Iraq 10 Years Later (1): How Culpable is Academic International Relations?

12 March 2013, 1048 EDT


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.


So, if you knew, 10 years ago, what Iraq looked today, and what it took to get here, would you support the war? I mean this seriously, even if the answers is almost certainly no, because Iraq is a better place today than it was then. The shaky Maliki government is definitely an improvement on Saddam; I don’t think that is up for much debate and should be admitted. The question is whether it was worth the cost. And the cost should include the roughly 125,000 Iraqi civilians killed. I find American pundits tend to focus solely on the much smaller number of US casualties, which is deeply inappropriate.

For myself, the answer is no. And I bet that is the opinion of over 90% of IR. I have no data for that intuition, but, as Brooks, Ikenberry, and Wohlforth just noted, IR as a discipline seems to strongly support US retrenchment today, and much of that is because of the Iraq War.

The second question then, assuming you think the war was a an error – and I bet many of us think it was a downright catastrophe – is how culpable IR is. Last year, I argued: “To our credit, just about everyone in IR was uncomfortable with the Iraq War before it started. (Remember that ad in the NYT against the war?) It’s true we didn’t oppose it that much, but at least we didn’t become the cheerleaders for it as happened at the big op-ed pages and DC think-tanks. The national security state clampdown at home makes us fairly uncomfortable (especially as academics strongly committed to free speech), as does the inevitable nativism and militarism stirred up by a decade-plus of war. The US public’s indifference to the huge numbers of brown Muslims we have killed in the last decade is horrifying (‘we don’t do body-counts’), a point Vikash has made again and again. US basing is way beyond any reasonable threat assessment to the US homeland. My guess is that most of us not only empirically think retrenchment is coming, but also desperately want it too. We may have shared the neocon intoxication with US power for a few years after 9/11, but my sense is that IR now is really, really nervous about what the GWoT is doing to America. Again, we study war, but we’re not the Kagans.”

I think this is still accurate. We didn’t oppose the war as well as we probably should have, but we did turn against it pretty quickly – certainly sooner than the pundit class. Does that mean we ‘saw the light,’ or just that we are fair weather hawks? Neocons will surely accuse us of the latter – academic wimps unwilling to see through our convictions.

I think IR bears a special burden for the US use of force overseas, because, more than any other identifiable section of academia, we study that. Yes, the DC think-tanks also work in this area, as do diplomatic historians. But at the risk of cheerleading for our discipline, I believe IR conducts more basic research than these other two, and we’re far less co-opted than the think-tank set. We generate a lot of deep theory about how world politics works, particularly on the causes and consequences of war. Furthermore, a lot of us study US foreign policy specifically – just go open an random copy of International Security to see how much ‘America’ actually dominates our supposedly ‘international’ discipline.

So if there is anyone who should know what they are talking about, it should be us, right? If we can’t pronounce meaningfully on our country’s choices regarding force after 60 year of studying this stuff, then wth are we being paid for? And in fact, I am willing to bet that most of us were asked 10 years ago what we thought about the coming invasion by people who respected our opinion because of our supposed expertise. You probably talked at least to your family and friends, and they listened attentively. You probably changed a few minds. Again, this is what we do, right?

It is of course true that the policy world doesn’t really consult us in-depth on lots of foreign policy decisions, and certainly the GOP, which genuinely relishes blowing off academics as lefty egg-heads, doesn’t give a damn what we think. But as teachers, we do obviously impact the debate at the grassroots level. At the very least, we probably helped convince our family, friends, students, etc. Every class we taught all across the country where this inevitably came up, every panel we sat on, every local media appearance we made, etc. – all that helped shape the public discourse from below. As Fallows notes, there was a lot of silence and ‘soft complicity’ (my term) in 2002 from journalism and academia, because we didn’t speak up louder even though the data that Saddam was a threat to the US homeland were weak, and even though we had lots of good theories that predict social chaos in decapitated, deeply divided societies. It’s true there was little enthusiasm and a lot of hemming-and-hawing from us, but there was little clear opposition.

All of this is to suggest that we probably did a poor job at providing the needed pushback to the 2002 Bush-Cheney campaign for the war. As Drezner notes, the exculpatory out we’ve always used – that 80% of us opposed the war – is based on a survey take in 2005. Consonant with Drezner’s recollections, my own memory too is that colleagues in IR were hesitantly supportive at the time. But then I was still in grad school, so I don’t have the sense of what was going on at APSA and ISA as much as others will. (Please speak to this point in the comments if you are able.) But at least at Ohio State, where I was at the time, I don’t remember a meaningful PS/IR effort to oppose the war. For myself, I must admit that I supported the war at the time – arguably the greatest professional error in my career (not that my opinion means much, but still, in the interest of full disclosure).

On the other hand, there was (thankfully!) that New York Times ad in which 33 big names in security studies argued against the war in September 2002. Also, Walt and Mearsheimer also put out a Foreign Policy piece against the war in January 2003. Indeed, reading these two pieces today, I am impressed how prescient they were. Here’s Walt’s own 10-year retrospective now. He’s admirably restrained; imagine the neocon gloating and chest-thumping about wimpy academic liberals who don’t know the real world of blood and iron had they been right. Ech – where’s Donald Rumsfeld to yell at the media when you need him? (Indeed, it’s amazing how Krauthammer and all the rest still command a huge audience despite their continued unrepentance; is America that hawkish?) Finally this much wider group of ‘Security Scholars for a Sensible Foreign Policy’ argued for more restraint as early as 2004, presumably also motivated heavily by Iraq. DoM was very heavily involved in that. There was a formal academic write-up as well. But of course, that was after the war began to go off course. On that score, Walt and Mearsheimer’s gutsy pre-war stand is particularly noteworthy.

Finally, all this then raises the question of how we should respond to efforts to confront Iran. My own sense is that IR almost monolithically opposed to that too, but we aren’t really saying much about that either. Is that a mistake? Are supposed to be more engaged in policy? Should we circulate an open letter? I don’t know of any effort to do so.

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.