WarningThis information has been archived for reference or research purposes.

Archived Content

Information identified as archived on the Web is for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. It has not been altered or updated after the date of archiving. Web pages that are archived on the Web are not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards. As per the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada, you can request alternate formats on the "Contact Us" page.

Book Reviews

Iraq & The Evolution Of American Strategy

by Steven Metz

Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2008
278 pages, $29.95 USD (Hardcover)
ISBN 978-1-59797-196-6

Reviewed by James McKay

Print PDF

For more information on accessing this file, please visit our help page.

Book coverSteven Metz is a Professor of National Security Studies at the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute. This long-awaited book offers an explanation of why the 2003 invasion of Iraq did not lead to the expected outcome, as well as the long-term ramifications for American strategy. Instead of merely offering an explanation for events in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, Metz has taken a longer view and tied it to broader trends in American strategy since the early 1980s.

The book starts with a short exploration of the concept of strategy and its purpose from the point of view of the state. Metz has been careful to make a distinction between grand strategy and military strategy. This is not surprising, considering the traditional division of responsibility between the centre of the American government for the production of the National Security Strategy and the Department of Defense’s production of the National Military Strategy. While he has been careful to make that distinction, he has also focused the reader’s attention upon the role of force in pursuit of American national interests. The most important element of this exploration of strategy, however, is his observations upon American strategic culture.

Metz has argued that there are long-term trends in American strategic culture, and, while the list of such trends is lengthy, three of them merit mention as they speak directly to the book’s central thesis. First, he notes that there is an American penchant for using ‘mirror images’ to think about the adversary’s motives and intentions. Metz argues that a series of Administrations, lacking a deeper understanding of Iraqi culture, misread Saddam Hussein’s government’s intent and actions. Second, he suggests that the United States government fluctuates erratically between the realist and idealist traditions of international relations, and, on occasion, creates admixtures between the two. Third, the process of strategy formulation in the United States requires a degree of transparency, openness, and participation by multiple government agencies. The combination of the three, however, means that the process is also rather complex. Unfortunately, the book does not go into detail on the last point.

The conceptual exploration of strategy is the prelude for a cursory discussion of American relations with Iraq dating as far back as the Carter Administration. Metz, however, focuses upon the Administrations from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush. This discussion explains how the United States became increasingly interested in the stability of the Persian Gulf region, and how this led them into a longer conflict with Iraq. Many would be tempted to accuse the United States government of being interested in the region due to the presence of oil, and therefore the rationale for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. While such comments are not inaccurate in terms of the reason for an increased interest in the region, they do not represent the situation accurately. The United States has sought to maintain political stability in the region as it has an effect upon the supply and price of oil worldwide, and, therefore, it could have had global economic ramifications. It was not so much an attempt to ensure control of the supply of Persian Gulf oil as it was an attempt to deny any one power the same control.

There is an underlying message throughout this section – that the Administrations with a realist approach to Iraq tended to fare better that those that did not take such an approach. In short, Metz’s description of the Reagan Administration, despite its idealist rhetoric, is far more positive than it is for subsequent Administrations, as the Reagan Administration understood that Iraq was peripheral to American interests at the time. The George H.W. Bush Administration approached the issue of Iraq in the manner befitting a realist approach, but it also came to be known by its friends in the Islamic world, namely the conservative monarchies. The Clinton Administration was criticized for its relative inaction on the issue of Iraq, as it chose to engage in the policy of ‘Dual Containment.’ The idealist nature of that Administration led it to focus efforts elsewhere, and to adopt an ultimately politically costly policy in the Persian Gulf. Metz’s comments about the George W. Bush Administration may come across as kind to some readers, as he observes that many of its leaders were ‘conservative idealists.’ While this variant of idealism originated with the Reagan Administration, it was applied differently under the George W. Bush Administration. The former believed that the use of military power would permit the inherent appeal of political and economic liberty to occur, whereas the latter believed that military power could be used to directly transform a totalitarian state.

Metz’s explanation for events from 2002 to the present is subtle, and it combines three trends. He notes that the American defence establishment was reshaped to work on the Global War on Terror, but it focused against the perceived state sponsors of terror. With the emergence of a global network of terrorists, and the belief that a state sponsor with the capacity to provide parts of that network with weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), the perception of threat grew immensely. He also observes that the conservative idealists within the George W. Bush Administration believed they could transform countries through the direct use of force. To summarize, the invasion was undertaken to eliminate a government that was seen to be a state sponsor of terror, and to replace it with an example of democracy to encourage the spread of democracy throughout the Middle East.

Metz points out that there are three competing explanations for the failure to transform Iraq from a totalitarian dictatorship into a healthy secular democracy in five years. These explanations include the failure to plan for the transition to peace, that the transformation of Iraq was impossible, and the advancement of the ‘stab-in-the-back’ theory. He noted that these explanations are crucial, as they contain the potential solution for future cases. If it is the first explanation, the failure to plan, then the solution would be to ensure that the successors to the George W. Bush Administration are wiser. If it is the second explanation, that the transformation was unachievable, then the solution would be to avoid fostering the growth of democracy overseas through the use of force and/or to blame the decision-makers that led the United States to the invasion. The last explanation would suggest that the marginalization of the ‘stabbers’ was warranted, but this solution is hardly credible, given that this would mean marginalizing the American intelligence community, the Democratic Party, or the media.

The book is not a difficult read, and the tone of the work comes across as if it was intended for a mass audience, as opposed to a purely academic audience. It is relatively short, weighing in at just over 200 pages of text.

Ultimately, this is a succinct work that illustrates the challenges of strategy formulation and implementation in an American context while focusing upon the specific case of Iraq. Those interested in a deeper understanding of strategy will find this evokes clearer and less partisan thought on the issue of Iraq. Those interested in a partisan criticism of the George W. Bush administration may be disappointed.

CMJ Logo

Dr J.R. McKay was educated at Bishop’s University, the Royal Military College of Canada and King’s College London. He is currently the Director of Faculty Services and an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Royal Military College of Canada.

Top of Page