Monday, February 6, 2023

How Did America Move From Containing Saddam To Removing Him? Interview With Joseph Stieb Asst Prof at the US Naval War College

The Regime Change Consensus, Iraq In American Politics 1990-2003
by Joseph Stieb is one of the rare books that attempts to breakdown the ideas that led to the invasion of Iraq. Stieb’s thesis is that the containment policy created by President George H.W. Bush lost support in the 1990s so much so that by the 2000s the American political establishment almost all agreed that Saddam must go. This is an interview with Stieb about his ideas on what led to the Iraq War. 


1. After the Gulf War America’s policy towards Iraq became containment using U.N. inspections and sanctions and two no fly zones. This was in part based upon the U.S. experience with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. What were the underlying ideas behind the strategy?


Containment was a conflicted policy from the start. Policy-makers like Richard Haass, who designed the containment strategy while working for the National Security Council, thought that the US would contain Saddam (particularly through heavy sanctions) until he complied with the UN weapons inspections. Saddam falling from power would just be a bonus, but it wasn't a goal for Haass. However, President Bush deviated from this policy after the Gulf War by declaring that sanctions would not be lifted as long as Saddam remained in power. So containment had a soft version and a hard version, and the two were never reconciled.


2. There were critics of containment amongst U.S. elites right from the start but they gained the upper hand in the debate about Iraq by the end of the 1990s. How and why did people lose faith in containment?


American policy-makers and politicians lost faith in containment for two reasons. First, containment itself did genuinely weaken over the course of the decade: the sanctions had many holes in them, the inspectors were booted out in 1998, it was an expensive policy, and the international coalition behind it faded over time. However, many Americans also believed that you simply could not contain a regime like Baathist Iraq, nor its seemingly psychotic leader. The argument was that totalitarian regimes by their nature don't respond to rational incentives, so the only solution is regime change and democratization. Of course, in the post-Cold War world, Americans were riding high on the belief that liberal democracy could be spread anywhere by US might, and that further pushed people away from containment.


3. A mix of neoconservatives and hawkish Democrats were the main advocates for regime change in Iraq. What were their arguments for getting rid of Saddam?


The neocons believed that Saddam was a genuine threat because of his construction of WMD and ostensible links to terrorist groups. They also wanted to spread democracy and reassert the US reputation for resolve in the world. Liberal hawks shared some of these views, but they emphasized Iraq's human rights record more and believed that defeating Saddam would reaffirm the effectiveness of international law and institutions.


4. How did 9/11 shape the ideas for removing Saddam and why was the debate within the U.S. more about how to invade rather than whether it should happen in the first place?


9/11 changed the view of Iraq from a threat to national interests to a threat to national security. The Bush administration believed that Saddam might give WMD to terrorists to use against the United States, rendering containment and deterrence irrelevant. Plus, they knew that after 9/11 Americans would accept much riskier military actions to remove threats like Saddam. The debate about Iraq was so narrow because of the perceived "lessons" of the 1990s, lessons that most politicians and policy-makers absorbed. These were: Saddam will always find a way around inspections and sanctions, the international coalition will always fade in time, and ultimately you can't contain a totalitarian state, you have to try to change the regime. 


5. At the end of your book you wrote that policies like containment are much harder to maintain in U.S. politics than ideas like regime change? Why is that?


I think Americans, as citizens of an extremely powerful state, have a bias toward trying to definitively solve foreign policy challenges like Iraq rather than manage and reduce them over time. We also have a fairly universalist ideology of liberal values and human rights that we believe should be spread throughout the world. So when you put tremendous power together with a missionary sense of values, it pushes Americans away from "management" strategies like containment and toward more satisfactory "solutions" like regime change. After all, containment during the Cold War came under a lot of criticism for seemingly accepting co-existence with the USSR and not pursuing victory.


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