With each passing of the 2003 invasion of Iraq’s anniversary comes a fusillade of commentary placing the blame squarely on “neocons.” For the past 16 years, this political movement has been singled out by critics on both the left and right as responsible for the nation’s foreign policy woes.
It’s for good reason: neoconservatism constitutes a powerful and influential force in American defense and foreign policy-making circles. Their reflexive hawkishness, combined with a sense of moral righteousness and resolute determination to remake the world in America’s image, along with major financial and political capital, coalesce to make neocons, along with their left-wing counterparts, the liberal internationalists, the dominant voice in American foreign policy.
But has it become far too easy to blame them? Has the term “neocon” become yet another overused, “meaningless label,” as Max Boot recently put it, to describe individuals and policies one finds distasteful? The prevailing narrative depicts the United States’ invasion of Iraq as the brainchild of a cabal of political heavyweights, intellectuals, and think-tanks pulling the strings, but a closer, more honest look reveals the origins of the Iraq War to be more multifaceted.
Let’s Review the Timeline
By March 2003, the United States had been engaged in armed conflict against Iraq for 12 years. After Desert Storm, the fighting between the two countries continued in the skies throughout the 1990s into the ‘00s, as Saddam Hussein defied the United Nations-mandated no-fly zones in the north and south of the country, alongside the economic sanctions against his country.
By the time George W. Bush entered the presidency, there was no end to the fighting in sight. Saddam continued to exhibit belligerence, firing routinely upon U.S. and allied aircraft in the no-fly zones. With an administration staffed with neocon all-stars like Elliott Abrams, Paul Bremer, Richard Perle, and Paul Wolfowitz, it was easy to believe the Bush White House would use the hostilities in the skies over Iraq as a justification for war and regime change in Baghdad.
This was not so. The no-fly zones were unpopular among Congress and the public, and concerns over losing aircrew prompted the Bush administration to initially scale back the intensity of Operations Northern and Southern Watch. To go as far as to launch preemptive war, the Bush administration would need something more than just combat aircraft being shot down while patrolling no-fly zones.
That something came in the form of 9/11. After the devastating terrorist attacks, the United States had the legal, logical, and moral justification to pursue a campaign of justice against all its enemies. 9/11 became and, continues to be, a convenient excuse for an aggressive, interventionist American foreign policy.
We Were Already Involved in Iraq
There are two key points to absorb. The first is that there was a fair likelihood the United States and Iraq would have eventually fought another major war, given active, pre-existing armed hostilities. Baghdad under Saddam’s rule was as responsible as Washington under Bush was in the resultant Operation Iraqi Freedom. At the very least, the cycle of Iraqi provocation followed by limited U.S. military responses would have continued indefinitely.
The second point is, had a 9/11-like event not occurred, it would have been difficult for the Bush or any future administration to sell an invasion of Iraq. Even in the wake of the resounding victory in Desert Storm, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney was aware of both the risks of overthrowing Saddam’s Ba’athist regime and the political and public opposition such an operation would garner. The Bush administration’s de-escalatory approach to the no-fly zones in the months leading up to September 2001 supports the idea that even a neocon “dream team” would face great difficulty in taking the country to war without heavy political and public backing.
Therefore, it was the combination of 9/11 and the ongoing conflict between the United States and Iraq that culminated in the invasion of the latter in 2003. While viewed as a “war of choice,” conditions were such that two things were true at once—another U.S.-Iraq war was likely, and it would take a major casus belli to start it. Without 9/11, the Bush administration would be limited to the same tools available to the Trump administration as it pursues its “ferocious tack” on Iran—all options short of war.
Huge Majorities of Americans Supported War
The neoconservatives clearly exploited the opportunities 9/11 wrought. But it is rather too convenient and disingenuous to heap all blame on them, given how popular the Iraq War was at the start. While evoking strong sentiments at both ends of the spectrum, overall public opinion was extremely supportive for the conflict at the outset.
How supportive? In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted just days after the invasion, a whopping 72 percent of Americans expressed support for the war, while only a quarter expressed opposition. If the Iraq War was deeply unpopular by its end, it unequivocally was not at the beginning. This is fact often forgotten by the war’s critics, many of whom were initially supporters.
While Americans, along with much of the world, view U.S. foreign policy in largely beneficent terms, the decision to conduct regime change via the most powerful military in history in not one, but two countries, one of which had nothing to do with 9/11, prove that America, like all nations, will lash out vengefully and violently under times of duress, out of love for country (patriotism) and in promotion of national interests (nationalism). Both were on full display following 9/11, but the latter motivated the Iraq War more than the former.
Scholar Walter Russell Mead referred to this distinctive brand of American nationalism as rooted in the “Jacksonian” school of American foreign policy in an essay published in The National Interest in 1999, then later in his masterwork, “Special Providence.” Described by Mead as more a “folk community” rather than a distinct political ideology or movement, Jacksonianism encompasses a set of beliefs, impulses, and values associated with the “heartland” and “Middle America.”
This is critical to understanding it. Unlike neoconservatism, it is the doctrine of commoners, not the product of intellectuals, or policymakers. This is a crucial to absorb because it reveals neoconservatism for what it is—the thinking of an elite, vocal minority and hardly representative of American public opinion at large.
We Hate You Until We Need You to Die
Despite comprising the heart and soul of a nation, Jacksonians are also dismissed or downright “deplored” (a word Mead uses) by the same cultural and political elites as ignorant, backwards, or simply representative of a culture and history that deserves to be cast, along with “outdated” notions such as nationalism, to the dustbin of history.
Until times of trial. During America’s darkest hours, it is this Jacksonian community that rises to the challenge and supplies the blood, sweat, and tears of a nation. In the days and months following 9/11, it was this Jacksonian community that spoke heartedly for the country through fervent displays of patriotism, enlisting in the military in large numbers, and even through song, like country musician Toby Keith’s 2001 hit “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue.”
But it is also the convictions and motivations of the Jacksonians that make wars like Iraq possible. By associating support for the war with patriotism, Jacksonian sentiment dabbled in their own form of political correctness, that opposing the war was anti-American.
More importantly, Jacksonians think that when one’s nation is under assault, the only answer is to pursue absolute destruction of all enemies, at any cost, for as long as it takes. When President Bush declared, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” he was not channeling neoconservatism—he was channeling Jacksonian martial and unilateral sentiment. Caroline Glick once opined that it is Jacksonianism, not neoconservatism, that dominates the Republican Party’s foreign policy.
Elites Didn’t March to War Alone
Finally, there is the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force, in which almost 40 percent of the Democratic House Representatives and 58 percent of Democratic senators effectively voted in favor of invading Iraq. The results speak for itself—the Iraq War was very much a bipartisan war, no matter how hard the Democrats have attempted to distance themselves from it.
None of this absolves the neocons of blame for the Iraq War. They were its greatest supporters, spending considerable money and time promoting regime change in Baghdad. The point is that it takes more than a relatively small, though politically influential, elite to affect policymaking.
The war was the product of four key ingredients: pre-existing hostilities, a political movement bent on global deliverance, vengeful nationalism, and bipartisan political support. Remove one of these four legs, and the Bush administration would, at minimum, been far less eager to sally forth into the dark.
As the Trump administration becomes increasingly under the influence of neoconservatives and tensions increase with Iran, the lesson of Iraq going forward is that Congress and the American people are very much a part of the decision to take the nation to war. A war with Iran may not be as likely as some believe, but neither was another war with Iraq until 9/11 happened and the national mood changed dramatically.
In times like these, there will be neoconservatives ready to act as white knights and sweep America off its feet once again.