Why are we in Iraq?

In "The Folly of Empire," John Judis argues that Bush is repeating the imperialist mistakes committed by Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

By John Judis
Published October 6, 2004 1:45AM (EDT)

As recent memoirs from White House counter-terrorism advisor Richard Clarke and from former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill make clear, key members of the Bush administration wanted to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein well before September 11, 2001. Nationalists like Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld hoped to avert the threat of a hostile and oil-rich Iraq armed with nuclear weapons tipping the balance of power in the Mideast. Neoconservatives like Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz hoped that by replacing Saddam with an elected pro-American government, the U.S. could transform the entire region, overthrowing sheiks and dictators and marginalizing radical Islamic movements that threatened the U.S. and Israel.

But between these hopes and their realization lay an obvious consideration that had deterred the Bush I administration from invading Baghdad in 1991 at the end of the Persian Gulf War: couldn't invading and occupying Iraq provoke a nationalist reaction uniting the country's Sunnis and Shiites against an American occupying force and leading to disaster in Iraq as well as in the region? For George W. Bush and Rumsfeld, who had expressed qualms about America being involved in "nation-building," this question posed a potentially insuperable obstacle to undertaking an invasion.

One thing that helped convince Bush and Rumsfeld that an invasion was viable was the apparent ease of the American victory over the Taliban in Afghanistan. The victory inspired what British journalist Patrick Brogan had once called America's "illusions of omnipotence." But the other factor was the influence exercised in the critical months after September 11 by two groups linked closely to the neoconservatives in the administration: the first was the Iraqi exiles, led by Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress; the second was the advice of historian Bernard Lewis and political scientist Fouad Ajami. The exiles and the scholars argued that the United States could create a democracy in Iraq and the Mideast without a long and difficult occupation. It wouldn't be necessary to do the kind of "nation-building" the United States had backed in Somalia or the Balkans.

The role of the exiles is becoming well-known. Chalabi and his fellow exiles, promoted by Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, the chairman of Rumsfeld's Defense Policy Board, met repeatedly with Bush, Cheney, and Pentagon officials. They insisted that the United States would be greeted as liberators. At one meeting in January with Bush, three exiles from the Iraqi National Congress told the President, exile Kanan Makiya reported, that "Iraqis of all sects would welcome these forces from the very first moment." Makiya himself told Bush, "The Iraqis will welcome the US forces with flowers and sweets when they come in."

On the eve of the invasion, Cheney stressed the importance of the exiles' message. Cheney said in March on Meet the Press:

"The president and I have met with them, various groups and individuals, people who have devoted their lives from the outside to trying to change things inside Iraq ... the read we get on the people of Iraq is there is no question but that they want to get rid of Saddam Hussein and they will welcome as liberators the United States when we come to do that."

But Lewis and Ajami were equally, if not more, important in convincing Bush that a military victory in Iraq wouldn't entail a long period of nation building. Both men were very well-known and esteemed experts on the Mideast who had close ties to the neoconservatives. Lewis was a professor emeritus at Princeton, and expert on the history of Islam; Ajami, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, had written several influential books on Arab politics. Lewis had been a mentor to Wolfowitz and Perle and also knew Chalabi well. Talking to Lewis, Perle said, was "like going to Delphi to see the oracle." After September 11, Lewis conferred at length with Perle's Defense Policy Board, Rumsfeld, Cheney, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. Bush read Lewis's articles. Ajami also met with administrative officials, but would have a particularly strong influence on Cheney.

Lewis and Ajami dismissed the arguments that critics of the invasion plan, including Secretary of State Colin Powell and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, had made. Powell and Scowcroft had argued that by invading Iraq, while ignoring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the U.S. would enflame anti-Americanism. But Lewis and Ajami denied that hostility to the United States in the region stemmed either from the exercise of American power or from America's ties with Israel. "In the Middle East," Lewis wrote in National Review in December 2001, "anti-Americanism is nourished not so much by America's power as by the sources of that power -- America's freedom and plenty." Anti-Americanism, Lewis argued, was a product of envy and resentment at America's success. It didn't spring, Ajami wrote, from "our ties to Israel," but "from countless other sources: a deep alienation between ruler and ruled, a rage born of the disappointments of the young, a scapegoating that shifts onto America the blame for the ills of an Arab world unsettled and teased by exposure to a modern civilization it can neither master nor reject."

Critics of the invasion had also argued that given the history of the region, the U.S. would be seen by Iraqis as an imperial invader, not only uniting the Iraqis, but winning new recruits for al Qaeda. Lewis discounted the history of colonialism in the Mideast. "The Anglo-French interlude," he wrote in What Went Wrong, "was comparatively brief and ended half a century ago." (In fact, colonialism in the Mideast lasted for over 150 years.) Lewis also interpreted expressions of anti-colonialism or anti-imperialism as expressions of irrational envy and resentment. He took exception to the common interpretation of the 1978 Iranian revolution, which had installed an anti-American regime headed by the Ayatollah Khomeini. According to this interpretation, the Iranian anti-Americanism stemmed from America's subversion of nationalist Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953 and its support for the Shah. But Lewis dismissed Khomeini's rage at the United States:

"What did the Ayatollah Khomeini mean when he repeatedly called America the 'Great Satan'? The answer is clear. Satan is not an invader, an imperialist, an exploiter. He is a tempter, a seducer, who, in the words of the Koran, 'whispers in the hearts of men.'"

According to Lewis, Khomeini didn't really object to American imperialism, but to the American way of life. Americans, Lewis and Ajami contended, were not hated for what they had done in the Arab world, but for how they lived. If the United States were to tilt toward the Palestinians in their conflict with Israel, or to expends billions in foreign aid, it wouldn't make any difference. The citizens of the Mideast (and for Lewis, this meant Muslims) would still hate America and Americans. So it didn't make any sense of talk of addressing the issues that inspired support for al Qaeda.

Instead, Lewis and Ajami proposed that the United States, in Lewis's words, "get tough" with the states in the Mideast. "For America to seek friendship or even good relations with such regimes is a forlorn hope," Lewis wrote. "But to win respect is both possible and necessary." Lewis and Ajami advocated that America start to act like an imperial power. Wrote Ajami about the coming invasion of Iraq, "Where Britain once filled the void left by the shattered Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the First World War, now the failures -- and the dangers -- of the successor Arab states are drawing America to its own imperial mission."

If the United States were to get tough, Ajami and Lewis promised success. By ousting Saddam, the United States would unleash pent up feelings of friendship rather than hostility toward the United States. Wrote Lewis, "In Iran and Iraq, with governments seen as anti-American, public opinion is pro-American. The joy displayed by the Afghan people at the ending of Taliban rule could be repeated, on a larger scale, in both these countries." Ajami wrote even more emphatically, "Were we to pick up where we left off a decade ago and head to Baghdad, the tormented people of Iraq would be sure to erupt in joy. If we liberate them, they may (if only for a while) forgive America the multitude of its sins. They may take our gift and do the easiest of things: construct a better Iraq than the one that the Tikriti killers have put in place." Ajami and Lewis predicted that Saddam's ouster would actually improve the conditions for peace in Israel by intimidating the radical Palestinians; and they discounted the reaction of the "Arab street."

Their views had a startling impact in the highest circles of the administration. If what they said was right, the United States did not have to worry about creating instability in the region; more important, it didn't have to worry about a difficult war and occupation in Iraq. Nation-building could be a matter of months, not years. According to New Republic senior editor Lawrence Kaplan, Wolfowitz's model of how the United States would be received by the Iraqis became the French welcoming the allied troops to Paris in 1944. But Wolfowitz was an easy sell. What was important was that Lewis and Ajami also convinced Bush, Rumsfeld, and Cheney. When Cheney first made the case for war in a speech before the Veterans of Foreign War in Nashville in August 2002, he even cited Ajami by name. When Saddam was ousted, Cheney said, "the freedom-loving peoples of the region will have a chance to promote the values that can bring lasting peace. As for the reaction of the Arab 'street,' the Middle East expert Professor Fouad Ajami predicts that after liberation, the streets in Basra and Baghdad are 'sure to erupt in joy in the same way the throngs in Kabul greeted the Americans.' Extremists in the region would have to rethink their strategy of Jihad. Moderates throughout the region would take heart. And our ability to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process would be enhanced, just as it was following the liberation of Kuwait in 1991."

Lewis and Ajami, along with the exiles, easily bested Powell and Scowcroft in the administration's foreign policy circles. Over the next six months, as the administration made its case for war, the nationalists and neoconservatives, armed with these arguments, worked in tandem to convince the Congress and the American people that the entire operation would be, in the words of Defense Policy Board member Kenneth Adelman, a "cakewalk."

Of course, the critics of the invasion were proven right and Lewis, Ajami and the exiles wrong. The actual invasion was over almost before it began, but the occupation led to a nationalist revolt against American and British forces that continues to this day. Americans were not seen as liberators, except, perhaps, by the Kurds, but as latter-day Crusaders and imperialists. As former political scientist Larry Diamond, who worked with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), recounts in Foreign Affairs, "Too many Iraqis viewed the invasion not as an international effort but as an occupation by Western, Christian, essentially Anglo-American powers, and this evoked powerful memories of previous subjugation and of the nationalist struggles against Iraq's former overlords." The invasion didn't lead to a democratic transformation of the region; instead, it strengthened the autocracies in Iran, Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and provided a new recruiting tool for Al Qaeda throughout the region. And it didn't lead to peace in Israel, but to continued strife.

By any measure of accountability, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz and the men who eagerly listened to Ajami, Lewis, and the exiles, should have been thoroughly discredited. Parliamentary regimes have fallen over far less serious disasters. But in our divided system, Bush is running for reelection, and has retained each of these men at his side. Ajami and Lewis continue to pontificate. Only the exile Chalabi seems to have suffered disgrace -- and not so much because of his bad advice as because he proved too critical of the occupation and friendly to Iran for the American occupying authority's taste.

Reprinted by permission of Scribner Book Co.

John Judis

John B. Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic and co-author with Ruy Teixeira of "The Emerging Democratic Majority."

MORE FROM John Judis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------