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

- March 21, 2013

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.