What the Experts Really Said About Iraq: As it Turns Out, Not Much

TCS Daily

August 21, 2007

Media Matters economist Duncan Black set off a mini-firestorm among lefty bloggers three weeks ago when he asked, after a few choice expletives, “Why is there a foreign policy community?” The premise of that question is that, since so many of the experts, even on the left, argued passionately for intervening in Iraq and for continuing a failed strategy long after amateur pundits in the blogosphere had soured on the war, why should we take their expertise seriously?

This led to Beltway foreign policy guru Steve Benen explaining that “the political-intellectual arena is essentially a cartel” dominated by groupthink and which punishes those who deviate from the official line and “blogs allow smart people to break the cartel” which, naturally, set off a round of back-and-forths among bloggers. Among the more worthwhile contributions are those by Washington Monthly‘s Kevin Drum, Tufts political scientist Daniel DreznerAtlantic blogger Matt Yglesias, Kentucky-based military strategist Robert Farley, National Security Network Executive Director Ilan Goldenberg, and a slightly-less-profane rejoinder by Black.

Foreign Affairs editor Gideon Rose responded with a series of posts on the blog of The Economist magazine, most notably this one, defending the honor of the Establishment.

While there are several substantive issues within the debate that interest me, what is most striking is that the basic premise—that most foreign policy public intellectuals supported the Iraq War—didn’t comport at all with my recollection of the contemporaneous debate. During that period, I was working as the foreign affairs acquisitions editor for a D.C. area publishing house and reading the literature and attending conferences and think tank presentations on a constant basis.

I recalled a security policy community dominated by Realists who were almost universally opposed to the war. Perhaps, though, my perceptions were colored by my own biases and the passage of time? I decided that it was worth a long journey through the Foreign Affairs archives to test my memory. The results are very much a mixed bag.

The first essay I can find on the Iraq War is Kenneth Pollack’s essay, “Next Stop Baghdad?” in the March/April 2002 issue which, as one might expect, was enthusiastically pro-war. It received a response, “Not So Fast,” from Liam Anderson in the July/August issue. It was a mere letter, however, and not a featured article.

Several intervening articles touched on the Middle East but the next Iraq-specific piece was John Ikenberry’s “America’s Imperial Ambition” in September/October, a strong shot across the bow at preemptive force in Iraq and elsewhere.

The January/February 2003 issue, the last to come out before the war, featured several pieces directly touching on the controversy. Fouad Ajami argued in “Iraq and the Arabs’ Future” that America should make no apologies for the hurt feelings the Iraq War was bound to create in the Arab world. “Above and beyond toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein and dismantling its deadly weapons, the driving motivation of a new American endeavor in Iraq and in neighboring Arab lands should be modernizing the Arab world.” In “Promoting Democracy and Fighting Terror,” Thomas Carothers cautions that President Bush should not compromise too much in the area of democracy-promotion (citing Pakistan, most notably) in going after the terrorists. Most humorously, given the advantages of hindsight, Richard Betts warns in “Suicide From Fear of Death?” that “President Bush’s case for war on Iraq overlooks a very real danger: if pushed to the wall, Saddam Hussein may resort to using weapons of mass destruction against the United States.” (Ironically, this is the article that Rose highlights when pointing to the anti-war critiques published by his magazine. While I’m generally an admirer of Betts’ work, this piece was hardly his finest hour.)

What’s striking here is not so much the unanimity of opinion but rather the dearth of articles on the most important foreign policy debate of the day. This trend was to continue for quite some time, despite a bi-monthly publication schedule. Indeed, several issues had no articles at all whose titles or precis suggested more than a tangential mention of Iraq.

Ken Pollack was back again in the July/August with “Securing the Gulf” proclaiming, “The sweeping military victory in Iraq has cleared the way for the United States to establish yet another framework for Persian Gulf security. Ironically, with Saddam Hussein gone, the problems are actually going to get more challenging in some ways. The three main issues will be Iraqi power, Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and domestic unrest in the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council.”

That same issue included “The Shi’ites and the Future of Iraq” by Yitzhak Nakash, which asks but really doesn’t answer the question, “Will the newly energized Shi’ite majority seek an Islamic government modeled after Iran’s, or will its members agree to share power with other communities?” Max Boot contributes “The New American Way of War,” which gushed that the tremendous show of “speed, maneuver, flexibility, and surprise . . . put on display in the invasion of Iraq . . . should reshape what the military looks like.” Joseph Nye was more contained in “U.S. Power and Strategy After Iraq

The September/October issue featured “Stumbling Into War” by James Rubin, a former Clinton State Department official, who argued that, “The war in Iraq could never have been an easy sell, but nor should it have been such a difficult one. The Bush administration badly botched the prewar maneuvering, presenting a textbook study in how not to wage a diplomatic campaign.” In a piece tangentially related to the Iraq debate, “Taking Arabs Seriously,” Marc Lynch contended that the “Bush administration’s tone-deaf approach to the Middle East reflects a dangerous misreading of the nature and sources of Arab public opinion.”

The November/December issue had several thought pieces that placed scrutiny on the grand strategy behind the war. Dimitri Simes warned in “America’s Imperial Dilemma” that we “must avoid the temptation to meddle when American interests are not at stake. This means, among other things, dropping the doctrine of universal democracy promotion.” In “That Was Then: Allen W. Dulles on the Occupation of Germany,” Allen Dulles argues that the occupation of Iraq could have benefitted from paying closer attention to the lessons of the postwar occupation of Germany. “Remaking the World: Bush and the Neoconservatives,” a book review by Joshua Micah Marshall, contended that “neocons have been running the show — and we’re all now paying the price.”

In 2004 and afterward, as one might expect, there were plenty of articles in the magazine critical of the war. See, for example, “Iraq: Winning the Unwinnable War” by James Dobbins and Edward Luttwak’s “Iraq: The Logic of Disengagement.” I won’t highlight more here given that, by that point, they reflected a growing consensus (not that pro-war articles, such as Dennis Ross’ “The Middle East Predicament,” which argues that “the United States must stick with Iraq,” didn’t continue to see print) and therefore really have little bearing on the debate at hand.

What’s striking, though, is how “business as usual” the article selection remained throughout the entire period. Entire issues went by without an article on Iraq or even the Middle East and most issues continued to have the standard mix of articles on Africa, the global economy, environmental issues, human rights, and so forth. Indeed, it might have escaped the attention of a casual observer glancing at the covers (which list the prominent articles in each issue) that the country was at war.

The archives at Foreign Policy, started during the Cold War as an anti-Establishment journal but long since undistinguishable ideologically, is somewhat less helpful because article summaries aren’t included. Judging by the titles only, though, “An Unnecessary War” by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt in the January/February 2003 issue was the only article about the war one way or another that came out before its onset.

International Security, the best of the non-quantitative journals in the area aimed at experts rather than informed general readers, ignored the war debate entirely until the summer 2003 issue at which point Saddam’s regime had already been toppled. It features “Constructing a Democratic Iraq: Challenges and Opportunities” by Georgetown’s Daniel Byman. It is quite prescient on the incredibly difficult challenges ahead and the difficulty in sustaining support from the American public.

To be sure, there are forums other than elite foreign affairs journals for experts to influence the public debate. There were, certainly, numerous prominent Establishment voices such as Brent Scowcroft and James Baker warning against the perils of intervening in Iraq in the pages of major newspapers and elsewhere.

Nonetheless, it appears that the leftist critique, especially Benen’s, is right: Despite the overwhelming view of security scholars I encountered in academic conferences and at think tank presentations, the foreign policy Establishment treated the war with dispassion, seemingly afraid to take a strong stand. More importantly, it treated the march to war as a mere curiosity no more worthy of attention than presidential elections in Brazil, whether World Trade Organization judges had too much power, or economic reform in Japan.

That, more than being wrong in their predictions about the future, is the real failure of the foreign policy community. None of us has a crystal ball and our analyses of prospective events are frequently going to fall short. Public policy experts merely owe the public their best reasoning and to engage in a vigorous debate when no consensus exists.

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