Fall - 2012 USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) and Carrier Air Wing THREE (CVW 3) are currently on a six-month deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Published on October 25th, 2012


Why Did the United States Invade Iraq in 2003?

by Tor G. Jakobsen, NTNU


“The game is over”

These were the words of Mohammed al Douri, Iraq’s U.N. ambassador, in April 2003. When asked what he meant by this comment, he responded: “the war”. After three weeks of fighting, he admitted that the Republic of Iraq did not, for the time being, did not even exist.

In the morning hours of March, 2003, the U.S. and its allies initiated the invasion ofIraq. On April 9,U.S. forces formally occupied Baghdad, and on December 13 the same year, Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi dictator was captured while hiding in a cellar in the outskirts of Tikrit.

After the first Gulf War in 1991 Iraq was obliged by the U.N. to get rid of all its biological and toxic weapons. This Security Council Resolution also demanded the restoration of Kuwait’s independence and the implementation of sanctions against Iraq. The United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) performed inspections in Iraq to make sure that the conditions of the peace agreement that followed the first Gulf War were carried out. The weapons inspectors were thrown out of Iraqin December of 1998, which lead to Operation Desert Fox, a three-day bombing campaign on Iraqi targets.

The mission was to strike military and security targets in Iraq that contributed to the country’s ability to produce, store, maintain and deliver weapons of mass destruction. The disagreement concerned the U.N. inspectors’ access to various ‘sensitive sites’ and presidential palaces. The weapons inspectors were not let back into Iraq until November 2002, after the U.N. Security Council had passed its resolution 1441.


US Intentions

After the first Gulf War both the George H.W. Bush and the Clinton administration hoped that the combination of economic sanctions, military containment and the no-flight zones in northern and southern Iraq would result in a military coup or a palace revolution by members of Saddam’s own Baath regime. This was not U.N. policy, however, but Washington’s own unilateral effort to change the regime inBaghdad.

During the first Bush and Clinton administrations, the main strategy was to support a coup or a palace revolution, and not to undertake any active American involvement to remove the Baath regime. After the 1991 Gulf War, President George H. W. Bush signed a presidential finding authorizing the CIA to topple Saddam. A 1998 law passed by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton authorized up to $97 million in military assistance to Iraqi opposition forces ‘to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein’ and ‘promote the emergence of a democratic government’. There was a considerable change inU.S. policy toward Iraqwhen George W. Bush took office in January 2001. A group of former democrats, who represented a more expansionist foreign policy than the traditional realist line of the Republican Party, gained a foothold in the party as early as in 1994.

They represented a line where national measures and freedom of action were the backbone of American foreign policy. Using organizations like the U.N. was only of interest when the U.S. was unable to solve a problem on its own, or when Washington was guaranteed support for its own policy. To be sure, there existed a significant degree of antagonism between this group and the old, more traditional realist viewpoint of foreign policy within the Republican Party. Yet, the expansionist congregation within the Republican camp gained the upper hand over the traditional realists in the wake of September 11, 2001.

In October 2001 the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, which marked the beginning of its Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). One year later the Congress and the Senate passed a law authorising the use of armed force against Iraq. This resolution empowered the President to declare war without obtaining U.N. Security Council authorization. Thus, by October 2002 the U.S. spoke with one voice in matters of foreign policy. The expansionist forces had now definitely won the tug-of-war with the realist forces of the Bush administration.

From this point on the President was in full charge of the Iraq situation, of course with the assistance of his State Department, the Pentagon, the CIA and his advisors at the White House. However, this seeming unilateralism did not imply that Washington would refrain from trying to obtain acceptance from the U.N. for its own foreign policy as exemplified by the passing of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441 on November 8, 2002. In this document the Security Council recognised ‘the threat that Iraq’s non-compliance with Council resolutions and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles poses to international peace and security’, and Iraq was warned that ‘it will face serious consequences as a result of its continued violations of its obligations’.

By the end of November the U.N. weapons inspector, Hans Blix, told the U.N. Security Council that Iraq had not fully accounted for its stocks of chemical and biological weapons and had not fully accepted its obligation to disarm under 1441.

When Colin Powel on February 5, 2003 presented evidence of the existence of weapons of mass destruction (henceforth abbreviated WMD) inIraqfor the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. had already deployed thousands of soldiers to the Gulf region. As early as in January, 2003, U.S. Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, had signed deployment orders for 62,000 U.S. troops to the region, in addition to the 43,000 already in place.

President Bush delivered an ultimatum on March 17, demanding that Saddam Hussein and two of his sons leave Iraq within 48 hours. On March 20, coalition forces attacked Iraqin Operation Iraqi Freedom.


Saddam, a Rational Actor?

A basic assumption in game theory is that the players are rational actors. Considering the outcome of the conflict – the U.S. invadedIraq, and the reign of Saddam Hussein ended – this assumption can be considered somewhat problematic in the Iraqi case. The dictator himself was captured on December 13, hiding in a cellar south of Tikrit, and was later executed.

The assumption of rational behaviour means that each player has a consistent set of rankings (values or payoffs) over all logically possible outcomes, and that he or she settles for the strategy that best serves these interests. Importantly, however, the concept of rationality does not imply that all the players share a common value system. It merely means that each player pursues his or her own value system consistently.

To understand Saddam Hussein’s behaviour we must also understand his goals. According to realist theory, the key interest of a state in the anarchic system is security. Only if survival is assured can states safely seek such other goals as tranquillity, profit and power. The first concern of states is not to maximize power but to maintain their positions in the system. Following the realists, the first objective of Iraq’s foreign policy would then be to remain a major power in the Middle East.

We can thus assume that Saddam Hussein wanted Iraq to be the most dominant force in the region. This assumption is affirmed by a study of the inner workings and behaviour of Saddam Hussein’s Regime, commissioned by the U.S. Joint Forces Command. It seems like the Iraqi state’s behaviour to a large extent was determined by the decisions made by a single man. According to a CIA report released in September 2004, Saddam Hussein so dominated the Iraqi regime that its strategic intent was his alone.

After the first Gulf War the Security Council implemented United Nations resolution 687 which, in addition to being a cease-fire agreement, was meant to restore ‘international peace and security’ in the region. One of the main elements of this resolution was Paragraph 8, which stated that Iraq should unconditionally accept the destruction, removal, or rendering harmless under international supervision, of all weapons of mass destruction, and their appurtenant infrastructure and research and development programmes, as well as all ballistic missiles with a range greater than 150 kilometres.

The record made clear that Saddam Hussein both possessed WMD and used them against both external enemies (Iran) and his own citizens. After the first Gulf War his regime now faced a dilemma. The resolution provided theUnited Statesand its allies with authority to use force inIraq. The United Nations resolution 687 was partly a repetition of its resolution 678 which authorised member states ‘to use all necessary means to uphold and implement resolution 660 and all subsequent relevant resolutions and to restore international peace and security in the area.’ This meant that if it was proven that Iraq had WMD, Saddam would risk a new western intervention.

On the other hand, if it was made clear that Saddam had no chemical or biological weapons, then he would lose one of his key instruments of inflicting fear both among his own population and Iraq’s neighbours. This could diminish Iraq’s position as a major force in the region. Saddam’s rational choice would then be to create uncertainty or ambiguity as to whether or not he actually had these weapons. Without proof of Iraq having WMD, it seemed unlikely that the West would intervene, and without proof of Iraq not having WMD, it would keep insurgents andIraq’s neighbours at bay.

Therefore it would seem rational for Saddam Hussein to pursue the choice of ambiguity, as illustrated in Figure 1. This line of tactics is in compliance with what is known as signalling in game theory, i.e. revealing, concealing and eliciting information about one’s intentions and capabilities. The general principle is that you want to release your information selectively.


Incomplete Information

The strategic situation in March 2003 ended with Iraqstanding firm and the U.S. and its allies carrying out their threat of attacking. We can draw a parallel to the previous war in the Gulf. Many ‘experts’ commenting on the Persian Gulf conflict in late 1990 predicted that Saddam Hussein would back down ‘because he is rational,’ thereby possibly failing to recognise that Saddam’s value system was different from the one held by most Western governments and by Western experts. To sufficiently account for the outbreak of war, we must revisit U.N. resolution 1441 and include the aspect of incomplete information when modelling the outbreak of conflict. In particular, two aspects of the information dimension are relevant:

First, as illustrated by the figure above, Saddam Hussein had incentives to show ambiguity concerning the question whether or not he possessed WMD. Of course, this ambiguity would putIraq’s path of choice in conflict with the foreign policy of post-9/11USA. The U.S. could not accept uncertainty on this matter. There is also another way in which Saddam’s seemingly irrational behaviour could be explained.

Deterrence theory is based upon the assumption that potential opponents are rational. If the costs and/or risks of choosing war appear unacceptably high, the opponent will reject this option, and deterrence holds. But this logic cannot be expected to work against an irrational opponent, who might opt for war even if losses are likely to outweigh gains. With the presumption of irrationality on its side, a weaker player can intimidate a stronger player. A state can actually profit from portraying itself as mad, because other states will then tend to abstain from intervening in its matters.

Furthermore, in the event of a confrontation, irrationality can compensate in military-power deficiencies. Being perceived as irrational can actually be advantageous. Iraqcould possibly be trying to make the U.S. and its surrounding countries believe that it was both capable and willing to use WMD if attacked. If convinced that Saddam was not bluffing, the U.S. would then back down. It is perfectly possible that both these factors can help explain Iraqi behaviour. Ambiguity, it seems, was Iraq’s most expedient path to preserving its position in the region. If Saddam’s goal was to scare the surroundings from interfering with his policies, being perceived as a madman was not, ex ante, necessarily negative.

Second, Iraq underestimated Washington’s willingness and capabilities to go to war. To be efficacious a threat must have three characteristics. First of all, the threat must be relevant; that is, the target must have some freedom of action so as to make it possible to avoid the execution of the threat. One can be tempted to call the U.S. strategy an unconditional commitment rather than a threat, i.e. an intention to take a particular course of action regardless of what the other side chooses to do.

Yet one could also look at it as a conditional commitment that became unconditional only after the point of no return. After theUnited States had shipped thousands of military personnel to the region, they clearly signalled that they were prepared to engage in combat operations. This was also necessary to re-establish credibility with allies and potential anti-Saddam forces in the region. Nothing else but making unmistakable preparations for a massive military invasion would send such a signal.

This we can name the U.S. point of no return. Second, the threat needs to be sufficiently severe, so that the target prefers to comply rather than face the consequences. And third, the threat must be credible. In other words, the target must be lead to believe that the threat will be carried out if compliance is not forthcoming. As a rule, the threatener must show that he will act, not that he may act, if the threat fails.

At the beginning of the conflict the threat may have been perceived as sufficiently severe, but not as being relevant or credible. Saddam Hussein knew that the U.S. wanted him ousted from power, which was made clear in the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate and signed into law by then U.S. President Bill Clinton. Yet the relevance of the threat was far from obvious, sinceIraq may have presumed that the real goal of theU.S. government was to remove Saddam from power, and that the implementation of U.N. resolution 1441 was in the main a suitable excuse for pursuingWashington’s real aim.

There is, however, reason to believe that U.S. credibility had been weakened. Granted, economic sanctions had been implemented, and U.S. and British military enforced no-fly zones over northern and southernIraq. But Saddam Hussein and his regime had not been challenged in any serious manner, despite violating the U.N. resolutions. Based on the precedence established during the 12 years since the end of the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein could have been given the false impression that the U.S. was unwilling to confront him militarily.

This may have led him to believe that his ‘cat-and-mouse’ game with the U.N. weapons inspectors was less hazardous for his regime than it actually was. According to Tariq Azis, the former Deputy Prime Minister ofIraq, Saddam Hussein had been very confident that theUnited Stateswould not dare to attack; if it did, it would be defeated. ‘Judging from his private statements, the single most important element in his strategic calculus was the faith thatFranceandRussiawould prevent theUnited Statesfrom invadingIraq. Tariq Aziz revealed that his confidence was firmly rooted in the nexus between the economic interests of France and Russia and the strategic goals of Saddam.’


A Window of Opportunity

When the House and the Senate passed the Iraq Liberation Act, it was clear what the U.S. intentions were in the case of Saddam. Bill Clinton made it Washington’s policy to get rid of this dictator. But even if individual actors or even groups and organizations inside the U.S. wanted this line of policy followed up by hard action, resorting to military confrontation depended on the structures and opportunities the system would allow.

When Bill Clinton was president, it would be very difficult to gather support for a war against Iraq, both abroad and in the U.S. Even though the world could be described as unipolar, and even though this gives the U.S. freedom of action in its foreign policy, engaging in war still requires some sort of acquiescence from its allies, so as not to hurt U.S. interests in the long run. Therefore, even if Bill Clinton wanted to invade, he did not have a window of opportunity to do so.

The 9/11 attacks opened up this window of opportunity for the new president, George W. Bush, even if the Iraqi dictator presumably did not comprehend this new U.S. leeway.  There had of course been strife within the U.S. governmental apparatus, but after President Bush received a carte blanche from the Congress to go to war, the administration gathered around a single course of action.

Also, the U.S. had a history of not following through their policy to remove Saddam Hussein from power. In addition to the potential threatIraqposed to the U.S., President Bush had to take into consideration the threat against U.S. allies in the region.



The 2003 invasion of Iraq resulted in the arrest of Saddam Hussein and the removal of his regime. Why did the Iraqi dictator choose a path of actions that would ultimately lead to his removal form power?

In this game there were two principal actors: Iraq and the United States. Even though other countries played their roles in the conflict, our focus has been on these two states and their moves in the game. George W. Bush, who had been given leeway by the Congress to make decisions regardingIraq, led the U.S. The President, together with his Departments, intelligence service, and advisors, represented the U.S. side of the game table.Iraq, on the other hand, was an authoritarian state. According to the CIA, Saddam Hussein had dictatorial dominance over the Iraqi Regime, so his influence on Iraqi decision-making was significantly larger than George W. Bush’s similar influence over policy-making inWashington.

The official U.S. policy was to remove Saddam Hussein and his regime from power. After September 11th, U.S. focus was first and foremost to secure the physical well -being of the American people. SinceIraq was believed to possess WMD, the removal of these became the top priority for the U.S. government. By and large, theUnited   States was operating with two simultaneous goals: the elimination of both the (alleged) WMD and the Iraqi Regime.

Saddam Hussein’s goals can be summarized as follows. According to realist theory the survival ofIraqas a power in theMiddle Eastwas of utmost importance. This entailed securing the regime and handling regional threats. But Saddam Hussein also wanted to rise to the status of a modern Saladin, which could be achieved by successfully standing his ground against the ‘crusader states’. A confrontation with the U.S.could be described as a double-edged sword. If the U.S.was ‘hard line,’ Saddam risked being ousted from power by following his policy of showing WMD-ambiguity. For the Iraqi leader, however, there were real dividends to be gained by letting his enemies believe he possessed WMD. And if the U.S.was a mere ‘paper tiger’ Saddam could achieve becoming the undisputed leading figure of the Arab world by not giving in to the crusaders.

The important point here is that Saddam did not know for sure what type of opposition he was facing. The preceding 12 years of U.S. policy had given him the impression that he was facing American doves. But after September 11th the U.S. foreign policy had in fact changed from being soft to becoming hard line. In particular, there are two possibilities as to why Saddam Hussein chose to stand firm and not abide by U.S. demands. First, he might have thought that the U.S. was soft, that they would give in to Franco-Russian pressure and therefore refrain from going to war. Second, we should not disregard the possibility that the potential reward of standing his ground was perceived as so great by Saddam that he was willing to risk facing a hard line U.S.


Further reading:

Jakobsen, Tor Georg & Jo Jakobsen (2009) “The Game: A Rational Actor Approach to the US-led Invasion of Iraq, 2003” Strategic Analysis, 33(5) 664–674.


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7 Responses to Why Did the United States Invade Iraq in 2003?

  1. Build a list says:

    It¡¯s very apparent to me you are a devoted writer, passionate about your subject matter. You write to your readers and not at them. Thank you for making me think.

  2. Ahmad says:

    Wow…Westerners trying to analyse other cultures using westerns’ theories. A big miss again as history repeats itself. You lack cultural understanding of iraqi thinking.

  3. sunny says:

    Even though US did not had any evidence of WMD in Iraq, it attacked. It’s been 9-years since America invaded Iraq but no Weapons of Mass Destruction have ever been found. Was there any other reason for invasion?

    • John Afella says:

      Yes, Iraq surrendered during the first Gulf War and part of the terms were to let UN inspectors into Iraq to check that they were in compliance with the agreement. But instead, Saddam kicked out the inspectors which naturally rose suspicions as to what he was up to. If a prison parolee refused to let parole officers into their residence to inspect wouldn’t this be considered a violation of the terns of parole and would not the police be called in to remove the parolee from his/her premises so the inspection could be completed ? Of course,The UN gave Saddam the opportunity to surrender – he took it and so agreed to the terms of the surrender. One of the terms was: No weapons of mass destruction combined with allowing UN Inspectors into the country to see that he was in full compliance with this agreement. At one point (after 9/11) he refused and kicked the Inspectors out of the country. Provocative and very suspicious actions if you ask me.

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  5. Monika says:

    Yes, the invasion was motivated for other objectives :
    1. For controlling the Iraqi oilfields.
    2.To install a regime friendly to The Us.

  6. Dixie says:

    I was suggested this website by my cousin. I am not sure whether this post is written by him as no one else know
    such detailed about my difficulty. You’re amazing! Thanks!

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