Rather Be


Explaining the Iraq War

By: Frank P. Harvey

Frank P. Harvey was born and raised in Montreal, Canada. He is currently a professor in the Department of Political Science at Dalhousie University. He has written multiple books on international relations.

Explaining Bush with Gore

By: Joshua Chang

The decision to attack Saddam Hussein’s regime 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 ‘neoconservatives,’ ‘unilateralists’ and ‘Vulcans’ on his national security team.”1 This is the dominant perspective used to explain the reason the Iraq War took place: the Bush-neocon-war thesis, or as Frank P. Harvey calls it, neoconism. In his book, Explaining the Iraq War: Counterfactual Theory, Logic and Evidence, Harvey argues that this widely accepted explanation is an underdeveloped and deficient theory that lacks a logical foundation. To disprove the validity of neoconism, Harvey highlights two counterfactual arguments to reveal the Iraq War as an inevitable result of path dependence and momentum created by many factors, not solely the Bush administration or any other single group of individuals.

Harvey begins the book by defining neoconism and explaining the implications of a counterfactual argument. According to Harvey, neoconism refers to “all first-image (leadership) explanations of the war that highlight [neoconservatives] as the main cause of the war” and “any other first-image theory of the war that blames Bush himself for being influenced by these powerful ideologues or any related explanation that relies on Bush’s idiosyncratic beliefs, religious values, or decision-making style.”2 Basically, neoconist interpretations imply that the Iraq War would have been avoided had something specific about the Bush administration been absent. In essence, neoconism credits too much power and influence to Bush and his advisors. Neoconism’s central principle is “a Bush administration dominated by powerful neoconservatives was a necessary condition for the Iraq war.”3 To disprove this principle, Harvey pushes two counterfactual arguments, called Gore-peace and Gore-war, based on a theoretical victory of Al Gore in the presidential election of 2000. These counterfactuals have been made before, but Harvey claims that past studies all contain the same basic problem: “the Gore-peace and/or Gore-war counterfactuals embedded in existing literature on Iraq are based on superficial, incomplete and often ad hoc applications of counterfactual research and methodology…very few studies defend the arguments with anything approaching a careful analysis of the entire historical record.”4 Harvey claims that there is no real difference between factual and counterfactual logic, since both must be viewed to form a complete argument. As Harvey puts it, “Whenever we isolate what we believe to be an important cause of some act or event, the validity of that claim demands simultaneous exposure to some counterfactual proof that, in the absence of these conditions, the event would not have occurred.”5 Credibility is one of the most important aspects of a logically consistent and accurate counterfactual. The most realistic counterfactual argument will be the most plausible one with the smallest overwritten condition. It must also account for the ripples that result from every small change. A Gore presidency was very plausible (prevented by only a few hanging chads in Florida), and only a single variable was changed: the victor of 2000. Harvey states, “every causal theory makes both historical and counterfactual claims, and, with respect to the latter, at least two mutually exclusive counterfactual arguments emerge from every thesis.”6 The real question to be answered is which counterfactual has the strongest support from facts and evidence taken from a complete review of relevant history. This is the basis of Harvey’s comparative counterfactual analysis, which aims to uncover all Gore-war and Gore-peace evidence to construct the best analysis by simultaneously looking at both, since strength in one shows weakness in the other.

In the next part of the book, Harvey focuses on the domestic implications of both a Bush and Gore presidency relating to the Iraq War. Harvey asserts that the neoconist interpretation makes two major mistakes in regards to Bush’s decision-making. According to Harvey, the first mistake is that neoconists “assume only one dominant perspective was sold to the American public (and Congress), and the myths about ‘imminent threats’ [Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)] at the center of this perspective were responsible for shaping perceptions and policy preferences.”7 There were actually two dominant perspectives that emerged during that time: unilateralism (where the US would preemptively strike Iraq and remove any WMD threat) and multilateralism (where the US would enter a joint UN resolution to disarm Iraq). According to Harvey, neoconists falsely believe the neoconservative-dominated Bush administration unilaterally decided to invade Iraq (for ulterior motives like control over oil, democratization of the Middle East, satisfying the Israeli lobby, etc.) and tricked both Congress and the American public to support the invasion by justifying it with the immediate threat of WMD. The reality is, while the neoconservatives did support and push for a unilateral decision, they actually lost most of the debates pertaining to this issue. In the end, Bush actually went against the neoconservatives and opted for the multilateral UN-sponsored inspection and disarmament strategy, which reveals that the neoconservatives did not dominate the Bush agenda like neoconists believe. Also, Gore actively supported Bush’s decision for a multilateral UN resolution, showing that Gore would have likely followed the same path had he been president. According to Harvey, “A second major error plaguing conventional accounts of the war is the assumption that only one decision is relevant to understanding what happened—the decision to invade Iraq. This simplistic account of history leaves out almost everything that is essential to appreciating what actually happened, how decisions unfolded over time, who supported these decisions, how these decisions were mutually reinforcing and interdependent, … and how, when combined, these choices led to the invasion.”8 The path to war and the final decision were forged by a collection of specific choices, most of which the neoconservatives opposed, made by multiple people both in the US and in the wider world. Bush adopted a strategy of coercive diplomacy towards Iraq, and as time went on the threats, aggressive signals, and warnings built up until the comparable risks of deciding to go to war were lower than deciding not to. According to Harvey, the path to war was so complex and interdependent that the neoconist assertion claiming a single person (Bush) or a small group of people (neoconservatives or unilateralists) was responsible cannot hold. Also, all signs indicate that Al Gore would have also followed a policy of coercive diplomacy towards Iraq as president. According to Harvey, “By any measure, including conservative Republican standards, Gore was a foreign policy hawk…Perhaps most relevant to the counterfactuals in question, Gore consistently adopted the hardest line in the Clinton administration when dealing with Saddam Hussein.”9 This was especially apparent in Gore’s defense of Operation Desert Fox, the major US bombing campaign in response to Iraqi noncompliance with UN resolutions and inspections during the Clinton administration in 1998. Gore, as well as many Democrat leaders, supported many of Bush’s decisions leading to the Iraq War, including Bush’s “axis of evil” statement seen by many as a declaration of war intent. Compared to Bush, Gore had a greater passion for multilateralism and advocated the use of military force for national security and global humanitarianism, a view that Bush opposed. According to Harvey, if the trauma of 9/11 could make Bush cast aside his isolationist sentiments to become more assertive with his foreign policy agenda, it would be even more likely that Gore, already an advocate of multilateral policy, would follow the same course. Even then, according to Harvey, “Gore and members of what would have been his national security team certainly endorsed multilateralism when allies are on side, but were always perfectly willing to bypass these strictures when the values and interests of major powers diverged.”10 Clinton and Gore bypassed calls for UN resolutions during Operation Desert Fox, as well as during the campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo. Regarding the long list of Gore’s likely national security team, none had views on Iraq that were significantly different than those of Bush’s advisors. In fact, they all supported Bush in his multilateral approach; as Harvey puts it, “It would not have mattered who was in the National Security Agency, CIA, state department, defense or Joint Chiefs of Staff, because their views on Iraq’s WMD were virtually identical.”11 There was a strong bipartisan consensus regarding Iraq that would have come about regardless of who was president. Bush received massive endorsement from both liberals and conservatives for his multilateral strategy; there is no reason to believe that Gore would not get the same. Almost everyone in Washington saw the importance of providing the president with leverage to persuade the UN Security Council to pass a resolution on Iran’s disarmament, since ironically it was the best hope on a peaceful, multilateral solution to the issue at the time. If Gore approached Congress for a similar resolution, there is no reason that it would have failed. After 9/11, ignoring Iraq was not an option; the pressure from public fear of WMD would have pushed the return of inspectors to Iraq to a high priority. Overreacting to WMD would be far less risky than underreacting when everyone acknowledged the threat. There was also a significant public majority supporting the decisions and Bush’s overall strategy in Iraq leading up to the war. There would be no real difference of public perception and approval between a Bush and a Gore administration. The public had a hardline tendency after 9/11 that would have put pressure on any administration. Besides, Bush’s approval rating only fell after the war; he was popular leading up to it. Of course, Gore probably would not have set the war path in the same way as Bush, but as Harvey puts it, “there is more than one way an administration can arrive at the conclusion that the best approach to Iraq is by returning UN inspectors.”12 War wouldn’t be the immediate impulse, but Gore believed in coercive diplomacy, assertive multilateralism, and preventive action; the path to war would have been inevitable.

Harvey’s focus now shifts to intelligence failures and miscalculations made by both the US and Iraq before the war. Neoconists claim that intelligence on Iraq WMD was intentionally manipulated by the White House and Pentagon to justify the invasion. Neoconists tend to focus on three items proven false after the war: links between Hussein and Al-Qaeda leading to 9/11, Hussein’s acquisition of aluminum tubes for centrifuge enrichment program, and Hussein’s purchase of uranium yellowcake. But as Harvey explains, “Assigning extraordinary causal weight to these three intelligence errors, rather than so many others compiled over a decade of data gathering and intelligence assessments, biases the case in favor of neoconism by buttressing the first-image ‘leadership’ theory of intelligence manipulation and war.”13 US intelligence failures were structural, embedded across many administrations over the years as a result of failed inspections, deception and strategic ambiguity by Hussein, and the removal of inspectors in 1998. But while it is true that the US overestimated the threat of the Iraq, Iraq was similarly suffering from intelligence error and bad decisions based on strategic miscalculations. Hussein’s strategic ambiguity backfired after 9/11. As Harvey states, “Coupled with the regime’s failure to comply with demands stipulated in several previous UN resolutions, 9/11 made ambiguity far less acceptable to US and UK decision-makers.”14 The problem was the US didn’t know Hussein was bluffing, while Hussein thought the US was bluffing when it wasn’t. With a Gore presidency, the intelligence mistakes by both Iraq and the US wouldn’t be corrected, Hussein would still be noncompliant, and Iraq would have remained a large problem.

Harvey now begins his final thoughts and conclusions. The evidence uncovered suggests a Gore presidency would align more with the Gore-war counterfactual than Gore-peace, a powerful disconfirmation of conventional neoconist views. Harvey pushes a new explanation based on path dependence and momentum. As Harvey states, “Path dependence explains the inter-linkages and mutually reinforcing relationship between and among specific decisions in a rational sequence of choices moving forward. Momentum provides a useful account of the combined effects of previous decisions on the final choice for war.”15 Harvey explains that there are several ways to explain the popularity of neoconism, including politicians covering for themselves, the hatred of the Iraq War and Bush administration, and the simplicity of the theory. But in the end, neoconism failed to survive in the face of powerful evidence that disproved it.

The thesis of this book is that the popular neoconist view of the Iraq War is incorrect. Harvey stated several goals he wishes the book to accomplish. In his introduction, Harvey states, “The purpose of this book is to challenge the quality of each…first-image explanations [of the Iraq War].”16 In his conclusion, Harvey also states, “The primary goal [of this book]…is to construct a more compelling, complete, historically accurate, logically informed, theoretically grounded account of the Bush presidency and the strong support Bush and Blair received for the many key decisions they made.”17 Harvey’s basic objective is to prove that, contrary to popular belief, the Iraq War was not the product of the Bush administration, but rather the inevitable result of path dependence and momentum.

Frank P. Harvey is a Canadian professor in the Department of Political Science at Dalhousie University. He is a globally recognized expert in security policy, and has written a multitude of books on international relations and foreign policy. According to his information page on the Dalhousie University website, “Dr. Harvey’s current research interests include international relations; international conflict crisis and war; US foreign, security and defense policy; homeland security; terrorism; success and failure of coercive diplomacy; counterfactual history and methods,” all of which are related to this book.18 As a Canadian, Harvey offers an outsider’s interpretation of US foreign and domestic policy. This book was published in 2012, nine years after the Iraq War, when neoconist views on the war have already become entrenched. Harvey wrote this book in an attempt to challenge popular opinion using a controversial argument.

This book has undergone a review by Richard Ned Lebow, an American political scientist and Professor of International Political Theory at King’s College London, in a message directly sent to Harvey. In his critique, Lebow praises Harvey for effectively destroying the popular neoconist theory, applauding Harvey’s ability to “critique the existing literature by revealing its hidden biases and often selective use of information.”19 However, Lebow criticizes for offering an incomplete counterfactual argument. Specifically, Lebow states, “To make his argument about Gore more convincing, Harvey should discuss what minimal rewrites might have discouraged Gore’s administration for attacking Iraq.”20 This would allow for a more complete view of the similarities and differences between the Bush and Gore administrations and the degree to which the causes of the Iraq War intertwine.

[1] Harvey, Frank P. Explaining the Iraq War: counterfactual theory, logic and evidence. Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 2012. Print. 1.
[2] Harvey, Frank P. 2.
[3] Harvey, Frank P. 10.
[4] Harvey, Frank P. 17.
[5] Harvey, Frank P. 24.
[6] Harvey, Frank P. 27.
[7] Harvey, Frank P. 41.
[8] Harvey, Frank P. 44.
[9] Harvey, Frank P. 47.
[10] Harvey, Frank P. 55.
[11] Harvey, Frank P. 97.
[12] Harvey, Frank P. 64.
[13] Harvey, Frank P. 147.
[14] Harvey, Frank P. 247.
[15] Harvey, Frank P. 271.
[16] Harvey, Frank P. 3.
[17] Harvey, Frank P. 285.
[18] “Frank Harvey.” Dalhousie University. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 May 2017.
[19] Lebow, Richard Ned. “H-Net Discussion Networks - Reply to Frank P. Harvey’s Response to Richard Ned Lebow’s Review Essay on Frank P. Harvey. Explaining the Iraq War: Counterfactual Theory, Logic and Evidence (2011)].” Humanities and Social Sciences Online. H-Diplo/ISSF, n.d. Web. 23 May 2017.
[20] Lebow, Richard Ned
[21] Harvey, Frank P. 283.
[22] Harvey, Frank P. 165.
[23] Harvey, Frank P. 306.