Iraq Hawks Don't Realize: They're to Blame for America's War Weariness

They urged a war of choice that required more sacrifices for fewer benefits than any democracy would long permit.
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As the 10th anniversary of the Iraq invasion passed last week, many pundits reflected on what they'd gotten wrong: the missing weapons of mass destruction; the difficulty of the occupation; the fact that it lasted longer, costing more in lives and treasure, than any advocate predicted in 2003. The United States, where a majority of citizens once favored the war, is now a country where a majority regards it as a mistake, and that change in perception has been reflected in the press. But unapologetic hawks remain, and their counternarrative shouldn't pass without comment.

Max Boot says there's no need to apologize if you were wrong about weapons of mass destruction. Charles Krauthammer asserts that the Iraq War had been won by the time Americans elected Barack Obama, who was given one task -- secure the Bush Administration's gains -- and botched it. And if you read just one column from the unapologetic hawk faction, make it Mark Steyn's effort in National Review. Seeing his past arguments beside his present positions shows why the neoconservative approach to foreign intervention is doomed: Its success, if possible at all, would require Americans to embrace a fantastically expensive neo-imperial foreign policy with which they'd never willingly go along without being tricked.  


Steyn's position is that the United States erred by leaving Iraq, because "the unceasing drumbeat of 'quagmire' and 'exit strategy' communicated to the world an emptiness at the heart of American power." An awareness that America lacks "credibility" and "will" is what caused crowds to attack U.S. embassies and the consulate in Benghazi without fear of retribution, he argues, adding, "Once you've started a war, you have two choices: to win it or to lose it. Withdrawing one's 'support' for a war you're already in advertises nothing more than a kind of geopolitical ADHD."

It's an argument echoed by a lot of neoconservatives, who insist that if only America had the focus and will to keep fighting, victory would be ours. As they see it, even if the Iraq War ends up leaving America in a weakened geopolitical position, that won't be the fault of the people who advocated for it or the Bush Administration appointees who bungled its execution. It'll be the fault of politicians like Obama who lack the will to fight, their pathetically war-weary constituents, and the defeatist media that reported on the conflict in a way that sapped national morale.

What neoconservatives never seem to understand is that you go to war with the citizenry that you've got. Urging a war of choice that requires more years of fighting to win than the citizenry will permit is itself an error. If guys like Steyn didn't realize, when they were calling on the U.S. to invade Iraq, that Americans would tire of fighting there after a decade of conflict, thousands of troops killed, and hundreds of billions of dollars spent, they should blame themselves for missing the obvious. If America looks weak for failing to win the war, we have Iraq hawks to blame for urging a war that required far longer to win than a democratic citizenry was ever likely to want to fight (and that might well have been unwinnable regardless of how long we remained an occupying force).  

The Iraq hawks would be culpable even if they'd encouraged war without making any predictions about its likely cost. Instead, the hawks spent the pre-war period assuring Americans that victory would be sure and swift; proclaimed "Mission Accomplished" soon after the invasion; and started speculating in those heady days about regime change in Iran and Syria. It isn't ADHD that caused so many to support the invasion only to turn against the occupation. Many of the Americans who changed sides were misled by the faux-assurance of writers like Steyn, who puffed themselves up as if they were speaking obvious foreign-policy truths, openly mocked academics and pundits who warned of impending calamity, and most incredibly, continue all these years later to act as if subsequent events have vindicated their analysis. The hawks who say we'd do well to stay in Iraq and secure Bush's victory aren't winning converts in part because their predictions about how the war would unfold have been proven so spectacularly wrong by events -- without their admitting it -- that no one takes them seriously.

While his peers penned reflective apologies last week reviewing everything that they got wrong, Steyn spent his latest piece quoting old columns as if his judgment has been prescient all along:

Three weeks after Operation Shock and Awe began, the early-bird naysayers were already warning of massive humanitarian devastation and civil war. Neither happened. Overcompensating somewhat for all the doom-mongering, I wrote in Britain's Daily Telegraph that "a year from now Basra will have a lower crime rate than most London boroughs." Close enough. Major General Andy Salmon, the British commander in southern Iraq, eventually declared of Basra that "on a per capita basis, if you look at the violence statistics, it is less dangerous than Manchester."

Ten years ago, expert opinion was that Iraq was a phony-baloney entity imposed on the map by distant colonial powers. Joe Biden, you'll recall, advocated dividing the country into three separate states, which for the Democrats held out the enticing prospect of having three separate quagmires to blame on Bush, but for the Iraqis had little appeal. "As long as you respect its inherently confederal nature," I argued, "it'll work fine." As for the supposedly secessionist Kurds, "they'll settle for being Scotland or Quebec." And so it turned out. The Times of London, last week: "Ten Years after Saddam, Iraqi Kurds Have Never Had It So Good." In Kurdistan as in Quebec, there is a pervasive unsavory tribal cronyism, but on the other hand, unlike Quebec City, Erbil is booming.

What of the rest of the country? Iraq, I suggested, would wind up "at a bare minimum, the least badly governed state in the Arab world, and, at best, pleasant, civilized and thriving." I'll stand by my worst-case scenario there. Unlike the emerging "reforms" in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Syria, politics in Iraq has remained flawed but, by the standards of the grimly Islamist Arab Spring, broadly secular.

Even if we accept this self-serving history at face value, it's easy to see how it could turn some Steyn readers into war-weary non-interventionists -- if you spent 2003 to 2005 believing that there was no need to worry about humanitarian devastation in Iraq, because its streets were as safe as London and its politics were superior to every other nearby country, you might've start wondering circa 2007 why so many Americans had to keep dying as part of an open-ended occupation.

But Steyn's look back at his columns is also highly selective. Let's review some of the analysis that he chose not to reprint.

In August 2002, Steyn wrote, "Here's the likely schedule: Pencil in Iraq this August, the Saudi revolution next August." In the same April 2003 column where he predicted the Basra crime rate, he assured his readers that "there will be terrible acts of suicide-bomber depravity in the months ahead, but no widespread resentment at or resistance of the Western military presence." In August 2003, he stated, "the only way the US can lose is if the media sufficiently rattle the American people that they elect Howard Dean. That aside, there are merely degrees of victory." 

Steyn accuses Americans who turned against the Iraq War after a decade of ADHD, but by December 2003, writing generally about the War on Terrorism, he asserted that "a victory for America will require the defeat of certain other countries," going on to name them: Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and North Korea. Later that month, Steyn must've made some readers wonder why we should keep financing democracy building when he wrote, "Bush may not succeed in bringing democracy to Mesopotamia, but so what? If he has to settle for a Musharraf and a big American base on the Syrian border, it's no skin off his back. But it's still better to have tried."

On December 23, readers who trusted Steyn's analysis must've thought we'd soon be able to withdraw. "The sight of Saddam looking like a department-store Santa who has been sleeping off a bender in a sewer for a week will deal a fatal blow to the Ba'athist thugs' ability to intimidate local populations," he wrote of the dictator's capture. "The insurgency will continue for a few weeks yet, but it will peter out, like the dictator, not with a bang but a whimper." Are you beginning to see why so few people believe Steyn when he predicts that American objectives would be well served by keeping troops in Iraq? His track record isn't confidence-inspiring.

On December 30, 2003, Steyn went so far as to explicitly mock "those wise old foreign policy birds who get everything wrong but never seem to notice." The naysayers "acknowledge that America has won swift victories in Afghanistan and Iraq," but warn that the United States is "meddling with ancient, complex cultural forces that will come back to bite them in the butt," he scoffed. "Whatever gets you through the night, boys." In the same column, he went on to observe that "despite innumerable warnings from these Western defeatists about the folly of provoking the incendiary 'Arab street,' that same street is now in the third year of its deep slumber."

Skip ahead to July 2, 2004, when Steyn declared victory again:

After 15 months of running Iraq, the Americans are out. Sure, they've got a lot of troops there, but they've got a lot of troops everywhere -- Germany, Japan, South Korea, Qatar, Kosovo, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Diego Garcia ... What's one more?

What the future holds for Iraqis is up to them. But the Americans have bequeathed them a better Iraq than the one the British invented for them eight decades ago: no imported princeling, no rigged referendum installing him as king, no exclusion of the majority population from political power. Iraq now has the most representative and progressive government in the Arab world. They may not keep it. They may lapse back to some reformed Baathist strongman or charismatic mullah. But they won't be in the hands of a mass murderer and his even more psychotic sons. So I'm relaxed about Iraq: its future lies somewhere between good enough and great.    

Steyn wasn't alone in penning breezy assurances about the wisdom of the Iraq invasion, the vindication of its backers, and the idiocy of everyone who warned about impending catastrophe. The flaws in his columns certainly misled fewer people than the Bush Administration low-balling the war's financial costs, Dick Cheney insisting we'd be greeted in Baghdad as liberators, as if that could last, or even Bill Clinton on David Letterman's show: "You're looking at a couple weeks of bombing and then I'd be astonished if this campaign took more than a week. Astonished." Those statements prepped America to expect a cakewalk. Then the invasion happened. And writers like Steyn, their analysis disseminated via talk radio, Fox News, conservative publications, and pro-war blogs, spent years leading many to believe that the war was all but won, especially after Bush's reelection guaranteed four more years in which to finish the job.

The lesson of Iraq isn't that Americans have foreign-policy ADHD. It's that Americans aren't keen on fighting a decade-plus war of choice against a country that poses no imminent threat to us, and won't agree to such a war unless misled by people who insist that the threat is grave, the cost meager, and victory assured. Americans didn't turn against Iraq because they got distracted. They pulled the plug when its true nature finally became clear. Thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis dead. Cost overruns in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Military families exhausted from repeated redeployment. Record-high suicide rates among combat veterans. And a faction of hawks who, despite it all, can't seem to face their own bygone errors as they proclaim with as much assurance as they had back in 2002 that it's the doves who have everything wrong. 

Irving Kristol said that a neoconservative is a liberal who is mugged by reality. Today, getting mugged by reality turns people away from neoconservatism. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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