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What Iraq Should Teach Advocates of Foreign Policy Restraint

Many Americans have soured on foreign intervention, a trend epitomized by deep divisions in the Republican Party even over whether to continue providing aid to Ukraine as it fights against Russia’s invasion. Yet 20 years ago, George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was relatively popular. In early 2003, 66 percent of Americans backed the invasion, including 52 percent of Democrats. Similarly, the House and Senate voted overwhelmingly to authorize using force, with even the Democratic leadership in support.

Many of the warnings from the war’s opponents proved to be right. But they didn’t comprehend what appeals would be compelling in this emotional moment, with many Americans embracing patriotism and wanting to see their nation valorized, not cut down. The plight of the Iraq War’s opponents offers a lesson to today’s bipartisan movement of restraint-minded thinkers who want to reorient U.S. grand strategy and avoid a repeat of the Iraq blunder as the United States embarks on an era of great-power competition with China.

Opponents of the Iraq War fell into three camps: realists, liberals and leftists, all of whom argued from different moral and political vantage points.

Realists saw foreign policy in terms of power and security, preferring to marginalize ideals and emotions as distortions. Realist scholars like John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, as well as former policymakers like Brent Scowcroft, dismantled Bush’s case for war and his fantasies about democratizing Iraq.

Realists dismissed claims that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had any ties to al-Qaeda and hammered home that such an alliance made no sense given their mutual ideological hostility. They also charged that Bush misread Hussein. The dictator was not simply an irrational fanatic who might hand biological or chemical weapons to terrorists. Instead, he had always been coldly calculating in his brutality and aggression, even if he consistently underestimated U.S. resolve.

His most bellicose and objectionable actions had come when U.S. policymakers allowed them, including the invasion of Iran in 1980, as well as a genocidal campaign against the Kurds in the late 1980s. The United States had also sent mixed signals to Hussein before he invaded Kuwait in 1990.

By contrast, when American policymakers used clear warnings and the credible threat of force to prevent Iraqi aggression, Hussein usually relented, as he did in a 1994 border crisis. “Iraq has never gone to war in the face of a clear deterrent threat,” Mearsheimer and Walt concluded. Even if Hussein gained weapons of mass destruction, there was no reason to think he would doom his regime by attacking the United States.

Realists also dismissed U.S. delusions about spreading democracy to Iraq, which had no experience with democracy. The result of an invasion, Scowcroft argued, would be a “large-scale, long-term occupation.”

Read entire article at Made By History at the Washington Post