Why did the U.S. invade Iraq?A decade ago this month, the U.S. invaded Iraq in a war that many in Asia thought was both unnecessary and illegal. Nonetheless, there was logic to the war that I think is often missed. Frequently the war is traced to George Bush’s recklessness, oil companies, Israel, or a right-wing hijacking of the U.S. policy process. While some of this undoubtedly so, there was a larger ‘neoconservative’ argument about Islamic terrorism and the governance of the Arab Middle East that was in fact persuasive to many Americans before the war.
The anti-Western pathologies that lead to 9/11 were Arab in origin, not Afghani. The perpetrators were not acting for a Taliban, Pashtun, or any meaningfully ‘Afghan’ reason. Al Qaeda only hid among the Taliban. Hence, invading Afghanistan was not really a response to 9/11. That is a key neoconservative claim. Instead, that war was a “flushing out” of these Arab jihadists from their only weakly affiliated hiding place. And it is well known now that the Taliban became increasingly uncomfortable with Al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden & co. were drawing lots of global attention to Afghanistan, and the Taliban were not finished conquering the whole country in September 2001.
By contrast, in neoconservative parlance, the Middle East was a “swamp” that needed to be “drained.” The Middle East - this was long before the Arab Spring - was simultaneously dysfunctional and paralyzed. Corruption, dictatorship, rentierist corporatism, repression, cultural insularity, and religious fundamentalism (veering toward fanaticism in the Persian Gulf especially) was a toxic brew, kicking up nasty radicals like bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. All the 9/11 hijackers were Arab, and fifteen of them from Saudi Arabia alone, the most politically and theologically regressive Gulf tyranny.
The result of this reactionary Arab status quo was intense social alienation, leading inevitably to extremism at the fringe, coupled with a manipulation of religion as the one trusted social institution left.
The only meaningful Arab civil society institution not wholly penetrated or corrupted by the repressive state and its secret police (Mukhabarat) was religion. Hence, the Arab opposition gravitated toward the mosque, becoming Islamicized. The result was a corrupt, nasty, right-wing nationalist-corporatist state repressing an even more right-wing, theologically fundamentalist opposition with frighteningly medieval beliefs about women, Jews, homosexuals, and others. To contain salafism in the opposition and co-opt Islam for legitimacy purposes, a lot of cultural ground was ceded by the Arab state to reactionary religious groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Arab Islam was becoming both politicized and radicalized at the margins. And then 9/11 demonstrated that the salafist pathologies building up in the Middle East were spilling out of the region. The Arab political crisis was attaining a scary theological edge to it and now impacting non-Arabs.
These forces of dysfunction were too interlocked to change from within. The status quo was so set, that “waiting for the Arab Middle East to change on its own was like waiting for Godot - it will never happen,” as I remember one neoconservative commentator saying at the time. Aid, diplomacy, U.S. soft power, and other tools were not enough to challenge this congealed ‘swamp’ of dysfunction.
Hence, to the neoconservatives, the only way to change the Arab status quo that had given us Islamic extremism and 9/11, was an external ‘hammer strike’ or ‘lightning blow’ to force change.
Given that Saddam was already an established troublemaker who had hung on far too long, and that Iraq was a large Arab state right in the center of the Middle East, and that America could not invade Saudi Arabia because the U.S. was so dependent on their oil, or Egypt because they were an ally, Iraq was a logical choice.
Only a massive ‘shock and awe’ event could disrupt this deeply entrenched Arab political paralysis that was also breeding radicals in the shadows. The goal was not to make Iraq into full-blown western democracy - even neoconservatives knew that was too ambitious. But this hammer strike would push a major Arab state onto a radically new, more liberal, more democratic course. Even if Iraq did not turn out to be Canada, if it ended up like Turkey, that would be a big step forward, and show that Arab states could be politically pluralist.
In months and years after Iraq, I remember students saying this neoconservative analysis actually suggests that the U.S. should have invaded Saudi Arabia. Al Qaeda was very was much a Saudi organization at the time, and the flat-earth, petrodollar-fueled Saudi clerical establishment is the worst purveyor of Islamic intolerance in the world. One might also suggest Egypt, as the largest Arab state, the traditional center of Arab learning, and the birthplace of Sayyad Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood. But for obvious reasons, these targets were off-limits. That left Iraq. (Iran was too big, and Persian.)
The war then was to provide an unmistakable demonstration effect throughout the Middle East, and the world: surprise attacks on the U.S. like 9/11 would be met with an extraordinary response. Further, this demonstration strike told governments everywhere, but especially in Muslim states, to change, quickly: crack down on terrorists in your own house and start liberalizing to defuse the pathologies driving these jihadists, or the U.S. will come after you next. Lest we forget, at the time, the Bush administration was considering attacking other countries after Iraq. And this macho, strident unilateralism fit perfectly with Bush’s you’re-with-us-or-with-the-terrorists mindset on the war on terror.
I should say that I do not fully endorse this logic, nor did much of world, including Koreans. It smacks of U.S. hegemonic arrogance, is an extreme over-reaction to 9/11, conveniently sidesteps American provocations in the region, and makes sweeping, culturally controversial judgments about Arabs.
But this logic was persuasive to many Americans terrified by 9/11.The Iraq war only became unpopular in U.S. public opinion after the occupation started falling apart. Contrary to conspiratorial insider notions that Cheney blind-sided Bush or something like that, the war enjoyed broad popular support.
*The authos is an associate professor of international relations in the department of political science and diplomacy at Pusan National University.
by Robert E. Kelly