The Long Shadow of Neoconservatism

A U.S. officer leaves a recently bombed Baghdad police station, May 2007

The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War
by Muhammad Idrees Ahmad
Edinburgh University Press, 2014, 256 pp.

Overreach: Delusions of Regime Change in Iraq
by Michael MacDonald
Harvard University Press, 2014, 336 pp.

Thirteen years ago—in the spring of 2002—this country was just beginning the run-up to its invasion of Iraq. For me, memories of this period have a dreamlike quality. Early that year, I heard from a well-connected Washington insider that U.S. foreign-policy strategists had decided to “do” Iraq, as he put it—that is, to invade—though the details had not yet been worked out. To an ordinary citizen and sometime policy wonk, the report seemed incredible, except for its authoritative source. Was it really possible for a decision of this magnitude to be taken behind the closed doors of the executive branch in Washington, before the idea had been announced to the rest of the country—let alone publicly debated? Yet little more than a year later, this country was at war. Congress, the courts, and much of America’s intellectual punditry had all played their appointed roles, and right on cue.

The dreamlike quality of my memories of this period results, I believe, from the total discontinuity between what every reasonable person seemed to know about Iraq at the time, and the lessons taught by the execution of the war. American public life has still afforded no comprehensive accounting of this massive disconnect. The reason for this is that the great majority within this country’s political class are complicit in the deceptions and negligence involved in making the war happen, or in acquiescing to its premises. Even for the minority who did not support, say, the congressional vote to authorize the invasion, it remains dangerous to call the cynicism and institutional opportunism involved by their exact names. Like some grotesque skeleton in a family closet, the orchestration of the Iraq war involved too many personalities still holding center stage to permit frank acknowledgement. If you crave an example of whistling past the graveyard, consider the circumlocutions we’re hearing from those now seeking the presidential nomination in 2016. “Mistakes were made,” Jeb Bush has averred, attributing those “mistakes” to “faulty intelligence.” Not exactly a lie, perhaps, but about as truthful as a claim that Saddam Hussein died of a stiff neck.


Two excellent new books—The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War by Muhammad Idrees Ahmad and Overreach: Delusions of Regime Change in Iraq by Michael MacDonald—target exactly the questions that mainstream political discourse wants so desperately to forget: why did the tiny elite who took the decision to send the country to war ignore so many red flags, so many advance indications of the disaster that was to ensue? Why did traditional conservatives, for example, abandon classic “realism” in geopolitical calculation? Why did liberals ignore a humanitarian catastrophe in the making? Why was so much expert advice ignored concerning such crucial matters as the role of Iraq’s sectarian divisions in any possible outcome of the war? What was going on in the minds of elite figures outside the core of “deciders” who took the initiative for war, as one by one they suppressed their objections? In short, how did an idea so obviously flawed ever gain steam?

At first glance, the two books appear to offer different answers to these questions. As his title indicates, Ahmad places responsibility for the war squarely on the neoconservative movement, with its close support from Israeli allies. For MacDonald, the answer is less tied to any one party or position in the political spectrum. Instead, he identifies the ultimate cause as a pervasive mindset—a form of American exceptionalism that cloaks opportunism in the mantle of highest principle. Yet in the final assessment, the messages of the two works are more complementary than conflicting.

Ahmad, who teaches journalism in the UK and writes for a variety of American and European publications, traces the remarkable history of neoconservatism in minute detail. He demonstrates its consistent role as the voice of cold-war thinking, segueing smoothly from militant anti-Communism of the era of Scoop Jackson (the “Senator from Boeing”) to the new opportunities afforded by Islamic fundamentalism since the 1990s. For the neocons, the identities of the adversaries change over time, but the bellicose stance remains the same. In all their crusades, they uphold a vision of American civilization as animated by superior virtue (albeit sometimes tarnished by America’s failure to rise to the call of its global destiny). And they insist on dissemination of American values through a foreign policy  often described as “muscular”—in plain English: violent, in threat and deed.

Ahmad argues that neocons in government remained second-tier figures on the eve of the Iraq war. But they possessed a determination, a sense of purpose, and above all a strategic network of connections that enabled them to animate the thinking of the “deciders.” Starting with Cheney, Bush, and Rumsfeld, they projected an aggressive vision of U.S. policy that ultimately captured a majority—and a broad majority—of the country’s political elite. In a period where power was fluid and the American people were bewildered, the neocons had their speech prepared. “There was nothing inevitable about the Iraq War,” Ahmad writes. The neoconservatives made it happen.

Ahmad provides enormous detail documenting the specific steps in this march through the institutions of the executive branch. He cites, for example, a letter from the influential neoconservative group Project for the New American Century, addressed to the president in September 2002, demanding the removal of Saddam Hussein, “even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the [9/11] attack.” “[F]ailure to undertake such an effort,” the group continued, ‘will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism.” “The letter,” Ahmad observes, “drew a direct link to the Israel-Palestine conflict and went on to focus on groups and countries that were unrelated to the attacks but at war with Israel.” Among the signatories were long-time neoconservative stalwarts Richard Perle, Norman Podhoretz, William Kristol, Kenneth Adelman, and Martin Peretz.

By the time of that letter, such views were becoming orthodoxy in the highest councils of the Bush administration. The key figure in this conversion to the craving for an American attack on Iraq seems to have been Vice President Dick Cheney—a seasoned bureaucratic infighter. In the face of resistance from more conventional conservatives, Cheney “established his own parallel national security council, with fifteen regional and military experts,” Ahmad writes. In the end, Cheney’s bureaucratic karate won over one top figure in the Bush administration after another; those who resisted (like Secretary of State Colin Powell) were circumvented or neutralized. Where intelligence from established sources refused to comport with the picture being advanced by the neoconservatives and their allies, they simply elicited new reports more to their liking.

Little matter that notions of links to Al Qaeda and reports of weapons of mass destruction were so flimsy as to disintegrate virtually on exposure to the light of day. They won enough attention to shift public opinion to support for the war. As Paul Wolfowitz, perhaps the key neoconservative architect of the invasion eventually remarked, once the war had begun, “for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason [for going to war].” Or as then–CIA Director George Tenet acknowledged, “The United States did not go to war in Iraq solely because of WMDs. In my view, I doubt that it was even the principal cause. Yet it was the public face we put on it.”

Once the key administration positions had been captured for the neoconservative program, the rest of the country fell in line with chilling complaisance. Democratic foreign-policy heavyweights—including Madeleine Albright, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Richard Holbrooke, Sandy Berger, and Richard Gephardt—lined up obligingly to support George W. Bush’s war powers vote. In all these matters, elite status (or aspirations to it) seems to have conduced to backing for the invasion. In voting for the Iraq War Resolution in October 2002, virtually all Republicans in both houses of congress joined in support. In the Senate, twenty-nine senators supported the resolution, against twenty-one opposed; in the House of Representatives, by contrast, the majority of Democrats voted nay—one hundred twenty-six, against 82 yeas. “Interestingly,” MacDonald writes,

. . . the stronger the particular Democrat’s national ambitions , the more likely he or she was to favor the war. . . . Perhaps because no Democrat who had opposed Gulf War I had been placed on the national ticket in the three intervening elections, every Democrat who voted on the question in the House or Senate and who would go on to run for the presidential nomination in 2004 or 2008—Christopher Dodd, Biden, Clinton, Kerry, Edwards, Gephardt, and Lieberman—voted in favor of authorization in October 2002.

These were times, it seems, when one could not convincingly claim elite status in U.S. policy circles without joining in support of war: Overreach quotes Leslie Gelb, “a hawk and a paragon of the foreign policy establishment,” acknowledging that he had “backed the war in part to retain political and professional credibility.’” Talk about a herd of independent minds! And Ahmad reports a fascinating public opinion finding with a similar twist: American Jews were in the majority opposed to the war; yet Jewish organizations in this country overwhelmingly supported it.


Michael MacDonald, Professor of International Relations at Williams College, goes over much of the same ground covered by Ahmad—particularly the recruitment of key figures from across the political spectrum to the momentum for war. But the questions he asks and the arguments he musters in Overreach are a step more subtle and more memorable than Ahmad’s. MacDonald is above all fascinated by the susceptibility of various actors to the appeals of the war in cases where their avowed philosophy or ideology of international relations should logically have inclined them to reject those appeals. His central contention is that the same faulty analysis came to dominate the thinking of the most diverse cast of elite political characters—a distinctively American mindset deeply linked to American exceptionalism. He characterizes this mentality as follows:

The key to the decision to go to war is that American policy-makers did not recognize their interests as interests or their ideals as ideals. Instead, they translated geopolitical and neoliberal interests into ideals, and then expected Iraqis would embrace the interests that they idealized as the answer to universal strivings in the human spirit.

The first chapter of Overreach, entitled “Why Elect a Self-Defeating War?”, considers conventional explanations for the American march to war in Iraq—the quest for oil; the electoral ambitions of Congressional Republicans; the influence of Israeli interests; and the personal (and perhaps Oedipal) obsessions of George W. Bush. One by one, MacDonald rejects these as master explanations. U.S. oil interests, he argues, were ill-served by the war, which caused much disruption in the industry and brought little access to Iraqi oil after the war. Bush’s personal antagonisms to the regime, on the other hand, were of long standing. But they did not move him to aggressive action toward it until after the events of 9/11, so they can hardly explain his dramatic switch after the terrorist attacks. Nor could they explain the willingness of the rest of his cast of elite supporters to back him. What needs to be explained is Bush’s willingness to embrace the war after 9/11—in the face of much evidence at the time that the results of the campaign would not be the success story touted to the American public.

Similarly, Israel’s foreign policy elites may have preferred to have a potential enemy trounced in Iraq. But they certainly should not have wanted a more democratic Iraq—a key avowed aim of the U.S. campaign—since public opinion across the Arab Middle East was (and probably still is) more anti-Israel than the views of those countries’ leaders. Congressional Republicans may have found the idea of war congenial to their worldview and their view of the role of American power. But, MacDonald points out, “Republican electoral interests did not require actual war, only an occasion to expose Democratic timidity. The mere threat of war would have done the trick, at least for the November 2002 elections.”

Thus for MacDonald, as for Ahmad, the Iraq invasion did not have to happen. The threats used to justify the extraordinary rationale of pre-emption were known at the top to be illusory by the time they were sinking into public consciousness. Moreover, elite thinking normally embraced doctrines and assumptions that should have weighed heavily against military action. For establishment conservatives, these included geopolitical “realism,” in which interests of this country’s friends and adversaries were played off against each other—as in America’s tilts between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s—so as to protect American interests short of war. For liberal promoters of democracy, the idea of a war that raised so many red flags in terms of feasibility and promised so much human suffering should have been a no-brainer. And yet, elite opinion coalesced behind the Bush administration.

For neoconservatives, of course, enthusiasm for the war hardly required any retooling; preference for violent remaking of foreign regimes to conform to American values represented their default mode. MacDonald notes,

For neoconservatives the point of the war in Iraq was to change Iraq’s regime, whatever that meant; but it also was to fortify America’s will to greatness, to change the regime of American restraint, chickenheartedness, and self-loathing.

Yet liberal elites also went along. As so often in political life, they were sleeping in the same bed with as their neoconservative counterparts, but dreaming very different dreams. As MacDonald puts it,

Believing that the interests of all (liberal) states are congruent, liberals . . . tell themselves that their disinterested commitment to universal values and interests elevates them above crass power politics. . . . The liberal belief in the universality of American values
. . . is liable to disguise the pursuit of power, interest, and advantage, and the disguise is more likely to fool liberals than those they purport to be helping.

Thus liberal hawks chastised critics of the invasion for proposing to deny Iraqis access to democratic freedoms taken for granted in the West. This kind of thinking reached its height in the pages of Dissent in 2004, when Paul Berman wrote,

. . . a lot of people, in their good-hearted effort to respect cultural differences, have concluded that Arabs must for inscrutable reasons of their own like to live under grotesque dictatorships and are not really capable of anything else . . . Which is to say, a lot of people, swept along by their own high-minded principles of cultural tolerance, have ended up clinging to attitudes that can only be regarded as racist against Arabs.

No doubt many Iraqis would have preferred being viewed in racist terms by American intellectuals to being subjected to the violent attentions of the American war machine.

Of course, whatever they were saying for public consumption, the ultimate deciders in Washington did have their eyes on certain power advantages supposed to ensue from eliminating Saddam Hussein’s regime. Once a cooperative instrument of American power in the region, he had wandered off the reservation. A made-to-order government in the middle of the Middle East would have facilitated many U.S. objectives. Moreover, as MacDonald acknowledges, the upper levels of the George W. Bush administration craved a demonstration of U.S. military superiority to impress potential adversaries all over the world. Other countries with equally miserable human-rights profiles—China, Saudi Arabia, Congo—were too powerful or too insignificant, and hence unsuitable at the time for American invasion. Iraq, on the other hand, had a high profile but was relatively isolated. But these power-stirrings at the top, MacDonald insists, would not have sufficed to move this country to war had it not been for the spreading influence of the distinctive mindset that he details.

All these ideologically fueled dreams had a date with reality, of course, once Saddam Hussein’s regime was vanquished. What sort of social order was to follow? The joyous crowds welcoming the American occupiers failed to materialize. Democratic institutions and practices, supposed to sprout like mushrooms after spring rain, were nowhere to be seen. Iraq’s oil industry failed to rebound. When the vanquished regime proved unable to function without the old systems of threat and inducement, Americans were at a loss.

And then things began to get really nasty. Armed rebellion that could no longer be attributed merely to Donald Rumsfeld’s “dead enders” began to cost many American lives. Sectarian conflict ramped up between Sunnis and Shi’ites. Predictably, many former supporters of the invasion concluded that the invaders had failed to apply enough violence and coercion. The author quotes from the army’s own history of the war: “Clearly, the Coalition lacked sufficient forces . . . to facilitate, much less impose, fundamental political, social and economic changes in Iraq.” “Early hawks,” MacDonald observes, “made [this] point repeatedly.” Some early supporters of the war, like George Packer, condemned the growing catastrophe in Iraq, but—in Packer’s case—continued to portray it as the result of “sheer fecklessness, confusion and ignorance” on the part of the Bush administration and the occupation authority in Baghdad.

MacDonald refuses to write off Iraq’s cascading debacles simply as results of “mistakes.” He shows in detail how American inattention to or incomprehension of the likely consequences of “decapitating” the old regime stemmed directly from the fateful mindset that had guided war thinking from the start. American violence, in this view, simply offered a means to universally held, life-giving values that Iraqis, given the chance, would immediately embrace. Confronted with a reality that everywhere flew in the face of that assumption, proponents of the invasion took increasingly outlandish positions as to what was necessary to realize the promises of regime change. MacDonald is particularly scathing when it comes to Thomas L. Friedman, an early and vociferous supporter of the war:

Friedman acknowledged that US power [was] intruding into ‘the heart of their world,’ with the purpose of staging a heart transplant. America’s values were to replace Iraqi values. While Friedman seemed to be arguing for emancipating Iraqis, his real project was to save Iraqis—and, through them, Arabs—from themselves. They were to be rescued not only from their state, but from their culture too. When this project was complete, the United States would have satisfied [political philosopher Leo] Strauss’s definition of regime change. No longer would Iraqis be what they had been: ‘We are not “rebuilding” Iraq. We are “building” a new Iraq—from scratch. . . .’

America must begin by destroying. It broke the vase of Arab culture for thwarting what Friedman calls democracy. Less than a year into the occupation, Friedman acknowledged that Iraq’s government could not be allowed to express the actual will of the Iraqis. ‘Our most serious long-term enemy in Iraq may not be the Iraqi insurgency, but the Iraqi people.’ Friedman’s ‘democracy’ . . . [meant] remaking Iraqis in America’s image, and only then, maybe, could their aspirations be allowed to be expressed democratically.

These were the utopian fantasies to which the United States was willing to sacrifice more than 130,000 lives, and endless human suffering.

MacDonald is profoundly and chillingly right in his diagnosis of the mentality that ultimately set this disastrous chain of events in motion. “Elites believed they were acting morally in Iraq,” he concludes. “But in idealizing their interests, they not only ennobled the pursuit of power and advantage. More importantly, they abolished the moral foundation for evaluating the morality of American power.” Surely he is not the first to document the sanctimonious character of American exceptionalism. But he provides one of the most closely observed and closely reasoned accounts of the human costs of putting such thinking into practice.

As an account of the causes of the Iraq war, however, Overreach leaves a major question unanswered. If the mindset MacDonald pinpoints did indeed play the crucial role that he depicts in the Iraq invasion, what about the rest of American foreign policy? As MacDonald notes, other chapters in American geopolitics have been governed by other logics and doctrines—that of classic realism, for example. It will not do, as he himself states in another context, to explain a variable with a constant. What happened to switch on this particular (hopefully recessive) gene in American political thought just in time to trigger American “shock and awe” in Iraq in 2003?

Here Ahmad’s book helps. If neoconservative doctrine were the sole and invariant inspiration for U.S. foreign policy, militant assertions of American power in the name of superior American values would be the order of the day—every day. But these moments occur only occasionally in U.S. history. Ahmad shows vividly what vast energy, resources, and determination the neocons mobilized to gain control over Iraq policy. He takes pains to present the success of their work not as foregone, but rather as a win against considerable odds, apparently made possible by coming at a certain vulnerable moment in American life.

That moment was the period immediately following the 9/11 attacks. For enthusiasts of the war and of draconian domestic surveillance measures, those events were supposed to “change everything.” And indeed, properly manipulated, they have changed an enormous amount. In this case, they evidently rendered Americans at all levels of power and sophistication more willing to suspend disbelief of outlandish official claims—and to embrace a messianic campaign to crush this country’s declared enemies du jour in the very part of the world that incubated the terrorist attacks on American soil. To be sure, Iraq wasn’t really the source of those attacks.

Causal connection between the attacks and Americans’ susceptibility to the allure of righteous vengeance is ultimately impossible to prove definitively. But it is very difficult to reject.

And this conclusion leaves us with a very queasy question indeed. Assume that the exceptionalist mentality that MacDonald delineates indeed represents an abiding latent feature of American public culture. Could a sequence like the one these authors document happen again—with similarly calamitous consequences? You bet your sweet Zeitgeist it could!

In classic liberal thinking, democracy is supposed to provide a constant stream of public criticism and evaluation of state action, so that the entire polity learns from past mistakes. Blame is assigned, responsibility weighed, individuals or parties gain and lose advantage; the system rights itself. Nothing remotely like this has happened with regard to the Iraq war—no national debate on the premises of the war remotely commensurate with the disaster it entailed.  The key actors in this sweeping and slowly enfolding tragedy—those who bear the heaviest responsibility for the disaster (both personalities and institutions)—are still holding forth, having learned nothing and (for official purposes) forgotten everything.  If the supposedly inevitable Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, becomes that party’s presidential nominee, you can be sure that the detail of these matters will be buried as deeply as possible under a landslide of platitudes and selective ignorance. So yes,  it could happen again—and probably will, unless the country resists the temptation to regard the Iraq war as a bad dream, to be forgotten with the dawn of a new day. If there’s a task for the left here, it is to fight that temptation.


James B. Rule is a fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Society, University of California, Berkeley.

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