Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

A War Too Far? Bush, Iraq, and the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

A War Too Far? Bush, Iraq, and the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election

Article excerpt

Following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, the issue of security was central to the 2004 U.S. presidential election. Much of the debate focused on the Iraq War of March-April 2003 and in particular on the arguments that were put forward to justify the war--the perceived links between Iraq and terrorism, and on Iraq's capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction (WMD) which could be used by terrorists to threaten the United States. In theory, the failure to find evidence of WMD following the invasion, together with the difficulties in establishing a stable postwar Iraqi regime, should have harmed George W. Bush's reelection prospects in the 2004 presidential election. As it turned out, he was comfortably reelected.

This article examines the role of the Iraq War in the 2004 U.S. presidential election and in Bush's reelection. It examines the ways by which public opinion was mobilized to support war, through priming and by the Bush administration's policy of constantly linking Iraq with terrorism and portraying it as a threat to U.S. security. Using the 2004 American National Election Study (ANES), the article also examines how Bush became personally associated with the war and how this shaped the public's evaluations of his personal qualities. The final part of the article examines the influence of Iraq on both turnout in the election and in shaping the final election result.

The Road to War

The origins of the 2003 Iraq War can be traced to the 1990-91 Gulf War, when a U.S.-led coalition had confronted Iraq over its invasion of Kuwait and forced a withdrawal. However, the coalition had not removed Iraq's leader, Saddam Hussein, from power. Many on the Republican right saw this as a fundamental error, as it left a regime in power which could potentially threaten the whole region and jeopardize the West's access to its rich oil reserves. Following the 1992 presidential election, the Clinton administration sought to deal with Iraq by diplomatic means, by relying on UN inspection teams to find and destroy WMD, and through economic sanctions. (1) The administration did pass the Iraqi Liberation Act in 1998, which allocated funds to equip and train opponents of Saddam Hussein, but in practice little was done. During the 2000 presidential election campaign neither George W. Bush nor Al Gore mentioned Iraq, as at that time it was not considered to pose any threat to U.S. interests. (2)

The September 11 attacks fundamentally changed U.S. foreign policy generally, and U.S. policy toward Iraq specifically. In the wake of 9-11, Bush enunciated the "Bush Doctrine," which permitted the United States to pursue terrorists regardless of territorial boundaries; in Bush's words, the United States would "make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them" (quoted in Jervis 2003). However, the preemptive nature of the doctrine dictated that the United States should invade Afghanistan first, because it was the base for al-Qaeda operations, the instigator of the 9-11 attacks. It was only after the invasion of Afghanistan had been completed successfully that the administration was able to turn its attention to Iraq.

The formal justification for the invasion of Iraq was its alleged manufacture and stockpiling of WMD, which Bush argued could be used by terrorists to threaten the United States. As Bush put it on March 18, 2003: "The danger is clear: using chemical, biological or, one day, nuclear weapons obtained with the help of Iraq, the terrorists could fulfill their stated ambitions and kill thousands or hundreds of thousands of innocent people in our country or any other." A similar argument was made in Britain, where the allegation surfaced, in a government document (where it was repeated four times), that Iraq could field WMD in forty-five minutes. This claim proved to be pivotal in persuading reluctant Labour MPs to support the government's decision to go to war. …

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