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


Learn-About-the-Iraq-War-300x210

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.

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


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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.

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VP Debate once again tells Asia & the World that all We care about is the Middle East


Yes, it’s partisan, but it’s a somewhat useful deconstruction

 

First, I included the above video to reference a point I tried to make last week – that Romney flip-flopped so much in the first debate that I no longer have any idea what he thinks about the big issues of campaign. I just wish I knew wth Romney wants to do with the presidency. There has to be some purpose, some reason to vote for him, and I can’t find it. Someone tell me in a few coherent, specifics-laden paragraphs why I should vote for him? Not why Obama is a bad president – I know that already – but why Romney should be president. Honestly, I don’t know, which makes his presidential run look like a vanity project or something.

Second, did anyone else think that the vice-presidential debate once again broadcast to the world that our foreign policy is dominated by the Middle East? It was all about Iran, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan. Obviously, these are all important places and issues. But it doesn’t take a lot of foreign policy training to know that Russia’s ever-more erratic course under Czar Putin, a possible euro-EU meltdown, or China are a lot more important to the US’ future than a bunch of small, poor fractured states in the Middle East. But no, let’s argue once again about Israel, Iran, terrorism, Iraq…  Good grief. There are other issues out there!

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Say Ron Paul Won…Which US Allies would get Retrenched? (2) Japan?


retrenchment graph

This post series is getting so much traffic, here is a part three on likelihood of retrenchment. Here is part one where argued that America’s 8 most important allies are, in order: Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, India, Indonesia, Israel, and South Korea.

I argued for 3 quick-and-dirty reasons for that ranking, but I got some criticism on these in the first post, so here is some elaboration :

1. National Security: Some places, like SA and Mexico, may not appeal much to Americans, but they are so obviously important, that abandonment would be hugely risky. So yes, SA is a nasty, reactionary ‘frenemy,’ not really an ally at all, but we’re stuck with it. A Saudi collapse would set off both huge economic and Islamic religious turmoil; all the more reason to slowly exit the Middle East and pursue green energy. But until then, I think we have to be honest and say that we can’t really leave the Gulf. But the bar of this criterion should be awfully high. With some frenemies, like Afghanistan and Pakistan, we don’t really need to pretend to be allies actually. We can just get out if have to.

2. Need: In some places, the US can get a lot more bang for its commitment buck, because without us, our ally would likely collapse/lose/fail. Taiwan is the most obvious example. Conversely, other places, like Germany, pretend to need us, because they don’t want to shell out the cash (and we’re so bewitched of our God-given, history-ending, last-best-hope-for-mankind, bound-to-lead neocon unipolar awesome-ness that we let ourselves get taken for a ride).Between Taiwan and Germany, I would place Israel and SK.

3. Values/Symbolism: I don’t like this criterion much, because it reminds me a lot of McNamara, ‘credibility,’ Vietnam, the Munich analogy and all that. But still, there are a few places where the American commitment has taken on an almost ‘metaphysical,’ good-guys-vs-bad-guys dimension. The whole world is watching, and a departure would be seen as a huge retreat from critical values that would bolster dictators everywhere, especially in China and Russia. SK is the most obvious example. NK is so bizarre, frightening, and horrific that while the US commitment isn’t really that necessary anymore, it’s taken on a symbolism wholly out of proportion to events on the peninsula. Taiwan also comes to mind, as does cold war West Germany. Avoiding another such perpetual commitment was one of the important reasons to get out of Iraq. If we’d stayed, we might have have gotten chain-ganged into never leaving our symbol of GWoT ‘success.’ We really don’t need more of that sort thing

So back to the list. Now come the ones that can more easily be retrenched, because either they are wealthy enough to defend themselves, or their value to the US has fallen:

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The US will not ‘Pivot’ much to Asia (3): We can’t afford it


Pesident-Obama-China-001

Please read parts one and two first, where I argued that there is no constituency in the US for the pivot, and that Asia is so culturally distant from the US, that Americans are unlikely to care enough to sustain the pivot. But we also don’t really need to pivot, nor do we have the money for it:

3. The Middle East is characterized by so many nondemocracies that the US must be heavily invested (at least to meet current US goals – oil, Israel, counterterrorism). Katzenstein noted this; America has no strong subordinate anchor-state in the region (like Germany in Europe and Japan in Asia). This is why the GOP particularly emphasizes an enduring, semi-imperial presence in the Gulf. Besides tiny Israel, we don’t have the friends necessary for things like the dual containment (Iran and Iraq) of the 90s, and or the Iraq war of the 2000s. So we have to do it all ourselves.

By contrast in Asia, we have lots of allies and semi-friends who are strong and functional – Japan, Australia, Korea, and Taiwan most obviously – with improving relations with India and Vietnam too. Now, if we are smart – or maybe just because we are broke – we can push a lot of the costs of our goals onto them. Specifically, much of the pivot has been assumed to be targeted at China. But why should we encircle, contain, or otherwise provoke China, when the frontline states should be it doing it first? In other words, we don’t have to pivot toward Asia unless China threatens to invade everybody, because places like India, Korea, and Japan will work hard to build and maintain a multipolar equilibrium. They don’t want to be dominated by China, and they will suffer a lot more than we will if China becomes the regional hegemon. So we can hover in the background, offshore, over the horizon, as we always have. Given the strength of liberal democracy in Asia (unlike the ME), there is no need for us to be there in strength.

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Foreign Policy of the GOP Debates (1): We couldn’t care less @ Foreigners


The ‘foreign policy’ debate

MEDIA UPDATE: On November 8, I published a brief write-up on the US-Korean alliance with the East Asia Forum. EAF is a good outlet for readers of this site. The piece was based on longer writings here on the blog earlier this fall. Comments are welcome.

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There have been lots of these GOP debates (here is the whole schedule), and the one above, from Nov 12, is the most relevant for readers of this site. Here is a decent write-up on that debate, and after months of them, there is enough said to provide something to say on the (otherwise scarcely discussed) foreign policy edge of the primary.

1. Any first foreign policy comment must be, paradoxically, that foreign policy isn’t really much of an issue. No one at the primary stage really cares about foreign policy, beyond Israel, which increasingly isn’t seen as foreign policy at all, at least by the GOP, and a general chest-thumping of American awesomeness. This is not news for Americans. US observers all know that domestic politics, especially the economy, pretty much determines elections. When you are a superpower you have the luxury to disdain and ignore foreigners. But foreigners don’t know this as well, and US allies especially often build-up (self-serving) images of themselves as ‘critical’ to the US, even though monolinguistic, untravelled Americans couldn’t care less about these countries (poor Georgia; the entirely ginned-up Korean belief that K-pop is a ‘wave’ in the US; a self-important German colleague once told me that America should never force Berlin to choose between Washington and Paris – oh please! like we care, dude!). Indeed, Hermann Cain’s rise and his staggering ignorance about the non-US world tells you that disinterest in the world – presumably because we are so exceptional and powerful that we don’t need to care – is almost welcomed by the Tea Partiers who hate IOs, illegal immigrants, and US bargaining with foreigners. Build the fence higher! And electrify it!

2. For all the hype about the US switching its focus to Asia, you wouldn’t know that from the debates. Do you really think that the average tea party white guy voter cares about SK or Japan? The Middle East was far more dominant. Iran, Pakistan, Israel, and the rest of the usual suspects were everywhere. I think I heard Gingrich mention NK once in this debate. The China stuff between Huntsman and Romney was flat. India wasn’t even mentioned, but waterboarding (of GWoT detainees) was a disturbingly hot topic. Again, this isn’t news to US observers who know how many Americans, especially Christians, take a fairly apocalyptic, clash-of-civilizations view of the GWoT. Bachmann even warned of a global nuclear war against Israel (god, she’s a terrifying flake). Elites may want an Asian turn in US focus (as I think would also be a good idea), but the ‘Christianist’ GOP electorate remains focused on the ME, and we should expect that to continue to dominate US time, even if we don’t want it to. Terrorism, oil, and Israel aren’t going anywhere.

Asians are bound to be disappointed, because of the deep-rooted belief (desire, actually), verging on desperation, that the US should pay attention more to them. (Read this and this – apparently India and Southeast Asia are ‘indispensible’ for the US. Oh, and so is Latin America. — Not! Americans just don’t care. Elites aren’t the voters. Build the fence higher!) What this tells you is that the Asia hype is a lot more hollow than Asians want to admit, because it requires US attention to be justified. So America is still the unipole whether you like it or not (natch), and the ‘new Asia’ schtick is more about Asian insecurity and desire for prestige, than it is about empirical shifts. (Yes, the shift is happening, but a lot slower than the ‘Asia is the future’ types I meet here all the time will admit.) I have argued before that Americans just don’t care than much about Asia, no matter how many Asians tell us we should. Israel or even ‘old Europe’ Ireland is a lot more recognizable to Americans than Shanghai or Bangalore. Further, so long as India, Japan, China, and the rest out here are all balancing each other and competing, the US doesn’t really need to get sucked into the maelstroms of the Korean peninsula or the South China Sea anyway. The Asian hype that the US should pay more attention out here is really an effort to get the US to help locals contain China, which bait we should not take, IMO.

3. Cain, Bachmann, and Perry are way out of their depth. By now everyone knows Cain’s ‘U beki beki stan stan’ remark and Bachmann’s off-the-wall assertion that the ‘ACLU runs the CIA.’ (Yes, the same Agency that runs the drone strikes that now kill US citizens.) But even Perry can’t seem to give good answers – that he ‘commands’ the national guard and has friends in the Defense Department are qualifications for the White House. That’s all he’s got after 3 months on the trail? What happened to Perry? He seemed so imposing back in August, and he has just crashed. He comes off more clueless and lost in the woods, after his pre-scripted reply sentences run out, than even Bush. It’s amazing how weak this field is (which is why Romney is running away with this thing, even though no one likes him).

Part two will go up in three days.

Syria Sanctions failed b/c of R2P Overreach in Libya – get out Nato


In the last 6 weeks, I warned that if NATO kept the operation in Libya rolling, it would tarnish the responsibility to protect doctrine (R2P). R2P says external military force can be used to prevent massive human rights abuses, like Srebrenica or Rwanda. In Libya, an R2P intervention was justified, because Gaddafi and his sons talked about ‘rivers of blood in the streets’ and hunting the rebels ‘like rats, allay by alley.’

But after the fall of Tripoli, it was clear that Gaddafi was not longer a massive human rights threat in Libya. The National Transition Council clearly no longer needed NATO assistance. The NATO mission was no longer necessary in what is now a fairly traditional civil war. A focused, limited, and coherent R2P doctrine is the best antidote to the ‘its an internal affair’ siren song used by oppressive states like China or Sudan to prevent outside scrutiny of their illiberalism. Here was an intellectually defensible wedge against using ‘sovereignty’ as all-purpose excuse to brutalize your own people.

Hence, keeping the NATO mission going past necessity was a sure way to tell everyone that R2P is just another name for “regime change,” Bushism, neoconservatism, etc. R2P would lose its focus and look yet again like western imperialism to non-western states.

And that is what we got this week when the UN Security Council voted against sanctions on Syria. The BRICS explicitly noted that Libya’s R2P vote turned into regime change, and that they didn’t vote for that or want that. The more we stay in Libya, the less it looks like R2P and the more it looks like Iraq-light.

No wonder no one trusts us. Despite all of our angst and hand-wringing about Iraq, as soon as we won another war, our neocon, ‘inside every g—, there is an American struggling to get out (video above)’ instinct came roaring back. But all the western victory laps do is undercut R2P as real human rights-protecting mechanism because no one will vote for it in the future, now that they’ve seen Libya. Another opportunity for better global governance squandered by neocon arrogance…