Andrew Bacevich reviews Michael Mazarr’s Leap of Faith, and he rejects the author’s contention that the Iraq war was the product of good intentions gone awry:
To explain all of this in terms of a misplaced messianic impulse — the self-described indispensable nation having a bad run of luck — may play well in Washington, where serious introspection is rarely welcome. Yet, ultimately, such an explanation amounts to little more than a dodge. After all, altruism rarely if ever provides an adequate explanation for the actions of a great power. Exempting the United States from that proposition, as Mazarr does, entails its own spectacular leap of faith.
Bacevich is right that the Iraq war was “more like a crime, compounded by the stupefying incompetence of those who embarked upon a patently illegal preventive war out of a sense of panic induced by the events of 9/11,” and it was a crime committed for the worst reasons rather than the best motives. The goal of the war was to crush an adversary in order to send a message to the rest of the world about American dominance and our government’s willingness to use force to achieve its ends, but a war waged for a “demonstration effect” ended up sending a very different message to the world.
Waging an illegal preventive war cannot be noble and cannot be done with “good intentions.” To embark on an unnecessary war in violation of another state’s sovereignty and international law because you claim to be afraid of what they might do to you at some point in the future is nothing other than aggression covered up by a weak excuse. It is the act of a bully looking to lash out at a convenient target. Calling the Iraq war a “tragedy” implies that the U.S. had a legitimate reason to go to war against Iraq in 2003, but there was no legitimate reason and anyone who thought things through could see that at the time. The war was inherently unjust, as all preventive wars always are, and it makes no difference whether some ideologues claimed to have high-minded reasons for committing a grave injustice against tens of millions of people.
There are a lot of foreign policy professionals in the U.S. that very much want to believe that the U.S. commits crimes like the Iraq war out of the best of intentions. It doesn’t make the war any less destructive, and it doesn’t mean that there are any fewer lives lost in senseless conflict, but it somehow comforts them to think that the U.S. destroys entire countries out of a desire to help rather than harm. What matters most in the end is the effects of our government’s policies, but it is important to understand that no one supports wars of aggression for genuinely good or moral reasons. The moralizing rhetoric is an attempt to dress up an ugly policy as something other than what it is. The Iraq war didn’t simply turn out badly. It was wrong from the outset. Any account of the war that fails to grasp that has missed an essential truth.