I have a rather long paper on this topic that I'm going to post here in parts. I would appreciate constructive criticism of my arguments. Part 1 follows.
What prompted me to write this article was the appearance of some interesting and thought-provoking papers written by others. Among these are first, Mearsheimer and Walt’s very unusual article giving a critical account of “The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy”. What is unusual is the fact that two mainstream political science professors wrote an article so critical of Israeli treatment of the Palestinians and advocating a policy much more sympathetic to Palestinian aspirations that appeared as a Harvard Kennedy School of Government working paper. Second, an article by Jonathan Cutler of Wesleyan University, “Beyond Incompetence: Washington’s War in Iraq” and third, an article by Juan Cole, a Middle East specialist at University of Michigan, called "The Iraqi Shiites: On the history of America’s would-be allies."
The possible motives for the Iraq war have received much attention since the war was initiated in March 2003. Many motives for war have been advanced and arguments have been marshaled for one motive as against others. More generally, the motives behind American foreign policy have long been debated. For those of us who are alarmed by the direction American foreign policy has been taking it is important to try to understand the motives and forces driving it.
There are a number of recurring debates about the motives behind US foreign policy. First, debate has occurred over whether policies have a single cause or are the product of multiple interacting causes; second, whether US governments act as a single unit or different factions exist within an administration advocating substantially different policies; third, whether policies are primarily a result of “realism” or can be pushed significantly in an unrealistic direction by emotional-ideological commitments; fourth, whether policies are pursued in a thoroughly knowledgeable fashion or policymakers often commit blunders and mistakes in carrying out their favored policies; finally, whether policies are driven by the reasons leaders publicly announce or public statements mainly serve to rally Americans behind the policies while the real reasons are discussed only privately.
The motives suggested for the war in Iraq have included: 1) America’s wish to control Middle East oil, 2) Bush II’s wish to get back at Saddam Hussein for planning to assassinate Bush I, 3) the Israel lobby, 4) neoconservative plans to establish a new and more stable base of US operations in the Middle East (more stable than Saudi Arabia as they saw it), 5) blundering and foolhardiness on the part of Bush and his key advisers, 6) a wish to establish “democracy” in the Middle East, 7) the belief that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD, 8) the wish to prosecute the “war on terror”, 9) Bush II administration outrage at the brutal treatment of the Shia and Kurds by Saddam, and 10) because they thought it would be easy.
As a clinical psychologist it seems clear to me that most human behavior has more than a single motivation. People ordinarily have several reasons for taking actions. We typically act in such a way as to kill two, three or more birds with a single stone. Yet, when thinking about human motives, the human mind tends toward simplifying into either/or categories, probably because this simplification makes thinking easier and less complicated. Nonetheless, if we wish an adequate explanation of motives for the war we will not limit ourselves to single cause thinking and either/or alternatives.
This paper takes the position that there were multiple interacting motives for the war in Iraq. Desiring secure control over Iraqi oil, seeking more secure military bases, wanting revenge, attempting to realize a particular vision of Middle East policy as advocated by neoconservatives who might be allied with the “Israel Lobby”, all these and more could be concurrent causes of the war in Iraq. These motives are not mutually exclusive; pursuing one does not preclude pursuing others at the same time. In a recent comment on Mearsheimer and Walt’s article, “The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy”, Noam Chomsky wrote about his view of “the main sources of US [Middle East] policy”. In discussing these he cautioned, “Notice incidentally that what is at stake is a rather subtle matter: weighing the impact of several factors which (all agree) interact in determining state policy….” Indeed, policy analysis is a “subtle matter” which does involve “weighing the impact of several factors which… interact in determining state policy”.
Policy is most typically discussed using general, inclusive terms such as “national interests” or “strategic interests” and these are often not defined more specifically. These generic terms usually include more than a single goal. There is evidence that, from the very beginning the Bush II administration defined goals in Iraq very broadly (See Ron Suskind, The Price of Loyalty, pp. 70-86). Condoleezza Rice, then National Security Adviser, “noted that Iraq might be the key to reshaping the entire region [of the Middle East]” in the Bush II administration’s first National Security Committee meeting on January 30, 2001, only 10 days after George W. Bush’s first inauguration. “[R]eshaping the entire region” almost certainly included more secure oil, a new “friendly” Iraqi regime, new military facilities, and another base to supplement and increase the “security” of the U.S.’ chief ally in the region, Israel.
Nonetheless, Mearsheimer and Walt seem close to falling into the either/or trap themselves:
"Pressure from Israel and the Lobby was not the only factor behind the U.S. decision to attack Iraq in March 2003, but it was a critical element. Some Americans believe that this was a “war for oil,” but there is hardly any direct evidence to support this claim. Instead, the war was motivated in good part by a desire to make Israel more secure. (p. 29, emphasis added)"
Although they allow for other factors, they do not discuss any other than the Israel Lobby and oil. Moreover, it is not at all clear what the distinction between “direct evidence” and indirect evidence means in this context. Is it only direct evidence if a President or other administration spokesperson says, “We are going to invade Iraq because we want to make sure we can control their oil for our purposes”. If so then almost every other piece of evidence would be indirect. Such direct evidence is highly unlikely because it would clearly contradict US public statements about its motives. But how about the following, would this qualify as “direct” evidence? In his book “House of War” James Carroll writes (2006, pp. 484-5), “In 1992… [Paul] Wolfowitz wrote a document called ‘Defense Planning Guidance’… [which] foresaw the need for a new doctrine of ‘preventive war….’ [T]he Wolfowitz vision of 1992 described in detail an imagined war against, yes, Iraq.” In a footnote on p. 210 Carroll quotes from Wolfowitz, “In the Middle East and Southwest Asia… our overall objective is to remain the predominant outside power in the region and preserve U.S. and Western access to the region’s oil.”
As indirect evidence many have pointed to the experience of Bush II and VP Cheney’s past executive activities and ownership interest in the oil industry as prima facie evidence that oil must have played a role. Also, in Chomsky’s book, “Failed States” (2006, p. 36) he wrote:
"Shortly after the invasion of Iraq, one of the more astute of the senior planners and analysts, Zbigniew Brzezinski, pointed out that America’s control over Middle East oil producers ‘gives it indirect but politically critical leverage on the European and Asian economies that are also dependent on energy exports from the region.’ He was reiterating the conclusions of leading post-World War II planners, George Kennan in this case, who recognized that control of the resources of the Gulf region would give the United States ‘veto power’ over its industrial rivals."
If influential foreign policy advisers like Bzezinski and Kennan are capable of recognizing the importance of Middle East oil, how likely is it that the Bush II administration would overlook its importance? If, instead of resources like oil as motives for war in Iraq, our leaders were concerned about the terrible atrocities Saddam had perpetrated on the Kurds, why might we have been so passive about atrocities in Rwanda? Here is a CIA description of Rwanda’s economy: “Rwanda is a poor rural country with about 90% of the population engaged in (mainly subsistence) agriculture. It is the most densely populated country in Africa and is landlocked with few natural resources and minimal industry. Primary foreign exchange earners are coffee and tea.” Might the lack of any natural resources like oil be at all related to our lack of significant interest in Rwanda? Chomsky suggested a thought experiment where we imagine that the primary output of Iraq were “lettuce and pickles” and then reflect upon whether the Bush II administration would be equally focused on Iraq.
Regarding Mearsheimer and Walt’s apparent opposition between the Israel Lobby or oil as motive, there is no reason the Bush II administration could not try to make Israel more secure AND try to get better control of Iraq’s oil, while pursuing other “strategic interests” simultaneously. However, the chief goal of Mearsheimer and Walt was not to explain the motives for the Iraq war but to describe the “Israel Lobby”. Thus, it is likely unfair to expect a fully worked out account of motives for the war from them.
End of Part 1, Part 2 to follow.