Are We Better Off: The End of Empire

The war in Iraq was supposed to launch a bold new American foreign policy. But has the neoconservatives’ grandiose dream ended before it began?

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These days, even the staunchest advocates of the Bush administration’s plan to overthrow Saddam Hussein and remake Iraq are hard-pressed to square their predictions about how things would turn out with what has actually happened — and failed to happen — on the ground. Saddam Hussein had no nuclear arsenal; Iraqi oil revenues were insufficient to cover even a fraction of the cost of the reconstruction; U.S. troops have earned the enmity of many of the Iraqis who had supported the invasion; and far from becoming a bastion of U.S.-style democracy, Iraq’s future is likely to be determined by a Shiite religious hierarchy that has little sympathy for any meaningful separation of church and state. Thus do neoconservative dreams turn to dust in Iraq.

Dreams, it has turned out, cannot always be converted into realities, no matter how smart, determined, and powerful you are. In a country that uses the phrase “American Dream” proudly and without irony, this sobering thought may not gain much traction in normal times. But these are not normal times, and as a triumphal military campaign to overthrow Saddam has turned into a bitter and seemingly inconclusive occupation, many Americans who supported the war have begun to realize that they were misled. The vision of a Middle East recast in America’s image has turned out to be wishful thinking. And instead of being the first step in a long campaign of regional social engineering at the point of an M-16, Iraq appears more likely to be an exception than a rule. The American public may give its leaders the benefit of the doubt during wartime, but sooner or later a healthy skepticism returns, no matter how much an administration keeps fostering a sense of national emergency.

The war came about because of a perfect storm, a confluence between forces that included: neoconservatives bent on transforming the Middle East; old-fashioned American nationalists like Donald Rumsfeld whose 19th-century model, suitably updated, was the expeditionary war against the Barbary pirates (a matter of sending out the troops to kill the republic’s enemies and then bringing them home); those who believed that America looked weak after 9/11 and that someone had to be made an example of; those for whom reliance on Saudi oil had become too dangerous and Iraq beckoned as an alternative; and, finally, a Congress traumatized by 9/11 and deprived of almost all will to resist the administration. It is a convergence unlikely to be repeated for a very long time.

The war on terrorism makes sense to Americans because they view it, legitimately, as a war of self-defense. But Iraq seems less and less like such a war. Instead, it seems more and more like a foreign adventure, fought for reasons other than the ones cited by the Bush administration. The disappointing course of the occupation may well have discredited the more flamboyant claims of the war’s neoconservative supporters, and, as a result, immunized the public against further adventures of this type for the foreseeable future. No matter what the Coalition Provisional Authority and the Pentagon may say, the public senses that the occupation of Iraq demonstrates the limitations — rather than the potential — of military power.

All governments lie to their people; what is remarkable, and worrying, is the extent to which officials in Washington, and their emissaries in Baghdad, appear to be lying to themselves. To people who spend more time with Iraqis than with Americans, the U.S. occupation headquarters in Baghdad can often seem like an alternate universe. It is full of purposeful, dedicated, astonishingly driven and hardworking people whose account of what is taking place in the country simply does not seem to coincide with what most of us see every day. And the longer one stays in Iraq — I have spent more than four months there since the fall of Baghdad — the more puzzling and self-destructive the administration’s stance comes to appear. To hear U.S. officials in Baghdad tell it, for example, anti-U.S. feeling in Iraq is limited to a small minority of Iraqis. In fact, of course, many of the overwhelming majority of Iraqis who welcomed the U.S. invasion now despise the U.S. occupation — a perfectly reasonable distinction that nonetheless seems to be lost on both supporters and opponents of U.S. policy in Iraq.

It would be comforting to believe that this blindness is simply due to the extent to which U.S. officials, largely for security reasons, are cut off from ordinary Iraqis. But the problem goes far deeper than that. Again and again, while talking to U.S. officials both in Iraq and Washington, I have had the sense that their confidence in the mission was less a matter of reasoned judgment than of faith.

The mindset is one of having a virtual monopoly on truth. The United States is the benign hegemon. It alone has truly understood the challenge posed by terrorists and rogue states and has taken the necessary measures to combat this threat. Those who do not share this assessment are either cowards, appeasers, or useful idiots of the terrorists.

There is something quasi-religious about this worldview, something eerily reminiscent of the old Protestant notion of the Elect of God, privileged, or perhaps burdened, by knowledge and responsibilities others have been spared. To those convinced of their own rectitude, convinced that the fate of the world depends on their ability to act, the details of making the case that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction seem to have appeared almost trivial. No wonder one former U.S. intelligence analyst referred to the administration’s penchant for “faith-based intelligence.”

This combination of the intellectual’s belief in the power of ideas and the nationalist’s belief in American exceptionalism is what marked the neoconservative movement from its beginnings — and what made it so appealing to the Bush administration. In 2000, candidate Bush had argued against expanding U.S. commitments abroad, had derided the Clinton administration’s nation-building efforts in the Balkans, and had cast a skeptical eye on what he saw as excessive U.S. involvement in the Middle East peace process. But after 9/11, the administration needed a set of ideas to underpin its response to the terrorist attacks — in other words, an ideology. The neoconservatives’ “philosophical warfare,” with its good-versus-evil typology, fit the bill perfectly.

Now, though, the neoconservatives are no longer in the ascendant. Right-wing think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the Project for the New American Century might continue to carry the torch for the grand project of remaking the Islamic Middle East, but in political terms it has become clear that this is a nonstarter. Public-opinion polls demonstrate that there is very limited support for further military adventures in the Middle East (except in cases of a specific perceived threat). Having succeeded in many ways, the neoconservative movement has clearly failed to build a broad-based domestic constituency for its views. It remains what it always was, a largely inside-the-Beltway phenomenon.

And even in Washington policy circles, the neoconservatives’ vision — and especially their reliance on military force as the key instrument in U.S. foreign policy — has lost support. Some hawks within the administration now concede that between Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Korean peninsula, the U.S. military is stretched to the breaking point, with “10 Army divisions doing 12 divisions’ work,” as Senator John McCain has put it. Even before the war, many American senior officers had grave reservations about the wisdom of pre-emptive, unilateral war:  “Colin Powell is my secretary of defense, not those neocons,” was the way one midgrade officer put it to me in February of 2003. The fact that by the time the current troop rotation is completed, nearly 40 percent of U.S. forces on the ground in Iraq will come from the National Guard and Reserves tells you all you need to know about how little appetite there is in Washington for continued aggressive military action in Iraq.

Of course, it is conceivable that after the election, if Bush wins, the pendulum will swing back once more. The neoconservatives may be in retreat, but some of the most significant impulses they represent did not originate with them and will not disappear with them; a version of those impulses dates back to the founding of the republic. (It was Benjamin Franklin who wrote that America’s cause “is the cause of all mankind”; it was Robert Kagan who recently claimed that the United States must act “in ways that benefit all humanity or, at the very least, the part of humanity that shares its liberal principles.”)

But at its inception, and through most of U.S. history, the mainstream interpretation of the American revolutionary project was that it was about serving as an example — “the shining city on the hill” — and not about remaking the world in its image by force of arms. Spreading democracy by military means was the historical ambition of that other revolutionary Western democracy, France. It is ironic that the same neoconservatives who despise the French more than perhaps any other people are far closer to the armies of Robespierre or Napoleon in their approach to spreading “the idea of freedom” (the phrase is Douglas Feith’s) than they are to Washington, Jefferson, or Adams.

The change in the American understanding of the fundamental purpose of foreign wars — a change that Woodrow Wilson began with his “war to end all wars” — became institutionalized during World War II and the Cold War. These were wars as zero-sum games, with no outcome viewed as acceptable, moral even, except total victory. Whether it was Roosevelt demanding the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan, Kennedy promising that the United States would “pay any price, bear any burden” to defend liberty (an astonishing claim when you think about it: any price? any burden?), or Reagan describing the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” the conflict was one between good and evil. The only administrations to almost completely buck this apocalyptic trend were those of Richard Nixon and, to some extent, George Herbert Walker Bush.

Still, the current neoconservative vision is very different in scope, and to some degree in substance, from traditional American exceptionalism. In particular, its faith in unilateral military action goes very much against the American grain. Not only have Americans generally regarded foreign adventures with skepticism, but the strategy of going it alone has rarely been popular over the long term — particularly when it attracts criticisms from America’s closest allies. That is why British participation in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, useful though dispensable in military terms, was indispensable in political terms. And the fact that it would be impossible for Tony Blair to join a U.S. attack on Syria, let alone Iran, is not the least of the impediments to such future campaigns.

Proponents of an imperial America may view domestic policy as a distraction (writing in the New Republic, one conservative pundit said he supported Senator Lieberman for president and didn’t much care about the senator’s domestic record). But for the public, foreign intervention comes second to the nation’s needs at home. They need to be persuaded that a war is necessary for their own well-being. What has happened since the fall of Baghdad is that this claim, always debated, has come to many to seem false.

Of course the United States will act in its own interest and will usually do what it can get away with doing. But self-interest would seem to demand that any U.S. administration not act in ways that deepen anti-American feeling, serve as a recruiting slogan for the Osama bin Ladens of this world, exacerbate tensions with many of America’s principal trading partners, and distract the administration’s attention from crises that are either more important (Korea) or closer to home (Haiti, Mexico, Colombia). Events on the ground in Iraq every day, from attacks on U.S. forces to the Shiite mobilization, demonstrate that the administration overestimated the transformative power of military action; the burgeoning deficit suggests that this was a war the United States could ill afford. It was this due diligence that the neoconservative theorists of the war never carried out.

The United States has so much power that, barring a miracle, it is difficult to see how the temptation to use it unwisely will ever disappear. But there is a profound difference between a temptation and a fait accompli. The license of the powerful — and it is a terrible license — can be exercised or not exercised. That, in a democracy, is a political choice. The failure of the neoconservative vision for Iraq has created an opening for debating this choice by bringing under scrutiny — for the first time since 9/11 — the set of assumptions that presents the United States as a revolutionary power whose destiny it is to lead the world toward the promised land by force of arms.

With the doctrine of pre-emptive war, the Bush administration went far beyond the utopian credos of America’s founders — or even of Wilson, Roosevelt, and Reagan.
It is, fundamentally, a doctrine of endless war. Only the organizational skills and ideological determination of the neoconservatives and the trauma of 9/11 obscured that fact for a time. But as the reality of what occupying Iraq has really involved sinks in, it is doubtful such a doctrine can be maintained. And in a time when there is not much good news, that is very good news indeed.


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