(An excerpt from American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, 2005)

The roots of this ongoing conflict, a war which has raged at various levels of intensity from 1990 to the present, lie in the early twentieth century, when then colonial power Great Britain created from the ruins of the Ottoman empire the artificial nation of “Iraq.” At the urging of Winston Churchill, then Secretary for War and Air Minister, Britain cobbled together three disparate provinces—Mesopatamia, Mosul, and Basra. Two incompatible cultures (Arab and Kurdish) and two hostile strains of Islam (Sunni and Shi’ite) were thus placed side-by-side in one country to be ruled as a British “mandate” by a Jordanian-born monarch, King Faisal. Like other recently created composite states, such as Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, Iraq faced an uncertain future, having been created to suit the purposes not of its resident populations, but those of distant empire-builders. In this case, British policymakers wished to secure access to the region’s oil—hedging their bets by slicing off another oil-rich region, which they erected as the Emirate of Kuwait.

Iraq achieved nominal independence in 1930, and its Anglophile monarchy survived until 1958, when secular Arab nationalists overthrew its relatively liberal oligarchy and established one of the Cold War world’s many postcolonial dictatorships. In 1963, the Ba’athist Party seized control, setting the stage for Machiavellian upstart soldier Saddam Hussein to claw his way to power during the next ten years. He would maintain control by ruthless bloodletting and purges modeled on Stalin’s Great Terror.

Unlike Islamic monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, the Ba’athist regime granted tolerance to Christians and some other minorities (Jews had been expelled in 1950) and access to education for women. And the U.S. maintained moderately good relations with Hussein, who triangulated between the West and the Soviet bloc in order to maximize foreign aid from both. In 1980, with the support of other Sunni regimes in the region and the Reagan administration, all of whom had been fearing a general Shi’ite uprising after the 1979 overthrow of the Shah, Hussein declared war on Iran,.

This inconclusive war, which ended in 1988, was devastating to both countries, leaving between 500,000 and one million people dead and both regimes economically drained. In 1990, Hussein sought to make up the financial aid promised (but still undelivered) by neighboring Sunni regimes by raising the price of his country’s only significant export, oil. Iraq’s tiny, autocratically ruled, pro-American neighbor Kuwait refused to cooperate by diminishing production. Hussein therefore invaded Kuwait in August 1990, displaying his typical bloody-mindedness toward the local population. Almost the entire Arab world, with the exception of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, condemned Hussein’s attack—a fact which helped George H. W. Bush organize a multilateral coalition, with U.N. support, to invade and liberate Kuwait in February 1991, restoring its emir to power. While significant voices (e.g., Patrick Buchanan, Russell Kirk, Pope John Paul II) opposed the U.S.-led invasion, it was widely supported across the political spectrum and generally considered a success. Yet some supporters of the war were bitterly disappointed that President Bush had not “finished the job” and invaded Iraq in order to depose Hussein.

The U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 1991 was conditioned on a strict regime of sanctions and no-fly zones, which rendered the Kurdish regions of Iraq virtually autonomous and successfully crippled Hussein’s efforts to obtain advanced weaponry, but also exacted a fearsome toll on the country’s civilian population, crippling an economy already hobbled by Hussein’s wasteful expenses on militarism and palaces. When Clinton administration secretary of state Madeleine Albright was confronted with international estimates that these sanctions had caused the deaths of one half million Iraqi children, she answered, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it.”

This situation would continue to fester, as Iraq sought to evade and undermine sanctions and hawkish American politicians of both parties looked for a pretext under which to unseat Hussein, who had been transformed from a distasteful ally into an inveterate enemy of American interests. In a crass attempt to cast himself as a new “Saladin” fighting against “Zionists and Crusaders,” Hussein had begun to pay bounties to the survivors of suicide bombers who targeted civilians in restaurants and buses inside Israel. In response, American neoconservatives Douglas Feith and David Wurmser, working for the Israeli government in 1996, produced a strategic proposal called “Securing the Realm,” which envisioned invading Iraq and toppling Hussein as a stepping stone towards regional dominance.

After this plan, adapted for American purposes, began to be kicked around in conservative circles in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, leading libertarians and “realist” conservatives who questioned this line of argument found themselves tarred as defeatist “unpatriotic conservatives” by Canadian émigré (and former Bush speechwriter) David Frum. Neoconservative columnist (and Soviet émigré) Max Boot rankled many with his complaint that U.S. forces had conquered Afghanistan too cheaply, without inuring Americans to the loss of life necessary to transforming the Middle East into a democratic, pro-Western region. Thus, the build-up to war deepened divisions between traditional conservatives and libertarians on the one hand, and Jacksonian nationalists and neoconservatives on the other—as Francis Fukuyama would later observe.

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, Bush administration officials worked hard to find a direct connection between Hussein’s regime and al-Qaeda—in part because, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously said, there were “no good targets in Afghanistan,” the state which actually harbored Osama bin Laden and his minions. The drumbeat for war echoed loudly in a nation traumatized by the slaughter of civilians and the destruction of national landmarks; it was fed by assertions (later discredited) by neoconservative analysts such as Laurie Mylroie that Hussein had also been implicated in the first (1993) attack on the World Trade Center, the Oklahoma City bombings of 1994, and the 9/11 atrocities. Bush administration officials such as Condoleeza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney and the president himself blanketed receptive media with warnings about the advanced state of Iraq’s programs for “weapons of mass destruction”—a term which lumped together battlefield weapons such as mustard gas shells with weaponized anthrax and nuclear bombs. “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” Rice warned Americans in January 2003.

Pointing to Iraq’s resistance (until the eleventh hour) to extensive U.N. inspections, the Bush administration prepared for war. A dramatic, if factually flawed, presentation by one-time war skeptic Secretary of State Colin Powell did not persuade the international body. A French veto on the United Nations Security Council did not slow war preparations, though it did provoke a brief eruption of hostility toward America’s oldest ally on the part of nationalist commentators. America ate its first “freedom fries” in March 2003.

In lieu of a broad coalition with U.N. support such as marked the U.S. invasion in 1991, the Bush administration won large-scale military support from Great Britain and token contingents from several friendly governments in Europe and the developing world. The “Coalition of the Willing” invaded Iraq in March 2003. Iraqi resistance collapsed quickly, echoing neoconservative predictions that the invasion would prove a “cakewalk.” U.S. troops captured Baghdad on April 9, 2003. Saddam Hussein himself would be captured in December and imprisoned for future trial. However, a series of disastrous postwar moves—including the decision to disband the Iraqi army and the failure to commit enough troops to secure the entire country against Sunni insurgents—prevented the pacification of the country.

The once-dominant Sunni minority, led by officers and veterans of its former army, reacted to the prospect of rule by Iraq’s Shi’ite majority and permanent autonomy for its Kurdish region by creating an effective insurgency throughout large sections of the country, an insurgency that continues unabated as of publication. The country’s first democratic election was boycotted by Sunnis, who mostly opposed the draft constitution written by the winning factions. Fighting between rival Shi’ite factions, the prospect of Kurdish secession, the increasing influence of neighboring Iran among Shi’ite parties, and the total unreliability of the newly recruited Iraqi security forces continued to bedevil occupying forces. Furthermore, the policy favored by the United States—a firmly united Iraq, with minor concessions to federalism—was supported mainly by America’s enemies, the Sunni minority, while America’s allies among the Shi’ites and Kurds actually opposed U.S. policy, seeking a loose confederation.

Popular support for the Anglo-American occupation—and recruitment for the U.S. military—declined steadily as casualties mounted. The justifications offered for the war mostly proved unfounded, as U.S. intelligence discovered no significant weapons programs or links to al-Qaeda or other anti-American terrorists. This did not prevent popular nationalistic commentators from reiterating exploded claims to the contrary—leading some to compare their fixation to that of the French Right in the early twentieth century, which had continued to assert for decades, against all evidence, the guilt of Col. Alfred Dreyfus. Whether the nationalist Right in America will suffer a comparable loss of moral credibility is an open question.

The remaining rationale for occupying Iraq—effecting a “democratic transformation” of the region by creating the second Arab democracy (after Lebanon)—now stands as the only justification for the war. Conservative critics of the administration point to the likelihood that establishing democratic governments in nations with strong Islamist movements is more likely to increase terrorist activities than to suppress them.

Books on the Iraq War and foreign affairs may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThis excerpt appears here by permission of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

Further reading:

Bacevich, Andrew J. The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Cerf, Christopher and Sifry, Micah, eds. The Iraq War Reader: History, Documents, Opinion. New York: Touchstone, 2003.

Keegan, John: The Iraq War. New York: Knopf, 2004.

Scheur, Michael: Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror. Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, 2004.

See also: Bush, George W., Gulf War, War on Terror

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