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Ideology, Realpolitik, and US Foreign Policy

A Discussion of Frank P. Harvey's Explaining the Iraq War: Counterfactual Theory, Logic and Evidence

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 May 2013

Adeed Dawisha*
Miami University of Ohio
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Explaining the Iraq War: Counterfactual Theory, Logic and Evidence. By Frank P. Harvey. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 360p. $103.00 cloth, $29.99 paper.

The Iraq War initiated by the Bush administration in 2003 was and perhaps continues to be an important episode in world politics, US politics, and the politics of the Middle East. The war also galvanized controversy among public intellectuals and broader publics, and generated strong opposition in many European and Middle Eastern countries. In Explaining the Iraq War, Frank P. Harvey offers an interesting analysis of the war and its causes, and does so in a way that raises broader questions about politics and about the scientific study of politics. We have thus invited a distinguished group of political scientists from a variety of subfields to review the book, both as an account of the Iraq War and as a contribution to political science more generally.—Jeffrey C. Isaac, Editor

Symposium: Ideology, Realpolitik, and US Foreign Policy
Copyright © American Political Science Association 2013 

Frank Harvey begins his provocative book by setting out the accepted narrative of the 2003 war on Iraq, that the decision to go to war was “a product of the political biases, misguided priorities, intentional deceptions and grand strategies of President George W. Bush and prominent ‘neoconservatives,’ ‘unilateralists’ and ‘Vulcans’ on his national security team” (p. 1). Harvey goes on to conceptualize this thesis as neoconism, whose central tenet is that a Bush administration dominated by powerful neoconservatives was a necessary condition for the Iraq War (p. 10; his emphasis). I doubt very much whether anyone who has attended academic conferences and meetings after 2003 would contest Harvey's assertion that this is a widely held view.

The advocates of neoconism go further. They use counterfactual analysis to emphasize the sole culpability of Bush and the neocons. What if Al Gore had won the hotly contested 2000 elections, they ask? If Bush and the neocons were so central in the decision to go to war, then the obvious conclusion is that a President Gore with starkly different preferences and subject to the counsel of non-neocon advisors would have shied away from a war with Iraq. In Harvey's own words, “if neoconservative preferences in a Bush administration were a necessary condition for war, then a Gore presidency would have been a sufficient condition for peace” (p. 11). This counterfactual has been endorsed and enthusiastically advocated in scores of scholarly books and conference papers (pp. 11–13, esp. nn. 20–25).

Harvey disagrees, however, and he sets out to turn this counterfactual argument on its head. Utilizing some of the most innovative and rigorous counterfactual analysis that I have yet seen, he ends up providing “an explanation [for the 2003 war] that is much stronger than neoconism” (p. 271). The explanation starkly states that in all probability, Gore would not have acted differently from Bush, that he would have been compelled to follow the same path and go to war with Iraq (p. 280). Harvey does this by looking at a number of analytical categories that span Gore's personality and political outlook, the views of his potential political and security advisors, the existing organizational and bureaucratic environment, societal pressures and public opinion, global debates and maneuverings, and Saddam Hussein's machinations and miscalculations.

Harvey well knows that he has a controversial thesis, particularly in the liberally soaked world of academia. So he has taken great care in supporting his analysis with thick research. Now, I am not a specialist on U.S. foreign policy; my expertise lies in Middle East politics, and my research over the last decade or so has focused on Iraq. Harvey's analysis of Saddam's machinations and grand misperceptions (to which I shall return later) was of particular interest to me. Still, one does not have to be a specialist to appreciate the voluminous evidence amassed by the author to convince the reader of the high probability that a President Gore would have followed a similar policy track toward Iraq to the one pursued by President Bush.

In exploring Gore's own convictions (a crucial element of the analysis, since neoconism places so much emphasis on Bush's own beliefs), Harvey concludes that “by any measure, including conservative Republican standards, Gore was a foreign policy hawk” (p. 47). Here is presidential candidate Gore in April 2000: “[A]s long as Saddam Hussein stays in power there can be no comprehensive peace…. We have made it our policy to see Saddam Hussein gone” (p. 51). And two years later in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, Gore supported the occasional application of unilateralism when he said that the United States should tackle global challenges “with others, if possible; alone if we must” (p. 52). These statement are not two isolated examples; such hawkish views are repeated time and again in a large collection of statements and extracts from speeches put together by the author in two long appendices.

Harvey also convincingly shows that the potential members of Gore's national security team would hardly have modified the views of their boss. Again, two long appendices (pp. 109–25) demonstrate that this group believed that Saddam was an obvious menace to the United States and that his removal was a legitimate goal. Harvey rightly concludes that “there is very little that one can find in these speeches, editorials or scholarly articles (or any other work produced by these officials) that would produce a profile of an administration committed to pursuing a completely different path than the one Bush … selected” (p. 108). And if in July 2002 it was Gore, not Bush, who went to the Senate asking for authorization “to use all necessary means to force Saddam's compliance,” then the response of the senators would not have been any different from the one Bush received. After all, Democrats overwhelmingly backed the July 2002 resolution.

Of course, one reason for congressional support was the prevalent belief that Saddam was in possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs)—a belief neoconism attributes to the purposeful and perfidious efforts of administration officials to manipulate intelligence reports so that they fit in with the administration's predetermined goals. This was particularly the case with three intelligence estimates: operational linkage between Saddam and Al Qaeda, Saddam's attempt to acquire aluminum tubes for centrifuge enrichment, and his attempt to purchase uranium from Africa (p. 147). As we now know, these three estimates turned out to be baseless, and as such became the heart of the intellectual assault on Bush and the neocons. Yet Harvey remains unconvinced. He argues that these estimates were only a fraction of the hundreds of intelligence estimates produced in the United States, United Kingdom, United Nations, and European Union, almost all of which turned out to be seriously flawed, which was hardly surprising, given the departure of inspectors in 1998, lack of human intelligence on the ground in Iraq, and Saddam's purposeful ambiguity and deception (pp. 147–52). Left in the dark, Western analysts could only make prognostications based on data and evidence that was at least five years old. As late as March 6, 2003, Hans Blix, the Swedish head of the UN weapons inspection team, presented a report that included no fewer than 175 pages of “unresolved disarmament issues” related to Iraq's weapons programs (p. 152).

At this point in the book, readers are likely to ask the obvious question: What about the fictitious tale of Saddam acquiring uranium from Niger? As a reminder, President Bush declared in his 2003 State of the Union address that Saddam sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa, which turned out to be Niger. In February 2003, the CIA dispatched Ambassador Joe Wilson to verify the claim. After looking at uranium mines and interviewing a former prime minister, Wilson came back convinced that no such sale ever occurred. His report, however, was ignored, and this has been used by critics as the ultimate proof of the administration's perfidy—that Bush and the neocons suppressed the evidence because they were intent on waging war against Iraq. Harvey, however, counters by saying that Wilson's interview with one Niger official hardly constituted “evidence,” and that Wilson's findings were basically opinions that at the time went very much against a much stronger and much more widespread suspicion that Saddam did possess WMDs. Harvey refers to many documents produced at the time in UN reports and by UK and U.S. intelligence agencies that cemented the suspicion that the Iraqis did possess WMDs (pp. 158–65).

As a researcher, I find Harvey's arguments, supported by the evidence he musters, to be compelling. But I do concede that this is not my area of specialty, and so I would rather defer to the opinions and comments of experts on national security and intelligence, and I am sure, given the provocative nature of this book, that they will not be lacking in numbers. But the next task that Harvey tackles does fall within my own area of expertise. Few will deny that much of the intelligence failure was due to the confusion caused by Saddam himself. One would think that since the case for war made by the United States and UK rested for the most part on Iraq's possession of WMDs, Saddam, knowing this to be false, would have opened up the country to UN inspectors, especially when an unambiguous deadline was set for compliance. That he did not is a mystery that Harvey tries to unravel.

Relying on prison interviews with Saddam and former government officials, Harvey paints a picture of the Iraqi dictator as someone intent on practicing strategic ambiguity, hence the unwillingness to confirm the absence of WMDs. The reasons are spelled out by Saddam himself. He tells an interviewer that he had “to defend the Arab nation against the Persians and Israelis.” He was convinced that if these two nemeses believed Iraq to be weak, they would attack, and it was “well known that the Israelis and Persians [had WMDs]” (p. 244). So as he embarked on destroying the weapons, he wiped out all information pertaining to their destruction, too. He also prevented his scientists from leaving Iraq, where without the constant presence of Saddam's thugs they would be able to speak more freely. The tragic irony about all this is that Iraq's travel embargo on scientists was seen in Washington as evidence of the existence and potency of Iraqi WMDs, and became a powerful element in the administration's rationale for invading Iraq.

Yet Saddam persisted in thinking that the United States would not go to war against Iraq. Even on the eve of the invasion, he still was dismissive of Washington's resolve to carry out its threat. According to Tariq Aziz, who for more than two decades was the manager of the country's foreign affairs, Saddam “thought that [the United States] would not fight a ground war because it would be too costly to the Americans” (p. 254). That this statement would come from a politically savvy senior member of the leadership begs the question of why Aziz would not offer a polite corrective, a contrary yet more realistic, assessment of U.S. capacity and its political environment. The answer, according to Harvey, is simple: Saddam thought that he knew all that was needed to know about the United States, and in fact admonished his chief advisors to leave the interpretation of American policy to him. Saddam would explain that America was such a complicated country that it needed the kind of alertness that was beyond the competence of his intelligence community. He would confidently declare in an interview that he needed neither information nor opinions on the United States, for after all, America was his “specialty” (p. 252).

In terms of the counterfactual “what if” analysis, it seems that whichever side one is on, the whole controversy would have been moot had Saddam allowed the UN inspectors a free rein in Iraq. After all, regardless of other arguments used by the Bush administration, the availability of WMDs to Saddam constituted the main pivot underpinning the rationale for going to war. There can be little doubt that an Iraq declared free of WMDs would not have been invaded. If Aziz or others in the pre-2003 Iraqi leadership would simply have asked for a discussion, or whispered a word of caution, or intimated their concern while still extolling the wisdom of their leader, then in all probability this episode in contemporary Iraqi and American history could have been avoided.

Megalomania is the inevitable offspring of tyranny, however. Aziz and the others surrounding Saddam knew well that any questioning of his opinions, no matter how obsequiously delivered, would not change the mind of the all-knowing tyrant; indeed, it could be the basis for dreadful incarceration, or worse. None of those supposedly “key” policymakers considered himself a “colleague” of Saddam, simply a subordinate who owed his privileged position to the president. No wonder then that Aziz, who was hardly a political slouch, would write an article about Hussein that read like a teenager's gushing love letter, eulogizing his beloved “hero-president” as “the struggler, the organizer, the thinker and the leader.”Footnote 1

This culture of complete subordination was the result of many years of determined effort by Saddam's cronies to dig deep into Iraq's illustrious history and draw a continuous cultural and political time line, starting from the luminous civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia, running through the famed Baghdad-based Islamic empires, and ending with modern Iraq under Saddam. Immense resources were allocated for the endeavor, including the reconstruction of temples and arches of ancient Babylon, made with bricks inscribed with the name of Saddam Hussein. In Baghdad, a billboard of Saddam and the sixth century b.c. Nebuchadnezzar shaking hands depicted Saddam looking down on the legendary Babylonian king.Footnote 2 By the early 1980s, it had become commonplace to see Saddam being mentioned not merely as one of the luminaries of Mesopotamian and Islamic history but as the decided overachiever among them. And in the two decades that followed, his minions made sure that newspapers, radio and television programs, books, school curricula, and artistic creations would reference this icon of the ages.

With such purposeful, constant, and coercive cultural subjugation, is it any surprise that no one, even those of the highest political status, would dare question the dominant historical figure that Saddam had become? If Saddam decreed that American motives, calculations, and policies were his specialty, then his declarations, no matter how questionable, would be met by the assembled higher-ups with a rapid nod of the head, by the prerequisite look of awe and admiration. And in the end, to this reviewer at least, it was this pervasive tyranny, built around the whims of one man, supported by a system of coercive cultural and political subordination, that is most culpable for the Iraq War.

Harvey may not go that far, but he does not doubt Saddam's crucial role in the war. Nor does he believe that the calculations of Iraq's tyrant would have changed in the face of a Gore rather than a Bush administration. This again adds to the author's rigorous counterfactual analyses and conclusions throughout the book that in all probability, Gore would have behaved no differently from Bush.

For this reviewer at least, the tightness of Harvey's argument, the extent of the evidence that he supplies, and the care and fastidiousness with which he presents his conclusions combine to produce a book that mercilessly assaults the notion that the responsibility for the 2003 war in Iraq falls squarely on the shoulders of Bush and the neocons, and on their misguided priorities and intentional deceptions (p. 1). In doing so, Harvey vigorously challenges an intellectual position that has become so enduring that it had achieved the status of a truth. And if this book does not, at a minimum, sow doubts in the minds of believers, then nothing will.



1 An article written by Tariq Aziz, then foreign minister of Iraq, for the Iraqi newspaper Al-Thawra on May 18, 1980, p. 1.

2 Eric Davis, Memories of State: Politics, History, and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), p. 323, n. 53.