Canadian Journal of Political Science

Research Article

President Al Gore and the 2003 Iraq War: A Counterfactual Test of Conventional “W”isdom

Frank P. Harveya1 c1

a1 Dalhousie University


Abstract. The almost universally accepted explanation for the Iraq war is very clear and consistent, namely, the US decision to attack Saddam Hussein's regime on March 19, 2003, was a product of the ideological agenda, misguided priorities, intentional deceptions and grand strategies of President George W. Bush and prominent “neoconservatives” and “unilateralists” on his national security team. Notwithstanding the widespread appeal of this version of history, however, the Bush-neocon war thesis (which I have labelled neoconism) remains an unsubstantiated assertion, a “theory” without theoretical content or historical context, a position lacking perspective and a seriously underdeveloped argument absent a clearly articulated logical foundation. Neoconism is, in essence, a popular historical account that overlooks a substantial collection of historical facts and relevant causal mechanisms that, when combined, represent a serious challenge to the core premises of accepted wisdom. This article corrects these errors, in part, by providing a much stronger account of events and strategies that pushed the US-UK coalition closer to war. The analysis is based on both factual and counterfactual evidence, combines causal mechanisms derived from multiple levels of analysis and ultimately confirms the role of path dependence and momentum as a much stronger explanation for the sequence of decisions that led to war.

Résumé. L'explication quasi-universellement acceptée de la guerre d'Irak est très claire et sans équivoque : la décision des États-Unis de renverser le régime de Saddam Hussein le 19 mars 2003 était le résultat d'un programme idéologique, de priorités erronées, de déceptions intentionnelles, de grandes manœuvres stratégiques du président George W. Bush, d'éminents «néoconservateurs» et partisans de l'« unilatéralisme » présents dans l'équipe chargée de la sécurité nationale. Certes cette version de l'histoire constitue une idée largement répandue, mais la thèse de la guerre-néocon-de-Bush – que je désigne sous le terme neoconism – demeure une assertion dénuée de fondements, une ‘théorie’ sans contenu théorique ou contexte historique, un point de vue sans perspective, un argument qui ne fait pas de poids, et qui ne repose sur aucun raisonnement logique clairement articulé. Le neoconism est essentiellement un compte rendu historique populaire qui néglige une ensemble important de faits historiques et de mécanismes de causalité pertinents qui, mis ensemble, constituent un défi taille aux principaux prémisses de la sagesse acceptée. Le présent article se propose de corriger en partie les erreurs surévoquées, en en fournissant un compte rendu beaucoup plus solide des faits et stratégies qui ont amené la coalition États-Unis – Royaume-Uni à aller en guerre contre le régime irakien d'alors. L'analyse se fonde à la fois sur des preuves factuelles et contrefactuelles, avec l'appui des mécanismes de cause à effet inspirés de différents niveaux d'analyse, et confirme enfin le rôle joué par le concept de Path dependence (Dépendance au chemin emprunté) et de la dynamique comme explication beaucoup plus convaincante de la série de décisions ayant conduit à la guerre.


c1 Frank P. Harvey, Department of Political Science, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia B3H 4H6;


Acknowledgments: The author would like to thank David Bercuson and the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute for financial support to complete an earlier draft of this paper. I am very grateful to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for generous research support through grant # 410-2010-002. I would also like to thank Jennifer Harris (Lucid Pulp) for her meticulous attention to detail and editorial assistance, John Mitton for his outstanding research assistance and Michael Brecher, Gary Goertz, Kim Richard Nossal, Richard Ned Lebow, Jack Levy, Denis Stairs and Philip Tetlock for very helpful comments, suggestions and insights on an earlier draft. A special thanks should go to the Journal's co-editors, Csaba Nikoleni and James Kelly, for their assistance, guidance and support throughout the review process. I am solely responsible for any errors or omissions.

List of Figures and Tables

Figure 1

Figure 1 NeoconismNote: Iraq war momentum is a far more accurate conceptualization of the dependent variable than Iraq war, because it avoids the common mistake of assuming that only one decision (i.e., the final decision to go to war) is the only relevant outcome to explain—it isn't. The onset of the Iraq war was a product of many key decisions that constituted the path dependent sequence of moves pushing the US–UK coalition closer to war.

Figure 2

Figure 2 Bush Approval RatingsSource: Brian Cordyack, 2005.

Figure 3

Figure 3 Historical Bush Approval RatingsSource:

Figure 4

Figure 4 US Public Support for Multilateralism

Table 1

Table 1 Enabling Conditions Influencing Al Gore Presidency—2002–2003

Table 2

Table 2 Comparative Counterfactual Profiles of Possible Al Gore Administrations (based on 20 enabling conditions)

Generally accepted wisdom on the origins of the Iraq War is very clear: the decision to attack Saddam Hussein's regime in March 2003 was a product of the political biases, misguided priorities, intentional deceptions and grand strategies of President George W. Bush and prominent “neoconservatives” on his national security team. A few powerful ideologues exploited public fears (and international good will) in the aftermath of 9/11 to amplify Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) threat as a primary justification for an unnecessary, preventive invasion.1 Disarming and democratizing Saddam's brutal regime were viewed as moral imperatives and considered essential to America's long-term security interests. To fully appreciate the causal path leading to the onset of military hostilities, according to this popular account, we need to understand George W. Bush, the person, the powerful and determined neoconservatives who advised him, and the package of prejudices, emotions, beliefs and values shared by those responsible for crafting the Bush Doctrine.2

The “Bush-neocon-war” thesis, which I will label neoconism, has emerged as the dominant narrative for explaining the US attack. It represents the prevailing consensus running through dozens of the most popular books on the Bush administration, and hundreds of frequently cited (and widely circulated) scholarly articles, media reports and blog entries on the invasion.3 For the purposes of this exercise, neoconism refers to all first-image (leadership) theories and related variations that explain the war with reference to any or all of the following influences: neoconservatism, unilateralism, hegemonic realism, democratic realism, democratic imperialism, Wilsonian revivalism or any combination of these ideological persuasion(s). How different authors describe these ideologies, principles or policies is not important; they all subscribe to a common view that there was something distinctive about the Bush administration that explains the war. Neoconism is defined further to include any other first-image theory that blames Bush himself for being influenced by these particular pressures (for example, because of a weak character or lack of intelligence), or any related explanation that focuses on the personal beliefs, religious values, decision-making style or any other psychological predisposition of George W. Bush (for example, his desire for revenge following Saddam Hussein's attempted assassination of his father, or Bush's wish to finish the job his father failed to complete following the 1991 Gulf war). The counterfactual analysis presented in this paper directly challenges each and every one of these explanations, all of which encompasses one or another dimension of the conventional neoconist wisdom.

Notwithstanding its widespread appeal, however, neoconism remains an unsubstantiated assertion, a “theory” without theoretical content, a collection of similar positions lacking perspective and a seriously underdeveloped argument absent a clearly articulated logical foundation. Neoconism is, in essence, a historical account that overlooks a substantial collection of relevant historical facts that, when combined, represent a fatal blow to its core premise and central tenets.4

For instance, neoconism assigns a remarkable measure of power and political influence to George W. Bush and a few of his key advisors. They (and they alone) share the responsibility for transforming the direction of American foreign and security policy after 9/11, not to mention the priorities of an entire international community. Proponents of this view remain convinced that these individuals had the intellectual prowess and political skills to manipulate the preferences, perceptions and priorities of so many other intelligent people, including 1) several influential (non-neocon) foreign and security policy advisors regularly consulted by Bush (Colin Powell, Prime Minister Tony Blair, and so forth); 2) a significant majority of both political parties serving on key congressional foreign policy and intelligence committees in the House and Senate (including every senior Democrat); 3) a majority of elected officials in Congress, almost all of whom offered strong endorsements of the October 2002 joint resolution authorizing the use of military force; 4) a majority of the American public (between 60 to 70 per cent consistently supported Bush's handling of the Iraq crisis from 2002 to 2003, and one national poll approached 80 per cent approval); 5) Prime Minister John Howard of Australia and a majority EU leaders (excluding France, Germany and Belgium); 6) every member of the UN Security Council (including France, Russia and China) who unanimously endorsed UN Security Council Resolution 1441, a clear summary of the global intelligence consensus on Iraq's “material breach,” chemical and biological weapons programs and “nuclear facilities”; 7) a significant majority of Iraqi citizens who, despite being threatened, voted in the democratic elections at the centre of Bush's neocon empire-building scheme.

The common assumption running through this entire narrative is that select members of Bush's national security team managed to create the necessary illusions to dupe many very bright people into risking their own political careers to accommodate the American president's ideologically motivated package of idiosyncratic prejudices. Space constraints preclude a more detailed list of world leaders and other political officials scammed by Bush into spending billions of dollars to serve these neoconservative priorities. The truth is that George W. Bush does not deserve this kind of credit, and everyone else does not deserve that amount of blame. Reality is considerably more complex.

Counterfactual Implications of Conventional Wisdom

Counterfactual historical analysis is regarded across multiple disciplines as a powerful tool for evaluating popular historical accounts of major events or for testing social scientific theories to resolve questions about causation. The method has been used by prominent scholars to weigh competing explanations for world wars, the end of the Cold War, the escalation of contemporary international crises and many other transformative events in world history (see Fearon, 1991; Ferguson, 2000; Lebow, 2000; Levy, 2008b; Tetlock and Lebow, 2001) “Counterfactuals,” Lebow reminds us, “are an essential ingredient of scholarship. They help determine the research questions we deem important and the answers we find to them. They are necessary to evaluate the political, economic, and moral benefits of real-world outcomes. These evaluations in turn help drive future research” (2000: 558). Counterfactual analysis is not just another option for comparing different interpretations; the approach is fundamental to any serious historical inquiry, because there is no significant (or relevant) theoretical distinction between factual and counterfactual reasoning; both dimensions of any explanation must be processed for a credible theory to emerge (Lebow, 2000: 551,556).

The central tenet of neoconism is very clear and consistent: a Bush administration dominated by powerful neoconservatives was a necessary condition for the Iraq war. Of course, every necessary condition theory is logically connected to its sufficient condition counterpart: if X (neoconservatism) was a necessary condition for outcome Y (a US invasion of Iraq), then the absence of X would have been a sufficient condition for the absence of Y, by definition. As Goertz and Levy observe, “to assert a necessary condition is simultaneously to assert a [sufficient condition] counterfactual: they are bound together” (2007: 15) Whenever we isolate what we believe to be an important cause of some act or event, the validity of that claim demands simultaneous exposure to some counterfactual proof that, in the absence of these conditions, the event would not have occurred.

Consider the unmistakable counterfactual argument firmly rooted in neoconism: had a few more hanging chads remained intact in Florida in the 2000 election, the Iraq war would never have happened. President Al Gore's preferences would have been guided by his team of non-neocon foreign policy advisors predisposed to providing advice based on their distinct experiences, values and ideological biases. A different set of strategic priorities would have emerged to move the Gore administration, the country and international community down an alternative path away from war. However, there are at least two mutually exclusive counterfactual arguments that can be extracted from any theoretical account of a historical event. The conventional neoconist view maintains that a Gore administration would not have gone to war (“Gore-peace”), while its mirror-image counterpart asserts that Gore would have followed the same path as Bush (“Gore-war”). The central question, of course, is which counterfactual receives the strongest support from the facts and evidence derived from a careful (and complete) review of the relevant historical record? The evidence for and against both counterfactuals must be discussed together, because the strengths of one are directly relevant to uncovering the weaknesses of the other.

Now, if there are compelling, historically informed reasons why Gore would have been pressured after 9/11 to make many (I will argue all) of the same major decisions on Iraq, this evidence would logically run counter to the standard narrative embedded in neoconism. For example, the stronger the case that Al Gore, his advisors and almost every other senior Democrat arrived at exactly the same general conclusions about Iraq's WMD (long before neocons took power), the weaker the claim that neoconservatism was required to form that perception. Similarly, if Al Gore and his team had faced the same domestic pressure to approach the UN for a strong, multilaterally endorsed resolution to force Saddam to comply with robust inspections, then, once again, neoconservatism is irrelevant to that small part of the story. The stronger the evidence supporting the Gore-war path, the weaker the evidence that neoconservatism was relevant.

Figure 1 provides a summary of the kind of evidence one would expect to find in support of competing counterfactual claims.5 Proponents of neoconism have relied exclusively on evidence corresponding to category D, that is, they tend to profile Bush and key members of his national security team or refer to other authors who do the same thing., for example, lists dozens of memoirs by former Bush administration officials crammed with facts, details and personal anecdotes about their experiences during this period. Although all of these contributions help us paint a much clearer descriptive picture of what went on from 2002 to 2003, each entry produces diminishing returns over time; they do not provide better explanations for the onset of hostilities. In essence, the literature on Iraq remains grounded in category D, and tends to ignore any and all falsifying evidence from category C. The reason, of course, is that neoconists would never expect to find much if any evidence corresponding to category C (Gore-war). Surprisingly, a review of the case history confirms the exact opposite to be true; there is considerably more (and stronger) factual and counterfactual evidence corresponding C and almost no evidence to support A (Goertz and Levy, 2007).

Figure 1

Figure 1


Note: Iraq war momentum is a far more accurate conceptualization of the dependent variable than Iraq war, because it avoids the common mistake of assuming that only one decision (i.e., the final decision to go to war) is the only relevant outcome to explain—it isn't. The onset of the Iraq war was a product of many key decisions that constituted the path dependent sequence of moves pushing the US–UK coalition closer to war.

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Tracing Multiple Decisions on the Path to War

Before moving on to a detailed review of the factual and counterfactual evidence supporting Gore-war, readers should take note of a common bias plaguing conventional neoconist accounts of the invasion, namely, the assumption that only one decision is relevant to understanding what happened, that is, the final decision to invade Iraq. This simplistic account leaves out most of what is relevant to appreciating what happened, how key decisions unfolded over time, how these decisions were mutually reinforcing and interdependent, how the choices at each stage had a direct effect on perceptions of risks and costs of available options and how, when combined, these choices led to the invasion. In reality, the final decision to invade evolved over time and was reinforced each time a crucial (widely endorsed) decision on the path to war was taken. These decisions, when combined over time, created the path-dependent momentum to war.

More specifically, the final stage in March 2003 was a direct consequence of a series of choices made in 2002 by multiple actors in the US and UK, and each decision received widespread bipartisan support from Congress and the British Parliament. Consider the following examples of key decision points: (T1) address the absence of inspectors by working through the UN for a post-9/11, multilaterally endorsed response to the failing containment and sanctions regime (neocons and unilateralists strongly recommended against this option, preferring instead to bypass Congress and the UN by relying exclusively on existing UN resolutions); (T2) obtain Congressional authorization (neocons and unilateralists argued against going to Congress); (T3) deploy troops backed by Congressional authorization to enhance the credibility of the coercive threat needed for a strong UN resolution; (T4) approach the United Nations to obtain a unanimously endorsed resolution to restart coercive inspections; (T5) negotiate a strong resolution with a very clear mandate and rigid requirements for full, complete and unfettered compliance; (T6) reject Iraq's report as inadequate proof of disarmament (Hans Blix, head of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, was equally critical of this report) (Blix, 2003); (T7) interpret subsequent reports by Blix as inadequate evidence of full and complete compliance; (T8) go back to the UN to negotiate a second resolution (against the recommendations of unilateralists and neocons) with a specific time frame and a clearer threat of military action; (T9) reject France's demands to take military action off the table, which would have seriously diminished the coercive threat associated with the deployment of hundreds of thousands of troops in theatre; (T10) mount an invasion with the full support of the UK and other coalition partners.

The remainder of the paper will explore the following four sets of facts to confirm Gore-war while simultaneously disconfirming Gore peace (neoconism):

  • (1) Gore's misperceptions, values and policy preferences;
  • (2) Societal pressures, public opinion and domestic politics;
  • (3) American intelligence failures and miscalculations;
  • (4) Saddam's intelligence failures and miscalculations.

A form of theory guided process tracing will be used to connect the details surrounding these five categories of facts to each of the key decisions along the path to war, highlighting relevant theories along the way (Falleti, 2009; George and Bennett, 2005; George and McKeown, 1985). Process tracing facilitates “theoretically explicit narratives that carefully trace and compare the sequences of events constituting the process [and] capture the unfolding of social action over time in a manner sensitive to the order in which events occur” (Aminzade, 1993:18). Getting this order correct is essential to the quality of a historical account and, by extension, the empirical evidence required to support (or refute) the counterfactual claims being made in the paper. George and McKeown add that process tracing “uncovers what stimuli the actors attend to; the decision process that makes use of these stimuli to arrive at decisions; the actual behaviour that then occurs; the effect of various institutional arrangements on attention, processing, and behaviour; and the effect of other variables of interest on attention, processing, and behaviour” (1985: 35). In sum, process tracing exposes, for each decision maker or participant at each point in time, relevant information they relied on to form perceptions, priorities, expectations, preferences and, ultimately, choices. The objective here is to carefully work through the entire process by embracing complexity, nuance and detail, and by appreciating the full context and chronology of events and choices as they unfolded at crucial points in time.

President Gore: (Mis)perceptions, Values, Beliefs and Policy Preferences

With respect to uncovering counterfactual evidence from Gore's past, consider the large collection of statements by Al Gore and senior Democratic advisors he would have consulted as members of his national security team (cited in appendices I and II). If one traces the content and underlying themes running through Gore's unwavering defence of American foreign policy (particularly when he was vice-president), it is clear that he was consistently defending the central principles of what later became his 2000 foreign policy platform: “assertive multilateralism” and “forward engagement” (that is, Gore's version of preventive diplomacy). In direct contrast, Bush and Cheney used their 2000 campaign to criticize the Clinton–Gore policy of nation building and democratization in Bosnia and Kosovo. Logically, if Bush and Cheney were compelled, after the trauma of 9/11, to dismiss their 2000 campaign rhetoric in favour of a more assertive foreign policy agenda vis-a-vis Iraq, what reasonable argument could one offer to explain why Al Gore and Joe Lieberman (both proponents of assertive multilateralism; the latter a strong supporter of the Iraq war) would follow a different path? They would have been more inclined in the aftermath of 9/11 to select the path consistent with the policies they both forcefully defended throughout the previous eight years and in the 2000 campaign.

Similarly, there was no reason to expect Gore would have changed his mind about the threat from Iraq's WMD after a four-year absence of inspectors? Previously entrenched concerns about Saddam's WMD were reinforced when inspectors left in 1998 and were subsequently amplified after 9/11; the generally accepted (non-distorted) WMD estimates were never seriously challenged by anyone. Some of the best work on the role of cognition in foreign policy decision making has consistently shown that entrenched beliefs and perceptions change very slowly (if at all) and only after a significant amount of new information comes in (Janis, 1972; Janis and Mann, 1977; Jervis, 1976; Lebow, 1984). Without inspectors on the ground there was no new information on Iraq's WMD, and the inspectors who left in 1998 believed Saddam retained proscribed weapons.6 In light of the 9/11 commission report confirming Washington's “failure to imagine” serious security threats, the notion that Gore would have downplayed Iraq's WMD threat in this environment is simply not plausible.

Two of Gore's major speeches on Iraq are arguably more relevant than most when defending competing counterfactual claims, because they were delivered during the crucial 2002–2003 period, one to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in February 2002 (Gore, 2002b), the other to the Commonwealth Club (CC) of San Francisco in September of the same year (Gore 2002c). Both are useful for gaining insights into Gore's strong views on Iraq, WMD and the application of coercive military diplomacy. But the CC speech is particularly useful because it is the one most often cited by neoconists and proponents of Gore-peace when defending their counterfactual claims. For this reason the CC speech deserves special attention here.

The CC speech was delivered six months before the March 2003 invasion, around the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and long before Bush and Blair decided to go back to the UN for another resolution. Throughout this period, senior administration officials, decision makers and opinion leaders were establishing their respective positions on how the US should address the impasse over Iraq, the absence of inspectors since 1998 and the failing containment strategy. One side of the debate included prominent neoconservatives, nationalists and unilateralists who were forcefully pushing for a policy of unilateral prevention justified on the basis of Iraq's material breach of existing UN resolutions. Those supporting this view included Vice-President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other senior officials in the Pentagon and National Security Council, and leading neoconservative intellectuals such as Richard Pearle, William Kristol and Robert Kagan. The other side in the debate was recommending a multilateral approach backed by congressional authorization, a new UN resolution and another round of rigid inspections reinforced by a clear military threat. Those embracing the multilateral strategy included key administration officials (Colin Powell and George Tenet), former senior Republican advisers to George H. W. Bush (James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, Lawrence Eagleburger), almost every Democratic congressman (and many Republicans), several former advisers to President Bill Clinton, key allies (Tony Blair, John Howard and Silvio Berlusconni), and, of course, Al Gore and Richard Holbrooke. This is the relevant political context for interpreting the content of Gore's 2002 CC speech—it was delivered before Bush, Powell and Blair selected the UN-based strategy to deal with Iraq, before the deployment of troops to the region and before the unanimous passage of UNSCR 1441 declaring Iraq in material breach and demanding full complete compliance with the disarmament demands.

In addition to overlooking the context of Gore's CC speech in September 2002, scholars on both sides of the Iraq war debate have intentionally selected specific parts of the speech to defend one of two mutually exclusive interpretations of Gore's position. Parts of Gore's CC speech (see excerpt A in appendix I) read like a strong endorsement of a hard-line position to force the Iraq regime to comply with existing UN resolutions, even acknowledging at one point the possibility (and legitimacy) of unilateral action based on pre-existing resolutions. But other parts of the same speech (see excerpt B in appendix I) read like a clear indictment of the Bush administration's policy of unilateral pre-emption in which Gore criticizes the government for alienating key allies and undermining Washington's capacity to successfully deal with the larger war on terror. When the entire speech is read in its appropriate context, however, it is neither pro-war nor anti-war; it was delivered long before the war started and was clearly designed to articulate Al Gore's contribution to a crucially important foreign policy debate between neoconservative unilateralists and assertive multilateralists (or liberal internationalists).

In essence, the CC speech was Gore's effort to make the strongest possible case for returning to the UN to get inspectors back into Iraq. He also used the speech to highlight the importance of focusing on al Qaeda, which is why he argued for a unilateral pre-emptive attack without UN endorsement, Congressional support or coalition partners would be a huge mistake. Instead, given the importance of retaining a focus on al Qaeda, Gore recommended returning to the UN to resolve the Iraq impasse with the help of allies and through multilateral inspections backed by a coercive threat. President Bush received praise from Al Gore on November 19, 2002, when the president finally endorsed the assertive multilateral path Gore was recommending:

I think the president deserves credit for getting a unanimous vote in the Security Council. I think he and Secretary Powell did an excellent job of wrestling to the ground and negotiating a unanimous resolution. Now they changed their policy in the process of doing that and they traded off a lot of things and the new policy is much closer to what I was talking about in San Francisco than what they were embarked on sometime before. It doesn't surprise me because I think the international political realities push in that direction…. I think there's been progress in the last two months. I think that the president clearly changed course and decided to invest heavily in the United Nations to the point where, you know, those on the right wing in his party are beginning to criticize what he's done.

Question from Charlie Rose: You seem to be saying, whether the president was listening to Colin Powell, Brent Scowcroft, Al Gore or others … in terms of the arguments being made, he seems to have moved to a more moderate position with respect to Iraq in your judgment.

It certainly seems that way to me. And rather than more moderate, I would say more realistic. You can't just thumb your nose at the entire world and say we're going to go and do whatever we want to do regardless of the consequences. That may feel good to say that but you're going to stir up a lot of opposition to the US around the world and buy us some trouble on down the road…. I think that investing as heavily as he did in the United Nations process, I think was wise.


Richard Holbrooke (former US Ambassador to the UN under Clinton and a leading contender to become Gore's Secretary of State) was equally glowing in his endorsement of Bush's strategy:

[The Bush Administration] finally got their act together and … eliminated the united opposition of both parties on the hill and then they went to the UN and played their hand skilfully and as we talk here tonight we're waiting for the next shoe to drop. The most important thing that happened here is that the president speaks finally, the world rallies to the United States, Saddam finally backs up. Some of the nations of the world then say to the United States, “ok, don't go any further,” Bush correctly says “No, we're still going to keep pushing” and now the ball is back in Washington's court and it's been well played for the last few days.


The interviews by Gore and Holbrooke, taped shortly after Bush decided to go back to the UN, represent so much more than two senior Democrats endorsing multilateralism; they are direct quotes from leading figures in the Democratic party who were a few hanging chads away from the White House praising president Bush for rejecting the neoconservative (unilateralist) approach to the crisis.

By any measure, including conservative Republican standards, Gore was a foreign policy hawk. He consistently opposed efforts to cut defence spending, supported Reagan's decisions to bomb Libya, invade Grenada, aid the Contras in the 1980s and fund the B-1 and B-2 bomber and MX missile programs. Gore, along with Senator Joe Lieberman (his 2000 running mate), strongly endorsed the 1991 Gulf War by opposing a significant majority of other Democrats in the Senate at the time. As vice-president, Al Gore supported national missile defence and military actions in Bosnia (lift-and-strike policy, 1993–1995) and Kosovo (1998). Perhaps most relevant to the counterfactuals in question, Gore consistently adopted the hardest line in the Clinton administration when dealing with Saddam Hussein. President Clinton's decision to end Operation Desert Fox in 1998, for example, did not rely on unanimous consent among his advisors; Secretary of State Albright, Defense Secretary Cohen and Vice-President Gore all opposed halting the strikes at that time, despite the absence of UN Security Council endorsement (New Republic, 1998: 16). Gore also strongly endorsed American retaliatory strikes against Sudan and Afghanistan in response to the terrorist strike on the USS Cole without first obtaining multilateral support from the UN Security Council.

Gore “repeatedly portrayed himself as a man who has come to believe in vigorous American intervention abroad,” David Sanger observed, “a reversal of Democratic philosophy for most of the time since the end of the war in Vietnam.”7 There is nothing about Gore's past that would provide even a hint that he had serious reservations about using military force to address a threat from Saddam Hussein, especially after the trauma of 9/11. Nor does Gore appear to be the type of leader who, if bolstered by strong support from Prime Minister Tony Blair, would capitulate to a French refusal to endorse military action against Iraq if Saddam failed to comply with UNSCR 1441.

As is clear from the extensive list of quotes included in the second half of appendix I, almost all of Al Gore's foreign policy advisors during the 2000 campaign shared exactly the same views on Iraq: Leon Fuerth (senior Gore advisor and candidate for National Security advisor), Joseph Lieberman (vice-presidential candidate), Madeleine Albright, Richard Holbrooke (a leading candidate for secretary of state), Sandy Berger, Carl Levin, John Kerry, Joe Biden (all senior Democratic foreign policy advisors), Bill Richardson (UN ambassador under Clinton), Sam Nunn, Wesley Clark (both candidates for Secretary of Defense), and Richard N. Gardner, Robert E. Hunter (both often consulted on US foreign policy during the 2000 campaign). Space constraints prohibit the inclusion of many similar quotes from other leading Democrats. The point, once again, is that there is very little evidence from these speeches, statements, editorials or scholarly articles that produces a profile of a Gore administration committed to pursuing an alternative path.

Societal Pressures, Public Opinion and Domestic Politics

Almost every poll tracking public approval of Bush's Iraq strategy from 2002–2003 was above 60 per cent, the highest polling numbers since the peak of Bush's popularity after the 9/11 attacks (see Figures 2 and 3).

Figure 2

Figure 2

Bush Approval Ratings

Source: Brian Cordyack, 2005.

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The public was certainly not calling for war during this period, but a significant majority of Americans were clearly supporting the various decisions and overall strategy the Bush administration was implementing to get inspectors back into Iraq. Support rose to almost 80 per cent in the Washington Post/ABC poll (Figure 2) and ranged between 65 and75 per cent across polls produced by all major media outlets from December 2002 through March 2003 (Figure 3). The only way to sustain these high numbers is to obtain bipartisan public support. Any president pursuing the same UN-endorsed, multilateral strategy would have received similarly high public approval ratings, and there is no reason to believe Al Gore would have been any less inclined to understand (and exploit) the positive political benefits from the same UN-based approach to a lingering foreign policy problem.

In addition to healthy overall job-approval ratings, Bush's decision to approach Congress and the UN also garnered substantial support from the American public in the lead up to war. In a series of polls compiled by the American Enterprise Institute (from January 2003–March 2003), support for Bush's multilateral strategy rarely dips below 60 per cent (see Figure 4).

Figure 4

Figure 4

US Public Support for Multilateralism

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The highest single rating (76% in both the Gallup/CNN and PSRA/Newsweek respectively) occurred around the time of the military intervention (March–April 2003); in other words, the highest approval ratings for Bush's Iraq strategy occurred just as his assertive multilateral approach was being implemented. Again, the neoconservative strategy (to bypass congress, bypass the UN, and go it alone with our without the support of the UK and other allies) was clearly rejected by an American public overwhelmingly supportive of the assertive multilateral strategy. The key counterfactual question is why would a Gore administration eschew a politically popular strategy, particularly when that strategy was entirely consistent with the one Gore's team had consistently advocated?

Of course, Gore's team would have faced several additional societal and political pressures in 2002. He and other former Clinton administration officials would almost certainly have been held responsible for the 9/11 failure and for seriously underestimating the al-Qaeda threat. The fact that Vice-President Gore was chair of the Commission on Aviation Safety and Security would not have helped his case. For Gore to follow this failure with any indication that he was underestimating the Iraqi threat as well (a threat he himself helped to foment) would have been viewed by many as dangerously irresponsible. The political costs of such a strategy would have been very high; Republicans would have jumped at the opportunity to exploit Gore's foreign policy failure(s) at the height of the midterm election campaign in 2002. Gore would also have been assigned direct responsibility for the four-year absence of inspectors in Iraq, who left in 1998 prior to Operation Desert Fox. Constructing an alternative narrative in which the Iraqi threat is downplayed or ignored was simply not a reasonable option for Gore, and there is no evidence that any of his advisors were inclined to encourage him to do so. Neoconism (Gore-peace) fails by comparison.

Finally, the public's very strong endorsement of the president's multilateral strategy, in turn, explains a good part of the political pressure on congressional leaders to follow suit: the House voted 296-133 to authorize the president's use of force, followed by the Senate's 77-23 vote the next day. At the time, almost everyone in Washington understood how important it was to provide the president with the bargaining leverage he needed to deal with the UN Security Council and then Saddam. A strong, credible threat of unilateral action was viewed at the time as the best hope for managing the disarmament crisis peacefully. The debate in Congress was not between those in favour of war and peace; it was between those in favour of giving the president the authorization to use force with or without another UN resolution. Those in Congress who rejected authorization (for example, Carl Levin) did so not because they dismissed the generally accepted threat from Saddam, but because they wanted the president to go to the UN first to obtain international support before authorizing force; which Bush, Powell and Blair ultimately accomplished anyway through UN Security Council Resolution 1441.

American Intelligence Failures and Miscalculations

Major intelligence errors typically re-emerge from a combination of bureaucratic and organizational pressures to fix the last mistake.8 As former CIA Director George Tenet admits, “the remedy for one so-called intelligence failure can help set the stage for another” (Tenet, 2007: 332). For example, the failure to imagine new and more serious terrorist threats after the Cold War, or, more specifically, to connect al Qaeda to flight schools in Florida, set the stage for 9/11. The natural fix for underestimating a prior threat is to err on the side of overestimating the next one. But even the most conservative (minimalist) interpretation of intelligence on Iraq's WMD would lead to the same conclusion: Saddam did not account for a large portion of his chemical and biological weapons program and needed to be disarmed. There was virtually unanimous consensus on this point. The main question framing the entire WMD dilemma was why would Saddam spend so much time and effort challenging the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), and then the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), if he had absolutely nothing to hide. A more detailed answer to this specific question is provided in section four below.

For American and British officials, the debate over Iraq's WMD was never about whether the intelligence definitively established the presence or absence of stockpiles of WMD, it was always about which one of the following two arguments was more convincing, based on generally accepted intelligence at the time: (1) Saddam's regime did not use the billions of dollars he siphoned from a corrupt oil-for-food program to continue to develop his WMD program during the four-year absence of inspectors from 1998–2002, and did not retain any of the weapons listed in Hans Blix's reports to the United Nations; or (2) that Saddam did retain proscribed weapons cited in every UN resolution and report since 1991, and continued in the absence of UN inspectors to spend billions of dollars to develop (and hide) a range of WMD programs that threatened the US and its allies. Every member of the UN Security Council (including the war's strongest critics, France, Russia and China) unanimously endorsed the second interpretation when they passed UNSCR 1441 in November 2002. They accepted the view that he did not disarm in line with previous resolutions and had not provided credible documentation that such disarmament had taken place. No American, British, French, Russian or Chinese official at the time came close to defending the first argument.

The reason is simple: given the choice, the more credible (plausible) interpretation of accepted intelligence will always be the one exploited by political officials, which explains the bipartisan consensus on Iraq's WMD. It just made more sense in light of the entire record since 1991. As Tenet explains:

To conclude that Saddam was not pursuing WMD in 2002 our analysis would have had to ignore years and years of intelligence that pointed in the direction of active programs and continuing evidence of aggressive attempts on Iraq's part to conceal its activities … In retrospect we got it wrong partly because the truth was so implausible…. We had no previous experience with a country that did not possess such weapons but pretended that it did.

(Tenet, 2007: 331, emphasis added).

Much like the 9/11 error, the main problem before the Iraq war was a “failure of imagination.” The possibility that Saddam was actually bluffing (or, as it turned out, intentionally recreating the illusion of his WMD program to deter Iran) was never considered, because it was simply too far-fetched to assume he would be so reckless. Paradoxically, this is usually the most prudent strategy when confronting any opponent (“never underestimate your enemy”), but, in this case, the working assumption regarding Saddam's rationality turned out to be a serious error. But these mistaken assessments were not fabricated to further some warped neoconservative agenda, they were shared by almost every leading Democratic senator at the time serving on key intelligence and foreign affairs committees (see quotes from Rockefeller in appendix II). In hindsight, the failure to re-interpret Saddam's behaviour was a serious mistake, but there is no evidence whatsoever that Al Gore, or any of his advisors, ever contemplated the possibility the intelligence was completely wrong.

2002 National Intelligence Estimate

The 2001 CIA report on Iraq's WMD was peppered with the following caveats: Iraq “probably continued at least low-level theoretical R&D on nuclear weapons technologies”; “Baghdad may be attempting to acquire materials that could aid in reconstructing its nuclear weapons program”; and “we are concerned that Iraq may again be producing biological warfare agents.”9 Many of these qualifiers were deleted in the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate: Iraq “has chemical and biological warfare agents” and is “reconstituting its nuclear program”; “all key aspects (research and development, production, weaponization) of Iraq's offensive biological weapons program are active and most elements are larger and more advanced than they were before the gulf war.” Senior intelligence officials offer the following defence of the updated 2002 report:

Contrary to popular misconceptions, the NIE also gives full voice to those agencies that wanted to express alternative views. Dissenting opinions are not relegated to footnotes and, indeed, often appear in boxes with special colored background to make them stand out. These make up an unprecedented 16 pages of the 90-page NIE.10

CIA Director Tenet readily admits that the “nuance was lost” in the five-page summary of key findings, but he goes on to point out that very few decision makers actually read the entire 90-page report. The Democrats and Republicans who voted to authorize the use of force had made up their minds long before the publication of a five-page summary attached to an updated NIE; the speeches on Iraq's WMD delivered by these same congressmen in previous years confirm this important point. Tenet goes on to note that “the judgments [the CIA] delivered in the NIE on Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons program were consistent with the ones we had given to the Clinton administration” (Tenet, 2007:330).

The clear consensus, with or without the caveats in the five-page NIE summary, was more than sufficient to raise serious security concerns after 9/11. Anyone looking for reasons to be worried about Iraq could easily ignore speeches by Bush, Cheney or Rumsfeld and focus instead on those delivered by Clinton (Bill or Hillary), Gore or Kerry; they could overlook the missing caveats in the 2002 NIE and read the intelligence reports published earlier on Iraq's ballistic missile programs or a large collection of intelligence reports on Iraq's WMD programs published over the previous decade by a variety of intelligence organizations within the US and UK. Or they could ignore American and British reports altogether in favour of those produced by UNSCOM or UNMOVIC, including every report published by UNMOVIC's Executive Chair Hans Blix or UNSCOM's inspector Scott Ritter (one of the war's strongest critics). These misperceptions were continually reinforced every time Saddam refused admission to a site, or demanded some exception to a UN resolution's mandate or refused unmonitored interviews with his scientists. Each demand was misinterpreted as further proof he had something to hide and was willing to take enormous risk to keep this material hidden.11

The myth of threat inflation and distorted intelligence as a cause of war

According to many standard neoconist accounts of the war, intelligence on Iraq's WMD was intentionally manipulated by White House and Pentagon officials in order to inflate the threat and obtain the domestic and international support required to justify invasion. Of all pre-war intelligence estimates the Bush administration is accused of exaggerating, neoconists typically focus on the following three items: (1) operational linkages between Saddam and al-Qaeda leading to 9/11, (2) the attempted acquisition of aluminum tubes used in centrifuge enrichment programs, and (3) the attempted purchase of uranium yellowcake from Africa. All three intelligence estimates were shown after the war to be largely baseless and seriously flawed, but these errors, according to neoconists, were known to administration officials but ignored. Congressional leaders, the argument goes, inadvertently relied on these false estimates to defend their support for the October 2002 authorization. And since authorization was a crucial step towards war, the war itself can be blamed on these distortions and those responsible for their fabrication.

But what are the implications for neoconism if these three intelligence estimates were irrelevant to the positions articulated and defended by most participants at the time, including and especially Gore? What if these items were largely unrelated to the rationales offered by those on both sides of the aisle who supported the president's decisions at each stage to return inspectors with a strong, coercive, assertive multilateral mandate? These findings would pose a serious challenge to a central part of the neoconist story.

Space constraints preclude a more detailed treatment of the techniques available for answering these questions, but one straightforward method in the case of US decision makers would be to track (through, for example, content analysis) references to these three items in Congressional debates on the resolution authorizing the use of military force (from Congressional records, October 8–10, 2002). Speeches defending a vote to deploy military troops are very risky, career-defining moments that often establish political legacies. The content of these speeches arguably constitutes the best case these officials can extract from all available evidence and intelligence to defend one of the most important votes they will ever cast. Logically, we would expect these officials to highlight in their speeches the most relevant information, data and intelligence they believe is crucial to establishing their case. Any indication that uranium, aluminum tubes or operational links between Iraq and al Qaeda in preparation for 9/11 were largely absent from these speeches or completely ignored altogether would raise serious doubts about this crucial part of neoconist accounts of history and related claims that these distortions were necessary for selling the war.

A total of 52 senators gave 76 speeches to defend their vote. Only nine made reference to uranium or aluminum tubes; six were Democrats, three of whom opposed authorization (Robert Byrd, Bob Graham, and Ted Kennedy), and three supported the president (Joe Lieberman, Joe Biden, and Byron Dorgan). The other three who made reference to these items were Republicans (Susan Collins, Kay Bailey Hutchison and Olympia Snowe). Leaving aside the three Democrats who opposed authorization (they dismissed these intelligence estimates based on alternative interpretations included in the full NIE and its appendices, there were a total of only six out of 49 senators who referenced these items in one of the most important speeches of their political careers. This hardly constitutes anything approaching compelling empirical evidence that these distortions were necessary to obtain authorization or to “sell” the war. In fact, a significant majority of Republican senators considered these three items to be irrelevant to the case they were making in support of authorization, because the case without these distortions was more than sufficient to justify their vote.

With respect to references to al Qaeda, 15 out of the 29 Democrats who voted in favour of authorization made references to al Qaeda, but none of them accepted the distorted claims regarding operational linkages associated with the planning and execution of 9/11. Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton delivered speeches that actually downplayed the operational links between al Qaeda and Iraq, but, like almost everyone else, defended the position that Saddam's links to terrorism in the Middle East were serious enough (sufficient, along with everything else on record) to warrant serious concerns. Joe Lieberman (Gore's choice for vice-president) was one of the only Democrats who raised the possibility of stronger links between Iraq regime officials and al Qaeda, but even he didn't come close to claiming a connection between Saddam and 9/11. Not one of the remaining 22 Democrats who voted in favour of the resolution authorizing force made any reference to al Qaeda or Saddam–9/11 linkages; their support did not depend on that distortion. The historical record actually disconfirms the standard assertion that an “imminent threat” and other elements of distorted intelligence were necessary for Congressional support. Gore shared the consensus (non-distorted) view of Iraq's WMD threat, which explains the multilateral policy he endorsed.

Saddam's Intelligence Failures and Miscalculations

We now know American, British, German and UN (UNSCOM and UNMOVIC) intelligence on Saddam's WMD programs was seriously flawed, but these mistakes account for only half of those made over the previous decade. The Iraqi regime, not surprisingly, was also plagued by serious intelligence errors and prone to making strategic miscalculations. The effects of mutually reinforcing misperceptions on each side were described by Tenet. “[Saddam] was a fool for not understanding, especially after 9/11, that the United States was not going to risk underestimating his WMD capabilities as we had done once before…. Before the war, we didn't understand he was bluffing, and he didn't understand that we were not” (Tenet, 2007: 331–33). It is impossible to fully appreciate the causes of the Iraq war without acknowledging the role and impact of Saddam's mistakes.

FBI agent George Piro interviewed Saddam almost every day after his capture; he was tasked with finding answers to puzzling questions about mythical WMD programs, the regime's ties to al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations and why Saddam risked war with the United States rather than fully comply with UN resolutions and inspections. According to Piro, Saddam acknowledged that “most of the WMD had been destroyed by the UN inspectors in the '90s. And those that hadn't been destroyed by the inspectors were unilaterally destroyed by Iraq.” Saddam kept this secret in order to project an image of strength “because that was what kept him, in his mind, in power. That capability kept the Iranians away. It kept them from reinvading Iraq” (see Pelley, 2008). Saddam mistakenly believed Tehran was a bigger threat to his regime than Washington.

The more serious blunder was Saddam's miscalculation of US priorities and intentions. According to Piro, “he thought the United States would retaliate with the same type of attack as we did in 1998 under Operation Desert Fox…. He survived that once, [so] he was willing to accept that type of attack. That type of damage.” When asked whether Saddam was aware of American and British forces being deployed to the region, Tariq Aziz (one of Saddam's closest and most senior advisors) answered, “Of course he was aware, it was all over the television screen. He thought they would not fight a ground war because it would be too costly to the Americans. He was overconfident. He was clever, but his calculations were poor. It wasn't that he wasn't receiving the information. It was right there on television, but he didn't understand international relations perfectly.”

Critics of the war are right to emphasize American and British foreign policy blunders, intelligence errors and miscalculations, but Saddam's strategic errors are inexorably connected to Washington's working assumptions. If Saddam sustained the illusion of WMD to deter what he perceived as a more serious threat from Iran, and he expected France and Russia to prevent the US–UK coalition from fighting without endorsement from a second UN resolution and assumed Washington, if it did decide to fight, would rely on air strikes alone to avoid casualties from a ground invasion, there is very little a Gore administration could have done from January to March of 2003 (following the passage of UNSCR 1441) to alter Saddam's warped assumptions or improve the quality of his decision making. In fact, Saddam's misunderstanding of America's resolve to fight a ground war would likely have been reinforced had Saddam been facing a Gore administration. Why wouldn't he expect the same strategy used by Clinton–Gore in Operation Desert Fox four years earlier?

Summary and Implications

Consider the following expanded sample of idiosyncratic, domestic and international (structural) factors, derived from the preceding analysis, that would very likely have influenced President Gore and his team during the same crucial period from 2002 to 2003 (Table 1).

Enabling Conditions Influencing Al Gore Presidency—2002–2003

Table 1

Enabling Conditions Influencing Al Gore Presidency—2002–2003


* Given the choice between unilateralism and multilateralism, Gore (2002b) acknowledges, “The Administration in which I served looked at the challenges we faced in the world and said we wished to tackle these with others, if possible; alone, if we must.”

** “Since the State of the Union, there has been much discussion of whether Iraq, Iran and North Korea truly constitute an ‘Axis of Evil.’ As far as I'm concerned, there really is something to be said for occasionally putting diplomacy aside and laying one's cards on the table. There is value in calling evil by its name. One should never underestimate the power of bold words coming from a President of the United States.” See Gore (2002b).

Admittedly, Al Gore's preferences in each instance are not likely to be black or white, and there will probably be disputes about what the historical facts actually tell us about Gore's personality and presidency. Nevertheless, it is possible to provide at least some estimation of where Gore would fall on a continuum between two extremes across all 20 of these enabling conditions (see Table 2). Both extremes represent the mutually exclusive counterfactuals corresponding to categories A and C from Figure 1.

Comparative Counterfactual Profiles of Possible Al Gore Administrations (based on 20 enabling conditions)

Table 2

Comparative Counterfactual Profiles of Possible Al Gore Administrations (based on 20 enabling conditions)

Note: Category ‘A’ versus Category ‘C’ evidence derived from necessary and sufficient condition logic underpinning Figure 1.1.

The main contribution of the comparative counterfactual framework introduced here is the logical clarity it demands when specifying the facts required to verify competing counterfactual claims. The key question is whether Gore's foreign policy legacy, speeches, statements and actions (when combined with the domestic political circumstances, Congressional support, rally effects, widely shared intelligence errors, Saddam's miscalculations, inspections impasse, UN politics and other factors outlined in the paper) would be more in line with supporting the Gore-war (category C) or Gore-peace (category A) counterfactual.

With respect to what actually constitutes Gore-peace (category A) evidence, consider the following: if the president was someone who strongly opposed the use of military force except in cases when the country is directly attacked, or correctly interpreted Saddam's puzzling behaviour in terms of his own regional security threats or never accepted Iraq as part of the “axis of evil,” then the Gore-peace (category A) counterfactual would be much stronger. If these circumstances prevailed, it would be easier to defend the view that Gore would have taken the country down a completely different path, because the likelihood would be much higher that almost none of the decisions in the path-dependent sequence I outline in my paper would have been taken. Of course, critics will argue that the Gore-peace (category A) counterfactual as described above (corresponding to all the Xs being placed on the left side of the continuum) creates essentially a straw person who doesn't exist. But that is precisely the central point; no such person existed at the time (except perhaps for Kennedy and Kucinich). Gore was certainly not a category A leader and, despite assumptions and assertions firmly rooted in conventional wisdom (Dodds, 2008), there is very little evidence to support that position. Once again, this is powerful disconfirmation of the conventional neoconist view that the war was driven exclusively by a bunch of neoconservative, unilateralist ideologues.12

These findings also represent a serious challenge to Kaufmann (2004), Kellett Cramer (2007), Krebs and Lobasz (2007) and others who view the Iraq war as the quintessential illustration of the “failure of the marketplace of ideas.” The marketplace of ideas actually “succeeded”: the policy preferences and strategies selected at the time were the product of a widespread consensus on the nature of the threat (it was not imminent so did not require unilateral prevention) and appropriate responses (Congressional authorization and multilateral inspections). Contrary to popular accounts, the path selected by Bush and Blair was widely endorsed by the American public, Congress, almost every other senior political adviser on the left and right of the political spectrum and many other world leaders. The marketplace of ideas succeeded in marginalizing the neoconservatives' unilateralist policy preferences in favour of a multilateral path. No discussion of the marketplace of ideas can logically ignore the consensus that drove the decisions throughout 2002 and 2003. It is not enough to conclude that the marketplace of ideas failed simply because the end product, invasion, continues to be viewed by so many as a serious mistake. Occasionally, as in this case, consensus around the need for a multilateral solution to a lingering foreign policy problem can result in decisions that take the country to war. Most neoconist critics (many of them staunch multilateralists) refuse to believe this can happen.

Based on generally accepted criteria for conducting rigorous counterfactual analyses (Fearon, 1991; Ferguson, 2000; Goertz and Starr, 2003; Goertz and Levy, 2007; Lebow, 2000; Levy, 2008b; Tetlock and Belkin, 1996), the Gore-peace counterfactual fails on every count (for example, minimum rewrite of history, logical consistency; theoretical relevance, co-tenability and so on). Gore-war, on the other hand, is firmly rooted in a much stronger historical account of the case evidence, satisfies all generally applied standards for identifying strong counterfactual analysis, and is supported by well-established theories in international relations. Consider the large number of theories that run through the analysis presented here: misperception theory; cognitive and motivational biases on both sides; bureaucratic politics (intelligence failures); alliance politics and post-Cold War balancing in the UN; group think; public opinion (rally around the flag); mission creep.

A Better Explanation of the 2003 Iraq War: Path Dependence and Momentum

In the final analysis, the primary objective of this entire exercise has been to provide a better explanation than neoconism for the sequence of decisions from 2002 to 2003. Both path dependence and momentum provide much stronger theoretical and conceptual foundations for understanding what happened. “The crucial feature of a historical process that generates path dependence,” Pierson (2004: 20) explains, “is positive feedback or self-reinforcement.” A path-dependent sequence includes decisions that constitute reactions to previous events that are then causally connected to subsequent decisions (Mahoney, 2006). “Each successive step down the path,” Bennett and Elman note, “increases the likelihood that a particular event or choice will be repeated…. Positive feedback is often associated with a tipping point, where the causal pathway becomes fixed after the causal variable increases past a given point” (2006: 256). As Bennett and Elman go on to explain:

Although the links between the events in this kind of path dependence must have some special characteristics (otherwise any causal story would qualify)…. One possibility is that the causal links are characterized by a high degree of sufficiency, that is, once the first step on the path is taken the final outcome is very likely to happen. This would capture the “why actors stay on the path” part of the story.

(2006: 258)

These insights capture the central theoretical constructs underlying the counterfactual claims in this paper. The decisions throughout 2002–2003 are essentially links that constitute necessary conditions “without which the next step in the chain would not have been possible” (Bennett and Elman, 2006: 258). Path dependence explains the interlinkages and mutually reinforcing relationship between specific decisions in a rational sequence of choices moving forward. It was the momentum produced by the combined effects and pressures of all previous decisions that led to the final, rational choice for war.

More specifically, major foreign policy decisions almost never emerge from a simple cost-benefit assessment of available options (war or peace) at the brink of war; big decisions sneak up, unfolding incrementally over time and through stages. In any given crisis, leaders make a series of calculated political, diplomatic and military moves that constitute their preferred crisis management strategy. When bolstering their decisions at each stage, officials often highlight the problems (risks and costs) of rejected alternatives. This common strategy makes it very difficult later on in a crisis to adopt previously discarded options, which, in turn, reinforces momentum along the selected path. For example, a strong case for why Saddam's WMD programs posed a serious threat to the US was essential to obtaining: a) public support, b) Congressional authorization to use force, and c) a unanimous UN Security Council resolution. Having achieved these goals, in part by persuading everyone they were essential for their security, it becomes much harder later on to return to the status quo (endless, ineffective inspections) without suffering serious political consequences. There is a natural (almost inevitable) momentum tied to selecting one strategy over another. The stronger the case developed against Saddam, the harder it is to back off from the military threat stipulated in UNSCR 1441; the political damage from that kind of flip-flop would have been significant after 9/11. And once UNSCR 1441 was passed it becomes very difficult (if not inconceivable) for the US president (Bush or Gore) to back down in the face of mixed reports from Hans Blix.

With all of this in mind, a decision by President Bush (or Gore) to extend inspections by a few more weeks (or even months) could not have resolved the impasse. Remember, it took two years for the Iraqi Survey Group (ISG), with the benefit of truly unfettered access to facilities across the entire country, to produce its final report. Obviously the ISG uncovered no evidence of WMD stockpiles, but they did find information and material intentionally hidden by the regime that would have constituted “material breach” if uncovered by UNMOVIC. This would have been the worst possible combination of facts and assumptions: a prevailing WMD consensus, ongoing suspicions reinforced by years of non-compliance, additional evidence of material breach, and a strong UNSC resolution (1441) threatening “serious consequences.” The problem was that the international community was demanding evidence Saddam either could not or would not provide. And the financial costs of sustaining hundreds of thousands of American and British troops in the region would have continued to rise as Bush's (or Gore's) approval ratings rapidly dropped; the public, encouraged by a strong and vocal Republican opposition, would have questioned the president's commitment to their post-9/11 security.

The entire crisis constituted an irresolvable foreign policy dilemma for any US president, because diplomats on each side of the UN debates were applying different standards for measuring “success.” For American and British officials, success meant full and complete compliance. In its absence the only reasonable conclusion was that Saddam was hiding weapons Washington and London needed to find and destroy. For France, Russia and China, on the other hand, success was defined by the absence of stockpiles. Paradoxically, the failure to locate stockpiles simply reinforced Washington's belief that UN inspectors were incapable of doing their job; again, the alternative interpretation (that is, Saddam had nothing) was not plausible. In the context of these irreconcilable differences, France's declaration rejecting any military option to resolve the Iraq crisis seriously damaged the credibility of the US–UK threat and put American and British officials in a very difficult position; at this point in the crisis the risks of war became more acceptable than the risks and costs of inaction.

Supplementary Material

Appendix 1

Appendix 2

Bibliography for Appendices


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1 For an excellent treatment of the distinction between pre-emptive and preventive war in the context of democratic states, see Levy (2008a).

2 For a discussion of the role played by “vulcans” and “neoconservatives” on Bush's national security team, see Mann (2007). See also Halper and Clarke (2005).

3 Prominent examples include Fukuyama (2006); Isikoff and Corn (2006); Weisberg (2008); Heilbrunn (2008); Ricks (2007); Kaplan (2008); Risen (2006); Greenwald (2008); Oliphant (2007); Smith (2006); Sniegoski (2008); Unger (2007, 2008); Kellett Cramer (2007); Dodds (2008); Kaufmann (2004); Krebs and Lobasz (2007); Schmidt and Williams (2008).

4 For a significantly more comprehensive treatment of the factual and counterfactual historical case against this conventional wisdom and literature, please see Frank Harvey (2011).

5 Figure 1 is the standard conceptual template used by those engaged in evaluating necessary and/or sufficient condition theories and logic (Most et al., 1989, Goertz and Starr, 2003; Starr and Puchala, 1989.

6 See the detailed appendices in Ritter (1999) outlining the former UNSCOM weapons inspector's best estimate of the biological and chemical WMD he believed Saddam likely retain after years of inspections.

7 Sanger (2000). Sanger was a senior NYT correspondent covering Gore's debate performances, interviews and foreign policy speeches during the 2000 campaign. October 30.

8 For an excellent treatment of the cyclical nature of intelligence failures, see Betts (1978); also see Knorr (1983).

9 See Central Intelligence Agency (2002). According to Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay (2003), “With respect to chemical weapons, the Defence Intelligence Agency concluded even as late as September 2002 that ‘there is no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing and stockpiling chemical weapons, or where Iraq has—or will—establish its chemical warfare agent production facilities’”.

10 Tenet (2007: 327). As Daalder and Lindsay point out, “These footnotes, of course, were not technical asides. They represented fundamental judgments, by the most qualified people, about the nature of the threat facing the nation and thus about whether war, especially preventive war, would be a justifiable response” (2003: 156).

11 Jervis (2006) provides a strong case explaining why intelligence failures in this case resulted from cognitive biases and powerful imperatives to avoid making the same mistakes again so soon after 9/11.

12 Dodds (2008) relies heavily on speeches Gore delivered long after the 2003 invasion criticizing Bush and Blair, obviously a serious logical error when conducting counterfactual analysis.