20 Years of Iraq Denialism: The New York Times Continues to Get it Wrong on U.S. Empire
Marking the twentieth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, The New York Times ran a feature-length article titled, “20 Years On, a Question Lingers About Iraq: Why Did the U.S. Invade?” The piece acknowledges some harsh realities about the war, while dodging questions about its legality and the imperial motivations that fueled it. This is par for the course for the paper of record, which has a decades-long history of sidestepping damning questions about the war.
To provide some context, I should say that I’ve probably done more empirical research on the ways in which we think and talk about Iraq and the “War on Terror” than any other scholar studying media, public opinion, and war (see here, here, and here). So it’s been particularly painful over the decades for me to observe Times reporters systematically distort how we understand U.S. wars. The new Times report reflects on numerous critical facts about the U.S. invasion and occupation, acknowledging “the war’s toll in American military deaths (about 4,600),” and “Iraqi lives,” with “estimates generally fall[ing] around 300,000 or more killed directly by fighting.” The paper also recognizes “the financial cost” of $815 billion – “not counting indirect costs like lost productivity.” Finally, there are the larger macro political and societal consequences of the invasion and occupation, including “plunging Iraq into civil war, giving rise to a new generation of jihadism, and for a time, chastening American interventionism.”
Concerning justifications for war, the Times reports that official reasons given for the invasion were bogus. Considering claims that Iraq possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), the Times writes that “Insider accounts consistently portray the administration as playing down or rejecting mountains of intelligence contradicting its claims, instead cherry-picking circumstantial evidence for its case.” This makes short work of apologetic and propagandistic scholarship that fallaciously portrays the war as a result of a simple intelligence error. The Times report also correctly notes the dubious foundation for Bush’s “false” claims that Iraq was “involved in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001” – a point in which Bush was repeatedly reminded by his counter-terrorism advisor Richard Clarke.
The Times comes close to a clear and compelling explanation of the war when it reports that some scholarship maintains that, following September 11, “the United States felt the need to regain status and establish itself as an aggressive global power.” As the paper summarizes, this mindset “was rooted in a calculation that America’s greatest source of strength was global perceptions of the country as unchallengeable.”
Despite these moments of clarity, the paper of record quickly goes off the rails as its reporting digresses into myopic explanations for why the Bush administration wanted war. The Times asks of the 2003 invasion:
“Was it over, as the administration heavily implied, suspicions that Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s leader, had been involved in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which proved false? Was it to liberate Iraqis from Mr. Hussein’s rule and bring democracy to the Middle East, as the administration would later claim? Oil? Faulty intelligence? Geopolitical gain? Simple overconfidence? Popular desire for a war, any war, to reclaim national pride? Or, as in conflicts like World War I, mutual miscommunication that sent distrustful states bumbling into conflict?”
Sadly, the paper opts for mysticization when explaining what drove the U.S., depriving readers of an opportunity to understand the neocolonial foundation of American foreign policy. As the paper reflects about Iraq: “History-changing decisions are often made through processes and rationales so convoluted that even the people involved might not know exactly how they happened. Hundreds of thousands might die, an entire country plunged into violence, without anyone able to quite say why.”
Sifting through this muddled narrative, the Times writes that, “Still, the competing theories tend to share a common baseline: that a mix of ideological convictions, psychological biases, process breakdowns and misaligned diplomatic signals led to an invasion that did little to serve the goals that its architects believed they were advancing.” To make a long story short here, the Times is arguing that if you’re still unclear after 20 years about what the Iraq war was all about, that’s because it’s incredibly complicated. So complicated that we may never really fully understand why it was fought. This is not a terribly compelling answer, but it does have the advantage of flattering a bi-partisan political elite who reflexively assume the U.S. has the right to intervene wherever, whenever, and however they want across the globe, and that the country would never pursue foreign wars because of selfish, imperial, and neocolonial interests.
Speaking to its denialism about U.S. empire, the Times report summarizes that “meeting notes” from members of the Bush administration “and other accounts do not show them as plotting to sell a weapons threat that they knew was fictitious, nor as having been misled by faulty intelligence. Rather, the record suggests something more banal: A critical mass of senior officials all came to the table wanting to topple Mr. Hussein for their own reasons, and then talked one another into believing the most readily available justification.” The message delivered in this narrative is hard to miss for those wanting a cogent explanation for this war: it’s complicated.
One thing the Times is clear about is that the war was not about neocolonialism and oil. The paper reports that “Scholars now largely doubt another, once-prevalent theory: that Washington invaded to control Iraq’s vast oil resources.” This narrative is astounding and perverse, considering that I’ve documented in detail how the paper of record’s coverage of Iraq (and withdrawal from Iraq) in the 2000s systematically omitted any discussion of oil as a motivating factor for the war. Considering this pattern of reporting, to speak of the oil explanation now as a “once-prevalent theory” is an extraordinary example of cynical misrepresentation of reality.
Again circumventing any serious discussion of oil as a motive, the new Times report emphasizes that the U.S. was committed to “benevolent hegemony” in Iraq. Situating the war within a larger historical narrative about the post-Cold War rise of the neoconservatives, the paper writes:
“After the Cold War’s end, a small circle of policymakers and academics calling themselves neoconservatives argued that the United States, rather than drawing down, should wield its now mostly unchallenged power to enforce an era of ‘global benevolent hegemony.’ The United States’ military dominance, rooted in American ideals, would smash the last vestiges of despotism from the world, allowing democracy and peace to flourish. Any resistance, they warned, however small or remote, was a threat to the entire American-led order.”
This narrative – coupled with the refusal to discuss oil as a motivator for war – is a profound example of American denialism. It fuses imperial adventurism with the politics of benevolence and democracy promotion. We are to believe that the Bush administration was simultaneously committed to both imperial power politics and democracy promotion. That’s quite an Orwellian message, echoing 1984’s elaboration on how official propaganda seeks to reconcile blatantly contradictory messages to validate state power.
This isn’t the first time the Times has fallen into Bush administration propaganda about benevolent empire. Shortly after the March 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the paper reported on what was driving the presidency “in the run-up to the war to oust Saddam Hussein,” with the invasion serving as “the first step in a new strategy” that “promised” “ to spread democracy in the Mideast,” and “sending” “a clear warning to other governments” that “support for terror will not be tolerated.” As the Times reported at the time, administration aides acknowledged the war was expected to create a “demonstration effect” – intended as “an impressive demonstration of American will and American capability.” It was “the first test, but not the last” in demonstrating that “We will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting pre-emptively” in “convincing or compelling states” “not to aid terrorists.” The war was intended to show that “the United States would never allow American military supremacy to be challenged in the way it was during the cold war.”
Contrary to the benevolent empire narrative, available evidence has long revealed that the U.S. remains committed, despite its altruistic public declarations, to neocolonialism. To miss the neocolonial-oil angle takes real effort and willful ignorance, considering there’s now an 80-year paper trail of declassified high-level government documents recognizing oil – and particularly Iraqi oil – as not only vital to U.S. national security, but as a material prize that the U.S. will use military force to control.
As an intellectual and practical thought exercise, it’s worth imagining what the Times report could have looked like, had it wished to come to terms with U.S. neocolonialism. A serious attempt at producing a more sober history should include a few main points.
First, the Bush administration was well aware of how weak their claims were about Iraq’s alleged WMD threat. They were told numerous times by their own counterterrorism people that Iraq did not have ties to al Qaeda or 9/11. And they were informed by international weapons inspectors that there was no compelling evidence that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons – a point its own allies acknowledged at the time. The administration made dramatic public pronouncements about the imminent threat of Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons, its ties to al Qaeda terrorism, and a looming nuclear threat. Privately, as Politico reported, the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) recognized that the case for war was shaky at best. The administration “struggled to estimate the unknowns” about Iraq and WMDs. As the Joint Chiefs admitted prior to the war, “we cannot confirm the identity of any Iraqi facilities that produce, test, fill, or store biological weapons,” and “our knowledge” of “how and where” Iraq’s biological weapons “are produced is probably up to 90 percent incomplete.” Regarding Iraq’s alleged chemical weapons, the Joint Chiefs “cannot confirm the identity of any Iraqi sites that produce the final chemical agent,” while “the specific agent and facility knowledge on Iraq’s alleged chemical weapons” was “60-70 percent incomplete.” Finally, the JCS report acknowledged that their assessments of Iraq’s alleged WMDs “rely heavily on analytic assumptions and judgment rather than hard evidence,” and that “the evidentiary base is particularly sparse for Iraqi nuclear weapons.”
Simply stated, the administration told the American people that it was certain about Iraq’s alleged threat to the U.S. Privately, the administration – including the Pentagon and the Department of Defense under Donald Rumsfeld – knew that the case was anything but certain, and that most of their public claims were based on conjecture and guess work, not hard evidence. There’s a word for what the administration did here – lying.
Second, there is a long record of neocolonial U.S. policy planning at the highest levels of government which makes it clear that Middle Eastern (and Iraqi) oil are central to U.S. “national security” concerns, and that America is willing to use military power to dominate this vital resource. I explore this history in detail in my previous book, When Media Goes to War. The U.S. State Department referred to Middle Eastern oil (particularly in Saudi Arabia) in 1945 as “a stupendous source of strategic power, as one of the greatest material prizes in world history,” and as a resource that the U.S. viewed as already “nominally in American control.” This oil was to “remain under U.S. control for the dual purposes of replacing our dwindling reserves, and of preventing this power potential from falling into unfriendly hands.” Similarly during the Eisenhower presidency, the National Security Council referred to the Middle East as the most “strategically important area in the world,” while the administration recognized the importance of “combating radical Arab nationalism” and governments that might seek to nationalize their oil reserves, while considering that the U.S. might “hold Persian Gulf oil by force if necessary,” with support for Israel deemed “logical” in helping ensure U.S. domination of the region.
Strategic fixation on oil continued in later administrations. The Carter administration’s National Security Directive 63 (NSD 63) stressed Middle Eastern oil and efforts “to ensure availability of oil at reasonable prices.” These goals were central to U.S. “national security” interests following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. NSD 63 reflected 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. It will be repelled by the use of any means necessary, including military force.” Similarly, in its 1991 National Security Strategy (NSS), the George H. W. Bush administration warned of about any potential “threat to the oil supplies that flow through the Persian Gulf,” promising that the administration would respond “to threats to the United States interests that could not be laid at the Kremlin’s door” in the post-cold war era. The administration declared a “New World Order,” with the U.S. leading the way. As Bush made clear in his 1991 NSS, the U.S. would “maintain a naval presence” throughout “the Persian Gulf” and “conduct periodic exercises and pursue improved host nation support and preposition of equipment throughout the region” to ensure a continued American foothold.
More than any other administration, and considering its U.S. investment in the 1991 Iraq war, the George H. W. Bush presidency fixated most heavily on Middle Eastern and Iraqi oil. The Pentagon’s Defense Policy Guidance report (1992) authored by Paul Wolfowitz – who later became Deputy Secretary of Defense and was one of the architects of the 2003 Iraq war – emphasized a power politics mentality toward the Middle East. The report stated: “the number one objective of U.S. post-cold war political military strategy should be preventing the emergence of a rival superpower,” with a particular emphasis toward securing “access to vital raw materials, primarily Persian Gulf oil.”
Most lucid was the Bush administration’s National Security Directives (NSD) 26 (1989) and NSD 54 (1991), which both articulated that “access to Persian Gulf oil and the security of key friendly states in the area are vital to United States national security. The United States remains committed to its vital interests in the region, if necessary and appropriate through the use of military force, against the Soviet Union or any other force with interests inimical to our own.” While the primary concern was the Soviet Union in NSD 26 (1989), that concern shifted to Iraq by NSD 54 (1991) following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait – a U.S. ally. In NSD 54, titled “Responding to Iraqi Aggression in the Gulf,” the administration announced that Iraq, “by virtue of its unprovoked invasion of Kuwait,” and “its subsequent brutal occupation,” had become “a power with interests inimical to our own” – one in which the U.S. was committed to “the use of military force” against to ensure “access to Persian Gulf oil.”
While the George W. Bush administration was careful to avoid declarations in the pre-invasion period that it was motivated by oil and neocolonialism, a careful reading of its messaging demonstrates consistency with previous government declarations about the strategic importance of oil within the broader context of promoting American military power and capitalism abroad. For example, despite its declarations about the importance of promoting “peace,” “liberty” and “freedom” throughout the world, the Bush administration’s 2002 and 2006 national security strategies (NSS) described plans to “further strengthen market incentives and market institutions” via a focus on “emerging markets and the developing world.” The 2002 NSS promised to act “preemptive[s]’ against terrorists,” to “strengthen our own energy security,” and “expand the sources and types of global energy supplied” – while “disuad[ing] future military competition” from foreign powers. The 2006 NSS stressed the centrality of U.S. leadership and “preventing the reemergence of the great power rivalries that divided the world in previous eras.” This messaging made it clear that the exercise of military power was linked to U.S. economic and energy interests.
Furthermore, President Bush was explicit during the occupation period that the U.S. was unwilling to leave Iraq due to concerns with oil. As The Washington Post reported in the mid-2000s, Bush announced that withdrawal from Iraq would “let Iraq radicals use oil as a weapon” against the U.S. and its allies. The administration’s own national security planning also explicitly referenced U.S. concerns with “oil” and “energy” from Iraq, with National Security Directive 24 referencing a “high priority” “effort” to exploit Iraq’s petroleum resources and “production” for the “international oil market.”
The Times reveals its duplicity when it ignores the extensive evidence of U.S. militarism in pursuit of neocolonial oil interests, which were dismissed in a single sentence in its new Iraq retrospective. But the paper, as the primary medium of American journalistic, political, and intellectual discourse, has always sought to subvert discussions of empire. Considering its whitewashing of U.S. wars as “benevolent hegemony,” it’s not surprising that its reporters struggle to understand, even 20 years later, why the U.S. went to war with Iraq. It’s difficult to understand why the U.S. does what it does in the world when one systematically indulges in willful ignorance by looking past all the evidence of U.S. neocolonialism. In the process, the Times serves as a lapdog for the bipartisan-fueled imperial warfare state. Iraq is the most dramatic example in recent decades, considering the incredible death, destruction, and destabilization that this criminal war imposed, and based upon highly dubious justifications. The Times, by helping to obscure the motives for war, plays the role of the reluctant and “liberal” critic, presenting an outward appearance of interrogating the war, while ignoring the motives that defined it.