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Lessons Unlearned

Twenty years after the Iraq invasion: We were granted a rare second chance after Iraq. We seem intent on wasting it.

Task Force Ironhorse Launches Operation Sidewinder
(Photo by Marco DiLauro/Getty Images)

It has now been twenty years since the single most catastrophic foreign policy crime in modern American history, one that killed and maimed thousands of American and British youths, and hundreds of thousands of ill-fated Iraqis unfortunate enough to be born in the Middle East at the peak of American unipolarity. It led to an entire region’s instability—an instability that might last our lifetime and beyond—and to the utter annihilation of a religion historic to the region and its way of life. It also wasted over $6 trillion, prompted the rise of the gigantic activist “national security state” bureaucracy, formed the foreign policy instincts whose fumes we see in Libya, Syria, and Ukraine, and led to a historic self-inflicted peacetime loss of relative power. The question ahead of us is whether things are different, and if not, why not

Well, things are indeed different than 2003, just not in a good way. Amidst all the carefully worded mea culpas, the same people who led to the madness in Mesopotamia are still in power, trying to bring about a catastrophe near the Caucasus. And unless we understand the root causes of the plague, we’re as vulnerable as ever to a new variant. 


The first cause is structural. As Nuno Monteiro wrote in "Unrest Assured," unipolarity is not peaceful: “defensive and offensive dominance...will lead to conflicts pitting the sole great power against other states," while "disengagement...will lead to conflicts among other states.” As Justin Logan wrote in “The Structure of Domestic Politics,” private actors invested in American foreign and defense policy and the national security bureaucracy itself have interests in persisting in primacy. Restraint is simply hard to sell. No one benefits from retrenchment, and there are far too many lobbies and external variables opposed to realism. Absent external great powers balancing the U.S., inside the country a parallel “unipolarity” exists in the form of a dominant political coalition that promotes and defends an activist grand strategy. 

In short, unipolarity is a get out of jail free card: It allows one to be dumb without any immediate consequence. Given that we are an electoral polity, and not Hans Morgenthau’s idea of a realist great power with a smart Platonic epistocracy, the pressures of public opinion, influenced by a hyper-liberal activist elite and media, make it impossible to execute a rational grand strategy. Foreign policy isn’t just structural international relations. It is the intersection of domestic politics with unipolarity that is the key to understanding why we are where we are.

There have been quite a few changes since 2003. Back then, there were large spontaneous anti-war protests in Europe and America. There are not many these days, nor were there during Libya or Syria. Johnny Public may still be uninterested in foreign conflicts, but there is now an asymmetry in propaganda. Put simply, foreign policy realists are at a disadvantage, because the elite media and the national security bureaucracy have almost total control of the commanding heights of Western public discourse. Most conflicts are decided, in camera and without democratic control, by the executive through a permanent national security bureaucracy that, thanks to the War on Terror, expanded to the beast we see now. That bureaucracy, in turn, has a stranglehold on elite media. Just observe the range of guests on Jake Tapper's, Erin Burnett's, or Margaret Brennan’s shows.

Any politician who desires a realist foreign policy for the republic will have to speak in a language that people understand—one of trade-offs, not morals or values or ethics—to go against this informational hegemony. For conservative realists, the question is existential. How to win in a battle for domestic propaganda when the “marketplace” is dominated by an ideologically hostile edifice?

The “national security state” is the enemy. There’s no polite way to say this. Of course, there are good patriotic Americans serving it. But there were good patriotic Russians in the Soviet Union, too; there were good patriotic Frenchmen among the Jacobins. The system is now self-perpetuating and destructive of the very fabric of society. There is an economic angle to it. Due to the War on Terror, massive expansion of bureaucracy led to the single largest expansion in “surplus elites”—a managerial education creating an unoriginal midwit cadre, a rapid and uncontrolled expansion of the “social-democratic state.” Historically, surplus elites are the most destructive class and lead to revolutionary activism at home and exporting ideology abroad—in Middle Europe around 1848, for example, or Russia in the first decade of the twentieth century. 


This bureaucracy, in turn, is fuelled by activist disciplines. That is by design. The people who are fighting “fascism” in both Florida and Russia are the same people who are determined to spread “rights” in Kiev and Kabul. In the university, the tragedy and realism of classics and history gave way to more interdisciplinary research, feminism, international organizations, human rights, global development, and environmental politics. Less Thucydides, more Samantha Power. The fresh-faced, starry-eyed activists who are churned to be cogs in the Liberal Internationale need jobs. Where they go and what their unoriginal policy suggestions will be are anyone’s guess. 

There is a painting at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, by Thomas Chambers, depicting the capture of Royal Navy Frigate Macedonian by the frigate United States—the first such instance and the sign of the emergence of America as a naval power in an era of emerging multipolarity. Great Britain was still preponderant, but the British elite quickly got the hint, and corrected course towards an era of “splendid isolation” for the next hundred years, content with being primus inter pares, confident with a peerless navy defending vast sea-borne trade and empire but otherwise not taking part in too many pesky regional disputes, or promoting values and rights by force. 

Sometimes, fate gives a second chance to the prudent. The folly in Iraq wasn’t fatal for America, simply because it occurred in an era of unipolarity. That is over, even though the fumes of unipolar instincts still remain in the upper echelons of power, steadily pushing us toward a great power conflict; those instincts eerily mirror the same destructive Edwardian idealism, threat inflation, and hysteria of British elites in 1912, after a century of relative isolation and peace created the absence of any muscle memory for a civilization-ending conflict and violent re-ordering. 

Next time will not be so fortunate.


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