Book Review: Record, Jeffery. 2010. Wanting War: Why the Bush Administration Invaded Iraq. Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books.
Wanting War: Why the Bush Administration Invaded Iraq by Jeffery Record (Potomac, 2010) explores why the United States chose to make a “horrible mistake” — the invasion of Iraq. Record’s analysis and conclusions are influenced by a thorough and thoughtful understanding of American involvement in other disastrous wars, particularly Vietnam. It is one of more useful books on American hegemony and the coming post-Bush era published in recent years. In general, it is a far more valuable contribution to the emerging literature on the Iraq War and American exceptionalism than Peter Beinart’s The Icarus Syndrome or Thomas P. M. Barnett’s Great Powers: America and the World After Bush (Berkeley, 2009), not only because of its academic treatment of the problem but because it is concise, straightforward and thorough. It fits into a similar category as Andrew Bacevich’s work on American foreign policy in the last two decades, especially The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (Metropolitan, 2008) and The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War (Oxford, 2007), in that one of its main priorities is to contemplate carefully the implications of the use of force in the years ahead. It also attempts to take an accounting of where the United States is situated strategically and politically in the world today as a result of the Iraq War. It does, though, lack the direct benefit of interviews with policy makers, relying mainly on contemporary secondary and primary sources; it does not provide a picture of the psychological or social profiles those involved in the policy process, as one gets in the Bob Woodward’s saucy books on the Bush administration or in Richard N. Haass’s memoir War of Necessity, War of Choice (Simon & Schuster, 2009). But whatever the limitations of Wanting War, it remains useful. Young Americans especially will find much to learn and reflect on in Record’s book when thinking about where their country ought to (or can) go in the future. And others can learn much the same.
Record’s thesis is simple and clear: the invasion of Iraq “was more about the United States than about Iraq. Specifically, the invasion was a conscious expression of America’s unchecked global military hegemony that was designed to perpetuate that hegemony by intimidating those who would challenge it. The invasion represented power exercised first and foremost for its own sake. It was a show of force and, above all, the will to use it. Iraq was targeted because, unlike other states in the “axis of evil” — namely, Iran and North Korea — Iraq was both helpless and friendless. The invasion offered the perfect opportunity to jettison once and for all the strictures of the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine, the agonizing over the use of force seen in the 1990s, and the traditional American aversion to preventive war. [. . .] The decision t invade Iraq was the neoconservatives’ dream come true. It was the realization of a United States forcefully committed to the perpetuation of its post-Cold War, global, conventional military supremacy and no longer prepared to accept restraints on its freedom of action by treaties or allies. [. . .] This explanation for the Iraq War is consistent with the “realist” theory of international relations, which holds that power unchecked is power exercised.” (pg.24-25)
In effect, Record argues that the influence of neoconservative ideology (and thus policy priorities), the temptations presented by American preeminence in the post-Cold War world order, the psychological and opportunistic effects of 9/11 combined to make the invasion of Iraq not only possible but likely. He cuts through the ideational and stated justifications for the invasion, carefully explaining the way political operators linked the concepts of preventive and preemptive war to the surprise attacks on 9/11 and then to the possibility that Iraq might at some stage in the future attack the United States. He layers the war’s causal factors from bottom to top in terms of neoconservative ideological perceptions of American power over time and especially from the fall of the Soviet Union and the first Gulf War. The role that these perceptions played in brining the Bush administration (or at least president Bush) to a “forward leaning” neoconservative worldview is outlined in chapter three. There Record lays out the “bogus assumptions” about America, the world and the Middle East, Iraq in particular, that helped sell the war to policy makers and the public. The Bush administration and its supporters’ justifications for the war often contradictory but all led to the same conclusions: the war would be easy, it would be just and it would enhance America’s power in the Middle East and the world. The stated objective of depriving Iraq of weapons of mass destruction merely served to reinforce this narrative.
The most relevant parts of chapter four — “Reasons Why” — are those where Record discusses the realpolitik of a war often linked with ideological objectives. The desire to intimidate Iran, North Korea and their allies by demonstrating a willingness to impose violence on enemy regimes, especially those resisting the anti-proliferation regime, receives ample and deserved attention; the attempt to “transform” the greater Middle East and to provide a benign beacon of “liberal” American domination gets somewhat more. The reader wonders at times, though, if Record believes that the Bush administration used neoconservative ideology as cover for ambitious but secular geopolitical objectives or if it employed realpolitik in making the case for war to serve neoconservative ideological ends. Record is not so clear. He is then left asking himself: does the distinction matter much at all and where does the line between ideological constructs and perceptions on the one hand and the perception of “rational” interests begin? On balance Wanting War illustrates how easily all these questions can be obscured with dedication in the policy making process and the pursuit of power exercised for power’s own sake.
Record might have done better to more firmly parse the functional objectives from the ideological ones (many of which were ex post facto on the apart of neoconservatives and politicians after the invasion took place and were designed to obscure the absence weapons of mass destruction in Iraq). Bill Kristol and Fouad Ajami’s outpouring of ink on the moral and intellectual righteousness of the war, for instance, should be understood as supporting arguments for the structurally motivated political reasoning that Record argues produced the WMD rationale and conditioned many of the “bogus assumptions” he outlines in chapter three. It seems, to this reader, potentially troublesome to not set the war’s media cheer leaders aside from the policy makers (while recognizing that some prominent advisors served as advisors to the administration). But tracing the positions and influence of the various neoconservative media and policy thinkers had on the war is perhaps a project on its own.
Record concludes that the Iraq War’s bungled execution, high costs and the trauma it inflicted on the public psyche promise a more restrained posture in the near future. “The American debacle in Iraq, however,” he writes, “seemingly vindicates the restrictive use-of-force doctrine” as advocated by the first Bush administration and “expressed by the Pentagon’s take on the lessons of the Vietnam War,” which were seemingly forgotten or ignored during the Rumsfeld-Cheney years. In Iraq, the United States applied “insufficient force [. . .] on behalf of exceptionally ambitious objectives resulting in an unexpectedly bloody protraction of hostilities and an attendant loss of domestic political support.” (pgs. 157-158) This was a strategic failure at the policy level rather than an operational one on the part of the military itself. Civilian and uniformed planners neglected the advice of men like General Eric Shinseki and the lessons learned from previous wars — though the military adapted to the situation under the command of General David Patreus especially. These lessons have been reiterated by the Iraq War. Record believes that neoconservative influence on foreign policy will decline sharply in coming years as an “Iraq War Syndrome” sets in. “The experience of the Iraq War,” Record concludes, “almost certainly will diminish America’s appetite for the kind of interventionist military activism that has characterized post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy”. Before undertaking “indecisive, protracted, and politically messy wars,” Americans should “think twice”. Underestimating the “toughness” of the enemy and overestimating the potential for success have helped bring Americans into a number of wars, often at great cost in morale, money and lives.
Last autumn, many Americans lamented President Obama’s long deliberation over increasing troop levels in Afghanistan, after he had campaigned to focus on that war as opposed to Iraq. The popular belief at the time, especially among Democrats, was that Afghanistan was the “good war,” relative to the divisive and controversial Iraq War. That narrative has utility in domestic discourse but failed to ask the broader strategic questions about what contribution Afghanistan made to the United States’s overall strategic posture in the world and where a cash-strapped superpower better concerned with happenings elsewhere ought to prioritize it militarily and politically. Record notes early that Cold War Republicans, whose anti-communist credentials were strong, “could ‘lose’ Tibet, northern Vietnam, and Cuba to Communism” while Democrats were at the mercy of “fear of the domestic consequences of not acting to prevent the spread of Communism abroad” (pg. 18).