So, why did the United States decide to invade Iraq in 2003? There may have been some sinister or stupid reasons for the war, as an overwhelming majority of Americans believe there were, but there were also strategic motivations behind it, which are almost never acknowledged. These were, namely:
1. To weaken the position of the Sunni Arabs in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular, within the Middle East. Even though Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist, Sunni-led government was often unfriendly towards other Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia and even attempted to annex Sunni-majority Kuwait, Saddam’s Iraq was ultimately aligned with the Saudi Arabian position in the region anyway.
This was a result of Iraq’s intense rivalry with the Shiite non-Arab state of Iran, which it had fought an enormous war against throughout most of the 1980s, and because of Iraq’s repression of its own Shiite Arab majority population, which its had acted with brutality toward during the 1990s. The Saudis were afraid that Shiite Iran and Iraq’s Shiite majority would one day work together to undermine the Saudi position within Saudi Arabia’s own Shiite-inhabited Eastern Province, which is extremely far away from where most Saudis live and yet is also where most Saudi energy production is located.
[Saddam Hussein’s government may have been a nominally secular Ba’athist one, but that did not stop him from engaging in religiously sectarian politics during most of his time as Iraq’s leader, or from adding the phrase “God is Great” to the Iraqi flag in 1991 in what was sometimes said to be his own handwriting. With the collapse of Iraq’s secularist patron the Soviet Union around 1990, and with the increase in worldwide pan-Islamism around the same time (as a result of various factors, such as the Islamic victory in the Afghan-Soviet War in the late 1980s, the gaining of independence for Muslim countries in Central Asia as a result of the breakup of the Soviet Union, the wars between Muslim and non-Muslim populations in the 1990s in places like Chechnya, Yugoslavia, Lebanon, Palestine, Armenia, Kuwait, Kashmir, Sudan, and East Timor, and the increased globalization of Islam as a result of the emergence of the Internet), it is not clear to what extent Iraq’s Ba’athist-style secularism — such that it was — would have survived had it not been toppled by the US invasion].
The United States blamed the Sunnis, and especially the Sunni Arabs, and especially Saudi Arabia, for 9-11, and for most Islamic extremism in general. Even as the Bush administration named Shiite Iran, and not Saudi Arabia, as one of the three “Axis of Evil” countries, it also knew that Iran’s influence was limited by the fact that 90 percent or so of the world’s Muslims are Sunni rather than Shiite, and by the fact that Iran is not an Arab country. Moreover, it knew that Iran’s state-driven brand of religiosity was far less socially conservative – and far more often ignored by its own citizens – than that which exists in several of the Sunni areas of the Muslim world, in parts of Africa, Arabia, and South Asia.
Thus the United States was not too surprised to learn that fifteen of the nineteen 9-11 hijackers, in addition to Osama bin Laden and some of the other Al Qaeda leaders, were Saudi nationals. Saudi Arabia, after all, has such an extreme political and social system that its millions of women are still not even allowed to drive a car. The US also laid a portion of the blame for Pakistan’s aquisition of nuclear weapons in 1998 at the feet of Saudi Arabia.
[In fact, less than a year before 9-11 an airplane flying from Saudi Arabia to London was hijacked by four Saudis and taken to land in Iraq, which sent both the passengers and hijackers back to Saudi Arabia. A month before that, a Qatari plane was hijacked and flown to Saudi Arabia. And only six months before 9-11, a Russian plane was hijacked by Chechens and flown to Saudi Arabia, where it was stormed by Saudi special forces. Airplane hijacking has a long history in the Arab world; the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in particular hijacked many planes during much of the Cold War, and was able to pass on its experiences because its hijackers were often never arrested or killed. Most notably, on September 6, 1970, the PFLP hijacked four airplanes simultaneously – three of them successfully, one, an El Al plane, unsuccessfully – and landed two of them on a Jordanian airstrip. Yet another plane was hijacked two days later and also taken to Jordan, together triggering the Black September war a week later. The hostages from the hijacked aircraft, with the exception of Jewish hostages, were freed on September 11].
The US did not feel it could invade Saudi Arabia, however, because Saudi Arabia was too large and rugged (it has the seventh largest territory in the world, and is covered mostly by deserts and mountains), too rich in oil and natural gas infrastructure (unlike Iraq, where the energy sector had been severely underdeveloped as a result of decades of sanctions and war), too conservative and internally fractious (the US fears what would become of Saudi Arabia and Yemen if the Saudi royal family were overthrown), too strategic (the US worries that, absent the Saudis, Iran would become too influential within the Shiite-majority Persian Gulf region, and also that instability in Arabia might endanger global trade routes through the Red Sea to Suez), and too sacred (the US does not want to put its soldiers anywhere near the Saudi-controlled holy cities of Mecca or Medina, particularly given the ongoing American support for Israel’s control of Jerusalem).
As such, the Bush administration saw the de-Baathification of Iraq – i.e. the disempowerment of Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority, and by extension the empowerment of Iraq’s Shiite Arab majority and Sunni Kurds – as the next best way to weaken the regional position of the Sunnis and Sunni Arabs in general and both Iraq and Saudi Arabia in particular. Indeed, the United States had already spent the decade prior to 2003 helping to build up the strength of Iraqi Kurdistan in defiance of Saddam Hussein’s government, and wanted to ensure that this work would not be undone by the Sunnis in Iraq and neighbouring Turkey who most fear Kurdish separatism.
2. To turn the United States into the dominant power in the Middle East over the short-to-medium term, by temporarily taking control of Iraq and its massive conventional oil and gas resources (the world’s third and seventh largest, respectively, according to the US Energy Information Agency), and by using Iraq as a platform from which it could put pressure on neighbouring countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. There are a number of reasons why control of Iraq seemed necessary, or at least useful, for this purpose:
– eastern Saudi Arabia, which borders Iraq, is where most Saudi oil and gas is located, yet it is a Shiite-majority region in an otherwise Sunni-majority country
– western Iran, which borders Iraq, is where much of Iran’s oil and gas is located, yet it is a majority Arab, Kurdish, Azeri, and Lur region in an otherwise Persian-majority country. (Ethnic Persians only make up an estimated 50-65 percent of Iran’s population). The Arab region of Iran, Khuzestan, is particularly energy-rich and vulnerable to Iraqi intrusion.
– eastern Syria, which borders Iraq, is where most of Syria’s oil is located, yet it is a majority Sunni Arab and Kurdish region in a country ruled by the non-Sunni government of the Assad family
– Kuwait, as the events leading up to the First Gulf War in 1990 showed, is incredibly vulnerable to external Iraqi pressure. Kuwait is the world’s eighth or ninth largest oil producer. Though it is majority Sunni country, it also has a large Shiite minority – perhaps 20-25 percent of its total population – most of whom live in the areas where most of Kuwait’s oil is extracted or exported from. In addition, Kuwait’s population of non-Arab, and often non-Muslim, foreign workers now outnumbers its own citizens by a decent amount.
– Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, both of which also share the Persian Gulf with Iraq and are also among the world’s leading oil or natural gas producers, are in a somewhat similar position to Kuwait, albeit with less direct exposure to Iraqi influence
– Jordan, which borders Iraq, has in effect a Palestinian-majority population, yet is ruled over by a royal family that was brought in from faraway Mecca by the British in the 1920s. The Jordanian royal family has survived mainly via an alliance with the US, Britain, Israel, and the Gulf Arabs. It shares a long border with Israel, from which Jerusalem is only 25 km away, and with Syria, from which Damascus is only 75 km away. Back in 2003, Jordanian politics were crucial to Israel and its allies within the United States, as Israel was then in the midst of the Second Intifada (from 2000-2005), a guerilla war which was many times more deadly to Israelis than any of the Gaza or Lebanon wars since have been
– eastern Turkey, which borders Iraq, is where most of the dams on the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, from which Iraq and eastern Syria derive most of their freshwater, are located. It is also where the Turks hope to build energy pipelines linking both the Middle East and Central Asia to Istanbul and Europe. It is, however, a majority Kurdish region, in an otherwise Turkish-majority country. Kurds in Turkey account for an estimated 20 percent of Turkey’s overall population, and for more than half of the overall Kurdish population that spans Tukrey, Iraq, Iran, and to a lesser extent Syria.
– eastern Turkey also borders Azerbaijan and the Christian countries of Armenia and Georgia. Armenia is an enemy of Turkey and ally of both Russia and the US, while Georgia is an enemy of Russia and an ally of the US. Azerbaijan, which fought a terrible war against Armenia during the 1990s, is a significant state in its own right: it is the world’s 20th largest oil producer, borders Russia’s separatist-inclined Muslim territories like Chechnya and Dagestan, and, most importantly, borders the Azeri-majority regions of Iran. Azeris account for perhaps as much as 25 percent of Iran’s entire population; indeed, Azerbaijan has even toyed with the idea of renaming itself “Northern Azerbaijan”, implying that Iran is in direct occupation of “Southern Azerbaijan”. Iran’s Azeris are linguistically about the same as those in Azerbaijan, and not too different from Turks in Turkey.
[Azerbaijan is also the world’s only formally secular Shiite state, which means that the religious Shiite Iranian regime, which rules an Iranian population that includes an increasingly large number of modern-minded Shiites as well as many Sunni, Sufi, and secular Muslims, views the Azeris as a major social and ideological threat as well. Thus Azerbaijan, which is less than 300 km from Iraq, is strategically important in spite of having a population of just around 10 million. Azerbaijan is, finally, the only link for future Turkish-European pipelines to cross the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan, which has been thought to hold the world’s fourth largest accessible reserves of natural gas.]
Iraq, in other words, is not just immensely energy-rich: it is also far and away the most strategically vital country in the Middle East, capable of pressuring all of the countries it borders – Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Kuwait, Jordan, and beyond – when it is internally unified or under the domination of a foreign power.
The United States hoped to exploit both of these traits in order to throw its weight around within the region and attempt to prevent a second major terrorist attack from occurring on American soil. This is, similarly, why Iraq continues to draw global attention today. The recent US decision to cut a deal with Iran was in made in part because of the gains that ISIS – representing some of the Sunni Arabs – and the Sunni Kurds have made within Iraq.
None of this necessarily 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 incoherent or sinister in the ways that people have generally 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 that Assad has weakened, Obama finds himself again with 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.
Of course, this is not what the (Jeb) Bush’s or (Hilary) Clintons say. With those two running for office, we could be in for yet another round of Iraq War misdirection. May the best candidate win.