An Unnecessary War | critical review

Critical review written for POLS5131: Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of New South Wales, Semester 1 2015. Final mark: High Distinction.

A review of An Unnecessary War by John M. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt

Written and published prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, An Unnecessary War, co-authored by Realist scholars John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, sought to dismantle assertions by the United States that a pre-emptive war was necessary to end Saddam Hussein’s threat to the West. Instead they demonstrated that a policy of containment and deterrence for Saddam and Iraq would be more effective than a strategically unsound war. The article is compelling; internally consistent and persuasive, it is an important contribution to literature even though it did not accomplish its goal.

The authors argued that Saddam could have been deterred by the US without war. They analyse Saddam’s past actions in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) and the Gulf War (1990-91), as well as his use of chemical weapons, and theorise possible scenarios of an Iraq with nuclear capabilities. They state that the US’s interpretation of Saddam as “irrational” made little since. However deplorable Saddam’s actions were, they were “neither mindlessly aggressive nor particularly reckless” towards the US (Mearsheimer & Walt 2003:54) – he had been deterred before, and his four decades of power demonstrated a certain prudence in his dealings with the US. There was not enough strategic rationale for the US to go to war, not least of all because there was no evidence that Saddam had anything to do with al-Qaeda as the Bush Administration believed at the time (Lowy Institute 2015). Ultimately Mearsheimer and Walt concluded that Saddam could have been deterred because the US and its regional allies were stronger, and Saddam would not risk Mutually Assured Destruction.

The article is a compelling analysis of the pre-invasion political climate, based heavily on empirical evidence of Saddam’s actions and a Realist’s understanding of global politics. It is internally consistent with Realist ethics of responsibility – i.e. the school of thought that grants “supreme moral value to the survival of the state and its interests” (Devetak et al 2012:45). Good intentions or convictions do not matter in international politics  as much as the consequences of those actions. Unlike Robertson in his retrospective analysis of the Iraq invasion in Crimes Against Humanity (2008), Walt and Mearsheimer do not go into specific detail about Saddam’s crimes. This is a strength of the article; such a description may only have served to prove the Bush Administration’s position that Saddam was a dangerous, unstable tyrant who needed to be removed.

There are obvious authorial biases. The heavy Realist nature of the article means it is unconcerned with moral arguments, only strategic ones. After all, “human rights considerations had previously played no part in Western policy towards oil-rich Iraq” (Robertson 2008:571). Perhaps a moral argument might have been more persuasive to the Bush Administration, who at the time were entering a war based on apparent moral grounds. Kissinger writes in World Order that the 2002 National Security Strategy document argued for the “ending of tyranny everywhere on behalf of universal values of freedom,” and that the US framed the invasion as a project to spread democracy (2014:323). Arguing from a moral standpoint, rather than a strategic standpoint, might have proved more effective to the article’s intended audience.

Despite its sound critique of the political situation and a prophetic conclusion of the consequences of a strategically unsound war, the article did not succeed in its goal. The US, along with British, Australian and other Coalition forces, began an invasion of Iraq on 20 March 2003.

Overall, An Unnecessary War is an excellent article and an important contribution to literature, and 12 years after its publication remains a fine analysis of the early 2003 political climate.


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