10 Years On

Ten Years Later, the Hubris That Landed Us in Iraq Has Collapsed

A decade of wild successes—international, economic, ideological—before 2003 eroded America’s caution. But Peter Beinart says on the 10th anniversary of the war, for better or worse, we’ve lost our epic ambition.

03.18.13 8:45 AM ET

In the 10 years since the invasion of Iraq, both liberals and conservatives have developed arguments for why America went to war. The core liberal argument, popularized by people like Michael Moore, is that in January 2001 ideological aliens invaded the federal government. For the prior decade, these neoconservatives had been seeking an excuse to dominate the Middle East and finish the work that Poppy Bush had left undone during the Gulf War. The Supreme Court gave them the White House, 9/11 gave them unchecked power, and so they invaded Iraq.

The conservative argument, best articulated by Robert Kagan, is that America invaded Iraq because that’s what America always does when attacked: it fights back ferociously and seeks to spread its ideals along the way. Spain blows up the USS Maine (or at least we claim it does), we end up taking over Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Japan bombs Pearl Harbor; we end up nuking them and occupying half of Europe. North Korea invades its southern twin; we end marching to the border with China. The Iraq War wasn’t a neoconservative venture, according to this logic. It was a quintessentially American one.

There are problems with both these narratives. What the “alien invasion” storyline misses is the continuity between Bush’s foreign policy and the Clinton foreign policy that preceded it. It was Bill Clinton who in 1998 committed America to overthrowing Saddam Hussein, who bombed Iraq for four straight days in Operation Desert Fox, and who pursued a sanctions policy that made truly concluding the Gulf War impossible for America and Iraq. It was the Clinton administration that in Kosovo launched a preemptive humanitarian war without United Nations approval. It was no coincidence that so many ex-Clinton officials backed the Iraq War. In important ways, the Bushies were building on what they had begun.

By contrast, what the “just America being America” storyline misses is that the United States doesn’t always respond to foreign attacks with reckless adventurism. When Hezbollah blew up the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, Ronald Reagan talked tough but then quickly brought the Marines home. Even after Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt worked feverishly to limit U.S. ground combat in Europe, even though it meant ceding Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union. In the early 1950s Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower each looked hard at the costs of pursuing regime change in North Korea and said no.

So what’s the best explanation for why America invaded Iraq? Hubris born of success. From Panama to the Gulf War to Bosnia to Kosovo, America spent the decade preceding 9/11 intervening successfully overseas. As a result, elites in both parties lost the fear of war they felt after Vietnam. In 1988 Reagan had been so afraid of another Vietnam that he refused to send ground troops to Panama. In 1990 John McCain had responded to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait by declaring, “If you get involved in a major ground war in the Saudi desert, I think [public] support will erode significantly ... We cannot even contemplate, in my view, trading American blood for Iraqi blood.” In his emotional 1991 speech opposing the Gulf War, John Kerry had mentioned Vietnam 10 times. In his 2002 speech supporting the invasion of Iraq, by contrast, he mentioned Vietnam only once.

It wasn’t only military success that by 9/11 had eroded America’s caution. It was economic and ideological success, too. By 2001 the boom of the late 1990s had turned America’s budget deficit to surplus. For top Bush officials, the lesson was that just as America had overcome the deficits Reagan amassed while fighting the Cold War, America could easily overcome whatever temporary debt the Bushies incurred fighting the “war on terror.” As Dick Cheney declared during the run-up to Iraq, “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.”

The final ingredient was ideological success. In the 1980s, before democratization swept across Eastern Europe, East Asia, and Latin America, prominent liberals and conservatives would have found the idea that democracy could take root in a country like Iraq utterly fanciful. As late as 1983, Irving Kristol, the “godfather” of neoconservatism, was writing that “the traditions—political, religious, cultural—that shape Latin American thinking and behavior are such as to make it exceedingly difficult for the countries of Southern America to proceed along the [democratic] lines followed by Northern America and Western Europe.” By 2001, however, “neoconservatism” had been redefined by ideological optimists like Paul Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams, and Irving’s son, William, men shaped by the very democratic transformations that Irving Kristol had deemed impossible.

Obviously, it took 9/11 for the Bush administration to rally the public behind the Iraq war. But had the success of the 1990s not bred so much military, economic, and ideological overconfidence on both sides of the aisle, it’s unlikely they would have tried.

The key thing that has changed in the decade since America invaded Iraq is not Barack Obama’s election. It’s the collapse of American hubris. Far fewer people in either party now claim that America can easily topple and occupy distant lands. Far fewer believe we can conduct foreign policy as if “deficits don’t matter.” Far fewer believe that the peoples of the Middle East yearn for secular, liberal, pro-American democracies. That doesn’t mean the United States has stopped acting like a superpower. We’ve simply turned to methods that cost less money and fewer American lives.

It’s an old story. After Korea left the United States exhausted, Eisenhower told the CIA to overthrow leftist Third World governments because it could do so more cheaply than the Marines. When Richard Nixon could no longer sustain a large U.S. ground presence in Vietnam, he began bombing ferociously from the air. Now Obama has pulled U.S. ground troops from Iraq, is pulling them from Afghanistan, and is fighting al Qaeda with drones instead.

There’s nothing particularly glorious, or moral, about empire on the cheap. But at least war will no longer cost America so much money and so many young American lives. Maybe we’ve grown wiser over the last 10 years. Or maybe we’ve just lost the epic ambition that true tragedy requires.