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


Here are part one and two of this post.

The arguments below expand on my second recent JoongAng Daily op-ed on the Iraq war.

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.

20 thoughts on “Iraq 10 Years Later (3): Why the Neocon Theory behind the War Failed

  1. I have mixed feelings about this article. First, a number of journalists have written mea culpas lately. An entire issue of TNR was devoted to this. Andrew Sullivan, too, obviously. Jonathan Chait. Many others. Two, it’s in satisfying to me to say, well, the idea was ok but Bush screwed up the execution. Wars are always hard to get “right”. That’s why we shouldn’t go to war merely to make a point. Wars extract enormous costs, beyond the money and souls wasted. This war effectively relegitimized tortute for roughly half the country, after decades fortifying the moral high ground against ghastly soviet and post soviet dictatorships. It coarsened our culture, elevated militarism above what’s safe, and discredited us.

    I supported this war. At the time, the arguments seemed just not quite right to me. I remember very clearly listening to Cheney’s Cincinnati speech where he said there’s no doubt Iraq harbors WMD (a propaganda phrase). And I thought – wow, no doubt? That’s incredible. I made myself a deal at that moment – I’d decide to trust the administration, because they surely have access to intel they can’t share, and they’re not sociopaths who would lead a nation into war over a road of lies. Well, they did.

    Trusting the government to be honest was a terrible mistake. In the future, they must be expected to produce the evidence. War is too dire to leave to trust.


    • I agree with most of this. My only point here was to suggest that 1) there was a logic behind the war, and 2) a majority of Americans did support before March 2003.

      My argument that the war was popular in the US at the beginning, but then support faded as casualties rose and OIF flew off the rails is based on John Mueller’s work: I think this point has been pretty well established now for a long time. And Foud Ajami just noted this point yet again a few days ago:

      Americans supported the war, becaue the reasons sketched here were in fact persuasive to a lot of them, especially Republicans. Americans did believe Islamic fundamentalism was a big threat, and neocons are correct that the pathologies that led to 9/11 did not stem from Afghanistan, but from the Arab Middle East. Does the mean the invasion was the only possible to salafist terrorism? No. It was a terrible error, and sparked a deeply shocking American insousiance about Arab/Muslim fatalities. But it does not mean that the neocon rationale can simply be dismissed as a fig-leaf for Halliburton, Bush cockiness, the Israelis, a neocon cabal, etc., as I think the left has been too wont to do. That’s what I am trying to argue.


  2. I’ve really enjoyed this 3-part explanation of something that I was old enough to be aware of but too young to really understand at its inception. Our media (Australian) largely told us that it had something to do with WMDs that there was undisclosed evidence for (this mostly didn’t wash for those outside the US), and that the USA was not actually as virtuous as we had all been led to believe. From outside of America (but still in the Western hemisphere) most people largely stood by with a kind of incredulous resignation at the decision to go to war, and then with a rising anger as 125,000 ‘brown Muslims’ died for what the general (non-IR) public still have no real understanding of. Even today as I tutor undergrad classes, when Iraq comes up, its inevitably understood as either a thirst for oil, or a giant reaction to 9/11. As one guy put it “Osama punched the US, and the US punched back a lot f*cking harder. And missed.”

    It may not be discussed in US news media, and Obama may not mention it in his speeches, but its impossible to overstate how badly this war wrecked America’s image abroad. Drones, gun control, etc etc etc – it is all now interpreted internationally through a framework of aggressive American foreign policy and militarism. More locally, where once ANZUS was held up as a beacon of pride and security for a not-quite-middling power, its now quietly worried about as everything pivots again towards our own neighbourhood.

    Thanks for shedding some light on something that I have genuinely struggled to understand for my entire adult life. It was, as ever, illuminating.


    • I’ll remember this one: ‘As one guy put it “Osama punched the US, and the US punched back a lot f*cking harder. And missed.” ‘ That’s a great line, and I think it’s broadly correct.

      The invasion was a mistake, primarily because it was an extraordinary over-reaction to 9/11. I think the neocon theory of the war is somewhat defensible, but only somewhat. A lot of it can be picked apart and disputed, and it wasn’t – probably because of the ‘patriotic’ atmosphere after 9/11. A lot my commenters here and elsewhere seem to think I am embracing the argument. I’m not. I think I did so a little before the war. That’s why, tepidly, supported the war. And certainly, lots of other Americans did. But in retrospect, it’s very obvious where all this went wrong, and I try to say that here.

      I’m glad you found it helpful. You are kind to say so. If I recall, you have commented on my site before. You are a graduate student, yes?


      • I was on exchange at PNU during 2011. You guest-lectured a couple of times in different classes and changed my mind about the IMF (Me: “Stiglitz Stiglitz Stiglitz” you “Alright, but lets just think for a minute…”). I’ve lurked on the blog ever since, and only recently had the cojones to post.

        I know you have been misunderstood on DoM, but I want to reassure you that you don’t sound like an apologist for or embracer of the Neocon argument. Nor does any of it come across as post-hoc reasoning (on anyone’s part). Throughout the 3 posts, it just doesn’t read that way. Your personal (re)position is very clearly separated from what you posit as the Neocon reasons for war and I don’t see that as problematic at all.


  3. Bravo, once again Professor. What courage to write this. It is sad to see you attacked on ‘Duck of Minerva’ at cause to it. I am always saddened when folks on the right and left feel that they hold the absolute truth. Your military analysis was excellent. Excellent! Especially the mention of the un-learning of counter-insurgency by the US military establishment after Vietnam. In addition, the Administration kept inept leadership in charge (except General Sanchez) for years after the war effort was in dire straights. Unlike successful persecution of our wars in the past that saw Generals sacked on the spot for incompetence, we seem to be beyond this era of accountability.

    I must say that you are ahead of your peers. Many professional military magazines in the US have begun writing this sort of self-realization. No holds bar, looking at the mirror self-examination. Whether this transfers to the top is another story. I do hope that Secretary Hagel, being an enlisted Soldier, a decorated infantry Sergeant in the jungles of South East Asia will bring back accountability across all ranks. After all, he had to follow orders given to him by Generals and Colonels in Vietnam. Now it is the other way around and he brings with him the perspective of one who saw and experienced the results of those orders first hand.

    I have enjoyed this series.


    • Thanks. I think a lot of the DoM commenters miss that I’m trying to explain the argument, not endorse it. And there seems to be resistance to the idea that the neocons were smart guys who did have a theory behind the war, and that theory did convince a lot of people. The war was not some hijinks for oil or some neocon conspiracy. I don’t know why this notion is so persistent.

      That said, the neocon theory was also wrong, and I try to show why here. It would sure be nice if neocons lived up to that at this point. That they refuse to, is the reason why this post series provoked people, I think.

      Thanks for reading.


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  7. Im not sure if you wrote about this in another segment somewhere, but I distinctly remember watching presentations made by neocon hawks in the run up to the Iraq war showing how it would pay for itself with oil revenues within a year.

    The story went something like this: we will wipe out Saddam and his army rapidly, the Iraqis will embrace us as liberators and take over their country, we will increase Iraq’s underproduction of oil through American modernization in cooperation with the oil companies, and the Iraqi’s will be happy to let us take a bunch of the money as payment for liberating them.

    This level of hubris to someone outside of the United States was disgusting and is the reason why many of the US’s traditional NATO allies wanted nothing to do with this Iraq misadventure. The whole reason for the war shifted month to month. It was yellowcake uranium, it was mushroom clouds, it was his stockpiles of WMD, it was freedom for the Iraqi people, it was to bring democracy to the wider middle east.

    Eventually, it became something more easily explained: a quagmire. After making such a disasterous mess of Iraq (mostly by throwing any baathist out of the government on day one, which meant that there was no government, no police, no civilization left) the US had to stay there to try to provide some level of basic security because they unleashed a sectarian war.

    In reality, the US needs to realize that the middle east is culturally very different from the west. There are reasons why Mubarak and Assad and Saddam and Ghaddafi were the only guys who could hold these countries together for so long. When you let the proletariat out from under the thumb of the dictator, they fray out along sectarian lines and start killing each other with wanton abandon.

    In Syria, this is playing out right now in it’s natural fashion. A rebellion has attempted to overthrow the dictator. The rebel forces will need to unite to succeed. If they dont unite, Assad will eventually crush the rebellion and the proletariat will tire of the bloodshed and go home to lick their wounds. if they do, they will overthrow Assad and they will be at least somewhat united going into the creation of a new regime to replace him.

    The US, however loves to create messes. Now they want to launch cruise missiles at Assad, weaken him, supply arms to the “rebels” (of whom at least half are Al Queda linked terrorists, the same group that was fighting the US on the streets of Iraq), hasten the whole situation, and then end up dragged into stopping the sectarian violence consume the nation for the next 10 years.

    The US needs to cut its military budget by 50% and use the money to solve their own homegrown problems. Like the $1Tn structural deficit, or the fact that they are printing $500bn a year to pay their own debts like the end of Soviet Russia. The US has played global policeman ever since the fall of the Soviet Union and has done a disastrous job. Time for them to take a breather and try something else, like rebuilding their economy so their biggest export is no longer jobs.


    • Well, I certainly agree with the US taking a breather. Obama said nation-building begins at home, and I am still waiting for that to happen. And clearly, US national security does not really require so many interventions in so many far-away places. I try to argue something like this in my essay today at the Diplomat:

      I also agree that the neocons hoodwinked us all on how easy Iraq 2 would be. That is the big lesson, IMO: to be vastly more cautious about unintended consequences and possess deep local knowledge so that we know what we’re doing when we go into these places.

      Thanks for the long comment.


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