U.S Military Intervention in Iraq

The 2003 U.S military intervention in Iraq is one of the most extensively studied, researched, and critiqued military endeavors in IR academia. It has become infamous as a model for how and when not to intervene. The initial multilateral intervention began in March 2003 and lasted just over a month. However, the fallout of the intervention was the long drawn out Iraq War which lasted almost 9 years, the consequences of which are far reaching. The war caused the death of around 500,000 Iraqis (compared to around 4,500 American soldiers and military contractors), displaced more than 2.3 million Iraqis and cost nearly $2 trillion (Finer 2019). This paper is an analysis of the war split into three sections. The first looks to place the Iraq War and its initial objectives within the various theoretical frameworks about interventions. The second section synthesizes existing literature to analyze three major ground realities that the U.S administration ignored while assessing a post-Saddam Iraq. The last section makes a case for three major consequences of the intervention, with regards to the current state of world affairs. By doing so, this paper aims to understand why the U.S intervened and who stood to benefit from it turning into an all-out war.

Part I: Taking the Nation to War

The question of why nations intervene has changed throughout history. Westphalian sovereignty has resulted in wars of conquest/debt collection being viewed as amoral (Finnemore 2004, 1). In the case of Iraq, establishment of democracy in Iraq through an intervention was expected to create a chain reaction in the Middle East. Much like the Domino Effect, but for democracy. This was the first objective for the intervention that had been propounded by top neo-conservative policy makers including Dick Chaney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz who had all been lobbying for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein since the Clinton Presidency (Fergeson 2008). They supposedly operated based on a defensive realist framework that looked to assert U.S hegemony (Blackstone 2016) in the middle east. However, that was not enough to take the country to war. Contemporary norms of intervention dictated that interventions be multilateral and prove the existence of a credible threat to international peace and world order (Finnemore 2004, 4) in order to gain legitimacy both at home and abroad.

This brings us to the second objective of the intervention, to neutralise the threat posed by the Weapons of Mass destruction possessed by Saddam. This was later proved to be based on manufactured and at best, inaccurate intelligence. This act of the administration must be understood through what Finnemore calls strategic social construction (2004, 5) where the government influences public opinion to support its use of force. This was reflected in polls immediately after the intervention where 72% of Americans said that they supported the intervention (Newport 2003). Therafter, it was sold as a preventive intervention, against the threat of WMDs, and a nation-building intervention, to neutralise the threat once and for all. However, this was still not enough to justify an intervention in Iraq.

When trying look at how the U.S intervention can be theoretically understood, it is also important to acknowledge how the guidelines provided by theory played a role in justifying and selling the intervention to the American public and international community at large. The terms and objectives of the intervention were moulded by top U.S officials (Blackstone 2016, under “Theoretical Framework of Marxism”) to tick certain boxes as per international norms. The Jus Ad Bellum Convention (Kretzmer, 246), is one such internationally recognised benchmark to determine legitimacy of interventions. It says that a country must have Just Cause to go to war with/ intervene in another. Pre-emptive self-defence is one such condition that makes an intervention just. Pre-emption differs from prevention in that it indicates credible intelligence of an imminent threat requiring immediate action, which negates the possibility of peaceful settlement. This is the first of two requirements put forth by the Caroline test, in addition to the response being proportionate to the threat (Kretzmer, 247). A balance which the administration achieved by inflating the threat of WMDs (Pollack 2017, under “Ignorance and Arrogance”).

A crucial moment that shifted the balance of power towards those who lobbied for intervention were the September 11 attacks (Blackstone 2016, under “Theoretical Framework of Defensive Realism”). This was a black swan event that shaped U.S foreign policy afterwards. The Bush administration initiated its War on Terror. The American public felt threatened now more than ever, and it was easy for proponents of the intervention to direct this animosity towards Afghanistan and Iraq, claiming that Saddam was harbouring terrorists (an erroneous claim, of course). Predictably, this brought the U.S congress to a critical juncture. Excessive unwillingness to intervene would have made the public question the need for maintaining a modern military establishment (Haas 1994), a sentiment that would not sit well with the military industrial complex who spend billions lobbying congress (Blackstone 2016). Therefore, we arrive at the third objective of the intervention: to fight the Global War on Terror in Iraq. A narrative which basically strong-armed congress into supporting the intervention.

Therefore, the notion that the Bush administration discovered ground realities to not be conducive for achieving the initial objectives is a fallacy. The stated objectives were never intended to acknowledge ground realities, instead, they were merely tools used to shape public opinion and gain international legitimacy. They had succeeded in taking the nation to war, now they had to strategize it.

This is where President George W. Bush’s role as a leader becomes important. In the run up to the 2000 elections, Bush made clear his disdain for nation-building and his preference for a surgical attack (Saunders 2013) that would simply replace Saddam with Ahmed Chalabi, an exiled leader of the Iraqi National Congress. Chalabi supported the agenda of privatising Iraqi Oil after the intervention, which might explain his candidacy for heading a post-Saddam Iraq. It was naïve to think that Chalabi was actually a pro-democracy advocate or that he had enough popular support and political clout to administer Iraq. A political exile will make whatever alliances necessary to get back to their country (Walt 2012, under “Lesson #5”).

Just after the September 11 attacks, the U.S state department brought together 200 Iraqi experts to strategize a post-Saddam Iraq. The resulting report was 1200 pages long and contained strategies for post-war reconstruction, an analysis of complex ground realities and possible issues that might arise (Hassen 2006). The report called for an interim period of U.S administration in Iraq, during which leaders with popular support would naturally emerge. The Bush administration never read the report, as the President and his close circle of advisors believed that a transformative intervention was not necessary (Ferguson 2008). The impact of this dissonance in the administration’s strategy and ground realities resulted in the failure of the intervention even before it began.

Part II: Himalayan Blunders

            The ground realities that the administration ignored can be clubbed into three main categories. The first is failure to acknowledge the need to increase troop levels after the initial intervention and throughout the entire duration of the war to ensure functioning of the state machinery. This was a result of the stubbornness of the administration and its failure to acknowledge the need for extensive post war reconstruction and the difficulties of creating a new government. This is the second factor overlooked by the administration. The third ground reality that the administration overlooked was the extent and significance of the sectarian divide within Iraq. These three problems cannot be looked at in isolation as one mistake feeds into the other at every turn.

            Statistics for the troop levels varies drastically depending on whether one is only referring to U.S boots on the ground in Iraq or including troops supporting from stations in other middle eastern countries, military contractors, and coalition forces. However, for the purpose of this paper, the relevant statistic is the sum total of coalition forces from the U.S, Britain and military contractors on ground in Iraq. The initial invasion force consisted of around 170,000 troops, who along with support from the 70,000 strong Kurdish Peshmerga defeated the Iraqi Army after around 40 days of fighting. However, it was running the nation afterwards that proved to be a greater strain on the available manpower; one that the subsequent troop deployments never resolved (Figure 1).

Confirming the State Department’s warnings, the immediate period after the invasion saw rampant increase in crime and the gutting of all governmental offices (Hassen 2006). Everything from furniture, to critically important machinery was stolen, resulting in the collapse of basic services such as electricity, water and healthcare. Museums that were home to centuries of Iraqi history were looted and destroyed, while the American troops stood by and let it happen. The only government building that was protected against looting was the Ministry of Oil (Jehl).

The people of Iraq are being promised a new future and they will expect immediate results. The credibility of the new regime and the United States will depend on how quickly these promises are translated to reality.
– Working Group on Transparency and Anti-corruption, Future of Iraq Project (Hassen 2006)

This indifference disillusioned Iraqis with respect to the democratic eutopia that was promised to them by the United States. Iraqis were in a worse place with the U.S administering Iraq than under Saddam, unemployment levels skyrocketed. The lack of adequate troops also allowed weapons stockpiles of the former Iraqi army to be looted. Ironically, these weapons would be used against the U.S troops by insurgents later on.

            The insurgency was a result of the failure of the government in acknowledging the extent of sectarian divide in Iraq. Under Saddam, who was a Sunni Muslim, membership in the Ba’ath party was a pre-requisite to be a government servant in Iraq. Therefore, the party members ended up being predominantly Sunni, putting them at odds with the majority of Iraqis who were Shiite. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) under Paul Bremer wanted to gain the support of the Shiite majority and therefore started an extensive campaign of De-Ba’athification throughout Iraq (Pollack). Ba’athists, made up the bulk of the leadership and talent within the nation. Most of them were just regular working-class people who were trying to survive in the autocratic regime. This resulted in loss of important talent and personnel for the interim government. These factors allowed powerful Shiites to take control of the state machinery in their regions making it difficult for the CPA to establish a functioning government later without interference from these individuals (Pollack 2017).

Another critical mistake made by the U.S Officials was to disband the Iraqi army. Both the State Department and the U.S army wanted the Iraqi army to be used to enforce martial law, but Bremer felt that they would be disloyal. This decision made 500,000 armed and trained men unemployed, most of whom ended up joining the burgeoning Sunni insurgency (Pollock 2017). Ironically, the U.S troops found themselves undermanned to handle the resultant insurgency. U.S. troop deployment even during the 2008 surge maxed out at around 170,000 troops. The coalition forces and the new Iraqi army added at most 100,000 to this figure. Richard Haas’ proposes in his book that overwhelming force at the beginning stages of the intervention is most effective in neutralizing threat permanently (1999). Official State Department estimates pegged the number of troops required for an effective counterinsurgency operation at 450,000 (Pollack 2017), which the U.S was just not willing to put up. This meant that the insurgency would continue to hinder the nation-building building agenda right up until the withdrawal of troops in 2011.

Regardless of the insurgencies, post war nation building efforts were fundamentally flawed. Under Saddam, political opposition was crushed and exiled. This meant that there was a dearth of credible leadership who actually represented the interests of the Iraqi people. Instead of allowing a bottom-up process where leaders would naturally emerge from among the population, U.S officials rushed to create an Iraqi Governing Council and nominated powerful Iraqis (only Shiites) whom they personally knew to run it under the supervision of Bremer. These members used their positions of power to shore up support and control over their constituencies. They had no interest in giving up their power to create a truly democratic nation-state. (Pollock 2017) These mistakes would prove to be irreversible and surrender Iraq to anarchy and sectarian violence that persists till date.


            Insurgency and militias continued to plague Iraq throughout the duration of the war. Contrary to the initial objective, U.S presence in the region strengthened recruitment for terrorist outfits like Al-Qaeda and the Taliban (Brands 2019). It also initiated the sectarian violence in Iraq that would eventually give rise to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (now ISIS), who waged war against Iraq for the injustices done to Sunnis under the new government. ISIS has since taken the mantle as one of the most notorious terrorist organizations in the world. More than 30% of ISIS leadership are former soldiers of the disbanded Iraqi Army (Thompson 2015). They grew out of the Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (Zelin 2014), one of the many insurgent groups that the U.S intervention created and also failed to effectively neutralize. Presently, they are one of the biggest factors contributing to an unstable middle east. This is one of the major consequences of the intervention.

            The humanitarian crisis in Iraq was another, and perhaps the most important consequence of the war. Iraq is a now a war-torn country of widows/widowers, orphans (of which there are 4.5 million thanks to the war) and the unemployed. U.S counterinsurgency attacks on cities like Falluja used white phosphorous shells: an internationally banned incendiary weapon (Cockburn 2010). There have also been reports of the U.S forces using depleted uranium shells, which have increased rates of cancer and birth defects which are still visible in Falluja. Human Rights abused by the U.S forces was rampant, according to an analysis in The New York Times of almost 400,000 documents disclosed by Wikileaks about the war. The documents revealed cases of American soldiers killing prisoners of war, Iraqi civilians and in one case, killing the platoon’s interpreter after mistaking him for an enemy (Tavernise and Andrew 2010). This turned out to be a case of racial profiling, where an individual was shot just because he was a military age male. This was not an isolated instance, but reflects a larger exploitation of plausible deniability that is available during the chaos of war. Eventually, it was the exposé of human rights abuses in Abu Gharib shook the American public and received international criticism. Infrastructure in Iraq has been in shambles since the invasion with basic services such as healthcare, water and electricity still not available to a large portion of the country. However, the psychological impact of the war is often forgotten in the midst of this. Wars cause psychological trauma on the collective psyche of an entire nation that persists through multiple generations. Culture, tradition and history are all scarred by the violence. For instance, the museums that were looted housed a significant portion of the heritage and history of the Iraqi people. PTSD and depression statistics cannot capture this kind of psychological suffering (Behrouzan 2013).

            The final consequence of the Iraq war was the economic cost. Iraqi oil production actually got to its lowest after the invasion. For an economy that depends on oil for 99% of its revenue, this wasn’t good. However, over the next few years, oil production got up to levels higher than before the invasion (Calamur 2018). The rhetoric among the proponents of the invasion before 2003 was that the war would pay for itself. However, the American taxpayer also paid the between $1.7 trillion and $3 trillion in direct and indirect costs according to the RAND Corporation (Jenkins 2013). This did not cause the 2008 financial crisis, but certainly made it worse for the American public. Some estimates also put the accumulated costs over the next four decades at $6 trillion, considering benefits that accrue to war veterans (Jenkins 2013). All this begs the question of who actually benefited from the Iraq war.

            Viewing the invasion of Iraq through a Marxist lens makes evident the role of aggressive capitalist expansion that aimed to secure the oil fields of Iraq for American enterprise (Blackstone 2016). The plan from the very beginning was to privatize the Iraqi Oil industry, which is one of the reasons Chalabi was chosen to replace Saddam. There is a case to be made that the U.S government, dominated by capitalist elites, was used to militarily intervene in Iraq to secure capitalist interests. This is supported by the fact that the Ministry of Oil was the only government building protected after the invasion (Jehl 2016). The military industrial complex of the Bush administration was the biggest profiteer of the war (Blackstone 2016). Several members of the Bush administration were set to profit from the war. Government contracts for the invasion and post war reconstruction were awarded in a closed selection process, of which Halliburton was one of the largest contract winners. Shares of Halliburton – which was formerly Dick Chaney’s company and in which he still held stock options – increased in value by 230% in the three months following the invasion (Darity 2009). The war was expensive not because it needed to be, but because the people making the decision to spend the taxpayer’s money, and the people receiving the money were one and the same.

            U.S policy makers consistently seem to make boneheaded decisions which only worsen U.S national interest and harm international peace and order. This is not because they refused to listen to the experts, this is not because they learnt the wrong lessons from previous wars as Jon Finer theorizes (2019), and this is certainly not because they, as neo-conservative realists, think they know what is best for the U.S. They knew what they were doing was going against U.S national interest. Therefore, the reason for the invasion of Iraq can be understood as a purely self-interested act of the capitalist elites of the Bush administration in nexus with the U.S military industrial complex.


Figure 1

Source: CNN (Graphic), U.S Defence Department (Data)


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