The Iraq Experience and Domino Theory Revisited

By Schaffer, Marvin Baker | Joint Force Quarterly, April 2010 | Go to article overview
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The Iraq Experience and Domino Theory Revisited

Schaffer, Marvin Baker, Joint Force Quarterly

With the passage of time and the contentiousness of the Iraq conflict fading, it should be possible to make a more objective assessment of the rationale leading to that war. The overwhelming public perception is that the Iraq War was a misguided attempt to track down and stop Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program. However, while the WMD rationale was raised by the Bush administration itself and certainly influenced the decision to engage in hostilities, it was not the tipping point.

The principal objective of the Iraq conflict was to decrease the likelihood of additional attacks on the American homeland by striking a decisive blow against the global terrorist threat. The hoped-for sequence of events was regime change in Iraq followed by destabilization of Iran and subsequent collapse of several significant components of the global terror network. That collapse, of course, did not occur. Iran, instead of being destabilized, was energized to exploit the chaos in Iraq and to increase its support of Hizballah and Hamas, both terrorist organizations as defined by the State Department. Attacking Iraq was a rational strategy but insufficient in and of itself.

Flash back to an early (hypothetical) 2003 crisis meeting of the National Security Council. The subject of discussion was the threat of global terrorism. What were the elements of the threat, should these be attacked, and which subset would give the greatest leverage for protecting American interests at home and abroad? It quickly became apparent that there were a half-dozen major attack points and about 20 smaller ones. They could not all be addressed simultaneously, and a sequential attack could take a decade. Prudence dictated that, if warranted at all, a small number should be attacked in the hope of undermining and bringing down the rest with minimum loss of American life. The choice made in 2003 was to attack Iraq, with continuing but decreased attention to Afghanistan. (1)

Critics of the March 2003 Iraq invasion maintain that it was the wrong war to defeat global terrorism. They assert that the exclusive focus should have been on Afghanistan and that the Iraq incursion diluted that effort. Are the critics right or misguided? Would an intensified attempt to capture or eliminate Osama bin Laden have been more productive than the protracted but arguably successful conflict in Iraq? To reiterate, this analysis concludes that the twin focus on Iraq and Afghanistan was correct and indeed necessary, but not sufficient. A third attack should have been on Iranian WMD facilities with the collateral hope of achieving regime change.

More generally, the 2003 objective should have been decisive engagement of linchpin rogue dominos, (2) the ones most likely to cause collapse of the myriad of terrorist entities on the world scene. An example of the domino process was the response of Libya, which came to terms with the West by renouncing its WMD program in 2003, arguably because of Iraq. We are left with Iran, Syria, Hizballah, Hamas, and al Qaeda (among others), still viable and all still advocating terrorist-type destruction of American interests.

Those issues are treated next, starting with an analysis of the global terrorist threat as seen through the eyes of the National Security Council in early 2003. We then proceed to identify the most lucrative dominos.

The 2003 Global Terrorist Threat

In October 2002, the Department of State had a list of more than 200 entities linked to terrorism. (3) After eliminating individual terrorists and commercial organizations, that list can be narrowed to 42 groups based in 23 countries, (4) the regional distribution of which is displayed in figure 1.


It is clear that terrorism has been a global phenomenon. The largest concentration of threats was in Europe, half in Northern Ireland, but the rest of the European Union was also infested.

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