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Iraq 10 Years Later (3): Why the Neocon Theory behind the War Failed

March 23, 2013


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?


To me, the irony is that this line of argument is at least somewhat defensible. In fact, I think this is why so many people supported the war, even if they couldn’t articulate it well. It was the execution on this premise, the conduct of the war itself, not the arguments for it, that ruined it in US public opinion. The Army particularly was simply not trained and designed to wage a counter-insurgency and nation-build. Rumsfeld repeated the old saw that soldiers are trained to ‘kill people and break things,’ a fairly crude way of saying they are trained to win conventional inter-state wars (which is why the US military is thrilled with the Asian pivot – China is an opponent we understand), but not long-term stability operations.

But post-‘Mission Accomplished’ Iraq didn’t really need those skills. It needed counter-insurgents – a skill-set the Army deliberately un-remembered after the Vietnam War in order to forestall policy-makers ever using the Army that way again. The Army also needed social scientists, administrators, engineers, aid workers, and all the other NGO/UN-style nation-building expertise it did not have. This is not to blame the Army; it was not reconfigured before the war to include these capabilities. As Rumsfeld notoriously said, ‘you go to war with the army you have, not the army you want’ – which is another way of saying that he and the Bush administration did not properly prepare the tools for the ambitious strategy the neocon analysis of the Middle East suggested.

As a result, the army stumbled through the occupation, including the use of torture and extensive detention, until Petraeus began applying counterinsurgency meaningfully in 2008. But by then, just about everyone had had enough of the war – Congress, the military, and the public all wanted out. And today, we’ve all but forgotten about Iraq, as we did Vietnam by the Carter years. Obama’s speeches this year haven’t mentioned it; it’s not in American news anymore; even the the 10-year retrospectives are focused more on the American debate and fallout, than what is actually happening in Iraq.

All this suggests to me a far more mixed picture of the war than we will get at the current anniversary. Critics will, rightfully, take credit. Steve Walt particularly, whose resistance was constant and forthright, deserves kudos for his prescience. Too many war supporters will admit nothing. No one in the pundit class seems capable of apologizing, nor can former Bush officials it seems. So they’ll come out to say that they would do it all the same way again if they had too. Bush himself has all but said that in his memoirs. But no one believes such vindication-seeking hackery; a fairer judgment on the neocon case for war would be:

– in the wake of 9/11, binladenist pathologies looked dangerously widespread in the Arab world (we learned later just how wrong this really was, but go re-watch Fahrenheit 911 again to see just how paranoid we were at the time, with companies selling parachutes for executives to use in the next 9/11, and Fox News anchors talking about al Qaeda building pen bombs);

– Afghanistan was not a Arab state and too far from the Arab stage to make a effective demonstration against those 9/11 pathologies (defensible claim in itself, but a weak justification for attacking a state unrelated to 9/11);

– the Arab states would not change on their own, and their internal problems were now going transnational and damaging others (back in 2002 no one expected Arab Spring);

– Iraq was a target of opportunity given its history and other bad options (it’s a clear hole in the neocon analysis that we targeted a secular dictator rather than the center of Islamic fundamentalism – Saudi Arabia; it’s no wonder people thought the war was a oil/land grab);

– the US military had neither the force structure, aptitude, nor interest to perform COIN and long-term nation-building, while the US public did not have the decades-long endurance for it;

– while the initial, promised blitzkrieg was successful, the public had been led to believe we would then dump Iraq on Chalabi, or the UN, or the French, as in the Balkans. At this point, the astonishing lack of post-conflict planning started becoming apparent.

– it all went down hill from there. The moral case for the war fell apart under the weight of incompetence and the consequent suffering of the Iraqis. Abu Ghraib particularly was the last straw. After that, it was all but impossible to say the war was worth it.

In short, it was the ‘fiasco’ execution of the Iraq war that turned so many against it, not the original premise. That is why neocons still get air-time on the right and aren’t repentant; they don’t feel that they have been intellectually disproven. That is also why Drezner is correct to note how many people thought the war was at least not a bad idea before it actually occurred.

That said though, the primary geopolitical lesson is probably just the banal, Waltian observation that some ideas are simply too ambitious to see through even if they’re intellectually defensible. Iraq is a perfect example of why realism counsels prudence. Even if the neocon analysis was right – which is disputable, especially in the wake of Arab Spring – to follow through on it would have required, 1) a wholesale COIN/nation-building re-making of the military, especially the army, in the face of painful lessons to the contrary from the Vietnam War and disinterest in that re-making almost everywhere in DoD; and 2) enduring US public support for long-term nation-building, which the US electorate has never before supported like that. In fact, the US public is known for the opposite – casualty-shyness that regularly puts a political limit on the US use of force. Yet even were both of those in place, trying to remake a foreign society is still extraordinarily difficult. Nonetheless, with mixed tools and tepid public public support, we tried something super-difficult. It’s not surprising, then, that it ended so poorly. Hence, today’s ‘leading from behind’ is not a bad choice after all.

There’s a second, moral lesson too, which should matter to us, because we’re Americans, not realist robots worried only about high politics: Wars of choice have a different moral calculus. Because we preemptively attacked Iraq, the moral requirements of our post-war behavior in the country and reconstruction of it were much higher than in other conflicts. And we failed: in the last decade 125,000 Iraqis have died violently for reasons related to the war, and a fair share of that is on us. We should be ashamed of our culpability in that, but I have the feeling most Americans don’t really care, probably because most of those victims are brown Muslims. That’s appalling and the real reason to never try this sort of ‘experiment’ again: it made us cruel.

Cross-posted on Asian Security Blog.

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Associate Professor of International Relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy, Pusan National University, Korea
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Twitter: @Robert_E_Kelly