Ten years after the invasion of Iraq, most people are still confused as to why the United States chose to initiate a war against Saddam Hussein. While it is generally understood that the WMD and democracy-building arguments for war peddled by the Bush administration were overly propagandistic, the most popular explanation to replace these arguments, namely that the United States wanted to control Iraq’s oil, does not stand up to the test of logic either. If the United States had wanted access to Iraqi oil, it would have been enormously cheaper simply to buy it. This is of course not to say that oil did not play a big role in the decision to invade. It just did not do so in the simplistic, “I drink your milkshake” sort of way that is often implied or alleged by Bush’s critics.
The real motivation behind the American invasion of Iraq seems to have been the Bush administration’s belief that it would help the United States to bolster the American strategic position in the Middle East and constrain Islamic-oriented militancy. Saddam Hussein might not have wanted to support Osama bin Laden or planned to acquire nuclear weapons, but Iraq was critical to Bush’s plans anyway because of its position in the heart of the Middle East and its Saddam-era animosity towards Iran and Kuwait.
The United States blamed two countries the most for 9-11: Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. Afghanistan was blamed because it was where Al Qaeda was based, while Saudi Arabia was blamed because Bin Laden and other high-ranking Al Qaeda members were Saudi, fifteen out of the nineteen airplane hijackers were Saudi, much of the funding of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other extremist Islamic organizations was derived directly or indirectly from Saudi oil revenues, and Saudi Arabia itself had an officially radical – or, if you prefer, ultraconservative – ideology (among other things, it is illegal for Saudi women to drive). Saudi Arabia was also allied with the nearby majority Sunni population of Pakistan, a country which was also close to the Taliban, had become the first Muslim state to acquire and keep nuclear weapons in 1998, and had fought a war against India in 1999.
The United States wanted to compel Saudi Arabia to crack down on its religious radicalism, but the Saudis were loath to do so because such radicalism was ingrained deeply in their society and state, and was also used as a tool for the Saudis to project influence abroad. Invading Saudi Arabia was not an option: it is the seventh largest country in the world, is covered almost entirely by desert and mountains, was an integral component of the US-led global economic system because of its oil production (whereas Iraqi production was low because of decades of sanctions and wars), and it would have been extraordinarily difficult to “put back together again” with any new government – more difficult even than Iraq was, perhaps.
Indeed, given the conservatism of the Arabian peninsula, not only in Saudi Arabia but also in neighbouring, overpopulated Yemen, the region would potentially have become even less friendly to the United States under a government other than the Saudi royal family. And of course, it would have been a disaster to put American troops anywhere near the Saudi-controlled sacred cities of Mecca and Medina. Thus, the Bush administration followed through with a different plan: invading Iraq.
Invading Iraq might have been about overthrowing a dangerous totalitarian regime, like Bush claimed, and it might have been about putting Iraqi oil reserves under the influence of the United States, like Bush’s critics claimed. Either way, it was also supposed to put pressure on regional Middle Eastern powers like Saudi Arabia by placing hundreds of thousands of American soldiers on their vulnerable borders, as we will discuss in a moment. Moreover, it was supposed to force the Saudis to become more dependent on the US for regional security, as Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led regime had been Saudi Arabia’s foremost ally in the region against the Shiite and Persian government of Iran.
Saudi Arabia’s population is deeply divided by both geography and religious sect. Sunnis make up the majority of the Saudi population, with fourteen million Sunnis living in provinces bordering the Red Sea and six million Sunnis living in or around the central, capital city of Riyadh. Saudi Arabia’s Persian Gulf region, however, is predominantly Shiite Muslim. This area, separated from the coast of the Red Sea by a thousand kilometres of desert and mountains, possesses roughly ninety percent of Saudi Arabia’s oil.
Saudi Arabia worries that Iran will lead this part of the country to rebel against Saudi rule. Saudi Arabia has not exactly been kind to its Shiites: it has plundered most of their oil wealth and occasionally banned celebration of their holidays. Saudi Arabia’s 2009 invasion of neighbouring Bahrain, aimed at protecting Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy from its protesting Shiite majority, is a recent illustration of this phenomenon. America’s unseating of Saddam Hussein, who had led a massive war against Shiite Iran during the 1980’s and then brutally repressed Iraq’s very large Shiite population during the 1990’s, was in this way a tremendous blow to Saudi security.
Invading Iraq was also intended to transform the United States into the dominant power of the Middle East over the short- to medium-term. In addition to Saudi Arabia, it put tens of thousands of American troops on the borders of Iran, Syria, Kuwait, Turkey, and Jordan, and created a direct link-up with the US’s Kurdish allies in the region, some of whom had been protected by the US no-fly zone over Iraq between the First Gulf War and 2003. It also displayed American force and resolve (at least, initially), which is why the invasion strategy was referred to as “shock and awe” in the first place. From Bush’s perspective, this was much more useful than pouring troops into Afghanistan, a vast, landlocked country with some of the most rugged terrain in the world, no significant Arab population, and a decade of experience fighting a guerrilla war against the Soviet Union that at the time had ended only twelve years earlier.
While Bush’s strategy involved strengthening Iran in order to weaken the Sunni Arab world by comparison (and, possibly, to weaken the geopolitical positions of Sunni Pakistan and/or Sunni Turkey as well), it was likely believed that Iranian influence could later be contained fairly easily by other regional powers like Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. This has now occurred to a certain extent with the undermining of the Assad government in Syria, which has been one of Iran’s most important regional allies.
Indeed, Iranian influence was seen as inherently limited, as Shiite Arabs are only a plurality of Iraq and Lebanon’s populations rather than a majority, Syria’s Iranian-allied ruling Alawite population is greatly outnumbered by Syrian Sunnis and other non-Shiite groups, Iranians are not Arabs, and Iran is itself deeply internally divided between ethnic Persians (who are only about half of the Iranian population, according to some estimates), Azeris (bordering energy-rich Azerbaijan, which became independent when the Soviet Union broke up), Turkmen (bordering energy-rich Turkmenistan, which also became independent after the Soviet Union), Kurds (bordering Turkish Kurdistan, Syrian Kurdistan, and energy-rich Iraqi Kurdistan, which became empowered by Saddam’s removal from power and, more recently, by Assad’s weakening), Shiite Arabs (bordering southern Iraq, who also became empowered by Saddam’s removal), Baluchis (bordering Pakistan’s restive Baluchistan region, which became a bit more empowered when the US-Afghan War led to Pakistan’s relative destabilization), and other groups.
While destroying the Iraqi regime obviously strengthened Iran over the medium-term, in the short term it was also supposed to make Iran vulnerable to American influence. Invading Iraq put the American military on the border of Iran’s Khuzestan province, which is unique among Iranian provinces in that much of its population is Arab rather than Persian, its border is flat and exposed rather than mountainous, it is separated from the rest of Iranian territory by hundreds of km of mountains, it is home to most of Iran’s oil deposits (which are thought to be the second largest “conventional” reserves in the world, after Saudi Arabia’s), and it is close to most of Iran’s offshore natural gas reserves (which are also thought to be the second largest in the world, after Russia’s). Khuzestan is in many ways the achilles heel of Iran, and the American military presence along its border in Iraq was therefore supposed to help grant the United States leverage over the Iranian government.
This was an important aspect of US strategy, as Iran has a religious government and had not been an ally of the US since before 1979, and because Iran’s cooperation was needed in order for the war in neighbouring Afghanistan – which is largely a Persian-speaking country – to go smoothly. In fact, because Khuzestan’s Arab population is Shiite, the American goal of replacing of Saddam Hussein’s anti-Shiite regime with a secular Iraqi government may have also been intended to destabilize Iran in the long term by making Khuzestan Arabs more likely to want to secede from Iran and integrate themselves with Iraq instead. To be sure, when Saddam invaded Khuzestan during the Iran-Iraq War, it is thought that he had expected to be received as a liberator by the Arab inhabitants of the province, but was instead shunned by them as a Sunni tyrant.
It is true, of course, that Saddam Hussein’s regime was a Baathist one, and was therefore technically secular rather than Sunni Islamic. And some of Saddam Hussein’s main victims, such as the Iraqi Kurds or the Kuwaitis, were Sunni. That being said, Iraq’s huge and terrible war against the explicitly Shiite government of Revolutionary Iran in the 1980s, the collapse of Iraq’s secular benefactor the Soviet Union in 1991, the repression of Shiite Iraqis in the early 1990s following the Fist Gulf War with the US, the placing of “God is Great” on the Iraqi flag in 1991, and other events – including, arguably, the giving of some support to known Al Qaeda members – seemed to show that the Iraqi Baathists were becoming more politically religious.
Many Baathists certainly did go on to use religion as a political tool following the US invasion; ex-Baathist officials have frequently been accused of playing a leading role in post-Saddam Sunni groups like Al Qaeda in Iraq, or, more recently, in ISIS. And in general, there has been a post-Cold War trend of once secular Sunni Middle Eastern states, for example that of Turkey, the Palestinian militant resistance, the opposition in Algeria during its civil war throughout the 1990s, post-Gaddaffi Libya, or, briefly, post-Mubarak Egypt, moving in an Islamist direction. Though we will never know how the Iraqi Baathists may have evolved over time had they not been removed from power by the US in 2003, seeing Saddam’s government as a Sunni one is nevertheless not an incorrect viewpoint – even if the full truth of it may be a bit more complex.
Of course, none of this changes the fact that the Iraq War was arguably a strategic mistake for the United States, and possibly a moral failure as well. Still, it may be comforting to know that, contrary to popular belief, the reasons behind the invasion were not entirely incoherent or sinister (or at least, not sinister in the ways that people have assumed they were). And perhaps we should not judge Bush too harshly for concealing his true purposes. After all, Obama cloaked his support for Syria’s rebels in precisely the same anti-tyranny, anti-WMD rhetoric that Bush once employed towards Iraq, consistently avoiding the fact that the rebels’ success benefited the United States by curtailing Iranian influence in places like Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine. And now Obama finds himself again in the same dilemma as Bush, wanting to move closer to the Shiites and/or Persians in the region in order to counterbalance the dominant Sunnis and/or Arabs, yet also concerned that this will result in increased Sunni militancy, a destabilized Arabia, and an ascendant Turkey or Iran.