The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The important of structural thinking

July 17, 2006

Foreign Affairs continues its roundtable on US policy towards Iraq. Today I take aim at Christopher Hitchens’ contribution.

Hitchens open his response by excoriating his fellow panelists for the “absence of historical dimensions” or “by its appearance only in the form of false analogy” in their contributions. What does he mean by this rather clumsy phrase?

There is nothing remotely comparable here with the experience of the French in Algeria and Indochina, or with the experience of the United States in Indochina, let alone that of the Israelis in Lebanon. The United States has not claimed territory in Iraq, as the French did in Algeria: it is not the inheritor of a bankrupt French colonialism, as Eisenhower and Kennedy were in Vietnam; and it is not pursuing a vendetta, as was Sharon in Lebanon.

It is, instead, in a situation where no superpower has ever been before. The ostensible pretext for American intervention – the disarmament of a WMD-capable rogue state and the overthrow of a government aligned with international jihadist gangsterism – was in my opinion based on an important element of truth rather than on a fabrication or exaggeration. But the deeper rationale – that of altering the regional balance of power and introducing democracy into the picture – is the one that must now preoccupy us more. The United States is in Iraq for its own interests, to ensure that a major state with a chokehold on a main waterway of the global economy is not run by a barbaric crime family or by its fundamentalist former allies and would be-successors. But it is also there to release, and not repress, the numberless latent grievances of Iraqi society. And-something surprisingly forgotten by many who fetishize the United Nations-it is there under a UN mandate for the democratization and reconstruction of the country [emphasis added].

Hitchen’s words here should be familiar to anyone who follows the American Empire debate. Here’s Dick Cheney on whether or not the US is an empire: “If we were an empire, we would currently preside over a much greater piece of the Earth’s surface than we do. That’s not the way we operate.” George W. Bush has made an equivalent argument: the United States has “no territorial ambitions, we don’t seek an empire.”

What do these arguments have in common? They confuse differences in motives and goals with differences in structural relationships.

Motives and goals matter enormously. States that invade another political community with the aim of annexing its territory are obviously going to face somewhat different challenges than those who hope to withdrawal their forces after “merely” creating a new ruling regime. But in either case the invading state establishes a relationship with the conquered territory that looks more or less the same. It exercises significant rule over its newly subordinate territory. Where I come from, we call that “an imperial relationship.”

I’ll have more to say about this in a future post on the question of American empire, but for now the example serves my underlying criticism of HItchens: the different motives and objectives involved in various conflicts does not render comparisons between them invalid. Both the US in Iraq and the French in Algeria want to defeat–or, at least, contain–an insurgency aimed at throwing them out. Does it matter that the US inherited corrupt Arab rule in Iraq but corrupt French rule in Indochina? The answer is that we don’t know, because Hitchens is throwing around rather arbitrary contextual differences in an effort to render analogies that put his argument in a bad light inoperative.

Thus, he argues the challenge looks more like that faced by the Algerian military regime in the 1990s. Why? Because the anti-Islamicist regime won that conflict. Never mind that the structural relationships in 1990s Algeria–between an indigenous government and an Islamicist insurgency–might strike some most people as less analogous to the US position in Iraq than the comparisons Hitchens rejects.

There’s a parallel here with what my graduate-school advisor, the eminent sociologist Charles Tilly, calls “standard stories” (PDF). People generally explain social and political outcomes in terms of the motives and character of individuals and organizations. ‘Bush invaded Iraq because he wanted to avenge the assassination attempt against his father.’ ‘Al-Queda attacked the United States because they’re bad people who hate its freedoms.’ ‘The US isn’t an empire because it wants to spread democracy.’ That sort of thing.

Reasoning through standard stories plagues, as these examples suggest, the way that even very smart pundits evaluate international politics. Because a particular side’s intentions are good, we can ignore its acts of torture, its killing of civilians, and so forth. Because the intentions of the United States are different from Fourth Republic France or Israel under Sharon, we cannot possibly compare these cases to discern lessons about occupations and counter-insurgency warfare.

This kind of exercise might be really important to arguments about the justness of war, but it becomes pathological when we want to evaluate policies and strategies. We cannot dispense with analysis of motives and goals, but we ignore the importance of structural relations–and the general dynamics that follow from them–at our peril.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.