In 1919, the Liberal Member of Parliament for Montgomeryshire, David Davies, endowed the University College of Wales at Aberystwyth with £20,000 to establish an academic chair devoted to the “systemic study of international politics” and the “promotion of peace”. A dyed-in-the-wool liberal and a vocal proponent of the League of Nations, Davies passionately believed that the errors and horrors of the past could be avoided in the future if only rational men would take the time to sit down and study them.
The discipline of International Relations (IR) was thus borne out of a desire to ensure that policy was informed by scholarly analysis, and in turn, that intellectuals directed their efforts towards practical matters. As Bruce Kuklick convincingly argues in his book, Blind Oracles, this prescriptive inclination was most pronounced during the 1950s and 1960s, as thinkers and decision-makers in the Western world tried to come to terms with the dilemmas of statecraft in the age of bi-polarity and nuclear deterrence. In recent decades, however, IR scholarship has, on the whole, become more remote from the people, processes, and structures that it is supposed to scrutinise.
Indeed, this has not gone unnoticed by politicians, bureaucrats, generals, and the like. According to James Kurth, contemporary IR “does not loom large on the intellectual landscape. Its practitioners are not only rightly ignored by practising foreign policy officials; they are usually held in disdain by their fellow academics as well”. In a similar fashion, the former United States Secretary of the Navy, Paul Nitze, once declared that “most of what has been written under the heading of ‘political science’…has also been of limited value, if not counterproductive to the conduct of actual policy”. The late diplomat David Newsom was equally as scathing, commenting that “much of today’s scholarship on [international affairs] is either irrelevant or inaccessible to policymakers…much remains locked within the circle of esoteric scholarly discussion”. Even Henry Kissinger, a man who is as comfortable in the classroom as he is in the War Room, has expressed doubts about the ability of modern day theorists to bring something useful to the negotiating table.
Though it may seem counterintuitive to say so, the events leading up to and following the Iraq War of 2003 simultaneously undermined and buttressed this perspective. On the one hand, many of the explanations for the invasion have drawn attention to the decisive role played by a handful of neoconservative advisors within the Bush administration. On the other, some commentators have noted that the traditional IR community was ominously absent from the heated debates which lay scattered along the road to war. For all their prestige and influence on campuses and in conference rooms, prominent realist scholars who opposed military action appeared confined to shouting feebly from the sidelines.
So what does this mean for a discipline with pretensions to relevance? I’d argue that the answer to that question depends on whether or not you’re willing to accept that neoconservatism is a reasonably coherent philosophy with roots in academic IR. I, for one, am perfectly willing to accede to such a proposition. It seems clear that neoconservatism and its adherents played a starring role in the story of the United States’ decision to invade Iraq. By shaping the Bush administration’s perception of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and the capacity of American forces to effect rapid regime change, neoconservative ideas made the invasion seem both necessary and plausible.
In order to understand why this was the case, we must be mindful of the complicated relationship between learned culture (ideas), political culture (values), and events.
What is Neoconservatism and Where Did it Come From?
If there is one thing that we can be certain of when it comes to the Iraq puzzle, it is that those accounts of the war which are short on history and uninterested in ideology are missing half the pieces. The march to Baghdad should not be viewed in isolation from the broad sweep of America’s past, nor should it be cast as a Mephistophelian gambit motivated solely by narrow material interests. Rather, it should be seen as the culmination of a decades-long struggle for the heart and soul of American foreign policy.
Ironically, this struggle began to take form in the shadow of another controversial conflict. As the last American soldiers bid farewell to the stifling jungles of South Vietnam, the consensus that had underpinned the ‘muscular liberalism’ of US diplomacy from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Lyndon B. Johnson hastily evaporated.
On the left, the ‘McGovernite’ wing of the Democratic Party struck a decidedly radical tone, calling for an end to the East-West confrontation and a move towards greater multilateralism. To the right, Rockefeller Republicans under the guidance of President Richard M. Nixon and his Secretary of State, Kissinger, argued that the Vietnam debacle had exposed the pitfalls of pursuing an overtly ideological foreign policy. If the so-called ‘Free World’ was going to survive the Cold War intact, elites in Washington were not only going to have to recognise that the United States was a status-quo power; they were going to have to start behaving accordingly. In practise, this meant replacing buzzwords like ‘ethics’ and ‘universalism’ with ‘interests’ and ‘pragmatism’. A grand strategy based on the principles of realpolitik thus required statesmen to put aside Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points and pick up a copy of Otto von Bismarck’s memoirs.
Naturally, this about face did not sit well with everybody. A number of distinguished conservative and liberal voices—William F. Buckley, Albert Wohlstetter, Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson, and so on—accused the establishment of abandoning the central tenants of American statecraft. Since George McGovern and the Democrats suffered a thrashing at the 1972 election, these odd bedfellows increasingly focussed their ire on Nixon’s (and later Gerald Ford’s) vision of world politics. It wasn’t merely astonishingly naive to believe that the Soviet Union would agree to co-manage the international system, they charged, but also fundamentally immoral.
Nixon and his cronies may have paid lip-service to the idea that the United States was “A City on a Hill”, yet they were unable to grasp that for that very reason non-democratic nations were always interested in the finer points of re-landscaping. What the advocates of realpolitik failed to comprehend, so the argument went, was that the Cold War was a clash of ideas—of economic and political systems—not a conventional geopolitical contest for resources and security. It was this Manichean opposition, then, which gave birth to the neoconservative movement.
Nevertheless, a shared enemy does not imply shared ideals. For two ostensibly polarised ends of the political spectrum to migrate towards a common point, a more rigorous and constructive intellectual framework is required, and Irving Kristol provided just that. In a series of articles and books written in the late 1970s, Kristol made a distinction between neoconservatism on one side and realism and liberal institutionalism on the other. Both of the latter creeds, he asserted, are afflicted by a disease peculiar to capitalist modernity—that is, they are “value free”.
With their veneration of the individual and obsession with human perfectibility, liberals are too easily tempted by the promise of intra-national organisations such as the United Nations. In their idealistic haze, they ignore the fact that these institutions are social artefacts which reflect the values and interests of their members, scores of whom are illiberal. By defining the national interest purely in material terms, realists (or at least neo-realists) are allegedly guilty of committing an analogous sin. Blind to the importance of identity, norms, and ethics, a realist foreign policy cannot but struggle to “generate either the commitment or the resources necessary to ensure its success”.
As the socio-economic impact of the 1973 oil crisis lingered into the presidency of Jimmy Carter, disgruntled policy wonks and politicos on the right proved to be a sympathetic audience for Kristol’s work. Many of them—most notably future Iraq hawks Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz—were instrumental in crafting the Reagan administration’s aggressive rhetoric and belligerent stance on a whole host of issues, from the Russian invasion of Afghanistan to the Sandinista uprising in Nicaragua. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, a number of these people came to be associated with influential magazines such as The Weekly Standard and went on to found the Project for a New American Century (PNAC).
During the Clinton years, they relentlessly returned to two claims which they maintained had been validated by the end of the Cold War. First, that the United States’ position within the international system is constantly in peril (pessimism), and second, that it has the wherewithal to overcome any latent threats (optimism). The debates regarding Iraq that took place in the eighteen months following the 9/11 terrorist attacks arguably represented the zenith of this paranoid discourse.
In Search of Monsters: Pessimism, Neoconservatism, and Iraq
In January 1998, a small group of influential PNAC members, including Wolfowitz and John Bolton, sent a short, pointed letter to President Bill Clinton, urging him to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Amongst other things, the letter declared that the “current American policy towards Iraq is not succeeding”, explaining that it was “impossible to monitor Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons programme”, and that, given the magnitude of the threat, the United States should be willing to “undertake military action as diplomacy is clearly failing”.
There are two aspects of the uni-polar epoch that, in the eyes of neoconservatives, necessitated such a drastic course of action. To begin with, globalisation and the electronic communications revolution have made it easier for small states to gain access to the information, individual expertise, and industrial hardware required to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD), as well as means of delivering them. What makes this particularly dangerous is the type of regimes to which this technology is becoming available, namely ‘rogue states’ like Iraq. Whereas deterrence was effective in a Cold War context because the original nuclear powers acted in a rational, risk averse manner, the value-systems of dictatorships encourage exactly the opposite kind of behaviour.
If, as neoconservatives believe, authoritarian regimes are motivated more by vengeance and power than a desire to protect their populace, they will be less inclined to accept the logic of deterrence and more likely to launch an offensive first-strike against US forces or the American mainland. In this ‘Second Nuclear Age’, as the strategist Colin Gray calls it, the United States thus has a moral duty to prevent malign actors from acquiring chemical, biological, and nuclear devices. As the interwar period purportedly demonstrated, appeasement merely invites aggression.
Of course, ever since coalition forces expelled the Iraqi Army from Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War, the Ba’athist government had been a perennial thorn in Washington’s side, and the seemingly never-ending cat-and-mouse games over weapons inspections had left US officials feeling perturbed, if not a tad weary. All the same, most analysts inside the Beltway did not share the neocons’ sense of imminent danger, and as such, few were enthusiastic about expanding America’s military footprint in the Middle East. As Thomas Ricks points out in his comprehensive study of America’s adventure in Mesopotamia, “neither Iraq nor terrorism were issues in the 2000 presidential campaign, and in fact were hardly mentioned by the candidates of either party”.
That is not to say that Bush and his inner circle did not want to see the back of Saddam. On the contrary, the incoming administration harboured a deep-seated suspicion of his regime. However, with no smoking gun, and with the cautious Colin Powell heading up the State Department, there was little momentum for a drastic policy overhaul. It was only really Wolfowitz and Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby who were openly critical of the containment strategy which had been in place for the past decade.
This gives rise to a simple question: what was it that convinced the Bush administration to abandon its status-quo oriented foreign policy in favour of a radical, neoconservative inspired one? The renowned IR scholar Robert Jervis contends that most American decision-makers began to view Iraq as an intolerable menace only after the September 11th terrorist attacks. A number of other authors have echoed Jervis’ interpretation, arguing that “9/11 served as a brutal epiphany” which signaled an end to the old world order. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said as much during a congressional hearing held in July 2003:
“The United States did not act in Iraq because we had discovered dramatic new evidence of Iraq’s pursuit of weapons of mass murder. We acted because we saw existing evidence in a new light, through the prism of our experience of 9/11”.
Condaleeza Rice, who served as Bush’s National Security Advisor before replacing Powell at State in 2005, made a similar point when she testified before the 9/11 Commission:
At this juncture it is important to note that ideas do not appear out of thin air. Looking for a clear-cut explanation for the actions of the hijackers and their handlers in Afghanistan, shocked members of the government kept bumping into Wolfowitz, Bolton, and Perle, all of whom gloomily mouthed “we told you so”. In a few short weeks, a previously minor part of the Bush administration’s philosophy consequently shot to national prominence. Officials and the public had a lot of questions and the neocons seemed to have all the answers.
A cursory glance at the central precepts of the post-2001 Bush Doctrine is enough to confirm this supposition. With its call for “a balance of power that favours freedom” and pre-emptive action against hostile adversaries, the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States reads like an extended essay in The Public Interest or The Weekly Standard. Likewise, Bush’s pronouncements justifying the invasion of Iraq specifically, as well as the strategy of pre-emption more generally, were straight out of the neoconservative playbook.
In this Brave New World, the only thing the Bush administration could be certain of was that hesitation was a luxury they could not afford. Whether the intelligence bureaucracy was fifty or sixty percent sure that Iraq had WMD was neither here nor there. Now, if there was a one percent chance that a dictatorship could get its hands on fissile material, then the United States had to “treat it as a certainty in terms of [their response]”.
Guns and Ballot Papers: Optimism and the Neoconservative Plan for Iraq
Just as the rationale for war grew out of neoconservative thinking about international relations, so too did the plan for war. In particular, policymakers in the White House and the Pentagon appealed to two well-worn neoconservative tropes which gave the impression that military intervention in Iraq would be a low-risk, high-payoff venture: the efficacy of American arms and the transformative power of liberal democracy.
There is little doubt that most of the key figures involved in the planning stage of the invasion possessed an unwavering faith in the utility of force. This confidence, which in hindsight appears misplaced, stemmed in large part from the United States’ position as the globe’s number one industrial powerhouse. There was, however, another dynamic at play which soothed any qualms people might have had regarding the wisdom of fighting a war on two fronts.
Way back in January 1988, the Commission on Integrated Long-Term Strategy, which was co-chaired by the godfather of neoconservative IR, Albert Wohlstetter, published a report entitled Discriminate Deterrence. In it, Wohlstetter and his associates suggested that recent advances in stealth technology, precision-guided munitions, and global positioning systems, had triggered a quantum leap in the character of warfare. 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”.
After the dizzying success of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, this notion of a revolution in military affairs (RMA) gained significant traction amongst defence planners and academics, some of whom would later join the Bush administration. In his book, The New American Militarism, Andrew J. Bacevich persuasively argues that the US military’s doctrine in Iraq, which relied on “precision airpower supplemented by small, lean, and agile ground forces”, represented the apex of the RMA idea. Interestingly, he also describes how the Department of Defense’s attempt to enact a root-and-branch reform of the armed forces along RMA lines was essentially “dead in the water” on September 10th, 2001.
Once again, then, it looks as if 9/11 created an opportunity for a small neoconservative faction in the administration to implement their ideas, often against the advice of others. Indeed, it is telling that Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld were the key architects of the ‘Shock and Awe’ strategy. Then again, being confident about beating a dilapidated army on the battlefield and failing to engage in extensive post-war planning are two very different things. In order to understand why certain officials thought that the liberation of Iraq would be a “cakewalk”, we must turn our attention to the Bush administration’s attitude towards democracy promotion.
Neoconservatives and their neoliberal counterparts have long held the view that capitalist democracy has universal qualities. Francis Fukuyama even went so far as to announce that the triumph of the Western system over communist totalitarianism represents a metaphorical “end of history”. For neoconservatives, it was a no-brainer that overthrowing Saddam would allow democracy to flourish in Iraq. After all, whenever rational individuals are given a choice between tyranny and freedom, they always choose the latter. Such logic was widely accepted as writ in policy circles and it had a significant impact on the composition of the invasion force.
In the run-up to the war, each branch of the armed services, together with the State Department and the Army War College, forecast major difficulties for the United States once Saddam had been removed. General Eric Shineski, for instance, estimated that “several hundred thousand” soldiers would be required to stabilise Iraq, whilst a separate army report compiled in late 2002 put the figure at 430,000. These legitimate concerns, however, were dismissed out of hand by Rumsfeld and other neoconservatives in the Defense Department as being “overly pessimistic”. Consequently, when the invasion came, only 148,000 American troops were deployed in theatre.
This sanguine approach to the occupation persisted even as it became clear that post-war Iraqi society was on the verge of collapse. Although people on the ground were telling Washington that Iraq badly needed professionals and qualified administrators to get back on its feet, the neoconservative element in the Defense Department decided to push on with its controversial (and ideologically motivated) de-Ba’athification policy. In tandem with Douglas Feith’s decision to disband the remnants of the Iraqi army, this arguably laid the foundations for the brutal insurgency that emerged in 2004. Somewhat paradoxically, the very ideas that made war conceivable in the first place also made it incredibly difficult to fight.
Ivory Towers: Neoconservatism, IR, and the Real World
It is evident, then, that neoconservatives were able to translate their ideas into political power and influence during the Bush-Cheney era. What is more, realist critiques of neoconservatism largely fell on deaf ears. This is certainly surprising in view of the fact that realism is the dominant school of thought in IR, whilst neoconservatism is generally considered to be something of a curious aberration. In order to account for this perplexing discrepancy, we must be aware of two interrelated issues.
First, neoconservatism is obsessed with values, and values are the pivot upon which the political world turns. In contrast, conventional IR theorists have in recent years distanced themselves from what Kenneth Waltz calls ‘unit-level variations’, instead choosing to focus on the structural determinants of state behaviour. It was thus difficult for realists to respond to 9/11 in a language that the public and politicians understood. By blurring the divide between the domestic and international spheres, neoconservatives made their ideas accessible to a wider audience who were unfamiliar with, or uninterested in, the dispassionate theorising of the social sciences.
As Brian Schmidt and Michael C. Williams point out, appeals to norms and identity provided “a point around which a large range of positions and concerns [could] coalesce and [was] central to the role and influence of neoconservatism in American politics over the past decade”. This has allowed neoconservatives to “create powerful linkages with other conservative constituencies, particularly the religious Right, using foreign policy as both an expression and an instrument in…cultural-political battles”.
Second, neoconservatives believe that ideas matter and they are not afraid to bring their arguments to the masses. Their aim, in the words of Irving Kristol, is to speak for the “overwhelming majority” of American people and provide an antidote to the self-absorbed world of academia. To this end, they usually do not write in academic journals (the odd comment in Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs notwithstanding), instead making extensive use of mass-circulation newspapers and magazines. Moreover, they are careful to avoid jargon and prefer to engage “with concrete issues of the day” rather than abstract theoretical problems. This willingness to move beyond the walls of the academy goes someway to explaining why neoconservatism came to dominate the discourse on Iraq and American foreign policy during the Bush years. Granted, some realists like Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer are willing to have a dialogue with policymakers and the ‘(wo)man in the street’, but they are very much in the minority.
It is obviously a shame that the sophisticated, nuanced, and complex ideas that populate the bookshelves of IR departments across the globe remain stubbornly absent from boardrooms and cabinet meetings. Nonetheless, as the Iraq War demonstrates, the line between academia and activism is not something that should be crossed lightly.
It is clear that the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in the spring of 2003 was profoundly influenced by the neoconservative vision of international politics. In the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks, neoconservative officials and commentators vigorously pushed their foreign policy agenda on an amenable press, public, and political class. Drawing on over three decades of coherent scholarship, they tapped into and reinforced two prominent strands of post-9/11 American thinking about the world—a deeply pessimistic view of the dangers lurking around the corner and an optimistic appraisal of their resolvability.
In the process, they provided both the rationale for military intervention in Iraq (unreasonable and aggressive regime) and the blueprint for its success (high-tech arms and democracy). In spite of the often questionable nature of their analysis and prescriptions, neoconservatives shrewdly exploited their links with conventional political movements and took advantage of the inward-looking character of contemporary International Relations. As a result, they were able to dominate the debates about Iraq and marginalise the views of traditional IR scholars.
Ultimately, the Iraq War was a failure and a tragedy. Neoconservatives set out on the road to Baghdad with the aim of re-asserting American hegemony and making the world a safer place. 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. To be sure, it may well be that future historians judge Iraq to be the straw that broke the superpower’s back.
In light of this debacle, it may be tempting for students of IR to advocate an activist approach to the field. To them I would say: be careful what you wish for.
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