Written by Zunaira Mahmood

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 can been explained through a variety of theoretical perspectives. However, to explain the Iraq War a number of causes need identifying: US economic interests and the importance of oil, the essentially flawed ideological goals of establishing democracy in the Middle East. Finally, any state linked to Al-Qaeda perceived as an imminent threat to American national security. Realism best explains the Iraq War, as it rationalises the key causes. The realist perspective argues the key purpose to be security, to reinforce US hegemony post 9/11 through the use of military power and strengthen their economic superiority. Furthermore, the idealistic goal of democracy in the Middle East can be viewed in realist terms as a power play to fulfil America’s strategic interest. Therefore, realist theory explains America’s goal of regional transformation of the Middle East and Gulf area to fit their wider security interests through a “climate of fear” perpetuated in the media. (Schmidt and Williams, 2008).

 Yet, other theories like Marxism may  better explain the economic interest, as capitalist expansionism to protect Western oil supplies. The Marxist theory explains the exploitation of weaker states to impose US hegemony. Furthermore, the ideology of the Bush Doctrine to prevent the use of weapons of mass-destruction and promote democracy to ‘liberate’ Iraqis were adopted as propaganda. Thus, the Marxist theory highlights how the US controlled social norms in the capitalist West to justify intervention in Iraq. Therefore,  explaining a key aspect of the invasion, as the USA used its hegemonic control to manipulate the perception of the enemy state and fulfil the capitalist agendas of the American elite. 

American economic interests under the guise of promoting a democratic ideology is explained through the Marxist lens by the international political structure in 2003. As proposed by Wallerstein’s world-system theory: two types of states exist in unequal exchange. This places the US as an advanced state that can exploit less developed states i.e.: for natural resources in return the weaker nations depend on the imperialist state to enable their power and income (Jackson, 2016). As highlighted by the US providing Iraq with satellite imagery to use chemical weapons against the Iranian army. Thus, Iraq’s decision to nationalise its oil industry jeopardised Western oil supplies and changed the dynamics of their relationship. Therefore, Wallerstein’s claim that the USA was a ‘hegemon in decline’ contextualises the invasion as US retaliation towards a defiant Iraq resisting the international hierarchy. Hence, American hegemonic control over the West and strategic capitalist interest in the Middle East provide a Marxist explanation of the invasion of Iraq. 

In addition, the economic reward in invading Iraq is evident through the State Department plans of a Future Iraq Project that sought to privatise Iraqi oil thereby creating easy access for American oil companies (Blackstone 2016). Given American hegemony becoming ever more unilateral in the 2000s, oil supply was key to Western economy, thus the invasion revealed the cost of non-compliance. This establishes the Marxist perspective of the invasion as capitalist expansion for lucrative resources (Callinicos 2005). 

However, Iraq under realist terms can be regarded as a revisionist state this better explains the nature of US-Iraq conflict and its desire to increase regional control. (Dunne et al. 2016) Furthermore, America’s expansionist nature to capitalise on weaker states’ resources and its free market economy further strengthen its title as a status-quo state (Mearsheimer 2016). Therefore, America’s need to reassert its global hegemony by maintaining the current system of power further solidifies the nature of the invasion under the realist framework.  

Furthermore, the Iraq War is best explained through the realist theory. As Michael Doyle describes realists as “the theorists of the ‘state of war’” who adopt three assumptions. International politics occurs under anarchy, the main actors are independent and recognise no higher power. Lastly, the absence of a legitimate international authority means no restraint (social/moral etc.) is sufficient enough to manage conflicts of interest or prestige (Doyle, 1998). The US invasion fulfilled these three core assumptions of the realist framework as it was not sanctioned by the UN Security Council. Furthermore, there was no serious sanctions for the US by the international community, this lack of response demonstrates America’s power in relation to other states and its global hegemony in the international stage. This indicates the importance of state autonomy and the USA’s need for a balance of power post 9/11 to secure state security provide a strong realist justification for the Iraq War. However, where realist theory holds nation-states as the only key actors it fails to acknowledge terrorist organisations as a key influence in the invasion, therefore, weakening the realist theoretical framework as best explaining the war. 

Doyle’s third assumption is satisfied by the invasion as evident with the events at Guantanamo Bay, however, this was argued as outside of US jurisdiction (Dunne et al., 2016). Thus, the coinage of the “War on Terror” enabled the traditional rule-bound-practise of war to be abandoned when in conflict with non-state actors, therefore, were not required to follow international protocols such as the Geneva Convention. Realism explains the major causes of the US invasion evidently, through the preservation of national interest and state security. Whilst, neo-conservatism informed US foreign policy during the invasion, the fundamental principles of their ‘big-stick diplomacy’ and the band-wagoning logic failed (Mearsheimer 2005). Thus, post 9/11 an America invasion was an inevitable occurrence to realign the balance of power. Contrary to Nuruzzaman, the dynamics of terror are not necessary to understand how US, a nation-state, acted in self-interest to neutralise an external threat (Nuruzzaman, 2006). Whilst, the nature of terrorists is not recognised under realism’s unit of analysis this arguably enabled the US to act in pre-emptive offense, fitting the defensive realist approach. 

The Pentagon’s occupation plans based on Donald Rumsfeld’s (US Secretary of Defence) over-optimistic view were designed to secure only the oil ministry and oil fields and secondly, WMDs – which were never found (Dunne et al. 2016). This further, establishes realist theory as the best explanation for the invasion as US foreign policy was influenced by ideas of hegemony as the best way to guarantee state-security. As Mearsheimer states, the international arena is a “brutal arena where states look for opportunities to take advantage of each other”. This is evident, as America saw its self-interest in invading through the pressure it put on its own intelligence agencies to provide ‘evidence’ for the existence of WMDs to confirm its myopic view. (Dunne et al., 2016).

Furthermore, Stephen Walt’s balance of threat theory further explains US invasion within the realist framework. It proposes that states will generally balance by allying themselves against a perceived threat, whereas weaker states will seek to align themselves with the threat to protect their own security. Thus, from the American perspective a distributed balance of power in the Middle East, was the most desirable security system to protect their strategic interests. However, with Saddam’s rise to power challenging US interests in the Middle East, direct involvement and “regional transformation” was necessary to maintain hegemony. (Barzegar, 2008). Hence, to preserve security – in this case economic the US has previously demonstrated their ability to determine outcomes of regional conflict as evident with the First Gulf War and its aftermath that lead to Iraq seizing Kuwaiti oil wealth. Thus, to explain Iraq-US conflict, this analysis of their relationship is necessary as US saw Iraq’s increasing regional hegemony as a threat. (Callincos 1991). 

Whilst, Marxist theory explains, the economic cause of the invasion of Iraq, there remains an underlying premise of security within their economic interest. Thus, realist perspectives best explain the invasion of Iraq as essentially an issue of security. However, as acknowledged by Mearsheimer, realism’s focus on the state means it does not address non-state actors such as ‘terrorists’ (Mearsheimer, 2002). This arguably enabled the US to unilaterally judge a threat to their national security using unregulated force on state and non-state actors to maintain influence within the region. Therefore, realist theory, in conjunction with the Marxist economic perspective, highlights the nature of this conflict as an issue of economic and state security.  Where, realist theory is the best perspective to synoptically explain the invasion, the Marxist perspective must be considered to gain a comprehensive explanation for the Iraq War.  


Barzegar, K. (2008). Stephen M. Walt on the U.S., Iran, and the New Balance of Power in the Persian Gulf. [online] Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Available at: https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/stephen-m-walt-us-iran-and-new-balance-power-persian-gulf [Accessed 6 Apr. 2019].

Callinicos, A. (1991). Alex Callinicos: Marxism and imperialism today (Spring 1991). [online] Marxists.org. Available at: https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/callinicos/1991/xx/imperialism.html [Accessed 6 Apr. 2019].

Callinicos, A. (2005). Iraq: fulcrum of world politics. Third World Quarterly, [online] 26(4-5), pp.593-608. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3993710?seq=1&cid=pdf-reference#references_tab_contents [Accessed 5 Apr. 2019].

Doyle, M. (1998). Ways of war and peace. New York: Norton.

Dunne, T., Kurki, M., Smith, S., Wight, C., Lebow, R., Mearsheimer, J., Russell, B., Sterling-Folker, J., Rupert, M., Roach, S., Fierke, K., Tickner, J., Sjoberg, L., Campbell, D., Bleiker, R., Biswas, S., Erskine, T., Eckersley, R., Hay, C. and Wæver, O. (2016). International relations theories. 4th ed. NY: Oxford University Press, pp.35-65.

Jackson, R. (2016). Global politics in the 21st century. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Mearsheimer, J. (2002). Conversations with History: ‘Through the Realist Lens’ with John Mearsheimer.

Mearsheimer, J. (2005). Hans Morgenthau and the Iraq war: realism versus neo-conservatism. [online] openDemocracy. Available at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/morgenthau_2522jsp/ [Accessed 5 Apr. 2019].

Ned Lebow, R. (2016). Classical Realism. In: T. Dunne, M. Kurki, S. Smith, C. Wight, J. Mearsheimer, B. Russell, J. Sterling-Folker, M. Rupert, S. Roach, K. Fierke, J. Tickner, L. Sjoberg, D. Campbell, R. Bleiker, S. Biswas, T. Erskine, R. Eckersley, C. Hay and O. Wæver, ed., International relations theories, 4th ed. NY: Oxford University Press.

NURUZZAMAN, M. (2006). Beyond the Realist Theories: “Neo-Conservative Realism” and the American Invasion of Iraq. International Studies Perspectives, [online] 7(3), pp.239-253. Available at: https://academic.oup.com/isp/article-abstract/7/3/239/1814068?redirectedFrom=fulltext [Accessed 6 Apr. 2019].

Schmidt, B. and Williams, M. (2008). The Bush Doctrine and the Iraq War: Neoconservatives Versus Realists. Security Studies, [online] 17(2), pp.191-220. Available at: http://www3.nccu.edu.tw/~lorenzo/Schmidt%20and%20Williams.pdf [Accessed 3 Apr. 2019].

Featured image credit: WikiMedia

Leave a Reply