Commentary Magazine

Iraq and the Conservatives

Arguments about the wisdom of America's invasion of Iraq will not be resolved until the outcome becomes clearer, which may not be for some time. In the meantime, the news from Iraq continues alternately to hearten and alarm, providing grist for the war's supporters on one day, for its opponents the next.

The most interesting arguments are not between Left and Right. The Left long ago lost any coherent voice on national security. That it has yet to recover that voice was illustrated in last year's presidential race by the dizzying self-contradictions of John Kerry, not to mention the Democrats' embrace of the anti-American buffoon, Michael Moore. Instead, the most interesting arguments are within the Right, most of which supports the war but some of which contains its most trenchant and acerbic critics. Gary Rosen, COMMENTARY's managing editor, has compiled the best of these intra-conservative polemics in a new anthology, The Right War? The Conservative Debate on Iraq.1

The principal line of division on the Right separates neoconservatives from more traditional conservatives. What is meant by “neoconservative” has only a limited connection to the historical meaning of that term, which designated a collection of intellectuals and writers who migrated from Left to Right in the 1960's and 1970's. Some of the important “neocon” thinkers represented in this book—Max Boot, David Brooks, Victor Davis Hanson, William Kristol, and Robert Kagan, for example—are too young to have been among that group. Rather, in the current context, the term signifies an approach to foreign policy based on an expansive view of American interests akin to what has historically been called “liberal internationalism,” but more muscular in approach.

The basis of that approach is the conviction that, given the centrality of America's position in global politics, even distant problems are likely to come to roost here eventually, and that they are usually better dealt with earlier than later. A corollary is a high estimation of the strength of ideological and moral factors in international politics, as opposed to the view that material elements—money, weapons, resources—are all-important. Thus, the war in Iraq, an American action at once militarily assertive and idealistic in its goals, and fought on a shore distant from the site of any attack on the United States, has often been labeled a “neocon” war, even though the officials who decided on it—Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice—were never before thought of as neoconservatives.

On the other side, conservatives to whom the prefix “neo” does not apply make up a more diffuse group. Roughly, they are “realists,” who believe that foreign policy should hew to a tight concept of national interest defined by geography, visible threats, and measurable assets, and “isolationists,” who see domestic corruption, or worse, in America's active efforts to engage the wider world. The individuals from these camps who are represented in Rosen's collection range from the editors of National Review—they support the Iraq war, insisting that it is “not a neocon war” but a “war of national interest”—to the nativist Patrick J. Buchanan, an ardent opponent not only of this Iraq war but the one of 1991 as well. In between are grudging supporters like Robert F. Ellsworth and Dimitri K. Simes, who have dissented from Bush's democratizing goals but not from ousting Saddam Hussein, and cautious critics like George F. Will.


Aside from shedding light on some matters of political theory and on the texture of conservative thought, Rosen's book serves the valuable purpose of helping to distill the essential issues that are on the table in debates about the war. The exchanges would no doubt have had a different tone and balance, and different nuances, had the compendium included liberal voices. But the principal serious questions would not have been different.

As I see it, these questions reduce to five. First, should we be embarked on a “war against terrorism,” or would we have been better advised to take a lower-key approach? Second, does Bush's strategy of trying to bring democracy to the Middle East as an antidote to terrorism make sense? Third, was removing Saddam Hussein a necessary or at least advisable step in the war against terror and in the promotion of democracy in the Middle East? Fourth, have the defects in the conduct of the war been so grave as to compromise the achievement of its objectives? Fifth and finally, what should we do now?

Let me review some of the more interesting points made by Rosen's contributors on these questions, buttressing them here and there with the arguments of liberals. In coming to the fourth question, I will also adduce another recent book, this one by a liberal author with interesting things of his own to say about Iraq. Finally, I mean to interrupt and argue back as I go along.


On the first question, Norman Podhoretz, crediting the coinage to Eliot A. Cohen, calls our present struggle “World War IV.” Others find this much too stark. To be sure, no one in any part of the American mainstream denies that we should counteract terrorism. But there are many who believe that Bush has gone overboard with his rhetoric about an “axis of evil,” with the demand that other nations choose between us and the terrorists, and with his readiness to back his words with force.

Many liberals, for example, would prefer a law-enforcement approach centered on bringing Osama bin Laden and others responsible for specific outrages to justice. This viewpoint is expressed explicitly by some, like George Soros, and it is implicit in the hue and cry over alleged violations of the civil liberties of terrorism suspects. (Whereas, if one accepts that we are at war, then by the standards of wartime the derogations from procedural norms since 9/11 have been so minor as to warrant scarcely a peep.)

Few conservatives, for their part, would find a juridical solution adequate to the problem of terrorism. But, in Rosen's collection, a kindred point is made by Francis Fukuyama, who maintains that the American government overreacted to the 9/11 attacks. Objecting to Charles Krauthammer's assertion that Islamic terrorism poses an “existential threat” to America, Fukuyama writes:

If these words have any real meaning, then they should include only threats to our existence as a nation or as a democratic regime. There have been such threats in the past: the Soviet Union [for instance]. But it is questionable whether any such existential threats exist now. Iraq before the U.S. invasion was certainly not one. . . . Al Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups aspire to be existential threats to American civilization but do not currently have anything like the capacity to actualize their vision.

On the basis of this analysis, Fukuyama and some other conservatives (and even more liberals) have faulted the administration for doing too little to secure international legitimacy for U.S. actions through authorization by the United Nations or some other means.2

No doubt our diplomacy might have been more adroit at one turn or another; when is this not the case? But the only obvious way that the United States could have won appreciably more support would have been by softening its approach and lowering its goals. Fukuyama apparently would welcome this on the grounds that the threat is less than “existential.” But is that the right criterion?

The attacks on America of September 11, 2001 were new in their scale and technique but not in their essential nature. On the contrary, Middle Eastern terrorists had been assaulting and killing Americans for 30 years, with little or no response from us. Podhoretz recapitulates some of this history but cannot possibly provide it all. The jihadists have murdered our diplomatic personnel in numerous countries, hijacked our airliners and cruise ships, blown our civilian aircraft out of the sky, killed our Marines in their barracks, soldiers in their beds, sailors in their berths. They have kidnapped, tortured, and murdered us by the ones, the tens, and the hundreds. On 9/11 they succeeded at last in getting thousands of us in a swoop. To which they have said, “praise God,” and have aimed still higher. It is far from unimaginable that they could next kill tens of thousands.

Would that constitute an “existential” threat, justifying war? Should we care? It already constitutes an intolerable one.


Of course, to say that the conflict amounts to war does not tell us what to do about it. Like the cold war, the war against terrorism cannot be fought only with military means. The political side of U.S. strategy is democratization of the Middle East, which is the subject of the second question I listed above.

The theory behind President Bush's strategy rests on an extrapolation from the well-publicized observation that democracies do not go to war with one another. From this he infers that democratic governments will not abet terrorism and that people who enjoy the opportunities afforded by democracy, and experience its ethos of give-and-take, will not become terrorists.

This reasoning has been challenged on several counts. Some in The Right War?, including Henry Kissinger and Owen Harries, warn about what free votes in the Middle East might yield. In Harries's words, “the attempt to force history in the direction of democracy by an exercise of will is likely to produce more unintended than intended consequences.”

There are also those who doubt that the Arab or Muslim nations of the Middle East are capable of sustaining democracy. Charles R. Kesler faults Bush for confusing “the natural right to be free and the capacity to be free,” adding, “the question is whether some cultures and religions are less compatible with freedom and democracy than others.” Fukuyama, despite having done more than anyone else to popularize democratic universalism through his theory of “the end of history,” has similar concerns. “I have never believed that democracies can be created anywhere and everywhere through sheer political will,” he writes, adding that he also has doubts about America's suitability as an agent of such change: at “nation-building,” he comments, our country's “overall record is not a pretty one.”

Whatever Fukuyama may mean by the term “nation-building,” the United States has, in fact, had many successes as an agent of democratization, whether by military means or through economic aid, political pressure, and diplomatic intervention. It is no accident that of the regions where American influence weighs most heavily, Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean are today almost entirely democratic, and East Asia largely so. (Of the several exceptions, China, obviously, is a very large one.)

But are Arabs ready for democracy? This we do not know. What we do know is that in recent years, democracy has traveled to places that seemed no more congenial. We know, too, that where democracy has come, its consequences in the realms of peace, development, and political moderation have been beneficial. There is little reason not to expect the same if we succeed in democratizing the Middle East.

That, to be sure, does not dispose of Harries's and Kissinger's warnings about unintended consequences. Our efforts could destabilize existing regimes, giving rise not to democracy but to chaos or to new dictatorships even less to our liking. There is no denying that this danger has existed in Iraq—which gets us to the third of the questions I posed earlier.


Conceivably, one might embrace the concept of a “war against terrorism,” and even the strategy of promoting Middle East democracy, and still demur from the war in Iraq. Writing in Rosen's anthology, James Kurth contends that the Iraq war “is indeed likely . . . to cause . . . grave and long-term injury to . . . U.S. efforts to promote democracy abroad.” But Kurth, a realist, is also no supporter of promoting democracy, so his complaint has the appearance of crocodile tears. More credible is Fukuyama, who worries that America's deficit of legitimacy in Iraq will undermine its idealistic agenda.

It is certainly true that the war in Iraq has deepened America's unpopularity in the Arab world, and perhaps diminished our influence. At the same time, however, and despite their rage at Bush, the Arabs of the Middle East have never before been in such a democratic ferment as they are today, and it is foolish to pretend that American policy is not the catalyst. As the Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, ordinarily no friend of America's, attested in February: “I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world. The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it.”

Could someone who is a supporter of the wider war against the Islamist threat nonetheless dissent from the campaign in Iraq? In theory, certainly. Nor is this historically unprecedented. World Wars I and II were replete with arguments about which front to open when, and some proponents of the cold war did not support America's effort in Vietnam.

The current case is trickier. Ousting the Taliban from Kabul and al Qaeda from its Afghan sanctuary was our obvious first move. After that, there was room to differ about what should come next. One might have maintained that Iran was a more important objective than Iraq (as did Michael Ledeen, for one) or that Syria was an easier one. Still, once the President had decided that our next step was to topple Saddam, it is hard to see how anyone who supported the broader effort could stand aloof from this particular instance of it. Whether or not Iraq was our best move at that moment, once the battle was taken there, to lose it would risk losing the entire war against terror.


But this leads to the fourth question. Even those who have supported the war in Iraq, and the thinking that led to it, may still fault its conduct. Eliot Cohen puts it this way: “the handling of the war has made an admittedly risky strategy far more precarious and costly than it need have been.”

Has the administration defeated its own laudable policy by its execution of it? For help in answering this, we may turn to the book to which I alluded earlier: Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq by Larry Diamond.3

A senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and the co-editor of the Journal of Democracy, Diamond is arguably the nation's preeminent academic authority on global democracy. Although a Democrat, and an opponent of the Iraq war, he was invited by Condoleezza Rice, then Bush's national security adviser, to join the occupation authority in late 2003 as an adviser on democratization. He spent the first three months of 2004 on this mission.

Diamond's judgment of what he saw there is damning. The occupation, he writes, was a failure, a “squandering of a decisive, potentially historic military victory. Mistakes were made at virtually every turn.” Of the military officers he spoke to, “none . . . thought we had enough troops in Iraq.” U.S. officials ignored “warnings of possible civil disorder after the fall of Baghdad,” with the result that “the collapse of public order in the aftermath of the war had devastating, long-lasting consequences. It undermined Iraqis' confidence in the United States and in the postwar order.”

Why did the U.S. government ignore its own experts? The problem, according to Diamond, lay with the Defense Department, which insisted on monopolizing policy at the expense of the State Department. To make matters worse, each of the two Americans chosen to run the occupation did a poor job. First came Jay Garner, who presented “a bungling, wavering American presence, in which no one was really in charge.” Then Garner was sacked in favor of Paul Bremer, who erred in the opposite direction. “If Bremer was sincere in wanting to bring democracy to Iraq,” writes Diamond, “it was at his own pace and in his own way.”

In the end, Diamond concludes,

our grand ambitions for . . . educating Iraqis about democracy were ground down by the hard realities of the situation we faced—the shortage of resources and people, the makeshift character of our organization, the cumbersome pace of our deliberations, the economic and civic devastation of the country, and, most of all, the relentless and escalating violence.

What would Diamond have had us do differently? His answer, aside from platitudes like listening more to the Iraqis or letting the State Department have its place at the bureaucratic table, seems to have two main points. First, he would have sent many more troops and used them more decisively; in particular, he would have crushed the forces of the Shiite upstart Moqtada al Sadr, whose viciousness he illustrates in grim detail. Second, he would have arranged a much larger, if not dominant, role for the United Nations in the administration of Iraq. Indeed, he tells us that he worked intensely behind the scenes to facilitate this even before leaving the U.S. for Baghdad.

Arguments similar to Diamond's can be found in Rosen's book: Ellsworth and Simes, for instance, would have turned Iraq over, lock, stock, and barrel, to the UN and the Arab League. In any case, Diamond's two-pronged remedy is self-contradictory. The UN would hardly have consented to use force as decisively as the United States has. Quite the opposite: the UN's preference has always been to give miscreants like Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic one more chance after America's patience has been exhausted. If Kofi Annan had not rushed to Baghdad in 1998 to pull Saddam's chestnuts from the fire when the Iraqi dictator unilaterally overturned the original UN weapons-inspection regime, it is at least conceivable that the present war would not have occurred. And that Lakhdar Brahimi, the Algerian diplomat whom Annan sent to Iraq, and whom Diamond praises to the skies, would have allowed occupation forces to crush the unauthorized Iraqi militias beggars belief.


Diamond's prescription is so strained as to make one question his diagnosis. It is no less difficult to accept his certainty, based on the events of 2003 and 2004 alone, that the American effort in Iraq is a failure. But—and we are now at the fifth and final question—this is where some of the realist voices in Rosen's volume come through with refreshing clarity.

“Success is the only exit strategy,” writes Kissinger. “Getting chased from Iraq would make it open season on U.S. interests throughout the Middle East,” explain the editors of National Review. This, if anything, understates the case. As Podhoretz notes, the jihadists already have more support among the world's billion-plus Muslims than we find it diplomatic to acknowledge. If they defeat America in Iraq, their star will rise all around the Islamic world, and moderates will be hard-pressed to resist them.

Fukuyama, as we have seen, would seem to demur on this point: because the jihadists do not challenge America's military supremacy as the Soviet Union did, our credibility is not so precious an asset. To this one might respond that, more than any other foe we have faced, the jihadists' motivation and strength depend on their belief in their divine mission. They batten on each success, and especially on each successful attack against a superficially mightier force. Bin Laden never tires of explaining that the Muslim victory over the Soviets in Afghanistan, in which he took part, is what convinced him of the possibility of vanquishing the other infidel power, America.

It is true that America lost the war in Vietnam and went on to win the larger cold war. Similarly, we might triumph in the end over jihadism even if we were to lose in Iraq. But, proportionally, this would be a much bigger setback. Vietnam was always a distant corner of the cold war, whose epicenter lay in Berlin. But Iraq is right in the heart of the Arab world, and it is now the central front of World War IV Defeat there would be more akin to a cold-war defeat in Germany than in Indochina. We might eventually recover from it, but only at a price—in the lives of Americans, both military and civilian—that would make what we have been through so far seem like child's play.



1 Cambridge, 254 pp., $19.99 (paper).

2 Fukayama's essay, published originally in the quarterly National Interest, was followed in the next issue by a sharp rejoinder from Krauthammer, also included in Rosen's book.

3 Times Books, 384 pp., $25.00.


About the Author

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is working on a book about Arab and Muslim democrats.

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