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Why Did the United States Invade Iraq? The Debate at 20 Years.

The invasion of Iraq is the most important foreign policy decision by a U.S. president in the 21st century, so the surfeit of analysis should surprise no one.

No single article can tackle every aspect of Iraq War scholarship. Thus, this essay focuses on three questions that are essential for explaining the war’s origins but that continue to divide scholars. First, was the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq driven more by the desire for security or the pursuit of primacy? Second, was the Bush administration’s decision to pursue “coercive diplomacy” in the fall and winter of 2002–2003 a genuine attempt to avoid war or a means to legitimize a decision for war made earlier in 2002? Third, how much did neoconservatives matter in the making of the Iraq War?

The first question — security vs. hegemony — constitutes the primary point of scholarly disagreement about the Iraq War. Security-focused explanations like those found in Leffler’s new book argue that the Bush administration’s primary motive was protecting the nation from future terrorist attacks in the transformed, post-9/11 environment in which threats like Iraq had to be re-evaluated. Scholars in the hegemony school like Ahsan Butt argue, in contrast, that the Bush administration used 9/11 and the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction as a pretext to justify a war that was motivated primarily by the desire for regional and/or global hegemony. Other important questions flow from this security-hegemony divide, including the nature of Bush’s coercive diplomacy strategy and the role of neoconservatives in causing the war.

Useful historiographical analysis begins with explaining why the scholarly landscape looks the way it does and then proposes directions for growth. The unavoidable challenge of interpreting history is all the more difficult in this case, because scholars have access to only a fraction of the primary documentation. As a result, much of the debate has boiled down to how to approach, critique, and contextualize the same small body of sources. In addition, political and policy debates have often had an outsized, if not always ideal, impact on the scholarship.

In methodological terms, the security school has largely trusted that what policymakers say their motives were, both at the time and in hindsight, is what they actually were, unless clear contradictory evidence can be found. For this group, the critical context for understanding the war is the pressurized post-9/11 environment in which protecting the nation was everything and in which most parties saw Iraq as a significant threat.

The hegemony school retorts that key questions about the war do not make sense when viewed through a security prism. This group points out that scholars should not trust the testimonies of policymakers who have a strong incentive to deny the more ideological or delusional aspects of their actions. Instead, these scholars cast the Iraq War decision in wider historical contexts, identifying factors like the longstanding primacist policy views of figures like Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz that they believe have more explanatory relevance than security factors.