Skip to main content

Earlier this summer, Canada's political scientists chose as their top prize winner a book that provocatively refutes the dominant theory around one of the worst public policy disasters of the 21st century, the Iraq War.

Frank Harvey's "Explaining the Iraq War" challenges the popular explanation of how America went to war, and with it, assumptions about how America can avoid its next tragedy.

Harvey argues that from Fahrenheit 9/11 to scholarly works by Francis Fukuyama, the popular analysis holds that "the decision to attack Saddam Hussein on March 19, 2003 was a product of the political biases, misguided priorities, intentional deceptions and grand strategies of President George W. Bush and prominent 'vulcans', 'unilateralists' and 'neoconservatives' on his national security team."

As a proof point, there is a popular assumption that former vice-president Al Gore would not have invaded Iraq had he been given the chance following the 2000 election.

For Harvey, most observers hold this simple understanding: if Bush, then war; if Gore, then peace. Therefore, if one can demonstrate that the preponderance of evidence argues for Gore going to war, then the argument that Bush and his advisers alone created the war is disproven.

Instead, there are must be wider factors behind the war than Bush alone.

Counter-factual theory is a widely used tool for analyzing public accounts of historical events, or testing social science theories of causation. Here it is deployed with a rigour seldom seen before.

Harvey uses counter-factual argument to advance that the answer is no, Al Gore in the White House would not have been enough to avoid war.

The evidence Harvey compiles for his counter-factual is compelling:

  • Gore expressed strong support for returning inspectors in Iraq and undertaking robust inspections.
  • Gore and his advisers were hawkish on Iraq and regime change.
  • Like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, Gore was a liberal internationalist, quite comfortable using force to achieve humanitarian policy aims.
  • Gore had argued aggressively in favour of force in Iraq in 1991 and 1998, Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1998.
  • Gore believed war was legal based on earlier UN resolutions.
  • There were significant intelligence failures under Clinton and Gore.
  • Public opinion was strongly in favour of robust inspections and military action to support UN resolutions.
  • Gore would have obtained coalition support from at least the same allies and possibly others.
  • The divisions at the UN would have been substantially the same (U.S. and U.K. vs France, Russia and China).

Perhaps most daringly Harvey draws a direct line between exaggerated intelligence Gore, Clinton and Blair used to justify the military action in Kosovo with the exaggerated intelligence used to justify war in Iraq.

Recall that the process for war started with the decision to press for weapons inspections, one Gore was committed to. From there, Congressional authorization for war became a crucial diplomatic tactic to pressure Iraq into allowing inspectors, as did securing a UN resolution and a large troop deployment.

After 9/11, Gore would have been pressured by domestic opinion, intelligence mistakes, the values and beliefs of advisors, congressional consensus on the WMD threat, Gore's own hawkish attitudes, and – perhaps most important – momentum. Harvey argues this would have resulted in a chain of events that would lock the American foreign policy establishment into a war posture.

The crucial condition was that Hussein was bluffing hard on the existence of WMDs, as a bulwark against Iran. The dictator calculated that it was more important to hold off a potential Iranian invasion by pretending he may still have WMDs than it was to avoid Western military action. This position had kept him in power for 12 years after the 1991 war, but it was a serious misjudgement after 9/11 to believe American opinion had not changed.

The argument that Gore would have gone to war is debatable. Some point to certain quotes from a speech to the Commonwealth Club Gore gave six months before the war as evidence of his opposition to any war in Iraq. However, Harvey notes the speech is delivered when the argument was between Cheney/Rumsfeld neo-cons for unilateral action and Powell/Blair multi-lateralists calling for a return to the UN. The Powell/Blair faction won, in part because of Gore's intervention on behalf of multi-lateralism, and the result was still war six months later.

This book should not absolve Rumsfeld, Cheney and others of their blame. They were working internally to promote an earlier, unilateral and pre-emptive military strike that Bush ultimately rejected, as Gore seems to indicate he also would have in his Commonwealth Club speech. Nor should it absolve Bush, who made the decision to invade with too few troops, utopian ambitions, and unclear post-war intentions.

But if Gore would have likely arrived at war in time, then there are larger and more significant forces than psychology, conspiracy and ideology at work.

The results of Harvey's work are chilling to modern students of history if the seeds of Iraq are found in the well-intentioned humanitarian interventions of Bosnia and Kosovo as much as any thirst for oil or pathological need to make daddy proud.

If Bush was not unique in causing the war, but instead a key player in a wider American and British post-9/11 consensus, then the risks of a repeat of that disaster are greater than hoped.

In the United States, it is not just the person in the office who decides to go to war. From the Spanish-American War through the two World Wars and ever since, American war-making has required a broad consensus of liberals, conservatives and foreign policy realists alike who combine – for perhaps different reasons – to create a strong enough majority of opinion.

Despite a fundamentally different world view from his predecessor, President Barack Obama continues a policy – stated when using force in Libya – where the United States can act "decisively, and unilaterally when necessary to defend our people, our homeland, our allies, and our core interests."

Americans must not be on the lookout just for neo-conservative ideologues with utopian visions of a McDonalds in every capital, but a wider set of arguments for war that are not strictly about their national interest.

Have Americans learned the right lessons from history as debate turns to intervention in Syria?

Or, by placing the blame for Iraq on Bush alone, and ignoring the wider foreign policy establishment, are Americans failing to learn from history's mistakes?

Andrew Steele lives in Toronto. He is a former senior advisor to the Premier of Ontario.

Interact with The Globe