With the eruption of an intense new period of sectarian violence in Iraq this month, the never-settled questions of American culpability for what’s happened and responsibility for what’s next have risen again to the fore. News analysis suggests that the American government was caught off guard by the surge from the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, but hindsight holds that a descent to civil war was an entirely plausible consequence of American occupation. As we again debate the place of America in this raging conflict, political scientist Michael MacDonald suggests that the common explanations cited for America’s willingness to risk such consequences in our war to topple Saddam are exactly wrong. In the below excerpt from an uncorrected pre-publication draft of Overreach: Delusions of Regime Change in Iraq, MacDonald details how America’s fallacious equation of its ideals with its interests—and global projection of each—led to this unleashing of chaos with no end in sight.
Granting that the United States wanted regime change in Iraq, what possessed a generation of leaders to decide that going to war against Iraq was not only a good idea but a compelling one? Just because the war turned out badly for the United States obviously does not prove that it was a bad idea, but it does shift the burden of proof to hawks. The incentives of national security and neoliberal marketization might have been tempting, but the disincentives were stronger. War is costly, risky, and unpredictable, and electing war against Saddam made sense only on the assumptions that the United States would win, that the desserts of victory would justify the real costs and the opportunity costs of fighting a war in the midst of a region that was notoriously hostile to both American power and the liberal order, and that the new regime, which would accord with American interests and values, was achievable politically. The war, in other words, rested on profoundly ambitious assumptions about victory, the value of the stakes, and the prospects for transforming Iraq. Yet American leaders—and this is the pivotal point—scarcely registered the aggressiveness of their ambitions. If the United States was going to choose war in Iraq from all the possibilities that were open to the world’s sole superpower and the leading sponsor of neoliberalism, American leaders had to calculate that the rewards for going to war, after the costs were subtracted, were more enticing than alternate uses of American lives, money, and leadership. It is not obvious why they made that calculation.
The Bush administration is accused of using high-minded claptrap about freedom, democracy, and markets to sell the war, but the accusation gets the decision exactly wrong. The key to explaining the choice for regime change is that the Bush administration, and most American political and foreign policy elites too, subscribed to the shibboleths, euphemisms, and platitudes. They believed their fictions. The United States went to war because they saw liberalism as the answer to Iraq’s problems and because they expected that most Iraqis would understand that liberal values, which would fit naturally in Iraq, would emancipate them. If, however, these expectations turned out to be overly optimistic, then the United States was breaking the old order without a viable substitute at hand.
This book analyzes why the United States failed to enact its liberal visions of regime change in Iraq, and suggests that its undoing arose from a solipsistic rendering of American exceptionalism. Not realizing the radicalism of trying to liberalize, capitalize, and modernize Iraq, American leaders thought they either were implanting, nurturing, or clearing way for the liberal order—the confusion about the verbs reflects significant confusion about the project—because of two conceits at the heart of American foreign policy. For one, American elites for purposes of policy, and not just for reasons of propaganda, hold that American power interests are entwined with liberal values, and that America’s most important national interests feature rights, prosperity, and progress, and not just weapons and military bases. Consequently, American policy is predicated on the assumption that its power would be liberating. Having identified American power interests with American values, American leaders next assume that their liberal values apply universally. When American politicians make these claims, they sound like platitudes, but they performed the actual function of downplaying risks in Iraq. These two axioms aligned American interests with the preferences of Iraqis, assumed away the prospect of serious resistance to American power, and insinuated that the liberal values already were present in Iraq incipiently. American ideology, in other words, minimized the challenge of regime change. Instead of transforming an alien society, the United States was releasing liberal values that, because they are universal, belonged in Iraq.
The great mystery of the war is why, after defeating Saddam, the United States immediately vitiated the authority and power of what remained of Iraq’s state by disbanding its army and purging Ba’ath Party members from state employment. The decision came to be panned for causing all manner of problems in Iraq, and especially for fueling the Sunni insurgency. But what the critics overlook is what the decision reveals about those who made it. The civilians who issued the decrees—over the opposition of the national security bureaucracies—proceeded as if the terms of civil order were self-evident and as if the substance of civic order would become self-sustaining once the debris of the old order was cleared away and markets were instituted. The United States might face transitional problems, but the end was uncontroversial and attainable. That is, the United States deliberately opened the Pandora’s box of statelessness by disbanding Iraq’s army and de-Ba’athifying its state administration and yet, astonishingly, did not expect mayhem to escape. What explains the beliefs that liberal order would materialize and that the occupation would encounter minimal resistance in spite of a crippled state also explains the prior decision to go to war in Iraq. American policy-makers first chose war, next broke the Iraqi state’s monopolies on violence and administration, and then decreed, without having the means to implement, the institutions of the neoliberal economy because they assumed that liberal values are natural in origin, universal in scope, and ordering in effect.
The United States broke Iraq’s old state, and the ensuing civil war produced the semi-sovereign and semi-legitimate regime that Shi‘i political parties now control. None of this should have been unexpected. If state power is broken, neoliberal reforms fail and order collapses; if order collapses, civil war follows; and if civil wars are fought, the biggest community usually wins, especially if it also controls what remains of the state by virtue of (American-sponsored) elections that empower it. Yet the predictable outcome of American designs waylaid American political and foreign policy elites, and not just President Bush. Having conceived of American power as liberal and liberal values as universal goods, the regime-changing elites who wanted the war ended up failing the geopolitical and neoliberal interests that animated them in the first place. Originally, American elites called for regime change to advance national power and neoliberal globalization in Iraq. But their delusions of universality blotted out the risks their naiveté posed to their material interests. The United States launched the war and lost the war because its leaders believe their vision of American exceptionalism is universal.