did genuinely believe in the existence of such weapons, as did the leaders and the intelligence services of other Western countries.
Why, then, did the administration embark on a course that has come to be regarded by most Americans, and most observers in other countries, as a colossal failure? The answer to that question that Leffler’s careful study makes it possible to piece together is that the war came about through a confluence of three potent factors.
The first of them was the terrible events of September 11. The terrorist attacks of that day– unexpected, unprecedented, and massively lethal–administered a powerful shock to the American public and especially to the Bush administration. The president and his senior colleagues felt a sense of failure at not having prevented the attacks, which made all the stronger their collective sense of responsibility to ensure that no further, comparable assaults took place. Most alarmingly, September 11 raised the specter of a new and deadly threat. During the Cold War, the United States and its allies had managed to deter the Soviet Union from attacking Western Europe and North America, but the attacks on New York and Washington were the work of men who, because they were all too willing to die, could not be deterred. If such people managed to obtain weapons of mass destruction, they would surely attempt to use them against American and Western targets. Terrorists possessing such armaments could do horrifying damage.
The Bush administration had been aware of the terrorist threat to the United States, and specifically the threat posed by Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda organization but had failed to act decisively to counteract it. They had not, senior officials realized too late, taken that threat seriously enough. Of what other dangers, they were bound to ask themselves in the wake of September 11, might that also be true?
Because of who he was and what he had already done, their collective attention came to rest on Saddam Hussein. It is no accident that his name is in the book’s title. His personality, his history, and his conduct in the months before the American attack count as the second cause of the 2003 war. He had once had a significant store of chemical and biological weapons. He had also had a burgeoning program for making nuclear explosives, which Israel had destroyed in 1981. He had a track record of aggression, having attacked Iran in 1979 and Kuwait in 1990. He had employed chemical munitions against Iran and against the Kurdish population of Iraq itself.
The sanctions imposed on him after an American-led coalition had driven his army out of Kuwait in 1991 had degraded his military forces and armaments programs; but by the time the Bush administration took office the sanctions were weakening. Administration officials feared–not without reason–that the post-1991 restraints would eventually disappear altogether. Saddam would then be free to build up his military forces and resume his aggressive foreign policies. A longtime sponsor of terrorism himself, he would surely be tempted to give to terrorists the weapons of mass destruction he would undoubtedly build or rebuild. In that case, terrible consequences might ensue.
Saddam caused the Iraq war, as well, by his response to the American demand that he disarm or prove that he had already done so. Having evicted United Nations weapons inspectors, he readmitted them before the war but then interfered with their work. He apparently believed that the United States would not attack despite its threats to do so, and worried that if his regime were known not to have weapons of mass destruction this would embolden his many adversaries both within Iraq and elsewhere. Leffler’s research strongly suggests that had Saddam come clean on this issue the United States would not have invaded Iraq.
The Bush administration went to war on the basis of a particular combination of attitudes: deep pessimism about the likely consequences of leaving Saddam and his presumed weapons in place combined with what came to seem in retrospect to be wildly excessive optimism about the ease of removing him and setting Iraq on a path to a decent, peaceful, and even democratic future. That combination stemmed from recent history, which was the third reason for the war.
The presumption about the high costs of inaction arose from the experience of September 11. Bush officials had seen the all too painful results of their relative inattention to terrorism. The confidence in the success of a military initiative in Iraq stemmed in no small part from the ease with which the United States had ousted the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in the weeks following September 11; and the related optimism about the political and economic prospects for an Iraq without Saddam came from the powerful global trend of the previous two decades in which dictatorships had fallen and democracies begun to bloom in their stead, culminating in the collapse of communism in Europe in 1989 and 1991. With the tide of history flowing so strongly in favor of freedom, it was, in 2003, hard to imagine that the Middle East would resist that tide. That, however, is in fact what happened in Iraq as well as elsewhere in the region in the wake of uprisings against autocratic Middle Eastern governments in 2011 and 2012 that came to be known as the Arab Spring.
Leffler’s reconstruction of the American decision for war in 2003 brings out with particular clarity one of the unavoidable features of such decisions. The decision-makers must operate in conditions of uncertainty. They cannot be sure what will happen as a result of what they decide to do. Moreover, they must choose among different possible courses of action and while they are fated to see the results of the course they select, they will never know what the outcome of the alternative paths they might have taken would have been.
In dealing with Iraq, the obvious alternative to war was the status quo–continuing to try to contain Saddam’s regime. Given the costs of the war, continued containment seems, in hindsight, the wiser course. It is entirely within the realm of possibility, however, that had it been taken the Bush administration’s fears about leaving Saddam in place would have been realized. The Iraqi dictator might have escaped the sanctions, rebuilt his military forces, and conducted aggressive policies that would have imposed costs on the Middle East and the world just as great as–indeed, conceivably even greater than–those exacted by the war the United States began in 2003.
It is also difficult to resist asking–although impossible to answer–whether different policies would have made the period of Amerian occupation less violent, thereby enabling the Coalition Provisional Authority to do better than it did in achieving its goals. In the wake of the war the United States clearly had far too few troops in the country to maintain order. Would the Congress and the American public have been willing to send many more if asked to do so? If so, would the Americans and the Iraqis have had a significantly more positive experience there? Or, to the contrary, were the conditions in Iraq–the damage done by Saddam’s brutal rule and the bitter divisions among the Sunni and Shi’a Arabs and the Muslim but non-Arab Kurds who all inhabited the country that Great Britain had arbitrarily created out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire after World War I–such that the American goals were impossible to achieve?
The kind of “counterfactual” questions that history raises and that the American encounter with Iraq makes particularly poignant has, finally, a relevance to the present. For the United States now faces a threat in the Persian Gulf region comparable to the one that Saddam Hussein was seen to pose 20 years ago. The Islamic Republic of Iran conducts an aggressive foreign policy, sponsors terrorism on a large scale, and has come closer to obtaining nuclear weapons than Saddam ever did. The three administrations that have come after the events that Leffler chronicles, while different from one another in their respective approaches to Iran, have all been guided by attitudes different from those that animated American policy toward Iraq in 2003.
That is, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden have all indicated, by word and deed, that they will not use force to stop the mullahs in Tehran from equipping themselves with nuclear armaments. Their common pessimism about the consequences of a war against Iran, despite the fact that it would entail air strikes against the Iranian nuclear infrastructure and not American troops on the ground, stems from the American experience in Iraq. That experience remains powerfully and vividly negative enough to have persuaded three presidents that alternatives to military action– in Obama’s and Biden’s cases the attempt to conciliate the Islamic Republic, in Trump’s denouncing that regime but not attacking its nuclear program–will serve American interests better than using the U.S. Air Force to deprive Iran of nuclear weapons. Perhaps history will bear them out. It is also possible, however, that Iran will acquire a nuclear arsenal and wield it in such a way that, twenty years from now, the Obama, Trump, and Biden policies will be regarded as unfavorably as the Bush Iraq policy of 2003 is today.
Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a member of the Editorial Board of American Purpose, and the author, most recently, of The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower, (2022).
Image: Combined graphic of President George W. Bush delivering an address regarding the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol (National Archives) and Saddam Hussein speaking at his trial. (U.S. Department of Defense)