What the Iraq War Is and What it Isn’t

Let’s start with “isn’t” first:


  • It’s not a war just about spreading democracy.
  • It’s not a war just about oil.
  • It’s not a war just about stopping a brutal dictator who supposedly had weapons of mass destruction.
  • It’s not a war of humanitarian intervention.
  • It’s not a plot cooked up by some secret cabal of Israeli Zionists and American neocons.


  • It is a war partially about oil, partially about spreading democracy, and partially about ousting a brutal dictator.
  • It is a war that reflects poorly on the cultural shift toward perpetual growth and expansion of American economic and military interests.
  • It is a war fueled by skewed notions of national security and humanitarian intervention.
  • It is a war about American military dominance in a region that has American economic interests – in oil, trade and so forth, at its heart.
  • It is a war pushed very strongly by the brand of politics known as neoconservatism, which most blatantly embraces such military and economic expansion, but which is certainly not unique in this – only, perhaps, more unabashed.

Look, I opposed the Iraq War in the beginning.  I thought it was ludicrous, and the government’s case seemed paper thin.  Later, I opposed artificial time tables for withdrawal of American troops, because it struck me as cruel and imprudent and even cowardly to leave a nation in a state of civil war that we essentially instigated.  I still oppose withdrawing too quickly, lest the country be sucked into an ever more brutal cycle of civil war and chaos.

But I become more and more dubious that our continued presence is anything more than prolonging the inevitable; that no matter how long we stay, in the end we’ll have to exit, and when we do, the Iraqis will simply have to figure things out on their own.  And it will be bloody, and awful, and the violence will last a long, long time.  Likely enough, the “democratic government of Iraq” will become ever more despotic, and the country will become even more divided along sectarian lines.  No length of stay on the part of the American military can avoid that.  Even if we do achieve stability that lasts beyond our own occupation, the only way that stability will be achieved for long will be through the suppression of the Sunnis by the Shiite majority.

Our leaders looked at Iraq and for whatever reason or reasons believed that simply by toppling one very bad guy we could somehow bring democracy, stability, and free trade to a nation so extraordinarily different than anything in the West – and they did this because they believed it served the national interest.  Military globalism and the securing of future oil reserves to maintain our projected growth in the future were the driving forces behind this war, and they were done in the belief that democracy promotion works, that if only we can impose democracy across the world we can liberate the world, free up trade, and make the world safer, freer, and more prosperous.

These are, in some sense, noble ideals.  The idealism of democracy promotion is its fatal flaw however, because it is blinding.  The Iraq War tested this theory and now we’ve learned that imposed freedom doesn’t work, and that inorganic democracy is at best unsustainable.  At the very least, we should have learned that such a theory is far too expensive, time consuming, and wasteful.

The Iraq War has cost America in blood, treasure, and a loss of focus on our true priorities.  It has led us to erode some of our freedoms, and to sacrifice some of our better ideals.  This doesn’t mean that every proponent of the war was ill-intentioned; nor does it mean that there isn’t some validity in the notion that indeed we do have a strategic interest in the future of the Middle East, its resources, and the region at large.  But that should call in to question why we are so dependent on oil to begin with, and beyond that, why we as a culture have shifted so many of our priorities to a belief in unending growth that can and should be enforced by an omnipotent military.

It’s all part and parcel of a larger picture.  America needs to expand economically.  We’ve chosen to do so via globalism and free trade.  This on its own may not be the worse thing in the world, but it has also led us to believe that through military might we can achieve the impossible.  The world changes slowly.  The Middle East is simply a different ballpark than we’re used to, and we weren’t ready for the game the way it unfolded.  We weren’t supposed to be ready.

As Andrew Bacevich has noted, we need to put our own house in order before we go marching across the globe thinking we can set all its wrongs to right with a bigger gun than the bad guys have.  And the causes of our belief in military dominance go beyond defense to the very fabric of our cutlure, our manifest destiny, our consumerism, our belief in perpetual and liberating growth.  There is a place for defense and security, and for the bold and courageous, but we shouldn’t confuse courage with war, nor security with expansion.  It’s a tricky balance, but our own exceptionalism could be better realized through ingenuity and hard work than through spreading our defense apparatus across the globe in the hopes of making it a more perfect world.

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19 thoughts on “What the Iraq War Is and What it Isn’t

  1. “It’s not a plot by cooked up by some secret cabal of Israeli Zionists and American neocons.”

    Not really E.D. You can’t dismiss necon involvement in cooking up the war by including “secret” and “Israeli Zionists.” Who is claiming secret Zionists necon participation in the run-up to the war? Anyone credible?

    A September 1997 issue of the “Weekly Standard” had a cover story “Saddam Must Go.” In the same issue Paul Wolfwitz and Zalmay Khalilzad maintained ” ‘only the substantial use of military force’ with the goal of ‘the liberation of Iraq’ would do the trick.” (“Hubris” by Isikoff and Korn, page 78.)

    Here is my defination of “What The Iraq War Is” – unnecessary and contrived by neocons

    In the first days after the attacks of September 2001 Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz advocated targeting Iraq because of the scarcity of “good targets in Afghanistan.” (Meeting at Camp David 9/15/01) Four days later at a meeting of the Defense Policy Board Ahmad Chalabi and Bernhard Lewis urged U.S. actions against Iraq. These are just two facts, publicly known, that the administration had a war with Iraq as a possibility. By the end of the year, 12/21/01, the Washington Post released a poll showing that Americans believe that a successful war on terror required the overthrow of Sadam.

    The administration was well on the way to selling a war with Iraq to the public. Uranium from Niger, aluminan tubes, mushroom clouds, smoking guns, meetings in Prague…. would all be added to the vile brew concocted and pushed by Bush, Cheney, Kristol, Rice, Wolfwitz, Rumsfeld, Feith, Fleischer and countless others.

    The neocon fingerprints are all over this benighted war. It’s no secret. Neocons still defend the war.

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  2. Of course the neocons were at the heart of this war – my point is that it’s not simply that, but a more overarching, cultural problem that has allowed such a war to take place in the first place. Maybe I didn’t make that clear enough? I will add it…

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  3. It was never about idealism. It was never about saving the Iraqis from Saddam. It was about global power – economic and strategic.

    It was also – and this is something you’ve missed – about validating a new and radical military doctrine: that it is acceptable to invade a country that does not pose a threat and is not threatening to attack the US purely on the basis that they may, at some future point, be able to attack the US. It is American exceptionalism on steroids. And in this goal the Iraq War has more or less succeeded – even Obama has stated support for the doctrine of preventative war. This is, to me, the most dangerous part of the Iraq War and the central reason I opposed it. It has overthrown a basic, generally-accepted fact of the international order – that it is wrong to wage aggressive wars. If the US can invade Iraq, they can invade anywhere.

    Living inside the United States, this doctrine may not worry you. Living outside it, I find it terrifying. The US has been involved in many previous wars, but all of them involved at least 1.) one country having already invaded another or 2.) civil war within a country to the degree that the argument for “humanitarian intervention” seemed strong. The claim that the US can invade anywhere to get rid of leaders they don’t like is a new one.

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  4. Indeed, Katherine, the advent of preemptive of preventative war is a huge problem – though I wonder how lasting this will be, or if they’ve truly succeeded in their attempts to make it part of American foreign policy. I think in a sense it’s a logical next step from the many pseudo-military operations we’ve been conducting (coups, assassinations, etc.) for decades now. Hopefully it will be a turning point in the opposite direction, though I am cynical, of course.

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  5. I full-throatedly supported the war in Iraq.

    I had two sets of reasons. One I felt safe talking about in public, one not so much.

    The first set of reasons were the Jacobin reasons (seriously!). The Iraqis were just Americans at heart who didn’t know it yet. Once the oppressive government got off their backs, they’d turn into good post-Enlightenment Liberals. Hey, if I had a boot stomping on my face, *I* would want someone else to stop the guy wearing it, after all. We betrayed the Iraqis under Herbert Dubya, after all, we owed it to them to finish the job we started, etc. You all are familiar, I’m sure, with the arguments.

    The other reasons could be summed up with the following analogy. You’re in a bar. You get punched. You stand up and you don’t know who punched you. If you do not want to be punched again, find one of the folks snickering and beat the shit out of him. It doesn’t matter if he is the guy who hit you. The point is to send a message to everyone who saw you get hit and make them say “my life will be easier if he ain’t pissed off.”

    The problem with both of those arguments is that they are somewhat mutually exclusive when it comes to implementation. If you want to do the former, than do the former. If you want to do the latter, then do the latter. If you want to do half and half, you’ll end up with none of your intended goals being met, rather than half and half.

    Looking back, this leads me to the conclusion that I should have been less dismissive of the anti-war protests at the time.

    This makes me twice shy about mocking the tea parties with arguments that very much remind me of the arguments that I used to mock the anti-war protests.

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  6. Actually, though I opposed the Iraq War, I still was fairly dismissive of the protests. One thing about protests is they’re usually somewhat idiotic, regardless of the merits of their cause. Like now with the Tea Parties – they’re virtually incomprehensible – Righty nuts out in force, like the Lefty nuts during the anti-war stuff. For instance, it’s one thing to oppose the war on cogent or principled grounds, with a counter-argument, and another entirely to just want peace (as though it were so easy…) So even if the right intention did exist in this protest or that, the substance – the alternative – is missing.

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  7. It was also – and this is something you’ve missed – about validating a new and radical military doctrine: that it is acceptable to invade a country that does not pose a threat and is not threatening to attack the US purely on the basis that they may, at some future point, be able to attack the US. It is American exceptionalism on steroids.

    As usual, Katherine exaggerates and mistates the issue in accord with her overripe thirdworldism, which sees the US as a colonial/imperialist/neocolonial power bound to steal resources from the poor and wretched of the Earth and sees the consolidation of US “global power” as illegitimate. It’s a hard fact to assimilate, but the combination of US hard and soft power has done more to lift the “third” world out of despotism and poverty than any thirdwordism has ever done or is ever likely to do.

    The issue isn’t something as hyperbolic and overstated as “the US can invade anywhere.” Preemptive war is the same as a defensive war. There never has been any doubt as to the legitimacy of preemptive war. However, in the case of Iraq, no one can claim that it was preemptive since their was no imminent threat from that country—and Bush never did claim as much and in fact claimed that there was no such imminent threat. The issue was prevention of the threat posed by Iraq becoming imminent, where a preemptive war would have been legitimate according to any philosophy of just war. The US has no reason to invade “anywhere” as long as there are no threats to prevent.

    Before March 2003, the whole world—not just the evil neocons/Zionists—thought that Iraq had WMDs and that they wanted a nuclear weapon. That we didn’t find the WMDs is not material to this at all. The realities of today’s asymmetrical warfare make it imperative to prevent such threats from materializing—from becoming imminent—for the simple reason that once a nation—like Iraq before 2003—has such WMD/nuclear potential they cannot be deterred from making them available to jihadist organizations. These organizations have made it clear that they see the use of such weapons as legitimate in their global jihad.

    It’s not an attractive fact for thirdworldists like Katherine, but there is a global insurgency active today with the goal of imposing Islamic law everywhere. Their MO is asymmetrical warfare and the doctrine of prevention is but one attempt to deal with this asymmetrical threat. More needs to be done by our leaders to change our national security doctrines to deal with asymmetrical warfare but I’m glad to see that—when push comes to shove—Obama did the right thing by affirming the doctrine of prevention. My own personal hobby-horse here is that we should be using much more soft power than we are today. We should be calling upon Muslim states and Muslims worldwide to reciprocate the respect we give them—to assimilate the fact that the world works according to our rules now. This only means a certain respect for national sovereignty that the West acquired in the seventeenth century—the so-called Westphalian system. This only means respect for pluralism. It means that there will never be a worldwide ummah of Muslim believers under Islamic law to replace the Westphalian system.

    In contra ED Kain, this will be as lasting as the global insurgency fought by jihadists—as it should be. It’s one thing that has kept ED Kain and Katherine safe to offer their hyperbolic critiques of their nation’s use of power. It is not even similar in essence to the subversive operations we fought during the Cold War since it is openly stated and since geopolitics is so radically different today than it was then. For my part, I want my nation to have the most power that it can possibly have in the face of the jihadist threat. It doesn’t matter that today jihadists are not in a position to threaten our existence because that’s exactly where they want to be. Therefore we should be guided by doctrines that prevent this from even becoming a possibility, as we have been so far. Once it is possible, then it will simply be too late to stop the massive death and destruction that jihadists will wreak on us.

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  8. “It’s not an attractive fact for thirdworldists like Katherine, but there is a global insurgency active today with the goal of imposing Islamic law everywhere.”

    Oh, I’m quite aware they exist – I’m just also aware that they are a tiny number of people unsupported even by the vast majority of violent Islamists (most of whom are not internationally focused and interested in their own individual nations), not to mention the overwhelming majority of Muslims. I am aware that September 11th divided and weakened their movement, that their tactics of murdering civilians prevent them from gaining any substantial public support, and that we have nothing to gain and much to lose from exaggerating their strength. I am aware that “propaganda by the deed,” the method of using terrorist attacks to provoke blowback and repression in hopes of using a governments own actions to undermine it, is a tactic used by organizations who are losing and are at the end of their rope; choosing not to go by their playbook is the most effective way of destroying them.

    But thank you for your clear elucidation of neoconservative doctrine. It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with its arguments; I merely disagree with the assertion that the US has the right to use any means it considers necessary to prevent any threat to its global dominance from arising.

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  9. “However, in the case of Iraq, no one can claim that it was preemptive since their [sic] was no imminent threat from that country—and Bush never did claim as much and in fact claimed that there was no such imminent threat.”

    Roque, I have been considering the above and for the life of me I have no idea what your point is.

    It, the war, was not “preemptive” since there was no “imminent threat.” So where in god’s name does that leave us? You seem to be saying the war was unnecessary, “no Imminent threat,” Bush never claimed Iraq was an “imminent threat,” and yet he took the country to war.

    Just a whim? Help me out here. Please.

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  10. I merely disagree with the assertion that the US has the right to use any means it considers necessary to prevent any threat to its global dominance from arising.

    God! I hate it when people put words in my mouth. Where did you get the idea that I “asserted” the above? Where did you get the idea that anyone has asserted the above? As much as I’ve read about foreign and national security policy, I have yet to read anyone “asserting” such things. See what I mean about your use of hyperbole in the service of your rancid thirdworldism? To repeat—although I know it’s useless—I was explaining how I say we should respond to the threat posed by the global Islamist insurgency under asymmetric warfare. That is far from “any means, any threat, anywhere to any threat to global dominance” that you attribute to me. I was very clear in stating my preference for so-called soft power in this war. Please try and keep up.

    As for the rest, I’m confident that we can deal with non violent threats as we always have: with Shumpeter’s “creative destruction”-style capitalism. If that’s neoconservative doctrine, then so be it.

    You say you’re aware of the global Islamist insurgency. But then, you say it’s really not all that dangerous because it’s “unsupported” by the vast and overwhelming masses of Muslims, violent or not. So then, it’s a teeny-tiny global insurgency. Nothing to see here; just move on. Even if this were true—which it certainly is not—what would be wrong with “preventive” warfare against them? Why not defeat them while they’re so small and helpless? Why wait until their strength grows? Remember that they declared war on us, not the other way around.

    I’m sure that I am neo conservative if that means that I support my country’s global power. It’s an inheritance from our past—starting with Washington—who founded the modern US Navy—and Jefferson—who sent them to defeat the jihadists of the eighteenth century in Northern Africa. These two events together established the “freedom of the seas,” which allowed American business to go global. Even you can see how “freedom of the seas” benefits anyone at all who wants to do business in the world and doesn’t want to pay protection money—like European states were doing back in the eighteenth century—to jihadists. But it benefits us more because we have a gigantic head-start. It’s our job to preserve and protect this head-start that was gained by our forefathers. I think would be a crime to throw all this away for some multiculturalist/thirdworldist pie in the sky. I know that if we weren’t “dominating,” then some other country would be. The US, after all, is just after business opportunities. As long as one plays by the rules of business, one is free to come and go as one pleases and to think as one pleases. If I were Muslim or Arab, I’d prefer to be dominated—and even occupied—by this than by some sick enforcers of public morality of a religion like Islam.

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  11. Bob: I never said that the war was unnecessary because there was no imminent threat.

    I said it was necessary to prevent the threat from becoming imminent. I’m only restating Bush’s (and many others’) rationales circa 2002-03—especially in the aftermath of 9/11.

    This is what I understand to be the doctrine of preventive warfare—just one of many adaptations we must undergo to adapt to asymmetrical warfare.

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  12. Roque, there may be, probably are, good argument to be made for preemptive war but I really don’t see any such arguments that can be made regarding Iraq prior to invasion. With regard to asymmetrical warfare, what evidence would you offer to support the contention that Saddam was involved in such against the United States?

    In #7 you wrote, “Before March 2003, the whole world—not just the evil neocons/Zionists—thought that Iraq had WMDs and that they wanted a nuclear weapon.” But that is just false, and you know it. Even as rhetoric it is wrong.

    One last question. Is “restating” Bush rational really your best argument?

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  13. Bob:
    I really don’t get you. Wikipedia

    Preemptive war (or a preemptive strike) is waged in an attempt to repel or defeat a perceived inevitable offensive or invasion, or to gain a strategic advantage in an impending (allegedly unavoidable) war before that threat materializes. Preemptive war is often confused with the term preventive war.

    I said that preemptive war was considered just but I find upon reading the Wikipedia article that there is no real agreement on this. Wikipedia explains that there is a “tension” here because, even though one hasn’t been attacked, preemptive war is clearly defensive.

    I said that the Iraq war was not preemptive because there was no imminent threat from Iraq. I am not making the preemptive argument at all, nor has any evil neo con/Zionist/Jew.

    I said that the Iraq war was preventive: it was supposed to forestall an attack before it became imminent. Thus, if we consider only this element, the Iraq war was not just. However, there was a whole package of justifications for the war of which prevention was only one element. The most important among these elements is the fact that the Gulf War never really ended with Saddam’s defeat and the UNSC produced umpteen binding resolutions against him. Non compliance with any of these would justify an attack and Saddam failed to comply with all of them over many years. Also there was the fact of daily skirmishes in the no-fly zones and the reasonable prediction that one of these would escalate into all-out war, as Saddam fired upon our aircraft. The facts of asymmetrical warfare imply that a so-called rogue state like Saddam’s (or Iran today) can arm insurgent organizations with WMDs and thereby deny any participation in an eventual attack. Leaders responsible for national security cannot simply sit back and tell the people that their hands are tied by international law in the face of threats of this nature because they would lose elections (to consider only the practical side of politics). Therefore, they have to consider preventive attacks as a response if they’re responsible. At the time, I supported Bush’s decision to ask for Congressional authorization for an attack against Iraq and I supported the overwhelming votes in favor. I have seen nothing in the interim that would make me repudiate this. One has to consider what was known at the time the decision was made, not what has happened since. I don’t consider those that opposed the original decision to be unpatriotic or anything like that. I just consider them wrong. But I do consider those that have repudiated their votes or support since then as intellectual cowards. This is the main reason I supported Hillary for president. She showed a lot of guts there and I want a president with the guts to do the right thing.

    There were a lot of reasons to consider Saddam being part of terrorist networks and thus to consider his possession of WMDs to be a threat. He had held meetings with al Qaeda; after the Gulf War, Saddam had made a big effort to “Islamicize” his regime; he harbored known terrorists; al Qaeda in Iraq, under Zarqawi, was in Iraq after the invasion of Afghanistan; Ansar al Islam, another al Qaeda affiliate, was dug in in northern Iraq; etc etc. I’m just writing off the top of my head since I doubt that your questions are sincere.

    It is true that the whole world thought that Saddam had WMDs before the invasion. The only reason we now know he didn’t is because we invaded. The debate running up to the invasion was about containing Saddam not about whether he had WMDs or not. All this is common knowledge. Bush never said that Saddam had nuclear weapons but only that he was trying to acquire them. Various post-invasion investigations have borne this out. What was wrong with my rhetoric, according to you?

    I can’t answer the question, “Is ‘restating’ Bush rational really your best argument?” because I don’t understand what you’re trying to say. Talk about poor rhetoric!

    Like I said, I don’t think your questions are sincere. I think you already knew the answers before asking. You have deliberately misinterpreted me and I can’t imagine why. So now: what’s up with you? Spill your guts and tell me your own ideas instead of carping about my “rhetoric.”

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  14. Bob:
    The problem with your #1 is that you don’t show that the Iraq war was “unnecessary and contrived.” You have only shown that the evil neocons/Zionists/Jews advocated attacking Iraq—as early as 1997! But I have shown you reasons why it was necessary and not contrived. This means that—even back in 1997!—there were solid justifications for it.
    You say “the administration had a war with Iraq as a possibility” as early as 2001 as if this were damning evidence…of something. Don’t you want your national security leaders to develop war plans against sworn enemies like Saddam? What’s wrong with it? Do want them to sit around discussing stuff like a in graduate seminar until we’re actually invaded before developing war plans? Or what?

    Humor me: you can answer my questions like I answered yours (even the same damn question three times) forthrightly. Remember, you called me a liar [“But that is just false, and you know it.“] on the WMD question. I should be pissed about this, but I’m not. I just want to understand where you’re coming from and you’re not giving me any help.

    What’s wrong with my rhetoric?
    Why do you think that “the whole world thought that Saddam had WMDs before the invasion” is a lie?
    Why do you deliberately misinterpret me about the preemptive war question?
    Why is it wrong to say that Saddam was part of terrorist networks?
    What does “Is ‘restating’ Bush rational really your best argument?” mean?

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