Introduction Neo-realism focuses on structure, seeking “to


Throughout history, intervention by
one nation into another nations’ affairs is often driven by interests of the
intervener. Be it a desire to protect an identity, safeguard national security,
ensure power, or act on economic interests, varying International Relations
theories can explain such motives. The United States has a long history of
intervening in other state’s domestic affairs. Since the U.S. has massive
global influence and power, many events around the world can threaten that held
power. Neo-realism can provide great insight into the motives of the U.S. in
the Middle East over the last two decades, with focus on the Iraqi and Syrian
conflicts in 2003 and 2013, respectively. Neo-realism focuses on structure,
seeking “to explain international conflict and war in terms of the imperatives
imposed on states by an inherently insecure, anarchical environment” (Shimko,
1992, p. 293). The way that this system is structured calls states to act in
ways to ensure survival. Furthermore, “states seek to maintain or expand their
influence because they are forced to do so by the…system” (Shimko, 1992, p.

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293). Under neo-realist theory, offensive realism best explains why the U.S.

acted the way it did in Iraq and Syria. “Offensive realism predicts that a
regional hegemon will intervene to prevent other states from achieving regional
dominance” (Elman, 2005, p. 311). This narrative will underlie the
decision-making process for the United States in both the Iraqi and Syrian
scenarios. United States intervention in the politics and affairs of other
nations is driven by countering threats to its own national security and
hegemonic power on the international stage; these factors influenced the
decision on intervention in Iraq in 2003, and the lack of intervention in Syria
in 2013.

of US/Iraqi Relations (1990-2003)

Understanding the history of U.S.

and Iraqi relations provides insight on U.S. action in the ensuing years.

During the first Gulf War, Saddam was deemed undeterrable. The U.S. ambassador
to Iraq, April Glaspie, stated attempts to deter Saddam from invading Kuwait
failed because he “was stupid – he did not believe our clear and repeated
warnings that we would support our vital interests” (Stein, 1992, p. 155).

These initial warnings showed that the United States would support the Gulf
nations because of alliances and economics. Offensive realism can explain Saddam’s
proceeding actions to invade Kuwait. He did not care what threats were being
made. He was motivated by his own interests to be a hegemon in the Middle East
for his own power to control the oil market and revitalize the Iraqi economy
that had been ravaged by the Iranian/Iraqi War in the previous decade. All to secure
regional hegemony.

Saddam’s personality was riddled
with narcissism and sociopathic tendencies. Saddam practiced unthinkable
behavior, as he “murdered, tortured, and used poisonous gas against his
own people;” he would not let his power be threatened (Jervis, 2003, p. 319).

These practices were not in alignment with the United States’ vision for how the
Middle East should be. Furthermore,
this type of behavior could pose a threat to U.S. ability to make peace and
garner legitimacy in their attempts to act as a safeguarding power against
those very behaviors. To make matters worse, Saddam was unpredictable in his decision-making
and this left an uneasy feeling in U.S. leaders. There was no “guarantee that
Saddam would not use WMD which means that fear cannot be banished” (Jervis,
2003, p. 317). Saddam may have known exactly what he was doing even if the U.S.

did not; he was going to gain hegemonic power and be the leader of the Middle
East. This brought the United States to the table to make attempts to diminish
Saddam’s power while simultaneously maintaining their own influence in the
Middle East. The United States could have walked away from Saddam’s bully-like
tactics but there was too much at stake. An effort to gain the advantage in the
power dynamic was deemed necessary before the survival of U.S. hegemony in the
Middle East could be unfixable.

Direct Motives
Behind US Intervention in 2003

Given the aforementioned
circumstances, there was nothing the United States could do in 2003 but to
interfere. There are three dominating factors to examine that contributed to
the U.S. decision to intervene.

First, the United States was, and
still is, the largest consumer of foreign oil. Estimates placed U.S.

consumption at “about 895.6 million tons of oil which is about
25.5 percent of global oil consumption” (Thomas, 2007, p. 906). This
led the U.S. to seek the easiest and cheapest way to maintain their levels of
consumption. There were attempts to tap into Caspian Sea region oil reserves
around the turn of the century. Negotiations with nations such as Kazakhstan
and Afghanistan “for oil pipeline rights…collapsed in mid-2001” (Thomas, 2007,
p. 907). This failure to expand U.S. oil intake led to a shift in attention
toward controlling the Iraqi oil industry since it “was one of the cheapest
countries in the world to extract oil, costing just 55-60 cents a barrel” (Thomas,
2007, p. 907). Neo-realism explains this basic characteristic of American
capitalism. The motive to increase their relative gains of not only oil itself
but the power that oil would give the U.S. in the region, and the ability to
sustain its economy back home mattered if they did not want to jeopardize
regional hegemony. With more economic interests in the region, the U.S. can
rationalize their militaristic presence and efforts to influence state politics
in the region. A lack of U.S. presence in the region would threaten the
sustenance of their legitimacy.

Second, the relationship between
the U.S. and Israel was considered. Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, felt
particularly threatened by Iraq. Sharon went on to “describe Iraq as the
greatest danger facing Israel” and accusing Saddam of using “the years since
December 1998, when inspections were suspended, to further develop and
effectively hide non-conventional weapons” (Muralidharan, 2004, p. 4519).

Sharon was under the impression that Saddam took advantage of ousting weapon
inspectors, enlisted by the UN in 1998, to prepare weaponry to threaten Israel
and to garner more regional power. The United States would not have this.

Israel received the most U.S. foreign aid out of any other country from 1985 up
until a year after the Iraq War began (Sharp, 2016, p. 37). The U.S. had reason
to protect Israel, providing them with such substantial aid. Israel served as a
watchdog for the U.S. in monitoring Middle Eastern activity, particularly
terrorism that could threaten the U.S. state security. This is why the U.S.

took Israel’s warning of the threat of WMD as a reason to mobilize. Even if the
claim is now baseless, this concern was pertinent at the time to U.S. power
sustenance. Additionally, there was “enormous power of the Jewish lobbies composed
of the Jewish Congressmen ,…journalists, and the pro-Israel bureaucrats in the
Departments of Defense, Foreign Affairs and White House” (Naidu, 2002, p. 5).

The U.S. owed it to Israel as their regional protector to intervene and prevent
Saddam from abusing power in the Middle East. It was less about saving Israel
for Israel’s sake, and as explained through offensive realism, more about
ensuring the interests of the U.S. for their national security and power over
their allies and enemies in the region. In order to ensure this, Israel was the
mode to achieve their hegemonic goal. Any weakening of U.S. allies in the
region would weaken the U.S. power and influence as well.

Third, since terrorism out of the
Middle East had directly wreaked havoc on U.S. soil during the terrorist
attacks of 9/11, the U.S. needed to show that it would neither be taken
advantage of nor allow terror groups to gain power over them. Applying an
offensive realism perspective to the war on terror in Iraq, Bush claimed that
“American national security is in danger…because…Iraq was involved in
al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks on the US” (Naidu, 2002, p. 10). There was a fear
of continued attacks on U.S. soil and the inability of the U.S. to protect
itself from outside threats could lessen their power and endanger its survival.

The Bush administration took a hard-ball approach toward terrorism, essentially
clumping all Middle Eastern threats and conflict along with terrorism (Gompert,
Binnendijk, and Lin, 2014, p 163). Public concern regarding WMD and al Qaeda
offered the public support for the Bush administration to go at terrorism even
if the beliefs did not align with reality. Moreover, Israel used the fear that
the US had toward terrorism to their advantage. Bush “launched a war on
Islamic terrorism in Afghanistan,” and “Sharon and Netanyahu had been waging
a war on Palestinian terrorism “(Naidu, 2002, p. 5). Given the apparent
dedication by Israel to address terrorism, Bush was prepared to launch
a war on terrorism in Iraq since he had regional support. From an offensive
realism perspective, Bush felt that the U.S. interests of national security and
survival were in grave danger when faced with the Iraq issue.

Since Saddam was undeterrable,
intervention in Iraq was the only solution to gain an advantage. This advantage
would serve as a shield to protect U.S. influence and divert any security
issues on American soil, back to an on the ground war in Iraq.

of U.S./Syrian Relations

The underlying theme over the last
half-century of U.S./Syrian relations has been centered around Syrian responses
to U.S. influence in the Middle East. The failure to destroy the Jewish State
during the Six-Day War and the persistent U.S. support of Israeli efforts
created skepticism on behalf of Syria. The U.S. had initially stated that
“Israel will not stand alone” on the issue of border disputes “unless it took
unilateral military actions” (Bass, 2015, p. 17). Israel did just that and
although the U.S. was not supportive of that decision, the constant counsel of
the U.S. to Israel over the subsequent years led to Syrian distrust of the U.S.

Once a disengagement agreement was signed in 1974 between Syria and Israel to
lighten the border dispute, Syrian ties with the U.S. were reconnected and the
following decades remained relatively cooperative. This may be attributed to
the fact that Syria faced issues with Israel and insecurity in Iraq (Darwich,
2016, p. 152). Consequently, Syria took the side of Iran to balance the threats
in its immediate border neighbors, “as Syria had limited options to ensure its
physical security, the regime identity narrative was adjusted to accommodate
the regime’s physical security needs” (Darwich, 2016, p. 152). This explanation
sheds light on Syria’s cooperation with the United States in an effort not to
‘stir the pot’ with a powerful actor in the region, putting their identities
aside and focusing on survival of the state. Syria ultimately cooperated with
the U.S. during the Gulf War and the peace talks of the 1990’s “because the
Gulf War and Soviet decline had shifted the balance of power against the Arabs,
he Assad had no alternative to U.S. sponsored diplomacy” (Hinnebusch, 1996,
p. 48). Neo-realism explains that it was the rational decision of Syrian interest
not to make enemies with the U.S., taking preemptive steps to survive in the
international system through cooperation along rational lines.

Motives Behind a Lack of US Intervention in 2013

The relationship between the U.S.

and Syria was diplomatic in nature over the last decade. In 2011, the Syrian
protests were one of many events of the Arab Spring that rippled across the
Middle East, causing conflict in regimes such as Libya, Egypt, and of course,
Syria. These domestic conflicts, particularly in Syria, never actually posed a
threat to U.S. security enough to call for intervention. The lack of U.S.

intervention in Syria in 2013 can be attributed to two dominant factors.

First, the chemical weapon threat
in Syria did not impact the legitimacy of the United States on the
international level. The Obama administration wanted to airstrike Syrian
chemical weaponry to send a message of intolerance (Horner, 2013, p. 30). In
2013, U.S. Congress had flipped to a conservative majority, and they were
hell-bent on not supporting Obama’s proposals, so the airstrike never happened.

The Obama administration was, however, able to negotiate with Russia for a
program to remove the chemical weapons from Syria; which was successful
throughout the subsequent few years (Zanders and Trapp, 2013, p. 8). Any basis
for the U.S. to intervene was eliminated through this Russian negotiation. It’s
unclear if the airstrikes in 2013 would have led to more U.S. involvement on
the ground in Syria or not since “the airstrikes would most certainly not have
degraded Syria’s chemical weapons capacity to the point it would have become
useless” and perhaps in order to finalize that aggressive move, a ‘boots on the
ground’ mentality may have ultimately been utilized (Zanders and Trapp, 2013,
p. 8). Considering the negotiation with Russia to remove dangerous weapons from
Syria, the U.S. was able to have a hand on influencing any ill-intended motives
out of Syria in a directly non-militaristic manner. Additionally, the lack of a
threat to U.S. national security or hegemonic survival from Syrian attacks on
their own people, did not offer a formidable base to launch a war.

Second, militaristic action itself may have posed a
threat to U.S. power. Russia supported and continues to support the Assad
regime as Syria is “its only remaining foothold in the Middle East…affording
Russia its only port in the Mediterranean” (Martini, York, and Young, 2013, p.

2). An economic interest in the Middle East was enough to move Russia to
action, and protecting this interest is clearly important to them.

Additionally, Russia maintains their own state security by suppressing internal
revolutions. Supporting a strongman leader like Assad and pledging their
allegiance to the regime in Syria further affirms their position. This would
set an example within their own borders as to their flexibility with opposition
to the regime (Martini, York, and Young, 2013, p. 2). Russia is aligned with
Iran in their support for Assad. Iran gives weapons to Hezbollah and essentially
to Assad forces, to combat revolutionaries. Iran has their own agenda to avoid
total isolation in the region, and holding on to their only ally in Syria is
vital to prevent further isolation and damage to their state survival (Martini,
York, and Young, 2013, p. 2). If the US intervened in affairs that Russia was
directly involved in, that may have harmed relations between the U.S. and
Russia. One possible outcome of that could have led down a path to Cold War; a
dangerous scenario for the U.S. security and survival. Furthermore, any ability
of Iran to strengthen through a potential alliance with Russia to help Assad
stay in power could have led to an increase in Iranian influence in the region.

An increase in Iranian influence in the region would pose a threat to the
legitimacy of U.S. presence in the region because if Iran was irked enough by
U.S. intervention, it is entirely possible they may have turned to continue
pursuing nuclear weapons. If Russia got involved in pro-Iranian nuclear
development, dangerous implications would arise, offer a massive threat to U.S.

state security. Avoiding intervention directly was the smartest move for the
United States to avoid damaging any relations with Russia and Iran that, if they
had allied, could have caused harm to the U.S. state and global power.


A decision by the United States to
intervene in international conflicts is dependent on how impactful the
repercussions of not intervening
could be on influence and power over a region or state. Neorealism, focusing on
offensive realism, sheds light on why the US acted to preserve its power in
Iraq in 2003 and in Syria in 2013 but in different manners. United States
intervention in the politics and affairs of other nations is driven by
countering threats to its own national security and hegemonic power on the
international stage; these factors influence the decision on intervention in
Iraq in 2003, and the lack of intervention in Syria in 2013. The U.S. chose to
intervene in Iraq to protect its hegemony by taking an offensive approach to
counter terrorism. Saddam’s maniacal tendencies that could have affect U.S. national
security, and threats to its regional power and influence over other nations
were deeply considered. A need to create survival strategies in the face of
threats and being unsure of the Iraqi intentions were motivators for the U.S.

to intervene. Conversely, the absence of intervention in Syria by the U.S. was
highlighted by the lack of a threat that chemical weapons posed to U.S.

hegemony and security. Additionally, the potential of irritating Russia and
Iran in the Syrian conflict was an important factor. U.S. hegemony could have
been threatened through an alliance between the Iranians and Russians on
potential nuclear weapon development. This larger threat explains the lack of intervention
in Syria in 2013. When U.S. power and security are directly threatened, they
have always, and will continue to act in their own interest to retain the
hegemony they have spent centuries establishing.