What Does the Iraq War Teach Us About Theories of International Relations?

This is a guest post from Stephen Benedict Dyson.


The tenth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq war has brought many retrospectives. Scholars of international relations should take this opportunity to ask how our major theories perform in explaining the war.

Many theories of international politics downplay, in one way or another, the importance of individual policy makers, the beliefs they hold, and the way they interact with one another inside government. Realists focus on power politics within a state-centric framework – individual beliefs don’t matter here as behavior is determined by the universal imperative to seek security. Rational choice theorists assume all policy makers engage in self-interested action, and so the structure of incentives in the environment, rather than subjective individual worldviews, determines behavior. Constructivists focus on collectively held ideas and identities rather than individual beliefs, as discussed recently on this page.

The Iraq war presents a problem for these theories. Each major decision in the war was made by individuals in the policy elite and heavily influenced by their subjective beliefs. The path to war was shaped by a series of misperceptions on both sides that are hard to reconcile with a rationalist approach. Iraq President Saddam Hussein believed that the U.S. and Iraq were natural allies. He was waiting for U.S. President George W. Bush to realize this and ask for help in dealing with Al Qaeda and the Iranian Ayatollahs. Bush was certain that Saddam possessed some weapons of mass destruction and was determined to acquire others. He did not understand Saddam’s threat calculus: that Iran and his own Shi’ite majority constituted the most pressing danger, and that it was necessary to maintain the fiction of possessing WMD to deter them. The path to war was littered with misperceptions resulting from human fallibility on both sides.

Postwar policy, too, presents a problem for most IR theories. It is hard to construct an IR theory explanation for why the U.S. would plan to quickly stand up an Iraqi government after the invasion, make substantial progress toward this aim under the leadership of General Jay Garner, then suddenly reverse course entirely and set up an instrument of direct rule, the Coalition Provisional Authority. What happened is this: Garner’s replacement, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, held a distinct set of beliefs about what should be done in Iraq and an independent personal style. According to Douglas J. Feith, the third-ranking official at the Pentagon, Bremer was impervious to the briefings he received on administration policy prior to his deployment to Iraq, and this led to the policy turnabout. These kinds of messy interactions amongst decision makers within a state go largely unconsidered by grand theory.

Indeed, as an insurgency grew in Iraq and the war stretched across the years, the Bush administration rarely seemed to behave as the unified actor assumed by much IR theory. A disjunction emerged between the goals stated by President Bush and the implementation directed by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Bush wanted to stay in Iraq, defeat the insurgency, and build a democracy; Rumsfeld gave him a sequential withdrawal of troops, a force-protection rather than counter-insurgency doctrine, and a belief that Iraqi politics were not the concern of the U.S. Bush wanted to win and felt that the U.S. should stay until the job was done, Rumsfeld wanted to leave and felt that it was for the Iraqis to shape their own future. These were coherent perspectives taken separately, but neither was consistently implemented. This core disagreement was not resolved until late 2006, when Bush removed Rumsfeld and ordered a shift in strategy.

As theorists of international relations, we are often pushed toward simplifying assumptions that promise to explain many events using few pieces of information. The Iraq decade, suffused with the fallibilities and complications of human decision making, reminds us that international relations in practice are rarely as rational or as linear as our grand theories might lead us to believe.

5 Responses to What Does the Iraq War Teach Us About Theories of International Relations?

  1. jonathan March 21, 2013 at 11:43 am #

    I have two issues with this post. I can label them:

    1. Convergence. The decision to attack Iraq saw a convergence of a range of US interests. One not mentioned include people concerned about the morality of allowing Saddam to inflict so much damage on his own people. The morality issue were constantly brought to the fore because we were imposing much of that hardship through sanctions. As Saddam diverted money from healthcare and food, we were paying Saddam to oppress and kill his own people. I could list other converging threads, including those who saw Saddam as a destabilizing force threatening our oil allies. We had reason to believe this: he’d invaded Kuwait. To focus on Iran is to pick one thread and that simplification is somewhat grotesque given we all remember so many details of what actually happened.

    2. Divergence. You talk about policy as though the choice of one would have made a difference. You don’t accurately describe how the threads of interest which lead to invasion diverged immediately thereafter. We discovered Iraq had little actual productive capacity, that the state run companies were largely unproductive shells propped up oil revenue. And of course oil revenue itself was crippled by destruction and years of neglect after the first Gulf War and then more destruction after the invasion. We didn’t understand the Kurdish issues, let alone the much more important Shia versus Sunni ones. During a period of converging interests, that kind of lack of information and misunderstanding gets glossed over, if only because we emphasize what we share not how we differ. As soon as the converging moment has passed, all that starts to come out. We didn’t have a clear policy because we couldn’t have a clear policy given the massive uncertainties. One can argue that degree of uncertainty is a big flashing warning sign saying “GET OUT!” but that’s only clear in hindsight.

    As an aside, I would say the actual narrative is more that we’d adopt a policy and not be able to carry it through because we didn’t actually believe in it. The idea we can enforce policy on our side depends either on a form of discipline lacking in a democracy or on shared perceptions that make goals more than inchoate nonsense. We could not share perceptions because everything was a mess and events were unrolling so messily we were torn about what to do and how to react. During some of these times, we adopted a series of policies and some of them worked, such as actively engaging the foreign driven insurgency enough to dissuade the clan heads from committing more resources to support it.

  2. Stephen Dyson March 21, 2013 at 5:51 pm #

    Those are really interesting points, and I agree with what I take to be your underlying argument: that policy is messy, complicated, and often ad hoc. As IR theorists, we are caught between developing models that simpify reality enough to ‘work’ analytically (i.e. to offer plausible explanations of classes of events using data we can get our hands on) vs. accounting for the complexity, contingency, and idiosyncracy that riddles the making of policy by actual human beings. I sometimes think that, perhaps for reasons to do with the sociology of the discipline combined with the perfectly proper imperatives of a commitment to social scientific goals, we privilege the former over the latter. Occasions like the Iraq anniversary give us the chance to reflect upon that choice. It has benefits for sure, but also carries costs.

  3. Chris March 22, 2013 at 9:58 am #

    Another thing on the whole WMD issue was that we knew that we’d sold him WMD, and we didn’t know if they’d all been used or were still functioning. We knew he had had them, we just didn’t know if he still had them.

    I always put the war down largely to people feeling that something needed to be done, but not knowing what else to try other than sanctions or war. It’s about not wanting to feel powerless to fix the problem rather than because it will actually fix the problem. People feel better trying and not trying, even if what they are trying has no hope of success.

  4. Stephen Dyson March 22, 2013 at 10:24 am #

    Thanks for commenting. With regard to your second point, on taking action just to feel better, that is something humans do quite often. It will appear subjectively rational to them, even if the action itself is objectively irrational. All actions are attempts to serve some goal, the trick is to know what the goal is. As I argue above, that is often quite hard to do without knowing some quite specific things about the people involved and how they are thinking about the situation they face.
    For example, President Bush said something interesting in 2004: his calculus of the Iraq threat had not changed, but his calculus of how much threat America could tolerate had. This raises, I think, an interesting question for rationalist analysis: of course, knowing about a changed threat calculus, we can construct a plausible explanation for why it was rational to go to war. But if we have to give the model such actor-specific information, is it still a rational model, or something else – i.e. cognitivist or an analysis of beliefs? Or maybe these are just labels that don’t really matter.

  5. Noumenon72 March 22, 2013 at 11:30 am #

    This is the most interesting 10th-anniversary post I’ve seen, as it doesn’t just rehash prewar arguments but uses some actual perspective.