Why Are We In Iraq?

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Defeat in Iraq

Have the President and his men accomplished their objectives in Iraq? Saddam Hussein is no longer a threat to Saudi Arabia or the region. However, since he was contained before the war, little has been gained on that score. Oil is no more secure than before. In fact, Iran threatens to disrupt supply. Oil prices have risen sharply. The U.S. has not yet restored Iraq’s oil production, and issues relating to restoring the oil infrastructure and adjudicating old oil contracts remain unresolved.

Iran has become a larger and bolder threat to other countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia. It has a higher degree of influence over some factions in Iraq. Iran’s oil revenues are up. Iraq’s economy is in tatters. The U.S. is tied down in Iraq, and U.S. forces are vulnerable to attack. The shape of political things to come in Iraq is highly uncertain. To an unknown extent, the U.S. has strengthened the hand of Muslim jihadists although al-Qaeda will be little welcomed in Iraq once the U.S. withdraws. None of this was in the Iraq war blueprint.

Iraq is not a threat to Israel at present, but it was not a severe threat to Israel before the war began. Iran is now a greater threat, but Israel’s nuclear weapons deter Iran.

Democracy was a tertiary objective, but we can’t take the Bush administration seriously about this one. Assuming this was important and is supposed to mean a friendly government with a parliament, periodic elections, parties, campaigns, and all the standard democratic socialist bells and whistles, this hasn’t happened. The country is having a civil war.

The scorecard on Iraq is one-sided. America’s losses far exceed the gains. It is not clear that the liberated Iraqi people, those still alive and uninjured, have gained. The Kurds may have gained for now, but there is no telling how long that will last. On Bush’s own terms, the Iraq War was a blunder. America has suffered a setback, a large frustration, in other words a defeat, although not a classic battlefield defeat. The U.S. has weakened itself and spent precious blood, bodies, energy, moral capital, and wealth on a useless war. By contrast, bin Laden can always point to Iraq as a recruitment tool. With limited resources, he managed to draw the U.S. onto an Arab battleground and become tied down while he and his cohorts remain at large.

Invading Iraq was a mistake. Why did President Bush invade Iraq? More broadly, why are we involved with Iraq at all? Why aren’t Congress and the Executive exiting the morass which is Iraq? Vice-President Cheney (8/29/06) says that withdrawing from Iraq would be "a ruinous blow to the future security of the United States." How absurd to suppose that a country with our might would be ruined by leaving Iraq! We will actually be strengthened. Why are they steering toward war against Iran? Answer why we are in Iraq and we answer these questions too.

Curtail the empire

Despite Iraq, our rulers and their supporters are taking the country toward more war. The Bush administration is certain that it’s doing the right thing. It isn’t changing direction. It will keep beating our heads against the wall until we collapse. Iraq hasn’t been a wakeup call.

Surrounding the administration, single-minded warmongers are continually beating the drums for war. Statement after statement, column after column, writer after writer encourages open and enlarged warfare with Iran. More and more columns fatalistically describe the coming hostilities as if they are a foregone conclusion. In fact, this next war has already passed through preliminary stages of sanctions, threats, overflights, planning, and some on-the-ground reconnaissance. In fact, Iran may become overconfident and take one too many risks that ignites war.

William Kristol says "We have to stop them [Iran] from getting nuclear weapons." He’s so sure that an Iran with nuclear weapons means the end of the world (or Israel or Western civilization) that he thinks we must stop them soon, before they develop such weapons. He discounts nuclear deterrence and Iran’s wish to survive. He discounts further consolidating Muslims in a long-lasting jihad against the West. He discounts negotiation. He discounts Iran’s internal politics. Kristol and company have no doubt on the matter. They are prepared to attack Iran pre-emptively.

Should we bank on any seer who can see only one possible future state of the world and who leaves no room for doubt or error in his forecasts? Should we bank on a pack of leaders that have followed the Kristol line before? The Bush policies have led us to frustration, large losses, continual bleeding, and strengthening of our foes. They have reduced America’s moral stature, alienated our friends, blocked better ways of handling our problems, created the prospect of endless war, and weakened whatever beneficial influence Americans exercise in the world. Should we heed these advocates of failure again? Of course not. But changing administrations will not solve our basic problem. When we understand why we are in Iraq, we will see that more failure is in the cards unless we make a major change in course. We have to do what Great Britain, France, and other countries have done. We have to curtail our empire.


Why are American armed forces in Iraq? There are two important reasons: error and empire. Although oil is an important focal element, it proxies for business interests in general, and they proxy for the American system extended under the umbrella of American control and protection, that is, empire. America didn’t fight the Spanish-American War, World War I, or the Vietnam War for oil. If we are to understand the Iraq War as part of a longstanding process, oil cannot provide the explanation.

The error was two-fold. It is common knowledge that the supposed benefits of the war, such as removing weapons of mass destruction, decreasing terrorism, making the U.S. more secure, installing a functioning democracy, etc. have not materialized. They need no discussion. The Bush team underestimated the war’s costs and difficulties, and it overestimated the benefits. The Bush team thought that the war could be won easily, that they could install a friendly government easily, and that they could exit Iraq rather quickly and go on to their next field exercise in reconstructing the world.

The evidence supporting the latter assertion is overwhelming. Here are a few examples. Ken Adelman (2/13/02) said: "I believe demolishing Hussein’s military power and liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk." Donald Rumsfeld (11/15/02): "Five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that." On 1/10/03, Rumsfeld endorsed an estimate of "something under $50 billion for the cost." On 5/16/03, Cheney said: "My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators…I think it will go relatively quickly…[in] weeks rather than months." Richard Perle (3/25/03 said "…this will be a short war." Paul Wolfowitz on 3/27/03 thought that Iraq’s oil revenues "can finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon." George Bush on 7/2/03 said: "There are some who feel like — that the conditions are such that they can attack us there [Iraq]. My answer is, bring ‘em on! We’ve got the force necessary to deal with the security situation." Rumsfeld three weeks later said "I don’t do quagmires."

Rumsfeld didn’t heed his generals (a number of whom have publicly criticized him). He thought the war could be won with a minimum of armed forces on the ground. In a way, he was correct if war means removing the opponent’s conventional armed forces. But the war didn’t stop after that was accomplished. It mutated into fourth-generation warfare. At present, 4 years later, Rumsfeld is distancing himself from Iraq. He recently stated: “What is important is for the Iraqi people and the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi government, ultimately, to deal with this problem.” Had he and the administration believed this 4 years ago, the U.S. would never have invaded Iraq. Also backtracking, he recently claimed that he "never painted a rosy picture" about Iraq.

Why were these errors committed? We should not focus too greatly on Rumsfeld or the Bush team because America has in the past made similar large errors in going to war. The Spanish-American War, World War I, and Vietnam are examples. And World War I led to World War II. The causes go deeper than any single man, set of men, or administration.

The Bush team had ample university and bureaucratic experience but its actual collective experience of war was nil. Like most Americans, they were both insulated from and inured to the horrors of war. On paper, they were highly educated. But college educations that teach students confused philosophy, confused history, confused modes of thought, and contradictory doctrines can’t promote sound analysis. A number of them (like Rumsfeld, Rice, Feith, and Wolfowitz) made their way through politics and policy areas. They were not experts on military science or the realities of war. Neither were they experts on the Middle East. Past administrations show similar faults.

We then need to ask why they failed to get better information, why they were so sure of themselves, why Congress did not hold them to account, why the media failed to criticize them or even urged them on, etc. We know that the administration conducted an effective propaganda campaign that influenced both the public and Congress. That campaign rendered criticism ineffective. We know that important elements of the press often push for war. There is a deeper and more general explanation. Those who come to power do so through manipulative skills that breed arrogance and an over-estimation of their capacities and place in the world. Success at the game of power breeds hubris. Hubris, arrogance, and a know-it-all attitude appear in other administrations of the past.

Economics teaches us that as the penalty for overconfidence imposed on our rulers declines, they indulge in more of it. As the checks and balances of American government weakened from 1787 onwards, the rulers in Washington in all branches of government became more and more insulated from voting sanctions. Impeachment and other tools proved ineffective. The rulers learned how to control voters. They displayed more arrogance and hubris in everything they did. Today, when policies fail, their proponents often rationalize and move on to nice jobs elsewhere. Some with pangs of conscience re-examine their lives and make money selling books. Almost none look their mistakes in the face, speak out, and behave honorably while they are still in office.

In sum, the Iraq War is a big blunder committed by our boastful rulers in our Executive Branch who didn’t know any better. Our institutional system of education and state encourages know-nothing and arrogant power-seekers to gain office and, once in office, it lets them behave overconfidently (underestimating costs and overestimating benefits), commit costly errors, and get away with them.

None of these factors contributing to error have changed. Therefore, we can expect more such costly errors in the future. We can’t predict whether they will crop up in Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Somalia, Colombia, or Thailand, etc. or when they will occur. We can expect some learning to occur and some attempts to diminish error, but they will typically be superficial. We can expect some periods of relative calm, such as 1975—1990. But even during these periods, there will be smaller episodes and there will be blunders occurring that set the stage for subsequent larger errors of war.


Oil is actually a special case of business interests in general which in turn is a special case of the American system, that is, empire. Paul Wolfowitz is a key person, and in my opinion is the key person, other than President Bush, in understanding why we are in Iraq. He epitomizes a man dedicated to the American empire. Wolfowitz’s career shows how to attain unelected political power. Any analysis of his public statements from 2000 onwards will show that he strongly urged the administration on at every opportunity, and he got his way. What he has promoted and why he has promoted it therefore provide clues as to why the U.S. invaded Iraq.

Wolfowitz’s public record exemplifies the surface reasons for why we are in Iraq. The main reason is a chimera known as secure oil. Since Franklin Roosevelt, this has meant protecting Saudi Arabia. At one time it meant installing the Shah of Iran. Later it meant stopping Iraq from going into Kuwait, a threat to Saudi Arabia. Still later, it has meant removing Saddam Hussein altogether for fear he would become a threat. A secondary or particularistic reason is Israeli security. An even less robust reason is to install democracies rather than authoritarian regimes, but Wolfowitz’s commitment to this has been variable as in the case of his tenure in Indonesia.

In addition, Wolfowitz is a key figure in pushing for pre-emptive and unilateral American action. How did it come about that the U.S. invaded Iraq without their having invaded us or anyone around them? That is, how did the U.S. cross the moral Rubicon to pre-emptive war? The U.S. has intervened numerous times in the past, usually when there has been a pretext occurring in a foreign land. Those interventions were virtually pre-emptive. In this case, the Bush administration created a package of seeming threats and past offenses that substituted for a current pretext. Over and over again, it cited Saddam’s past crimes and current threats. The U.N. provided some cover. In the minds of many, these became tantamount to a current pretext for war. If Bush decides to make war on Iran, he will repeat this performance.

Proponents of American empire and interests say that secure oil is their aim. The emphasis should be on the word secure. It means that America wants not only oil. It also wants political control, as in other parts of the world where oil is not a concern. Oil and political control happen to overlap in the Middle East.

America does not require political control in order to buy oil. The Russian empire never conquered the Middle East any more than the American empire has or can. If it tried, it would run into the same kinds of problems we have. If America withdraws, the oil in all probability will remain in the hands of Arab countries and Iran. They may fight with one another and rearrange their borders. This is not important. They will still have to sell their oil if they want revenue, and we and others are the market. We do not need literally to control the governments of the Middle East in order to have secure oil. There are a hundred other countries smaller than we are that buy oil and don’t care who runs the Middle East. Why do we? The answer is that there is a large underlying factor partly associated with oil but also partly independent of it. That factor is empire.

Why empire?

Again, Wolfowitz can be taken as a representative figure because his world view reflects the standard model of American empire. His career embodies the military and economic sides of empire. He views the globe in terms of American "interests." He takes American bases, economic and military aid, currency manipulations, debt packages, and pressures as standard operating procedures. In the earlier part of his career, he assumed that American military interventions were the norm and required no further justification than the proclamation of American interests at stake. Now at the World Bank, he assumes that economic aid requires no justification. Wolfowitz often expresses idealistic views and seeks to decrease corruption in governments who receive World Bank aid. But he is still working within the paternalistic assumption of American empire that the World Bank and like institutions should create economic development across the globe. He is a Republican now applying Democrat ideas, like those of the War on Poverty, on an international scale. Like all politicians, he recounts the errors of the past and promises to throw more money at problems in better ways. The compassionate conservative is simply a liberal democrat. Indeed, in terms of their means of operating, the conservative is a liberal. Only their ends differ.

If Wolfowitz stands for American empire, then the deeper cause of America being in Iraq is American empire. The American empire is pushing not only into the Middle East but also into Central Asia. Why is there an American empire? If we knew the answer, we’d understand better why we are at war in Iraq. The Iraq War is a blunder, but the really central question is why we are seeking to dominate the Middle East, period. The important fact is that we were in up to our eyeballs in the Middle East before invading Iraq. Explaining that fact is what is critical.

The literature on explaining empires is large. We need to look there for possible answers as to why we are in Iraq. Joseph Stromberg shows one direction that such inquiry can take. He explains and illustrates the basic idea that interest groups, such as corporate or big business (including banking) interests, use the state to further foreign economic interests. The evidence consistent with this hypothesis is voluminous. Foreign expansion and empire are almost always accompanied by expansion of business interests.

Many ancient empires surely were a function of the economics of conquest as they gained slaves, commodities, resources, fighting power, and taxes. But is this the entire story? Correlation neither proves causation nor excludes other causes operating side by side. Might not emperors, being men of power, be attuned to a good many non-economic factors? Empire-builders have more than business interests as their motivations. Dick Cheney may have had Halliburton’s interests at heart, but it is doubtful that other members of the Bush team had this motive or only this motive. Emperors may have religious or ideological reasons for expanding. They may wish to encase their core regions with buffer zones of regions that would bear attacks. They may wish to attain natural geographical boundaries that are more defensible. They may wish to forestall competing empires from expanding at their periphery. They may wish to satisfy various internal constituencies. They may wish to satisfy their own yearnings to be as Gods.

The drive for expansion of the United States is strong because several elements are acting hand in hand. Our government is responsive or captured by a variety of interest groups and lobbies. The ideology of free markets (even if they do not actually exist) works hand in glove with businesses seeking to expand securely into new markets. Americans are semi-religiously and sometimes religiously trying to convert the world. Americans are a most insecure people who, from the inception of the country to now, persistently expanded the country’s reach in order to achieve security (see Albert K. Weinberg’s Manifest Destiny). Americans want to be number one and think they are number one. This is their God-substitute. When neoconservatives argue that America is the only superpower and that it should institute benevolent global hegemony, we are hearing a rhetoric that combines many of these long-running historical themes.

Geopolitical factors and rivalries, basically turf battles, can’t be overlooked in understanding empires. The world appears as a large city with a few large land areas separated by big lakes. The U.S. wants to control the Middle East rather than have someone else control it, be it Russia, a revived Persian empire, or a Shia empire. It is not clear what the source of this territorial imperative is or whether it makes sense. America seems to have lived quite well without it between 1620 and 1945 or so. Accident may play a role. The U.S. almost inadvertently, haphazardly, and unthinkingly took over old British interests just as it took over old French interests in Southeast Asia. But it did take them over and we must assume that FDR, Truman, and succeeding presidents were guided by some general notions that these expansionary moves benefited the U.S. In the geopolitical view, if Iran, for example, moves too strongly in tandem with Venezuela, which is an American interest that lies just across the lake, then sooner or later, America will try to overthrow Chavez.


We are in Iraq because of empire. We have armed forces in Iraq because of error. We have empire because we have a runaway state. In the long run, which sometimes is not that long, empire is seen to be an error. It is an error built upon the error of having a state. We have a state because of hubris, which is an excessive pride in which we boastfully compare ourselves to God or, in earlier days, to other deities. Hubris is associated with hamartia by which Aristotle meant a tragic flaw, an error in judgment, or a character defect that results in a hero’s downfall. America and Americans have hubris and hamartia. We need humility. We can’t avoid future Iraqs, future losses, and the fall of the American empire until we rein in the American state. We can’t rein in the American state until we rein in ourselves.

Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is the Louis M. Jacobs Professor of Finance at University at Buffalo.

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