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Security Studies
ISSN: 0963-6412 (Print) 1556-1852 (Online) Journal homepage:
Why did the United States Invade Iraq in 2003?
Ahsan I. Butt
To cite this article: Ahsan I. Butt (2019) Why did the United States Invade Iraq in 2003?, Security
Studies, 28:2, 250-285, DOI: 10.1080/09636412.2019.1551567
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Published online: 04 Jan 2019.
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2019, VOL. 28, NO. 2, 250–285
Why did the United States Invade Iraq in 2003?
Ahsan I. Butt
Why did the United States invade Iraq in 2003? Most scholars
cite the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD),
a neoconservative desire to spread democracy, or the placating
of domestic interest groups as the Bush administration’s objectives, but I suggest these arguments are flawed. Instead, I proffer
the “performative war” thesis resting on the concepts of status,
reputation, and hierarchy to explain the Iraq war. Hegemons
desire generalized deterrence, such that others do not challenge
their territory, preferences, or rule. However, the challenging of a
hegemon’s authority—as occurred on 9/11—generates a need
to assert hegemony and demonstrate strength to a global audience. Only fighting a war can demonstrate such strength; no
peaceful bargain, even a lopsided one, can achieve the same
effect. Consistent with this framework, the United States fought
Iraq mainly for its demonstration effect—defeating the recalcitrant Saddam would lead other states to fear the United States
and submit to its authority and global order.
Why did the United States invade Iraq in 2003? Specifically, what concrete
goal was the invasion supposed to accomplish for the Bush administration?
International relations scholars have proffered various answers to this question, including the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction
(WMD), the diffusion of liberal democracy in the Arab and Muslim heartland, and the placating of domestic interest groups, such as the oil or Israel
lobbies. I believe these arguments are flawed. WMD-based arguments for
preventive war, especially dominant in the literature on the causes of the
invasion, are dubious for two reasons. First, their evidentiary reliance on
the Bush administration’s public claims between 2001 and 2003 is problematic, given that during this period the administration was engaged in a public relations effort to convince skeptical domestic and international
audiences of the threat posed by Saddam. We do not know that WMD
actually mattered to the Bush administration, only that it formed the mainstay of its public case for war—a fundamentally different proposition.
Second, the causal logic of the preventive war theory is inconsistent with
the run-up to the war, especially concerning the issue of uncertainty. Aside
Ahsan I. Butt is associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University and
a Non-resident Fellow, Stimson Center.
ß 2019 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
from WMD nonproliferation, other purported goals, such as spreading
democracy or satisfying interest groups, do not satisfactorily explain the
Bush administration’s decision-making either.
While a firm understanding of why the United States invaded Iraq will
probably have to await the release of archived documents and memoranda in
the decades to come, this article seeks to contribute to the debate. Drawing
on scholarship in IR, political theory, applied psychology, and sociology for
its theoretical architecture and on internal memoranda, diplomatic correspondence, memoirs, interviews, and a plethora of secondary sources for
empirical evidence, I proffer the “performative war” thesis to explain the
American war in Iraq. In a nutshell, my claim is that until September 10,
2001, the United States enjoyed global prestige and status commensurate with
its material capabilities and social rank—America knew it was universally
acknowledged as a hegemonic power. However, the attacks of 9/11 threatened
its hegemony and the generalized deterrence it had established against challenge to its rule. Consequently, the United States felt the need to regain status
and establish itself as an aggressive global power. To do so, it had to fight and
win a war. Afghanistan in 2001 was insufficient to generate such a fearsome
reputation, but the defeat of a recalcitrant foe like Saddam would serve this
performative purpose. Invading Iraq would allow the United States to reassert
and demonstrate its strength in no uncertain terms to a global audience,
crown itself king of the hill, and reestablish generalized deterrence.
In this view, the United States fought Iraq not because of a dyadic dispute but to demonstrate to observers that it was, and would remain, the
global hegemonic power in the post-9/11 era. Importantly, there was no
peaceful bargain short of war for the disputants to locate. The United
States was intent on attacking Iraq shortly after—and perhaps on—9/11,
and there was nothing material or symbolic Saddam Hussein could have
offered that would have avoided war. The Iraq war thus provides a more
general lesson for IR scholars: at times, states may be insistent on a fight
because certain reputation- and authority-establishing benefits only accrue
to violent actors.
The remainder of this paper proceeds in four sections. I first explain my
claim that the field’s explanations for why the war occurred, especially
those centering on WMD, are flawed. Next, I construct a theoretical framework of performative war centering on the concepts of status, reputation,
and hierarchy. In the third section, I make the case that this framework
accounts for the Bush administration’s path to invading Iraq. Finally, I
discuss this study’s theoretical implications for the bargaining model of war
and its policy implications for the wider American intelligentsia, body
politic, and public.
Explanations for the Iraq War
As a field, IR has been surprisingly silent about the causes of the Iraq
war. Five major journals in IR and security/conflict studies (International
Organization, International Security, Journal of Conflict Resolution,
Security Studies, and World Politics) have published thirty-six articles
with the word “Iraq” in their title referring to the most recent US war
in Iraq (as opposed to, for example, the Iran–Iraq war in the 1980s).
Generously considered, only six of these thirty-six articles were about
the war’s causes. The others focused on how the war was sold and the
associated failure of the marketplace of ideas;1 the sensitivity to casualties in US public opinion;2 tactical and strategic issues faced by insurgents and counterinsurgents;3 and the stability and democratic future of
post-invasion Iraq.4
That said, the provenance of the Iraq war has certainly been the subject
of scholarly attention, with three explanations especially popular: ideas,
interest groups, and WMD. One argument is that the United States was
motivated by a neoconservative desire to spread democracy in the Middle
East.5 “Wilsonian ideas of spreading democracy,” however, are conspicuous
by their absence in available pre-war documents, which more commonly
refer to a “stable, law abiding Iraq” than a democratic one. Moreover, the
administration only began to emphasize regime type in Iraq specifically
and the Arab world generally in the spring of 2003, after the war was
See Chaim Kaufmannn, “Threat Inflation and the Failure of the Marketplace of Ideas: The Selling of the Iraq
War,” International Security 29, no. 1 (Summer 2004): 5–48; Jon Western, “The War Over Iraq: Selling War to the
American Public,” Security Studies 14, no. 1 (2005): 106–139; Jane Cramer, “Militarized Patriotism: Why the US
Marketplace of Ideas Failed Before the Iraq War,” Security Studies 16, no. 3 (2007): 489–524.
See William A. Boettcher and Michael D. Cobb, “Echoes of Vietnam? Casualty Framing and Public Perceptions of
Success and Failure in Iraq,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 50, no. 6 (December 2006): 831–54; Erik Voeten and
Paul R. Brewer, “Public Opinion, the War in Iraq, and Presidential Accountability,” Journal of Conflict
Resolution 50, no. 6 (December 2006): 809–830.
See Stephen Biddle, Jeffrey A. Friedman, and Jacob N. Shapiro, “Testing the Surge: Why Did Violence Decline in
Iraq in 2007?,” International Security 37, no. 1 (Summer 2012): 7–40; Colin H. Kahl, “In the Crossfire or the
Crosshairs? Norms, Civilian Casualties, and US Conduct in Iraq,” International Security 32, no. 1 (Summer 2007):
7–46; Austin Long, “Whack-a-Mole or Coup de Grace? Institutionalization and Leadership Targeting in Iraq and
Afghanistan,” Security Studies 23, no. 3 (2014): 471–512; Thomas Meyer, “Flipping the Switch: Combat, State
Building, and Junior Officers in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Security Studies 22, no. 2 (2013): 222–58; Deborah Avant
and Lee Sigelman, “Private Security and Democracy: Lessons from the US in Iraq,” Security Studies 19, no. 2
(2010): 230–65.
See Daniel Byman, “Constructing a Democratic Iraq: Challenges and Opportunities,” International Security 28, no.
1 (Summer 2003): 47–78; Bruce E. Moon, “Long Time Coming: Prospects for Democracy in Iraq,” International
Security 33, no. 4 (Spring 2009): 115–48.
For example, see Andrew Flibbert, “The Road to Baghdad: Ideas and Intellectuals in Explanations of the Iraq
War,” Security Studies 15, no. 2 (2006): 310–52; Brian C. Schmidt and Michael C. Williams, “The Bush Doctrine
and the Iraq War: Neoconservatives Versus Realists,” Security Studies 17, no. 2 (2008): 191–220; Michael
MacDonald, Overreach: Delusions of Regime Change in Iraq (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).
underway.6 Finally, neoconservatives’ unwavering support for authoritarian
regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt renders suspicious any claim that
imputes to them any concern for democracy in the Middle East.
Others argue the war was fought to placate the “Israel lobby.” Powerful as
the lobby is, it was superfluous; the evidence is clear that leaders such as Vice
President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Deputy
Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz were not reluctant warriors pushed into
invading by forces outside the administration.7 Still others allege that the war
was fought because of the oil lobby. However, as Colgan shows, Iraq was “not
a classic resource war, in the sense that the United States did not seize oil
reserves for profit and control.” Rather, the United States awarded production
contracts to even Chinese and Russian companies.8
The remaining dominant argument in the literature is that the invasion
of Iraq was an act of preventive war based on the threat Saddam’s WMD
capabilities would pose in the future.9 There are two significant problems
with this argument: the lack of positive evidence in its favor and the inconsistency of the war’s run-up with its stated logic.
Saddam’s WMD and Iraq as a Preventive War
IR scholars focusing on Saddam’s WMD as the direct cause of war have
subsumed their explanations within a bargaining framework. Specifically,
Iraq’s possible acquisition of nuclear capabilities would represent a rapid
power shift in the future, forcing the United States to gamble against a rival
relatively easier to defeat today than tomorrow. The result was a preventive
war in March 2003.
One clear example of this thinking is forwarded by Alexandre Debs and
Nuno P. Monteiro (DM).10 Notwithstanding their caveat—“Our purpose
here is not to claim that our theory offers a definitive, or complete explanation for” the Iraq war11—they state simply: “The main US motivation for
Jane Cramer and Eric Duggan, “In Pursuit of Primacy,” in Why Did the United States Invade Iraq, ed. Jane
Cramer and Trevor Thrall (New York: Routledge, 2012), 210–20; Richard Ned Lebow, A Cultural Theory of
International Relations (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 461.
John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy (New York: Farrar, Straus and
Giroux, 2007); Jerome Slater, “Explaining the Iraq War: The Israel Lobby Theory,” in Why Did the United States
Invade Iraq, ed. Jane Cramer and Trevor Thrall (New York: Routledge, 2012), 105–109.
Jeff D. Colgan, “Fueling the Fire: Pathways from Oil to War,” International Security 38, no. 2 (Fall 2013):
171, 176–77.
Robert Jervis, Why Intelligence Fails: Lessons from the Iranian Revolution and the Iraq War (Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 2010); David Lake, “Two Cheers for Bargaining Theory: Assessing Rationalist Explanations of
the Iraq War,” International Security 35, no. 3 (Winter 2010/11): 7–52; Alexandre Debs and Nuno P. Monteiro,
“Known Unknowns: Power Shifts, Uncertainty, and War,” International Organization 68, no. 1 (January
2014): 1–31.
Debs and Monteiro, “Known Unknowns.”
Ibid., 15–16.
the war was to prevent suspected Iraqi nuclearization, which Washington
thought would bring about a large and rapid shift in the balance of power
in favor of Iraq.”12 Similarly operating within a bargaining framework,
David Lake adopts a more nuanced position than DM on the role of
WMD in the Iraq war. He writes, “Although Iraq’s supposed WMD programs were the casus belli, they were the precipitant and not the underlying
issue, and are better thought of as one source of bargaining failure.”
Rather, “through the eve of the 2003 war, the underlying issue between the
United States and Iraq was most likely which country—and its policies—
would dominate the Persian Gulf region.”13 Notably, Lake concurs with
DM in claiming that Saddam’s inability to credibly commit to not developing WMD in the future, along with his hostile “type,” rendered any peaceful bargain impossible.14 Finally, Robert Jervis takes as a given that the war
was motivated by concerns about WMD, instead questioning how and why
the intelligence community came to “fail” in 2003.15
As others have noted about the difficulties in debunking the preventive
war argument, “it appears impossible to prove or disprove whether or not
leaders sincerely feared a possible future threat.”16 While the claim that
fears of WMD caused the war is logical, there are two reasons scholars
should be skeptical of this argument pending future research. First, there is
a lack of positive evidence in its favor. Second, the stated logic is inconsistent with the run-up to the war, specifically concerning the issue of
The Evidence
To the extent that proponents of the preventive war argument offer evidence for it, it is restricted to public statements of Bush officials between
2002 and 2003. DM, for example, merely cite four quotations in support of
their thesis: (1) Bush at the State of the Union, (2) Colin Powell at the UN,
(3) Ari Fleischer after the invasion was already underway, and (4)
Condoleeza Rice’s memoirs.
The problem with the claim that Saddam’s future arsenal was a genuine
concern for the Bush administration is that the United States was in the
middle of a propagandistic effort to convince domestic and international
audiences of exactly that notion. Consider how DM slip between the
Ibid., 16.
Lake, “Two Cheers,” 14–15.
Others agree on this point, such as Benjamin Miller, “Explaining Changes in US Grand Strategy: 9/11, the Rise
of Offensive Liberalism, and the War in Iraq,” Security Studies 19, no. 1 (2010): 26–65.
Jervis, Why Intelligence Fails, chap. 3.
Cramer and Duggan, “Pursuit of Primacy,” 202.
contentious claim that WMD caused the war17 and the inarguable one that
“the case presented by the US administration had at its core concerns
about a large and rapid shift in the balance of power in favor of Iraq as a
result of Baghdad’s WMD investments.”18 However, these two positions are
hardly equivalent. One can concede that WMD were the central part of the
Bush administration’s case without granting that WMD represented their
sincere motivations. Jervis goes further than DM: not only does he accept
the idea that the Bush administration harbored genuine fears of Iraq’s
WMD, he also considers the intelligence failure on those WMD a function
of the intelligence community, not the administration.19
Inattention to the possibility of strategic misrepresentation—or lying—is
problematic because, as John Mearsheimer states, “Key figures in the Bush
administration—including the president himself—lied to the American people in the run-up to the Iraq war.”20 The Bush administration lied because
“there was not much enthusiasm for invading Iraq in the broader public.
Moreover, the American military, the intelligence community, the State
Department, and the US Congress were not keen for war. To overcome
this reluctance to attack Iraq, the Bush administration engaged in a deception campaign to inflate the threat posed by Saddam.”21 Though the Bush
administration also lied about Saddam’s connections to Osama bin Laden’s
al Qaeda and the attacks of September 11,22 I focus here on its lies about
Saddam’s WMD—and especially nuclear—arsenal.23
Research has focused considerable attention on how the Iraq war was
sold by the Bush administration, marginalizing or precluding dissent from
Debs and Monteiro, “Known Unknowns,” 16.
Ibid., 16–17.
DM and Jervis are hardly alone in their credulity. Economists such as Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow,
“Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 31, no. 2 (Spring 2017):
211–36, consider the Bush administration purposely misleading the public regarding WMD evidence as a
“partisan conspiracy theory,” juxtaposed with beliefs that Barack Obama was born outside the United States,
that 9/11 was planned by the US government, that the Holocaust did not occur, and that Lyndon Johnson
was involved in John Kennedy’s assassination.
John J. Mearsheimer, Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics (New York: Oxford
University Press, 2011), 6. See also Cramer and Duggan, “Pursuit of Primacy,” 202.
Mearsheimer, Why Leaders Lie, 49–50.
Ibid., 50, 52–53.
The Saddam–terrorism nexus is less important than the WMD angle because there is near-unanimity, ranging
from critics to defenders of the administration, that the issue did not supply the rhetorical ammunition the
administration wanted. The administration itself could not reasonably claim it was under the impression that
the nexus was real. In a memo to Feith in January 2002, Peter Rodman wrote, “You asked if we’d made
progress on our analysis of links between al-Qaida and Iraq. So far we have discovered few direct links.” Peter
W. Rodman, “Links Between al-Qaida and Iraq,” memorandum to Douglas Feith, 24 January, 2002, Digital
National Security Archive (DNSA): Targeting Iraq, Part 1: Planning, Invasion, and Occupation, 1997–2004, http:// As one senior intelligence official told me on the terrorism issue, “We
pushed back strongly, that never became justification for the war.” In contrast, the intelligence community’s
pushback may not have been as forceful on the WMD issue, which ended up being a mainstay in the case of
war and the resulting scholarly analyse …
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