The Solipsist State

Overreach: Delusions of Regime Change in Iraq BY Michael MacDonald. Harvard University Press. Hardcover, 336 pages. $29.

When President Barack Obama announced a sustained campaign of drone assaults on strongholds of the militant isis (Islamic State) faction in Iraq and Kurdistan, pundits tended to categorize the move as a limited, one-off maneuver. The idea was to contain the spread of isis influence in northern Iraq, and to aid some 40,000 Yazidi Kurds under siege from the group on an isolated mountain. Obama himself stressed that “there’s no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq”—and as if to prove him right, the Iraqi government quickly descended into a political crisis, as a newly appointed prime minister, the Shiite leader Haider al-Abadi, sought to restore a measure of stability to the chaotic US-backed regime in Baghdad.

But for all the Obama White House’s efforts to distance itself from Iraq’s latest political crisis, longtime observers of America’s folly-ridden occupation of Iraq could readily recognize the current mess in Baghdad and beyond as but the latest installment in a long series of calamities arising from America’s profound ideological hubris and imperial myopia. There was a distinctly familiar, and queasy, ring to this new round of efforts to referee grisly sectarian violence while hastily trying to dress up a jury-rigged political consensus in the preferred image of the American national-security state. This might have been Fallujah circa 2003, or Sadr City circa 2006, or Mosul—the first major city to fall to isis rule this past June—at any point from 2007 onward.

In other words, to make sense of the latest desperate failures of civil peace in Iraq, it’s necessary to revisit the origins of the country’s decade-long sectarian civil war—and to question the broad contours of the willfully obtuse ideological course that led to and sustained the initial US occupation.

According to conventional wisdom, one of the original sins of the American occupation was provisional-authority leader Paul Bremer’s 2003 decision to institute the policy of “de-Ba’athification” of the Iraqi government. This sweeping move effectively exiled a large portion of Iraqi professionals from participating in civil society for no other reason than to try to bring a fanciful neocon slogan to life. Yet as Michael MacDonald argues in his new book, Overreach, the botched ideal of de-Ba’athifcation was more than an exclusively neocon project. Focusing the critique too narrowly, MacDonald argues, leaves large questions unanswered. Would we have “won” if Iraq had not been de-Ba’athified? And much more to the point, would neocons and neoliberals have recognized a not entirely democratic (or simply semicapitalist) Iraq as anything resembling an American victory? As MacDonald makes clear, the brain trust behind the occupation wasn’t able to register anything that deviated from their own myopic scripting of Iraq’s “liberation” as a miniaturized market revolution in the American grain.

In Overreach, Macdonald methodically dissects the top ten reasons most often used to explain why the war was a failure, and in the process shows each to be self-serving, inadequate, misleading—or all of the above. He does the same for explanations of why we went to war in the first place, starting with the “It was all Bush’s fault” trope. George W. Bush’s daddy issues are all too firmly stamped on the trajectory of his political career and make an easy target for liberals, but they don’t explain why nearly the entire liberal establishment (Hillary Clinton, Bill Keller, Madeleine Albright, John Kerry, et al.) supported the war, too.

A postmortem I often heard during my deployments as an infantryman in Iraq, first in 2007 and again in 2009, was that the sectarian split between Shia and Sunni had blinded Iraqis to the gift of freedom that America was selflessly bestowing upon them. Iraqis, you see, were just too bogged down in primitive tribalism to appreciate representative government and free markets. “We have given the Iraqis a republic,” MacDonald quotes columnist Charles Krauthammer, “and they do not appear able to keep it.” Here, too, he reminds us that the sectarian alibi was only a small part of the larger picture: It might epitomize the victim-blaming mind-set of careerist hawks like Krauthammer, or reflect the exasperation of soldiers charged with the impossible task of actually fighting for some kind of liberal (or merely liberating) resolution. But this explanation of the chaos arising out of the 2003 invasion is also notably silent on the question of first causes: It doesn’t really explain why the sectarianism wasn’t anticipated, or why we invaded to begin with.

Each of these half-explanations, offered up by what MacDonald calls the “Elite Consensus”—the Borg-like force of respectable policy opinion—have in common a commitment to “rationalizing away the responsibility of the foreign policy establishment, Congress, the media and pundits, and both political parties for advocating and endorsing the war.” The second-order efforts to explain Iraq’s descent into violent chaos are, in reality, exercises in elite evasion; they don’t ultimately achieve anything, because any sufficiently thorough analysis would be devastating to the ideological projects of neoconservatives and neoliberals alike. It suits the Elite Consensus to see Iraq as a failure of Bush, or Bremer, or the Iraqis themselves, because an actual parsing of the real motivations of the main actors behind the invasion would undermine their entire foreign-policy philosophy.

Ruins of one of Saddam Hussein’s presidential palaces bombed by coalition forces, 2003.

MacDonald regards the invasion of Iraq as a sort of neocon fever dream that also laid bare the empty conceits of neoliberal “pragmatism.” The two ideologies have a lot in common. As MacDonald explains, “All of the traditions”—neoconservative, liberal hawk, neoliberal—“that called for regime change blended American power and values; all considered American values transportable; all equated threats to American values with threats to national security; and all assumed that American power was welcome in Iraq because it materialized liberal values.” Both the Right (save for a few stalwart old-school realists like Bush I and Gerald Ford) and what passes for the Left in this country made the same mistake of confusing national interests with national ideals.

Ideals and interests are both important, but also very different from one another. MacDonald argues that to confuse the two is to lose perspective on both. To prove his thesis, he launches into a long, detailed (and occasionally tedious) analysis of what partisans of each position actually believe. And any taxonomy of the political animals involved in Iraq should obviously begin with the neoconservatives, the most prominent and powerful advocates for invasion.

MacDonald describes neocons as a schismatic branch of movement conservatives that broke with traditional cold warriors over the policy of containment, on the grounds that the Soviet threat needed to be aggressively “rolled back” instead of held in place. Unlike neoliberals, who are obsessed with international consensus and confident that history is on their side, neocons are motivated by an existential fear of annihilation. Why sit around and wait for the USSR to kill us? Why not kill them first?

It all sounds irrational because it is—quite intentionally so. Neocons are in thrall to what the ancient Greeks called thumos, which, in MacDonald’s definition, is the “throbbing, pre-rational violence that is nature’s response to danger.” Unlike classical conservatives, they don’t act out of calculated self-interest, and they don’t care about the preservation of order.

The irrationality that keeps neocons from being liberals or conservatives also keeps them lashed to the solipsistic conflation of ideals and interests that MacDonald isolates at the heart of the Iraqi project. Their irrationality also made them blind to the power structure in Iraq. It’s difficult to dispassionately break down the anatomy of a foreign body politic when you’re throbbing with orgiastic, prehistoric thumos. And so the neocons would not—and, more likely, could not—reckon with one entirely rational baseline calculation for the administrators of any new Iraqi regime: Saddam had made himself into the entire state, stifling all independent groups and civil society. To take out Saddam was to take out the entire state. With the state broken, and no viable institutions existing outside of Saddam to replace him, chaos would ensue.

Perhaps surprisingly, Democratic hawks get the hardest thrashing in Overreach. And rightfully so—the Democratic adherents of the invasion (whom MacDonald further separates into camps of neoliberal and merely liberal hawks) shared a telltale preoccupation with procedural questions, as opposed to the basic miscalculations of the casus belli. If you’ve noticed, most mainstream liberal critiques of the war focus on incompetence: Why didn’t we have enough troops? Why did we alienate the locals? Why didn’t we think of counterinsurgency tactics sooner? All of these criticisms betray the fundamental smugness of neoliberal ideology. As MacDonald observes,

The great irony of the neoconservative war in Iraq was that winning would have promoted neoliberal ends. . . . [N]eoliberals fretted that the war might take too long or cost too much in actual or in opportunity costs, and they had powerful reasons for deeming the war to be unnecessary, given that history and human psychology were on their side anyway. But their strongest reason for opposing the war—that it was redundant—testifies to neoliberal certainty. Taking for granted that at the end of the day the war would produce a market economy, a market society, and a global sensibility, neoliberals spoke little about ends precisely because they were self-evident. The future is theirs.

When you’re able to ignore things like culture, religious divisions, race, class, gender, and ethics, and when you’re able to frame your own ideology as simple commonsense pragmatism, every critique will boil down to a problem of planning. But when the Iraqi state was destroyed, no neoliberal community spontaneously arose to take its place. Iraq was not a failure of planning. Iraq was fundamentally a failure of neoliberalism.


Scott Beauchamp is an infantry veteran and writer. His work has appeared in The Baffler, The Atlantic, and the Daily Beast, among other places.