The US-Iraq Conflict: A War of Rivalry?

26 March 2013, 1200 EDT

This is a guest post by Konstantinos Travlos of the University of Illinois and Brandon Valeriano of the University of Glasgow.

The mark of the ten year anniversary of the beginning of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 has been, as such anniversaries tend to be, a chance for scholars, pundits and politicians to take stock of the past and evaluate the present. Reactions have ranged from a stubborn support of the war  to quasi-celebrations on the side of opponents of the war. For all sides, the causes of the war have been a major point of contention. We concern ourselves with this part of the debate.

Very little rigorous analysis of the causes of the war has taken place. Explanations about the Iraq War have tended to be dominated by narratives that focus on neo-conservative policy goals, the Israel-lobby, oil, personal animosity, and the fear associated with Weapons of Mass Destruction. Usually these mono-causal explanations are amended by ad-hoc additions in order to accommodate the impossibility of any one cause explaining a war. This results in causal stories that are incoherent or lacking a uniting element that would make sense as an orientating device and macro explanation. Using Chapter 6 of Valeriano’s recent book – Becoming Rivals – as the basis, we argue that interstate rivalry is the common thread that links the many different events and behaviors that contributed to the onset of the second Iraq war.

Interstate rivalry is a situation where the relationship between two states is dominated by perceptions of enmity and adversarial behavior including the use of military force. Rivalries are characterized by repeated-escalating disputes, strategic and cultural animosity, and zero-sum games.  It is a condition that is heavily associated with war because rival states are more willing to use military force against each other and less able to overcome negative perceptions and problems of trust that would permit attempts at the pacific resolution of the issues that fed the rivalry. Empirically 69% of wars since 1816 have happened in a context of rivalry. Individually each of the issues pointed to as causes by analysts cannot explain the war without the context of rivalry.

The US-Iraq rivalry began with the First Gulf War, when the US acted essentially as a replacement for British guarantees to Kuwait’s sovereignty (the UK and Iraq had a rivalry prior to 1990).  The United States used military force to block the Iraqi attempt resolve a territory claim and to solve, by force, the dire economic problem it faced after the Iraq-Iran war due to its 100 billion dollar debt to Kuwait. The US intervention tied the United States to the ongoing rivalry between Iraq and Kuwait over Kuwaiti independence. It also tied the US to the rivalry between Iraq and Saudi Arabia over Hussein’s pan-Arab ambitions which were to be fueled by territorial control of a quarter of global oil reserves in Saudi Arabia. It is an established fact that territorial disputes are very war-inducing events. To the territorial issue was added a regime change issue. The sanctions and no-fly zones imposed after the war, measures that targeted Iraqi military capability and Baath party ability to mobilize Iraqi resources, locked the states in the rivalry. For Saddam Hussein who relied on the army to secure his power, these policies were a direct threat to his rule, and in the cutthroat politics of Iraq a threat to his life.

The period after the first Iraq war was a period dominated by power-politics behavior in the interactions of the two states. In a rivalry context, power-politics behaviors are a set of policies that rely on the threat of force and the use of force in order to deter or coerce an opponent during a conflict. The issues at stake were the disarmament of Iraq, economic sanctions, two no fly-zones to protect civilian populations, and UN weapon inspections. There were also the territorial issues Iraq had with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the Iraqi prosecution of Kurdish and Shiite internal rivals, and Iraqi attempts to destabilize the US position in the Middle East via various means, including a possible assassination attempt at George H. Bush. Iraqi military power was the main tool available to Hussein and the US wanted to limit it as much as possible. The US, flush with the peace dividends of the end of the Cold War, showed a remarkable preference for using military coercion against Iraq since force was cheap.

As a result no meaningful “face-saving” options were provided to Saddam Hussein during the crises between the UN and Iraq over the biological and chemical weapons disarmament, Iraqi behavior towards the Kurds and Shiites, and the continued friction between Iraq and its neighbors was increasingly belligerent.  Saddam showed defiance to the United States and the international community in order to maintain domestic rule, a plan that disastrously failed.  Hussein was unwilling to forgo military means in his pursuit of political goals. More importantly he was willing to lie blatantly in order to avoid “dishonor”. This cultivated the perception that Saddam was an unreliable, possibly paranoid actor, which in turn intensified the demand for his disarmament and fed paranoia on the side of western political leaders.

All these events maintained and escalated a rivalry between the United States and Iraq prior to the war and ensured that after the War in Afghanistan, America was likely to use its military capacity to fight Iraq.  Iran and North Korea, at the time, did not have similar levels of rivalry antagonism with the US.  This has changed with the elimination of Iraq as an enemy, but at the time there were really no other great enemies left for the United States and it seemed to prefer to challenge Iraq rather than terrorists.  The US instead made a tepid connection between Saddam and the possibility that Iraq would host future terrorist organizations.

Alliances also contributed to the possibility of a new war between Iraq and the US. The US had the ability to draw on the political support of NATO as well as the Arab alliances. Iraq on the other hand had never been able to replace a Cold War Soviet alliance.  Surrounded by either American allies (Turkey, Qatar, and Bahrain) or old enemies (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iran), Iraq lived in perpetual fear.  Iraq was indispensable to no-one, and due to violations of the Saudi Arabian border and the massing of troops against Kuwait in 1994 and Saudi Arabia in 2001, it was perceived as a threat to all. Like Austria-Hungary in 1866 or France in 1871, Iraq was isolated.

This isolation added to the US fear of Iraqi desperation after 9/11. The long history of Iraqi use of force to resolve issues with neighboring states, the US security links with those neighboring states, Saddam’s inability  for domestic and personal reasons to present a conciliatory image, his history of lying that fed perceptions of paranoia and an extreme willingness to take risks, his diplomatic isolation, and the stark asymmetry between US and Iraq military capabilities fueled fears that he would seek to break out of the tight spot into which he placed himself by allying with terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda. Whether likely or not, this was the fear and also an issue what was acceptable to the public as a pretext for war.

Considering the weight of history in Iraqi-US relations as encompassed by an almost 20 year rivalry (1991-2003) for US policy makers power-politics, the threat of the use of force and coercive diplomacy was the only way to deter this widely hypothetical outcome. This sentiment was immortalized in the “we do not want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud” quote by Condoleezza Rice.  Nevertheless, for Saddam conciliation was not an option. Threat of force met threat of force, hardliners in both governments were emboldened, and any possible negotiated settlement was given up, this is the class story of how rivals go to war.

In this case, war was the only logical choice in the context of a rivalry.  This is not to suggest that it was the optimal path, but this is the path of war through rivalry. Thus the US and Iraq, set in their ways of violence and mistrust by 20 years of competition and escalation, were led to war by a steady diet of hate, force, and misperception. The myriad reasons put forward as causes of the war only became war-inducing when they added to a dominant narrative of historical enmity. As force failed to elicit a change in behavior, increasing levels of force were brought to forward leading ultimately to the deadly tango of war.

The reason these events are so important to recount ten years on is due to the nature of history.  Rivalry provided the context for war, through this lens issues such as WMDs, terrorism, human rights violations, and constant threats of invasions to neighbors pushed both states to war.  Add this with the permissive context of the post 9/11 system and the hardliners on both sides, particularly the Neoconservatives in the US who viewed the world as divided by good versus evil, the path to war in Iraq makes all too much sense.  The point is to avoid this process in the future; the path to peace is through the resolution of long standing international rivalries and the issues that lock these sides into hostility.