I am happy to invite my friend Tom Nichols to guest-post about the continuing Iraq War debate. Tom responded so substantially to my original post series on the war (one, two, three), that I invited him to provide a longer write-up. Tom is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct professor in the Harvard Extension School. His blog can be found here, his twitter here. His opinions of course are his own, so whenever he says I’m wrong, you probably shouldn’t listen… REK
I’ve been reading Bob’s thoughts – cogent as always – on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War. I reject Bob’s exploration of the “culpability” of the IR field for providing any kind of intellectual infrastructure for the war, mostly because I don’t think anyone in Washington, then or now, listens to us, and for good reason. Joe Nye long ago lamented that lack of influence elsewhere, and others agree (by “others” I mean “me”). So I won’t rehearse it here.
Bob and I sort of agree that the outcome of the war doesn’t say much about the prescience of at least some of the war’s opponents: there were people whose default position was almost any exercise of U.S. power is likely to be bad, and they don’t get points for being right by accident.
The mark of the ten year anniversary of the beginning of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 has been, as such anniversaries tend to be, a chance for scholars, pundits and politicians to take stock of the past and evaluate the present. Reactions have ranged from a stubborn support of the war to quasi-celebrations on the side of opponents of the war. For all sides, the causes of the war have been a major point of contention. We concern ourselves with this part of the debate.
Very little rigorous analysis of the causes of the war has taken place. Explanations about the Iraq War have tended to be dominated by narratives that focus on neo-conservative policy goals, the Israel-lobby, oil, personal animosity, and the fear associated with Weapons of Mass Destruction. Usually these mono-causal explanations are amended by ad-hoc additions in order to accommodate the impossibility of any one cause explaining a war. This results in causal stories that are incoherent or lacking a uniting element that would make sense as an orientating device and macro explanation. Using Chapter 6 of Valeriano’s recent book – Becoming Rivals – as the basis, we argue that interstate rivalry is the common thread that links the many different events and behaviors that contributed to the onset of the second Iraq war.
My first post on the Iraq War asked if academic IR had any responsibility to slow the march to war.
The second tried to formulate what the neoconservative theory of the war was, because many of us, in retrospect of a conflict gone so badly, desperately want to un-remember that there really was a logic to the war, that it was at least somewhat intellectually defensible, and that a lot of us believed it. We may want to retroactively exculpate ourselves by suggesting it was just W the cowboy acting ridiculous, or a neocon hijacking of the policy process, or Halliburton oil imperialism, and all the other reasons so popular on the left. And some of that is true of course.
But it ducks the crucial point that the war was popular until it flew wildly off-the-rails, which in turn revealed the staggering incompetence of the Bush administration to act on the neocon logic the country had embraced by March 2003. In short, I argued that the Iraq invasion was not about WMD, preemption, or democracy, although that rationale was played up in the wake of the failure to find WMD. The real neocon goal was to scare the daylights out of the Arabs and their elites by punching one of their worst regimes in the face, thereby showing what was coming to rest of the region unless it cleaned up its act, i.e., crack down on salafism and liberalize so as to defuse the cultural extremism that lead to 9/11. (Read Ajami saying in January 2003 that the war is ‘to modernize the Arabs;’ that’s about as a good a pre-war summary of this logic as you’ll get.)
So what went wrong?
Yesterday morning I forgot to link the National Security Archive's "Iraq War Ten Years After" page. It highlights some of the greatest hits of the period. I founded the Duck after the start of the Iraq War, but, as was the case for many US political and international-affairs blogs, the team blogged a fair amount on the subject.
Given Jon's recent post, I thought I'd dredge up an old one that I wrote on the framing of the Iraq War. Given how recent apologias have emphasized certain aspects of pro-war rhetoric, such as the call to democratize Iraq, I think it remains relevant.
OK, the 10-year retrospectives on the Iraq War are in and the debate is on. Yes, Bush, Cheney, and the neocons sold the country a bill of goods on Iraq. They are war criminals and should be held accountable. Iraq was a strategic disaster, it was a financial disaster, and for far too many it was a human and humanitarian disaster. Yes, yes, yes, the intelligence was faulty, the pundit class failed, Judith Miller was wrong, and the New York Times screwed up. The list goes on.
But, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen all of this, and it won’t be the last. Read on and be sure to take the time to watch the video clip at the end.
My first thoughts on the war’s ten year anniversary are here. There I asked if there was any defensible theory behind the war, anything that might explain why we launched it, because weapons of mass destruction were not really the reason. Paul Wolfowitz notoriously admitted they were just a pretext to rally the country behind the invasion. And it’s hard to argue it was about pre-emption either; Iraq was hardly a looming military threat in 2003. So here’s my guess about the real neoconservative logic. I should say up front, I do not endorse this rationale. I’m just trying to lay it out what I bet neocons were saying to each other in 2002:
The Iraq invasion was to serve two neocon purposes: 1) It was to be a demonstration strike against the Arab states. Islamist anti-western pathologies from the Middle East lead to 9/11, so the Iraq invasion was a warning to Arabs, and Muslims generally, to never to attack the US like that again. As Cheney put it in the film W, ‘don’t ever f--- with us again.’ 2) It was to be a hammer strike to break the frozen, dysfunctional Arab political status quo which generated those pathologies; this would force the region toward democracy it would never attain on its own. This thinking was summarized in the widely used expression at the time, ‘drain the swamp.’
I’ve been thinking a lot about the war this month. I’ll be teaching it in the next few weeks at school because of the decade anniversary (March 20). My quick sense is that any defensible theory behind the war was simply buried by an execution so awful, disorganized, mismanaged, and incompetent that it invalidated the whole premise.
The whole episode became just shameful, and regularly teaching and conferencing with non-Americans these last few years has made this so painfully clear. My students particularly are just bewildered to the point of incredulity. Again and again, the basic thought behind the questions is, ‘what the hell happened to you people? 9/11 made you lose your minds there?’ *sigh* (NB: when Asians ask me about guns in the US, the ‘what the hell is wrong with you people?’ bafflement is the same.)
Hence, the post title purposefully implies that the invasion was a bad idea. But to be fair, that should be the first question: what, if any, arguments at this point can be mustered to defend the war? IR should try to answer this seriously, because I’m all but positive that the journalistic debate will be not be driven by the state of Iraq or US foreign policy today, but by the high personal reputational costs faced by so many pundits supportive of the war. It would not surprise me at all if folks like the Kagans, Krauthammer, or Thomas Friedman miraculously found that the war was worth it after all. McNamara-style mea culpas only happen at the end of a career (so I give Sullivan and Fukuyama credit for theirs on Iraq). But IR should be more honest than that.
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