Security Studies Program Seminar

Why The Empire Struck Back: Just Deserts and the Iraq War

Peter Liberman
Professor, Political Science Department
Queens College and Graduate Center, CUNY

April 18, 2007


Rationalist IR theory explains international punishment of aggressive/unwanted behavior as a means to the ends of deterrence or incapacitating bad states. However, many scholars (including realists such as George F. Kennan) have noted possibilities of moralistic crusading, especially by democracies. Moralistic incentives can come to the fore when the net benefits of force are non-obvious, as is often the case in small wars or wars of choice.

The motive of ”just deserts,” i.e. imposing deserving payment for bad behavior, affected the US decision to invade Iraq. Most Americans thought Saddam was evil and deserved to perish, quite apart from the threat he posed. This is not just a phenomenon in public opinion – also in elite and expert opinion; possibly including George W. Bush's attitudes.

Psychology of Punitiveness

About 2/3rd of both death penalty supporters and opponents give moralistic rationales for their positions, such as “they deserve to die” or “it is wrong to take a life.” Some utilitarian reasons, such as deterrence and incapacitation, but these are generally much less common.

Social psychological studies bear out importance of moral motivations, finding that retributiveness and humanitarianism scales are excellent predictors of death penalty support, more so than considerations of deterrence and incapacitation.

Questions of crime and punishment usually elicit strong emotions such as outrage, personal satisfaction, sadness, anger. For example, neuro-scanning studies find that people vary in level of fines they impose for betrayal in cooperation games, and those about to impose large fines have heightened brain activity associated with pleasure.

There are two implications of the emotional dimension of punishment:

  1. Emotions lead to motivated biases. People see what they want to see in context of crime and punishment. Thus anger can lead exaggerating the deterrent efficacy of punishment or the threat posed by an evil-doer, or to underestimating the cost of punishment. For example, death penalty supporters and opponents vary systematically on all these attitudes.
  2. Carry-over effect: Anger about one offense leads to greater punitiveness against unrelated offenders. Experimental settings show support for this mechanism.

Relation to International Politics

Do attitudes about domestic crime and punishment resemble attitudes about international crime and punishment? The death penalty adds no greater social benefit beyond “life in prison,” but in IR in many cases war is preferable to perpetual containment. On the other hand, as Daryl Press shows, punitive demonstrations have limited deterrent effects, and high levels of uncertainty about costs and benefits allow moralistic dispositions to come to the fore. Other conditions likely to shape this effect include perceptions of evil enemy (identification with victims, elite framing, threat assessment, preexisting anger) and individual dispositions to be retributive and tough-minded. Cognitive simplicity favors dispositional rather than situational motivation assessments, and thus also heightens punitiveness.

2003 Iraq War

Conditions ripe for moral punitiveness effect against Saddam in 2003. Saddam perceived as evil due to his seeking banned weaponry and record of brutal atrocities, and a succession of U.S. governments had done good job making sure that Saddam's evil brought to forefront of public debate. Anger from 9/11 provided a carry-over effect. There was also ample uncertainty over net benefits of war.

The moral punitiveness effect can be seen by examining relationships in public attitudes about the death penalty and about Iraq; in effect, using death penalty support as a proxy for retributiveness and tough-mindedness.

“Moral Punitiveness”:


Low Retributiveness

High Retributiveness

Low Tough-mindedness

Low MP

Med MP

High Tough-mindedness

Med MP

High MP

Controlling for other covariates (such as ideology, race, gender), death penalty support is a good predictor of where people come down on the war.

Analyzing Jan 2003 Harris data: Otherwise-average strong death penalty opponents were 43% likely to support the war, compared to 80% of strong death penalty supporters. These are not extremists, but bottom 20% and top 20% of the public (Liberman 2006).

Death penalty supporters were also more likely to believe war to topple Saddam would be morally justified, and that Saddam Hussein was a threat. Perceived threat, and especially belief that the war would be just, mediated the effect of death penalty support on support for the war.

After Saddam was captured, DPS was still a good predictor of whether war a good idea, but no longer predicted support for continuing the war. This is because punishment had been done and evil regime eliminated.

Emotional responses

Anger over 9/11 was heightened by punitive dispositions, and in turn heightened support for expanding the war on terror to Iraq (Skitka, Bauman, and Aramovich forthcoming). Moreover, anger's effect on support for expanding war was mediated by desires for revenge. In addition, moral outrage over Saddam's brutality powerfully predicted desires to punish Saddam and collaborators in the occupation (Pagano and Huo 2007).

Other Considerations

Pragmatic concerns limit and override effects. Threat perception can drive war support even for death penalty opponents. But, as threat perception diminishes, a bigger gap opens up between death penalty supporters and opponents (Liberman 2006).

Foreign policy expertise can also limit moral punitiveness, when it clarifies net benefits of use of force. DPS support was a strong predictor of elite support for liberating Kuwait in 1991, both for ordinary elites and foreign policy experts. But on issue of continuing the war to get Saddam, experts were less hawkish than ordinary elites and the mass public, and were less swayed by morally punitive dispositions. This is because experts better understood costs and risks of marching to Baghdad, and their pragmatic concerns dampened the effects of retributive motivations (Liberman 2007).

Application to Political Decision-Makers

Moral outrage unlikely to sway all political leaders. Officials have strong incentives to maximize political gains, which provide a strong check on intuition, morality, and emotion. Officials should also have reduced uncertainty due to greater expertise and situational information.

But George W. Bush was “primed for punishment.” He fits the punitive profile:

Conditions for triggering retributive responses were also present.

Iraq decision-making: evidence fragmentary, but some support for plausible retributive motive. Some support:

  1. Bush immediately blamed Iraq for 9/11, suggesting motivated bias.
  2. Bush rushed the decision for war, which was probably made by January 2002. September 16, 2001: will get Saddam at time and place of own choosing. March 2002: “f Saddam, we're taking him out.”
  3. Dysfunctional, truncated decision-making. NSC didn't fully debate. “Cabal” between Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Bush. Intel badgering.
  4. An obsession with toppling Saddam a good explanation for lack of attention/resources to problems of post-Saddam governance. Low troop numbers bad for post-war stability. Materials looted, population security not provided. Civilian staffs given no reconstruction resources.
  5. Punitiveness could also explain self-defeating U.S. efforts to punish Saddam's collaborators, particularly disbanding the Iraqi military and de-Baathification four levels down.

Who has responsibility for all these decisions? Still somewhat unclear. Lots of responsibility shared amongst Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Bush, but can at least say Bush could have changed them.


Kennan may have had insight about democratic regimes moral crusading propensities. Some implications:

  1. U.S. is likely to overreact to evil dictators and terrorist attacks. This is a problem when fighting an adversary, such as al Qaeda, that aims to provoke a backlash from excessive reaction by target.
  2. Presidents with political expertise, and who do not bear grudges against foreign leaders, will be less prone to fight retributive wars.


Liberman,  Peter. 2006. An eye for an eye: Public support for war against evildoers. International Organization 60 (3): 687-722.
________. 2007. Punitiveness and U.S. elite support for the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Journal of Conflict Resolution 51 (1): 3-32.
Pagano, Sabrina J., and Yuen J. Huo. 2007. The role of moral emotions in predicting support for political actions in post-war Iraq. Political Psychology 28 (2): 227-55.
Skitka, Linda J., Christopher W. Bauman, and Nicholas P. Aramovich. forthcoming. Confrontational and preventative policy responses to terrorism: Anger wants a fight and fear wants "them" To go away. Basic and Applied Social Psychology.


Rapporteur: Paul Staniland

back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Spring 2007