Optimism and the Iraq War
Aaron David Miller discusses American optimism as a product of the country’s secure geographical location, and holds it responsible for recent foreign policy errors:
Just look at America’s recent foreign-policy misadventures. Americans’ mistaken belief that post-invasion Iraq would be a place where Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds would somehow look to the future to build a new nation reflected this tendency. It’s the same story with the Arab Spring: From the beginning, America seemed determined to impose its own upbeat Hollywood ending on a movie that was only just getting started and would become much darker than imagined. The notion that what was happening in Egypt was a transformative event that would turn the country over to the secular liberals powered by Facebook and Twitter was truly an American conceit.
I agree that misunderstandings born of extreme optimism are harmful, but I think Miller errs in attributing these specific optimistic views to most or all Americans. Some mistaken beliefs about post-invasion Iraq were probably not widely shared by most Americans. The idea that “Iraq would be a place where Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds would somehow look to the future to build a new nation” was a view espoused by pro-war propagandists, and I doubt that it was ever seriously held by more than 20% of the population. (Miller actually understates how absurdly optimistic some prominent war supporters about what post-invasion Iraq would be like.) Many Americans didn’t think about what would happen after the invasion, and for a lot of war supporters that was irrelevant anyway. The war received the support it did because of the panicked political atmosphere after 9/11, and because of the administration’s utterly false assertions that Iraq was supposedly an intolerable threat in league with Al Qaeda.
The Iraq war was a product of excessive fear and fear-mongering. Its architects may have had delusional, optimistic schemes for regional democratic transformation, but a lot of its supporters backed the invasion because their government had terrified them with the prospect of nuclear terrorist attacks that might follow if there were no war. Unreasonable expectations about what would follow Egypt’s original anti-Mubarak protests were widespread in American media, but I’m not sure that the “American conceit” that Miller refers to here was one that most Americans accepted. It could be that the secure location of the U.S. causes some people here to not fully understand the severity and horrors of armed conflict, which in turn makes them quicker to support military action in other countries, but I suspect that excessive optimism about the results of democratization in other countries is something normally confined to a very small fraction of the population.
Despite living in an unusually secure and powerful country, Americans are just as susceptible as any other nation to the demagoguery of politicians that exaggerate and invent foreign threats. It may be that our secure position in the world has spoiled us. When an attack does occur, there is a tendency to overreact because suffering foreign attacks has been so unusual in our history. Oddly enough, we are accustomed to being very secure, and yet our foreign policy debate ceaselessly obsesses over the most remote and manageable foreign threats.