When a country goes to war, one question that already should have been answered is "why?" But many people in the United States, Europe and elsewhere are genuinely perplexed about why the Bush administration is so determined, even at the cost of war, to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. In their public statements, administration officials have, if anything, increased the puzzlement. They have portrayed their campaign against Iraq as a continuation of the war against terrorism. They have claimed to have evidence of close ties between Hussein and al-Qaeda, but outside of a few scattered citations, they have failed to make a case that Hussein is an active ally of Osama bin Laden.
By offering an implausible rationale, the administration raises suspicion, particularly outside the United States, that it must have a secret agenda for ousting Hussein. Many people think that President George W. Bush wants to control Iraq's oil fields on behalf of U.S. companies. In mid-January, the German weekly Der Spiegel ran a cover story titled, "Blood for Oil." But anyone familiar with positions taken by American oil companies knows that this is implausible. In the late 1990s, oil companies lobbied to remove sanctions on Iraq. And most oil executives are extremely wary about the Bush policies toward Iraq, which they fear will destabilize the region.
What, then, explains the administration's Iraq policy? I offer here my own account, based on interviews with administration officials, press reports and, where necessary, speculation. It's not an explanation that will satisfy anyone looking for a single cause such as "blood for oil." Like many policy decisions, this one was the complicated and compromised product of different views and different factions within the administration. At any given point, it has contained contradictory aspects, wishful thinking and irrational fears, as well as the more conventional geopolitical calculations.
Three factions in the administration have been involved in formulating the Iraq policy: The first and most important has consisted of Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. They are Republican unilateralists who disdain international organizations and have been reluctant to intervene overseas except when they saw America's interests clearly at stake. The second faction is led by Secretary of State Colin Powell, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and CIA Director George Tenet. They adhere to the classic blend of realism and internationalism that had characterized the Bush Senior and Clinton administrations. And the third faction has been the neoconservatives, led by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz.
Before September 11, neither Bush nor Powell favored confrontation with Iraq. At the United Nations, Powell advocated "smart sanctions" designed to revive the Iraqi economy. Only the neoconservatives favored confronting Iraq, but they were preoccupied with China and were not represented within the cabinet itself. By last winter, however, opinion on Iraq had shifted dramatically. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld joined the neoconservatives in favoring confrontation. But they didn't share the neoconservative scenario of using an invasion of Iraq to install a model regime that would threaten its Arab neighbors, including Saudi Arabia. Instead, they were moved by two major considerations.
The first was geopolitical. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld were not concerned about enriching American oil companies, but they were worried that if Iraq acquired nuclear weapons, Hussein could achieve dominance over a region vital to world economic stability. Quipped one State Department official in explaining their reasoning, "If the Gulf produced kumquats, would we be doing this? I have my doubts." They also feared that if Iraq acquired nuclear weapons, Israel would either attempt a preemptive strike of its own or develop a second strike capability that would destabilize the region. …