"Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction."--Dick Cheney in 2002
One year ago, the United States formally began its operations to combat the fighters of ISIS. Over these past twelve months, little substantial progress has been made to remove ISIS from its positions in Iraq and Syria. Though northern and western Iraq have seen particularly difficult times, Iraq itself has been mired in violence and instability ever since the U.S. invasion in 2003 (and even before that in many places). In the first of a three part series, we will examine the reasons for the invasion of Iraq, the subsequent mishandling of the initial occupation, and how all of this has helped created the modern problem of ISIS. But first, let's uncover the driving forces behind the initial invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
So why did the United States (and a small coalition of other nations) invade Iraq? Contrary to some popular beliefs, George W. Bush didn't invade Iraq because of a failed assassination attempt against his father. Iraq's oil wealth also wasn't the primary motivator for the invasion (though it probably played a factor on some level). The primary motivating factor for the invasion of Iraq (according to public statements and private interviews of senior intelligence officials) was the removal of Saddam Hussein from power in order to prevent his regime from attaining weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons) and to install a peaceful (read: U.S. friendly) and democratic government in Iraq. There is a lot more to this, so let's rewind to the First Gulf War, where a major shift in U.S.-Iraqi relations occurred.
In 1990, Saddam Hussein's nation had become nearly bankrupt from almost a decade of fighting Iran in the Iran-Iraq War (which was a catastrophically destructive war for both nations). In response to his country's problems, he decided to annex the small and oil rich nation of Kuwait to demonstrate his military power and seize some new petroleum assets for his country. A few months later in early 1991, the United States (along with a large coalition of European and Gulf nations) drove the Iraqi army out of Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm. When the dust finally settled from this fight, the Iraqi army had been pushed back into its own territory and relations between the U.S. and Iraq had become extremely hostile and distrusting (America actually supported Hussein previously in the Iran-Iraq war). Rather than remove Hussein entirely, the United States began a policy of containing Iraq and preventing the slaughter of ethnic Kurds (a minority group in the north) and the Shia (rival religious group in the south) by enforcing a no-fly zone for Iraqi warplanes.
This is essentially the policy which would continue until 2003. Hussein had been beaten and his regime weakened even further, but for the most part he continued to maintain his aggressive stance against his primary regional rival Iran. However within Washington, U.S. intelligence officials continued to operate under the mindset of long-term hostility towards Iraq. This meant that many actions which would seem benign from an ally (such as the purchase of aluminum tubes) were viewed as clear indications of Iraq's nuclear ambitions. To make matters worse, Hussein encouraged the continued myth of his own WMD program in order to intimidate Iran and prevent that nation from reigniting another Iran-Iraq war. In reality, Hussein had mostly given up his nuclear ambitions, while his few remaining chemical weapons stockpiles (leftover from the Iran-Iraq war) were destroyed in the American-led Operation Desert Fox.
To make matters worse from an intelligence standpoint, Hussein uncovered a covert plot to overthrow his rule. In the process, he found a vast network of American collaborators and informants within his country and killed or exiled them. What resulted from this was essentially an information blackout. The U.S. government had almost no idea what was really going on within Iraq's borders, making it that much easier to misinterpret Iraq's intentions. Still, the campaign of containment continued on....until September 11th.
The 9-11 attacks were a massive embarrassment to the intelligence community, and intelligence officials were determined to not let another tragedy like that occur. As such, they tended to lean toward the worst case rather than the best case scenario when analyzing events. Iraq was no exception. Though Bush administration officials had mentioned the possibility of regime change in Iraq even before September 2001, the campaign to remove Hussein gained considerable prominence following the attacks. We need to remember at this point that many of the Bush administration's top leaders truly believed Iraq had WMDs and thought Hussein's murderous regime should end. Paul Wolfowitz was likely the strongest voice of all in favor of the Iraq war. He often compared the previous policy of containment to Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler before the Second World War. Many others in the administration and the Intelligence Community were less convinced, but believed someone had the critical information they lacked (classified information is extremely compartmentalized, meaning no one person gets to see all of the facts).
So all of this helps explain why Iraq's alleged WMDs were of concern, but it doesn't address the ideological reasons behind the invasion. George W. Bush and most of his senior administration staff were strong supporters of the Neoconservative ideology of American foreign policy. Among other things, this ideology believes that a show of American strength would intimidate other adversaries into submission and that American interests would prevail simply because they are (in their view) more morally superior (known as "right makes might"). Finally, Bush's particular brand of neoconservatism though that, since democracy is inherently superior to other forms of government, that a democratic Iraq would lead to successful democratic revolutions all over the region (like magic!). To refute all of these ideas would take much more than a simple blog post, but suffice to say that the failures of neconservatism in the Iraq war have (thankfully) eroded much of the support for these ideas.
One other ideology which gained prominence during the Bush administration was that of preemptive warfare. Preemptive warfare is the idea of attacking a potentially threatening country before it has the chance to attack you in return. Unlike wars of retaliation or defense, this type of action assumes aggression from the other nation. The obvious problem with this logic is that it presumes to know exactly what the other nation is intending to do and then justifies warfare in response. Sometimes these presumptions are incorrect, leading to military conflicts based on a factually inaccurate basis. When combined with the lack of reliable intelligence in early 2000s Iraq and the administration's tendency towards assuming the worst of Hussein, it is clear how this type of foreign policy thinking can lead to serious problems.
With the administration convinced, it was time to get Congress, the American public, and the international community on board as well. Even now it is very difficult to separate the incorrect (but factually supported) assumptions from the exaggerated reports and from the outright false claims that were made in the lead up to the invasion. However, assertions like Hussein's ties to Al-Qaeda and Iraq's alleged possession of unknown stockpiles of uranium had almost no credible intelligence to back them up. There were certainly good reasons to remove Hussein from power, but these were not among them. Naturally, the American public was relatively easy to persuade in the post-September 11th atmosphere. In the international community, the United Kingdom and Australia were the only nations pledge significant support for the invasion. But it didn't really matter. By then, war was all but inevitable.
In all, there is no doubt that Hussein was a brutal leader of a dictatorial regime. Iraq deserved a better leader and a more just form of government. Ultimately, the people who pushed for this change aren't evil (except maybe Cheney). They truly believed that what they were doing was the right course of action and would result in positive benefits for nearly all Iraqis. However, such blind idealism can be extremely dangerous in the realities of policy and war.
Even as the statue of Saddam was torn down in the central plaza of Baghdad and President Bush declared victory, the situation in Iraq could still have been salvaged. With better planning, preparation, and execution of the war effort, many of the problems which emerged during the occupation could have been avoided. These failures of the execution of the war strategy (and the lack of a meaningful exit plan) will be the topic of part two in this series.
TL;DR: The war in Iraq was started not because of oil or revenge, but because of an ideology that favored strong military action instead of diplomacy, and an administration that assumed the worst of Iraq's intentions.
*A significant portion of the opinions and interpretations from this post are the result of the work of Thomas Ricks in his critical work Fiasco: The American Military Adventure In Iraq. Go read it!