Why did the United States go to war with Iraq? Six years after the invasion, commentators from across the political spectrum—from liberals and left internationalists to right-wing realists and even some neoconservatives—agree the war was a catastrophic mistake.

But there is little consensus about why it was waged in the first place.

The Bush administration’s discredited public rationale, that the country was threatened by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), was at best only the tip of the iceberg, at worst a cynical attempt to cover up the actual motives for the war. “The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy,” former deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz admitted, “we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on, which was weapons of mass destruction.” [1]

But if WMDs were not the core reason, what was? Was the war a manifestation of belligerent nationalism? Was it payback for the September 11 attacks? Or was it actually motivated by deep-seated concerns about oil, Israel, strategic preeminence, and “democracy”?

Obsessing about finding “the real motive” hidden under the WMD pretext for the war is counterproductive, as it leads to the conspiracy-tinged assumptions that there was one grand, overriding motive, which was shared by all the principal players.

But the truth is rarely simple. “When we as historians get access to all the documents and can figure out how this thing was planned and who supported it, I think we’ll find that the Bush administration was a coalition of various forces and each part of the coalition had its own reasons for wanting to fight this war,” argues Middle East scholar Juan Cole of the University of Michigan. [2]

The motives of the administration’s top leadership (notably Bush himself, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld) may not have been exactly the same as those of the leading neoconservatives in and outside the administration (Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, William Kristol), not to mention the liberal politicians (Hillary Clinton, John Kerry) and public intellectuals (Paul Berman, Jeffrey Goldberg) who threw their support behind the war.

However, to a large extent the Iraq war has become identified with neoconservative ideology. The neoconservatives themselves were initially eager to claim credit, [3] but once it was evident the war’s mission was far from accomplished, the neocons’ erstwhile allies, the liberal hawks, were equally inclined to grant it to them.

But it is oversimplification bordering on caricature to say the neocons singlehandedly drove the invasion. A closer inspection suggests that above all, the Iraq war was an extreme manifestation of a recent ideological tendency in U.S. foreign policy, and that the thinking that engendered it may not be fully in the rearview mirror.

Early Preoccupation with Iraq

“We and our major industrialized allies,” began a 1979 internal Pentagon study on threats to global oil supplies, “have a vital and growing stake in the Persian Gulf region because of our need for Persian Gulf oil and because events in the Persian Gulf affect the Arab-Israeli conflict.” The study went on to identify Iraq as the leading regional threat to U.S. interests in the Gulf, due both to its potential for military aggression and to the possibility that its “implicit power will cause currently moderate local powers to accommodate themselves to Iraq without being overtly coerced.” [4]

This was the “Limited Contingency Study,” conducted by the then-obscure deputy assistant secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz, a longtime hawk with close ties to neoconservatism. The sections on Iraq were drafted by Dennis Ross, later the Clinton administration’s lead Israeli-Palestinian negotiator, and now the Obama administration’s point man on Iran.

As journalist James Mann has pointed out, the study was significant because it marked the beginning of the U.S. government’s long preoccupation with Iraq. Mann notes that the study predated the worldwide notoriety of Saddam Hussein, and that the U.S. government’s early concern with Iraq “arose from concerns about oil, geopolitics and the balance of power in the Persian Gulf, not from concerns about Saddam Hussein’s behavior.” [5]

The first sentence of the Pentagon study quite straightforwardly states two reasons why Iraq and the Middle East were on the U.S. radar screen at all: oil, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

It is significant that 12 years before 9/11 attacks, Wolfowitz and his team cited oil and Israel as the two reasons to keep a watchful eye on Iraq: 30 years later, they remain the two foremost factors in discussions of Iraq war motives.

The Oil Motive

From the outset, the notion of a “war for oil” has been a pervasive theme among critics of the Iraq war, and the slogan “No Blood for Oil” was ubiquitous at protest rallies in the run-up to the war.

To say that the Iraq war was “about oil” is, however, an imprecise formulation that needs to be fully unpacked and examined.

The early cries of “no blood for oil” often seemed to imply that the invasion was primarily motivated by a desire to gain control of Iraq’s vast oil reserves. In 2002, these reserves were estimated at 112.5 billion barrels, making them the second-largest in the world after Saudi Arabia.

Yet Iraqi oil was already being sold to the world market under the U.N. oil-for-food program, refuting the widespread belief that U.S. war planners simply wanted to seize Iraq’s reserves for the world market.

However, the Bush administration could have had other reasons for wanting to intervene. Professor Michael Klare of Hampshire College, one of the main proponents of the “oil war” thesis, notes that by 2001, Iraqi oil production had slipped to 2.5 million barrels per day, down from 3.7 million in 1979 and a fraction of its potential capacity. The Department of Energy at that time estimated that total Gulf oil output would have to increase 85 percent by the year 2020 to meet rising world demand. [6]

Washington was also increasingly worried about the stability and capability of Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil supplier. The Saudi monarchy was playing a delicate game in response to the threat from radical Islamist groups, and the Bush administration doubted the regime’s ability to muster the infrastructural improvements necessary to increase the productive capacity of the oil fields. [7]

Given these circumstances, Klare and others argue, the administration wanted to find sources of increased oil production, and it envisioned a “free,” Westernized Iraq as a good bet. “Iraq before the war was producing almost 3 million barrels a day and, if its fields were explored and opened and exploited, it might be up to the Saudi level [of nearly 11 million barrels per day] in twenty years,” argues Juan Cole. “There might even be an opportunity, if you had a free-market regime in Iraq, for Western petroleum companies to go back to owning oil fields. … All that potential in Iraq was locked up.” [8]

Cole suggests that such considerations were likely to have been particularly important for Dick Cheney, who after all had previously been CEO of the oil services firm Halliburton and, in 2001, had headed the administration’s energy task force.

Yet other factors undercut the suggestion that a desire to boost Iraqi oil production was the war’s driving force. As Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service points out, the major oil companies themselves appeared lukewarm about the Iraq adventure for fear that the supply of oil would be disrupted. [9]

Seeing the war as motivated by a drive to control Iraqi reserves “requires several leaps of logic—as well as inattention to developments in the rest of the world’s markets,” wrote noted oil historian Daniel Yergin a few months before the invasion. “No U.S. administration would launch so momentous a campaign just to facilitate a handful of oil development contracts and a moderate increase in supply—half a decade from now.” [10]

However, there is a broader sense in which we can understand the idea of an “oil motive” for war. The campaign against Saddam Hussein, this argument goes, arose not from the desire to control Iraq’s actual oil reserves, but from the threat Saddam supposedly posed to the stable flow of oil from the Gulf region as a whole. Arguments about an oil motive rest on much stronger ground when seen from this broader perspective. Although there is little evidence that control of Iraq’s oil was a main goal for the Bush war planners (rather than merely an anticipated collateral benefit), ensuring a continued oil supply from the Gulf region has been a longstanding U.S. strategic interest.

The United States has explicitly declared this to be a strategic goal, and it has demonstrated in practice that it will use military force to achieve it. Energy expert Klare now refers to the protection of the Gulf oil flow as the “primary” motive for war, and the control of Iraqi oil reserves as a “secondary” motive. [11]

As noted earlier, Wolfowitz’s 1979 Limited Contingency Study was a turning point in the U.S. government’s evolving thinking about its energy interests in the Gulf. However, the study was soon followed by a far more important milestone. This was the Carter Doctrine, set forth by President Carter in his 1980 State of the Union address following the Iranian revolution.

The doctrine stated that “an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” [12] While the Carter Doctrine was primarily directed at the Soviet Union, the government was already considering the threat from other regional powers—in particular Iraq.

The Carter Doctrine was restated and reconfigured several times over the next quarter-century, most notably in the Defense Planning Guidance (DPG) drafted in 1992 by Zalmay Khalilzad, a hardliner who would later become a key member of George W. Bush’s foreign policy team.

The Carter Doctrine was also put into practice—the most famous example, of course, being the 1991 Gulf War. While publicly justified as a defense of helpless Kuwait against Iraqi aggression, it was obvious that in the U.S. government’s calculations, worries over Kuwaiti and Saudi oil weighed more than concerns for Kuwaiti sovereignty. A few months after the end of hostilities, Wolfowitz bluntly explained administration thinking about the region: “The combination of the enormous resources of the Persian Gulf, the power that those resources represent—it’s power. It’s not just that we need gas for our cars, it’s that anyone who controls those resources has enormous capability to build up military forces.” [13]

Alleged concerns about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction ultimately sprung from this same preoccupation with Gulf oil. Of course, Iraq hawks were happy to give the impression that Saddam was so unhinged that he might attack the U.S. with WMDs, either directly or through a terrorist group. In their more candid moments, however, hardliners admitted that the real danger was not that Saddam would launch a suicide attack against an American city, but that he would use WMDs to alter the strategic balance of the region and thereby control most of the planet’s oil supply.

Cheney’s August 2002 speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, widely seen as a public signal of the administration’s intentions, laid out this line of argument: “Armed with an arsenal of these weapons of terror, and seated atop ten percent of the world’s oil reserves, Saddam Hussein could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of a great portion of the world’s energy supplies, directly threaten America’s friends throughout the region, and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail.” [14]

Kenneth Pollack, whose 2002 book The Threatening Storm was the most influential “liberal hawk” case for war, was generally eager to portray Saddam Hussein as an unstable Hitler figure prone to aggressive miscalculations, but he acknowledged that the threat to Gulf oil supplies was the real reason Iraq could not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. [15]

“I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil,” wrote former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan in his memoirs. He did, however, clarify that, in the words of The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, “he was not implying that the war was an oil grab.” Rather, it was meant to “[make] certain that the existing system [of oil markets] continues to work.” [16]

There may be debate about the extent to which the oil motive was a sufficient condition for war, but it is very difficult to dispute that it was a necessary condition. It was U.S. reliance on Gulf oil that made the Middle East a geopolitically critical region, and that helped turn Saddam Hussein into an apparently unacceptable threat to U.S. interests. (This helps to explain why the United States was able to tolerate a brutal dictator going nuclear in North Korea but not in Iraq.) As the Limited Contingency Study had noted 30 years ago, oil was one of two reasons for America’s “vital and growing stake” in the region. The other was the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The Israel Motive

“The lack of public discussion about the role of Israel … is easier to understand [than the lack of discussion about oil], but weird nevertheless,” former New Republic editor Michael Kinsley wrote in October 2002. “It is the proverbial elephant in the room: Everybody sees it, no one mentions it. …Why and whether an American war against Iraq would be good for Israel is far from clear and is the subject of vigorous debate in Israel itself—but not in America.”

Many other commentators noted much the same phenomenon; Time’s Joe Klein, a war supporter who once noted that “[a] stronger Israel is very much embedded in the rationale for war,” called it the “part of the argument that dare not speak its name.” [17]

Recent years have seen increased scrutiny of the extent to which U.S. concerns about the security of Israel motivated the invasion, a theme extensively (and controversially) treated by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in their 2006 article, “The Israel Lobby,” as well as in their subsequent book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.

More broadly, few aspects of the Iraq war have been more thoroughly discussed than neoconservatives’ role in promoting it. There can be little doubt that Israel-related concerns were central to the thinking of administration neoconservatives, such as Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, and Elliott Abrams, and that these men played a significant role in advocating and shaping the war. However, several distinctions must be made when assessing an “Israel motive” for the Iraq war.

For one thing, neoconservatives were only one part—the right-wing vanguard—of the constellation of the groups and interests that comprise what is generally known as “the Israel lobby.” It would therefore be somewhat misleading to suggest that the Israel lobby as a whole played a major role in taking the United States to war.

Groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)—the nation’s leading Israel lobbying group—carefully avoided being associated with the campaign for the invasion—although, as the Washington Post noted, “once it became clear that the Bush administration was determined to go to war, AIPAC cheered from the sidelines.” [18]

More importantly, to suggest that policymakers pushed for war largely because of Israel-related concerns does not mean that Israelis themselves were strong war advocates. It has been frequently noted that large portions of the Israeli defense establishment and the Israeli populace were lukewarm about the Iraq war due to their belief that Iran posed a bigger threat. In 2001 and 2002, several prominent Israeli officials, including defense minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer [19], transportation minister Ephraim Sneh [20], and Israeli Defense Force chief of staff Moshe Yaalon publicly downplayed the Iraqi threat, forcing a frustrated Ariel Sharon to order his cabinet to keep quiet about the war. [21]

But although there is scant evidence that the Israelis were strong war backers, it is also easy to understate their support. For one thing, the war seemed to enjoy much stronger support among leaders of the Likud Party—from whom U.S. neoconservatives often seem to take their cues—than among the Israeli political establishment as a whole. For instance, once and future prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli leader with the closest ties to neoconservatives, was an outspoken war supporter. [22] It is also undeniable that the Israeli political establishment threw its public support behind the campaign once the Bush administration made clear that war was inevitable.

Now that we’ve made these distinctions, we need to examine the specific content of the “Israel motive.” What benefits to Israel did the neoconservative war planners foresee? Here, we can identify two distinct (but related) considerations.

The most obvious consideration was to eliminate the threat of an Iraqi attack upon Israel. Several prominent U.S. policymakers candidly acknowledged that the real menace of a nuclear Iraq would be directed at Israel rather than the United States.

In August 2002, former NATO commander General Wesley Clark said that “those who favor this attack now will tell you candidly, and privately, that it is probably true that Saddam Hussein is no threat to the United States. But they are afraid that at some point he might decide if he had a nuclear weapon to use it against Israel.” A month later, Philip Zelikow, a prominent aide to national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, said in a speech that “the real threat is the threat against Israel … and the American government doesn’t want to lean too hard on it rhetorically, because it is not a popular sell.” [23]

On the other hand, a U.S. war with Iraq also created its own set of dangers for Israel; many warned that Saddam was likely to respond to an U.S. attack by retaliating against Israel, just as he had in 1991 when he fired Scud missiles at Israel during the Gulf War.

The second major consideration for war planners, however, was far more ambitious, aiming at a wholesale transformation of the Middle East that would redound to Israel’s benefit. This had been a longstanding neoconservative goal since at least the mid-1990s, when a task force featuring many future Bush administration figures (including Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and David Wurmser) prepared the now-infamous “Clean Break” report for Benjamin Netanyahu. The report urged the incoming prime minister to break off the Oslo peace process with the Palestinians, to strike against Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah, and to pursue a policy of regime change in Iraq. The Jordanian Hashemite monarchy, which had been expelled from Iraq in 1958, was to replace Saddam—one indication that democracy promotion was not necessarily central to neoconservative dreams of regional transformation. Under the “Clean Break” scenario, the Palestinians, isolated and friendless, would give up on achieving their own state or on resisting Israeli occupation. [24]

While Netanyahu never implemented the task force’s recommendations, its broad contours remained central to neoconservative thinking on the Middle East. [25] Neoconservatives and their Likud allies, loathe to compromise with the Palestinians, continued to look farther afield for the transformative regional change that would make such compromise unnecessary. The road to Jerusalem ran through Baghdad, it was frequently said before the war, just as today many of the same parties claim that it runs through Tehran.

How important overall was the “Israel motive”? The answer to this question mainly rests on the related question of how central neoconservatives themselves were to the drive to war. Michael Klare concedes that Israel may have been a prime motive for Wolfowitz, Feith, and other neocons in and outside the administration. But he maintains that any investigation of causation must focus on Bush and Cheney. “They were the deciders,” he says, and their bottom-line motive was oil rather than Israel. [26]

Juan Cole similarly cautions against letting the top leadership off the hook. “[T]he degree to which Bush himself has been a central, policy-making player somehow gets elided in American discourse,” he says. “It’s not as if he’s a leaf blown by the wind. When the Bush presidency is finally examined from the primary documents, a lot of the things that are attributed to the number three man at the Pentagon [Feith] may actually turn out to have been Bush’s idea from the beginning, and something he pushed hard for.” [27]

All the same, we should avoid downplaying the instrumental role played by neoconservatives. Although the ultimate decisions rested with Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, the neoconservatives were nonetheless the single most important group in shaping the debate over Iraq. “[W]hen the second President Bush looked around for a way to think about the uncharted era that began on September 11 2001,” George Packer writes, “there was one already available” due to their efforts. [28]

The Strategic Preeminence Motive

Oil and Israel help explain why U.S. policymakers viewed the Middle East as a geopolitically critical region, and why they had fixated on Iraq as the region’s major threat in the years before 9/11. It is quite possible, perhaps even likely, that these considerations would have been enough to produce U.S. military action against Iraq even had the 9/11 attacks not occurred. In this regard, it is surely relevant that a large number of future Bush administration officials—primarily neoconservatives, but also including the likes of Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Armitage—had in 1998 publicly endorsed military-backed regime change in Iraq by signing the Project for a New American Century’s open letter to President Clinton. [29]

Juan Cole points to evidence that Bush himself was planning military action in Iraq from the beginning of his presidency. According to journalist Osama Siblani, Bush declared that he was going to “take [Saddam] out” in a private meeting during the 2000 presidential campaign; according to former Treasury secretary Paul O’Neill, Bush instructed Rumsfeld and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to look into military options for Iraq during his first national security meeting after taking office in January 2001. [30]

But although the September 11 attacks may not have been a decisive rationale for the war planners, they undoubtedly increased public and congressional acquiescence to war, and furnished a readymade justification for retaliatory aggression.

While the most obvious effect of 9/11 was to give greater urgency to Bush’s rhetoric about WMD and terrorism, it had another, arguably more significant effect on administration and popular thinking. This was to promote a widespread feeling that the attacks humiliated and weakened the United States, and that the country needed to take down some sufficiently prominent regime in order to demonstrate its power and “restore its deterrence.” This consideration appears to have weighed heavily on both Cheney and Rumsfeld.

Afghanistan would not do. Former presidential counterterrorism advisor Richard Clarke recalls a conversation with Rumsfeld shortly after the attacks: “Rumsfeld was saying that we needed to bomb Iraq, and we all said, but, no, no. Al Qaeda is in Afghanistan. We need to bomb Afghanistan. Rumsfeld said there aren’t any good targets in Afghanistan and there are lots of good targets in Iraq. I said there are lots of good targets in lots of places but Iraq had nothing to do with it.” [31]

A former Cheney advisor used the term “demonstration effect” to describe Cheney’s thinking on Iraq. “The demonstration effect is not just to be a tough guy but to reestablish deterrence,” he told journalist Barton Gellman. “We have been hit very hard, and we needed to make clear the costs to those who might have been supporting or harboring those who were contemplating those acts.” Gellman concludes that “Cheney, in the end, did not press for war with Iraq because Saddam really topped the list of ‘grave and gathering threats,’ as he led the Bush administration in asserting. The United States would take him down because it could.” [32]

We should also note, however, that this motive grew out of the other motives discussed above. 9/11 may have convinced the United States that it needed to send a message, but longstanding concerns about oil and Israel help explain why it was determined to send this message in the Middle East. If the  Bush administration had simply intended to make an example of a terror-supporting country, there were several other regimes that would have made more logical targets; the administration’s pre-existing fixation upon Iraq was based on factors that had little to do with terrorism.

The Democracy Motive

What about the idea that a post-Saddam Iraq would serve as a model of democratic, free-market, pro-American government (qualities often conflated by war supporters)? According to this argument, once Saddam was taken down, democracy would flower, spreading throughout the region and defusing the “root causes” of terrorism.

This motive has acquired more importance in recent years than it likely carried in the minds of the war planners at the time. One reason was that the Bush administration came increasingly to rely on the democracy angle after the case based on WMDs and terrorist ties collapsed. Another was that the idealistic case for war based on democracy and human rights was the one that appealed most to the prominent liberal hawks in the media who supported it, thereby giving this aspect a disproportionate amount of media attention in the runup to war.

Bush himself by all indications genuinely believed his own rhetoric. Former presidential speechwriter Michael Gerson claimed the Bush and Cheney arrived at the same policy prescription from very different starting points. “While the vice-president’s foreign-policy emphasis is the realistic confrontation of threats to the American people,” Gerson claimed, “the president … is a root-cause thinker” who looked to “the development of hopeful societies that don’t produce ideologies and individuals that murder our citizens.” [33]

Yet the Bush-Cheney relationship reflected a fundamental ambiguity in the case for war—a conflict between deterrence and democracy. Was the goal of the war to shock and awe the Muslim world with overwhelming firepower, or to inspire it with democratic ideals? And were these goals complementary or contradictory?

As with the strategic preeminence motive, the democracy motive grew out of preexisting strategic concerns about oil and Israel. Many advocates supported democracy promotion in the Middle East not so much for its own sake but rather because they believed, following neoconservative-aligned Arabists like Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, that only political liberalization could defuse the resentment that fueled terrorism. Implicit in this rationale was the assumption that the U.S. military presence in the region to protect oil supplies, and its unstinting support for Israel against the Palestinians—the two policies widely understood to be the largest sources of anti-American sentiment among Muslims—were non-negotiable.

Bush’s “freedom agenda” was only the most dramatic manifestation of a longer U.S. preoccupation with the Middle East—a preoccupation that stood in marked contrast to the country’s relative indifference to large parts of the rest of the world. The dream of creating a Middle East full of liberal democratic regimes was in large part driven by the desire to remove threats from rogue statues, either to the world oil supply or to the state of Israel.


War motives generally overlapped and blurred within the minds of supporters, and closer examination of the war’s architects refutes the simplistic notion that there was a single “real reason” that was universally shared and all-important.

It is clear that the Middle East in general and Iraq in particular have been a fixation of U.S. policymakers since well before the emerging threat of transnational terrorism. The most important reason for this was the U.S. government’s strategic interest in ensuring a stable and continuous oil flow from the Gulf region. A secondary reason, which was particularly important for several key war architects, was the region’s significance for the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflicts.

These preoccupations help explain why a so-called “rogue state” like Iraq was treated as a far more serious threat to U.S. interests than similarly brutal or aggressive regimes elsewhere in the world, and why regime change in Iraq had been a longtime goal of U.S. policymakers. They also help explain why, in the much-changed political environment that followed the 9/11 attacks, the United States seized upon Iraq as the proper test case for its new goals of deterrence and democratization, despite the country’s tenuous connection to the overarching framework of the “global war on terror.” By thinking in this way about the motives behind the war, we may be able to reach a deeper understanding of how the United States came to be in Iraq, and how—or whether—it can avoid similarly misguided adventures in the future.

Daniel Luban writes for PRA’s Right Web (https://rightweb.irc-online.org/).