Iraq War 20 years on: It wasn’t just ‘for oil’

Iraq War 20 years on: It wasn’t just ‘for oil’
6 min read

Nahed Elrayes

21 March, 2023
Over 1 million Iraqis were killed in the wake of the war that followed the US-led invasion of Iraq 20 years ago. Nahed Elrayes argues why this was not just about seeking oil but also the US government’s desire to demonstrate its military might.
Over one million fathers, mothers and children lost their lives, their homes, and each other. One and a half million were displaced, writes Nahed Elrayes. [GETTY]

You would feel a little less crazy this week if it wasn’t for the US invasion of Iraq. Maybe you would be reading the New York Times right now, comfortable in assuming that American mass media – if not objective – will always present some range of independent ideas. That there’s no way every politician and columnist could lie to you from all directions, all at once. Maybe you’d have spent the 2010s without the slightest anxiety over “terrorism”. ISIS who? Anti-Muslim sentiment could even have tapered off by 2013. Trump, a frontrunner? What ideas could he possibly have that other Republicans “are afraid to say”? And so on.

I started this with “you” because every reader is a narcissist. But of course, the importance of Iraq, and what every American must sit with, is that over one million people were killed as a direct result of this invasion.

Over one million fathers, mothers and children lost their lives, their homes, and each other. One and a half million were displaced. $2 trillion that could have been used for human betterment was spent ruining one of the world’s oldest civilisations. And for what, exactly? 

To be clear, there are two reasons Iraq entered the US imagination to begin with, starting in the Cold War. These two are oil (the basis of Iraqi importance), and US support for the occupation of Palestine (the basis of Iraqi/Arab animosity), without which the mostly capitalist Arabs could wholeheartedly have bonded with the US. But neither of these two facts explain why Bush Jr. decided to unilaterally invade Iraq in 2003, while his father in 1991 did not.

Declassified memos lay the truth bare: in 2003, American policymakers simply wanted to wage a war. One that was unilateral, performative, and destructive. To senior official Paul Pillar, invading Iraq demonstrated, “the US ability and willingness to use [military] power”, encouraging “deference to US interests worldwide” and deterring “would-be troublemakers from opposing those interests”.

While the administration publicly emphasised a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda, private memos suggested “deliberately selecting a non-al Qaeda target like Iraq”.

One official told Ron Suskind: “A sudden blow for no reason is better than one for a good reason,” as it fosters an image of brute world hegemony, unrestrained by expectations.

US policymakers needed to take human lives from a foreign country, on camera. If it wasn’t Iraq, it would have been someplace else.


This need preceded 9/11. Al-Qaeda’s performative brutality indeed opened the opportunity for a performative show of force against Iraq. But much of Bush’s cabinet had been eager to invade a small country, preferably Iraq, since 1991.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, America’s unchallenged dominance gave rise to a new proselytizing spirit in Washington DC. “Neoconservatives” believed that US hegemony was beneficial for both the nation and the world, that it should use force to prevent “any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources [could] generate global power”, and that what held the world in balance was its fear of US military might.

Neocons often dog-whistled this set of presumptions using the code word “credibility” – as in, “success with Iraq would enhance US credibility” (Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, two months before 9/11).

Out of all the “troublemakers” to make an example of, Iraq in 2003 had the ideal combination of feigned strength and de facto weakness.

Saddam Hussein fostered an image of strength partly for deterrence, partly for domestic consumption. He deliberately avoided weapons inspections (when there wasn’t very much to hide) and baited Western powers into public disputes where he played the strong underdog. That’s why after 9/11, US Secretary of Defense for Policy, Douglas Feith, in full knowledge that al-Qaeda was in Afghanistan, believed that “single-pronged attacks against the smallest state sponsor” alone would be “perceived as a sign of weakness” – but Iraq, on the other hand…

Rumsfeld obviously agreed - paraphrased by Chief Counterterrorism Adviser Richard Clarke as arguing “we need to bomb something else to prove that we’re … big and strong and not going to be pushed around by these kinds of attacks.”

Yes, they really talk like this.

Of course, the Gulf War and a decade of sanctions had actually rendered Iraq a paper tiger. Since 1991, experts estimated that its armed forces were “were down to about 40% of their 1991 Gulf War levels, when they fielded some 1 million troops.

What’s more, Iraq was a regional pariah, having fought bitterly against Iran, then Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, while also locked in long-term rivalry with Syria.

Christopher Demuth, who was close to the Bush administration, summarised that “the general analysis was that Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where most of the hijackers came from, were the key … but Saddam Hussein was different, weaker, more vulnerable”. And thus was Iraq’s fate sealed; It paid the price for American “credibility”.

There are no saints in international politics. The behaviour of powerful states, especially those concerned with their regional or global hegemony, will always be shocking. But to me, as I read through the declassified documents and divergent public rationales, there is something particularly disturbing about the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

Maybe it’s because of how quickly the war was forgotten, the millions of victims never truly acknowledged, the perpetrators who, rather than facing trial, are still being elected. Maybe it’s because I, as an Arab of Muslim descent, was raised in the shadow of that time, with its mass paranoia, finger-pointing, over-securitisation, deceit and the brutal hypocrisy of liberals and conservatives alike.

Maybe it’s that the chair of the Senate committee who pushed to invade Iraq will sleep in the White House tonight, a few blocks from me, in this quiet city where with each signing of a military authorisation, you can’t hear the screams 7,000 miles away. But more than anything, I think it’s the way Americans somehow abstractly understand, but cannot admit in plain terms, that this was not just a war for the sake of oil.

It was a war for the sake of war.

Nahed Elrayes is a DC-based writer and the Development Manager of the United Nations Relief Works Agency USA (UNRWA USA). He holds a Masters in IR from the University of Melbourne, where his thesis received the W.M. Ball Prize for best essay in International Relations.

Follow him on Instagram: @nahedelrayes

Have questions or comments? Email us at:

Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of their employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.