In an 1821 address to Congress, John Quincy Adams remarked that America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” Adams argued that foreign entanglement would undermine America’s moral claim: “the fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.” Adams’ remarks lost some of their relevance as years progressed and the United States transitioned from isolationism to internationalism. However, the Bush revolution in foreign policy vindicated Adams’ wisdom. George W. Bush’s foreign policy doctrine was characterized by unilateralism, preemption, and the promotion of democratic values. It rationalized Operation Iraqi Freedom, initiated by an American-led coalition of the willing in March 2003.
The Second Iraq War succeeded at toppling Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime but failed at installing a liberal democracy that would serve as a beacon of modernity in the Middle East. America’s brazen use of force alienated allies and undermined many of the institutions that the United States designed and cultivated after World War II. Weapons of mass destruction were never discovered, denying the United States ex post legitimation of the invasion. Moreover, the war’s $3 trillion price tag compounded America’s economic challenges and its international position relative to rivals. Finally, the invasion and occupation of Iraq unleashed a new tide of Islamic radicalism that perpetuates American insecurity. The Iraq conflict was cited as a motivation for the Madrid and London bombings of 2004-5. It will probably serve as a potent mobilizer for years to come, just as the presence of American troops in the Persian Gulf and America’s approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict provoked two fatwas from Osama bin Laden in the 1990s.
In hindsight, the Iraq War was a strategic blunder. This assessment warrants revisiting a central question: why did the Bush administration invade Iraq in the first place? One crucial but often overlooked factor is the legacy of the First Gulf War. My Presidential Fellowship paper is primarily concerned with understanding the evolution of America’s Iraq policy during the 1990s. I was surprised to find that the U.S. policy had already shifted from containment to regime change by the decade’s close, and that President Clinton made an early threat linkage between WMD, terrorism, and rogue states in 1998. I was less surprised to discover that many of the most vocal proponents of regime change during the 1990s went on to serve in the Bush administration, where they leaped at the opportunity to invade Iraq and finish the task left undone in 1991.
America’s low-intensity conflict with Iraq during the 1990s strained the Gulf War coalition and international support for the United Nations sanctions regime. Bombing and sanctions exacted a heavy toll on the Iraqi people without considerably weakening Saddam Hussein’s power. Despite Iraq’s defeat during the Gulf War, its army remained the largest in the region. Hussein abused the oil-for-food program and used humanitarian aid to purchase luxury items for his supporters instead of providing food and medicine to suffering Iraqis. By the end of Clinton’s presidency, the United States was enforcing the no-fly zones alone or with British assistance. This situation provoked resistance from left and right in the United States. Successive confrontations with Hussein reminded many Republicans of the mistake George H. W. Bush made by terminating the Gulf War short of deposing Saddam Hussein. Some of the most potent criticism of Clinton’s containment policy emanated from the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party.
In 1997, William Kristol founded the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a conservative foreign policy think tank. Although PNAC provided institutional leverage for neoconservative ideas, it hosted fellows from across the conservative spectrum. Unlike Clinton, who often referenced the opportunities created by globalization, PNAC saw boundless danger in the post-Cold War system. The new generation of neoconservatives called for benevolent hegemony and “hard Wilsonianism,” military superiority, ballistic missile defense, and the strengthening of traditional alliances. The impotence of the United Nations during the humanitarian crises of the 1990s reconfirmed their belief that international law and institutions imposed unnecessary constraints on America’s freedom of action. PNAC also criticized Clinton’s foreign policy for its failure to rank and prioritize American interests. The most vociferous criticism, however, was reserved for the containment policy in Iraq.
1998 was a momentous year for America’s Iraq strategy. In addition to pursuing containment and deterrence through retaliation against Saddam Hussein’s provocations, American strategy shifted toward regime change. This strategy, known as “containment-plus,” aimed to placate opposition to the previous policy. In a January 1998 New York Times article, “Bombing Iraq Isn’t Enough,” Kristol and Kagan argued that air strikes “will not succeed in forcing him to abandon his efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction. The only way to remove the threat of those weapons is to remove him, and that means using air power and ground forces, and finishing the task left undone in 1991.” That month, the Project for the New American Century published an open letter to President Clinton lambasting the containment policy as “dangerously inadequate,” and calling for regime change.
The United States and Britain launched Operation Desert Fox in December 1998 in response to Saddam Hussein’s non-compliance with Security Council resolutions and expulsion of UNSCOM inspectors. Desert Fox was the third and biggest operation against Iraq since the Gulf War. It demonstrated both the fraying of the Desert Storm alliance and the new American focus on toppling Saddam Hussein. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates initially suggested that they would not allow the U.S. to mount the attack from bases on their territory. From a tactical perspective, Desert Fox targeted sites linked to Iraq’s weapons program as well as communications sites and infrastructure critical to Saddam’s rule. President Clinton’s strategy of regime change was codified in October, when he signed the Iraq Liberation Act into law. The Act declared that “it should be policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime.” It also gave the State Department $97 million to fund Iraqi exile groups seeking to overthrow Saddam.
President Clinton’s evolving Iraq policy during the 1990s, and the league of opponents it mobilized, serves as a critical link to the Second Iraq War of 2003. Containment-plus, Operation Desert Fox, and the Iraq Liberation Act demonstrate that America’s Iraq policy shifted toward regime change years before the George W. Bush presidency. The threat linkage of Saddam Hussein, WMD, and terrorism also originated with the Clinton administration. During a February 1998 address at the Pentagon, Clinton remarked: “In the next century, the community of nations may see more and more the kind of threat Iraq poses now—a rogue state with WMD, ready to use them or provide them to terrorists.” This analysis indicates a need to view Operation Iraqi Freedom not only as ‘phase two’ of the post-9/11 War on Terror, but as a legacy of the 1991 Gulf War. The September 11th attacks functioned as an intervening variable that catalyzed war plans with Iraq. The spark for such plans, however, had been present since the Gulf War.
Even though the Bush administration’s rationale for regime change was not entirely novel, the means it employed to inflate and address the threat marked a radical departure from the previous administration. One explanation for this disjuncture is the atmosphere of uncertainty and insecurity created by the September 11th attacks. Crisis decision-making and an urgency to act undoubtedly conditioned the decision to invade Iraq. However, this conventional explanation is incomplete. It overlooks the fact that leading neoconservatives, PNAC associates, and Clinton critics flooded the top ranks of the Bush administration, positioning themselves to execute the assertive grand strategy and Iraqi regime change they had been advocating since the end of the Cold War. In a 1997 Wall Street Journal article, “Rebuilding the Anti-Saddam Coalition,” future Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz inadvertently foreshadowed 2003: “a willingness to act unilaterally can be the most effective way of securing effective collective action. In the present crisis we may have to act alone at first, or almost alone, because the international consensus is weak.” Condoleezza Rice’s 2000 Foreign Affairs piece, “Promoting the National Interest,” further charged that “Saddam is determined to develop WMD. Nothing will change until Saddam is gone, so the United States must mobilize whatever resources it can…to remove him.” The arrival of over twenty neoconservatives and PNAC associates at the White House—including Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Armitage, Feith, and Perle—can therefore be interpreted as providing additional momentum for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
– Alex Ognibene, University of Toronto
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