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Iraq and the Pathologies of Primacy: The Flawed Logic that Produced the War is Alive and Well

Author: Stephen Wertheim

Affiliation: the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Visiting Lecturer at Yale Law School and Catholic University 

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs 

Date/Place: March 13, 2023/ USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article 

Words Count: 5793


Keywords: United States, Iraq War, 9/11 Attacks, Al Qaeda  



The article discusses the real quest behind the US invasion of Iraq, its repercussions on the nation, and its role in shaping the international reality today. The United States invaded Iraq 20 years ago, spending a decade trying to rebuild it, and another decade trying to forget about it, as the author points out. Even after withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, the US has conducted counterterrorism operations in multiple countries, including Iraq. Americans have not moved on from Iraq because the country cannot “turn the page” without reading and comprehending it. The decision to invade Iraq stemmed from the pursuit of global primacy, which assumes that US hegemony will not engender resistance and sees global dominance as almost an end in itself, disregarding the abundant strategic alternatives available to the US. The invasion of Iraq emerged from this logic of global primacy, where the US sought to shore up its military preeminence in the Middle East and beyond by targeting a galling adversary not involved in 9/11. The US must truly reckon with the causes of the war to move forward with confidence and unity.

The author divides the article into four parts. In the first part, the author discusses the ideological foundations of the Iraq War and the development of the concept of American global dominance, which was formulated by three influential officials in the George W. Bush administration. These officials believed that the United States should project its military power across the world, dissuading any potential challengers from emerging, and replacing balances of power with American preponderance of power. They argued that this would make the world safer, but critics pointed out that this could induce resistance and undermine the willingness of Americans to bear the costs of global dominance. The author also notes that some American allies and adversaries opposed this idea, with some advocating for multipolarism instead of unipolarity. The author discusses the containment of Iraq through no-fly zones, routine bombings, weapons inspections, and economic sanctions and how this served as a precursor to the Iraq War.

According to the author, the idea of American global dominance was not just a justification for the Iraq War but a concept that had been developed and advocated for by influential officials in the George W. Bush administration well before the war. Specifically, the author names Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, and Paul Wolfowitz as key players in formulating this concept, which aimed to guide U.S. strategy in the post-Cold War world. These officials believed that the United States needed to project its military power around the globe to dissuade potential challengers from emerging and to establish American preponderance of power, replacing traditional balances of power. They claimed that this would make the world a safer place, but critics warned that such an approach could lead to resistance and could undermine the willingness of Americans to bear the costs of global dominance. The author also notes that some American allies and adversaries were opposed to this concept and instead advocated for multipolarism rather than unipolarity. Additionally, the author discusses how the containment of Iraq through no-fly zones, routine bombings, weapons inspections, and economic sanctions was a precursor to the Iraq War.

The US pursuit of global hegemony could lead to resistance from other countries that may develop counter-capabilities, leading to overstretched military resources. Furthermore, it is uncertain whether the American people would be willing to bear the costs of global dominance, especially if the costs are to increase. Unlike the Cold War era, where the containment of Soviet Communism was the main threat, the post-Cold War era world had diverse challenges with no major enemy, making it a new and untested proposition that many Americans found questionable. Meanwhile, China and Russia attempted to resolve their bilateral disputes and created the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, promoting “the multipolarization of the world.” Some of America’s allies expressed concerns about the US’s pursuit of hegemony, calling for “real multilateralism against unilateralism, for balanced multipolarism against unipolarism.” Finally, the United States’ containment of Iraq included no-fly zones, routine bombings, weapons inspections, and economic sanctions, which led to a decade of tensions between the two countries and culminated in the Iraq War.

In the second part, “Demonstrating Dominance,” the author discusses how the 9/11 attacks changed the United States’ foreign policy and fueled the nation’s desire for global hegemony. While the attacks could have been interpreted as a sign of resistance to U.S. hegemony, the Bush administration used them as an opportunity to mount a spectacular response to nip international resistance in the bud. The article suggests that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a central part of this response, and that the administration advanced several rationales for attacking Iraq, most of which were centered around the fear that Saddam Hussein posed a threat to American interests in the Middle East.

The United States embarked on an uncertain war in Afghanistan against a shadowy enemy that might well strike again, yet senior officials began advocating an attack on Iraq. The Bush administration advanced several rationales for attacking Iraq, but at the center were allegations that Saddam was stockpiling chemical and biological weapons and seeking to develop nuclear weapons. The fear that Saddam might one day pass WMD to terrorists who could then employ them on the U.S. homeland was always entirely speculative. However, policymakers did not want to suffer another “failure of imagination” after failing to anticipate how commercial airliners could be hijacked and turned into missiles.

It was more certain that Saddam’s presumed weapons would pose an obstacle to American designs in the Middle East. The United States sought to rebuild its primacy and reassert its dominance in the region by removing Saddam, sweeping up things related and not. The invasion of Iraq was not just about fighting terrorism but about securing the strategic interests of the United States in the Middle East. The United States must “go massive” and confront any potential adversaries from even aspiring to a larger role.

In the third part, the author discusses the reasons behind the failure of the war in Iraq and the various reactions of American politicians and the public. While there were numerous small mistakes made in the justification of the war, the main problem was the flawed conceptualization of the invasion. Despite criticism and public discontent, political elites initially attempted to salvage the decision for war and then tried to treat it as a tactical error, rather than acknowledge its deeper meaning.

The author concludes that the war was a significant failure, with its impact reverberating through American politics for years, because: 1. The reasons commonly given for why the war in Iraq went wrong are inadequate. 2. Small lessons were ignored, allowing the war’s supporters to avoid scrutiny of their misconceptions. 3. The American public became disillusioned with the war and turned against it. 4. The congressional election of 2006 marked the first surprise in revealing the depth of public discontent with the war, as Democrats won the House of Representatives. 5. Obama’s election in 2008 marked a bigger surprise and seemed to offer a clean break from the foreign policy elite that had supported the war. 6. Obama’s policies, however, did not offer a complete break from Bush’s policies, as he ended up sending troops back to Iraq and kept the war in Afghanistan going. 7. Trump capitalized on public outrage over the war, which contributed to his election in 2016.

In the final part, the author argues that forgetting the past mistakes of US foreign policy, such as the invasion of Iraq, is not a wise strategy to move forward. The US should learn from its past failures and not repeat them with its current peer competitors, China and Russia. The author warns that the US should not apply the same will to dominate that brought it into Iraq, as it could result in severe consequences, including a great-power war.

The article also criticizes NATO expansion, which the US hoped would not make Russia hostile, but it was a naive hope. The US entrenching its dominance in European defense and its allies outsourcing their security to Washington makes the US primarily responsible for international aid to Ukraine and the defense of NATO countries against Russia. The author suggests that the US should gradually turn leadership of European defense over to the Europeans to break from the logic of primacy.

Moreover, the article highlights the US’s increasing confrontation with China and the lack of a clear policy on what the US wants its relationship with China to be in the coming decades. The US opposing China’s rise altogether and imposing broad restrictions on its access to technology, including advanced semiconductors, could lead to substantial harm to the US. The author suggests the US should seek competitive coexistence with China and shift defense burdens to European allies.

Overall, the article argues that the US is still in thrall to primacy, making self-inflicted problems and covering them up, and the Iraq war remains unfinished business for the US. The US should learn from its past mistakes and adopt a wise foreign policy to avoid a great-power war and ensure the safety and prosperity of its citizens.


By: Selma Tioussarine, MA in IR and International Law



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