As the possibility of another western war in the Middle East rises, we should not disregard past foreign policy decisions when assessing future calculi. Perhaps a lesson can be learnt from the invasion of Iraq in the aftermath of 9/11 as we look into the possibility of intervening in Iran. It is extremely important to understand that 9/11 was indeed a ‘foreign policy crisis,’ as it can now be said that 9/11 does represent a critical juncture in history with scholars often referring to a ‘post-9/11 era.’
When questioning whether the US would actually wage full on war in Iran, it is useful to analyze the trajectory of American foreign policy decisions in times of crises. While the severity of the 9/11 attacks certainly shook the international community, the foreign policy decisions made by the United States in the aftermath of the assault were extensions of a previously paved trajectory from the post-Cold War era. September 11 did not push American foreign policy onto a ‘radically’ different path, nor was the event epiphenomenal to the drastic decisions that were made after 2001; rather, 9/11 triggered an embellished realistic lens of hegemonic decisions that had pre-existing foundations that date back to the death of US isolationism in the post WWII era.
As political scientist Robert Litwak proposed, that before 9/11, Iraq was viewed as a residual problem of the 1990s that required diplomatic tending, but commanded no sense of urgency, Colin Powell even once compared Saddam to a ‘toothache.’ However, in the years between the first Gulf War and 9/11, the US shifted from a policy of containment, to one of necessary regime change in Iraq.
Prior to 9/11, United Nations harsh sanctions on Iraq were already crippling their economy, and the notion of regime change seemed idealistic. The global national security threat that arose in the wake of 9/11 indeed altered America’s view of Iraq, but not ‘radically.’ The long-standing U.S. aspiration for regime change did become an imperative in the face of such an extreme attack. However, the goal of regime change already existed; it was simply exacerbated and accelerated in the aftermath of 9/11.
According to official reports, Bush met with his ‘war cabinet’ just prior to the final decision for war with Iraq. He sought affirmations from rational actors who weighed the costs against the benefits, believing that Iraq was a central front in the ‘global war on terrorism,’ and that the status quo US foreign policy of containment inherited from the 1990s was inapplicable after 9/11 because of the possibility of WMD, he made the final decision to give the order of the invasion of Iraq
After the fall of Baghdad, the failure to uncover any WMDs strongly undermined the administration’s primary realist rationale for the war, also diminishing the already limited domestic acceptance of the invasion. The foreign policy crisis of September 11 produced a new calculus of threat that transformed the perceived stakes in Iraq, viewed through the prism of 9/11, which became the lens of America’s new vulnerability, Iraq assumed the utmost urgency to the president, as is consistent with continuing the realist framework of American foreign policy since the onset of the Cold War.
The use of 9/11 and the possibility of WMD to gain domestic support for the invasion of Iraq shows how September 11 pushed a major foreign policy decision, but one that was already a precursor for the future. Although an unresolved ambiguity existed about Saddam’s capabilities, that uncertainty did not hold sufficient magnitude to justify a preventive war, it was 9/11 that served the purpose of the final thread to a pre-existing need for regime change in Iraq.
America’s institutions are designed in such a manner that they are not subject to radical and erratic changes. Rather, change typically occurs incrementally over long periods of time. However, rare events, such as 9/11 produce more dramatic changes in the institutions, bureaucracies, and agencies that create and implement U.S. national security policy. Comparable to Pearl Harbor, 9/11 triggered foreign policy inclinations that had pre-existing foundations of realist ideology from the Cold War era.
Domestic alterations to civil liberties, such as extraordinary rendition, and foreign policy decisions, such as the invasion of Iraq, had roots in a predisposed American way of thinking; but had 9/11 not occurred, likely would not have been enacted. Intervention in Iran would fit comfortably into this trajectory, but the necessity for a trigger as severe at 9/11 is questionable.
– Danielle Morland
(Featured image: Licence MATEUS_27:24&25, Creative Commons, Flickr)