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Not Out of the Desert, Yet

12 Aug 2015
Laurens J. Visser
Service members fly flags over Saddam's destroyed palace for 9/11 remembrance day. Photo Credit: Flickr (DVIDSHUB) Creative Commons.

Laurens J. Visser responds to Tom Switzer’s recent article “The Spectre of Iraq Haunts the Republicans” published in Australian Outlook on July 24 2015.

United States presidential candidates from both sides will need to confront Iraq once again in 2016, and it will not be for the first time in recent history that a president will have to revisit the lessons of United States foreign policy towards Iraq.

The spectre of Iraq haunts Americans, not just Republicans, and the echo of United States foreign policy towards Iraq since the end of the Cold War means that the spectre of Iraq should be near terrifying for any incoming administration, regardless of political persuasion.

This contemporary American obsession with Iraq begins with the end of the Cold War and under the leadership of George H. W. Bush. Before Bush, Iraq was just another proxy in a longstanding conflict against Moscow-dominated communism in the Middle East. Iraq, in US policy, only existed as far as it registered in the national interest. In this case, encouraging favourable relations with Iraq helped the state wage war with Iran and push back against Soviet influence in the region. This was the Cold War as it had raged for 40 years, and George H. W. Bush was shaped by it. He was, after all, Vice President to Ronald Reagan from 1981 to 1989.

For Bush, inaugurated as President in 1989, Iraq was a serviceable ally that guaranteed a degree of stability in a resource dense region. Not even allegations that Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s president since 1979, had used chemical weapons against his local Kurdish population in 1988 could sway the administration to alter United States policy towards Iraq. In fact, National Security Directive 26, released in October 1989, recommitted the United States to pursuing an economic relationship with Iraq.

But outward aggression was a step too far. The annexation of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990, in a region that required stability, demanded a response from Bush. Initially, Bush demanded that the Iraqi troops marching into Kuwait turn around and march back the way they came. When Saddam called Bush’s bluff, he turned to the only forum available that could confer authority over such an international crisis, the United Nations, and began a protracted march of his own towards war with Iraq.

Bush’s formative, post-Cold War foreign policy agenda was ended prematurely when he failed in his re-election bid in 1992, and United States foreign policy towards Iraq, which prioritised dismantling, diminishing, and eradicating Saddam’s capabilities as Iraq’s leader was bequeathed to Democrat, Bill Clinton.

The tools that Clinton had at his disposal were the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), which was verifying and destroying Iraqi weapons of mass destruction; the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which was dismantling Iraq’s nuclear capabilities; and a no-fly zone imposed across Iraqi airspace in order to police Iraqi behaviour and ensure compliance. For Clinton, these were useful non-interventionist tools. They were cheap, in both treasure and blood, when compared to ground troops. However, as a result of these tools, Iraq did not subside from United States foreign policy. Instead, it persisted, and Clinton added his own twist.

By 1998, UNSCOM weapons inspectors, concerned about undocumented unilateral destruction of weapons by Iraqi authorities, would not declare that Iraq had wholly disarmed. Even the IAEA recommended ongoing monitoring of possible nuclear activities to ensure compliance. As neither of these conclusions satisfied the demand that Iraq completely disarm, the punitive sanctions that had been applied in 1991, remained. Of more concern to United States policymakers, who wished to see a change in Iraqi behaviour under the strict constraints of containment, was Saddam who lingered as leader and seemed wholly unaffected by the pressure imposed by the United Nations, despite the effect of sanctions on the Iraqi people.

The impasse between weapons inspectors and Iraq culminated in Iraq withdrawing from weapons inspections altogether. In response, Clinton launched punitive airstrikes against Iraqi targets. Amidst the fiery defiance of Saddam, and the literal fire from the United States air force, the United States Congress passed the Iraqi Liberation Act of 1998. Clinton gladly signed the act into law, committing the United States to a policy of removing Saddam from power in Iraq and “to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime.”

In 2001, it was not a Democrat that returned to the White House but, instead, a Republican, and another Bush at that. George W. Bush embraced this build-up of United States policy towards Iraq. The foremost priority, handed over by Clinton, was confronting Saddam’s leadership. Far from embarking immediately upon an ill-advised military endeavour, Bush’s administration began by canvassing options and evaluating United States policy towards Iraq, considering everything from additional sanctions to a military strike.

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, United States foreign policy changed drastically, compelled by fear. Threats now had to be pre-empted. Intentions, wherever they existed, were now just as dangerous as capabilities. Al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden, was an easy first target. He was open with his intentions to attack the United States from his hideout in Afghanistan, and Afghanistan incurred the wrath of unrestrained American power as a consequence.

Saddam was similarly an easy target. The decision to go to war with Iraq in 2003, to confront Saddam, to dismantle his leadership, to disarm Iraq, were all aims of United States foreign policy towards Iraq since the end of the Cold War.

More specifically, with renewed weapons inspections failing to declare complete and unconditional disarmament in Iraq (besides the IAEA, who had evaluated Iraq’s industrial capacity in 2003, after a decade of sanctions, as below 1980s levels and far from the capacity required to support nuclear research), with sanctions undermined by both Iraq and United Nations members, and with Saddam unflinchingly and mockingly seated as president of Iraq, Bush was set on fulfilling the stated policy objectives of the United States. Bush’s twist on United States policy towards Iraq added the justification of securing United States national security, a result of September 11, 2001.

Bush did accomplish one policy goal as a result of his war with Iraq. Capturing Saddam at the end of 2003, and later allowing the provisional Iraqi government to hang the deposed Iraqi leader, meant that the United States had fulfilled its objective to see Saddam replaced. However, it was not enough to simply excise Saddam from Iraq. United States policy was also committed to a democratic government in his place.

Bush would contend with his decision to go to war with Iraq for the remainder of his presidency. The surge of troops into Iraq in 2007, the devolution of the conflict into sectarian civil war, the atrocities of Abu Ghraib, the missing weapons of mass destruction, these were all consequences of Bush’s policy decisions, and they were all instances that forced a change in the United States stance towards Iraq. The priority was no longer confronting Saddam – it was simply stabilising Iraq. This soon moved to policing Iraq. By 2008, the priority was to leave Iraq altogether.

Barack Obama, campaigning in 2008 on the promise of change, turned to Iraq yet again for political leverage. Obama stressed the cost of Bush’s foray into Iraq and promised to bring American troops home by 2011, a policy that was already established by Bush. Obama also emphasised disengagement from Iraq as an example of United States foreign policy in the region.

With the rise of Islamic State militants running rampant across Northern Iraq, and Kurdish militia refortifying their claims to their autonomous region in Iraq, Obama’s withdrawal of American forces from Iraq in 2011 is already seen as premature. That all-important stability can be seen slipping from the grip of United States foreign policy towards Iraq, yet again. Already, in 2014, we can see the evidence of a slow creep of American forces back into Iraq in an attempt to consolidate order.

It is obvious that the spectre of Iraq has haunted United States foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. Stability, governance, even prestige, are all intertwined and are driving factors in any effort to intervene, engage, or withdraw from Iraq. Regardless of who the presidential candidates will be for 2016, Iraq will be a focus, once again. The reality of United States foreign policy towards Iraq, past and present, is that they are not out of the desert, yet.

Laurens J. Visser received his PhD in International Relations from RMIT University, where he researched a comparative history of the United States decision to go to war with Iraq in 1991 and 2003. At present, he is a sessional tutor and lecturer in the International Studies program at RMIT. This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence.