Between Iraq and a Hard Place

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James A. Chisem

James A. Chisem is an contributor at British Online Archives. He has previously written for the BBC, The Times, and Reuters. He has also appeared on the Sunday Politics, Sky Sports, and BBC Radio 5 Live.

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20 Responses

  1. Avatar j r says:

    Fantastic post. And another data point to my set of observations that many of the best things that I read in the internet are written by people who don’t draw their primary paycheck from writing things in the internet.

    I agree with what you’re saying about neoconservativism and it’s ability to ! marginalize other competing viewpoints in the runup to the invasion of Iraq. However, I think that there is more to it. There is something about the institutional nature of our government and how it responds to political concerns that lends itself to how we respond and that those pressures run across the political spectrum. You can see this in the liberal interventionists/hawks who dominated foreign policy in the Obama administration. They were not obsessed with the ascendancy of liberal democracy or American hegemony, but humanitarianism and the needs of national security made perfect stand ins.

    When an administration needs to do something, there is a tendency to turn to those within the administration who are promising to do the most with the least and doing it with the prettiest language.Report

    • Avatar InMD in reply to j r says:

      I think what you’re describing is the phenomena best illustrated in The Guns of August. The nature of bureaucracies matters just as much as ideology, maybe even moreso.Report

    • Avatar trizzlor in reply to j r says:

      When an administration needs to do something, there is a tendency to turn to those within the administration who are promising to do the most with the least and doing it with the prettiest language.

      This is a great point. If a well-functioning company faces a challenge then the division heads or whoever get together and hash out a solution based on what each division brings to the table. I get the sense that our government doesn’t run this way, but that each department is always actively competing to low-ball the others on how achievable a problem is. I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that Congress is fundamentally structured adversarially – one side presents the strengths of their proposal and the other cross-examines – rather than as a community with shared goals discussing strengths and weaknesses.Report

    • Avatar James A. Chisem in reply to j r says:

      Thanks for the feedback.

      Yeah, that’s a very good point. I also recall reading a very interesting article that basically suggested the ‘marketplace of ideas’ is so parochial and barren that policymakers always end up falling back on the same old tropes and policies.Report

  2. Avatar Kolohe says:

    This was truly great.

    I would only caution that one cannot say that the high tech arms shock and awe campaign didn’t ‘work’. It worked very well – it worked too well. (it worked in Afghanistan too).

    The US military was able to collect the s*** out of underpants. It’s the step 2 that everyone left ????? that was the downfall. (and here’s the key, the ???? is probably not able to be filled in even by people that did their due diligence)Report

  3. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Amazing post.

    The problem with “realism” is in its name. It is not particularly idealistic.

    When you start to deal with questions like “should we overthrow this terrible dictator who has oppressed his people?” the guy who clears his throat and asks “how do we know that that won’t make things in the region worse? Hell, how do we know that that won’t make things for us worse?”, it’s very easy to see this as the guy making an implicit argument that he prefers the status quo of a terrible dictator oppressing his people to a possible world where we overthrow a dictator and give a newly free people self-determination over their own governance.

    Why is this guy asking that? Doesn’t he realize that he is, objectively, pro-dictatorship?

    And so when Murphy is proven to have been an optimist, as he always is, and when the plan disintegrates within seconds of meeting the enemy, as it always does, and when we look at what happened and ask how we could have prevented it, for some reason, we always categorize this one guy as not worth listening to because he was obviously rooting for something like this to happen since he predicted it and kept saying “told you so” instead of doing a better job of supporting the troops.Report

    • Much appreciated.

      I agree. It’s also not a particularly coherent philosophy. From what I can tell, it means ten thousand different things to ten thousand different people, though there are some core principles that set it apart from liberal internationalism and neoconservatism.

      In IR, the term was actually coined by EH Carr in his book The Twenty Years Crisis. There’s no points for guessing why he chose ‘realism’ to describe his own views and ‘idealism’ to represent the views of his liberal foils.

      But if you’re looking for a more, shall we say, optimistic, vision of realism, you might be interested in William E. Scheuerman’s ‘The Realist Case for Global Reform’.Report

      • My issue with it is less its incoherence but more its reluctance to ask “what happened the last time we tried something like this?”

        Like, remember arguments about Syria back in 2013?

        The baseline is always “here is what is happening, here is what is possible if we intervene, and is it not a moral obligation to do the thing that I said was possible?” rather than “here is what is happening, here is what happened the last half-dozen times we did something, is it not a moral obligation to avoid doing that again?”Report

  4. Avatar InMD says:

    Nothing to add, just wanted to echo the positive feedback. I greatly enjoyed the post.Report

  5. Avatar Damon says:

    “As we approach the fifteenth anniversary of the invasion, and as Islamic State spreads its tentacles far and wide, it is apparent that none of these goals have been achieved.”

    I’m sure the neocons would claim that is was the implementation that failed, not the policy.Report

  6. I enjoyed this from beginning to end, James. Nicely done.

    The thing that impresses me most about the interventionist side of the debate is their ability to get a standing $500B per year defense budget and 1.2M people on active duty (quite close to the number of full-time federal, state, and local law enforcement personnel).Report

  7. Avatar nevermoor says:

    I don’t think there was anything post-9/11 about Neo-cons or about Bush’s invasion of Iraq. 9/11 was just an excuse for an easily-predictable plan that was personal to the son of the guy who didn’t “finish the job” with Saddam.Report

  8. The upshot of this was that the United States, whose military power was unrivalled, “no longer needed to make compromises or accommodations…with any other nation or group of countries”.

    You know Who Else thought that?Report

  9. Avatar CK MacLeod says:

    Nicely done. I think what’s missing, however, are the other elements of the situation – or the “conjuncture” – that made the neo-conservative case, or its particular mixture of pessimisms and optimisms, not merely plausible, but emotionally satisfying both for policymakers and, for an extended period, the American populace or the electorate.

    The optimism of the ’90s was not merely a residue of the Gulf War, and the popularization of Fukuyama’s thesis didn’t occur just because it was attractive on its own terms. The West under American leadership in the neoconservative mode had not simply, or so it seemed, won an argument, it had “proven the naysayers wrong,” and not just in Iraq, where predictions of a bloody quagmire had turned out to be embarrassing to many of the same people making similar predictions a decade later, but in the great struggle of the Epoch, and in lesser conflicts up to and including, or seemingly including, the initial Afghanistan campaign. The pessimism about the world, or about the world if left to work things out on its own, without the benefit of American tutelage and direct intervention, seemed to have been borne out in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, on 9/11, and in and around Iraq itself, where containment and compromise had made America the custodian of Iraqi misery and slow-motion genocidal warfare against Iraqi minorities, with intermittent eruptions of military conflict and indefinite occupation of Saudi Arabia; continued uncertainty about the actual state of Iraq’s weapons programs; and violation without consequences of agreements achieved at great cost to conclude the prior conflict.

    Withdrawal or realism or erring on the side of non-intervention or however one wishes to describe the Obama Doctrine or policy typified by Syria also has costs, material and otherwise. We may have been wrong about who we were or are and what we can achieve, or at what cost, but we do not seem especially happy with ourselves as realists without a concept or mission in the world, unable to believe we can achieve anything or bear the costs.Report

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