Beyond the neocons: Those assigning blame for Iraq War must consider role played by liberal multilateralists and realists

For many who look with horror at the carnage visited upon Iraq since the US invasion in March 2003, there seems to be a fixation on neoconservatives that often times appears deflective. Of course, it is perfectly reasonable to look at the role played by neoconservative ideology and its promotion of unilateral military action against purported “rogue states” and agitation to unparalleled US domination of global affairs. At the same time, the resulting analysis should not obscure or minimize the role played by other prominent ideologies among the US diplomatic establishment in greasing the skids for the US invasion.

The Blame The Neocons Only narrative tends to focus on a cabal-like group of figureheads who are commonly associated with the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). Individuals who would later go on to serve high positions in the administration that invaded Iraq–such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld and John Bolton–all signed an open letter to President Clinton on behalf of PNAC that urged a harder line against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Focusing on these groups and individuals is useful when determining why the administration of George W. Bush felt it had the right to launch a full-scale military invasion of Iraq explicitly against the wishes of the UN and many of the US’ largest allies. What it fails to fully account for is the reason relations with Iraq had deteriorated so severely that regime change through overwhelming unilateral force was even a consideration, let alone a preferred course of action.

The administration of George HW Bush was overwhelmingly realist in its orientation towards foreign policy. In its approach to Iraq following the invasion of Kuwait, it made much fanfare of its  multilateralism in building a large coalition and seeking UN approval for military action. In Bush’s January 1991 national address announcing the start of the Persian Gulf War, he declared that: “we have before us the opportunity to forge for ourselves and for future generations a new world order–a world where the rule of law, not the law of the jungle, governs the conduct of nations […] an order in which a credible United Nations can use its peacekeeping role to fulfill the promise and vision of the U.N.’s founders.” Such an appeal to international cooperation makes it easy to contrast his presidency favorably with that of his son. But it would be incredibly misleading to suggest that his administration’s policy towards Saddam Hussein’s regime–before and after the Gulf War–was based on international consensus. In word and deed, the presidency of Bush 41 planted the seeds for Bush 43’s invasion.

Consider the fact that Saddam Hussein’s numerous offers of a conditional withdraw from Kuwait were immediately rebuffed or ignored. The official stance of the US following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was that it would be unacceptable if Hussein managed to gain “even a scintilla of profit–a Kuwaiti island or minor border adjustments” from the crisis. The US also rejected any role fellow Arab states could play in mediating the dispute between the Iraqi regime and Kuwait’s rulers. The Bush administration stubbornly refused Saddam Hussein any “face-saving way of getting out of Kuwait” up to the time the first bombs fell.

As William Blum has pointed out, Iraq had very real grievances against Kuwait and other Gulf monarchies:

[The Gulf War] had its origins in the brutal 1980-88 war between Iraq and Iran.  Iraq charged that while it was locked in battle, Kuwait was engaged in stealing $2.4 billion of oil from the Rumaila oil field that ran beneath the vaguely-defined Iraq-Kuwait border and was claimed in its entirety by Iraq; that Kuwait had built military and other structures on Iraqi territory; and worst of all, that immediately after the war ended, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates began to exceed the production quotas established by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), flooding the oil market, and driving prices down.  Iraq was heavily strapped and deeply in debt because of the long war, and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein declared this policy was an increasing threat to his country – “economic war”, he called it, pointing out that Iraq lost a billion dollars a year for each drop of one dollar in the oil price. Besides compensation for these losses, Hussein insisted on possession of the two Gulf islands which blocked Iraq’s access to the Gulf as well as undisputed ownership of the Rumaila oilfield.

Career US diplomat James Atkins has gone as far as saying that “our nightmare in the last days was that Saddam would withdraw, then we wouldn’t be able to go forward with our grand plans to destroy Iraq and the infrastructure.” Fortunately for the US military establishment, Iraqi forces remained in Kuwait past the deadline set by the UN Security Council and the US could proceed to destroy Iraq’s military and civilian infrastructure without reproach.

The Persian Gulf War succeeded in forcing Iraqi forces to leave Kuwait and also in decimating Iraq’s highly advanced civilian infrastructure. A report by a UN fact-finding mission from March 1991 stated plainly that “nothing that we had seen or read had quite prepared us for the particular form of devastation which has now befallen the country” and that the “near-apocalyptic results” of the war had sent Iraq into a “pre-industrial age.” The war aggravated the problems caused by comprehensive UN sanctions, which were previously imposed following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

The report noted that the price of basic goods skyrocketed by 1,000% and that government provided rations were running desperately low. Since Iraq had typically imported about 70% of its food needs, the sanctions had an extremely detrimental effect on civilian population’s ability to get adequate nutrition. Domestic food production through agriculture and livestock were further degraded. Farmers were dependent on imports of seeds and multiple seed storage facilities were destroyed during the war. Similarly, livestock had been dependent on imports for feed and the war apparently destroyed Iraq’s “sole laboratory producing veterinary vaccines.”

The US bombing campaign also damaged 17 out of 20 of the country’s electric power plants, with 11 of them being rendered irreparable. Even four months after the war ended, Iraq was producing only 20% to 25% of its pre-war electrical output. This in turn deeply compromised Iraq’s ability to purify and distribute its drinking water, treat its sewage and refrigerate its food. The UN report estimated at the time that the supply of clean water in Baghdad per person was about 10% of what it had been previously. Without operable sewage plants, Iraqis had no choice but to start dumping raw sewage into their rivers, effectively polluting their main source of drinking water.

The immediate, cumulative effect of the draconian sanctions and the US aerial campaign against Iraq’s infrastructure was indeed nothing short of catastrophic. A Harvard University medical study team estimated that 170,000 Iraqi children would die by the end of 1991 due to US policy. The study cited increased epidemics of ” gastroenteritis, cholera and typhoid” as among the chief causes of death.

The Washington Post revealed months later that inducing massive suffering among Iraq’s civilian population was an intentional strategy of collective punishment. By targeting electric power plants, transportation infrastructure, water utilities and food storage facilities, the US hoped to put pressure on Iraqi civilians since it believed they were at least partially complicit in the invasion of Kuwait.  One senior Air Force officer told the Post that “The definition of innocents gets to be a little bit unclear […] they do live there, and ultimately the people have some control over what goes on in their country.” Another Air Force officer claimed that the targeting of civilian infrastructure was done to “accelerate the effects of the sanctions.”

Further evidence that the US foresaw the humanitarian crisis in Iraq can be found in a Defense Intelligence Agency document from January 1991 entitled “Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities”:

Iraq depends on importing-specialized equipment–and some chemicals to purify its water supply, most of which is heavily mineralized and frequently brackish to saline. With no domestic sources of both water treatment replacement parts and some essential chemicals, Iraq will continue attempts to circumvent [UN] sanctions to import these vital commodities. Failing to secure supplies will result in a shortage of pure drinking water for much of the population. This could lead to increased incidences, if not epidemics, of disease.

Many argue that all Iraq needed to do to get the sanctions lifted was cooperate fully with UN weapons inspections and destroy all of its remaining WMD. However, public statements from a couple months after the war make it clear that the US wanted to keep the sanctions squeeze on the Iraqi people as long as Saddam Hussein remained in power:

  • Deputy National Security Adviser Robert Gates, May 7: “Saddam is discredited and cannot be redeemed. His leadership will never be accepted by the world community and, therefore, Iraqis will pay the price while he remains in power. […] All possible sanctions will be maintained until he is gone. […] Any easing of sanctions will be considered only when there is a new government.”
  • State Department Deputy Spokesman Richard Boucher, May 8: “There will be no normal relationships with the United States or many other countries by Iraq as long as Saddam is in power. The President said the sanctions are going to stay there as far as we are concerned.”
  • President Bush, May 20: “My view is we don’t want to lift these sanctions as long as Saddam Hussein is in power.”
  • Secretary of State James Baker, May 22: “We can have a formal cease-fire but no genuine peace with the government of Iraq so long as Saddam Hussein remains in power. […] We will never normalize relations with Iraq so long as Saddam Hussein remains in power.  That means maintaining UN sanctions in place so long as Saddam remains in power.”
  • President Bush, September 23: “It is the United States view that we must keep the United Nations sanctions in place as long as [Saddam Hussein] remains in power.”

In pursuing this policy of permanent hostility to Hussein’s regime, the US denied it any real incentive to fully comply with UN weapons inspections. Saddam Hussein’s intransigence thus became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Just before entering the office of the presidency, Bill Clinton made a statement suggesting that some form of reconciliation with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a possibility:

I am a Baptist. I believe in death-bed conversions. If he [Hussein] wants a different relationship with the United States and the United Nations, all he has to do is change his behavior.

The very next day he appeared to move away from this position at a news conference in a confusing and contradictory statement. He asserted on the one hand that “I will evaluate what I do based on his conduct” but in the very next sentence stated that “I have no intention of normalizing relations with him.”

Much of the Clinton administration’s foreign policy was marked by a facade of nuance and smart diplomacy, its policy towards Iraq was no different. At the United Nations, his administration continued blocking exemptions from the sanctions needed to repair Iraq’s devastated infrastructure and allow its people to be provided with the basic necessities of life. This was much to the annoyance of other members of the UN Security Council, such as France, China and Russia. In fact, because the sanctions imposed by the Security Council had no end date, they would go on until the council approved of yet another resolution explicitly lifting them. Since the US, as a permanent member of the Security Council, could utilize its veto power to block any resolution from going forward, lifting the sanctions was rendered impossible as long as the US objected to it. This became known as the “reverse veto.”

In March 1997, Madeleine Albright rather bluntly restated US policy: “we do not agree with the nations who argue that if Iraq complies with its obligations concerning weapons of mass destruction, sanctions should be lifted.” She also engaged in further self-fulfilling prophecy by saying that “the evidence is overwhelming that Saddam Hussein’s intentions will never be peaceful.” Albright would later note half-heartedly that the regime change policy “appeared” to interfere with Iraq’s motivation to fully cooperate with the UN. In November 1997, after Iraq briefly ejected UN weapons inspectors, Clinton said “what he has just done is to ensure that the sanctions will be there until the end of time or as long as he lasts.”

In late 1998, US Congress passed the Iraq Liberation Act with bipartisan support and President Clinton signed it into law on October 31. The law further dedicated the US to the cause of regime change in Iraq and authorized funding for opposition groups opposed to Saddam Hussein’s rule. On December 19, Clinton declared that “so long as Saddam remains in power he will remain a threat to his people, his region and the world.”

In a February 2004 article for Mother Jones, Seth Ackerman elaborated how many of the false and misleading WMD claims offered by George W. Bush’s administration originated in the Clinton administration to justify the sanctions policy. Ackerman recalled a speech given by Clinton in 1998 that utilized the story of Hussein Kamel, son-in-law of Saddam Hussein and government defector who claimed to the UN and the CIA that Iraq was “cheating” the weapons inspectors, to justify his claim that “Iraq still has stockpiles of chemical and biological munitions.” It was not until early 2003 that some long suppressed–yet incredibly important–details in the transcript of Kamel’s interview with Western intelligence agencies and UN inspectors appeared in a short story by Newsweek‘s John Barry. In the transcript, Kamel stated that “all weapons–biological, chemical, missile, nuclear were destroyed” in the summer following the Gulf War. An August 1995 CIA report (declassified in redacted form in 1996) reiterated some of his claims, making it clear that the Clinton administration must have been aware of all his claims. While Kamel also stated that this destruction was for the purpose of duping UN inspectors so that Iraq could resume its WMD program later on, it is perfectly clear that the Clinton administration was incredibly deceptive by selectively revealing Kamel’s assertions to the US public. As Ackerman described it:

As of 1995, Iraq was left with practically nothing from its past programs. Virtually all its old dual-use equipment was now under U.N. monitoring, and, as Kamel told the U.N., the regime’s WMD stockpiles were destroyed. While Iraq could not be declared officially “disarmed” until the inspectors had accounted for every detail of its byzantine prewar weapons programs, in practice even the most hawkish inspectors admitted that once the monitoring system was up and running, Iraq lost its entire ability to rebuild the arsenal that it had destroyed in 1991.

Ultimately, US “containment” policy through sanctions ended up killing an estimated 1.7 million Iraqis. By accepting this “price” as worthy of being paid (in the terminology of Robert Gates and Madeleine Albright) in the name of thwarting Saddam, sanctions advocates casually legitimized the reasoning neoconservatives would later use to justify civilian deaths caused by the US invasion and occupation. By repeatedly demonizing Saddam Hussein as an irrational actor who only understood the logic of massive force, they paved the way for neoconservatives to assert that only a US invasion could end his purported threat to world peace.

In the months after the US invaded Iraq and the search for WMDs came up dry, it is perhaps warranted that pro-war conservatives began circulating quotes from prominent Democrats vilifying Iraq’s government and calling for various actions against it, even if none of them explicitly endorsed the massive US invasion that took place or the unilateral means by which the Bush administration waged it.

In conclusion, it is deceptive to portray many of the same figures who led the charge for regime change in Iraq as favorable contrasts to the neoconservatives. Robert “Iraqis will pay the price” Gates is today seen as a clear-eyed non-partisan, James “so long as Saddam Hussein remains in power” Baker a wise old realist and Madeleine “we think the price is worth it” Albright a smart multilateralist. Yet all three of these individuals were willing to commit the US to a stubborn policy of regime change that costed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and eventually enabled the the neocons to realize their dream of a unilateral invasion.

As the US moves into another presidential election season, questions will inevitably raised about Hillary Clinton’s vote as Senator to authorize George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. I posit that such concerns, while valid and necessary, are only superficial without a much deeper look at the imperialist rot that rests deep within US political culture. It is not enough to object to the US directly invading Iraq without UN approval. We must be willing to ask why the US feels the need to impose its will on Third World countries, even when it does so without overtly violating international norms.


2 thoughts on “Beyond the neocons: Those assigning blame for Iraq War must consider role played by liberal multilateralists and realists

  1. Great article, but I’m wondering was this written in response to anything or anyone in particular? I haven’t seen the argument you’re refuting here around much, although it brings to mind this book – – that I don’t think got much attention. Just curious where this is coming from.

  2. Pingback: Fiasco: The American Military’s Adventure in Iraq | Too Much Time

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