International Politics — Midterm

This paper was written for my Introduction to International Politics midterm. It analyzes the 2003 Iraq War according to the frameworks set forth in Kenneth Waltz’s Man, the State, and War.


In 2003, the United States of America embarked on a campaign to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s Iraq regime. Undertaken despite limited domestic support and nearly unanimous opposition abroad, the war has cost over $350 billion, degenerated into a civil war, and become a major embarrassment for the Bush administration and the country. What could have caused such a fiasco? Kenneth Waltz’s Man, the State and War provides us with three frameworks within which to examine precisely that question.

I. The First Image

Waltz’s first image views man’s imperfections as the cause of war; it is an especially pertinent lens given the remarkably personal focus of the second Iraq War — in the public mind, it was largely conceived and defended by President George W. Bush; one of the primary goals was to save the Iraqi people from the dictatorship of the evil Saddam Hussein. Through the lens of the first image, the Iraq War was a product of the defects of Americans (at all levels of society), the evils of Saddam Hussein, and a fundamental conflict between ideologies. The newer sectarian fighting is a product of the fears and hatreds of thousands of people throughout Iraq.

Whatever your politics, the flaws in American citizens that led to the war are undeniable. Many citizens mistakenly believed that Iraq had ties to al Qaeda, or that Saddam Hussein had been directly involved with the September 11th attacks. The government initially claimed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and after the war began, a common misconception circulated that US forces had found WMD in Iraq.[1] A desire for vengeance and the fear of another terrorist bombing worse than September 11th motivated both of these large (and mistaken) groups.

On a more focused level, Saddam Hussein was an evil man in the eyes of most Americans. He was a murderer and supported murderers in Palestine; he railed against the United States and reportedly tried to assassinate an American President; he lived in luxury while his people starved. All these things spoke to the American people – land of the free and the American Dream – that a war to remove him was a good thing. George W. Bush had discovered the domestic benefits of a war and probably wanted to extend his sudden popularity; wished to spread his ideology around the globe; and may have had personal or business reasons to depose Hussein and invade Iraq. He had found the benefits of exerting power and worked to gain more power, as Hobbes demanded of all leaders, in order to increase his political safety at home and his country’s safety from foreign threats. The administration felt free to invade Iraq because it was sure the fight would go as Afghanistan had — easy, painless victory followed by a quick implementation of democracy. Time would show such thinking to be a tragic misjudgment and Afghanistan’s “peace” to be fragile and farcical.

The sectarian violence now spreading in Iraq may also be viewed through the first image lens. Shia are fighting Sunni; Sunni are fighting Shia; both groups are infighting. The causes of this fighting are varied: The Sunnis have been in power for decades but are now losing it to the majority Shia, and the Shia remember their oppression. Wars between the Shia and Sunni have been common since the inception of Islam. Neither group trusts the other. Infighting occurs as a simple struggle for dominance. Even more than this, the people of Iraq were oppressed for decades and are suddenly free, yet their freedom throughout much of the country was heralded by shortages of water and electricity. Discomfort and fear led them to rise up against whomever they could fight, and the gradual escalation of fringe groups brought ever-larger numbers of people with legitimate and illegitimate complaints into the conflict.

II. The Second Image

The second image views the war as a result of the system of government in each state. Under this view, Iraq was ruled by a dictatorship and therefore a belligerent state; the United States was a democracy and thus eventually compelled to fight the evil inherent in a dictatorship (without losing its inherent goodness or peacefulness toward other democracies). This view matches up well with the rhetoric and arguments of the war’s supporters in America and the political climate, and with Iraq’s actions prior to its defeat in the First Gulf War.

Within the United States, much of the war rhetoric revolved around freeing the Iraqi people from the oppression of dictatorship and leading them to the light of democracy. The United States, in invading Iraq, would act as the savior of its people. Even better, leading them to democracy would provide a catalyst for the creation of other democracies in the region, and because democracies are naturally peaceful would in fact catalyze peace in the unstable Middle East. These goals were important in their focus; the United States was going to war not for simple material benefit, but for Wilsonian reasons — because doing so was good, and thus an important goal in its own right. This aim was born out in the much-mocked “Coalition of the Willing,” a group important not so much for its limited (if even material) support for the Iraq War but for its display that other democracies around the world supported the United States and stood behind its action as essentially right.

The recent Iraq did not fit into this model nearly as well as the United States. It had not invaded another country since it was driven from Kuwait in the First Gulf War, and had not engaged in mass domestic killings for eight years. But going back one could justify classification as a belligerent state with ease: Iraq had begun a bloody eight-year war with Iran and tried to take over neighboring Kuwait; it had used chemical weapons against its own citizens; Iraq, in short, had acted for much of Saddam Hussein’s rule as an entirely evil state. And good must eventually fight evil or perish.

Now that the United States has “liberated” Iraq, there are problems within the new democracy. Because it is based on proportional representation and none of the ethnic groups trust the others, the government has simply become a new arena for fighting, and minority groups don’t trust it. The government doesn’t have the military or police power to control its people, and it doesn’t have the political power to talk them into peace. While some claim the fighting is simply Iraqi nature, the long, slow buildup to this conflict belies that argument and indicates that the long-term failure of the Iraqi government (in all its many forms since the invasion) – its flawed form – has instead driven the Iraqi people to this extreme.

III. The Third Image

The third image views war as a consequence of the international system: its essential anarchy, in which states rationally have conflicting goals and go to war in order to change (or preserve) the balance of power, to acquire material goods or territories, and to preemptively prevent another nation declaring war first and gaining an advantage. In the terms of older philosophers, the world is anarchic and nations play a game of realpolitik.

This view encapsulates most of the security arguments put forth by American proponents of the war. Under this view, Iraq probably possessed – in any case was developing – WMD, and was perfectly willing to distribute them to terrorist groups (willing because it was a bad dictatorship). Therefore the United States had to invade; in invading it might as well create a new democracy to gain a new ally in the Middle East (a democracy is an assumed ally based on studies such as Babst’s Elective Governments – A Force for Peace. Notice how most real-world arguments have origins in multiple images). More subtly, the United States was embarking on a (perhaps futile) campaign against terrorism and its foundations the world over; based on recent rhetoric and its war in Afghanistan, every country that harbored terrorists or failed to adequately control them would end up on the United States’ hit list sooner or later. Iraq was simply the country with the best cost-to-benefit ratio, as outlined in Charles Krauthammer’s 2004 speech at the American Enterprise Institute and his “where it counts” “democratic realism.”

Today, the mess in Iraq benefits a number of countries in the international system. It sucks American manpower, willpower, and money away from other potential targets. It has removed a previously significant regional power from the equation. Most directly it makes Iran very happy. Iran no longer has to worry about Iraq blocking its moves in the region, and it knows the United States isn’t capable of waging a ground war against it for months or years — certainly not until Iraq is stabilized. Given Iran’s recent belligerence and nuclear aims, it is no surprise that reports have surfaced of Iranians being found fomenting warfare and violence in the country. And of course Iran isn’t the only country benefiting. Iraq makes the United States look weak and has been a significant drain on military resources; friendly and enemy countries throughout the world know that the United States can’t commit the troops to fighting or peacemaking that it normally can. This increases the relative importance of other nations throughout the region and world, so there is strong foreign interest among some states – those who don’t depend on the United States for security – in maintaining the situation from a raison d’etat point of view.


In exploring some of the issues surrounding the Iraq War through the lens of each of Waltz’s three images, this paper has shown that there are pressures at each level (individual, state, international) of war making and policy. Through this, it has clearly demonstrated the complexity of the numerous impulses that drive nations into any war; it has also shown that any plan for peace – in Iraq or elsewhere – that does not address concerns at each image is doomed to ultimate failure.

[1] Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War.” Accessed February 12, 2007.