Many books and articles have been written about the Iraq War focusing on the military, diplomatic, political, moral and other aspects of the conflict and its aftermath. I know of no other book besides Lloyd Gardner’s The Long Road to Baghdad, however, that views the Iraq War in terms of continuities in foreign policy thinking among American leaders from the end of the Vietnam War to present. Nor have I read any other book that examines the results of our adventure in Iraq in terms of their implications for the future of American democracy. [Disclosure: I studied with Professor Gardner about 20 years ago.]
Professor Gardner, one of the most widely respected historians of U.S. foreign policy, sees the roots of the Iraq War in America’s Vietnam defeat. Eugene Rostow, JFK’s national security adviser, thought modernity could be forced on underdeveloped countries via military power. After the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam, he argued that our defeat was due to lack of willpower, a recurring theme. (19-22) In the aftermath of Vietnam, Rostow’s confidence (he had coined the phrase “The New Frontier” for JFK) gave way to national uncertainty during Jimmy Carter’s term in office, according to Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. The latter decided to demonstrate U.S. resolve in the face of what he saw as the Soviet Union’s primary threats--to the Third World and particularly the region from Turkey to Saudi Arabia, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, which he termed the “arc of crisis.” These efforts, observes Gardner, ignored the lives and interests of the inhabitants of the countries involved and resulted in intensification of the conflict in Angola, confusion in a conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia, impotence in the face of the fall of the Shah of Iran, and contributed to the defeat of Soviet forces in Afghanistan at the cost of the arming, training and mobilization of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. Ronald Reagan engaged in a massive military buildup accompanied by strident anti-Soviet rhetoric, then reversed course after his efforts led the world to the brink of thermonuclear war in 1983. (He then worked out dramatic reductions in nuclear weapons with Mikhail Gorbachev, a fact conveniently forgotten by his conservative worshippers.) President George Herbert Walker Bush was similarly concerned with the problem of will--ending what he termed “the Vietnam Syndrome”: the widespread reluctance of the American public after Vietnam to support military adventures abroad. Similarly, Bush pere’s national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, saw the end of the cold war as a “defining moment in world history,” and argued that dealing successfully with the Bosnian war was “a matter of will.” (97-98) The theme of willpower would arise again under President George W. Bush, in his stubborn refusal to change course in Iraq, his rationalizations for aggressive action, criticisms of past policies and when accusations of the lack of will would be used to silence dissent. In each case, belligerence arising from a felt need to demonstrate willpower led to folly.
Running through the history up to and including the current Iraq war, argues Gardner, is a national myth of progress--the notion that American history is characterized by continual progress, and a sense of mission arising from a combined faith in religion and technology—in the service of imperial power. Rostow’s notion of “creative destruction”--the idea that modernization of underdeveloped countries required externally generated force--was predicated on the superiority of military technology that the U.S. could unleash on a given country and was awfully convenient to advocate when one’s role was delivery rather than reception. (19-22) Brzezinski perceived an “arc of crisis,” the center of which was the Persian Gulf, as not only a crucial source of oil for the U.S., but the site where the Cold War would be concluded. Needless to say, the interests and perceptions of the inhabitants of that expanse of terra firma were beside the point. The neoconservatives, who began their rise to power in the 1970s, also argued for creative destruction as a replacement for Cold War realism during the first Gulf War, while firmly rejecting all foreign policy thinking that predated Reagan. Gardner notes acerbically that
In truth, there is no substantive ‘realist’ tradition in American history. The tradition ran along other lines, combining faith and experience, faith in technology and the experience of ever-expanding frontiers. While the neoconservatives now held aloft the banner under which the second President Bush would go to war to finish the job, it displayed the same set of beliefs that Walt Rostow had put at the top of his policy papers when he penned the slogan “The New Frontier” and urged Lyndon Johnson not to forsake the cause of progress in Vietnam.(26)
All of the above themes were repeated in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Scowcroft said during the first Gulf War that the U.S. should rely on “shifting coalitions” to deal with a changed world, another theme that would recur. Paul Wolfowitz and Zalmay Khalilzad argued in their 1992 Defense Planning Guidance that the U.S. needed to maintain global dominance. Their chosen mechanism, echoing Scowcroft, was shifting coalitions. Around the same time as the DPG, Francis Fukuyama wrote his End of History essay (102), arguing that Western liberal democracy was universal (echoing Rostow) and criticizing George Kennan’s containment concept. Interestingly enough, Richard Holbrook echoed these views himself. (104) The Project for a New American Century, a neoconservative pressure group including many future top officials in George W. Bush’s administration (including Wolfowitz and Khalilzad), argued for U.S. dominance of the Middle East. They promoted a book claiming Saddam Hussein as the source of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, sent letters to President Bill Clinton urging him to overthrow Saddam Hussein, promoted Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress as replacements for Saddam Hussein, and argued for rejection of the UN and containment. For their parts, President Bill Clinton and his Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, also built up Saddam Hussein as a threat to the U.S., although Clinton was more cautious about engaging U.S. forces directly in a conflict in the Middle East. Through all these twists and turns, one hears recurring echoes of Rostow’s creative destruction, the universality of U.S. interests, the need for shifting coalitions and the importance of willpower.
Gardner rejects calls by some, in response to the Iraq War, for American policymakers to return to the logic of Cold War realism, arguing that such reasoning was specific to a time and place; he also observes that realists in JFK’s administration led us into Vietnam. Further, returning to the pre-Gulf War I status quo ante does nothing to enable our understanding of why U.S. foreign policy led from Vietnam to Iraq. He also points out that identifying the process leading to the Iraq War as imperialist does not, in and of itself, yield us greater self-understanding.
Another response to the Iraq War has been the call to focus on an exit strategy, ignoring the causes of the conflict. Gardner responds that seeking a global response to a local conflict is basically circular and the attempt to divert attention to an exit strategy is similar to arguments made with reference to Vietnam. The similarities between the underlying assumptions in both conflicts is revealed by the dissolving “coalition of the willing.” (6-7) Common to both conflicts are the facts that coalition members in both cases were paid to participate and the leader of each coalition (i.e., the U.S.) was one of dominance. Moreover, each coalition was essentially camouflage for neocolonialism. Gardner notes that in 2003, the U.S. had over 700 military bases worldwide, enabling rapid deployment of military force to any part of the world. He notes:
Imperialism had always been about enjoying markets and raw materials and political stability without interference. In the twenty-first century it was characterized by a new emphasis on producing cheap manufacturing abroad, controlling energy resources, and selling expensive hi-tech weapons to compradors. These were the signature marks of the quest for a new American century. (7)
The obvious objection to this claim is that the costs of maintaining an empire exceed the profits. Garner responds that such an argument overlooks the issue of who really pays the bills.
Given the above, what was the motive for the Iraq War?
In the case of the Iraq Wars, the quest has been to find a safe landing zone for American influence throughout the Middle East in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. (8)
Gardner notes that control of oil resources is inseparable from the considerations listed above.
What have been the results of our adventure in Iraq? In furtherance of his aims, Brzezinski expanded the role of national security adviser, which would have implications for the future. Gardner notes changes to our military, such as the increasing reliance on private contractors and unaccountable special sub-units (SOCOM) that raise questions about the future of civilian control of the military, one of the most fundamental concepts upon which this country was founded. There are questions, argues Gardner, as to whether the Pentagon can manipulate public opinion to such an extent that our republic is replaced in the future by an imperial presidency.
Gardner concludes by meditating on the meaning of the Iraq War. Quoting William Pfaff, he argues that ideological conflict necessitates abandonment of morality in favor of “a utopian vision.” (255) Notes Gardner,
Going to war with a preemptive strike against an enemy who might have done us harm while leaving unfinished an effort to search out an enemy who had done us harm qualified fully as some form of a utopian vision...Now it was there for all to see that the axis of evil speech was a brochure advertising Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace. (255-256)
The utopian vision has always been expressed, however, as a form of Wilson’s famous assertion that America’s duty was to make the world safe for democracy...Call it the “new American century,” or whatever, the newest meaning of the Wilsonian creed in our time has come to be to make the world safe for our democracy, using a shifting coalition of the willing. (256)
He concludes by saying,
The invasion of Iraq in March 2003 had its origins in the Vietnam defeat and the perceived need to reassert American primacy over the Soviet Union in contests in the third world, but this drive was also connected root and branch to a need to reassure the nation that what had not been lost in Vietnam was confidence in the American metaphor of progress. (265)
It failed due to the limits of power and a set of false assumptions: Eugene Rostow’s idea that Vietnam represented the end stage of Soviet antiliberal revolutions (266); Zbigniew Brzezinski’s notion that “strong Islamist movements could block communism”; (266) the neoconservative idea that removal of Saddam Hussein would lead to democratization of Middle East;(266) and, most dangerous, in Gardner’s view, Dick Cheney’s vision of the presidency as autonomous of and more powerful than the other two branches of government.
Gardner’s account is the only one I’ve read that situates the Iraq War in the ongoing struggle within U.S. foreign policy circles to accommodate the Vietnam debacle to the national narrative of ongoing progress. That effort remains unresolved, partly because the immediate post-Vietnam response to that defeat was to change the subject or otherwise refuse to engage the issue in a context inhibited by the ongoing Cold War. Thus Jimmy Carter sought to reorient American foreign policy in the service of morality in his Notre Dame speech, but met with conservative resentment at home of his discussion of foreign policy failures while earning suspicion from the Kremlin. Nor did Walt Rostow’s ex post facto claim that our defeat in Vietnam was due to a lack of will open the way to meaningful introspection. Indeed, a deeply held popular belief in the inevitability of American progress led to a widespread refusal to admit that we’d lost the war in Vietnam at all. That refusal was the source of the claims (true, but misleading) that our soldiers had never lost a battle on the ground in Vietnam, as well as the enduring controversy over POWs-MIAs, which continued until diplomatic relations between the two countries were restored in 1995.
The neoconservative approach to foreign policy was predicated on a Jacobian division of foreign policy thought into categories marked Before and After Reagan. It was based on a blind faith in the myth of national progress and an implicit rejection of the idea that anything other than deficiencies in moral character could account for any failure of the U.S. to achieve its aims. Consistent with a long-running theme among American conservatives, the neocons rejected diplomacy as a sign of weakness and an opening for threats to American interests. The preferred method of attaining U.S. objectives was force. Faced with this sort of thinking, one could agree, acquiesce or be damned as a weakling and traitor. Such a frame of reference made ruthlessness leading to the falsification of evidence for war, the approval of torture and the outing of Valerie Plame inevitable. It has also led, as Gardner points out, to the mutation of the American military into something considerably more privatized, intrusive and isolated from the country it was created to protect. Similarly, the undermining of this country’s constitution, the use of facilities outside the United States to detain people without accountability, reliance on now unlimited domestic wiretapping, the use by George W. Bush of signing statements to declare his refusal to obey the laws he signed, all combine to present unprecedented challenges to the oldest representative democracy on this planet. Whether we can reclaim our country before it slips out of our hands altogether depends entirely on our willingness to confront the things that have been done in our name—in Iraq as well as in Vietnam, and at every stop in between.
In addition to discussion of the ideologies involved and the implications of the war for our society, I really appreciated Professor Gardner’s extensive discussion of SOCOM, which I’d not seen before anywhere. I would have liked the writing in the introduction to be a bit less elliptical in the introduction, but that is a minor quibble. Overall, Lloyd Gardner’s The Long Road to Baghdad is a valuable addition to the literature on this most misbegotten of military adventures and is essential to our understanding of modern U.S. foreign policy.