The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The lessons of Iraq for advocates of a restrained foreign policy

Critics of a hawkish China policy should remember they can’t win without appeals to emotion, identity and patriotism

Antiwar protesters fill the streets of San Francisco in 2003. (Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle/AP)
8 min

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.”

Liberal critics like Michael Walzer, Nicholas Kristof and Samantha Power agreed with the realists, but they also emphasized that there was no basis in international law and norms to remove Hussein. While he was a horrific tyrant, the dictator was not then engaged in genocide, so there was no humanitarian basis for war. Liberal critics further contended that war would erode the norm against preventive war — in which a state decides to crush a potential but not imminent threat — while weakening international law and damaging U.S. alliances.

Power and Kristof added that Iraq hawks did not realize the intensity of anti-Americanism in the developing world, noting that Americans’ “amnesia” about the darker side of their foreign policy deluded the hawks into thinking that Iraqis would welcome a U.S. occupation. When Kristof traveled to Iraq before the war and met with ordinary Iraqis, however, they expressed deep anger about U.S. sanctions on their country. As one woman told him, when the Americans come, “I will throw stones at them. Maybe I will throw knives.”

Leftist critics of the Iraq War offered the least persuasive critique — even if they correctly predicted that the war would bring suffering to Iraqis and intensify extremism in the region. They charged it was as an illegal act, emblematic of the United States’ racist, imperialist and aggressive core. According to a “Statement of Conscience” signed by left-wing figures like Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and Edward Said, the United States had responded to 9/11 with “a spirit of revenge,” rampant Islamophobia and a unilaterally declared “right to rain down military force anywhere and anytime.” They dubiously contended that war was really about oil interests and, in author and activist Jonathan Schell’s words, “absolute military hegemony over the earth.”

These skeptics of the Iraq War deserve credit for sound, often prescient analysis. Yet, while their assessment was cogent, they did not appreciate what arguments would most resonate in the emotionally charged post-9/11 moment.

Despite its militarism and catastrophic decisions, the Bush administration built a clear narrative of the “War on Terror” that fit the national mood. In Bush’s telling, 9/11 was an unprovoked atrocity by extremists who hated American values and represented the “heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century.” This framing made a new and perplexing threat comprehensible to a nation steeped in the memory of triumphs against the Nazis and Soviets. Bush employed a powerful Christian idiom of mourning and redemption, and he promised bold, decisive action to protect the nation. The Iraq War would not only enhance security, but also reinforce the national identity of the United States as the scourge of tyrants and the liberator of the oppressed.

This official story did not appeal to all Americans, but Bush spoke to many who were seeking an emotional salve and trying to figure out the meaning of being American in a terrifying new reality.

By contrast, few critics of the war constructed a clear counternarrative that could speak to the nation’s fear and trauma without reinforcing jingoism and tough-guy bluster. Instead, realist and liberal critics mainly offered cold strategic arguments, and the latter added dry appeals to international law and multilateralism. Liberals also struggled with the tension between their ideals and opposition to a war that promised to topple a genocidal tyrant.

Leftists were even less persuasive because they recycled similar, almost reflexive arguments against every U.S. intervention since Vietnam, no matter how successful or justified. They proposed few practical national security steps besides almost total withdrawal from the Middle East. And they all but portrayed 9/11 as comeuppance for U.S. foreign policy and blasted the United States as a racist empire in a moment of profound patriotism and mourning for Americans. The disjuncture between the culture of the moment and the leftists’ rhetoric left many unwilling to even consider their arguments. Moreover, the radicalism on display at major antiwar rallies made it easier to dismiss the left as instinctively anti-American.

The critics’ struggle to move the public or political elites reflected how getting the arguments right often means little in foreign policy debates that stem more from questions of emotion and identity than coldhearted realism. Instead, arguments need to resonate emotionally and appeal to Americans’ identities and patriotism.

A then little-known antiwar Illinois state senator named Barack Obama understood this. In a 2002 speech to an antiwar rally, he readily acknowledged the validity of Americans’ fears about security and the need to hunt down the perpetrators of 9/11. He conceded that Hussein was “brutal” and “ruthless” — someone whom the world and the Iraqi people would be better off without.

Obama also emphasized his patriotism and willingness to support necessary wars like World War II. He reminded listeners that as citizens, they “may have occasion in our lifetime to once again rise up in defense of our freedom, and pay the wages of war.”

Yet he opposed invading Iraq because it was “dumb” and “rash” and the nation should not ask its soldiers to “make such an awful sacrifice” for an unnecessary war. Obama blended realist and liberal critiques of the war, but he effectively added appeals to emotion, identity and patriotism.

And that’s crucial for advocates of a restrained foreign policy — one that relies more on persuasion, alliances and institutions than raw might. In coming years, the restrainers will confront unreconstructed hawks who aim to ramp up tensions with China or pursue regime change by force in Iran. Recent history and sound strategy may favor prudence, but the Iraq experience suggests that these questions aren’t just about strategy and security, but national identity — shaped equally by emotion as by reason.

And far from hurting advocates of restraint, it offers them the opportunity to emphasize the many chapters in American history and tradition in which the United States has advanced freedom and progress in the world mainly through the powerful example of a pluralistic, prosperous democracy.