Was The Iraq War Inevitable? A 10th Anniversary Counter-factual.

When the Iraq War started ten years ago, I was a college freshman studying politics, and to call my understanding of international affairs “sophomoric” would be getting ahead of ourselves. I was enthusiastically in support of the war – I read the newspaper coverage of diplomacy, tracked the troop buildup online, and even stayed up all night on March 19th in order to watch the war as it started on TV. I look back at the way I looked at the world in 2003, and I am amazed by how dumb I was. Having access to lots of information doesn’t make you informed.

Over the years, I turned against the war like most everyone else, but I’ve never lost interest in it. I even went so far as to present a research paper on the Iraqi military at a conference hosted by the US & UK navies – a bit outside of my current area of expertise, but one in which I have a wealth of background knowledge. The Iraq War came to define my undergraduate experience in many ways and, when it came time to choose a career, was the main reason why I chose to go into academia rather than government service. (The jury is still out on that decision.) I also teach Iraq as part of my American history undergraduate survey. Each year, the last class is a discussion of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” and James Fallows’ “The Fifty-First State“.

So I think about this topic a lot. The Iraq War was a mistake, but why, exactly? Certainly the mendacity of Republican officials, and the self-serving political risk management of the Democratic opposition, are two main factors. The war was bungled politically from the very beginnings of diplomacy. But here is where I have a hangup with the “we should never have gone there” crowd. We were already there. So the question we have to ask ourselves is: “was the Iraq War inevitable?”

If not, the the Bush Administration, and those who allied with and abetted it, must take all the blame for a “war of choice”. But if the Iraq War truly was inevitable, then their still-significant culpability must be downgraded to “a situation they inherited but catastrophically failed at resolving”. Still terrible, but significantly different, and with very different lessons for US foreign policy.

A useful counter-factual exercise is to imagine whether there would have been an Iraq War had there been no 9/11. The al Qaeda terrorist attacks were used by the Bush administration, and echoed by most Republicans, many Democrats, and much of the media, as providing urgency for resolving the chronic problem of managing Saddam Hussein. If 9/11 hadn’t happened, would people still have felt the need to invade Iraq and depose Hussein’s regime?

The Context

Here was the situation in August 2001, before the al Qaeda attacks. For ten years since the end of the Gulf War, the US had been leading a coalition to contain Hussein within Iraq’s borders. The containment coalition had both military and economic aspects. The economic aspect consisted of economic sanctions that kept the Iraqi economy in an underdeveloped state by forcing Iraq to sell its oil through a UN-supervised escrow account, and then using those funds to buy a very limited number of non-military items on the international market. The effect of the sanctions was to keep Iraq technologically backward, and it caused considerable suffering amongst the civilian population which, like in most underdeveloped countries, suffered from chronic malnourishment and lack of medicine.

The military aspect consisted of naval enforcement of the UN sanctions, as well as maintenance of two no-fly zones. The northern no-fly zone protected the Kurdish region in Iraq’s mountains, using US fighters based out of Turkey. The southern no-fly zone was less efficacious in protecting Iraq’s Shia population living in the Tigris and Euphrates delta region, using US fighters based out of Saudi Arabia and on aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf. But aside from their stated intent under the UN resolutions authorizing them, the no-fly zones had another purpose, which was to contain the general military capacity of the Iraqi government. In both December 1998 and February 2001, the US forces enforcing the no-fly zones had engaged in active combat against the Iraqi military, targeting not Iraqi warplanes but instead the ground forces that formed the core of Hussein’s security apparatus, and other ground installations useful to the regime.

There was a third aspect to the containment strategy, which had gone defunct by 2001, and that was UN inspections of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Prior to the Gulf War of 1990-1991, Iraq had maintained a significant chemical and biological weapons program, and had briefly experimented with a nuclear program. Iraq had used its WMDs against both Iranian army units and Kurdish rebels during the 1980s, and disarming Iraq of its non-conventional weapons was an essential part of containment. From 1991 until 1998, the UN had inspections teams in Iraq that oversaw the dismantling of the WMD capability. The inspectors were kicked out in late 1998, however, which was one of the reasons for the bombing campaign that year. Returning the inspectors was a key priority for verifying that the WMDs had been destroyed and were not being reconstituted.

My point here is that, while by August 2001 Iraq had been contained, the containment strategy was starting to come apart. One-third of the containment strategy, inspections, was no longer in place. The military portion was also in trouble, as countries had ceased participating and there was political controversy over the American forces based in Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The economic sanctions were inflicting great suffering on the Iraqi population while failing to prevent illicit trade across Iraq’s borders, and were also the subject of great criticism. In short, the containment strategy was working but was not going to be viable indefinitely.

What Could Be Done?

Had there been no 9/11, what action would the US have taken to deal with the troubled containment strategy? The Republican Party was hawkish and, by the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, “regime change” in Iraq was the stated policy of the US government. But would there still have been a war in March 2003 resulting in the overthrow of Hussein’s regime and the installation of an American client state?

While the hawks within the Republican party were keen on war, it seems that their success in launching war in 2003 hinged on a couple of contingent factors. The first was the mobilization of American public opinion in favor of war after the collective trauma of 9/11. On a second and related note, the support of Great Britain, and the participation of British troops in the invasion, provided international legitimacy that further solidified that public support.

The September 11th attacks remain the crucial ingredient here, for without 9/11 and the subsequent unsatisfactory invasion of Afghanistan, public opinion would not have been pre-primed for war. It was the trauma of 9/11, and the lack of resolution in Afghanistan, that left the public ready for war in 2002. A United States at peace and in a period of economic growth would have been difficult to whip into a war frenzy, all the more so since, before 9/11, American politicians were notoriously averse to committing ground troops to military actions. Absent a casus belli like the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, it is doubtful that the Bush Administration could have secured the necessary support for mobilizing an American army and sending it to the Middle East.

Without 9/11, it is doubtful that the legitimizing British support would have been available either. Tony Blair committed British troops largely on the basis of his personal belief in the necessity of maintaining the strength of the US-UK “special relationship”, and because he subscribed to Bush’s messianic worldview of the “war on terror”. Absent the provocation of 9/11, Blair would not have had a war on terror to support, leaving his belief in the alliance as the sole motivation. British diplomatic and military support may still have been available, but it is not certain.

Based on this, it seems unlikely that a ground invasion, with the objective of regime change, could have been launched in March 2003. Public support for ground combat would have been non-existent, and the urgency of the matter might not have been apparent to Bush and Blair. In short, without 9/11 there is no Iraq War.

But then what?

But this doesn’t really solve the problem, for as I outlined above, the Iraq containment strategy was becoming less tenable every year. Short of a major renovation of the containment regime, including the resumption of weapons inspections, it seems unlikely that the containment of Iraq would have lasted the decade. Ironically, the best chance for renewing containment was in March 2003, when the US had its invasion army based in Kuwait, and all parties at the UN were engaged in diplomacy. Had the Bush Administration seized that moment to extract concessions on containment from Iraq’s Russian and Chinese backers, it might have rejuvenated containment and given another decade’s worth of “peace”.

But of course, we are assuming that there is no 9/11, and therefore no invasion force perched on Iraq’s doorstep. The leverage necessary to drive real concessions remains back at its base in the United States. Could the US have avoided the collapse of the containment regime without the threat of ground invasion?

This seems unlikely. The significant air and naval resources already in place were not sufficient to enforce the existing regime, never mind compel a new one. If the credible threat of a ground invasion were not available, how else could the US have pressed for containment? Meanwhile, the clock was ticking on the existing containment regime. The basing arrangement was a liability with Muslim public opinion in both Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the economic sanctions were unpopular with both Muslim and European opinion, the French had long since dropped out from participating in no-fly zone enforcement, and there were still no weapons inspectors. This was not a containment strategy that had long to last before it became untenable, meaningless, or both.

The Inevitable War

In all likelihood, the containment regime would have finally collapsed, or at least become irrelevant, sometime in the second half of the decade. This would have posed a significant problem for whichever person was president then, be it a re-elected George W. Bush or a Democrat. A President could not be seen as “losing” Iraq and allowing Saddam Hussein free rein once more. Even if public opinion would have been amenable, which I seriously doubt it would, the hawks within Congress would have pressed for regime change under the terms of the Iraq Liberation Act.

Under those conditions, it is conceivable that an expeditionary force would have been sent to Kuwait, in order to pressure Hussein. The composition of that force might have varied. Had the intent been to create diplomatic pressure, it is conceivable that some international forces might have participated. If the purpose was to launch a war, it is likely that international participation would have remained as scant as in the actual Iraq War. Furthermore, a serious willingness to go to war would be essential for the US effort to have credibility in the eyes of Iraq, Russia, and China, but the more willing the US was to actually exercise force, the less international participation would actually be forthcoming.

So if a multinational force showed up on the Iraqi border, it would probably have been insufficient to accomplish its diplomatic objective. A solely American, or perhaps US-UK force, would have been more credible in diplomacy, because it would be better prepared to engage in combat. The President at that point would then have to make a decision: take advantage of the diplomatic opportunity for rejuvenating containment, or carry out the mandate within the Iraq Liberation Act and force the Hussein regime from power?

That would largely have been a matter of the character of the person holding the Oval Office. I suspect that Bush would have invaded, as he did in real life. I am less certain of whether a Democrat would have, but it’s possible. Containment was wiser, but the temptation to eliminate the Hussein regime in a “cakewalk” would have been significant. So it seems like there is at least a 50% chance that there would have been an American invasion of Iraq sometime after 2005, with significant but still substantially less popular support than there was in the real invasion in 2003.

The Financial Crash

There is one further variable, though: would the final collapse of containment have taken place before or after the financial crash in 2008? If before, then the timeline would have proceeded as I laid out above. But if containment came after the stock market crash, it is inconceivable that the United States, in the midst of the implosion of its largest service sector and the near collapse of the global economy, would have gone looking for a war.

Indeed, had Hussein managed to hold on until 2008, he would probably still be in power. Only now, in 2013, has the US recovered from the economic crash enough be on stable footing. Again, there are many what-ifs. What if the government response to the crash had been more efficacious? Less efficacious? These counter-factuals can pile on top of other counter-factuals but, assuming that the US government response was roughly the same, then Iraq’s breakout from containment would not have met a decisive US response.

The Final Verdict

So was the Iraq War inevitable? Certainly, without 9/11, there would have been no war in March 2003, but without a new containment regime there is still a greater-than-not chance that the US would have invaded Iraq sometime between 2005 and 2008. If the economic crash took place before the collapse of containment, then Hussein might have stayed in power for many more years.

In fact, if the collapse of containment followed the economic crash, then today we might not be debating the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War from the vantage point of its end. Instead, we would be debating its impending commencement. It is doubtful that the US would tolerate a freed Saddam Hussein for long once it got its own house in order – even less likely considering that, if a Democrat had beaten George W. Bush in 2004 but then borne responsibility for the 2008 crash, the next President would probably have been John McCain.

The Iraq War was not inevitable. But the very real problems with the containment regime, the necessity of a credible threat of force to compel diplomacy, and the statutory policy of regime change in Iraq, all make it likely that a ground invasion would have happened at some point in the subsequent decade. Try as I might, I still think that American troops wind up in Baghdad at the end of the day. This means that we must reassess our criticism of the Bush Administration from “why did they pursue a war of choice” to “why did they choose that time, and that manner, of carrying out a nearly inevitable policy”?

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About Daniel Clinkman

I recently completed my PhD in History at the University of Edinburgh. My academic interest is in the transition from feudalism to liberalism in early modern Britain and its empire. My non-academic interests include public policy, political thought, international politics, social institutions, and travel. I grew up near Boston before attending the American University in Washington, DC. I now live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow me @dclinkman on Twitter.
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3 Responses to Was The Iraq War Inevitable? A 10th Anniversary Counter-factual.

  1. Andrew says:

    You seem to think the financial crash was totally unrelated to the Iraq war. This seems like an incredibly large flaw in your argument.

  2. Frank Harvey, Eric Dennis Chair of Government and Political Science says:

    Couldn’t agree more, Daniel. Here is my counterfactual case to reinforce the point…

    http://www.amazon.com/Explaining-The-Iraq-Frank-Harvey-ebook/dp/B006NYCK4G

    http://www.cpsa-acsp.ca/ir-prize.shtml

    Cheers,
    Frank

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