Stieb, Joseph, The Regime Change Consensus, Iraq In American Politics 1990-2003, Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, New Deli, Singapore: Cambridge University Press, 2021
The majority of books on the Iraq invasion focus upon the early days of the Bush administration and then how 9/11 changed its perceptions and led to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Few have analysis and most just recite the history. Joseph Stieb in The Regime Change Consensus, Iraq In American Politics 1990-2003 is one of those rare releases which focuses upon the ideas that led the conflict with Iraq. It discusses how the first Bush administration created a containment policy around Iraq after the Gulf War and how that broke down in the 1990s so that by the time 9/11 happened the only real debate within the American political establishment was not whether to invade Iraq but how.
Stieb begins by outlining America’s containment policy from the presidency of George H.W. Bush to Bill Clinton. The idea was that after the Gulf War the United Nations inspectors would destroy Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, no fly zones over the north and south would pen in the country, while sanctions would degrade its military and economy so that it was no longer a threat to the Middle East. It was hoped that these pressures might lead to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein but that was not necessary. Clinton continued this strategy but tried to answer the growing criticism of containment by saying that the sanctions would never be lifted until Saddam complied with all U.N. resolutions. Washington could say that Iraq would never follow through so the policy would continue while telling its allies that sanctions could be lifted if Baghdad just changed its stance. A growing group of American elites came to question this policy almost as soon as it was announced.
Neoconservatives have been written about at length with regards to the Iraq war as the main group advocating for regime change and transforming the Middle East but there were Democrats and even containment advocates who joined their camp by the 2000s. Neoconservatives argued that the totalitarian regime of Saddam was inherently a threat to the world order because governments that mistreat their own people cause conflict in the international community as well. Thus it was believed that Iraq would always try to build WMD and would threaten the Middle East sometime in the future. By the mid-1990s the internal opposition in Iraq had been crushed in failed coup and revolt attempts so containment advocates could no longer claim that their stance would lead to any change in Iraq. It was simply maintaining the status quo which meant Saddam would remain in power. All those different groups and individuals that wanted to transform Iraq came to agree that regime change was the only solution. This all culminated in the George W. Bush presidency which argued that containment was failing, Iraq had rebuilt its WMD and could give them to terrorists to strike the United States and therefore war was necessary. In the aftermath Iraq would become a democracy and the entire region could be transformed as neoconservatives and many liberals thought that democratic societies were less violent then autocratic ones. Stieb shows that the Iraq War was the result of more than a decade of arguments within the U.S. establishment that undermined the containment consensus and created a new one advocating for war.
This is what makes The Regime Change Consensus so important to read. It links the Bush administration to the political elites in America who had turned on containment by the end of the 1990s and paved the way for war in 2003. No group with a real say in Washington even put forth an alternative to the Iraq invasion by that time. Stieb’s argument is strong and his analysis is outstanding. Few books offer such insights into the Iraq War as they tend focus more upon events rather than the larger ideas at play. It makes The Regime Change Consensus a must read.
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