No, ‘American Sniper’ is Not the greatest American War Movie; it’s actually quite Conventional

Watching Fox News has always been a weird attraction. The hysteria, the persecution-complex, the frightening belligerence, the Obama conspiracy theories – what’s not to love? While I was home over Christmas, I saw more than my usual share, and the non-stop adulation coverage of American Sniper was really noticeable.

At last, the Iraq war movie neocons had been waiting for! Faith, family, nationalism, shooting foreigners (lots of foreigners actually) without much remorse, no tough questions about why the war was fought. It was a ‘Jacksonian’s’ dream, and predictably Limbaugh, Beck, Palin, and the rest swooned for it. And I say that not as some carping lefty, but as someone who supported the war far too long after it was clear that it was a messy failure.

That the right lionized the movie hardly disqualifies it of course. And it is a good film. But the meme emerged that this was somehow the greatest US war movie ever. That’s not even close to true. American Sniper is actually quite conventional. So now that the hype is fading, here is a run-through of the all-too-familiar aspects of the movie.

The review follows the jump and was first published at the Lowy Institute (here).

PS: The best American war movie ever made is almost certainly Apocalypse Now, and the worst is The Green Berets.

Final Iraq Post – from the Archives: My 2007 Essay in Support of the Iraq Surge


Back when I was at Ohio State University in graduate school, I was solicited by a friend to write for a start-up journal in political science, the OSU Journal of Politics and International Affairs. My essay is no longer findable through their website – their archive doesn’t go back to the first issue – but my essay at the time was on the surge debate. Given that I’ve been talking about Iraq for the last month here, I thought I’d put this up; it’s not available elsewhere anymore. This is the unaltered text from the spring 2007. I feel like I did pretty well actually. I still agree with most of what I wrote 6 years ago in the midst of the war’s worst days:

One Last Chance in Iraq for a Sustainable War on Terror

The sense that the United States is losing the war (or more precisely, the peace) in Iraq is palpable. The cable news networks are filled with images of burning cars and markets. The Bush administration seems almost paralyzed – reciting only bromides about freedom and democracy as the long-predicted post-sovereignty civil war seems already to have begun. New York Times pundits like Paul Krugman and Thomas Friedman increasing see a negotiated, half-and-half, ‘at-least-its-better-than-Saddam’ outcome as the most likely scenario. Centrist/liberal supporters of the war, like the Economist and the New Republic are publishing a flurry of criticism that we are ‘losing the peace’ despite having won the war. Even conservatives like the Wall Street Journal and the Weekly Standard, stalwart defenders of the war, have backed away from higher hopes of a democratic, liberal Iraq which the President outlined.

But the growing Iraqi withdrawal debate is wrong-headed. The pullout mooted by such diverse figures as Senator Charles Hagel, Jon Stewart, and Cindy Sheehan would be catastrophic, and our growing national fantasy with its imminence is hazardous. It creates an unreal expectation that ignores the probable post-withdrawal bloodbath, emboldens the insurgents to hang tough, gives false comfort to military families especially, and tempts the Democrats to abdicate responsible policy input for cheap political shots.

Continue reading

Guest Post – Tom Nichols: “Bob Kelly was Wrong (and Right) about the Iraq War”

imagesCAI6BD5TI am happy to invite my friend Tom Nichols to guest-post about the continuing Iraq War debate. Tom responded so substantially to my original post series on the war (one, two, three), that I invited him to provide a longer write-up. Tom is a professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct professor in the Harvard Extension School. His blog can be found here, his twitter here. His opinions of course are his own, so whenever he says I’m wrong, you probably shouldn’t listen… REK

I’ve been reading Bob’s thoughts – cogent as always – on the 10th anniversary of Iraq. I reject Bob’s exploration of the “culpability” of the IR field for providing any kind of intellectual infrastructure for the war, mostly because I don’t think anyone in Washington, then or now, listens to us, and for good reason. Joe Nye long ago lamented that lack of influence elsewhere, and others agree (by “others” I mean “me”). So I won’t rehearse it here.

Bob and I sort of agree that the outcome of the war doesn’t say much about the prescience of at least some of the war’s opponents: there were people whose default position was almost any exercise of U.S. power is likely to be bad, and they don’t get points for being right by accident.

Continue reading

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

gulf_war_poster1The 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?

Continue reading

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


I published a laymen version of the following arguments 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.

Continue reading

Iraq 10 Years Later (1): How Culpable is Academic International Relations?


I’ve been thinking a lot about the war this month. I’ll be teaching it in the next few weeks at school because of the decade anniversary (March 20). To my mind, it is the most important geopolitical event, for the US, possibly the planet, since the USSR’s collapse. It also pre-occupies me to this day, because I initially supported it, and didn’t really turn against it until 2008/09. I had students who told me, late in the war, that I was the only instructor they knew who still supported the invasion. Finally, I gave in, and accepted the by-then conventional wisdom that the war was a ‘fiasco.’ I will argue in my next post in a few days, that there was in fact an at least minimally defensible argument for the war, but the execution of it was so awful, disorganized, mismanaged, and incompetent, that any moral justification was lost in the sea of blood and torture we unleashed.

The whole episode became just shameful, and regularly teaching and conferencing with non-Americans these last few years has made this so painfully clear. My students particularly are just bewildered to the point of incredulity. Again and again, the basic thought behind the questions is, ‘what the hell happened to you people? 9/11 made you lose your minds there?’ *sigh* (NB: when Asians ask me about guns in the US, the ‘what the hell is wrong with you people?’ bafflement is the same.)

Hence, the post title purposefully implies that the invasion was a bad idea. But to be fair, that should be the first question: what, if any, arguments at this point can be mustered to defend the war? IR should try to answer this seriously, because I’m all but positive that the journalistic debate will be not be driven by the state of Iraq or US foreign policy today, but by the high personal reputational costs faced by so many pundits supportive of the war. It would not surprise me at all if folks like the Kagans, Krauthammer, or Thomas Friedman miraculously found that the war was worth it after all. McNamara-style mea culpas only happen at the end of a career (so I give Sullivan and Fukuyama credit for theirs on Iraq). But academic international relations (IR) should be more honest than that.

Continue reading

The Iraqis don’t Want Us in Country & We have to Accept that


So it’s official now – or at least it really, really looks official this time. We are leaving Iraq at the end of the year. I mentioned this in class, to which I received nearly universal student skepticism. We are covering the Vietnam war now in my US foreign policy class, and we are discussing how America’s involvement there was far longer than the standard images we have from the Vietnam war movies we have all seen. From around the mid-40s to the mid-70s, the US was in Vietnam in one way or another, and most of my students simply assume that the US will be in Iraq even when we aren’t in Iraq. (Hah! Foreigners just expect US semi-imperialism and don’t believe us anyway when we say we are leaving. That in itself says something.)

And indeed it does look like we will leave behind a small army of contractors (armed in some way or other) and a large embassy staff. On top of that are the recently announced plans to beef up the US presence elsewhere in the Gulf – again creating the foggy, ‘we aren’t in Iraq but we still sorta are’ vibe that everyone is wondering about.

But removing easily identifiable, very public combat forces (i.e., warfighters on the ground) from Iraq is obviously a pretty big break. And the Obama administration very publicly wanted to stay beyond the scheduled departure date (end of 2011). But the US wanted immunity for US forces in Iraq under a new Status of Forces Agreement. The Iraqis didn’t want that, so Obama had to give, and the 2011 deadline will be held. It is worth noting that the 2011 deadline was originally set by the Bush administration in 2008 in the wake of the surge, which should dim, IMO, the criticism from the right on this one. But still, there is now the (inevitable I suppose) backlash from neocons. (Here too.)

I supported the Iraq War until around 2008, at which point it became just too clear that we were in over our heads and had drawn too much blood to justify the modest improvements in governance that resulted. (An important part of my change in thinking was this.) Like the neocons, I feel the impulse to ‘solidify’ gains in Iraq by staying. It was such a titanic effort, that if Iraq collapses again (primarily because the surge didn’t resolve the issues of Iraqi division so much as freeze them), the whole thing will look like an even more colossal failure than before. An obvious model for the neocons would be Korea, where the presence of US forces helped keep Korea on track to the point where it is basically a modern liberal democracy today capable of taking care of itself without much help.

But there are some obvious problems that I would like to hear answered about why we should stay. Read this also on why we should leave.

1. The Iraqis want us to leave. Exum’s post on this is spot-on. We may want to stay, but they clearly don’t. In fact, it is increasingly obvious that the really don’t want us there anymore.  This must weigh very heavily in any decision; indeed, it should be a deal-breaker if Iraqi sovereignty is to have any meaning. If we stay when they don’t want us to, then we really are an empire. That really is an occupation. I do wish some kind of bargain could be found. Like everyone else, I worry that Iraq will collapse in civil war, and a minor US presence could be an important brake. But honestly, we turned that place upside down. estimates that our intervention resulted in over 100,000 deaths, not to mention the millions wounded, internally and externally displaced, disrupted, etc, etc. We don’t really need to start debating the Green Zone or Fiasco again to know that do we? Honestly, we shouldn’t be very surprised they want us to go.

2. Can we afford this? I guess I sound like a nag on this. Like Ron Paul, I keep bringing this up again and again, and no one wants to hear it, and everyone thinks I am a scold or a bore. But it still worth nothing that we spend over a trillion dollars on national security per annum, have a budget deficit around $1.5T and $10T in debt, are cruising toward a 100% debt-GDP ration by 2020, and have an aging population that would really like Medicare and Social Security instead of aircraft carriers and occupations. At some point, we have to make some hard budget choices. Given how badly the Iraq War flew off the rails, and how much the world and Iraqis themselves want us to leave, honestly this is probably one commitment we can afford to cut in the interest of better balancing our obligations with our constraints.

3. Do we really want to stay in Iraq for 50 years, if indeed Korea, Japan, or Germany are the model? It is worth recalling that back in the 50s, Americans worried similarly about a huge, never-ending, super-expensive commitment to a small, far-away, not too important place (Korea). Now, the neocons are right to say that in the end, Korea turned out well, but it took 50 years, it is not clear how to measure if the US commitment and money spent in Korea was ‘worth it’ or not, and whether the US public would support any such long commitment to Iraq. In short, if the US had a reasonable, Korean-style shot at normalizing Iraq, but it would require 50 years of commitment, would the US public support it? Well, given that US support for the Iraq War faded after just a few years, I don’t think that question would survive a referendum. Remember that the war was not sold in 2002 as a 50 year nation-building exercise that would cost trillions of dollars. There is just no way the US voter would have supported that. Wolfowitz even admitted that WMD was the only way to ‘sell’ the war to the public, because the Bush administration knew the public wouldn’t buy a larger, ‘freedom agenda’ mission. And of course, candidate Obama explicitly ran on this plank.

So yes, we should stay involved with Iraq, through diplomacy, aid, and training. We owe them that, but we must in the end, respect both the wishes of the Iraqi and American publics. After so many years of debate on this issue in both countries, it should clear that this is not a fly-by-night poll result. Everyone knows the risks of withdrawal, and they have decided for it nonetheless.