Iraq’s False Promises

If you want to understand why the Bush administration invaded Iraq, read Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, not the National Security Strategy of the United States. Only the twisted logic of dreams can explain why the United States thinks that the aggressive pursuit of contradictory goals — promoting democracy, affirming U.S. hegemony, and ensuring stable energy supplies — will produce success.

To illustrate the weird logic of dreams, Sigmund Freud used to evoke a story about a borrowed kettle: When a friend accuses you of returning a borrowed kettle broken, your reply is, first, that you never borrowed the kettle; second, that you returned it unbroken; and third, that the kettle was already broken when you borrowed it. Such an enumeration of inconsistent arguments, of course, confirms precisely what it endeavors to deny: that you, in fact, did borrow and break the kettle.

A similar string of inconsistencies characterized the Bush administration’s public justifications for the U.S. attack on Iraq in early 2003. First, the administration claimed that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which posed a “real and present danger” to his neighbors, to Israel, and to all democratic Western states. So far, no such weapons have been found (after more than 1,000 U.S. specialists have spent months looking for them). Then, the administration argued that even if Saddam does not have any WMD, he was involved with al Qaeda in the September 11 attacks and therefore should be punished and prevented from launching future assaults. But even U.S. President George W. Bush had to concede in September 2003 that the United States “had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with September the 11th.” Finally, there was the third level of justification, that even if there was no proof of a link with al Qaeda, Saddam’s ruthless dictatorship was a threat to its neighbors and a catastrophe to its own people, and these facts were reason enough to topple it. True, but why topple Iraq and not other evil regimes, starting with Iran and North Korea, the two other members of Bush’s infamous “axis of evil”?

So, if these reasons don’t hold up to serious scrutiny and merely seem to suggest that the administration was misguided to do what it did, what, then, were the real underlying reasons for the attack? Effectively, there were three: first, a sincere ideological belief that the destiny of the United States is to bring democracy and prosperity to other nations; second, the urge to brutally assert and signal unconditional U.S. hegemony; and third, the need to control Iraqi oil reserves.

Each of the three levels works on its own and deserves to be taken seriously; none of them, including the spread of democracy, should be dismissed as a simple manipulation and lie. Each has its own contradictions and consequences, for good and ill. But taken together, they are dangerously inconsistent and incompatible and all but predestine the U.S. effort in Iraq to failure.

[Extract. Appeared in Foreign Policy on October 28th 2009.]