Iraq and US National Security Strategy After 9/11
Published on: Mar 26, 2004

Picture the context: an American politician inexperienced in foreign affairs assumes the US presidency under a political cloud, absent the 'mandate' of a clear and decisive presidential election victory. Shortly thereafter, his party loses the control of the Congress that it had enjoyed for several years. A sharp and decisive change in the international system then occurs, such that the president--widely derided at home and feared abroad for his alleged parochialism and intellectual incuriosity, especially in contrast with his more urbane and cosmopolitan predecessor--feels compelled to initiate a substantial reorganization of the key security institutions of the federal government; a process supported by Congress. At the same time, the president announces a major doctrinal change in established US foreign policy, one that serves notice to America's enemies and allies alike and that effectively divides the world into two on that basis. Public sentiment at home is galvanized into a new sense of insecurity and emboldened to tackle a new, far-reaching and potentially devastating international threat. In short, in the space of less than three years, the United States embarks on an entirely new and far-reaching global project with relatively little dissent at home but much apprehension abroad.

The president was, of course, Harry S. Truman, not George W. Bush. The loss of Congress occurred in 1946, not 2001. The international change was the onset of the Cold War, rather than the post-September 11 era. The governmental reorganization entailed the establishment of the Department of Defense, the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency, not the setting up of a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security. The Truman Doctrine committed the US to opposing the spread of totalitarian regimes, and the global project was the containment and eventual defeat of Soviet-led communism, rather than the current 'war on terrorism' and the nascent Bush Doctrine of preventive and pre-emptive war. For four decades after Truman assumed office in 1945, the security goal (opposing communism), the institutional leader (the president) and the public support for anti-communism together shaped American policies abroad and life at home. Whether future historians will approach the current war on terrorism in similar fashion remains to be seen, not least since the question of whether terror can be 'contained' or defeated remains the subject of vexatious disagreement.

Nonetheless, one could plausibly argue that the context sketched above in rough outline is applicable to both the post-WWII and the post-9/11 eras. This is not to suggest that we have entered either a 'new Cold War' or a 'clash of civilizations' (the answer to those questions seem presently to be neither 'yes' nor 'no' but 'not yet'), nor that the current post-9/11 parallels with the early Cold War years are exact or likely to prove enduring. But amidst the voluminous and intense discussions concerning the rapid shifts in American foreign policy and the tectonic plates of international politics, it is worth recalling that such transformative moments have occurred prior to, during and since 'the American century.' From the perspective of an 'outside' observer of US foreign policy, however, the three most salient questions at this present juncture are the most simple ones: why Iraq? why now? and how does this conflict fit within the broader framework of evolving US foreign policy?

Iraq in the American Imagination

Why, then, Iraq? In large part, the answer lies in the steady but inexorable transformation of Iraq's strategic role for Washington since 1979. Until 1990, successive Cold War administrations from Carter to Bush I viewed Saddam as a deeply distasteful but vitally useful prop in a region as rich in mineral resources as it was riven by internecine conflict, terror and turmoil. Primarily, and despite the Arab and nominally socialist nature of the Baathist regime, Saddam offered a crucial and essentially secular bulwark against Iranian radicalism and Tehran's export of Islamist revolution. Put simply, Baghdad represented by far the lesser of two evils from 1979-90--a common enough, albeit unreliable, basis upon which the US traditionally based its post-1945 foreign and security policies.

Only with the end of the Cold War and the deeply misguided Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 did US policy begin to shift towards treating Iraq as a serious regional security problem and a potentially destabilizing influence on the provision (and cost) of oil supplies to the West. Even then, the notable reluctance of the first Bush administration to march on Baghdad in the spring of 1991 reflected not merely (entirely credible) fears about the likely implosion of the 34-nation allied coalition, the illegitimacy of extending US military action beyond the more limited UN mandate, and the reluctance of US military figures to become embroiled in an Iraqi civil war, but also the assumed consequences of a fragmented Iraq for the broader region and a widely-held-albeit erroneous-assumption that Saddam would in any case be deposed from within. As late as 1991, then, the American imagination--at least within the key foreign policy decision-making circles of the Bush administration--still reluctantly embraced a potentially acceptable and even constructive role for Iraq in the region, providing the Baghdad regime abided by the UN resolutions accompanying the Gulf War ceasefire.

As the current crisis confirms once more, however, analogical reasoning exerts a tenacious, pervasive and powerful role in international politics and the framing of foreign policy. One merely has to note the regularity with which Munich, Pearl Harbor, Vietnam, Somalia and--now--September 11 are invoked in official proclamations and the mass media to glean the importance to decision-makers and analysts alike of seeking historical parallels for current events. Having established Saddam as a 'Hitler' figure in 1990 (an enterprise repeated less successfully by Clinton with Milosevic in 1999), successive administrations encountered profound difficulties in 'de-personalizing' US policy towards Iraq. Substantively, the 'failure' of the Bush administration to topple Saddam in 1991 posed substantial dilemmas for subsequent administrations in crafting a carefully calibrated and consistent policy on Iraq. But with the dissolution of Baghdad's key ally in the Soviet Union in 1991, the steady waning of both pan-Arabism and the revolutionary enthusiasm of the ageing theocracy in Iran, and the partial retreat of terrorist activities by nations such as Libya and Syria, the relative position of Iraq as the pre-eminent Middle East security albatross-regional gadfly, domestic tyranny, and symbolic political indictment-on Washington grew apace during 1991-2001.

In a basic but frequently forgotten sense American vital interests in the Middle East region have largely remained static for decades: regional stability; encouragement of moderation over extremism among Arab and Islamic states; peaceful settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict; the reduction and elimination of inter- and intra-state warfare; reliable access to oil supplies at reasonable cost; and the combating of state-sponsored, and latterly non-state, terrorism. But the strategies and tactics by which these objectives can best be secured have necessarily altered as developments within and outside the region have themselves shifted over time, and as successive administrations and Congresses in Washington have seized the constitutional 'invitation to struggle' to secure what they respectively viewed as the optimal foreign and defense policies. In this sense, the place of Iraq in 'the' American imagination has turned heavily on which Americans have been incumbent in the White House, the executive bureaucracy and Capitol Hill.

But beyond the sharp turnaround in the place of Iraq in American imaginations lies the less prosaic fact that US policy towards Iraq from George H.W. Bush through Bill Clinton and into the first term of George W. Bush was consistent only in its inconsistency: ebbing and flowing between the rival approaches of containment and regime change (or 'rollback'), never clearly embracing either yet simultaneously failing to be fully satisfied with the status quo that prevailed. Such dissatisfaction stemmed, in turn, from the multiple objectives that the US necessarily pursued, which embraced far more than simply the removal of Saddam: Iraqi compliance with the raft of UN resolutions passed at the end and subsequent to the 1991 Gulf war; the complete and verified elimination of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction; and the deterrence of Iraq in regard to military threats to its immediate neighbors and Israel. The scorecard for successive US administrations from 1991-2001 was therefore, at best, mixed: Saddam remained in power, and the existence of, and efforts to obtain more, WMD remained blights on the effectiveness of the UN to quell a serious threat to regional--and ultimately international--stability. But, to many, Iraq remained militarily 'within its box' (partly thanks to clear US responses to nascent Iraqi bellicosity in 1996-97) and the UN inspectors had enjoyed some limited successes in uncovering and dismantling parts of the Iraqi WMD program--at least until 1998.

Crucially, however, in answer to the question of 'why now?' the open lid to that 'box' was, and remains, WMD. Although virtually no evidence exists that Iraq could mount a direct missile strike on the US homeland, we no longer live in a 'traditional' security (i.e. Cold War) environment or era. The attacks of September 11 ensured that no American administration could any longer neglect the grave threats posed by state and non-state actors for whom the West in general and the United States in particular represent the 'mother of all ills' in the Middle East region and the wider world. The precise nuances of the relationships between such actors--whether Al Qaeda and Iraq or others--need not detain us unduly here, for the critical point about 9/11 was its stark revelation of the extent to which murderous intentions had been and can be harnessed to genocidal capabilities on the part of both theocratic and dictatorial forces.1 In that regard, a pro-active, multifaceted and global response on the part of the US was perceived by the Bush administration not so much an option as a necessity, less a choice than a given.

Iraq and US National Security Strategy

There can be little doubt, therefore, that the Bush administration has embarked on a momentous change in US security strategy, one whose ramifications will likely endure for decades and for whom Iraq now represents the second key precedent after the Afghan campaign. But it is worth noting that long prior to Iraq, and even to 9/11, the outlines of such new strategic thinking were already discernible in rough outline (albeit diffused within and across the institutions of government). It was in 1992, for example, that the 'Defence Guidance Strategy' white paper for post-cold war US global strategy was leaked to the New York Times. Penned in part by then under-secretary (and now deputy secretary) Paul Wolfowitz, the Pentagon-favored 'no rivals' doctrine envisaged US foreign policy as being driven by the elimination of all potential challengers to America's global hegemony, and advocated a stance of pre-emption and prevention in handling 'rogue states.' In the case of Iraq, in particular, the case for removing Saddam by some type of overt or covert action received powerful expression within the ranks of the Republican Party's defense hawks. For some, such as Richard Perle, this represented an overriding security concern, sufficient in and of itself to legitimate US action. For others, such as Wolfowitz, a transformation of Iraq offered precedent-setting opportunities in terms of democratisation of the Middle East at least as important as the security gains. That momentum for more decisive action against Baghdad was a constant within certain GOP and security community circles is clear but the lack of success of such pressure stemmed from two factors: contradictory policy objectives and their fitful expression in both the institutions of the divided federal government and the UN Security Council.

As noted, the emphasis of US policy during the post-Gulf War period oscillated between rollback and containment. The former represented an echo of the 'Reagan Doctrine' of supporting insurgency movements to overthrow pro-Soviet 'Third World' regimes in the 1980s, and emphasised the use of Iraqi opposition forces, Kurds and Shiites--backed by some forms of US airpower and covert ops--to topple Saddam. The latter comprised either comprehensive or narrow containment, the former aimed squarely at removing Saddam, the latter at deterring Iraqi aggression towards its neighbors and preventing regional instability. What complicated matters substantially was that rollback was well-represented within the GOP and, in particular, the Republican Congresses of 1995-2001. Containment, by contrast, was the preferred approach of the Clinton administration and its preferred method for assuring multilateral support for the US on Iraq in the Security Council. In the context of divided--and increasingly acrimonious--party control of the White House and Capitol Hill from 1995-2001, the competing approaches and institutional arenas in which they vied for support militated against a reliable clarity of goals, strategy and tactics on the part of the US.2 It was only with notable reluctance that Clinton signed into law the Iraqi Liberation Act of 1998--heavily pushed by the GOP Congress--that made rollback the express goal of official US policy.

With the return (albeit briefly) of undivided Republican Party control of the White House and the Hill in January 2001, the opportunities for navigating new directions on security policy were rapidly seized. By the early months of 2001, the new emphasis accorded national missile defence, the scepticism towards the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and the willingness to prioritise tough action against 'rogue states' were all prominent themes of the Bush administration. Subsequently, the issuance of the administration's Nuclear Posture Review (in January 2002) and the National Security Strategy of the United States document (on September 17, 2002) together confirmed the magnitude and nature of the new approach. The former indicated that the administration was seriously entertaining the possibility of using pre-emptive strikes with nuclear weapons against states such as Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Libya. The latter crystallised the nascent Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive and preventive war and now already assumes an importance in the lexicon of US foreign policy as great as the landmark NSC memos of the early Cold War years. In introducing it, President Bush stated unequivocally that, 'As a matter of common sense and self-defense, America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed.'

But this represented not so much an abandonment of Cold War-style deterrence as a supplement to it within the new security architecture of the post-9/11 world. Crucially, it is precisely within this new security context that war with Iraq must be viewed: not as some sudden and premature US adventurism (since 1991 and 17 UN Security Council resolutions, the 'rush' to war has taken longer than the 3,075 days of US involvement in World Wars I, II and Korea combined); but rather as the final stage in a twelve-year hiatus of strategic confusion and uncertainty in US policy and the first act in a lengthy drama of preventive and punitive strategic action.

None of this is to deny that the conflict with Iraq reflects and reinforces multiple objectives for American policymakers, nor that its public presentation relies on loading Iraq with multiple meanings: as an unacceptable security risk; as an oppressed nation; and as a Middle Eastern democratic laboratory for 'huddled masses yearning to breathe free.' It would be naïve in the extreme to suggest otherwise. In imagining war, policy-makers invariably imagine the post-war costs and benefits--albeit with varying degrees of foresight. It was, for example, one of FDR's underlying goals that Europe should be relegated from world politics with its successful liberation in World War Two--an objective that, in some respects, has arguably come to pass in ways he could not possibly have anticipated. Similarly, Iraq offers an enticing test case that serves multiple purposes for the current US administration, in theory at least. Beyond confirming that the US is willing and able to effect preventive and pre-emptive war (and thereby to caution other rogue states against antagonising the US), a successful Iraqi reconstruction can serve as an example of 'democracy'-building (albeit by default) and liberation. Just as few Americans in 1935 would have anticipated that ten years later the US military would have occupied Germany and Japan, so in 1945 few would have anticipated that US economic aid would assist those nations to rebuild and ultimately rival the American economic dominance three decades later.

The opportunities to 'democratise' Iraq, establish close economic ties, encircle Iran, and potentially remove US forces from Saudi Arabia must all appear to the current administration as ones worth seizing. But at the core of the Bush administration's strategising lies a dilemma as profound as it is, ultimately, irreconcilable. On the one hand, there exists among many in the administration (not simply Colin Powell) a clear recognition of what Joseph Nye terms 'the limits of American power'--that is, the circumscribed reach and effectiveness of US military power, and the costs to its economic and 'soft' power that such an exercise of force can entail. On the other hand, some in the most senior administration positions--Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice--also harbor a seemingly genuine conviction in the capacity of the US to unleash democratising tides among peoples long oppressed (albeit selectively so; Iraq qualifies, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan do not). As Rice noted in October 2002, the US rejects 'the condescending view that freedom will not grow in the soil of the Middle East--or that Muslims somehow do not share in the desire to be free.' Aside from a lack of theological nuance, however, the principal difficulty here exists in marshalling such notions to the more fundamental security and, secondarily, economic concerns animating US policy. That the US has multiple objectives in Iraq and the region is clear. But its relative lack of candour and consistency in acknowledging this has dramatically undermined the assembling of mass support for its actions both at home and, especially, abroad.


1 Although critics of the US are quick to point out the many religious and political differences that inhibit a rapprochement between Al Qaeda and Saddam, such analyses tend to overstate their significance. From the cooperation of Nazi Germany and Soviet Union to the current linkages between Islamist terror non-state actors and states, common strategic imperatives can frequently override enmities that might otherwise prove fatal.

2 See Robert S. Litwak, Rogue States and US Foreign Policy: Containment After the Cold War (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2000).