Why Did the U.S. Invade Iraq?

The official reasons -- the threat posed to the U.S. and its allies by Saddam Hussein's alleged programmes of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the possibility that he would pass along those arms to al Qaeda -- have long since been discarded by the overwhelming weight of the evidence, or, more precisely, the lack of evidence that such a threat ever existed.

Liberating Iraq from the tyranny of Hussein's particularly unforgiving and bloodthirsty version of Ba'athism and thus setting an irresistible precedent that would spread throughout the Arab world -- a theme pushed by the administration of President George W. Bush mostly after the invasion, as it became clear that the officials reasons could not be justified -- appears to have been the guiding obsession of really only one member of the Bush team, and not a particularly influential one at that: Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.

Then there's the theory that Bush -- whose enigmatic psychology, particularly his relationship to his father, has already provided grist for several book-publishing mills -- wanted to show up his dad for failing to take Baghdad in 1991. Or he sought to "finish the job" that his dad had begun in 1991; and/or avenge his dad for Hussein's alleged (but highly questionable) assassination attempt against Bush I in Kuwait after the war.

Because Bush was the ultimate "Decider", as he himself has put it, and because no one who ever served at top levels in the administration has ever been able to say precisely when (let alone why) the decision was made to invade Iraq, this explanation cannot be entirely dismissed as an answer.

Then there is the question of oil. Was the administration acting on behalf of an oil industry desperate to get its hands on Mesopotamian oil that had long been denied it as a result of U.N. and unilateral sanctions prohibiting business between U.S. companies and Hussein?

Given both Bush's and Vice President Dick Cheney's long-standing ties to the industry and former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's assertion in his recent memoir that "The Iraq war is largely about oil," this theory has definite appeal -- particularly to those on the left who made "No Blood for Oil" a favourite mantra at anti-war protests in the run-up to the invasion, just as they did -- with much greater plausibility -- before the 1991 Gulf War.

The problem, however, is that there is little or no evidence that Big Oil, an extremely cautious beast in the global corporate menagerie, favoured a war, particularly one carried out in a way (unilaterally) that risked destabilising the world's most oil-rich region, especially Saudi Arabia and the emirates.

On the contrary, the Rice University Institute that bears the name of former Secretary of State James Baker -- a man who has both represented and embodied Big Oil throughout his long legal career -- publicly warned early on that if Bush absolutely, positively had to invade Iraq for whatever reason, he should not even consider it unless two conditions were met: 1) that the action was authorised by the U.N. Security Council; and 2) that nothing whatever be done after the invasion to suggest that the motivation had to do with the acquisition by U.S. oil companies of Iraq's oil resources.

That is not to say that oil was irrelevant to the administration's calculations, but perhaps in a different sense than that meant by the "No Blood for Oil" slogan. After all, oil is an absolutely indispensable requirement for running modern economies and militaries. And the invasion was a forceful -- indeed, a shock- and awe-some -- demonstration to the rest of the world, especially potential strategic rivals like China, Russia, or even the European Union, of Washington's ability to quickly and effectively conquer and control an oil-rich nation in the heart of the energy-rich Middle East/Gulf region any time it wishes, perhaps persuading those lesser powers that challenging the U.S. could well prove counter-productive to long-term interests, if not their supply of energy in the short term.

Indeed, a demonstration of such power could well be the fastest way to formalise a new international order based on the overwhelming military power of the United States, unequalled at least since the Roman Empire. It would be a "unipolar world" of the kind envisaged by the 1992 draft Defence Planning Guidance (DPG) commissioned by then-Pentagon chief Dick Cheney, overseen by Wolfowitz and Cheney's future chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, and contributed to by future ambassador to "liberated" Afghanistan and Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad and Bush's deputy national security adviser, J.D. Crouch.

It was that same vision that formed the inspiration for the 27 charter signatories -- a coalition of aggressive nationalists, neo-conservatives, and Christian Right leaders that included Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Libby, Khalilzad, and several other future senior Bush administration national-security officials -- of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) in 1997. It was the same project that began calling for "regime change" in Iraq in 1998 and that, nine days after the 9/11 attack on New York and the Pentagon, publicly warned that any "war on terror" that excluded Hussein's elimination would necessarily be incomplete.

In retrospect, it seems clear that Iraq had long been seen by this group, which became empowered first by Bush's election and then super-charged by 9/11, as the first, easiest and most available step toward achieving a "Pax Americana" that would not only establish the U.S. once and for all as the dominant power in the region, but whose geo-strategic implications for aspiring "peer competitors" would be global in scope.

For the neo-conservative and the Christian Right members of this group, who were its most eager and ubiquitous war boosters, Israel would also be a major beneficiary of an invasion.

According to a 1996 paper drafted by prominent hard-line neo-conservatives -- including some, like Douglas Feith and David Wurmser, who would later serve in senior posts in Cheney's office and the Pentagon in the run-up to the invasion -- ousting Hussein and installing a pro-Western leader was the key to destabilising Israel's Arab enemies and/or bending them to its will. This would permit the Jewish state not only to escape the Oslo peace process, but also to secure as much of the occupied Palestinian (and Syrian) territories as it wished.

Indeed, getting rid of Hussein and occupying Iraq would not only tighten Israel's hold on Arab territories, in this view; it could also threaten the survival of the Arab and Islamic worlds' most formidable weapon against Israel -- OPEC -- by flooding the world market with Iraqi oil and forcing the commodity's price down to historic lows.

That's how it looked five years ago anyway.

Copyright (c) 2008 IPS-Inter Press Service.

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