Lee P. Ruddin: 9/11 and the Evolution (Not Revolution) of U.S. Policy Toward Iraq

Roundup: Talking About History

Lee P. Ruddin is Roundup Editor at HNN. 

“9/11 changed U.S. foreign policy dramatically,” says Gideon Rose. The editor of Foreign Affairs made his comments in a video as part of a special Council on Foreign Relations series that explores how the events of September 11 affected international relations. While such an assertion appears incontrovertible, the historical record says otherwise. It is only right and proper, then, as we commemorate the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, that we look at how America, in Rose’s words, “unleashed … power” on the Middle East generally and Iraq specifically, pre- and post-2001.  

Do not get me wrong, Rose is spot on when he refers to “domestic political constraints” being lifted after the felling of the World Trade Center towers and part of the Pentagon building. Indeed, I find the former Clinton official’s argument that 9/11 forced the American people and the legislative branch to present the executive one with a “blank check”, thoroughly convincing. For all James M. Lindsay’s similarly-persuasive talk (in James P. Pfiffner and Roger H. Davidson’s (ed.) Understanding the Presidency) of Congress’s shift from “defiance of Clinton to deference to Bush,” though, the atrocities one clear blue September morning did not create any real clear blue water between presidents 42 and 43 when it came to Middle East policy generally or their stance towards Saddam Hussein specifically.

Let us deal with the more general point first. Assessing historical trends is indispensable to analyses of change and continuity in the post-9/11 world. Given the constraints of space, however, suffice it to say that the Nixon Doctrine opened the floodgates of U.S. military aid to the Persian Gulf and helped set the stage for the Carter Doctrine which, in turn, led to the direct American involvement in the Gulf and Iraq Wars. Considering what U.S. foreign relations specialist Salim Yaqub says about the Eisenhower Doctrine serving as “the script for America’s debut in the region,” however, it could be argued that the events of March 9, 1957, and the bill’s inauguration to fight International Communism, was what changed American foreign policy dramatically – not 9/11, since 3/9 is the date when the U.S. truly engaged the Middle East.

Let us now turn to the second, more specific, point. The Iraq War, the second Iraq War, the Third Gulf War – call it what you will, the 2003 invasion has been largely attributed to the leadership circle of George W. Bush. With 9/11 as the catalyst, goes writer Michael Lind’s thesis, “a small clique”, otherwise referred to as the neoconservatives, “took advantage of President Bush’s ignorance and inexperience” and “steered the U.S. into a Middle Eastern war unrelated to any plausible threat” to the homeland.

As appealing as the neocon-conspiracy thesis may be, it reduces the Iraq War to an accident which overlooks the Gulf War as its foundation. 9/11 is just one event in the period 1990-2003 which I treat as an historical subject: The Saddam War. (Stephen Walt thinks likewise according to his Foreign Policy blog, if only to advise future historians in “search for the moment when the ‘American Empire’ reached its pinnacle and began its descent, [that] the war began 21 years ago would be a good place to start.”) This is in view of the fact that, notwithstanding the February 1991 termination of Operation Desert Storm and the subsequent ceasefire agreement based on United Nations Security Council Resolution 687, a war had been fought, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Thomas E. Ricks reminds us, for more than a decade with the U.S. and UK patrolling the ‘no-fly-zone’ and attacking Iraqi air defense units.

Saddam would not have been toppled at the time he was had 9/11 not occurred. Yet from 1990, when the worm had turned, to paraphrase Iraq expert Kenneth Pollack, it had been U.S. policy – albeit implicitly at first and later explicitly – to remove the ‘Butcher of Baghdad.’ As such, it is my contention that Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, referred to here as 8/2, was what brought about the dramatic change in U.S. foreign policy; 9/11 merely allowed the commander-in-chief to pursue a policy that was politically impossible in a pre-9/11 world. Steven Hurst, author of The United States and Iraq Since 1979: Hegemony, Oil and War, intelligibly sums September 11 up as serving “mainly as a facilitator of existing desires rather than a generator of new ones.”   

As a consequence, it is erroneous to believe – as Rose evidently does – that the events of 9/11 provided a radical, sui generis, rationale for regime change in the form of a fear of WMD-armed terrorists. As clear and present as the danger undoubtedly was to the Bush administration, terrorists were only viewed as a “potential delivery system that rogue states might use to try deter an American response to a bid for regional hegemony. Rather than being subsumed or displaced by the ‘war on terror’”, Hurst pithily writes, “it was the war on terror which was subsumed by, and used as a rationale for, the preservation of American hegemony in the Gulf.” Officials who favored regime change no longer had to rely on convert action since an evolution from low-grade to high-grade war was now possible given the revolution in public opinion.

As Melvyn Leffler, the Edward Stettinius Professor of History at the University of Virginia, reminds us in the current edition of Foreign Affairs, “the Bush administration’s use of force to bring about regime change ... comported with what most Americans believed to be desirable at the time.” And while Rose may not have supported Bush’s foreign policy, “it is time”, says Leffler, “ten years after 9/11 ... for Americans to reflect [on] their history” since only then will scholars stop making school-boy errors when it comes judging whether or not “9/11 changed U.S. foreign policy dramatically.”

I would like to dedicate this article to Theresa M. Lynch, an embryonic academic, and one with a bright future ahead of her. The necessary research would simply not have been possible without the support of Miss Lynch.

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