The Iraq War didn’t kill liberal internationalism, just our ability to debate it

21 March 2023, 1410 EDT

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