The Duck of Minerva

The Neocons Made Me Do It: Iraq and the Alibi of Liberal Hawks

24 March 2012

Looking back on the disaster (or extremely Pyhrric Victory) that was the Iraq War, Stephen Walt reflects:

‘The remarkable thing about the Iraq war is how few people it took to engineer. It wasn’t promoted by the U.S. military, the CIA, the State Department, or oil companies. Instead, the main architects were a group of well-connected neoconservatives, who began openly lobbying for war during the Clinton administration…

As the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman told Ha’aretz in May 2003: ‘Iraq was the war neoconservatives wanted… the war the neoconservatives marketed…. I could give you the names of 25 people (all of whom are at this moment within a five-block radius of this office [in Washington]) who, if you had exiled them to a desert island a year and half ago, the Iraq war would not have happened.’

For the record, Thomas Friedman also supported war in 2003. Nevertheless, he is pleased to suggest that Other People, an inner bloc of power figures, made war happen. Well, its not as though he exercises any influence among policymakers. He doesn’t have a powerful platform to legitimise or promote ideas. He’s only a columnist for the New York Times.

The Neocons were central actors in supplying the Bush II Administration to war in Iraq. Who knows? Applying the counterfactual, it may be that without the organised, persistent and networked influence exerted by well-connected figures such as Richard Perle, David Frum or Paul Wolfowitz, America would be trillions of dollars, thousands of soldiers and nine years of fatigue better off, that hundreds of thousands would not be dead, and Iran would not be the dominant regional power in the Gulf.

But that doesn’t diminish the responsibility of those who backed it.

An open acknowledgement: for what its worth, some time after the toppling of Saddam and in a rather naive time of life, I was won over for a time by the hawkish idealism of those who hoped it would liberate and thereby make the world more secure. It was damned foolish. But its not to be denied. And its not to be blamed on Douglas Feith.

So what to make of the focus on neoconservatives? Its apparent that the word is often thrown about by Liberal Hawks who initially supported the war and then became embarrassed about the whole fiasco. It has become a sinister alibi. It amounts to a denial of responsibility.

The Bush Administration did not wage war in Iraq. The United States did. After a vote in Congress that  authorised force by decisive margins. Measured by votes, Gulf War ‘Two’ attracted more support from Democrats than did the Gulf War of 1991. Democrat supporters included then-Senator Hillary Clinton, who after voting for the worst military adventure in our time, went on to advise Americans that they should exercise ‘smart power.’

The usual defence here is that they voted on false evidence. But, as Paul Pillar reminds us, most Democrats in Congress were remarkably incurious about the intelligence estimate on Iraq before they voted. Only six senators and a few representatives consulted it, according to the staff who kept custody of it.

Its almost as if they weren’t primarily moved by the evidence, but voted because they shared the underlying assumptions of the war proponents, and/or because they thought it was politically wise, to support a then-popular war president in a conflict they presumed would succeed at acceptable cost.

The case for war against Saddam was made strongly and influentially not just by neoconservatives, but by the likes of Kenneth Pollack, President Clinton’s former regional specialist on the National Security Council.

Had Bush not been President, and if the Democrat Candidate of 2000 Al Gore had been, the Oval Office would have been occupied by a man with a consistent record of hawkishness, who ran as muscular interventionist against the-then foreign policy ‘humility’ candidate in Bush, who bought in to the notion that Saddam was a lurking danger, with ties to Terrorism, who had to be overthrown somehow or other.

Then again, maybe becoming President of the world’s most militarily powerful nation – in a post 9/11 political culture where it pays to look tough – would have dampened down his predispositions.

A ‘neocon’ alibi gets the likes of Anne-Marie Slaughter off the hook too lightly. Having supported war in Iraq, and routinely supporting American military action from Rwanda to Libya to Syria, Slaughter would prefer us all to move on, and focus on the real issues of how to rebuild from the rubble created by the wars she endorses in the first place.

We can’t say with certainty than subtract neocons, and the war would have happened anyway. But we can say that a lot of non-neocon Liberal Hawks worked very hard indeed to support it, and to be seen to support it.

By trying to sequester blame onto a score or so of reviled individuals, the rest of the warlike idealists would like the interrogation to be about something other than them.

By isolating the blame to neocons, it is also an attempt to protect their stubborn and dubious world view, that we should still accept, as Glenn Greenwald describes it, that ‘we can fix other countries by controlling and ruling over them, that we’re going to spread human rights around the world like magic fairy dust by occupying and bombing them with our military, that wise and magnanimous American political leaders are both able and eager to navigate complex, foreign ethnic and religious conflicts and impose our will on other countries in order to bring Good to the world.’

On the whole, it really would be better if the Liberal Hawks who backed Bush in 2003 took some responsibility for once.