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Explanation of The Start of The War in Iraq from Classical Realism

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Political theories have the role of explaining the world of international relations. In this essay, I will explain the cause of the invasion of Iraq from classical realism perspectives. I concluded that the United States (US) invaded Iraq because the US aspired to maintain the US hegemony, show the American power to put pressure on the potential enemy governments like Iran and North Korea and gain the US’s national interests such as oil and military bases from Iraq. Moreover, I will also give a brief reflection of applying classical realism to the American invasion of Iraq, which suggests classical realism has several deficiencies to explain the cause of the Iraq War. In this essay, I address Hans Morgenthau’s arguments especially “Politics among Nations” as they are suitable for explaining the US invasion of Iraq.  The Brief Overview of Classical Realism Realists believe international politics is under the condition of the anarchic system and there is the constant possibility of war happening. Thus states, the central actors in realism, aim to ensure their security. To achieve their goal, classical realism emphasizes three core components: power, national interests and the balance of power.

First, states seek power enough to survive in the anarchic world, hence the concept of power is primary in classical realism. Additionally, Moreover, they act in accordance with national interests defined in terms of power since they are self-interested as human beings are. To guarantee their national interests, they act prudently as they calculate the costs and the benefits of any political actions.

The balance of power is likewise the concept to maintain the equilibrium of power among nations. Hence, it can prevent another nation from interfering with another nation for increasing national interests. In sum, states act on the national interests defined in terms of power. Moreover, the balance of power is proposed to establish their own states’ security while they respect other state’s interests.


In 2003, the Bush administration determined to invade Iraq. Although the UN security council opposed the US arming, the US declared to combat Iraq with several justified reasons: One is the possibility of Iraq possessing the WMDs, the threat in international security, Another is that Saddam Hussein might corporate with Al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization which mounted the September 11 attacks. This invasion of Iraq caused the Iraq war which had lasted until they evacuated all American troops from Iraq in 2011. In this section, I explain the cause of the Iraq War from the three aspects: power, national interests which are the primary principles of classical realism.  1 Power As the first principle in his sixth principles, Morgenthau claimed that the law of politics has the roots of human nature which pursue the power. States have the desires for gaining political power as humans have desires for their survival and power. Hence, he concluded “International politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power.” From his arguments, it is implied that the struggle for power promoted the US government to invade Iraq.

According to “Politics among Nations”, all political policies are explained by three types; one is the policy status which seeks to keep power, second is the policy of imperialism which seeks to increase power and third is the policy of prestige which seeks to demonstrate power. Considering these three policies which he claimed, I assume that the US implemented the policy as imperialism to break through threatening situations by Iraq which potentially possesses WMDs and corporates with Al-Qaeda and as prestige to display the American national power for bringing pressure to Iran and North Korea.

1.1 The policy of imperialism

The purpose of imperialism is to break through the status quo between the two countries. For instance, states aim to proceed imperialistic expansion. Applying this to overthrowing Hussein’s regime, Iraq threatened the US global hegemony and disproportionated the power balance. Thus, the US aspired to remove the Iraqi threat for regaining its enormous status: the possibility of Iraqi possession and the big influence of Al-Qaeda. The US had sought powers to be the leading state in international politics. At that time of the invasion of Iraq, they were so powerful authority that any states did not oppose them. George Bush made the speech that ‘America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge.’ By this logic, the invasion of Iraq can be explained as maintaining the American enormous authority.

1.2 The policy of prestige

The purpose of prestige is to impress other nations with the state’s power which the state actually possesses, or wants the other nations to believe, it possesses. Morgenthau points out military demonstration is an effective way to impress their power. It is because showing military power is an evident measure to demonstrate the status of national power. When applying them to the invasion of Iraq, it was illustrated as the demonstration of the American military forces. It was because showing their army power enabled the US to pressure Iran and North Korea, the enemy states for the US. Hence, the US would have deterred them from continuing nuclear programs and opposing the US. However, against the intention of the US, Iran and North Korea did not go as the US expected. Rather, they will threaten the US in a more advanced way by developing nuclear weapons.

As the end of this section, I also argue that, for the success of implementing policies, it is essential to calculate the other state’s foreign policy accurately. As an example of blunders, European countries failed to deter the Nazis regime from outbreak he Second World War. It came from European states having taken the appeasement policy toward fascist Germany because they misjudged the Germany policies as the policy of status quo. In reality, Germany had the intention to expand the supremacy.

Similarly, this argument enables us to explain that the invasion of Iraq was the result of the US evaluating the Iraqi policy inaccurately. The US assumed that Iraq implemented the policy of imperialism from a hypothesis that Iraq possessed WMDs and cooperated with Al-Qaeda. Based on the hypothesis, the US determined to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime. Yet, Iraq Survey Group (ISG) concluded that there were no WMDs in Iraq after the invasion of Iraq.

National Interests

Morgenthau argues that the state cannot take action unless it affects positively, like gaining power and national interests. Thus, it is after political leaders conclude that the action will benefit the state over their foreseeable risks that they begin to take action. It follows from this claim that the US viewed the invasion of Iraq as a beneficial political action for them. This is because the profit of controlling oil reserves and gaining regional military bases in Iraq would surpass the risks of damaging the US military force and spending war expenditure for the Iraq War.

It can be justified that acquiring oil and military bases is not the primary reason for the invasion of Iraq, because the US did not suffer from the shortage of them. However, the war is usually caused by multiple reasons and I claim that gaining national interests was another reason to cause the Iraq War. Morgenthau considered oil as an important element of national power.

In the case of invading Iraq, Michael Klare, a prominent analyst of oil politics stated that no doubt that many factors are involved – some strategic, some political and some economic. But it is hard to believe that US leaders would contemplate such an extreme act without very powerful motives – and the pursuit of oil has long constituted the most commanding motive for US military action in the Persian Gulf region.

Moreover, by the 1970s, Sherle Schwenniger also argues that two goals have driven the US policy: To support Israel and control the oil market. The goals have been a crucial problem for the US to address. Consequently, I can argue that the US had the justified reason to pursue oil sources as a high priority national power.

Secondly, gaining the military bases in Iraq would be valuable for the US to support Israel, the US ally. Thus, the goals have driven the American policy which encouraged the US to put pressure on Iran. Iran was the enemy state for the US and Israel and the US promoted Iran to give up its nuclear program by putting pressure on Iran. As I argued above, supporting Israel is the crucial problem for the US and one of the effective means to achieve this was removing Iran, the potential threat to the US. Owning the navy bases in post-war Iraq enabled the US to put pressure on Iran effectively as Iraq is located next to Iran. Moreover, along with the existing military bases in Afghanistan, it would have been an effective strong point to attack Iran.

Lastly, considering the risks the US might have taken, the US would have spent the war expenditure and damage its own troops. Yet, the US assessed that going to war with Iraq would profit the US because the risks were minimum – enemy states which possessed more threatening WMDs at the time of the invasion could not easily have been occupied. Thus, the US must have viewed it more possible to target Iraq, rather than Iran or North Korea. Consequently, the US judged securing the US oil supplies and gaining regional army bases in the Middle East would outperform losing troops and spending the war expenditure. The examinations led the US to arm the military forces for the invasion.


In practice, the prominent realists at that time opposed that the US invaded Iraq because going to war with Iraq was not the American national interests and not the rational decision. Mearsheimer presumed that Morgenthau would have opposed as well. However, he accepted the gap between it actually is and what a rational theory tells. Moreover, not all foreign policies are always rational, objective. Additionally, he claimed that it is foolish to expect always the states to act unemotionally. This suggests the possibility that the American leadership were not rational enough to calculate an accurate estimate of the American power and the risks, which is against classical realism. More specifically speaking, it can be illustrated that the US overestimated its military strength as its revenge for the September 11 attacks. On the whole, I claim that classical realism cannot provide sufficient explanations of the invasion of Iraq.


Classical realists can explain the cause of the American invasion of Iraq through two aspects. Firstly, the US hoped to maintain and demonstrate the US hegemony in the international relations by containment of Iraqi threat. Secondly, the US sought oil resources and military bases which promote the American national interests. While I explained the cause of the invasion of Iraq from classical realism perspectives, realists cannot always explain sufficiently for political events as Morgenthau himself accepted the exceptions for the rationality of states’ leaders and policies.

Not only realism is an imperfect theory to cover satisfactory explanations of political events, but also other theories as well. E. H. Carr stated that it is preferable to use both realism and idealism for implementing policies. I conclude that the combination of several political theories could be appropriate to explain the political events in international relations.


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