One War, Many Theories

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One War, Many Theories

Any attempt to analytically categorise the body of literature that comes to terms with the April 2003 American invasion of Iraq with any degree of rigour faces what might be called the level of analysis problem. In one sense this is not a problem; all that the level of analysis problem attests to is that different conceptions of how the world works, or in this case, how the Iraq invasion should be understood, derive their ontology by focussing on one of a myriad of facets of the war. So for example, Charles Krauthammer holds that the war is just because he considers the prospect of successful trajectory to democracy in Iraq to be highly probable. Raimond Gaita, on the other hand, holds that the war is not justified solely on the basis of means-ends rationality; for Gaita nothing justifies the loss of life on both sides that the invasion entailed. The relative merits of these positions aside, both commentators generate their positions by appealing to very different schema; the practical likelihood of democratisation for the former and the moral impediments of goal directed rationality for the latter.

How then can we do justice to the multiplicity of positions on the April 2003 American invasion of Iraq? It is here that the level of analysis issue becomes a problem for this report, for any attempt to conceptually organise the myriad of positions will favour some positions over others; indeed any conceptual schema for organising these positions says a good deal more about the nature of the invasion than the theories themselves. I justify the schema utilised here on two grounds. (1) Firstly, it organises the body of arguments around three central concepts that dominate mainstream international relations scholarship. (2) Secondly, the schema here is most appropriate to classify the majority of the literature that comes to terms with the April 2003 invasion. So with this caveat in mind, wary that those who do not sympathise with mainstream international relations scholarship may not sympathise with this report, we shall proceed carefully.

Power, Institutions and Norms

I organise the body of literature around three concepts. (1) Power, defined as the capacity to produced intended effects, (2) a degree of institutionalisation, or the degree to which certain values and procedures stemming from them are embodied in a regulatory environment, and (3) legitimacy, the moral virtues of a certain act or value such that it finds affinities across a broadly defined populace or societal grouping. In short, the majority of the literature on the American invasion of Iraq in April 2003 appeals to one of the three facets of the invasion mentioned above. Of course all the theories imply a position toward all three of these facets, however in most cases it is the direct appeal to one that both gives the theory its structure and most clearly grants it its explanatory prowess, generating its position on the American invasion in the affirmative or negative. And finally, it will be seen that those commentators advocating a position that appeal to factors such as the person of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi stockpiles of WMD’s and chemical weapons and connections to terrorist groups, sanctions and weapons inspection procedures, or other qualifications or conditions, can be neatly fitted in the schema outlined above. As Table 1 illustrates, we can initially divide the body of literature into six groups, with a natural degree of diversity within the groups. This can serve as a useful schema to commence the argument map, as it enables us to discern the broad groupings that categorise the diverse body of literature.













GROUPS 1 & 2: Two thousand years ago Polybius noted, when commenting on the cycle of regimes, that institutionalised legitimacy is required to maintain a leader’s power base. I have shown that the exact same prescription applies to states in international politics (Cohen 2004a; 2004b). What this means is that if Washington desires to maintain the period of American unipolar hegemony, increasing the size of its army and strengthening its economy will not suffice. Ensuring that alliance partners and lesser states deem American unipolarity legitimate is crucial. This legitimacy effect is achieved through the institutionalisation of a regulatory environment. This regulatory environment is essentially the universal exporting of democracy. How do other states benefit when they perhaps might not be? Their perceived legitimacy of democracy serves Washington’s purpose by bolstering American unipolarity, but this bolstering of American unipolarity instantaneously serves alliance partners by solving the collective action problem and providing security and other collective goods. For strengthened alliances aid the provision of global security by America. Irrespective of whether the values democracy stands for benefit a polity, its institutional presence carries an assurance of inclusion in the American security umbrella. The key is for Washington to ensure that their alliance partners, as well as the broader community of states, deem the values and institutions that American strategists enunciate in their interest legitimate and thus in their interest. So for neoconservatives democracy does indeed assist other states; for apart from the social values that it brings it concomitantly solves a security imperative.
This is where the democratic peace argument derives its attraction; for how can democracies produce peace if the hegemon is an undemocratic state? Whilst the broader debate has been whether democracy in and of itself is the key to bringing about peace, democracy can enlarge the realm of peace as it is really enlargening America’s institutional base through its perceived legitimacy and moral virtues. As James Kurth (2004) has said, “because the 20th century was the American century, it was also the century of democratization.” Americas hold on power, and the perpetual peace in international affairs, is prolonged as other states accept the American institutional umbrella. And as American unipolarity is strengthened, so is the security of the democratised states who benefit from the American security umbrella; the umbrella of American security goes hand in hand with that of American institutions. As Joseph Nye has argued, the neoconservative emphasis on democracy and human rights can help make U.S. policies attractive to others when these values appear genuine. As Kurth has said (2004), “many countries know what it means to be, in the words of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “forced to be free.” This neoconservative argument assumes that any indigenous value system will naturally work towards democracy. The argument also assumes that other states would find it in their interest to bandwagon with America, for as William Wohlforth has shown, “challenging American supremacy is becoming increasingly impractical. The conservative message is clear: the invasion of Iraq is more about remaking the world in America's image than merely disarming a dictator and destroying the alleged connection between Baghdad and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
Like the body of arguments in group 1 that favour the invasion of Iraq due to power considerations, the arguments in group 2 similarly appeal to power to argue that the invasion is a strategic blunder. They generally assert, echoing Kenneth Waltz’s famous dictum, that the source of the demise to unipolarity is overextension, and that Washington should be less ambitious with its foreign policy. Specifically, many commentators question whether democracy will take hold in Iraq and other factors that conservative’s put forward, such as whether Saddam is in fact not deterrable and if indeed his capacities pose the threat that they are alleged to. Commentators in group 2 agree with those in group 1 on the centrality of power but disagree on measures to maintain it. Perhaps the disagreements here boil down to an as yet unresolved empirical matter; whether or not Iraq will successfully democratise.
The difference between group 1 and 2 also further testifies to a difference between the traditions of realism and liberalism in international relations theory. Whilst realists are pessimistic regarding the capacity of international institutions to significantly affect power dynamics, liberals and other idealists hold that institutions can significantly mitigate the security environment. Members of group 2 are pessimistic about the likelihood of a successful democratisation in Iraq, and stress the imprudence of basing security policy on moral virtues. They thus hold the prospect of a successful democratisation with little likelihood and furthermore hold that a democratic Iraq only matters insofar as Baghdad does not challenge Washington’s balance of power considerations. The neoconservatives in group 1, often labelled idealists, favour the democratisation project. Their faith in the means to maintain hegemonic supremacy outlined above stem from their belief in the intrinsic characteristic of democratic institutions to create a legitimacy effect from the regulatory environment that it establishes.
GROUPS 3 & 4: Advocates of these groups all agree that international institutions such as the United Nations and mechanisms of international law are of such importance that they should be treated with more respect than simply deemed manifestations of power. Whether or not adherents of this group hold this sentiment due to considerations of power varies, but what all commentators have in common is a serious consideration of international institutions for their own sake. Often they will generate their position based on an interpretation of international law (that may change with the UN resolution) or even a desire to enhance the legitimacy of international institutions.
GROUPS 5 & 6: Members of these groups generate their position with reference to some moral claim that is more or less detached from practical considerations of power or international institutions. So Michael Ignatieff perhaps belongs in this group when he insists that the person of Saddam alone and his history demands his removal. Raimond Gaita objects to the war by claiming that nothing justifies the deaths involved in removing Saddam. So just like the other four groups the various qualifications and conditions that the commentators advocate stem from their epistemological commitment as shown in Table 1.

THE ARGUMENTS (To be cumulatively added to)

Charles Krauthammer: That the transition from the coalition conquest of last April 9 to whatever new Iraq emerges will be difficult, bloody and contentious is the historical norm. Yet it has been used by critics to discredit both the war and Bush and Blair for having undertaken it: Iraq will successfully democratise. Therefore the invasion is justified.

Robert Lieber: Saddam cannot be deterred. He is a threat to global security. The invasion was therefore justified.

Robert Kagan: See Krauthammer.

William Kristol: See Krauthammer.

Kenneth Pollack: Despite the change in position was always an advocate of the invasion. He stated in January 2002 that “Hawks are wrong to think the problem is desperately urgent or connected to terrorism, but right to see the prospect of a nuclear-armed Saddam Hussein as so worrisome that it requires drastic action. Doves are right about Iraq's not being a good candidate for an Afghan-style war, but wrong to think that inspections and deterrence alone can contain Saddam. The United States has no choice left but to invade Iraq itself and eliminate the current regime.” His qualifications, which were published in the same journal two years later, merely detail Iraqi reconstruction stipulations. His Atlantic Monthly article ( however, claims that based on the misrepresentation of the evidence on Saddam’s danger the invasion was not justified. For more on the Pollack position see So whilst not advocating the Bush invasion, he has advocated invasion.

Francis Fukuyama: America has a bad nation building record. The legitimacy of the invasion is therefore weak. Because successful democratisation is improbable, the invasion is not justified.

John Mearsheimer: The invasion is justified on the basis that Saddam cannot be deterred. However he has in the past and most probably will in the future. There are convincing reasons why he will never participate with terrorists or use nuclear weapons against America.

Stephen Walt: See Above

Owen Harries: the war is a “misbegotten venture, wrongly conceived as well as incompetently implemented.” Successful democratisation will not eventuate. The invasion, which will teach Washington the limits of its power, is not justified.

Christian Reus-Smit: It is folly to assume that the values that allow democracy to flourish in the West can be implanted to Iraq. Iraq will not successfully democratise. The invasion is not justified.

James Kurth: The justification of the war is the probability of a successful Iraqi transition to democracy. Iraqi democracy is simply too improbable, therefore the war is not justified.

John Newhouse: Preventive/Preemptive war is a deeply problematic policy for a hegemon such as America: all that this policy entails should be avoided. The invasion of Iraq is therefore unjustified.
Michael Costello: The invasion is justified and required by international law. UN Resolution 678 of 1990 authorises, and indeed commands, all necessary use of force. The war is jusitifed as long as all UN mandates are kept to.

Adam Roberts: International Law in the form of UN resolutions can fairly be interpreted to justify the invasion. Therefore the invasion is fair.

Anne-Marie Slaughter: “The unprecedented threat posed by terrorists and rogue states armed with weapons of mass destruction cannot be handled by an outdated and poorly enforced nonproliferation regime. The international community has a duty to prevent security disasters as well as humanitarian ones -- even at the price of violating sovereignty.”
Gareth Evans: The war is illegal. It is therefore not justified.

Michael Glennon: The authorisation from the 1991 congressional decision is extinguished. The invasion is unlawful. It is unjustified.

Michael Walzer: The war is not just. It is therefore unjustified.
Roger Scruton: “US foreign policy isn't always right. But it emerges from a rational process - one in which criticism is permitted, and accountability assumed. The foreign policies of North Korea and Iraq issue from no such rational process: which is one reason for using force in order to prevent them from issuing at all.” Therefore the war is justified.

Michael Ignatieff: Saddam’s human rights record warrant his removal. Therefore the invasion was justified.
Raimond Gaita: The liberation of Iraq does not justify the means of doing it. The war is unjustified.

Robert Manne: The justification for war was deceptive. The invasion was therefore unjustified.
Michael Cohen

March 2005

Gaita, Raymond (2003) (ed.) Why the War Was Wrong. Melbourne, The Text Publishing Company.
Harries, Owen (2003) “Iraq is the Failure the US had to have,” The Sydney Morning Herald, January 7, 2005.

Available Online (Jan 17 2005):

Ignatieff, Michael (2004) “The Year of Living Dangerously.”

Available Online (January 17 2005):

Kagan, Robert (2004) “Iraq and averages,” The Washington Post, Monday October 4, 2004, pA23.

Available Online (January 17 2005):
Kristol, William, and Kaplan, Lawrence (2003) “The war on Iraq: Why Saddam Must go…and why America Must Lead,” Transcript, Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs.

Available Online (January 18 2005):
Krauthammer, Charles (2004) “Iraq History Lesson,” The Washington Post, Friday June 4, 2004, pA23.

Available Online (January 17 2005):
Kurth, James (2004) “Iraq: Losing the American Way.” The American Conservative. March 15, 2004.

Available Online (January 19 2005):
Lieber, Robert J. (2003) “The folly of containment,” Commentary, April 2003 v115 i4 p15(7)
Manne, Robert (2003) “Iraq scandal a threat to democracy,” The Age, June 16 2003.

Available Online (January 17 2004):
Mearsheimer, John J. and Walt, Stephen (2003) “An unnecessary War,” Foreign Policy Jan/Feb 2003.

Available Online (January 19 2005):
Newhouse, John (2003) Imperial America: The Bush Assault on the World Order. Alfred A. Knopf: New York.
Nye, Joseph (2003) “U.S. Power and Strategy After Iraq,” Foreign Affairs, July 1.

Available Online (January 19 2005):
Pollack, Kenneth M. (2002) “Next Stop Baghdad?,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2002.

Available Online (January 19 2005):
Roberts, Adam (2003) “International Law and the Iraq War 2003,” The United Kingdom Parliament; Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. Memorandum from Professor Sir Adam Roberts.

Available Online (January 19 2005):
Scruton, Roger (2003) “American Intention to Liberate not to Enslave,” Online Document. Available (January 19 2005):
Slaughter, Anne-Marie, and Feinstein, Lee (2004) “A Duty to Prevent,” Foreign Affairs January/February 2004.

Available Online (January 19 2005):
Walzer, Michael (2002) “No strikes – Inspectors yes, war no,” The New Republic, Sept 30 2002 p.19

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