Centering George W. Bush in the Etiology of the Iraq War

Jul 13, 2021

The second– and third-most downloaded articles at the journal Security Studies both tackle the causes of the Iraq War. This might reflect an imbalance of supply and demand: there aren’t that many articles in leading international-relations journals that focus on the question of why the United States invaded Iraq.

We can find a number of partial explanations. Many believe that American global dominance was at least a permissive condition; the absence of great powers prepared to deter or punish U.S. military action gave Washington a relatively free hand. A more controversial position (see the debate that we hosted at the Duck) is that we should basically take the Bush administration at its word – or, at least, once we strip out the hyperbole. In this account, the U.S. invasion was a specific example of the more general logic of preventive war.

… determined to prevent Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from acquiring nuclear weapons, the US administration was unable to prove that Iraq was not, in fact, developing them. Faced with the possibility of a large and rapid power shift in favor of Iraq and operating with imperfect information about Iraq’s militarization decision, the administration of US President George W. Bush opted for a preventive war, which was mistaken because there was no active Iraqi nuclear program.

Given the weakness of the case that Iraq posed an imminent threat of nuclear proliferation, some contend that the war was intended to demonstrate U.S. power: to “shock and awe” the rest of the world. The September 11 attacks made members of the Bush administration particularly anxious to reassert U.S. dominance.

I’ve come to believe that it’s a mistake to focus on any one cause. This is how I generally understand causation in the social science, but I think it’s particularly true when we’re talking about “reasons as causes.” Different factions within the Bush administration supported the war for different reasons, which means that there’s plenty of evidence to go around.

I also question analysis which assumes that any given member of the Bush administration understood, or cared, how bad the case for war was. The officials who thought Hussein had a non-trivial WMD program, for example, went looking for evidence that he did. If that evidence didn’t exist then, well, he’d hidden an advanced nuclear program before, hadn’t he?

This leads us to a different set of questions: what about the Bush administration led to such collective irrationality? My colleague Elizabeth Saunders argues that the Bush administration was prone to poor decision making because it combined a president who lacked foreign-policy experience with highly experienced senior officials: “Bush’s inexperience led to poor monitoring of his subordinates” and “contributed to an atmosphere in which subordinates” did not see “themselves as accountable to a well-informed leader.”

A senior administration official told Packer in an interview that “no one ever walks into the Oval Office and tells them they’ve got no clothes on—and persists … I think it’s dangerous that we have an environment where our principal leader cannot be well-informed. It’s part and parcel of the office,” but more so in this administration, which was “scary, because of the president and the atmosphere and the people there

Many of the explanations floating around – whether in academia or in more general discussion – sideline Bush altogether. As Fred Kaplan notes in his review of Robert Draper’s 2020 book To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq:

Draper’s central insight is to place George W. Bush at the center of the action. When it came to invading Iraq, Bush truly turns out to have been “the decider,” as he once described himself. And in those instances when others took charge, his style of decision-making was to let them, whereas most other presidents would have asked questions, mulled the options, perhaps convened a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) to weigh the pros and cons of a proposal. Draper convincingly shows that, under Bush, there was “no ‘process’ of any kind,” at any stage of the war, from the decision to invade to figuring out how post-Saddam Iraq should be governed.

This tracks with Saunder’s argument: Bush’s total lack of experience – or basic interest – in foreign policy introduced numerous pathologies into what passed for a decision-making process in his administration:

In the weeks after September 11, many of Bush’s underlings were startled to witness this affable but aimless president—uncertain of himself, uneasy with his legitimacy after losing the popular vote and eking out a thin Electoral College edge thanks to a 5–4 Supreme Court ruling, content to spend half of his time away from Washington clearing brush weeds back at his ranch in Texas—suddenly seized with a “piercing clarity of purpose” and an “unchecked self-confidence.” Draper paints a vivid scene of Bush speaking to a group of Asian journalists in the Oval Office, pointing to portraits of Churchill, Lincoln, and Washington, aligning himself as their peer, and viewing himself as “a leader who knew who he was and who knew what was right.” And one thing he knew, being (as Bush himself put it) “a good versus evil guy,” was that “the time had now come to confront Saddam Hussein.”

It is remarkable—and a central theme in the book—how swiftly so many senior officials fell into line, some of them against their better judgment, for reasons of misguided duty, crass cynicism, or converging motives. Wolfowitz, Libby, and a few other neocons had never pushed for an actual invasion—they fantasized about prodding small bands of Iraqi Shias and dissidents to crush Saddam’s army with the help of US air strikes—but they signed on to it, and took part in the cherry-picking of raw intelligence data that seemed to confirm that Saddam had WMDs and was affiliated with al-Qaeda, as the way to fulfill their dream. (WMDs were, as Wolfowitz later put it, “the one issue that everyone could agree on.”)

Moreover, Draper’s account singles out George “It’s a slam dunk, Mr. President” Tenet for special culpability.

… almost everyone in Bush’s inner circle really believed that Saddam had WMDs—if not nukes, then chemical or biological weapons, which a 1991 UN Security Council resolution banned him from developing. Those types of weapons were certainly within his capacity: he had built them a decade before, even used them in the Iran–Iraq War, but destroyed most of them under UN auspices after the first Gulf War. And there were still widespread suspicions—abetted by Iraq’s efforts to mislead UN weapons inspectors—that some remained hidden and that he could resume production.

But the intelligence analysts who were most expert in the region and in the technology for making and handling WMDs couldn’t find persuasive evidence to make the case that Saddam had any, and Tenet did what he could to suppress their skepticism. A holdover from the previous administration, he had been frustrated by Bill Clinton’s lack of interest in what the CIA had to offer. For any CIA director, the president is the “First Customer”—the sole source of the agency’s power—and under Clinton that power had dissipated. By contrast Bush, especially after September 11, was riveted by the agency’s reports; he had Tenet personally deliver its Presidential Daily Briefing at 8 AM, six days a week. At last, the CIA had a seat at the big table, and Tenet wasn’t going to blow it.

If you can get around the paywall, the review essay is definitely worth reading. Kaplan briefly draws the obvious comparison with Trump, pointing out that “in Trump, these traits were compounded by a prideful ignorance (Bush at least read books and intelligence reports) but mitigated by a lack of appetite for war.”

We are less than two years out from the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq – a war of choice that, beyond its substantial human toll, may have substantially altered the course of international politics for decades to come (we discuss some of the knock-on effects in Exit from Hegemony , from helping to securitize democracy promotion to eroding the military and economic base of U.S. hegemony). The war has received substantial attention in security and conflict studies, but mainly in terms of insurgency, counter-insurgency, and other subjects driven by U.S. government funding.

The net result, as best I can tell, is that everyone understands the cause of the Iraq War, yet those causes somehow remain elusive.

A different version of this post also appears at Lawyers, Guns and Money.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.