Why another war? A backgrounder on the Iraq crisis

Originally published


After both houses of Congress granted the White House authorization for a US-led military strike to overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, George W. Bush claimed that "America has spoken with one voice" about the "mortal threat" posed by Iraq's presumed programs for weapons of mass destruction. But much of the US public remained unconvinced that Iraq really imperiled the world's sole superpower. The UN Security Council resolution passed on November 8, 2002 reflected international consensus that outstanding questions about Iraq's armaments should be answered through assertive inspections, not war. Bush has failed to prove the existence of an urgent threat coming from Iraq. His administration's push for war begs for alternative explanations.
The Bush administration is liberally staffed with neo-conservatives who spent the decade after the Gulf war criticizing President Bill Clinton's policy on Iraq from the right. As the 1990s wore on, the US and, to a lesser extent, Britain, became frustrated by the breakdown of international and regional consensus behind the comprehensive sanctions on Iraq, as well as the failure of sanctions and "containment" to topple Saddam Hussein. Instead of regime change, the US and Britain witnessed the increasing success of the Iraqi regime in its strategies for rehabilitating itself, and a growing belief in international public opinion that the devastating humanitarian impact of sanctions was too high a price to pay for containment of Hussein. The neo- conservatives argued, with considerable fervor, that Iraqi defiance warranted more robust US military action than Clinton's periodic missile strikes.

The convergence of these factors - declining consensus, the unpopularity of sanctions, the regime's survival and the neo-conservatives' ideological commitment - made a showdown between Saddam Hussein and the West predictable when Bush captured the White House in 2000. After the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, the neo-conservatives seized the opportunity for a reckoning with their bête noire in Baghdad.

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