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/ Published November 15, 2021
Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the Air University, the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other US government agency.
Dr. Margaret Sankey: Welcome to another episode of Wild Blue Yonder on the Air, Air University's podcast. Joining us today is Dr. Joseph Stieb. He is the author of Regime Change Consensus, about the 1990s and the lead up to the Second Iraq War. He is a fellow at the Mershon Center at the Ohio State University and an expert on US foreign policy. So welcome. Thanks for joining us.
Dr. Joseph Stieb: Thanks very much. Thanks for having me.
Sankey: To get us started, what did US-Iraq relations look like in the 1970s and '80s?
Stieb: So in the 1970s, the United States generally saw Iraq as being in the Soviet orbit, although it wasn't particularly close to the Soviet Union. This all started to change with the Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq War, when the United States started to look at Iraq more as a balancer in the region against the power of Iran and the revolutionary potential of Iran. So during the 1980s, the policy was what was called "The Tilt." United States tilted slightly towards Iraq. It wasn't really an alliance. We liberalized laws about exports to Iraq. We took them off the State Sponsors of Terrorism list in the mid-1980s. And we didn't really protest when France and other European countries traded massive amounts of arms with Iraq. The goal at the end of the Iran-Iraq War, where Iraq came out slightly ahead, I mean both countries were devastated by that war. Iraq appeared to be slightly ahead. Was to try to put Iraq into the category of pro-American states in the Middle East, kind of like Egypt or Jordan. And we did so through a policy called constructive engagement.
Sankey: You cite a really influential article that Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick had written that really struck me as outlining a lot of US Cold War policy. It was about authoritarian versus totalitarian regimes. And both are bad and do despicable things, but one you can work with and one you can't. And that really seems to have made a big impression when it came to thinking about why Iraq was acceptable as a US connection in the Middle East.
Stieb: It absolutely did. And I think that Kirkpatrick's article kind of captured the way that Americans have been thinking about this for a while. And she just happened to articulate it very, very well and happened to be a high-status person with a close connection to the Reagan Administration. So Kirkpatrick basically argues that totalitarian regimes have these kind of messianic, highly ideological self-conceptions and missions and that they want to totally dominate and transform their societies. So she thought of the Soviet Union as a totalitarian state. Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge would be another example of a totalitarian state. And then she also identified revolutionary Iran as such. But for the most part, she and other conservatives, neo-conservatives, defined totalitarian states as being on the left. Being on the Marxist side. And so she believed that those states were kind of just rigidly devoted to expansion and domination and these massive transformational social projects at home. And for US foreign policy that kind of meant that it had to just be opposed very strongly.
Authoritarian states though, which she thought of being more on the right, something like Indonesia at the time or Iran under the Shah, didn't have these transformative projects. They really just wanted to hang on to power and keep dissent down? But for the most part, individual people had more say and more leeway to live their lives. And there were sometimes other institutions in society that were allowed to exist, such as religious institutions. And so she basically said that American foreign policy had been erring for the last 10 years, especially under Carter, in putting pressure on these authoritarian regimes to change and to democratize or liberalize prematurely. And what you got when you pressured your authoritarian allies to change was somebody worse. Pressured the Shah, you get Ayatollah Khomeini for example. And she said that totalitarian regimes, especially the Soviet Union, will just take advantage of Americans pushing their allies, their authoritarian allies, to reform.
So this became almost like an intellectual policy brief for the United States to, in the 1980s, to A: Support kind of a Reagan Doctrine approach in places like Latin America or Africa where we supply arms and money to rebels in those regions, even if they're authoritarian rebels like the Contras in Nicaragua. And then it justified the United States remaining allied and supportive of its authoritarian right-wing allies. And, of course, the justification for this by the end of the decade was that many of those regimes did evolve into democracies like Chile, South Korea, eventually Indonesia, the Philippines. Right? So that's the story of Kirkpatrick. I think she captures a lot of the way people think about the differences of these regimes.
Sankey: And that goes a long way towards explaining why constructive engagement was conducted for so long with Saddam Hussain and Iraq. But how did that begin to fall apart going into the first Gulf War in the late 1980s and certainly 1990?
Stieb: So, the hope with constructive engagement was that you could provide Saddam with some incentives to push him towards the pro-US camp in the region and to be a stable, balancing power, especially against Iran. And, of course, to be a really great trade partner. This fell apart for a couple of reasons. Human rights had something to do with it, especially in Congress and in the media. You know, the Anfal genocide occurs in the late 1980s. You had this strange alliance of people like Claiborne Pell and Jesse Helms bloc pressuring for sanctions. And they almost got major sanctions passed in the late 1980s against Iraq. The bigger flaw with constructive... Okay. Well, the ethical part of it was a major flaw. But the larger flaw in constructive engagement was more that the amount of aid that the United States was willing to offer Iraq, and the trade opportunities the United States could offer Iraq, just didn't change Saddam Hussein's calculus. They just weren't big enough to do that because Saddam Hussein had bankrupted his country for the Iran-Iraq War. He needed a much bigger prize. And he believed that... He also didn't trust us. He also believed that eventually the United States would return to opposing him in the region, like we did in the 1970s.
So in late 1989 and early 1990, they were these kind of series of crises or mini-crises with Iraq. Saddam Hussein, for example, executes a British journalist Farzad Bazoft on trumped up charges of spying on behalf of the British government. That was a major diplomatic incident. He threatens Israel a bunch of times. He starts to push around Kuwait and the other OPEC countries. There's actually pretty good access to these documents, and you can see inside the administration that they're all kind of tilting away from constructive engagement. I think they really thought of it as, "Let's just give it a shot. Let's build on sort of relationship in the 1980s that we formed with Saddam. It's better to do that than to just put up the wall and try to oppose him right away." And it fits with the Bush Administration's overall foreign policy, which was to worry much more about states' external behavior than their internal behavior. And, of course, it falls apart completely when Saddam invades Kuwait. That's the end of it.
Sankey: Well, I know then the big question is, what was going on with the decision to leave him in place at the end of that war?
Stieb: So yeah, a hugely important decision. The way I describe it in my book is that the Bush Administration never made regime change a policy. It was just a vague hope. And, in fact, they were very ambivalent about regime change. And there's some good internal documentation on this. On one hand, they acknowledged that Saddam was gonna remain a problem after the war. The lesson that Americans took away from his invasion of Kuwait was that "Well, we can't incentivize him to go along with our line, with our interests." That was a dubious lesson because we weren't offering him enough to really change his calculations. On one hand, they thought maybe some... There'll be the silver bullet solution. Some General will take him out and we'll get a more compliant dictator in charge. On the other hand, they acknowledged a bunch of factors that were preventing the United States from going to Baghdad and finishing off the regime. For one, they knew that that would lead to the United States occupying the country for indeterminate amount of time. A country they didn't understand very well. A lot of internal social problems. A lot of internal ethic divisions.
Second, they knew that this would completely destroy the international coalition behind the Persian Gulf War. That the UN mandate and the Congressional mandate for war did not include regime change. Third, they weren't particularly optimistic that Iraq could be turned into a democracy, especially by outsiders. This is of course a major difference between the 1990-1991 war and the 2003 war, which was much more about democracy. And so for these and a variety of other reasons, they decided to end the war at 100 hours. Of course, American troops were in Iraq at the time. But to not proceed to Basra or Baghdad or other major cities. To not help the rebels, etcetera.
Sankey: And the 1990s, of course, as you point out in your book, these figures are really realizing that the game field has changed significantly with the US as a unipolar power and the Soviet Union off of the field at this point almost entirely. So some of your figures are thinking, "This is really the chance to make a move if you're gonna make a move" Right?
Stieb: Yeah. And that's an interesting way that I think the foreign policy establishment kind of splits in the 1990s. People who are more behind containment, especially the first Bush Administration's major figures. They say that the United States has an opportunity now as the unipolar power to build a more rules-based system. Not everything has to be based on that binary of the Soviet Union versus the United States. Instead, if the United States is going to cooperate and restrain itself to a certain degree, we can build a more cooperative system that will be very effective and consensual and legitimate when it uses force to stop an oppressor like Saddam Hussein. But then on the more neo-conservative side and as well as, I think, the liberal side, a lot of liberal-thinkers and politicians, the '90s were a chance to not only escape the constraints of the Cold War and US foreign policy but to kind of embrace a more missionary impulse that had always been underlying in American foreign policy. To embrace a universalistic morality. A belief that democracy could be spread, sometimes by force of arms, to any society. There's a kind of a neo-liberal aspect of this. A belief that globalization was going to homogenize the world, tamp down ethnic, religious, and other kinds of conflicts.
And so in the book, I argue that all of this pushes kind of the intellectual, cultural mood of the 1990s. Pushes against containment. Containment's a strategy of restraint, of moderation, of very limited... or more limited objectives. And just that mood kind of pushes Americans in the foreign policy establishment more towards regime change and a transformation of a country like Iraq.
So in the 1990s, when it comes to a power like Iraq that's much weaker than the Soviet Union is still so immoral, that Saddam still does these horrible things. And now there's no Soviet Union to balance against us. A lot of people said why are we containing this runt of a country that, nonetheless, thumbs its nose at us constantly and has invaded two of its neighbors in the last decade, when we have the power to destroy it. And when it seems like democracy will rise in the ashes. And again, I think that's part of the context. That's part of the mood of the 1990s. I don't think Americans have that same, I guess you'd call it optimism? Call it naivete? I'm not really sure. But I think that's changed profoundly since then.
Sankey: I appreciate that you said Iraq is certainly not the equal of the Soviet Union as competitor or as an enemy. I really thought it was interesting looking in your book at the metaphors that people are starting to attach to Saddam Hussein. You have the folks where it's like, "Oh, he's a headache. He's a toothache. He's popcorn stuck in your teeth." But then you had people who are invoking Godwin's law and going right for, "Oh, he's Hitler." And so how does that kind of box you into options when you paint an adversary in this kind of way?
Stieb: Yeah. It can definitely box you in with any adversary. Colin Powell warned against this in the 1990s very explicitly. I believe while he was still in the Joint Chiefs, or it might have been in his memoir. Anyway, he basically says that we've been building up Saddam Hussein to be the next hegemon of the Middle East. He was never really powerful enough to do that. In the book, I try to explain why politicians did this so consistently. Even George Bush, who was all about restraint, all about realism. I think he compared him to Hitler at one point. Certainly he used that language. Part of it's about mobilizing politically. It's about mobilizing the public for the conflict that, luckily, was fairly short but could have gone on much longer. Certainly they were expecting it to be much longer. And I think it was about trying to... Especially under Clinton. Trying to act like we were doing a lot when we weren't. Clinton's whole policy with Iraq was to contain it and to try to hold off the increasing calls for regime change and for roll back at home. Throwing in that spicy language about Hitler and about this person being the revival of every dictator of the 20th century gives you that domestic political shield.
And overall, if I can brag on the book a little bit, I think one of the strengths of it is that it shows that foreign policy is never made in a vacuum. That it's always made in a political context. And many leaders are much more concerned with the political context. I think that's one of the reasons that you have this drift towards regime change throughout the 1990s. Is that people like Clinton, especially, are never willing to kind of put their foot down and say, "We're not seeking regime change in Iraq. We're gonna transition to normalizing Iraq as a country. To finishing the inspections. To lifting the sanctions." That would have been a political cost to do that. Clinton was never willing to pay that political cost even though I think signs show that he really didn't have his heart behind making Iraq such a big foreign policy issue.
Sankey: For some of my own work, I look at the way that illicit finance is a tool for people like Saddam Hussein to evade sanctions. We know he and his sons are smuggling cigarettes, and they're evading all the limitations that were put on them about imports and exports. So he's behaving pretty badly in terms of consolidating domestic power and evading the limitations that have been put on him. How is that frustrating the folks who wanted to continue containment?
Stieb: Well, it is immensely frustrating because the regime change folks have a really simple solution, or apparently very simple solution. It causes two problems. Two different problems. The sanctions issue. It causes one problem with the international coalition which A: Most of it wanted to return to trade with Iraq, including most of Iraq's neighbors, most of NATO exception, big exception here was Great Britain which was more on our side of that then. It also creates domestic political problems. There starts to be humanitarian activists and other folks at home who say, "Maybe it's not totally clear who's responsible, but we have this massive public health crisis in Iraq that's drastically increasing mortality rates there, especially for children." If you think of liberals as kind of a built-in group that might have supported containment more strongly, sanctions and the public health effects they have is one factor that pushes them out of that camp and makes the camp of supporters of containment very, very small. People who are willing to keep punishing Iraq economically without all that much concern for the human rights effects of it.
So it causes all kinds of problems. And I'm glad you brought up that Saddam was able to insulate himself very effectively. The bigger picture, though, and I think it's frustrating that people didn't see this bigger picture, was that the sanctions were hugely effective in crippling his military machine. I mean the Iraqi military by the early 2000s was a shadow of what it was before the Persian Gulf War, and that was largely because of sanctions. And I think that one of the lost opportunities of the 1990s is all of these... That sanctions could have been targeted and streamlined to focus more on the importation of technology and military hardware and not restrictions on pencils and sailing and all these ridiculous restrictions that we did.
Sankey: You also identify some really influential sort of cheerleaders for regime change. Laurie Mylroie? Is that how I pronounce her name?
Stieb: I think it's Mylroie.
Sankey: Mylroie. Her thinking and lobbying and opinion pieces had enormous influence. Can you explain the appeal of what she's positing?
Stieb: Yeah. So Laurie Mylroie is one of the people, I think her name just doesn't pop up that much, and really is important for understanding the path to the Iraq war because she fills in a key missing piece of the argument. So one of the key arguments against the Iraq War, I'm doing a little circular way of answering the question. One of the key arguments against the Iraq war was that Saddam Hussein is not crazy. He may have miscalculated in the past. He has certainly been aggressive. But ultimately he's survival-oriented. Even if he gets some weapons of mass destruction, he's gonna use those mainly to keep himself in power. He's not gonna give them to terrorists to use against the United States. Right? And that was the ultimate fear of the Bush Administration when they invaded Iraq. That Saddam would give weapons of mass destruction to Al Qaeda to use against the United States and that would negate the terms. So Mylroie is originally a journalist and becomes kind of more of a foreign policy intellectual in the '90s. And she writes a book and a bunch of articles in the '90s. The book's called Study of Revenge. And if you look at it, the acknowledgements, you'll see all of these super important, mostly neo-conservative thinkers including Paul Wolfowitz, who praises the book.
And basically the book argues that Saddam Hussein is the master... Or at least Iraqi intelligence is the mastermind of every major terrorist attack of the 1990s, especially the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. And the links are very tendentious. It's a very hard book to follow. It's largely about trying to see if there were more than one Ramzi Yousef. But experts in terrorism have said it's basically conspiratorial, that it vastly inflates the evidence. But it fit perfectly into this argument for regime change because it answered the question of, well, why would Saddam attack the United States? Especially with weapons of mass destruction? Especially in alliance with Al-Qaeda? Well, revenge, right? Essentially that became the answer. Is that he is overwhelmingly fixated on revenge against the United States and willing to jeopardize his survival to get that revenge. And that paints a picture of a very irrational, very impulsive Saddam Hussein who simply cannot be allowed to get access to weapons of mass destruction. Or to get access to them again because he, of course, had a pretty robust program in 1991. So she has since kind of faded from the scene, but I think she played a really important part. Not necessarily in shaping the public thinking about Iraq, but shaping the thinking of a couple of key actors.
Sankey: It's also really interesting to see the attention that the US plays to diaspora groups. I mean, certainly our love affair with Irish-Americans in the IRA is a great example of this. But the diaspora population of Iraqis, people like Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi National Congress. They're providing information on the potential receptivity to regime change that really has US planners' attention. What sort of credibility were they being given?
Stieb: So, we should acknowledge that the government and the foreign policy establishment were very split on the Iraqi National Congress. You know, the CIA had basically blacklisted Ahmed Chalabi, you know, "Do not accept any intelligence from this guy," as of the mid-1990s. They and State largely continued to completely distrust anything that came from the Iraqi National Congress. But again, a lot of neo-conservatives, a lot of conservatives, I think particularly a lot of liberals really liked these people. You mentioned Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress. I think another important guy to mention is Kanan Makiya. He was much more of an intellectual type. He's still a professor at Brandeis. And he wrote a book in the late 1980s called Republic of Fear. Another one in the early 1990s called Cruelty and Silence. And he, I think, was just genuinely outraged by the crimes of the Ba'athist regime. And he did this deep analysis of their ideological roots. Basically said this is a kind of Arab version of fascism, and had a very human rights-oriented argument for regime change. And I interviewed him for the book and he still very much makes the same exact argument as he did before the war.
So different people in American politics like different aspects of these exiles. A lot of them liked that they presented just a very Western image. They all had lived a long time in the West. Chalabi had a PhD from University of Chicago in mathematics. They knew how to present themselves and how to present Iraq as a potential budding Westernized society, as that they'll immediately embrace kind of the Western style of capitalism and democracy if Saddam was overthrown. And I think they were a way for a lot of Americans to push back against critics of what you might call American hegemony in the region, or of an assertive American foreign policy. I would think of people like Edward Said here because the exiles were able to say, "No. America, if it pursues regime change in Iraq, is fulfilling a universal mission. A mission that Iraqis share." So it's not just about the intelligence that they give. Of course, they give intelligence... I mean what would you expect an Iraqi exile group to give besides intelligence that supports their goal? I think that should have been obvious. But they also helped push the ideological argument for war.
Sankey: Something I really enjoyed about your book, and which certainly adds to the complexity of the situation that you described, is exactly what you've been talking about. That it's not binary. This isn't a boat with all the neo-conservatives in it. There's also a really strong flavor of liberal internationalism. Of people whole-heartedly and very optimistically believing democracies solve problems. Democracies don't terrorize their own people. Look at the survivors of the post-Soviet regimes who are tearfully thanking Congress for, "You have liberated us. And we're going to be different now." Bernard Lewis and his views on Iraqis. So this is a really mixed group of people who are all seeing different potential and motivation in regime change.
Stieb: Absolutely. Yeah. And I still think the neo-conservatives are a very important group. And I think they're especially important for their positions inside the Bush administration, their ability to convince George Bush to make Iraq kind of the centerpiece of the US response to September 11. But yeah, I was certainly motivated by the desire to go beyond the neo-conservatives in this book, and that's why I discuss all those other groups. I think part of being a young-ish scholar and being someone who is writing... This is going to sound a little pretentious, but someone who's writing the first wave of history about Iraq policy in the 1990s and 2000s is to get away from a little bit of the blame game. No one wants to have the Iraq War pinned on them. There are very few people right now, I think maybe like William Kristol. He may be the only one. Or Max Boot. Who are still willing to say this was a good idea.
And so that shapes the way it's written about. And even people like George Packer, who I think writes very, very well about the Iraq War. He's still wrestling with his own support for that war. And I was 12 when it happened, so I didn't have a super strong position at the time. And again, I'm not trying to be condescending to people and I mean this is just an innate part of the way that we go from history being written by people who participated in it to history being written by historians. There was a very conscious decision behind the book to expand the number of actors. And again, it's much more about explaining it than it is about assigning guilt because I think that that's a tricky framework for historians to operate in. Because that puts us in a position of ethical philosophers and not historians.
Sankey: I think about this a lot because I'm working on things contemporary now, but my historical training is in dealing with 300-year-old dead people. And they're far more cooperative than dealing with living people and informants now. I'm talking to a couple of authors at the end of this week who looked at the NATO training mission in Afghanistan, and their book really frames this as “writing history in real time”. So what you're saying is really thought provoking. That how much distance and what sort of detachment is useful in dealing with participants and dealing with things that you didn't live through. And that's one that our profession wrestles with all the time.
Stieb: Absolutely. I mean I did not have a strong position on the Iraq War when it happened, but it absolutely shaped my political awakening as a teenager. It was the main foreign policy event going on when I was in high school and college. Read obsessively about it. It certainly shapes a lot of the way I think. And so I'm not saying that I'm fully detached or that even being fully detached is a good thing.
Sankey: We also should probably talk a little bit about a force which we don't necessarily consciously think about until something gets stuck in the Suez Canal and we can't buy whatever we want instantly. But the 1990s, as somebody who was in grad school at that point, globalization had started to pop up as a big capitalized word. And on the left there was a lot of, "This is great. It's an interdependent, interconnected world. If there were just McDonald's everywhere, nobody would fight anymore." This is the Friedman “Golden Arches” theory. Even a lot of neocons thought that this was going to make the world a better place for business. Things would democratize. There would be market forces that would do this. We had NAFTA. But we also know now that a faster, flatter, interconnected world can also sometimes be a much more dangerous one. And this starts to pop up in ways where we saw, "Is Iraq sponsoring terrorism? Do these terrorists have a reach that can be outside the region?" And so this force is one that we kind of take for granted now, but is creeping into the discussions that you're looking at.
Stieb: Yeah. And what's so interesting about that to me, a lot about this book, or some of the subtext of it, is people trying to answer the question, "What's the nature of the post-Cold War world?" There's a really great cartoon that's published in Michael Hunt's book, The American Ascendancy, that's got people waiting in line in what appears to be this very kind of sunny, happy globalized world. And then they pass through a metal detector, right? Like they're in an airport. Into a post 9/11 world of fear and anxiety, and there's like a vulture up on a tree that's Osama Bin-Laden. Right? That seemed to decide, to some extent, the nature of the post-Cold War world. And I think you can see the Iraq War, and the optimism behind Americans' faith in themselves to fundamentally transform a foreign society, as kind of the last gasp of that '90s optimism. And so much of our politics and our foreign policy and our thought since then has been the fallout from that failure. That's just kind of what came to mind when you made that statement. I'm not sure if that addresses what you were saying, but I just always think of that cartoon. I use it in teaching and stuff.
Sankey: At the same time that people are thinking about regime change, they're also bringing the roll back strategy back up. And you mentioned it earlier. Americans seem to have this endless sort of receptivity to freedom fighters. I think because so much American narrative identity is caught up in Minutemen and self-defense and freedom and all that kind of stuff. And you have a few thinkers who are saying a “Bay of Goats” situation would be pretty catastrophic. But what's the feeling that if you backed rebels, or if you got people so mad at sanctions that they would topple the regime. How serious were these discussions?
Stieb: That's a really good question. I think that really answering that question well might have to wait for the full revelation of the archives. That's a really important question. I don't think the military took it very seriously. There was the Desert Crossing. I think it was in 1999. Field exercise that... Anthony Zinni was involved in that, and it concluded, without directly attacking rollback, that attempts to sponsor an insurgency in Iraq were completely unrealistic. I think it's interesting that you mentioned that history of Americans' love of foreign fighters. If they had studied what happened in the 1950s when the CIA sponsored and sometimes parachuted in these relatively poorly-trained exiles into Poland and Hungary and other Eastern Bloc countries. I mean most of them were just rounded up in a couple of weeks, executed, or turned back and sent back as double agents. So I mean the history of this is very dubious.
I think the larger significance of rollback in the '90s is it showed the dividing line within the regime change consensus. Is that by the end of 1990s most people think containment is not working. It needs to be replaced. And that eventually you gotta get rid of this guy. But the more kind of radical edge of that consensus says, "And we're gonna do this through rollback." And then the more cautious edge says, "We just don't have a way of doing this. We're not going to invade the country. The rollback is too risky." And that's kind of the ambiguous group of people who most of whom jump on to the regime change by invasion bandwagon after September 11th.
Sankey: Among the many people who are lobbying, drumming up public support, going on Sunday morning shows, there's a lot of gatekeeping of expertise. And a lot of blind spots that you identify in some really key offices, regardless of what administration we're talking about over a decade. How did that happen that you've got these people in key policy positions who have blinders like this on? And what was the effect of their blind spots?
Stieb: Yeah. That's a really good question. I mean, some of it has to do with these older rivalries between neo-conservative intellectuals who kind of go in and out of administrations. Into the policy world and then back to a think tank or to a newspaper. And their rivalry with intelligence operatives and analysts and with the State Department. Because going back to the Cold War, you know going back to things like Team B in 1978. They had tended to see those two government agencies, or two aspects of the government, as very liberal and as victims of what they called "clientitis", or an overly sympathetic view of the countries that they were experts in or the regions they were experts in. And I think that led to, amongst the more ideological members, especially with the second Bush Administration, a just inherent skepticism to whatever the CIA said or whatever the State Department said.
So the State Department, for example, a lot of people in there before the Iraq War said, "This is gonna really hurt us in the region. It's gonna set the Middle East peace process back. We will be seen as the new imperialist bully." But the neo-conservatives in those administrations, as well as people like Rumsfeld and Cheney who had very little experience in the region, just ignored that by saying, "You're just inherently sympathetic to those people." Like John Bolton had a good line on... It's not a good line but it's an illustrative line about this, where he said, "I represent the American interests section of the State Department," when he was serving there. As in, "Oh these State Department people, they're not really looking out for America. But I am." I think that actually captured a lot of the viewpoints towards expertise.
And the other aspect is that I think about, for example, these two historians, Phebe Marr, actually the second one is escaping me. But Phebe Marr was a great historian of Iraq, and she testified to Congress a lot. But she didn't really have a big influence in the debate before the war because she never packaged her information in a way that was snappy and newsbyte worthy because she was a complex thinker. And she wanted to present a complex history. And I think the intellectuals, or whatever you want to call them, in think tanks have an advantage in that they are much better at doing that and willing to do that.
Sankey: That's a really important point now that the soundbites have compressed down to Twitter length.
Stieb: [laughter] Yeah.
Sankey: So it's even harder now to get across complex thoughts than in the late 1990s. Another turning point that you identified is that the Al-Qaeda bombings in Africa really sparked a re-evaluation of the region as one that didn't just have events that caused turbulence there, but could reach out and bite America. Can you walk us up to Operation Desert Fox and the Iraq Liberation Act?
Stieb: Sure. Yeah. So basically it starts in the 1990s. You have this endless series of Saddam obstructing the inspectors or the inspectors finding something new that requires the inspections to go on, which means the sanctions have to keep going. And there are all these confrontations. United States bombs Iraq a couple of times in the 1990s. And this all culminates in 1998 when Saddam just keeps repeatedly, in an escalating way, obstructing the inspectors, threatening the inspectors. That creates political momentum at home, or amongst neo-conservative liberals, other groups, to push for a clearer statement of American policy as a regime change. And that's the Iraq Liberation Act in October 1998. In the fall of 1998, in the winter 1998, there's a couple more back and forths with the inspectors. And finally they decided to leave in December 1998. And that's followed up by Operation Desert Fox, which was a punitive military strike that doesn't seem to have really affected Saddam's trajectory all that much. But within that timeline, in August, you have the twin bombings of the US Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. Two of the most destructive terrorist attacks of history up until that point. Hundreds of people killed.
It makes a connection that Americans have been gravitating to slowly. It just kind of seals that connection, which is, okay, so we've got these rogue dictators, and we've got their pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. And now we have the rise of what then was called the New Terrorism or fanatical, often religiously motivated terrorist groups who, unlike the IRA or unlike the ETA in Spain, seemed to not care how many people they kill. The old saying, and this is from Brian Jenkins, the terrorism expert in the '70s and '80s, was, "Terrorists want a lot of people watching but not a lot of people are dead." In the 1990s that was being questioned because you had these mass terrorist attacks, and their purposes seem to be to cause hundreds if not thousands of casualties. And so the connection wasn't quite made yet, in the late 1990s, to Saddam.
But I think in that attack was part of a shift in American thinking about Iraq. In the Gulf War in early 1990s, Iraq is seen as mainly a threat to our national interests. To access to oil in the Middle East. To the balance of power in the Middle East. To Israel, etcetera. By the end of the 1990s, he's being seen much more as a threat to national security, as in the threat to the homeland. And that's the paradigm that's dominant and much more influential post September 11 because America is not gonna invade Iraq because Saddam might become the hegemon of the region. We ultimately invaded Iraq because we thought that he might actually use these weapons against us or have a proxy do so.
Sankey: Well, and that proxy relationship is really interesting. I mean state sponsorship is no joke, and we know that there are states who really like to do that as a foreign policy tool, North Korea, and Iran. But why does Iraq get the spotlight on this in such a different way than those other nations? Why was Saddam Hussein potentially supplying weapons or technology to terrorists so upsetting?
Stieb: Well, I don't know. Before September 11th... Yeah, before September 11th he only started to be gradually connected to terrorism at the end of the decade. Because he wasn't, at any point, one of the major sponsors of terrorism. Certainly Syria, Iran, and absolutely Libya were much bigger sponsors of terrorism. In 1980s the focus was mostly on Libya, and the United States bombed Libya in 1986 because of terrorism. So I think the broader point there is that in the '90s Saddam became seen as such an epitome of evil and such a representative of so many of these threats that him supporting terrorism, or him even allying with Al-Qaeda despite their totally different goals and ideologies, started to seem much more plausible to Americans.
And so that plausibility carries over after September 11th. And then after September 11th, as we all know, the links to Al-Qaeda were incredibly weak. They were dismissed by most of the intelligence experts. They were massively exaggerated by the Bush administration. But in large part because of the influence of Laurie Mylroie in trying to make those connections. And of Iraqi exiles, who played up groups like Ansar al-Islam, or said that because they're terrorists that are moving in Iraqi society that means they are being harbored there. Which we know is not necessary the case. And of course there was the Czech, the Prague meeting, and all that stuff. So that one still perplexes me. I think reasonable people could disagree for the Iraq War about how far Saddam was developing or what his intentions were with WMD. I don't think reasonable people could really disagree about his connections to Al-Qaeda.
Sankey: The use or the potential use, of WMDs seemed to really juice a lot of that fear. What's at the core of the fear of Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction? Does that feed into some of this?
Stieb: Totally. Yeah. And there were a range of things that American politicians and policy makers thought he might do. There's two nightmare scenarios to think about. One was, let's replay the Persian Gulf War but this time Saddam Hussein has nuclear weapons. And we knew that he was actually much closer to getting those weapons in 1990, 1991. We kind of discovered later that he was really close. And it's still kind of baffling why he invaded Kuwait before he got them. But anyway, if Saddam Hussein had had those weapons it would have been really difficult to oust him from Kuwait, and maybe that never would have happened. He would end up being the most powerful state in the region.
Sankey: The other scenario is that, as I mentioned earlier, he might give those weapons to Al-Qaeda or another similar group to use against the United States and this time you'd get 9/11 with weapons of mass destruction. Something that is just unimaginable at the time. And this is where you have to really put people in context, I think, and try to be empathetic because September 11th just transformed Americans' beliefs in what is possible. It was simply an unbelievable event. And it was, I think, completely understandable for policy makers to ask what the heck else could happen. That phrase the Overton Window, right? The sense of what was possible was just radically expanded by that event. And that has to be understood to understand how Americans shifted from Saddam as a tolerable threat to an intolerable threat.
Sankey: So in the year or so leading up to 9/11, can you give me the state of play on the consensus for regime change before this big pivotal event happens?
Stieb: Well, the state of play is sort of a stasis. The United States is still trying to hang on to sanctions, but is trying to create a smarter set of sanctions. Mostly Colin Powell was leading the way with that. The United States is engaging actually in escalating bombings and missions in the no-fly zone, especially in the north of Iraq. Bombing SAM sites there. But within the Bush Administration, I don't think they were prioritizing Iraq very intensely in those first nine months. I think there was a broad consensus in the foreign policy establishment that, "Gotta get rid of this guy eventually." Containment's falling apart or that it's already failed. But I have a memo in the book that Donald Rumsfeld, I think it’s on September 9th, 2001. And he says, "We really gotta get an Iraq policy down." They had a series of reviews on it, excuse me, but they couldn't seem to overcome this divide between the Colin Powell side, which was more let's just kind of plod forward and keep this on the back burner, and the Wolfowitz-Douglas Fife side who were saying, "We need to start pushing more towards regime change." So there's definitely a stasis in 2000, 2001.
Sankey: What then effects does 9/11 have?
Stieb: So 9/11 is, I would say there is no Iraq War without 9/11. That's one of my claims. I don't know if a lot of people disagree with that. 9/11 does a couple of things, right? First, it solidifies this shift from thinking about Iraq as a threat to national interest to a threat to national security. Second, it sort of can be thought of as a new almost a resource for foreign policy thinkers. That's kind of a bloodless way to call it, but I think it's maybe the right word. In that America had to do something in response to September 11th. It seemed to change the nature of the international, I mean in many ways it did change the nature of the international system. The nature of security. The sense of what is possible. And of course, just a deep sense of pain and vulnerability and fear that I think is unlike anything in American history before. So for people with a bold foreign policy vision in the Bush Administration, especially Paul Wolfowitz or Donald Rumsfeld who had been wanting to push regime change in Iraq, this was an enormous opportunity. And I don't say this in a cynical way. I don't mean to say that this is some kind of conniving cabal. I think they just genuinely thought that A: It's very plausible that Saddam would have done this. And it wasn't but that was their belief.
And second, that we need to deal with Saddam in the aftermath of September 11th. That this is both an opportunity and an impetus to finally solve this problem, even if it's not necessarily connected to Iraq. And we know this from interviews with Bush Administration officials. We know it from some journalistic accounts. And there's some documents that have been released as well. So we know that Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, and Fife and some other folks in the administration, even on September 11th, bring up Iraq and say, "This needs to be part of the response. They might have been involved." They pushed that for a little bit. Powell and Bush kind of shut it down. But it pops up later in November, kind of once Afghanistan seems to be settled. Next question is, "Okay. So what's the bigger picture? How does the United States try to reshape the national system to deal with terrorism?" And that's where Iraq came in. Or that's where the Iraq hawks in the administration could jump back in and make that argument. So it's utterly essential. I don't think that Bush would have made that leap on his own. And without September 11th, without the fear and vulnerability that generated, I don't see how you could have gotten Congress or the American public to support the war.
Sankey: Something I really appreciated about your book, is that you really do have a sympathy and a sensitivity in digging through all of these people's notes, in reconstructing the conversations and the meetings that they have. I'm one of those crazy people who looks at the bibliography, and I can see that you were doing some serious heavy excavation work at presidential libraries and doing interviews. Whether or not you agreed with them, were there any figures whose writing and whose positions you just found really interesting or compelling? I know I get sucked in by 300-year-old dead people all the time. Who were the figures that really resonated with you as you did this research?
Stieb: That's a really great question. I have a couple, one is Kanan Makiya. I think that of all the people involved in this, he was probably the most genuinely devoted to a reform of Iraq and to a positive Iraqi future. And I don't think he was in it for himself at all. Whereas I think Ahmed Chalabi was completely in it for himself. Interviewing him, he just had a very powerful vision of human rights, and I found that compelling although I do disagree with him on lot of things. I thought that the arguments of the pro-war liberals were very interesting. I kind of consider myself like a half liberal internationalist and half realist, which as I know is a huge sell-out and kind of meaningless.
But I wrote an article for Modern American History about pro-war liberals and how they embedded their support for the Iraq War in a broader vision of reform and of multilateral foreign policy and of international law that I found very appealing. But then lastly, I found myself maybe inevitably gravitating towards foreign policy realism because of this project. And so reading George Kennan and especially reading John Mearsheimer, whose arguments about containment and deterrence before the Iraq War are completely un-sentimental, completely rigorous, and I think punctured a lot of the ways that... A lot of the fantasies that Americans had about themselves. I took some classes with him at the University of Chicago, and I don't agree with him on everything necessarily, but he's been excellent at puncturing those kind of self-delusions and I think is always worth reading.
Sankey: I always cheat and tell people I'm a constructivist and the answer is always. "It depends," which frustrates everybody enormously. The events of the 1990s and subsequent decisions after 9/11 have had wide-ranging, deep effects for the next decades and probably for the foreseeable future. What do you think some of the most important and significant of those are as we look at foreign policy and international relations?
Stieb: I think one of the big effects is that there's been... I think there's two big ones. One is, I think US foreign policy has significantly lowered its horizons or lowered its goals in... Especially in the belief that the United States can bring about Japan-like transformations of other societies. I think Iraq really sunk that belief, culture shock quickly it fell apart and how horrifically it fell apart. I think if Iraq didn't sink that belief, I think Afghanistan crushed it now that Afghanistan has also been returned to the Taliban. You can see this a bit in the Obama Administration. The Obama Administration still brought that kind of liberal internationalist perspective, but most of its foreign policy interventions were about stopping something, stopping a disaster in process, like the Libyan government's advance towards Benghazi, much more than they were about actually transforming a situation and trying to create something better. But then second, I think, and probably the more important effects of the Iraq War is the reaffirmation of the narrative of people like Vladimir Putin that the United States is out to apply international rules and norms that are ostensibly fair and universal. To apply them as weapons, to destroy the power of authoritarian states.
I think one of the dual effects of the Iraq War was to just really spook these countries. Because the United States, against much of the wishes of the international community and without United Nations approval, simply overthrows a regime and does so ruthlessly, I mean, three weeks, right? Just removes this regime from power. I think it was frightening to a lot of countries, but I think the ideology behind it, the idea that the United States could wage a preventive war against the country that was not directly threatening it. So when the United States says, "We're gonna promote democracy around the world, and we're going to promote human rights." I think, in large part because of Iraq, a lot of countries view that extremely cynically. Now the United States didn't make Vladimir Putin into a cynic. But I think it gives him much more plausibility to make those arguments and to argue for an alternative system of international politics that is essentially not rule-bound at all. That reflects his desire to simply project power in a very old school way. So Iraq is a crisis for liberal internationalism, without a doubt. Part of the reason I wrote this book is to kind of try to wrestle with that. And I still don't really know.
Sankey: One of the most unsettling things to wrestle with, and certainly that came through loud and clear in your argument and in your writing, is that there has to be an understanding that there are problems that can't be solved. They can just be managed. And that's really frightening, I think. And living with that ambiguity and the inability to decisively do things is something that people don't want to associate with a great power. How should policy makers approach things if definitive solutions aren't really plausibly available?
Stieb: Well, they have to be careful first and foremost of what they say. I think part of the problem with Iraq was this massive over-promising and hyped-up rhetoric of the 1990s, which they used as a political shield but also used at times to mobilize population. I don't necessarily have an answer in terms of what sort of foreign policy tools we would use. I think there needs to be an appreciation for the differences of different cultures. It's not about saying that cultures aren't capable of being democratic. It's about recognizing that it's very, very rare for one society to successfully re-make another society in its own image, especially through force. Especially quickly, which was the American dream in Iraq. And then I think I try to encourage a sense of perspective. My last point in the book is to say it's crazy that containment of Iraq came to be seen as the restrained policy in the 1990s because it was not a restraint. It was only restrained relative to regime change. It was only restrained relative to the extreme. But it still involved the permanent stationing of US forces in a pretty hostile region. It involved two continuous no-fly zones in the North and the South. And pilots have these great testimonies of the wear and tear and the cost of those permanent institutions.
It involved sanctions that were unprecedented in US history. It involved cutting off a major oil supplier from the world market for most of the 1990s. And it involved weapons inspections that are the most intrusive and thorough ever in history. And so to call that restrained shows you just how far out of whack Americans' perspectives of their own power were in the 1990s. And I don't know how to package it as a lesson. I think there are lessons about that for China today. How much do we really need to shape, like how much can we realistically shape a region that is thousands of miles away from us? That is the essential national interest of China to shape? It's hard to come up with a lesson besides be humble and lower your expectations. I would have said that in the end but I had to say something more elaborate than that.
Sankey: Can you tell me a little bit about the project that you're working on now?
Stieb: I'd love to. So I am interested now in Americans' experiences and thinking about terrorism since the 1970s. I am especially interested in how Americans have answered the question, why does terrorism happen and why is it happening now? Terrorism, especially airplane hijackings and hostage taking, became a major issue in the 1960s and 1970s. And I think that terrorism, especially as a foreign policy problem, it kind of lends itself to being impressed with the cultural concerns and the ideologies and the perspective... From the political perspectives of the people who are analyzing it. A great example of this is Beverly Gage's book on the 1920 Wall Street bombing, where she says, "Every political group in the United States came forward and said, 'It must have been the other guys because only they would do this.'" And so I mentioned kind of how Americans developed their understanding of terrorism. I'm especially interested in kind of the moral aspect of this. I think a lot of political scientists like to ask the question, or they constantly say, "Well, why is American foreign policy focused so much on terrorism when more people are killed by bathtubs?" In a given moment, that's not an argument that you hear a lot.
And in a rationalist's paradigm, that's a very good question. But in sort of a cultural moral paradigm, not a good question. Because there's a deeper moral outrage that people bring to the table with terrorism that I don't think is really changeable, or not necessarily changeable. So I want to see all the ways that Americans, especially on the political right, connected the modern problem of terrorism to a variety of other concerns. Or how they connected it to crime. How they connected it to a Decolonisation. How they connected it to a sense that the moral order of society was falling apart. How they connected it to the post-Vietnam War foreign policy situation, the belief that America was in decline or decadent. And I think all of these kind of cultural intellectual things swirl around the terrorism debate. So I'd really like to write a book that's basically that history from 1975 through the War on Terror... Or 1970s though the War on Terror.
Sankey: This has been a great discussion about The Regime Change Consensus and your future work. Is there anything else you'd like to add before we wrap things up?
Stieb: I think I'm all set. Thank you so much for having me on the program, and I really appreciate the offer.
Sankey: That's fantastic. So thank you for tuning in to Wild Blue Yonder on the Air. We've been talking to Dr. Joseph Stieb. And we hope you'll tune in next time. Thank you.
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