8.7.1 Self-Protection against an Iraqi Security Threat

The UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) had uncovered and destroyed some major chemical and biological weapons facilities, but it couldn’t be certain that there weren’t others.  Christoph Bluth’s article, The British road to war: Blair, Bush and the decision to invade Iraq, listed UNSCOM’s achievements and its doubts:

“…UNSCOM built two destruction facilities for nerve gas and mustard gas, which from 1992 to 1993 destroyed all the stored agents.  Although the bulk of Iraq’s chemical warfare agents were thus eliminated, uncertainties remained.” [p. 2]

“….Three ‘Full, Final and Complete Disclosures’ of Iraq’s biological weapons programme were submitted to UNSCOM between 1995 and 1997.  A UN panel concluded in September 1997 that these documents were inadequate.” [p. 3]

Saddam Hussein’s regime therefore remained a threat to the region, but a threat which was contained once the weapons inspectors had been readmitted in November 2002.  A policy of containment was viable,[1] as noted in the Butler Report, and was supported by the UN Security Council.  None of Iraq’s neighbours had formally asked for protection and there were no signs of an immediate threat to any of them.

America and Britain had troops on Iraq’s border at that time and there was a feeling that to turn back would seriously damage their credibility “and the authority of the United Nations”.[2]  This is a consequence of using a military threat as a deterrent (7.4.2), which always requires that the threat has to be truly credible.  It is appropriate to ask why they had embarked on such a strategy, knowing that they would be unable to withdraw, and knowing that the Security Council would be unlikely to authorise an invasion (8.2.5).  The answer appears to be that both leaders had already taken the decision to proceed regardless of the UN – and both had been confident of persuading their legislatures to back them.

The decision to invade Iraq, as a means of putting an end to the threat, did not make sense in military terms.  It was never going to be as simple as sending in a posse to round up some outlaws:

  • A war cannot remove the Hydra-headed risk from international terrorism (7.3.3).
  • Saddam’s forces would not present themselves as a solid target, so air-strikes would be ineffective (
  • The use of force ‘on the ground’ cannot quell resistance which is dispersed among the civilian population (
  • A war was unlikely per se to deliver stability in the Middle East (7.4.5). Saddam had kept a lid on ethnic conflict, but identity politics and ethnic strife ( had been widely forecast as an outcome of regime change (8.6.3) – so periodic outbreaks of violence were likely.
  • Turkey would not help an invasion (8.3.3), and Iran (8.3.1) and Syria (8.3.2) would work against it.
  • The Iraqi people would not have wanted an invasion (8.6.4), and the planned destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure was certain to be disastrous for its population – though it was profitable for Halliburton (6.4.5).

These reasons not to launch a war were all known in advance, and no exit strategy ( had been defined at the outset, despite the obvious difficulties that would arise after a regime change.

It was very easy to present the invasion as an attack on Islam; this helped Al-Qaeda to create useful propaganda for recruiting (7.4.3).  Although it had had no previous connection with Iraq, the invasion gave Al-Qaeda a legitimate target in the area – creating a magnet for terrorists to come and fight America in Iraq and also radicalising many moderate Muslims in the West.  In the words of the CIA’s National Intelligence Estimate, Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States:

“The Iraq conflict has become the ‘cause celebre’ for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.”

Whilst it can be argued that this point has the benefit of hindsight it can equally be argued that it could have been predicted, given Al-Qaeda’s reaction to Bush’s use of the word ‘crusade’.

Some of the adverse consequences of invasion would not have arisen if, instead of unilateral Self-Protection, NATO had acted in response to a formal request by the UN – which was not forthcoming at that time, but might have been given later if the security threat had increased.  The West could then have retained the moral high ground.

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014


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(This is a republished page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 2 book.  The original archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition02/871.htm.  Its internal links are to Edition 2 legacy material which is unaltered.  This section is retained for reference purposes because there are links to it in the book’s index.)

[1] The ‘Butler report’ (referred to above) included a reference to a “joint memorandum submitted by the then Foreign and Defence Secretaries to the Cabinet Ministerial Committee on Defence and Overseas Policy in May 1999” which “covered future strategy towards Iraq” and which recommended a policy of containment (p.  55, para.  217).  This shows as p.69 in the pdf version of the report which was available in January 2020 at http://news.bbc.co.uk/nol/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/14_07_04_butler.pdf.

[2] In the Parliamentary debate on 18 September 2003, Douglas Anderson MP referred to the problem of loss of credibility:

“The fact is …  that we cannot easily now turn back without undermining our own credibility and the authority of the United Nations.”

The Hansard record of his statement was available in January 2020 at https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200203/cmhansrd/vo030318/debtext/30318-25.htm (column 829).