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Iraq War at 20: What the Neocons Got Wrong

Shortly after September 11, 2001, I became known as a “neoconservative.” The term was a bit puzzling, because I wasn’t new to conservatism; I had been on the right ever since I could remember. But the “neocon” label came to be used after 9/11 to denote a particular strain of conservatism that placed human rights and democracy promotion at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy. This was a very different mindset from the realpolitik approach of such Republicans as President Dwight Eisenhower, President Richard Nixon, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and it had a natural appeal to someone like me whose family had come to the United States in search of freedom. (We arrived from the Soviet Union in 1976, when I was six years old.) Having lived in a communist dictatorship, I supported the United States spreading freedom abroad. That, in turn, led me to become a strong supporter of military action in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Traditional conservatives, such as U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, wanted to teach the Taliban and Saddam Hussein a lesson and then depart each country as quickly as possible. The neoconservative position—which eventually triumphed in the George W. Bush administration—was that the United States could not simply topple the old regimes and leave chaos in their wake. The Americans had to stay and work with local allies to build democratic showcases that could inspire liberal change in the Middle East. In this way, Washington could finally lance the boil of militant Islamism, which had afflicted America ever since the Iran hostage crisis in 1979.

Regime change obviously did not work out as intended. The occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq were, in fact, fiascos that exacted a high price in both blood and treasure, for both the United States and—even more, of course—the countries it invaded. As the saying goes, when the facts change, I change my mind. Although I remain a supporter of democracy and human rights, after seeing how democracy promotion has worked out in practice, I no longer believe it belongs at the center of U.S. foreign policy. In retrospect, I was wildly overoptimistic about the prospects of exporting democracy by force, underestimating both the difficulties and the costs of such a massive undertaking. I am a neocon no more, at least as that term has been understood since 9/11.

Today, I am much more cognizant than I once was of the limitations of American power and hence much more skeptical of calls to promote democracy in China, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Venezuela, and—fill in the blank. The United States should continue to champion its ideals and call out human rights abuses, but it should do so with humility and not be ashamed to prioritize its own interests. Foreign policy cannot be solely or even mainly an altruistic exercise, and attempting to make it so is likely to backfire in ways that will hurt the very people Americans are trying to help.

Above all, the United States must be more careful about the use of military power than it was in the heady days of the “unipolar moment” following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The era of great-power competition is back with a vengeance. Although the United States remains the world’s strongest military power and has interests and responsibilities around the world, it cannot afford to squander its strength in conflicts of marginal importance.

Twenty years ago, in early 2003, Saddam was clinging to power, and the Bush administration was preparing to launch an invasion to overthrow him. I would never have supported military action had I known that he was not actually building weapons of mass destruction, but what I really wanted was to get rid of Iraq’s cruel dictator, not just his purported weapons program. One of the central arguments that I and other supporters of an invasion made was that regime change could trigger a broader democratic transformation in the Middle East. I now cringe when I read some of the articles I wrote at the time. “This could be the chance to right the scales, to establish the first Arab democracy, and to show the Arab people that America is as committed to freedom for them as we were for the people of Eastern Europe,” I wrote in The Weekly Standard—the now defunct flagship of the neoconservative movement—a month after 9/11. “To turn Iraq into a beacon of hope for the oppressed peoples of the Middle East: Now that would be a historic war aim.”

In hindsight, that was dangerous naiveté born out of a combination of post–Cold War hubris and post-9/11 alarm. I desperately wanted to believe that spreading freedom could solve the security dilemmas confronting the United States—that by doing good in the world, it could also serve its national security interests.

It would have been nice if it had worked out that way, but it didn’t, and I should have realized at the time how far-fetched the entire mission was. 

Read entire article at Foreign Affairs