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The Iraq War and the Idea of Totalitarianism

U.S. President George W. Bush (at podium) discusses his plan for peace in the Middle East as National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice (left), Secretary of State Colin Powell (center) and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (right) stand by his side in the White House Rose Garden on June 24, 2002.

U.S. President George W. Bush (at podium) discusses his plan for peace in the Middle East as National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice (left), Secretary of State Colin Powell (center), and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (right) stand by his side in the White House Rose Garden on June 24, 2002. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In June 2002, President George W. Bush gave the commencement speech at West Point and presented the basic rationale for regime change in Iraq. He declared that the War on Terror, of which the Iraq War was a part, “is similar to the Cold War. Now, as then, our enemies are totalitarians, holding a creed of power with no place for human dignity. Now, as then, they seek to impose a joyless conformity, to control every life and all of life.”[1]

In evoking the specter of totalitarianism to justify the Iraq War, Bush tapped into powerful strains of U.S. identity and ideologies, especially a tendency to explain other states’ behavior by the nature of their regimes. Since the early twentieth century, Americans of varying political stripes have identified totalitarianism in particular as the “defining Other” of their political culture, without always agreeing on the term’s meaning.[2] Fully understanding the 2003 invasion of Iraq requires looking at the history of totalitarianism in U.S. political identity and foreign policy.

The term “totalitarianism” emerged in the 1920s and 1930s to describe new regimes like Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union that sought unprecedented control over their societies, economies, and the inner lives of ordinary people. As historian Abbott Gleason argues, totalitarianism became “the great mobilizing and unifying concept of the Cold War,” embraced by liberals and conservatives alike.[3] Political theorists like Hannah Arendt and Carl Friedrich analyzed its origins and nature, and novelists like George Orwell and Arthur Koestler narrated vivid totalitarian nightmares for mass audiences.

After the Cold War, the concept of totalitarianism entered an uncertain period, as there was no obvious successor to the Soviet threat. The United States faced a range of smaller “rogue states” like Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, which some thinkers labeled totalitarian. Others framed the expanding, inchoate radical Islam movement of the 1990s as totalitarian, but it was not until the War on Terror that totalitarianism again became a major organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy and thought.[4]

The idea of totalitarianism had two major roles in justifying the Iraq War. First, it was a way to understand the Iraqi threat, as well as Islamist extremism, in a specific historical framing that evoked narratives of a heroic U.S. role in the world and that appealed to many Americans’ desire for “moral clarity.”[5] Describing Iraq as totalitarian elevated it to the level of the Nazi or Soviet threats and automatically established the United States as the more morally righteous power.

A wide range of commentators described Iraq as totalitarian in the years preceding the Iraq War. Exiled Iraqis like Kanan Makiya described Iraq’s Baathist regime as totalitarian and appealed to the United States for help in toppling it.[6] As the neoconservative columnist David Brooks argued in late 2002, Saddam Hussein and the Baathists were an inherently ideological threat, and ignoring their totalitarian ambitions would be “like analyzing Hitler without reference to the ideology of the Nazi Party or Lenin without reference to communism.” Brooks claimed that Hussein was “following the dictates of Baathist ideology, which calls for warfare, bloodshed, revolution, and conflict…until the end of time.”[7]

Other writers like liberals Paul Berman and George Packer and neoconservatives Norman Podhoretz and David Frum described the entire War on Terror as a struggle with “Muslim totalitarianism,” in Berman’s words, on the scale of “World War IV.”[8] This was a rather new use of “totalitarianism,” which through most of the twentieth century had been used to diagnose secular rather than religious radicals.

The concept of “totalitarianism” also served as an analytical cudgel for legitimizing regime change in Iraq and discrediting the strategy of containment, which was the primary U.S. policy toward Iraq in the 1990s. Under containment, the U.S. government pursued sanctions, weapons inspections, and a military presence in the region. This policy met with mixed successes, as Iraq remained weak in the 1990s but managed to steadily erode the strictures of containment. Its defenders, like former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, tended to de-emphasize ideology’s role in this conflict, arguing that Saddam was a ruthless, power-hungry survivor rather than a totalitarian ideologue.[9]

Containment’s critics, however, argued that containment inherently could not manage the Iraqi threat because Iraq was a totalitarian state. Figures like Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer and Democratic Congressman Stephen Solarz argued that containment strategies had to act on socio-political points of weakness, such as ethnic separatism or economic dissatisfaction, in the target societies to change its behavior over time. Totalitarian states, they argued, controlled everything within their borders, rendering such strategies futile.[10]

Moreover, containment’s detractors argued that the Baathist regime, because of its totalitarian nature, was unshakably devoted to acquiring weapons of mass destruction and dominating the Middle East in the name of Arab nationalism. A somewhat indirect strategy like containment could not change the intentions of these fanatics—only a root-and-stem regime change could make Iraq less threatening and oppressive.[11] As one Iraq hawk, former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, exclaimed to Congress in 1999: “It’s the regime, stupid!” Thus, the idea of totalitarianism played a crucial role in building momentum for regime change in Iraq, even before September 11.

Competing narratives about the Cold War were critical to these strategy debates. Containment’s defenders held that if the United States could contain a superpower like the Soviet Union for a half-century, it could certainly bottle up a minor regional power like Iraq.[12] Notably, 98-year-old George Kennan, one of the original architects of the containment of the Soviet Union, opposed the Iraq War. He claimed Iraq was a weak state that could be deterred from aggressive acts.[13]

Thinkers and policy-makers on the right, however, had a different narrative of the Cold War. For them, the United States did not win the Cold War through containment alone, but through assertive measures like Ronald Reagan’s interventions in Global South conflicts, his massive defense build-up, and his rhetoric of democracy and human rights.[14]

Indeed, many conservatives during the Cold War had criticized containment as a passive, amoral strategy that required co-existence with the evil Soviets and that accepted the threat of annihilation. Writer James Burnham, for instance, had advocated for the United States to liberate Eastern Europe by subverting communist rule there, and Senator Barry Goldwater called in 1962 for a strategy of “victory” that would be “primarily offensive in character,” starting by withdrawing diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union.[15] Impatience with containment was deeply rooted in right-leaning foreign policy thought well before the containment of Iraq began.

The importance of the idea of totalitarianism in U.S. policy on Iraq speaks to a larger trend in U.S. global thought that I call “regime-thinking.” Since the founding era, many U.S. leaders and intellectuals have argued that only a world of republics (later democracies) could be truly peaceful and cooperative. Republics divided war powers among competing branches of government, encouraged a commercial rather than a martial culture, eschewed standing armies, and empowered the ordinary people who would actually have to fight in wars.

Monarchies and autocracies, in contrast, were by nature untrustworthy and aggressive, in part because they embraced militarism and their leaders had unchecked power to start aggressive wars. As Woodrow Wilson argued in 1917, “A steadfast concert for peace can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic nations. No autocratic government could be trusted to…observe its covenants.”[16] Bush echoed this theme nearly 90 years later in a speech just before the invasion of Iraq: “The world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values because stable and free nations do not breed the ideologies of murder.”[17]

By engaging in “regime-thinking,” U.S. leaders from Wilson to Bush have interpreted the actions of other states as nearly inevitable products of their regime types and ideologies rather than responses to changing conditions, outside threats, or as simple struggles for survival. Totalitarian regimes, as thinkers like Paul Nitze and Jeane Kirkpatrick argued, embraced uncompromising, utopian ideologies that encouraged aggression. Moreover, they often acted with hostility to the outside world because they could not accept the example of free societies that offered an alternative to their oppressed populations. They also wanted to maintain antagonistic relations with foreign adversaries whom they could use as boogeymen to justify domestic repression.[18]

U.S. policy-makers have long wondered whether an open, peaceful global order is compatible with the presence of powerful monarchical, authoritarian, or totalitarian regimes. This is not only a compelling question for U.S. historians but for strategists who must consider how to pursue security in an imperfect world. The Iraq War was the latest instance of U.S. officials viewing a state’s actions as stemming from the nature of its regime, a tendency that is deeply built into U.S. thinking about its own global role.

The use of totalitarianism as a framing device for U.S. foreign policy seems to have faded in the last decade in response to disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nonetheless, it remains a potent cultural fixture and rhetorical resource. TV shows, books, and movies about all-seeing, all-knowing states never lose their appeal, and culture warriors continually wield this term to smear opponents.

Nonetheless, the Iraq case suggests that totalitarianism can be a distorting lens for understanding other countries.[19] The Baathist state, of course, committed horrific violence throughout its reign and crushed any form of dissent. However, it did not rely solely on force and propaganda to rule, and it never achieved anything like Stalinist levels of power over Iraqis’ lives.[20] Moreover, when U.S. leaders looked at Iraq through the totalitarian prism, they wove it into a familiar story that flattered the U.S. role in the world and evoked past triumphs. This framing helped convince many that Iraqis would embrace their “liberators” just as the peoples of Europe welcomed allied soldiers in World War II, erasing the complexities of “the good war” as well as Iraqi society.[21] Finally, the totalitarian lens inflated the Iraqi threat from a regional power with a leader who sought survival above all to a radical, unpredictable successor to the Nazis and Soviets.

The idea of totalitarianism fired the hearts and minds of many Americans who could not conceive of the U.S. role in the world as anything but positive, and it fed the delusions and self-righteousness that plunged the nation into a catastrophic war. This concept accepts little moral complexity and acknowledges few limits on U.S. power, thus constraining policy-makers’ flexibility and making mistakes more likely. The next time a political leader wields the concept of totalitarianism to justify the use of force, citizens should take note of this fraught history.

Joseph Stieb is a historian and an assistant professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. He is the author of The Regime Change Consensus: Iraq in American Politics, 1990-2003 (Cambridge, 2021). He has also published work in Diplomatic History, Modern American History, Texas National Security Review, and International History Review, and elsewhere.


[1] George W. Bush, “Graduation Speech at West Point,” whitehouse.archives.gov, June 1, 2002, https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2002/06/20020601-3.html (accessed May 23, 2023).

[2] David Ciepley, Liberalism in the Shadow of Totalitarianism (2006), 1–2.

[3] Abbott Gleason, Totalitarianism: The Inner History of the Cold War (1995), 1.

[4] Michael Klare, Rogue States and Nuclear Outlaws: America’s Search for a New Foreign Policy (1995).

[5] William J. Bennett, Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism (2002).

[6] Kanan Makiya, Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq (1998).

[7] David Brooks, “Saddam’s Brain,” Weekly Standard, Nov. 11, 2002, p. 22.

[8] Paul Berman, Terror and Liberalism (2003); George Packer, ed., The Fight Is for Democracy: Winning the War of Ideas in America and the World (2003); Norman Podhoretz, “How to Win World War IV,” Commentary, Feb. 7, 2002, p. 20; David Frum and Richard Perle, An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror (2003).

[9] Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Differentiated Containment: U.S. Policy Toward Iran and Iraq (1997), 9–12.

[10] Charles Krauthammer, “The Pinprick Response to Aggression,” Washington Post, Sept. 5, 1996, A19; Stephen Solarz, “Get Involved: U.N. Must Oust Saddam,” Wall Street Journal, April 17, 1991, A14.

[11] Joseph Stieb, The Regime Change Consensus: Iraq in American Politics, 1990–2003 (2021).

[12] Brent Scowcroft, “Taking Exception: The Power of Containment,” Washington Post, March 1, 1998, A22.

[13] Stieb, Regime Change Consensus, 225.

[14] For an example, see Paul Wolfowitz’s testimony in U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on International Relations, U.S. Options in Confronting Iraq, 105 Cong, 2 sess., Feb. 25, 1998, pp. 39–40.

[15] Stieb, Regime Change Consensus, 252–53.

[16] Woodrow Wilson, “A World Safe for Democracy,” 1917, in Eric Foner, ed., Voices of Freedom: A Documentary History (2017), 107.

[17] George W. Bush, “In the President’s Words: ‘Free People Will Keep the Peace of the World,’” New York Times, Feb. 27, 2003, A10.

[18] Jeane Kirkpatrick, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” Commentary, Nov. 1979; Paul Nitze, “A Report to the National Security Council-NSC-68,” Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum, April 12, 1950, https://www.trumanlibrary.gov/library/research-files/report-national-security-council-nsc-68?documentid=NA&pagenumber=1.

[19] For criticism of this concept, see Sheila Fitzpatrick and Michael Geyer, eds., Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared (2008).

[20] Lisa Blaydes, State of Repression: Iraq under Saddam Hussein (2018).

[21] William I. Hitchcock, The Bitter Road to Freedom: The Human Cost of Allied Victory in World War II (2008).

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