The invasion and occupation of Iraq was arguably the most consequential result of the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. 9/11 did not motivate the Iraqi invasion, for which the Bush administration had begun actively planning before the hijacked planes hit the Twin Towers. But it did create the political atmosphere needed to justify an unprovoked invasion.
Relying on the shattered sense of US invulnerability, the Bush administration argued for a so-called preventive attack on Iraq to stop Saddam Hussein’s alleged project to build “weapons of mass destruction” and use them against the United States in the near future — a project which was entirely mythological. National security advisor Condoleezza Rice eloquently and dishonestly encapsulated this tortured logic with a celebrated comment: “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, a growing cadre of political, economic, and social elites had been advocating for the United States to assume its rightful place as the hegemon in a “unipolar” world, and to exercise direct control over countries that challenged its leadership. For these imperialists — most visibly located in the national-security apparatus — and their media cheerleaders, Iraq was the lynchpin for reestablishing US control over the Middle East.
From Saigon to Baghdad
Ever since its defeat in Vietnam, the US had tried to work through local proxies: strong countries that could do the heavy lifting of intimidating and, if need be, fighting uncooperative governments in their regions. Richard Nixon, who developed this strategy, designated Iran as a Middle Eastern proxy. The United States and Britain had installed the Iranian shah, a highly repressive ruler, through a 1953 coup against the democratically elected, secular prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, who sought to nationalize British oil properties in the country. But this initially successful strategy collapsed with the shah’s overthrow in the 1979 Islamic revolution.
This led the Reagan administration to cultivate Iraq under Saddam Hussein as the next best choice. Other plausible candidates in the Middle East had what the United States regarded as greater flaws. Despite its massive arms purchases, Saudi Arabia remained militarily weak, unable to create a force that could fight without constant help from the United States (as demonstrated in recent years by Saudi inability to defeat a rather weak rebel force in Yemen). Israel, while a loyal and capable ally, would provoke too much resistance from Islamic nations in the region.
Saddam Hussein turned out to be both incompetent and erratic, a bad choice for America’s chosen instrument in the Middle East. He was unable to defeat Iran in the war he initiated in 1980, even with covert help from the United States and the purchase of chemical weapons from France. After this failure, Saddam invaded Kuwait, which the United States took as a dangerous sign of independence and ambition. The administration of George Bush Sr chose direct intervention to reverse the invasion. The 1991 Gulf War successfully weakened Saddam’s regime, but left the United States without a viable proxy.
After replacing Bush as president, Bill Clinton repeatedly rejected strong and bipartisan political pressure for the full-scale invasion and occupation of Iraq. Clinton insisted that draconian sanctions and massive bombing would suffice to accomplish regime change and a suitable client government in Iraq. When asked about the deaths of half a million Iraqi children as a result of sanctions, Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeline Albright, famously responded, “The price, we think, the price is worth it.”
Republican politicians who were out of office during the 1990s, most notably Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, argued against continuing with the proxy strategy. They wanted the United States to overthrow Saddam and install a government it could fully command. An invasion, in their view, would give Washington control over the second-largest oil reserves in the Middle East. It could also build bases from which to intimidate, and, if necessary, attack, neighboring countries.
With Iraq under its thumb, the United States would be able to command the economic trajectory of the Middle East — in particular, its oil production and distribution policies. More broadly, as Immanuel Wallerstein argued before the invasion, these war hawks believed that a quick and easy victory would compel Washington’s increasingly independent allies in Europe and East Asia to submit to US dictates. They wanted to use American military supremacy to revive its flagging economic dominance.
George W. Bush’s ascension to the presidency brought advocates of war on Iraq to the highest levels of government. The first National Security Council meeting after Bush’s inauguration discussed plans for an invasion, more than seven months before the 9/11 attacks. 9/11 created the opportunity to put those plans into action.
For those interested in establishing US dominance over the Middle East, the invasion of Afghanistan in autumn 2001 was a necessary sideshow, since it was the country where Osama bin Laden had planned the attacks on New York and Washington. Once the United States and its allies seemed to have triumphed over the Taliban, planning shifted back to Iraq.
The 2003 invasion also appeared to have been a quick success, with Saddam Hussein removed from power less than a month after US troops stormed into Iraq. Hussein’s regime had no defense against the “shock and awe” air campaign and his army was hopelessly outgunned. George W. Bush proudly declared that the US military had “prevailed.” Officials in his administration openly suggested that Iran would be the next target: “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.”
However, within a few months, the US was facing ferocious armed resistance to its presence in Iraq that was becoming increasingly widespread. Why did Iraqi civil society, which at first seemed to be at least indifferent toward, if not supportive of, US-led regime change, so quickly begin to engage in mass protest and armed insurrection? Why didn’t Iraqis at least wait to see if the promised withdrawal of US forces would materialize, instead of risking their lives to challenge troops who had an overwhelming advantage in firepower?
The Bush administration’s first answer portrayed the resistance as a tactic put into effect by the ousted Iraqi government, which had supposedly planned for a protracted guerrilla war that took the US Army by surprise. This explanation quickly lost credibility because resistance proved to be just as fierce in the Shia Muslim communities that had been oppressed by Saddam Hussein’s regime. Another school of thought conversely blamed the resistance on Iranian funding, but that was equally illogical because of its support among Sunnis.
The US media, with its growing corps of ex-military officers now employed as consultants, finally allocated the blame for a botched occupation strategy to Bush’s defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld had sought to transform the US military through the development of high-tech weaponry and information technology, with new operational strategies that utilized these tools. He insisted that the US military carry out the invasion with a much smaller force than its generals requested.
At first, this strategy seemed to have been effective, but it meant that the number of US troops was insufficient to deter or smash the burgeoning resistance. Rumsfeld denied that he had miscalculated and notoriously downplayed the evidence of what was happening in Iraq with comments like “stuff happens” and “freedom’s untidy.” While that defense was clearly inadequate, the theory that it was the size of the US occupation force that caused all the problems could not account for the spread of the resistance either.
The political and economic policies imposed by the occupiers were the real cause of the insurrection. Those policies resulted in a catastrophic depression, with unemployment in excess of 50 percent in most areas, and the application of brutal military force against Iraqi protesters. The occupation of Iraq, unlike that of Afghanistan, sought to transform the country into a reliable client state tasked with enforcing US domination of the region. In practice, it transformed Iraq in a very different way, from a “developing” nation into an almost stateless kleptocracy, with a small elite of corrupt collaborators presiding over an impoverished population.
After the ousting of Saddam Hussein, Bush appointed Paul Bremer as the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Bremer, who was in a position of unchecked authority, began with a sweeping decree that disbanded the Iraqi Army and barred members of the Ba’ath Party from holding government jobs. Since party membership had been virtually obligatory for professional appointments to state-run enterprises, Bremer’s action dismantled the entire police apparatus and crippled Iraq’s education and hospital systems, while ensuring there would be no systematic effort to rebuild its damaged infrastructure.
A second set of decrees ordered the shutdown and sale of all state-run enterprises, creating an immediate depression in most of the viable domestic industries, apart from those related to oil production. The CPA determined that Iraqis would have to work for and buy goods and services from private, mainly foreign-owned enterprises, or not at all.
The motivation for those decisions partly stemmed from Thatcherite ideology. Indeed, Bremer went further than Margaret Thatcher herself by successfully destroying a state-financed hospital system and insisting that all medical care outside hospitals would have to be “transferred” to a private clinic system that was never constructed. A third of Iraqi hospital professionals left to work in other countries — a major contribution to the still-ongoing crisis in Iraqi health care.
As these policies took effect, two-thirds of Iraqi families were functionally unemployed and had to rely on the inadequate government subsidies established under Hussein. Bremer then began cutting these subsidies, while using lethal force to quell the ensuing protests. He had allowed the soldiers dismissed from the Iraqi Army to keep their weapons, supplying the resistance with a vast potential arsenal just when the vicious repression of nonviolent protest was driving a growing number of Iraqis toward armed insurrection.
A Neoliberal Cesspool
As the fighting escalated, Bremer and the carefully selected successor regimes populated by Iraqi collaborators continued to advance the neoliberal project in Iraq. The closure of state-owned firms created opportunities for foreign (mainly US) firms to provide the goods and services Iraqis had once produced for themselves, at first with US government subsidies. US companies built — or, more often, imported and installed — electrical generators, sewage treatment plants, and medical facilities. Media reports painted a bright picture of spanking new technology and high-paying jobs for Iraqis that would reverse the destruction of the country’s infrastructure and economic decline.
The reality was a cesspool of corruption and systemic unemployment. Congressional legislation ensured that the insufficient sums of money allocated for reconstruction would go to US corporations and their international partners, while leaving the job of regulation to the contracting firms themselves. From the tens of billions of dollars made available, much of the cash was siphoned off directly to swell corporate bottom lines or spent inside the US, paying for supplies of equipment or services that never reached Iraq.
Even if the money did get as far as Iraqi soil, the companies spent it on “security services” provided by mercenaries or subcontracted their work to corrupt and incompetent Iraqi collaborators who rarely completed the projects after taking their share of the proceeds. The few infrastructure projects actually brought to completion soon fell into a state of malfunction and decay because of inadequate maintenance.
US-made electrical generators, sewage-treatment plants, and other basic infrastructure were meant to replace the technology of French or Soviet origin that had been purchased before the embargo of the 1990s. Iraqis engineers and technicians had become expert at repairing and jerry-rigging these old facilities, before Paul Bremer shut down the state enterprises that had employed them. The new infrastructure should have offered well-paid jobs to these unemployed Iraqi engineers, if only they had been trained to service the machinery.
However, the US companies demanded additional funding for such retraining, which was not forthcoming. The kleptocratic US client government also refused to divert funds for maintenance. The engineers had to look for work in the oil industry or in neighboring countries, leaving the new facilities to deteriorate.
Predictably, the only established economic sector that the US occupation tried to sustain and expand was oil and gas production. Bremer’s plan for oil, in contrast with other state-owned companies, was to continue production until international oil companies could take over. But the oil facilities were vulnerable to sabotage by the armed insurgency.
Meanwhile, the highly paid and skilled workforce undertook repeated strikes that crippled production whenever the transfer of ownership loomed. Despite coming under intense pressure from the US, the Iraqi parliament never passed legislation to privatize its oil sector.
The Bush administration claimed that it wanted such legislation in order to establish a stable division of oil revenues between Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish regions of the country. In reality, Washington stoked up tensions among the three groups in an effort to weaken the resistance and win support from the oil-rich Kurdish region to privatize oil fields in that part of the country at least. The occupiers also failed to significantly increase production, which was supposed to generate the revenues that, according to Rumsfeld’s deputy Paul Wolfowitz, would enable Iraq to “finance its own reconstruction.”
The chief military goal of Bush and his team was the construction of five massively expensive bases for permanent occupation by the US military. This plan was meant to guarantee a client government in Iraq while enabling the US military to dominate the wider Middle East. Although the bases were built, costing tens of billions of dollars, the Status of Forces Agreement that Bush had signed with the Iraqi government at the end of his presidency rendered them unusable for such purposes.
That agreement reflected the weak military position of the United States and the assertiveness of Iraqi legislators representing parties that were based in the resistance. The agreement, which appeared in English translation just days before Congress was set to vote on it, specified that the United States could not use the bases to attack another country without permission from the Iraqi parliament. The realities of Iraqi politics, not to mention deteriorating US credibility with the country’s neighbors, dictated that such permission would never be granted.
The agreement was still a political masterstroke for Bush and the Republicans, because it allowed them to claim success in the war and then blame Barack Obama when he conformed to the deadline for US withdrawal at the end of 2011 that Bush himself had negotiated. We are now seeing the same dynamic play out with Donald Trump and Joe Biden over the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The Fruits of War
The United States never accepted defeat in Iraq. It reacted with greater brutality to every setback until the implementation of the Status of Forces Agreement, and has since engaged in sporadic but lethal air attacks and special forces operations. When it became clear that US plans for Iraq were not going to work even in the most minimal form, the administrations that came after Bush settled for preventing anyone else — including the Iraqi people — from developing a moderately productive political economy. The long-term impact of the US presence has been to transform Iraq into an ungovernable wasteland.
The US government never bothered to count Iraqi casualties. However, one estimate published by the British medical journal the Lancet calculated that 650,000 people, both civilians and combatants, had died as a result of the war by June 2006. A survey conducted a year later came up with a range of deaths somewhere between 946,258 and 1.12 million. Later estimates raised the number to 1.5 million by 2010.
Indirect deaths from the war will continue well into the future. The US military fired almost ten thousand shells hardened with depleted uranium, which causes cancer and birth defects. The cancer rate in Fallujah, which was destroyed by the US military, had increased fourfold by 2010, with the rate among children now twelve times higher than before the war, while leukemia rates were thirty-eight times higher.
While the insurgency disrupted US plans for a privatized economy controlled by American corporations, the industries that sustained Iraqis before the invasion have been permanently destroyed. In spite of Saddam Hussein’s brutal rule, Iraq had the best medical system in the Middle East before the war. It also had viable industries such as leather, export-oriented agriculture (especially date palms), and fishing, which provided employment for a large part of the Iraqi population and generated vital foreign exchange.
The country had a substantial middle class whose members were employed by or economically dependent on state-run enterprises (albeit predominantly Sunni, and almost all tied to the Ba’ath Party). It offered universal schooling for both men and women and had a respected university system. All families received a meager, but nevertheless significant, state-supplied food basket that protected them from malnutrition.
Oil revenues provided much of the finance for these social benefits. But their existence showed that Iraq under Saddam did not suffer from the classic “oil curse” — the tendency for oil-rich countries to experience little or no economic development, because foreign firms and domestic corruption siphon off the revenues that oil generates.
We have to acknowledge the extent to which Iraq’s prewar ruling elite did channel oil wealth into personal fortunes, and to invest in the outsized military which engaged in murderous attacks on Iraqi citizens, especially Kurds and Shias. However, the US occupation did not improve conditions for the Iraqi people. On the contrary, it made things worse for them in every facet of daily life, giving rise to sky-high unemployment levels, food insecurity, homelessness, and displacement. By 2006, the war launched by the United States had already killed twice as many civilians as the Saddam Hussein regime slaughtered in a quarter-century of brutal rule.
Politically, the invasion removed a murderous autocracy with a large, oil-financed state sector that had been able to sustain a viable economy, replacing it with an incompetent kleptocracy that presided over a dysfunctional economic system. Warlords gained control over large parts of the country. Insurgencies, animated by religious and ethnic conflicts that the policies of the occupation set in motion, continue to kill Iraqi civilians and make the remnants of the country ungovernable (with the exception of the well-guarded oil facilities).
Iraq fits into a broader pattern of US foreign policy. While the United States wants to control other countries, it is even more interested in depriving rivals — above all, China and Russia — of resources and influence. Iraq today cannot provide a decent life for its own people, let alone resources for anyone else. Its crippled oil production is no longer the prize that it was imagined to be twenty years ago.
Even if the US did not secure control over the extraction or distribution of Iraq’s oil, it did manage to turn off the spigot, making it harder for Washington’s main rival, China, to obtain enough oil to meet its energy needs. Today, the United States is following the same approach elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa, settling for devastation that deprives its rivals of an opportunity if it cannot secure control over valuable resources itself.
9/11 did not create a new US foreign policy. Rather, it muffled domestic opposition enough to allow Bush to launch long-planned wars in the Middle East, and for his successors to continue those wars and extend them to Africa. The “war on terror” has primarily been the cover for a US effort to utilize its military power to control resources (or deny its adversaries such control). It will only end when Americans mobilize with sufficient intensity to force their government and its permanent military establishment to abandon this quest for global domination, with all the immiseration and death it brings in its wake.