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The Iraq War at 20: The Groundwork for the US-Led Invasion Was Laid Long before 2003
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The US-led invasion of Iraq commenced two decades ago on March 20, 2003. While many would prefer to forget the brutal war that followed, the twentieth anniversary has inspired a new round of postmortems on what went wrong, who is responsible for the war’s failures, and what lessons we can learn from the conflict.

Specialists generally ascribe the 2003 invasion to a combination of national security concerns (the post-9/11 fear of a major terror attack), humanitarian interests (ending Saddam Hussein’s cruelty), and ideological aspirations (the desire to transform the Middle East). Yet while these are all important factors, the long-term perspective on US-Iraq relations suggests that the invasion was also a logical (if not inevitable) consequence of America’s post-1991 unipolar global position, its dominant liberal dogma, and the hegemonic ambitions of its strategists. America’s war against Iraq really began when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, and much of the groundwork for the 2003 invasion was laid in the 1990s.

Prelude: US-Iraq Relations in the 1980s

At the dawn of the 1980s, the US was seeking partners in the Middle East. After two oil crises and an anti-American revolution in Iran, Washington strategists wanted energy security and governments that were stable, anti-Soviet, open to trade and investment, and willing to combat Islamism and terrorism. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had much of what they sought. It was highly centralized, secular, anticommunist, a balancer against Moscow and Tehran, and strong enough to suppress revolutionary activity while ensuring a steady oil supply. As Christopher Hitchens wrote two decades ago, “If Washington were designing a system for Iraq, it would choose a Sunni Muslim military dictatorship, with a strong central government in Baghdad, held in place by a ruthless but secular political party.”[i] The historian Joseph Sassoon concurs, arguing that Saddam and the US “were natural allies in that they shared the same enemies: religious fanaticism and Iran.”[ii]

America’s Middle East specialists had their eyes on the Iraqi leader right off the bat. When Saddam took power in 1979, the Baghdad-based American diplomat Edward Peck presciently concluded that “[he] is quite likely to be in power for a long time.”[iii] “With the clout that comes with oil,” Peck noted the following year, “Saddam has emerged as a leader of considerable and growing stature.”[iv]

Saddam invaded Iran in September 1980, and the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq War changed the regional calculus for Washington. While remaining officially neutral, the US tilted toward Iraq in 1982 in an effort to challenge Iran while also driving a wedge between Baghdad and its principal arms supplier, Moscow. Washington removed Iraq from its list of state sponsors of terror, granted US loans to fund grain purchases, granted Ex-Im Bank loans to boost Iraq’s credit rating, shared intelligence, and began selling weapons.[v] Once the two countries reestablished official relations in 1984, they worked out much larger arms deals and the US designated Iran a state sponsor of terrorism.

Having decided that Iraq was its proxy against Iran, the US was in the awkward position of looking the other way when Saddam broke international law by gassing Iranian soldiers. The Reagan administration also papered over Iraq’s May 1987 air attack on the USS Stark, which killed 37 sailors, with President Reagan himself even publicly calling Iran “the villain” in the story.[vi]

Despite these setbacks, US policy in the ’80s served narrow security and economic interests. The Reagan administration was determined that “Iraq was to serve as the instrument to prevent an Iranian victory,” concluded Joyce Battle of the Washington-based National Security Archive.[vii] The writers Kenneth R. Timmerman, Mark Phythian, and Alan Friedman all meticulously documented the massive cache of arms the US and its European partners sent to Saddam in the ’80s.[viii] Friedman asserted that while Saddam may have been “an odious figure,” he was also acceptable as Washington’s “new regional policeman” because he was “a cynical deal-maker who welcomed American business, unhampered as he was by either religious fanaticism or political ideology.”[ix]

The war’s end precipitated a falling out between Washington and Saddam. The Reagan administration had seen Iraq as a regional partner and balancer, but Saddam’s brutality and independent streak marked him as a rogue leader in Washington’s eyes. In September 1988, US officials condemned his killing of 5,000 Iraqi Kurds with chemical weapons, though a Senate sanctions package died in the House, overridden by business interests. Meanwhile, Saddam seemed to have lost his faith in Washington when he learned that the US had sold Iran weapons to free hostages and covertly fund the Nicaraguan contras.[x]

Turning Point: The Gulf War

Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 completed the Washington-Baghdad split. However inadvisable the decision, the dictator had his reasons. The Iraqis had a historical claim on Kuwait, as it had long been part of Basra province, and Saddam was accusing the Kuwaitis of pumping oil beyond OPEC quotas and “slant drilling” Iraqi oil. And after such a long and expensive war with Iran, Iraq had massive war debts, a huge cache of weapons, an experienced army, and the sixth-largest air force in the world.

Despite Saddam’s track record, US officials were caught off guard. The George H.W. Bush administration interpreted the Kuwait invasion as not only an attack on a sovereign state, but also a catastrophic disruption to energy security and the regional status quo. The US froze Iraqi assets, embargoed Iraqi oil imports, and drafted the first of many Security Council resolutions demanding a withdrawal.

Saddam underestimated the international response in part because he misunderstood how much the world had changed. With the Cold War on the wane, Moscow joined the US in condemning the invasion and later acceded to the Gulf War mission.[xi] Congress passed a war powers resolution on January 12, 1991, and the close vote (250-183 in the House, 52-47 in the Senate) reflected strong misgivings about the use of force alongside multiple contemporary concerns (“it’s a war for oil,” “it’ll be a Vietnam-like quagmire,” “young Americans will die for no reason,” “we’re not responsible for Kuwait”). Operation Desert Storm began five days later, the biggest international military coalition since World War II. The conflict lasted about six weeks.

Three results of the Gulf War stand out today. First, the war’s speed, overwhelming success, and low coalition casualty figures showed the world that the US was willing to use overwhelming force and could succeed if it did so. While President Bush was declaring an end to the “Vietnam syndrome,” those legislators who had voted against the war scrambled to explain their decision. (In light of Desert Storm’s success, far fewer would be willing to vote “no” a decade later.) Second, Bush’s decision not to march on Baghdad was defensible, but it also kept Saddam in power. Despite US hopes of an indigenous overthrow of Saddam, the dictator brutally suppressed uprisings in the north and south. Bush defended the limited military action and later explained that if the US had gone beyond the UN mandates, “We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq.” The US would be “an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land.”[xii] Third, the US decision to stage troops in Saudi Arabia, ostensibly to protect the kingdom, fueled the animosity of Islamists like Osama Bin Laden, who condemned the presence of “infidels” in the holy land.

The Never-Ending War: From Containment to “Regime Change”

For the next decade, the US pursued a containment policy against Saddam that included maintaining no-fly zones in the north and south of Iraq, stationing US troops in Kuwait, supporting UN Security Council sanctions and disarmament requirements, and launching airstrikes on Iraqi targets in July 1993, September 1996, and December 1998 (this last strike perhaps not coincidentally carried out during the House impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton).

As Joseph Stieb has shown, the American political and intellectual class ultimately abandoned containment and embraced “regime change” as the only suitable approach to the Iraq “threat.”[xiii] In the most significant policy shift of the era, the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act (ILA) made regime change the policy of the US government. As a clear sign of the consensus in Washington, the bill passed with unanimous consent in the Senate and over 90% support in the House. Upon signing it, Clinton presaged the Promethean “freedom agenda” of the Bush era, declaring that “the United States favors an Iraq that offers its people freedom at home. […] Iraqis deserve and desire freedom like everyone else. […] The evidence is overwhelming that such changes will not happen under the current Iraq leadership.”[xiv] The policy eventually included US support to Iraqi opposition groups and efforts to indict Ba’ath Party leaders for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The language of the ILA was strongly influenced by Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a think tank whose founders and supporters constituted a Who’s Who of Iraq War architects just a few years later, including Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams, John Bolton, Richard Perle, William Kristol, Robert Kagan, and Norman Podhoretz. PNAC’s January 1998 open letter to President Clinton declared that containment had failed and that “removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power […] now needs to become the aim of American foreign policy.”[xv]

US-Iraq policy had its opponents in the decade before 9/11, including dissident legislators (Ron Paul, John Conyers, Cynthia McKinney), intellectuals (Edward Said, Noam Chomsky), political outsiders (former attorney general Ramsey Clark), and figures in the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies. But by the end of Clinton’s presidency, these were voices in the wilderness. In the triumphalist, globalized era of Charles Krauthammer’s “unipolar moment,” Samuel Huntington’s “third wave of democracy,” John Williamson’s “Washington consensus,” Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history,” and Anthony Lake’s “rogue states,” Saddam and the world’s other remaining dictators stood out for flouting the “universal values” of democratic government, liberal constitutions, and free market economies.[xvi]

To be sure, Saddam had few friends on the global stage, and he richly deserved condemnation for attacking sovereign neighbors Iran and Kuwait, disrupting the oil supply, using chemical weapons against restive populations, taking hostages as human shields in Kuwait, launching scud missiles at Israel, sending hundreds of thousands of Iraqi soldiers to their deaths in losing wars, setting alight hundreds of oil wells in Kuwait, and using torture and selective murder to maintain his power. Meanwhile, his allusions to WMDs and his stonewalling on UN inspections made him appear more dangerous than he was.

Yet, however reprehensible Saddam Hussein was, it was another thing entirely to argue that he endangered Americans at home or abroad. By the end of the ’90s, US officials had decided that Saddam was not an issue to be managed, but rather a threat to be removed. After 9/11, the Bush administration decided that the stakes were too high to wait.

Author Bio:

Joe Renouard is Resident Professor of History and American Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Nanjing, China. He specializes in American foreign policy, diplomatic history, human rights in international affairs, and transatlantic relations. His most recent books are Human Rights in American Foreign Policy: From the 1960s to the Soviet Collapse (Penn Press, 2016) and The Transatlantic Community and China in the Age of Great Power Rivalry (forthco


[i] Hitchens, “The Awful Truth is America Quite Likes the Saddam Regime,” reprinted in Turi Munthe, ed., The Saddam Hussein Reader (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2002), 486-489.

[ii] Joseph Sassoon, Saddam Hussein’s Ba’th Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime (New York: Cambridge, 2011), 11.

[iii] “Telegram From the United States Interests Section in Baghdad to the Department of State,” 17 July 1979, Doc. 138, Foreign Relations of the United States (hereinafter FRUS), Vol. XVIII, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1977-80v18/d138.

[iv] “Telegram From the United States Interests Section in Baghdad to the Department of State,” 4 February 1980, Doc. 139, FRUS, Vol. XVIII, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1977-80v18/d139.

[v] Joyce Battle, “Shaking Hands with Saddam Hussein: The U.S. Tilts toward Iraq, 1980-1984,” National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 82, 25 February 2003, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB82/.

[vi] “Question-and-Answer Session with Area Reporters in Chattanooga, Tennessee,” 19 May 1987, Public Papers of the Presidents (hereinafter PPP), https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/question-and-answer-session-with-area-reporters-chattanooga-tennessee.

[vii] Battle, “Shaking Hands with Saddam Hussein.”

[viii] Mark Phythian, Arming Iraq: How the U.S. and Britain Secretly Built Saddam's War Machine (Boston, Northeastern University Press, 1997); Kenneth R. Timmerman, The Death Lobby: How the West Armed Iraq (New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1991); Alan Friedman, Spider’s Web: The Secret History of How the White House Illegally Armed Iraq (Bantam Books, 1993).

[ix] Friedman, Spider’s Web, xvi-xvii.

[x] Tariq Aziz later testified that Saddam was outraged by the Iran-Contra scandal and “believed that Washington could not be trusted.” Iraq Survey Group, Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the Director of Central Intelligence on Iraq WMD, Vol. I: Regime Strategic Intent (September 2004), 31, http://www-personal.umich.edu/~graceyor/govdocs/pdf/duelfer1_b.pdf.

[xi] “Soviet Union-United States Joint Statement on the Persian Gulf Crisis,” 9 September 1990, PPP, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/soviet-union-united-states-joint-statement-the-persian-gulf-crisis.

[xii] Quotes in George H.W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed (New York: Knopf, 1998), 489-490.

[xiii] Joseph Stieb, The Regime Change Consensus: Iraq in American Politics, 1990-2003 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021).

[xiv] “Statement on Signing the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998,” 31 October 1998, PPP, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/statement-signing-the-iraq-liberation-act-1998.

[xv] Project for the New American Century to President Bill Clinton, 26 January 1998, archived at http://web.archive.org/web/20070810113947/www.newamericancentury.org/iraqclintonletter.htm.

[xvi] Charles Krauthammer, “The Unipolar Moment,” Foreign Affairs 70, No. 1 (“America and the World 1990-91”), 23-33; Samuel P. Huntington, “Democracy’s Third Wave,” Journal of Democracy 2, No. 2 (Spring 1991): 12-34; Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992); Anthony Lake, “Confronting Backlash States,” Foreign Affairs 73, No. 2 (March/April 1994), 45-55, archived at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015054444693&view=1up&seq=3.

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