The Arab World Geographer
Forum on The 2003 War on/in Iraq

Commentary II: Geopolitical Perspectives on the Iraq War: Emerging Insights and Remaining Challenges

Alexander B. Murphy

Rippey Chair in Liberal Arts and Sciences, Department of Geography, University of Oregon, Eugene    OR 97403    U.S.A.

It will likely take a generation before we can fully assess the implications of the American military invasion of Iraq in 2003. Yet there are already reasons to believe that the invasion represents a significant shift in the global geopolitical landscape. The world’s sole superpower has fallen into the grip of a group of neo-conservative thinkers who believe the United States is severely threatened from the outside by a hostile, unstable world and from the inside by a generation of liberal (in the American sense of the term) internationalists, who do not understand that the global arena is a jungle where only the powerful can survive. For these thinkers, the international norms governing the use of force that have held sway since the end of World War II must be adapted to new realities, which in turn requires abandoning even the pretext of viewing the world as a collection of theoretically equal sovereign states. The neo-conservative elite sees it as both the right and the duty of the United States government to adopt an aggressive external military stance, in defence of its interests and its ideas about how society should be organized.

The horrific events of 11 September 2001 fed into this neo-conservative Weltanschauung and gave its proponents the upper hand within the government of current U.S. President George W. Bush. The American invasion of Iraq is a direct consequence of this turn of events, for its principal proponents within the Bush administration clearly saw it as a necessary projection of U.S. power and believe that it will lead the way to a more stable and friendly Middle East. The Iraq conflict, then, is fundamentally about geopolitics—a point that all of the contributors to this forum clearly appreciate. Recognizing the significance of the geopolitical angle is fundamental, for it demonstrates the shortcomings of reducing the conflict simply to a question of oil, socio-economic disparities, or some such. Such matters are important, but they cannot be divorced from the geopolitical ideologies and circumstances within which they are embedded.

In their efforts to confront the geopolitical motives and implications of the Iraq war, many of the contributors to the forum reinforce points that are already part of the critical public debate on Iraq: the gap between rhetoric and reality in the U.S. government’s pursuit of “regime change,” the prospects for internal disintegration in Iraq under American/British occupation, the heightened anti-Americanism that is already being revealed in the wake of the Iraq war. A number of the essays stress a larger point, however. In one way or another, they argue that prevailing modes of geopolitical representation are fundamental both to the genesis of the conflict and to its long-term implications. The first of these themes is touched on only lightly—suggesting the need for further analysis of the geopolitical assumptions under which the neo-conservative perspective was forged. This task cannot be successfully accomplished without a serious effort to confront the ideas and beliefs of the neo-conservatives themselves. Even though the conflict may look to critics like crude imperialism, its architects arguably did not see it in those terms. The humiliation of the Arab people (see Farhan’s essay) and a U.S. “capture” of Iraqi oil supplies (see Khashan’s essay) may well be consequences of the Iraq war, but we arguably must look elsewhere if we are to understand why it was waged. In this regard, Hixson makes some interesting points about the inertia of particular world views in U.S. foreign-policy making.

Since the American invasion has already happened, it is not surprising that most of the forum’s contributors focus on its geopolitical implications. Extending beyond the mainstream discussion that is already developing on this subject, several contributors highlight the need to understand how the conflict is being constructed geopolitically (see especially the essays by Dalby, Reuter, and Sidaway). This is a point of vital importance and needs to be developed even more explicitly if we are to do more than wring our hands about what has already happened. Take, for example, the propensity of the conflict to feed into a Huntingtonian notion of clashing civilizations. Yes, the invasion of Iraq is likely to fuel polarization between parts of the Judeo-Christian and the Islamic worlds (see the essays by Dijkink, Hixson, and Khashan), but how the aftermath of the conflict comes to be represented will have an enormous influence on the degree to which this happens. By extension, what happens on the ground and in the media bears close scrutiny.

Not surprisingly, the early signs are not encouraging. The failure of the Bush administration to adopt any comprehensive post-war strategy that took into account the fragmentation of Iraqi society or the governance vacuum that would inevitably follow the collapse of a highly centralized, dictatorial regime has produced enough chaos already to foster antipathy toward the “occupiers”—even among those who were not necessarily opposed to the removal of Saddam Hussein before the Iraq war. At the same time, there is little evidence that those currently directing U.S. policy in Iraq appreciate the symbolic or practical significance of standing by while Iraq’s cultural heritage is destroyed, of granting no-bid contracts to reconstruct oil fields to concerns with clear ties to the Bush administration, of threatening to punish countries such as Turkey that were not wholeheartedly supportive of the U.S. invasion, or of continuing to marginalize the United Nations in post-war Iraq. Consequently, it is wholly plausible to ask whether the U.S. is not, in fact, playing into Osama bin Laden’s view of the world (see the essays by Lustik and Shuraydi). As Lustik shows, bin Laden’s vision is clearly rooted in a desire to limit outside influence in southwest Asia and North Africa, and bin Laden and his followers clearly see greater Islamic unity as the best hope of achieving this goal. There is the distinct possibility, then, that the large-scale geopolitical views of U.S. neo-conservatives and al-Qaeda leaders will, indeed, become mutually reinforcing.

The issue of geopolitical representation is not just important for what happens in southwest Asia and North Africa, however. As Dalby points out, the future of the neo-conservative agenda is, to no small extent, in the hands of American voters. Only a couple of the contributors have something to say about this issue, but it is clearly an issue of vital importance. If the American electorate is to grasp what is happening, it is clear that the downsides of the neo-conservative agenda need to be exposed. Yet exposing these matters is complicated by the geographical myopia of members of the neo-conservative policy elite—and indeed, of a considerable segment of the American electorate.

The so-called geographical ignorance of Americans has been a subject of some debate for years—focussed primarily on how little many Americans know about where people and places are located. But there is something much more significant than place-name memorization to consider. As both Dalby and Dijkink point out, the neo-conservative agenda is premised on great simplifications of geographical complexity and on an apparent assumption that the world is really more-or-less like the United States—or at least, wants to be like the United States. Thus when cultural diversity is discussed in Iraq, it is done in terms of a society divided among Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites, as if there were not both Sunni and Shiite Kurds and as if these three groups represented more-or-less unified social blocs. In anticipation of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, analogies were made to the U.S. occupation of Japan after World War II, as if Iraq in some way resembled Japan’s relatively uniform, highly hierarchical society or as if a U.S. occupation of Iraq would be viewed by its neighbours in the same light as was the U.S. occupation of Japan. When Bush administration officials describe the aspirations of Iraq’s inhabitants, they speak of democratic ideals and free markets, as if American conceptions of these were directly translatable to Iraq.

Of course, one might argue that these are superficial arguments, meant to disguise other agendas (see Khashan). Yet there is much to suggest that members of the current U.S. policy-making elite actually believe them—and many Americans who are supportive of the current direction of U.S. foreign policy certainly cite them. Hence, we clearly need to understand not just the ways in which the media and governmental interests perpetrate particular geopolitical representations but how those representations articulate with dominant (mis)understandings of the world.

The foregoing suggests two fundamental challenges for those seeking to bring a critical perspective to bear on the Iraq crisis. The first is the need to highlight the geographical circumstances and connections that are not a part of the current public debate but should be. A number of the essays in the forum take a step in this direction—pointing to the ways in which the U.S.–British occupation could undermine, rather than promote, U.S. security (Farhan and Shuraydi); to the destabilizing implications of the U.S. invasion for neighbouring regimes (Hixson); and to the conceptual lumping together of peoples and governments that has followed in the wake of the Iraq conflict (Reuber). Yet there is clearly more to be done. What are the prospects that the U.S. invasion of Iraq could foster religious fundamentalism or political extremism in Indonesia? What states might invoke the new principle of pre-emptive war to justify an attack on a neighbour? How might internal divisions within Kurdish, Sunni Arab, and Shiite Arab communities work against the establishment of a U.S.-inspired, model Iraqi state? Casting a bright light on questions such as these would seem to be critical to the effort to challenge the interpretations that seem to be guiding a significant portion of the American electorate.

There is a related challenge—one that is even more difficult than the one just described—and that is to articulate an alternative geopolitical vision. For all the power of the critical geopolitics literature, its emphasis has been on what is problematic rather than on what geopolitical arrangements might produce peace and stability. This is understandable, given that we cannot move ahead if we do not comprehend where we are. Yet even before the on-set of the Iraq conflict, one of the clear problems faced by those who opposed the neo-conservative agenda was the lack of a clearly defined, widely articulated, alternative geopolitical vision for a country that was clearly in the hands of a despot. It is not enough to say that Saddam Hussein was no worse than other despots or that the Iraqi people have no democratic tradition on which they can draw, for such arguments inevitably trivialize the actual experiences of those subjected to tyranny. Instead, we need to work toward a global geopolitical vision that promotes human rights, even as it works against destabilizing unilateralism.

Many of those who opposed the American invasion of Iraq supported the efforts of the international community to depose Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia in the 1990s—and a substantial number even supported the U.S. bombing campaign that drove Milosevic from power. This support was rooted in the notion of an emerging international human rights regime that, according to Lung-Chu Chen (1989), creates an affirmative obligation on the part of states to guarantee their citizens’ basic social and economic rights. In support of this claim, Chen points to the growing willingness of the United Nations to sanction interventions on human rights grounds in the name of the international community. Returning to Iraq, there were many who argued that the right to intervene rested solely with the international community, but for the most part this was cast as a question of whether the international community would validate an invasion based on terms set by the Bush administration. To put it another way, few succeeded in articulating a convincing alternative vision of the circumstances under which the international community should have the right and moral standing to intervene. Consequently, the Bush administration’s vision became the central issue—allowing members of the administration to cast opponents of an American intervention in Iraq as cowards who were unwilling to confront problems.

Let me hasten to note that I am not myself suggesting that opponents of American unilateralism in Iraq were lacking in vision; I myself was one of those opponents and I wrote publicly on the point (Murphy 2002). Instead, I am simply seeking to highlight the importance of complementing the type of effort represented in this forum—an effort to expose problems and dangers—with an effort to develop elements of a geopolitical vision that would promote human rights and democracy (conceived in broad terms), even as it delegitimized destabilizing unilateralism. As prospective new targets for interventionism loom, this is arguably a matter of some urgency. It will not be an easy task, however, and it may even seem to lie in the domain more of the policy maker than the academic. Yet by advancing arguments about what should be, as well as what is, academics could challenge the neo-conservative geopolitical vision that has, to a significant degree, defined the terms of the debate.


Chen Lung-Chu. 1989. An introduction to contemporary international law: A policy-oriented perspective. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Murphy, A.B. 2002. Geopolitical folly: The U.S. must examine the consequences of war with Iraq. The Register Guard [Eugene/Springfield, OR], 20 October: B1, B4.

  (Submitted 17 May 2003)
© The Arab World Geographer

Editorial: Falah 

Contributions: Dalby / Dijkink / Lustick / Hixson / Farhan / Shuraydi / Khashan / Reuber / Sidaway

Commentaries: Wesbter / Murphy / Agnew

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