The Middle East and the U.S. Invasion of Iraq: What Does Theory Tell Us?

The study of international relations presents a multitude of opportunities to make sense of the world through a variety of lenses; each lens is a different theoretical perspective. Neorealism is time and time again regarded as the most useful theoretical perspective through which to understand the international relations of the Middle East. This paper argues that while neorealism is one of the most prominent theories through which scholars can make sense of the Middle East, it is not a total prescription. The discussion will address what neorealism is, the role it plays in understanding the Middle East, as well as the underlying weaknesses of the theory. Through a case study analysis, this discussion will highlight existing gaps in the neorealist interpretation of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and suggest additional theoretical perspectives to consider for understanding the international relations of the Middle East.

The theory of neorealism offers a framework for understanding the system of international relations by analyzing recurring patterns of state behavior and interactions among states. Coined in 1979 by Kenneth Waltz in Theory of International Politics, neorealism addresses the biggest issues in international relations, including, but not limited to war and the avoidance of war, power balancing and seeking, the death of states, security competition, and alliance formation. The effects of the structure of neorealism serve as the distinctive element between this theory and others.

Neorealism is best understood in two parts. The first is that of the ordering principle of the international system—anarchy. Anarchy in a neorealist context implies that there is no authority higher than the states; states are autonomous, individualist in origin, and embedded in a “self-help” system where the fundamental objective is survival. Involvement in the system of international politics is dependent solely on the state best serving its national interests. The problem Waltz associates with this line of thought is the need to conceive of an order without an orderer. The second part of the theory is in relation to the structure of international politics. Each state structure is defined by its distribution of capabilities, or power. According to neorealists, the structure of anarchy is exogenous to statehood. In other words, states seek to maximize their power relative to others, precisely because there is no higher authority. Therefore, the balance of power of the system changes as the distribution of capabilities of each state change. Despite this, there is a system of checks and balances in place that is useful for understanding the changes observed throughout history in alliances across the international political system.

Neorealist theory can be used to understand the Middle East—a region of volatile politics and constant shifting of alliances to achieve a specific set of domestic economic goals. The historical record of the Middle East discloses four key areas of focus with regard to the origins of alliances. First, Middle Eastern states, as a part of the international system, face external threats. And, these threats most frequently are the cause of international alliances. Second, balancing is more common than bandwagoning. Balancing refers to the allying of states against prevailing threats; bandwagoning is defined as the alignment of states with the source of danger, or threat. Recognizing this, it is important to draw attention to the neorealist framework’s contention that as hegemons overextend themselves, their misuse of power provokes a balancing act against them. Third, states go beyond balancing against power to balance against threats. Simply put, in the same way that states are differentiated by how much power they possess, states are differentiated by the threats they emanate and those they overcome. Fourth, the likelihood of states joining forces is intensified as offensive capabilities and intentions increase. It should be noted that neorealist theory is not the first to draw attention to the study of alliances in the Middle East, particularly those founded in the premise of protection against threats. The Eastern Question, termed in 1820, refers to the study of the interrelationships between two unequal power systems: The European Great Powers and the Ottoman Empire. The Eastern Question is significant because the penetration of the Middle East’s involvement with Europe is understood to have affected the nature of politics in the region today. In a broader scope the diplomacy of the Eastern Question refers to the political considerations and strategic competition that reflects a self-help system characterized by the distribution of capabilities and national interests. As this analysis moves forward, the four key areas of the origins of alliances will be applied to the case study under examination—the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

It must be clearly articulated that there are weaknesses pertaining to neorealist theory. Realism which predated neorealism serves as a foundation for the latter theory and contends that states are interested in security and the maximization of power. When applying this line of thought to the Middle East, one limitation is particularly evident: this is a misrepresentation of the region. This is true for two reasons. First, the Middle East’s geopolitics differ from other regions of the world, given its territorial vastness and proximity to natural resources. The ideological perspective used to understand Middle Eastern geopolitics, and what is often times called the “anti-hegemonic approach,” stresses examining the interests, as well as the social and political composition of the region and states. A perspective grounded in ideology is necessary for obtaining a holistic understanding of how Middle Eastern states and the people within them regard international relations and the choices they make.

Second, there exists a variety of cultural perspectives that have proven useful in analyzing the Middle East—something neorealism does not account for. A constructivist perspective makes evident that state behavior and interaction is based on cultures in the sense of ideas, norms, and experiences. In examining that neorealism emphasizes motives of national security, power, and resources, a certain blindness is made apparent: there are culturally embedded aspects to these motivations. This will be further explained when assessing the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. For now, the takeaway from this discussion of the remaining weaknesses in neorealist theory is that due to analytic uncertainty and varying conceptual weaknesses neorealism cannot fully explain the international relations of the Middle East.

To evaluate why neorealism is not a full prescription of the politics of the Middle East this analysis focuses on the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. The discussion will shift to an examination of the existing gaps that can be corrected by alternative international relations theories after illustrating the neorealist interpretation of the motivations behind the invasion. The complexity of the case study merits an analysis that engages critically with the scholarship of the politics of the region.

Principally, a brief history of the role of the states involved in this case study will aid in the interpretation of the theoretical perspectives outlined below. Iraq’s role and influence in the Middle East is rooted in geography given the state is at the crossroads of the two principal population fault lines in the region. Moreover, the demographics of Iraq are significant due to the fact that the state lies between its smaller oil-rich Gulf neighbors and Iran. Economically, Iraq’s oil reserves were among the top-five largest in the world prior to the U.S. invasion. Collectively, autonomy of the Iraqi state to secure dominance over its population and its interest in extending its power to project it onto the Gulf area was evident. Therefore, regardless of which theoretical perspective is being considered, this paper contends that the 2003 invasion was focused on breaking the domestic and regional autonomy of the Iraqi state.

The political instability of Iraq did not emerge overnight. In the years leading up to the invasion of the Iraqi state, the authoritarian Ba’athist government marked Iraq with a narrative of “exclusivity, communal mistrust, patronage, and the exemplary use of violence.” In August of 1990, Saddam Hussein ordered Iraqi forces to invade Kuwait with the purpose of achieving nationalist goals. The U.S. viewed this encroachment as problematic and committed itself to reinstating the status quo in Iraq. As a means of achieving the status quo, the international political system sought to impose order and limit the Iraqi states’ capabilities. Two U.N. Security Council Resolutions are important—687 and 688, both of which forged international alliances, while rendering the most intense imposition of sanctions against one state in history. Saddam Husain’s failure to comply with these resolutions, among others, led the U.S. to assume a military role in the international political system. The U.S. invasion of Iraq was in an attempt to rectify one of the central drivers of instability in the Middle East.

According to neorealism, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 can be interpreted as follows. As a global hegemon, the U.S. similar to any other state was in search of power and security. Given the recent events of September 11, 2001, the U.S. was in desperate need of avoiding decline. As a means of maintaining global hegemony, the U.S. demonstrated its will to use force by disregarding the lack of approval on behalf of the U.N. Security Council and invading Iraq in March of 2003.

The national interest for the U.S. of invading Iraq can be summed up with three objectives: territorial, economic, and military. In this case, the U.S. was interested in: (1) gaining regional military bases; (2) securing its access to oil resources; and (3) avoiding the nuclear proliferation of Iraq as a means of eliminating a prevailing threat to the U.S. and its allies. But there remain other interests that were of importance to the U.S. that led to the invasion of Iraq. The neorealist theory creates a gap, an inability, to explain these interests.

The reasons as to why neorealism is not a total prescription of the international relations of Middle East is twofold. First, there is a noteworthy identity politics component that led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Second, in order to understand alliances in the international political system during this time, identity must be first considered. Alternative international relations theories will be useful for the discussion of the aforementioned reasons.

Identity politics offers a good starting point. The events of September 11, 2001 left the U.S. in a state of “vulnerability, victimization, and national desire for revenge.” These three aspects of national and cultural identity should be regarded as a part of the Bush Administration’s decision for the invasion. When these ideological influences are coupled with the Orientalist images that flooded the media after the September 11 attacks, it becomes clearer that the differentiating between Arab and Muslim states and assessing their immediate threat became less of a necessity and more of a tool of deception. What was believed as an imminent Iraqi threat to U.S. security attributed to the suspected evidence of the Iraqi state manufacturing weapons of mass destruction, resulted in the unveiling of a fallacy. If not of most importance, however, was President George W. Bush’s “vendetta against Saddam Hussein” and personal desire to be “greater” than his father ever was. As the Bush Administration constructed interests and threats to mislead public opinion, the identity politics of the U.S. prevailed—decisions were made on the premise of emotions, actions were taken on the belief in fabricated evidence, and the distribution of capabilities among states became a personal matter.

Second, to warrant the argument in the context of the international political system, it is significant to consider state identity in alliance formation; identity being a moot point in neorealist theory and alliances being at the core of the international political system and a pillar of neorealism. Critics of neorealism explain that while neorealism focuses on the capabilities of the state in determining alliance formation, it fails to consider state identity as a factor that shapes the choice of alliance partners. In particular, when it comes to strategic association in the interest of the state, a shared interest is simply not enough. Instead, it is a shared identity that encourages attraction and mutual identification. It is the “language of community rather than the contractual language of alliance” that captures strategic association. In the case of the Middle East, generally speaking, inter-Arab politics are driven by ideational rather than materialist forces, but more specifically in alliance formation.

Thus, it is the politics of identity, more so than the logic of anarchy, that offers a stronger conceptualization of which states are viewed as a threat to the security of other states. Neoconservative U.S. President George W. Bush, at the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, adhered to the principal that democracies fear attack from non-democracies. Therefore, when considering alliances and the identity politics of strategic association, neoconservative theory should be applied to the analysis of the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq; neoconservatism is a factor that contributed to the West’s perception of Iraq as a threat. While this consideration too is not a complete prescription of the international relations of the Middle East, it is a necessary point of contention when analyzing the international political system.

This essay challenges the notion that neorealism is considered to represent the most useful theoretical perspective through which to understand the international relations of the Middle East. At its root, neorealism is a competition of power among states in the international political system by which the ordering principle of anarchy explains outcomes in international politics. The criticism of this theoretical perspective is made clear—ideology and identity are disregarded. For while each state is autonomous, its demographic makeup, institutional policies, and national interests may vary in relation to other states. Each of these variables aid in the understanding of capability, and also action. To illustrate the diversity of the international political system, given that there are many explanations and variables regarding the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the discussion above emphasizes that one single analysis is not a total prescription due to gaps within a neorealist theoretical perspective. Theories such as constructivism and neo-conservativism, respectively offer an ideological and identity based approach to international politics and the actions of independent states within the system. In so far as the basis for international relations is to take into account multiple points of view; indeed, all situations will require a blending of theories and perspectives.