Iraq 10 Years Later (2): What was the Neocon Theory behind the War?


This post is in three parts; here are one and three. I published a laymen version of the following arguments (part two) in my recent JoongAng Daily op-ed.

My first thoughts on the war’s ten year anniversary are here. There I asked if there was any defensible theory behind the war, anything that might explain what why we launched the war, because weapons of mass destruction were not really the reason. Paul Wolfowitz notoriously admitted they were just a pretext to rally the country behind the invasion. And it wasn’t really about pre-emption either; Iraq was hardly a looming military threat in 2003. So here’s my guess of the real neoconservative logic. I should say up front, I do not endorse this rationale. I’m just trying to lay it out what I think neocons were saying to each other in 2002:

The Iraq invasion was to serve two purposes. 1) It was to be a demonstration strike against the Arabs. Gulf anti-western pathologies lead to 9/11, so the Iraq invasion was a warning to Arabs, and Muslims generally, to never to attack the US like that again. As Cheney put it in the film W, ‘don’t ever f— with us again.’ 2) It was to be a hammer strike to break the frozen, horribly dysfunctional Arab political status quo which generated those pathologies; this would force the region toward democracy it would never attain on its own. This thinking was summarized in the widely used expression at the time, ‘drain the swamp.’

A lot of people will (and did) accuse the neocons of orientalism, racism, and US hegemonic arrogance. Nevertheless I’ve always thought this neocon argument was somewhat convincing to most Americans, especially the GOP. I’ve always thought it was the horribly botched execution of the war (‘fiasco’), not the idea itself of ‘draining the swamp,’ that cost the invasion American public opinion support. I also don’t think the neocon argument was ever properly made to the US public, probably because it sounds both orientalist and hubristic. This is not the sort of argument the Bush administration could make out loud; WMD was much easier to sell and far more direct, as Wolfowitz noted. But I think if you read neocons like Kristol, Krauthammer, Gerecht, or Podhoretz, as well as high profile area experts like Thomas Friedman, Fareed Zakaria, or Bernard Lewis, or the right-wing thinks-tanks that supported the war (AEI, Heritage, Foundation for Defense of Democracies), this is what you heard. (For example: this, this, this, this, or this). I once participated in the FDDs’ terrorism fellowship program, and this was pretty much the line we got.

So you may not like the argument, but at least there is one. The war cannot just be dismissed as US imperialism, an oil grab, or a PNAC/neocon cabal, which I think was too often the default position on the left, especially in Europe, during the war. Opponents should rebut this and not just stick to deriding W the swaggering cowboy, fun as that may be.

So I’ll try to write up the argument in neocon parlance:

“1. The anti-western pathologies that lead to 9/11 were Gulf Arab in origin, not Afghani. The perpetrators were not acting for a Taliban, Pashtun, or any meaningfully ‘Afghan’ reason. Al Qaeda only hid among the Taliban. Hence invading Afghanistan was not really a response to 9/11. That’s a key claim. Instead, that war was a ‘flushing out’ of these Arab jihadists from their only weakly affiliated hiding place. And it is pretty well known now that the Taliban became increasingly uncomfortable with al Qaeda. OBL and co. were drawing lots of global attention to Afghanistan, and the Taliban were not finished conquering the whole country in September 2001.

2. The Gulf at the time was a ‘swamp’ that need to be ‘drained.’ [This neocon language is fairly loaded of course. Area experts would almost certainly call it ‘orientalism,’ because it makes sweeping judgments about the Arabs based on thin cultural knowledge. But I think this is a fair rendering of the neocon conviction that Arab governance could only be reformed by an external shock.] The Middle East – at the time, long before Arab Spring – was simultaneously dysfunctional and paralyzed. Corruption, dictatorship, rentierist corporatism, repression, cultural insularity, and religious fundamentalism (veering toward fanaticism in Gulf especially) was a toxic brew, kicking up nasty radicals like OBL and Zawahiri. All the hijackers were Arab, and 15 of them from Saudi Arabia alone, the most politically and theologically regressive Gulf tyranny.

The result of this reactionary status quo was intense social alienation, leading inevitably to extremism at the fringe, coupled with a manipulation of religion as the one trusted social institution left. As in the Soviet Union, the only meaningful civil society institution not wholly penetrated or corrupted by the repressive state and its secret police (mukhābarāt) was religion. In the Arab case (but curiously not the Soviet one), the political opposition therefore became ‘religion-ized’ – in this case, islamicized. The result was a corrupt, nasty, right-wing nationalist-corporatist state repressing an even more right-wing fundamentalist opposition with frighteningly medieval social beliefs about women, Jews, homosexuals, and others. To contain salafism in the opposition and co-opt Islam for legitimacy purposes, a lot of cultural ground was ceded by the state to reactionary religious groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Arab Islam was becoming both politicized and radicalized. Left and liberal alternatives, by contrast, had all but dried up since the 70s, leaving only a few western-trained liberals floating around places like the American University of Cairo.

And then 9/11 demonstrated that the salafist pathologies building up in the Middle East were no longer containable to the region. The Arab political crisis was attaining a scary theological edge to it and now impacting non-Arabs.

3. These forces of dysfunction were too interlocked to change from within. The status quo was so set, that ‘waiting for the Arab ME to change on its own was like waiting for Godot – it will never happen,’ as I remember one commentator saying at the time. (Again this was long before Arab Spring surprised us all with the sudden explosion of popular, not immediately Islamic fundamentalist, energy in the wider population.) Aid, diplomacy, US soft power, and other tools were not enough to challenge this congealed swamp of dysfunction. Hence the only way to change the Arab status quo that had given us Islamic fundamentalism and its extreme fringe in binladenism, was a ‘hammer strike’ or ‘lightning blow,’ ideally in the very heart of the Middle East – an invasion somewhere. Given that Saddam was already an established troublemaker who’d hung on far too long, and that Iraq was a large Arab state right in the center of the ME, and that we couldn’t invade Saudi Arabia because we were so dependent on their oil, or Egypt because they were an ally, Iraq was a good choice.

In months and years after Iraq, I remember lots of students saying that this neocon analysis actually suggests that we should have invaded Saudi Arabia. Al Qaeda was very was much a Saudi organization at the time, and the flat-earth, petrodollar-fueled Saudi clerical establishment is the worst purveyor of Islamic intolerance in the world. One might also suggest Egypt, as the largest Arab state, the traditional center of Arab learning, and the birthplace of Sayyad Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood. But for obvious reasons, these targets were off-limits. That leaves Iraq. (Iran was too big, and Persian.)

Only a massive ‘shock and awe’ event could disrupt this deeply-entrenched Arab political paralysis that was also breeding radicals in the shadows. The goal was not to make Iraq into full-blown western democracy – even neocons knew that was too ambitious. But this hammer strike would push a major Arab state onto a radically new, more liberal, more democratic course. Even if Iraq didn’t turn out to be Canada, if it ended up like Turkey, that would be a big step forward, and show that Arab states could be politically pluralist.

4) The war then was to provide an unmistakable demonstration effect throughout the ME, and the world. As Rumsfeld might say, if you tangle with the US, like on 9/11, we will kick the hell out of you. The war was (supposed) to be a demonstration strike telling governments everywhere, but especially in Muslim states, to change, quickly: crack down on terrorists in your own house and start liberalizing to defuse the pathologies driving the jihadists, or the US will come after you next. Lest we forget, at the time, the Bush administration was considering attacking other countries after Iraq  And this macho American a—kicking mentality fit perfectly with Bush’s you’re-with-us-or-with-the-terrorists mindset on the GWoT.”

Again, I don’t endorse this logic. Among other problems, it conveniently sidesteps American provocations in the region, but I think it needs to be out there. I think particularly Middle East area experts’ commentary would be most valuable on this.

My next post – part three – is on why I think this argument failed.

11 thoughts on “Iraq 10 Years Later (2): What was the Neocon Theory behind the War?

  1. Pingback: The Iraq War, A Disgrace | Infidelworld

  2. I think leftish intellectuals and academics see a large role for US interventions as an “external shock’ which destroyed any credible leftist, social democratic, liberal (in the European sense) or even centrist alternatives since they were all associated with the kind of nationalism which would want to be independent of European/American influence and designs. so there’s colonial/imperial/hegemony theory right there.

    I think there is a case to be made that this “external shock” of US intervention was significant in places like Iran, though I have started to think that this factor has become over-used for the region – so that leftish academics will use “US interventions” as general hand-waving explanations for all negative outcomes in the area. i think institutional theory – esp. with invocations of path dependence and all that – probably do a better job of explaining outcomes. then again, it seems to me that the simple procedure of including “USSR” in the “external shock” category brings a lot empirical rigor to this theory and would “increase the R-squared” (haha)


    • oh whoops – said “external shock” destroyed any nationalist/possibly-emancipatory alternatives, alienated and radicalized the population, and increased the population’s receptivity to fundamentalist/right-wing/xenophobic alternatives.

      but it seems to me that this account also has problems dealing with the Arab Spring – but what theories do *well* re: Arab Spring, anyways? none of the area experts or political mobilization experts seemed to have seen it coming either

      social science is hard, sigh


      • My own sense of the most debatable part of this analysis is whether an external shock was necessary to improve Arab governance, and so start defusing the pathologies that led to 9/11. Today, no one would say that because of Arab Spring. Arab Spring is proving the region can change on its own. But in 2002, I think a lot people thought the Arab status quo was both solid and dangerouos. Hence, an external shock was necessary.


  3. Very good arguments (Mr. Lee and the Professor), propably the most honest and educated blog post on this subject that I have read. The rest seem to be the useful, oil grab business. Very courageous of you to write this, Professor. Bravo!


  4. Pingback: Iraq 10 Years Later (3): Why the Neocon Theory behind the War Failed | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  5. Pingback: Guest Post – Tom Nichols: “Iraq War Debate too Driven by Bush Resentment: A Response to Bob Kelly’s Iraq Posts” » Duck of Minerva

  6. Pingback: Guest Post – Tom Nichols: “Bob Kelly was Wrong (and Right) about the Iraq War” | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  7. Pingback: Iraq 10 Years Later (1): How Culpable is Academic International Relations? | Robert E Kelly

  8. Pingback: Iraq 10 Years Later (3): Why the Neocon Theory behind the War Failed | Robert E Kelly

  9. Pingback: The Iraq War after Twenty Years: There was a Neocon Theory of the War, but It was Packed with Tricky Assumptions and Demanded Excellent Execution. So yeah, Let’s Never Do that Again | Robert E Kelly

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