After months of internal debate within the Bush administration — and in the media — over how the United States intends to remove Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq, the focus of deliberations has shifted. As military action appears more imminent, serious questions are suddenly being raised about the precise motives for removing the Iraqi regime by force. Critical questions are being asked, not just by Washington’s international allies, but more importantly by senior figures in Congress and by respected foreign policy experts. Republicans and Democrats alike, they are wondering publicly what exactly is driving the Bush team’s rush to war in Iraq.

For most of these critical voices, the issue is not regime change per se. Their comments are always couched in terms that make it clear that they share the administration’s assessment that the Iraqi government is beyond the pale and that the status quo is dangerous and unsustainable. The points of greatest contention are the Bush team’s preference for preemptive US military action — seemingly without seeking the approval of Congress — and the fear that Washington has no real plan for how to deal with the so-called “day after,” either in Iraq or in the Middle East more generally.

Faced with this growing barrage, senior officials — notably George W. Bush himself — are insisting that military action is not imminent, and that no final decision has been taken, despite the “frenzy” of speculation. At the same time, the Bush team has sought to make its case for a preemptive strike. In a clear example of this approach, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice painted the goal of removing the Iraqi regime as a “moral imperative” in the war against terrorism, arguing that Saddam Hussein was “evil,” and that if left to its own devices, the Baghdad government would develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that would ultimately threaten both the US and its allies in the Middle East. (1)

This security theme is likely to be repeated many times in the next few months as the US gears up for war. The administration will seek to provide evidence to Congress and the public — in statements and via leaks — of Iraq’s actual and potential WMD capacity. Drawing on elements of the new Bush Doctrine, the administration’s post-Afghanistan national security strategy that is designed to counter the dual threats of terrorism and WMD, officials will insist that the Iraqi regime poses a clear and present danger to the US, and needs to be eliminated — quickly.

Stoking Neo-Conservative Fires

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, this security argument is sure to resonate among the public. But preemptive military action will also represent a victory for neo-conservatives within the administration. After all, the need to remove Saddam Hussein’s government was an article of faith in parts of the Defense Department and the Office of the Vice President prior to the September 2001 attacks, and was pushed aggressively by neo-conservative commentators in the media. Iraq policy caused a very clear schism in the Bush team, reflecting fundamental differences of opinion over the conduct and objectives of foreign policy. In contrast to traditional realists who were pre-eminent in the State Department and many intelligence agencies, the neo-conservatives advocated an aggressive, unilateral approach to international affairs. Not for them the multilateral approach espoused by officials such as Secretary of State Colin Powell, which put an emphasis on coalition-building (although not to the extent of the internationalism pursued by the Clinton administration). Neo-conservatives argued that the US should use its unrivaled power to shape the international environment to suit its narrow interests, and to ensure US military and economic dominance for the foreseeable future.

On Iraq, neo-conservative officials — and their media cheerleaders — have been arguing for some time that Saddam Hussein’s regime needs to be toppled. Prominent neo-conservative figures such as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, his deputy Paul Wolfowitz and Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle were publicly calling for the Iraqi president’s head well before the Bush team took over. In their view, removing the Baghdad government is the only way to neutralize what they argue is a significant threat to the stability and security of US allies in the Middle East, and ultimately the US itself. Other approaches, whether containment through sanctions or a negotiated return of UN weapons inspectors, simply do not and will not work. Neo-conservatives have expressed disdain that non-military options were tried at all after 1991, making it clear that they regard letting the Iraqi regime off the hook during the Gulf war as a strategic mistake. The ease with which the Taliban government was routed in Afghanistan only stoked their fires, and they pushed regime change to the top of the foreign policy agenda.

A New Baghdad or a New Rome?

While there is no doubt that perceptions of security threats have changed significantly after September 11, the neo-conservative obsession with regime change in Iraq and the rush to war are nevertheless curious. Taken at face value, the rhetoric regarding the threat posed by Baghdad does not seem to match reality. The Iraqi regime is far weaker militarily than it was in 1991, when it was soundly beaten by US forces. Sanctions, containment and weapons inspections have taken their toll, and there is little to suggest that the regime poses an imminent threat to its neighbors or anyone else. In fact, the regime has taken considerable steps to improve ties with former foes in the Middle East, most of whom have come out against US military action. Baghdad’s rhetoric remains defiantly anti-American, but there is little bite to Baghdad’s bark.

Moreover, while weapons inspectors have not been allowed to return to the country after they were pulled out in 1998, the Iraqi regime clearly understands the concept of deterrence. Its use of non-conventional weapons during the eight-year war with Iran and against Iraqi Kurds is undisputed, but the regime used these weapons because it knew it could get away with it. When faced with the threat that using such weapons would lead to its certain demise — as Washington made clear to Baghdad in the prelude to the Gulf war — the Iraqi regime chose not to use its then considerable WMD arsenal, despite facing defeat on the battlefront. Nothing in the interim period suggests that survival is not still the Iraqi regime’s number one goal. Consequently, while the Bush administration claims that Iraq is rebuilding its WMD stockpile, there is little to indicate that deterrence is suddenly a useless strategy in confronting Iraq (and this extends to arming terrorist groups). Indeed, the only circumstance under which the Iraqi government might conceivably use its WMD capacity is if it is targeted directly by the US.

But the neo-conservative drive for regime change in Iraq has never simply been about security or regional stability, narrowly defined. For ideologues within the administration, the purpose of toppling the Baghdad government is something far broader and far more ambitious: it is about nothing less than changing the status quo in a region that is increasingly perceived by neo-conservatives as a hotbed for anti-US sentiment and terrorism. This thinking hit the headlines last month when media reports alleged that in a briefing on Saudi Arabia to the Defense Policy Board, RAND analyst Laurent Murawiec depicted the kingdom as a breeding ground for violent antipathy towards the US. According to press versions of the briefing, Murawiec argued that the House of Saud was “active at every level” of terrorism, and that the US should force radical political and economic reform on the Kingdom to counter the threat.

This theme is not a new one. President Bush alluded to it in general terms in his 2002 State of the Union address, when he insisted that there were a set of “non-negotiable demands of human dignity” that all states should meet. (2) The message was repeated by Paul Wolfowitz in a speech on bridging the gap between Islam and the West at the Asian Security Conference in Singapore in June. (3) On both occasions, the formal message was a simple one, namely that winning the war against terrorism requires that these “non-negotiable” demands — which included freedom, democracy and free enterprise — be met by all states. This idealism will certainly be tempered by a healthy dose of realism, but nevertheless, the underlying implication of the administration’s rhetoric is nothing short of revolutionary, suggesting that for the US to ensure its security, it needs to confront regimes and societies that do not conform to these criteria. Moreover, it is very evident that many senior officials, especially the neo-conservatives, see most Islamic states in the Middle East as the foremost candidates for change.

Viewed from this perspective, regime change in Iraq is not an end in itself, but a catalyst for much broader change, and the regional instability that a pre-emptive military attack could engender is not necessarily negative. Indeed, for neo-conservative proponents of regime change, replacing the Iraqi government by force with a democratic, pro-US administration is just the start. Regime change would demonstrate to the world Washington’s capabilities and resolve to use its power to push its own national security objectives, it would create a dependent and strategically located ally in the Middle East to go along with Israel, it would alter the strategic balance in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in favor of the former and it would cause a political ripple effect in the region that would lead to the downfall of a host of unsavory regimes that presently challenge US policies in the region. Neo-conservatives anticipate that precipitating a change in government in Baghdad will encourage — with US help — overwhelming popular pressure for political reform in the neighboring states, especially Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia, that will sweep away repressive governments and in so doing, fundamentally change the political map of the Middle East. What they seem to anticipate is the emergence of a region much like Eastern Europe in the 1990s — where a benign group of democratic states is focused not on regional conflicts and violence but on domestic reform and economic prosperity, and looks to the US for political and economic leadership.

Treasure Trove

But a key — if much overlooked — aspect of the pro-war worldview is oil and its centrality to the economies of many Middle Eastern states. Iraq’s oil potential is regarded by the neo-conservatives as a powerful weapon to be wielded in their crusade to reshape the political environment in the Middle East, affecting not just relations between oil-producing countries of the region and the United States, but the very nature of those countries themselves.

With proven reserves of over 110 billion barrels, Iraq’s treasure trove of oil is second only to Saudi Arabia’s, and this figure may underestimate Iraq’s production potential. For much of its modern history, political and commercial obstacles have conspired to hamper exploration and development in the country. Only during part of the 1950s and part of the 1970s was there any systematic focus on these activities. Consequently, there is optimism in the oil industry that considerable reserves await discovery.

Even if no more reserves were to be discovered, Iraq still has huge production potential once UN sanctions are lifted. Of the over 70 fields that have been discovered so far, only around 20 percent have actually been developed, and many of the remaining fields — eight of which contain over one billion barrels of reserves — harbor oil that would be cheap and easy to operate. Much will depend on the speed and volume of inward investment into the industry, but in the mid-1990s, the Ministry of Oil published a blueprint for developing the industry after sanctions. The plan, which Iraq estimated would cost $30 billion, anticipated increasing production capacity from the present three million barrels per day to six million within seven years of the UN embargo being lifted. Other experts have offered even more optimistic visions of Iraq’s future production potential, citing eventual figures of eight or even ten million barrels per day. (4)

While these latter figures seem exaggerated, an Iraq unrestrained by sanctions could have a large impact on the oil markets and on existing supply networks. Neo-conservatives in the administration are looking to take advantage of precisely this potential to push their agenda. Iraq would serve their purpose on a number of levels. Firstly, the growth in Iraqi oil production could further diminish the need for a strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia. Oil supply security has long underpinned the US-Saudi relationship, but the value of this relationship has been called into question of late, particularly since September 11. A US-allied government in Baghdad with something approaching the Kingdom’s production capacity would offer a legitimate long-term strategic supply alternative, leaving the administration room to pursue its broader political agenda without compromise. Moreover, a US-allied Iraq could work with Russia and other emerging oil producers in the Caspian and West Africa to undercut the power of OPEC and its influence over oil prices, on the assumption that a US-backed Iraq would first leave the organization. At the very least, Iraq could pursue an unrestrained production strategy that undermined the organization�s price manipulation from within.

The impact of rising Iraqi oil production on OPEC and oil prices is a second and equally important benefit of regime change for neo-conservatives. Rapid growth in Iraqi capacity, at a time when global demand is growing slowly, while non-OPEC supply continues to rise and OPEC capacity continues to grow will leave the organization’s members, particularly in the Persian Gulf, facing a range of equally unpalatable choices. OPEC can either cut back its production in order to keep prices at their present levels, or — as is more likely — member states can fight with Iraq, non-OPEC states and each other to secure increased market share as supplies increase. Either way, the financial impact on OPEC budgets will be severe, putting the Gulf states — which rely primarily on oil revenues to fund their budgets — under considerable economic strain. Neo-conservatives hope that this pressure, combined with the political fallout of regime change in Iraq, will be sufficient to force either fundamental reform of the Gulf regimes, or their removal by disgruntled populations as the regimes find themselves incapable of delivering on the social contract that underpins their fragile legitimacy.

Painted into a Corner

The neo-conservative agenda is likely to be the dominant force shaping the Bush team�s policy towards Iraq. Whether by choice or by accident, George W. Bush has painted himself into a corner with his tough rhetoric on the need for regime change. As Richard Perle’s comments linking the Bush’s credibility to successful regime change made clear to the White House and everyone else, the neo-conservatives are not about to give up after finally gaining the upper hand. (5) Only Congress and the military appear to stand in the neo-conservatives’ way, and ultimately neither will be an insurmountable obstacle.

US military action against Iraq, some time in late 2002 or early 2003, seems increasingly likely, but the neo-conservative agenda is not completely secure. While the US military enjoys overwhelming superiority, securing the peace on the “day after” in a manner that suits Washington’s hawks is far from guaranteed. The administration appears to have given insufficient thought thus far to this issue. A host of surprises are possible and indeed likely. The fallout in the rest of the Middle East could be very different than what the neo-conservatives presently envisage, and countries like Saudi Arabia could come to be seen as important guarantors of stability rather than sources of insecurity. At the same time, the oil picture is likely to be more complicated than what the neo-conservatives perceive. A future Iraqi government may not be quite so friendly to the US, sanctions may not be lifted quite so quickly and investment in the industry may lag behind the most optimistic scenarios. The real world is far more messy, the future far more unpredictable and the process of change is rarely as simplistic as ideologues like to think.


 [1]  Washington Post, August 16, 2002.

 [2]  Accessible online at

 [3]  Accessible online at

 [4] See, for example, Fadhil Chalabi, “Iraq and the Future of World Oil,” Middle East Policy 8/4 (October 2000).

 [5]  See Perle quoted in the New York Times, August 16, 2002.

How to cite this article:

Raad Alkadiri, Fareed Mohamedi "Washington Makes Its Case for War," Middle East Report 224 (Fall 2002).

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