Twenty year recollections of the 2003 invasion of Iraq are popping up. Some are debating whether there were any positive outcomes from the war, others reflecting on what it meant for those who fought (on the US side) or suffered (on the Iraqi side). The Iraq war has played a big role in my career, but I wanted to talk about what it means for the liberal internationalist orientation to the world.
The Iraq War and Me
In the first lecture of my classes, I tell my students that the 9/11 attacks were my second week of college, and discuss what a big impact they had on my choice of career and research area. That’s true, but I really should talk about the Iraq war as well.
As the build up to the war began, my classmates and I at my isolated lefty college were shocked. How could anyone want to start a second war after just invading Afghanistan? How could anyone think Iraq had anything to do with 9/11? How could anyone believe this was a good idea?
I soon realized it didn’t matter what I thought. Conservative friends and family members were swept up in post-9/11 patriotism/panic.
Some have argued that neoconservative adventures like the Iraq war are the end result of liberal internationalism, and it should be abandoned
And then, during spring break, the war began. I watched in shock as the United States unleashed its might on Iraq. I was torn. I wasn’t one of those lefties who defended Saddam Hussein (we had some at my college). I wanted him gone. But even at 20 I knew this wasn’t the way to do it.
I continued with my plan to work in the US intelligence community while also pursuing scholarly studies. I got an internship with a defense contractor, was assigned to an intelligence agency. A few years into my career, I got accepted to a PhD program, was offered a promotion at my firm, and was offered a permanent job with the government agency. I went the PhD route (whether or not that was the right choice is the topic for another post).
The Iraq War and liberal internationalism
I said this post wasn’t going to me about me, and I meant it. I gave this background to explain how I became involved in the bigger debate about the Iraq war: whether it invalidated liberal internationalism. While I was working in DC I also became part of a foreign policy group, the Truman National Security Project, meant to revive muscular liberal internationalism within the Democratic Party. I left after a few years, but the debates we had there stuck with me.
Liberal internationalism is a specific orientation towards the world. Advocates believe there is an international order that can be mutually beneficial. States should resolve disputes peacefully and multilaterally, through the United Nations and other international organizations. Human rights should trump narrow security interests. And states’ foreign policy should focus on upholding this international order.
Historically it had been tied to the US Democratic Party. This changed with the Bush Administration. A group of thinkers within the Republican party–growing out of the Reagan Administration’s aggressive anti-Soviet policies–sought to ensure US primacy while also defending democracy and human rights. They saw the response to 9/11 as a way to advance these goals, as signified in the 2002 National Security Strategy. Bush drew on similar language when justifying the Iraq War.
The Bush Administration’s use of liberal internationalist arguments to justify the Iraq War did trap some liberal internationalists. For example, the prominent liberal thinker Michael Ignatieff supported the Iraq War. This has given rise to the pejorative “liberal hawk” moniker-the claim that liberal internationalists are basically war-mongers. We’ve seen this deployed against Democratic figures like Hillary Clinton from both the left and the right.
As a result, some have argued that neoconservative adventures like the Iraq war are the end result of liberal internationalism, and it should be abandoned. To these policy thinkers, liberal internationalism is an “increasingly unsustainable grand strategy.” Others have gone further to question the validity or even the existence of a liberal international order, which liberal internationalism is meant to sustain.
There are other liberal internationalisms
But liberal internationalism is not dead.
First, Americans do not support an isolationist or restrained foreign policy. A 2019 report from the Center for American Progress found that US voters are “weary” of military interventions, but have not rejected American leadership in the world.
The irony is that many calling for restraint in US foreign policy for the sake of the world are as US-centric as liberal hawks.
Second, there is more to liberal internationalism than military interventions. This is what restrainers tend to suggest-that, since liberal internationalists tend to just be hawks a liberal internationalist grand strategy will lead to another Iraq war. And, to be fair, the liberal side isn’t helped when prominent members like Anne-Marie Slaughter praised Trump’s poorly-thought out air strikes on Syria. But there is a lot more to liberal internationalism- multilateralism, respect for human rights, upholding international institutions.
More importantly, those who assume the Iraq war damned liberal internationalism seem to ignore its relevance outside the United States. Many countries around the world look to the UN to reflect their views and advance their interests. This is why Trump’s decision to pull out of the UN Human Rights Council was concerning: other states take this, and other UN bodies, very seriously. The rest of the world–especially the Global South–has an interest in a robust UN, which only a liberal internationalist grand strategy can ensure.
Additionally, many countries depend on the liberal international order for support. The UN, while far from perfect, performs services no state can legitimately do on its own, such as supporting economic development, protecting cultural sites, and keeping the peace between combatants. Persistent security threat–like that of ISIS and other militant groups in the Sahel–require the international community’s assistance.
So what did the Iraq war kill?
The irony, then, is that many calling for restraint in US foreign policy for the sake of the world are as US-centric as liberal hawks. They approach the relevance of liberal internationalism only in terms of whether America will invade another Middle Eastern country.
It gets a little tiresome when debate over US international action boils down to “but the Iraq war was bad.” Reducing the debate to pro/con military intervention makes it hard to effectively respond to crises, as arguably occurred in the Obama Administration’s response (or lack thereof) to the Syrian civil war. It also leads to poor analysis, such as when Middle East experts, viewing everything through the lens of another Iraq war, assumed that Saudi Arabia would pull America into a war with Iran.
But liberal internationalists are also at fault. They’re attached to US primacy, from Madeleine Albright’s invocation of America as the “indispensable nation” to Joe Biden’s foreign policy promise to “place America at the head of the table.” They seem obsessed with looking tough–which I suspect is behind the cheerleading of air strikes. They haven’t figured out a way to support human rights and a robust US international presence while also criticizing the Iraq War.
And that is the issue. Liberal internationalism is still viable, and much of the world depends on America’s continued support of this grand strategy. But US foreign policy debates revolve around that horrific and illegal invasion of March 20th, 2003, rather than the full set of policies we could adopt.
UPDATE: Edited to fix a typo
Professor Henne, it’s hard to understand how so many people focus so completely on the events after 9/11 as if they are independent of the event itself. The question of how the community of nations order themselves is clearly a very important question. But it’s not the most urgent question of the day. The last two most murderous and illegal wars of aggression were committed by the United States after false flag events were staged to move us to support war. Perhaps Vietnam is too far back for your concern, but 9/11 shouldn’t be and it was also a false flag event.
The evidence for that is very visible. The characteristics of the collapses of all three buildings at the World Trade Center makes it clear they were destroyed through controlled demolition. Ignoring those characteristics for just a second, these collapses should never have been considered anything other than controlled demolition since not one high-rise steel-superstructure building in the 100-years of building skyscrapers has ever been completely destroyed by fire (NIST’s final word on what caused the collapses), much less three on a single day.
But the visible characteristics of the collapses take the indication given by the history of how infrequently these buildings have been completely destroyed by fire from “seems improbable” to “it’s impossible.” Specifically, all three asymmetrically-damaged buildings collapse symmetrically. That can’t happen. All three fell at (or very near) free fall acceleration through tons of supposedly undamaged steel and concrete. That’s not physically possible in a gravity-driven collapse. Finally, the smaller, weaker tops of both of the Twin Towers above the crash sites supposedly collapsed crushing the stronger, heavier, and much larger bottom portions of the buildings in defiance of Newton’s third law of motion (…every action has an equal and opposite reaction…). In other words, the top 15 stories of the North Tower could only potentially crush something less than the next 15 floors down because as the top was crushing, it was also being crushed.
Not until we deal with the beginning of the Neo-Con Wars will we be ready to deal with the questions of how we–the nations of the world–can find a way to operate together as though we all lived on the same very small planet. 9/11 was an inside job and ignoring that in columns such as this one is–shall we say–a perfect Judith Miller moment for the columnist.
Exposing the world to the reality of false flags (in combination with sociopath-studded leadership at the tops of most countries) is the first step in beginning a new conversation on how we can live here without killing ourselves.
Thank you for hearing my concerns. Phillip
A rules-based order ought to be a source of stability during the developing Sino-American rivalry, but liberal internationalism seems like a source of instability instead. It ought to be stabilizing, because states assured of their physical security are encouraged to compete on quality; Who can become the most influential in global bodies and who can provide the most public goods or generate the most valuable network effects? Formal equality between states puts a limit to ideological competition, since regimes of any type may refer to the same schedule of rights and privileges without concern that regimes of another sort will eradicate them.
But liberal internationalism as a policy program in the United States means both support for rules between states and a revolutionary program to remake the character of states. Namely, they should be remade into liberal democracies, which are also amenable to American primacy. The revolutionary cause undermines the promises of the rules-based order by casting into doubt the territorial integrity of states, establishing a primus-inter-pares, and truncating some states’ right to participate in global bodies. There’s always the risk that the leading power will declare a state immoral and demand it be severed from global markets and global governance bodies, or, in extremis, declare that the state has no validity at all and ought to be destroyed.
As an aside: Saudi Arabia and Iran seem to form an instructive pair. Both are tyrannies at home and both are programmatically anti-democratic abroad, but one is accepted as a member of the rules-based order despite being a tyranny and one is targeted for reordering to bring about liberal democracy. In other words, Saudi Arabia gets one version of liberal internationalism (focused on rules for interaction regardless of regime quality) and Iran gets the other (focused on bringing about liberal democracy and alignment with America). Obviously that external force is only one factor in Iran’s misery – Iran’s revolutionary government is remarkably bad and purposefully antagonizes other countries – but it is still a factor. If Iran were permitted to conduct business abroad as Saudi Arabia is, then the people of Iran would be financially and socially better off. Or, should we say the opposite that Saudi citizens are harmed by their nation’s good standing and would be better served by a vigorous campaign to destroy the regime? Are we acting prudently by accepting an obviously bad regime as a rights-bearing member of the state system or are we doing better by attempting to force a bad regime to conform to good governance and basic human liberties?
The revolutionary program isn’t necessarily wrong. I’m not sure that tyrannies deserve mutual recognition between states. I don’t see any particular reason to pretend that North Korea is a good member of the global community or that the Khmer Rouge deserved formal equality with all other states. I certainly would not be satisfied living without basic rights and opportunities. But the revolutionary aim of remaking states as liberal democracies (which also happen to be more congenial to American primacy) is disruptive. It does not acknowledge the equal security of states and, in practice, imposes large costs on civilians. The language of liberal internationalism is also used to justify violations of international law like the Iraq war or the intervention in Bosnia. Whether you approve of them or not, they were liberal internationalist projects that violated the rules-based order in the name of values-based outcomes. For better and for worse, they prioritized ideological aims over legal formality.
The attempts to impose democracy through violence have not gone especially well. Kosovo remains in a perilous state of half-acknowledgment, Bosnia and Iraq are kleptocracies with ethnically-charged patronage networks but some real democratic space, the Afghan state was a farce, while the sanctions regimes in Iran and Venezuela have created much additional poverty but little political progress. The Iran deal, however, was a moment of great success for internationalism both in the sense of cooperative order and in the sense of promoting America’s favored outcomes. Adding good governance and human rights conditions to aid seems prudent and, if anything, underused. The EU’s ascension process seems to have made a real difference in quality of governance and human liberty even if some members subsequently adopted a less wholesome path.
As a final thought, liberal internationalism is not necessarily in conflict with “restraint” any more than it is naturally sympatico with militarism. Liberal internationalists can insist on the equality of states, principles on non-intervention, the resolution of disputes through public bodies, and competition in terms of quality (as opposed to military contests). A rules-based state system is attractive to most regimes and the remainder are genuinely dangerous beyond their own borders. That rapprochement though would be painful on both sides. Liberal internationalists would have to insist on American obedience to international norms rather than a right to intervene, while restrainers would have to admit that some states like Iran and Russia may in fact be sources of violence and instability regardless of American actions. Even a state system composed of restrained states would still require some coercive measures to vindicate the rights of aggrieved parties and establish costs for defection.