Bush’s Motives

12 October 2002

A Question of Motive

By Gwynne Dyer

Bring enough cynicism to the task, and you can usually figure out some rational motive (though often a shameful one) for almost any policy advocated by a politician. In the case of President George W. Bush’s policy of bringing about ‘regime change’ in Iraq, however, it doesn’t work. Try as you may, you cannot see how he, his party, or the country stand to benefit from it.

Bush now has Congressional authority to “use the armed forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq.” It is the first time a US president has been given such a blank cheque since Lyndon Johnson faked a North Vietnamese attack on US ships in the Gulf of Tonkin to get Congress to authorise committing US forces to the Vietnam war.

Yet there is no ‘continuing threat posed by Iraq’, or at least no threat bigger than it was a year ago, when George Tenet, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, wrote dismissively in his post-September 11 report to Congress: “We believe that Iraq has probably continued at least low-level theoretical R&D associated with its nuclear programme. A sufficient source of fissile material remains its most significant obstacle to being able to produce a nuclear weapon.”

Since then the CIA has produced no new evidence to contradict that conclusion, for all of Bush’s superheated rhetoric about a “mushroom cloud” threatening America. Other friendly intelligence services from Britain to Russia all concur that Saddam Hussein has no nuclear weapons, and probably little in the way of usable chemical or biological weapons either. Neither is there any convincing evidence connecting Iraq with terrorist attacks on American targets. So why does Bush want this war?

This is where cynicism should help us find the answer, but it doesn’t. All the various (and mostly discreditable) reasons that are suggested for Bush’s obsessive focus on Iraq fail to hold water when you examine them closely.

There is the ‘displacement activity’ argument: that the Bush administration shifted the focus from al-Qaeda to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq last January because it had failed to catch or kill Osama bin Laden, and needed a new target with a fixed address to distract American public opinion from that failure. But in fact most Americans were content with the overthrow of Afghanistan’s Taliban government and the destruction of al-Qaeda’s training camps there. There was no great public outcry for Osama bin Laden’s head on a stick.

Then there is the electoral hypothesis: that whipping up a war fever over Iraq has kept Bush’s personal popularity high, and may help Republicans in this month’s Congressional elections by diverting public attention from vote-losing issues like the recession and corporate corruption. But mere war fever, without any actual war at the end of it, would serve these purposes just as well. Yet Bush does not appear to be bluffing.

Well, then, how about oil as a motive? This argument comes in two forms: a simple-minded one in which the former oilmen who dominate the administration want to pay back their old friends in the industry for favours received by giving them access to Iraq’s oilfields, and a more sophisticated version in which the United States wants to gain control over Iraq, the second biggest oil producer in the Gulf, as insurance against a possible anti-American revolution in the biggest producer, Saudi Arabia..

But none of this really makes sense either. A successful US invasion of Iraq would cause first a spike in oil prices that would deepen the recession, and then a longer-term fall in price as Iraqi exports rose to their pre-Gulf War peak which would make high-cost US domestic projects like Alaskan North Slope oil uneconomic. Bush can’t pay his political debts this way.

As for ‘security of energy supplies’, it is a meaningless concept in the post-Cold War world. The major oil producers HAVE to sell all the oil that the OPEC cartel lets them pump, because they all depend on the income to feed their populations. The Iranian government may hate the Great Satan, but you don’t see Iran cutting its oil production to hurt the United States. The consumers don’t need to control the oil; they can just buy it.

So what’s left? Maybe Bush is just bluffing to frighten Saddam into letting United Nations arms inspectors back into Iraq, but it certainly doesn’t sound like it. Maybe it’s about demonstrating to the world that nobody gets away with defying the sole hyperpower and its ambitious plans for ‘full-spectrum dominance’. Maybe it’s just that the Bush family and Saddam Hussein’s have been enemies for a long time, and Bush now thinks he can finish it.

To make sense of Bush’s policy, you must first assume that he believes that a war with Iraq would be quickly won, produce few US casualties, and leave US interests elsewhere in the region undamaged. (Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan all fitted that pattern, so if you squeeze your eyes tight shut you might believe that Iraq will conform to it too.)

If Bush does believe that, then he doesn’t need truly serious motives for attacking Iraq. The fragmentary, lightweight ones listed above are enough, because for the United States the war would be a cheap and painless exercise. It is noteworthy, however, that the actual soldiers in the Pentagon mostly don’t share that view.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8, 9 and 10. (“Well, then…buy it”)