Chapter 6 The Iraq War: American Decision-Making

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goal, it was their target…They were determined to drain the swamp – that is, to alter the political climate in the region so that it would no longer be so hospitable to the terrorists inhabiting it.”193 But they were convinced that transformation in a democratic direction would serve American strategic interests, because they believed that democracies would be less anti-American and less likely to produce terrorists.194 The democracy emphasis was not simply a rhetorical cover for policy targeting the Iraqi, Iranian and Syrian leaderships. The Administration pressured American allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia to open up their political systems in the wake of the war. The moves in both places were modest (in Egypt, direct elections for the presidency and somewhat freer parliamentary elections in 2005; in Saudi Arabia elections to municipal councils in 2005), but they would not have occurred without promptings from Washington. President Bush’s rhetoric on democracy promotion in the Middle East continued to the end of 2008, even if the results of Arab democracy (Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian elections of 2006; the Muslim Brotherhood’s surprising gains in the Egyptian parliamentary elections of 2005) led the Administration to de-emphasize pressure for political reform on America’s Arab allies after 2006.
This is not to argue that democracy promotion came to overshadow the WMD-terrorism nexus in the Bush Administration’s thinking about the Iraq War. Rather, it developed into a contributing argument. It reinforced the argument for war, and was completely consistent with the original rationale, in that a democratic Iraq would not be a WMD or terror threat to the United States. It was not emphasized in the Administration’s public arguments for war in the same way that the WMD-terrorism nexus was for two reasons. First, it did not poll that well with the American public. Public support for war to rid Iraq of WMD, strike at terrorists and remove Saddam Hussein from power was relatively strong. Public support for a war to spread democracy would not elicit the same levels of support. Second, putting democracy at the top of the war goals would complicate the already difficult time the Bush Administration was having getting cooperation from its non-democratic Arab allies, particularly Egypt and Saudi Arabia, both of which were opposed to the war.
The Bush Administration’s post-war public relations emphasis on democratic transformation of the region clearly was, in part, a response to the political problem caused by the absence of WMD in Iraq. But the commitment to democracy in Iraq, as a first step toward regional transformation, was not simply a post-war phenomenon. It had its roots in the Administration’s ongoing thinking about how the United States should respond to the challenge of al-Qaeda and anti-American terrorism emanating from the Middle East. Top Administration officials, including the President, set out this rationale before the war, not as its major justification but as an important ancillary one. It was not simply a post-war expedient to cover the absence of WMD in Iraq.

A War for Oil?
The accusation that the “real” reason for the war against Iraq was securing the oil resources of that country cannot simply be waved away. Oil has been the core interest of the United States in its nearly 60 years of continuous engagement in the Persian Gulf region. The “war for oil” argument about the Iraq War takes two forms. The first is the crude assertion that the goal of the United States in fighting the war was to secure access to Iraqi oil resources for American oil companies. Saddam Hussein’s regime had signed oil development deals with Russian and French companies during the 1990’s, the implementation of which awaited the lifting of UN sanctions. It appeared that American companies would lose out on one of the biggest potential oil bonanzas of the 21st century. With the war and American occupation, the United States could insure that American companies developed Iraqi oil resources and, in the bargain, could break the power of OPEC in the oil markets by having a compliant Iraqi successor regime withdraw from the organization.
There is little available evidence about post-war oil planning in the deliberations within the Administration in the pre-war period. In one of the few briefings given to President Bush on post-conflict issues, on February 24, 2003, a plan to establish a temporary oil authority with an Iraqi chief operating officer and an advisory board of Iraqi and international figures was proposed, with a shift to complete Iraqi control over the oil industry once a new Iraqi government was in power. The US would not meddle with existing or future oil contracts or with Iraq’s status in OPEC. The President agreed with the recommendation, indicating that he wanted Iraqis to have full control over the oil industry as soon as possible.195
Given the paucity of evidence of the Administration’s intentions on Iraqi oil going into the war, the best indicator we have is how oil issues were treated after the United States established control over Iraq. At the end of the Bush Administration, the predictions generated by the hypothesis that the war was about American control of Iraqi oil have not been borne out. The essential first step for securing American commercial control of Iraqi oil resources would have been the privatization of the Iraqi oil industry. However, in the sweeping privatization regulations issued by the Coalition Provisional Authority in September 2003, the Iraqi National Oil Company (INOC) was pointedly exempted.196 A State Department advisory panel had in February 2003 floated a recommendation that Iraqi oil be privatized, but added that such a move should wait until a sovereign Iraqi government were in place to take the decision.197 Iraq under CPA control did not withdraw from OPEC. Iraqi officials in the newly reconstituted Oil Ministry indicated just the opposite, that they looked forward to resuming full OPEC membership once sovereignty was restored to an Iraqi government. With security problems persisting and the legal framework for foreign investment uncertain, American energy companies (and other companies) have not been rushing to make deals in Iraq. By the end of the Bush Administration in January 2009, not a single American oil company had signed an oil development deal with the Iraqi government. If the “real” American motivation for this war were as depicted above, Washington was extremely negligent in allowing its period of direct control over Iraqi affairs to lapse without cementing American corporate control over Iraqi oil and.
The second form of the “war for oil” argument is more subtle, based not on corporate interests but on more general strategic and economic considerations. Iraq is the largest undeveloped oil region in the Gulf, the result of quirks of the history of Iraq’s relationship with British Petroleum and of twenty-five years of suspended oil plans under the Ba’th. So Iraq will have to be the source of a large part of the extra Gulf production the world will need to meet its petroleum needs. As long as Saddam Hussein was in power, not only could Iraq not play the role of reliable oil supplier in Washington’s eyes, but it also was a threat to its southern neighbors, inhibiting oil investment in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. After 9/11, the belief among many that Saudi Arabia was no longer a reliable oil ally for the United States added to the urgency of the need to find alternative sources of oil in the Gulf. For oil security and supply reasons, this argument concludes, Saddam had to go.
Michael Klare presents the most sophisticated version of this second form of the “war for oil” argument.198 He begins his case with the National Energy Policy report prepared under the direction of Vice President Cheney at the outset of the Administration, submitted to the president in May 2001. That report recognized that the Persian Gulf region would play a major role in meeting growing world demand for oil, and thus would remain a “primary focus” of American energy policy. However, Klare argues, the Persian Gulf in 2001 did not seem like a secure source of increased oil production: Iraq and Iran were both hostile to the United States and Saudi Arabia was weak and unstable. Therefore, Klare postulates, “in the months before and after 9/11, the Bush Administration fashioned a comprehensive strategy for American domination of the Persian Gulf.” He termed this a strategy of “maximum extraction,” and for it to succeed “Washington would have to ensure that these added supplies could be safely delivered to the United States and other major consumers – which means propping up imperiled allies in the Gulf and quashing any threats to American dominance in the region.” Step one of such a strategy would have to be the removal of Saddam Hussein from power and his replacement with a stable pro-American government capable of substantially boosting Iraqi oil production.199
This sophisticated “war for oil” argument is consistent with the facts. The Persian Gulf is central to the world oil picture. American foreign policy has recognized that centrality for decades. It was unlikely, under United Nations sanctions and in a prolonged confrontation with the United States, that Saddam’s Iraq could increase oil production. However, there is no evidence from the public record that oil considerations played the kind of role Klare contends in the Bush Administration’s decision to go to war. Klare himself recognizes that his argument is not likely to be supported by Administration documents or statements: “It is unlikely that this strategy was ever formalized in a single, all-encompassing White House document.”200 On numerous occasions he assumes that his analysis of the centrality of Persian Gulf oil and the concomitant need for American military action to secure it must have been shared by those in the White House, though he offers no direct evidence that Administration officials shared his conclusions: “This circumstance no doubt weighed heavily on the deliberations of the NEPDG [National Energy Policy Development Group];” “In the face of these problems and dangers, the Bush-Cheney team could draw only one conclusion…”201
If the strategic necessity to get rid of Saddam based on the energy security rationale had been dominant, one would have expected to see some indication of Administration moves in that direction before 9/11. Klare argues that the Administration plan for Persian Gulf dominance was in train before 9/11. At a minimum, efforts to prepare public opinion for a confrontation with Iraq should have been seen before the 9/11 turning point. An ideal vehicle for beginning that process would have been the National Energy Policy report with which Klare begins his analysis.202 The media coverage of the report focused largely on its recommendation to open up areas in Alaska to oil exploration, questions about energy industry input into the report and the secrecy of the process of producing it. There is, however, a chapter on the international elements of American energy policy. Klare cites its conclusion that the Persian Gulf would remain a primary focus of American energy policy as a key finding underpinning what he sees as the new Bush strategy of Persian Gulf dominance. This chapter, presumably, would have been the place to make the argument for a new confrontational approach toward Iraq.
Iraq is not mentioned at all in the international chapter, nor in the summary of recommendations attached to the report. The bulk of the international recommendations revolve around efforts to encourage oil producing countries in other areas of the world to open up their energy sectors to foreign investment. The report acknowledges the centrality of the Gulf region to world oil supplies, but directs its focus at developing alternative sources in other regions: “The Gulf will be a primary focus of U.S. international energy policy, but our engagement will be global, spotlighting existing and emerging regions that will have a major impact on the global energy balance.”203 The section on the Gulf in the report is less than one page, shorter than the sections on North America, South America, Africa, the Caspian and Russia. The tenor of the international section of the report is on diversity of supply, rather than the risks present in the geopolitics of the Gulf.204
While results are not always the best indicator of intentions, it is useful to point out that, by the end of 2008, the war in Iraq had done nothing to increase Iraqi oil production. Iraqi production in September 2008 was 2.3 million barrels per day; its 2002 average was just over 2 million barrels per day.205 Only one major contract for the development of a new Iraqi oil field had been signed as of the end of 2008, and that was with a Chinese company (though some new oil deals had been signed by the Kurdish Regional Government with energy firms from Turkey and Sweden).206 It is possible that this is simple a matter of American incompetence. Certainly the post-war American occupation has been rife with examples of incompetence. Still, if increased Iraqi oil production were the centerpiece of the war effort, it is surprising that so little progress would have been made on that front.
The strategic importance of Gulf oil for the United States has been a constant in American foreign policy since World War II. Undoubtedly that importance was part of the complex of reasons that the Bush Administration decided to go to war in Iraq. Positive oil developments were expected from the war, just as strategic benefits and a new democratic impulse in the region were expected. It was a factor in the bureaucratic efforts to bring reluctant elements of the Administration, the State Department and the uniformed military, around to support for the policy.207 It was the reason that the US had a military infrastructure of bases in the Gulf to support the deployment, making the war logistically possible. Congress and the public had been conditioned to see the region as centrally important to American economic and political interests for decades, particularly since the 1990-91 Gulf War.
The Iraq War fits in with the long-term logic of American policy in the Persian Gulf: the importance of oil, the need for the United States to be the dominant power there, the build-up of American capabilities in the area after 1979.208 But the war itself was not the inevitable result of that logic. It was simply one of many possible results. A continuation of the pre-9/11 policy of military containment and economic sanctions aimed against Iraq and Iran, with a strong American military presence in the Gulf monarchies, was another possible result. There is an oil logic to the war. However, there is no evidence on the public record that energy security issues specifically drove the policy making process in the lead-up to war. There is substantial evidence that the changed strategic perspective of the Bush Administration after 9/11 did drive the war policy. The continuities of American policy in the Gulf set the table, but 9/11 turned on the stove. The counter-factual assertion suggested by both the crude and the sophisticated “war for oil” arguments, that the United States would have fought a war against Iraq for oil reasons had the 9/11 attacks not occurred, is not supported by the evidence.
The controversies surrounding the American war against Iraq in 2003 have spawned a vast literature, much more extensive than the sum total of the literature on the issues of Persian Gulf security for the three decades which preceded it. Analyzing the wealth of published information and opinion about the Iraq War is a task for a book in itself (many of which have been cited in the notes). This chapter focused on the debate about the causes of the war. It made the case that the primary cause for the Bush Administration’s decision to go to war against Iraq was the changed view of the potential threats emanating from the region after the attacks of 9/11. While one can question the wisdom of going to war against Iraq as part of the global war on terrorism, it is hard based on the evidence to question the sincerity with which President Bush, Vice President Cheney and those around them held their views. Their belief that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq could potentially transfer weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups’ intent upon striking the United States is open to criticism, but not to question. They believed it. Even if the probabilities of such a scenario were small, the consequences were so great – a WMD 9/11 – that preventive war was justified. They also believed that an American victory over Saddam Hussein would change the overall strategic picture in the Middle East in America’s favor. At a minimum such a victory would warn other potential American foes of the consequences of their actions. More naively, they also believed that such a victory could lead to a democratic revolution in the Muslim Middle East that would greatly reduce the terrorist threat from the region.
The president and those around him came to these conclusions very quickly after the 9/11 attacks, with little regard for the specifics of the evidence regarding Iraqi WMD and Iraqi links to al-Qaeda. The decision came first; the analysis of evidence followed. Confirming evidence was emphasized; disconfirming evidence was rejected. Less plausible but more lurid threats were emphasized to the public, to rally support. Both cognitive biases and political expediency played a role in the way the policy-makers evaluated the evidence. The balance between these two forces – the psychological and the political – probably differed from person to person and issue to issue.
While the strategic importance of Persian Gulf oil plays a role in every American decision about the region, this was not a “war for oil” in any direct way. It is remarkable how little the oil factor appears in the accounts of Bush Administration policy making on the Iraq War. There is also no convincing evidence that the war was planned before the 9/11 attacks, with the Administration simply looking for a pretext to rally public opinion for an attack on Iraq. Certainly some members of the Administration favored a confrontational policy toward Saddam Hussein before 9/11. However, there is no evidence that they had won the day in the policy-making process before the attacks of that day. In a way that is strangely uncomfortable for many of the Administration’s opponents, the Iraq War was about what President Bush said it was about. Its wisdom is highly debatable; its origins are pretty straightforward.
The motivations for the American war on Iraq were much different than Saddam Hussein’s war-time motivations, discussed in previous chapters. But the two sets of motivations do intersect at an interesting point: the centrality of domestic politics for explaining foreign policy decisions in and about the Middle East. Saddam Hussein was driven primarily by considerations of regime security in his war-making decisions. George W. Bush was driven to war against Iraq in large part because he believed that the character of domestic political regimes in the region was the key to understanding their foreign policies. Saddam Hussein was not deterable, the way the Soviet Union had been on nuclear questions, because of the nature of his regime. Only regime change in Iraq would remove the potential for the WMD-terrorist nexus that underlay the Bush Doctrine. Only a democratic wave in the Arab world could end the terrorist threat to the United States emanating from the region. Saddam believed that threats to his regime’s security began at home, but were abetted by foreign actors who had to be attacked before they could work within his own society to undermine him. George Bush also believed that the threats which mattered to him, the new threats to the American homeland, originated in the domestic politics of countries like Iraq. To preserve his regime’s security, Saddam thought he had to strike at the foreign sources of his domestic threats. To preserve his country’s security, George Bush thought he had to strike at the domestic sources of his foreign threat. The fact that both were probably mistaken in their judgments is irrelevant to the explanatory importance of those judgments in understanding the wars of the Persian Gulf.

1 This is basically the story told in two of the first books to treat the issue: Todd S. Purdum, A Time of Our Choosing: America’s War in Iraq, (New York: Times Books, 2003) and Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay, America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy, (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2003).

2 Wesley K. Clark, Winning Modern Wars: Iraq, Terrorism and the American Empire, (New York: Public Affairs, 2003), Richard A. Clarke, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror, (New York: Free Press, 2004) and Ron Suskind, The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House and the Education of Paul O’Neill, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004). Suskind concluded that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was “already a central mission” of the Bush Administration upon coming into office, p. 87. However, his accounts of NSC meetings, based upon O’Neill’s notes and recollections, show substantial differences of opinion among the principals. Gen. Clark admitted that “I’m not sure I can prove this yet” when pushed on his contention that September 11 was a pretext to launch a pre-existing plan to reshape the Middle East. Peter J. Boyer, “General Clark’s Battles,” The New Yorker, November 17, 2003, pp. 72-74. Richard Clarke’s contention was based largely on the fact that, before 9/11, “more and more the talk was of Iraq, of CENTCOM being asked to plan to invade.” (p. 264). This is consistent with my contention that high-level officials supported military action against Iraq before 9/11, but that they had not convinced President Bush.

3 The most serious case for an oil-based imperial explanation for the war is made by Michael Klare, Blood and Oil, (New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt, 2004). See also Jay R. Mandle, “A war for oil: Bush, the Saudis and Iraq,” Commonweal, November 8, 2002; and Paul Roberts, The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004). Maureen Dowd wrote that: “The imaginary weapons and Osama link were just a marketing tool and shiny distraction, something to keep the public from crying while they went to war for reasons unrelated to any nuclear threat. The 9/11 attacks gave the neocons an opening for their dreams of remaking the Middle East, and they drove the Third Infantry Division through it.” “I Spy a Screw-Up,” New York Times, March 31, 2005.

4 Letter can be accessed at the website of the Center for Security Policy,

5 The December 1, 1997 cover of the Weekly Standard bore the headline “Saddam Must Go.”

6 Suskind, The Price of Loyalty, p. 85.

7 Condolezza Rice, "Promoting the National Interest," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 79, No. 1 (January/February 2000).

8 Quoted in Daalder and Lindsay, America Unbound, p. 40.

9 “The Gulf War,” PBS Frontline,

10 Glenn Kessler, “U.S. Decision on Iraq Has a Puzzling Past,” Washington Post, January 12, 2003.

11 “It is important to note that at this early stage [before 9/11], the neocons did not have the enthusiastic backing of Vice President Cheney. Just because Cheney had spent a lot of time around the Get Saddam neocons does not mean that he had become one, says an administration aide. ‘It’s a mistake to add up two and two and get 18,’ he says. Cheney’s cautious side kept him from leaping into any potential Bay of Pigs covert actions.” Mark Hosenball, Michael Isikoff and Evan Thomas, “Cheney’s Long Path to War,”
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