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.