The neocons aren’t the only group to champion the Iraq War. It was a bipartisan effort going back to 2003 when it was supported by Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Madeline Albright points out Cato’s Gene Healy. And with a 14% success rate for democracy at gunpoint, you’d think we might have learned a thing or two about nation building. Nope. Sen. John McCain sounds like a defeated Pop Warner League football coach when he says, “we had it won.” How stable could it have really been Mr. McCain? Healy writes:
In April 2003, as U.S. forces rolled into Baghdad, the Carnegie Endowment’s Minxin Pei and Sara Kasper warned that “historically, nation-building attempts by outside powers are notable mainly for their bitter disappointments, not their triumphs.” Democratization-at-gunpoint is nearly always a fool’s errand, and especially foolish in a socially fractured basket case like the Iraq of 2003.
In 14 cases of nation-building in underdeveloped societies, Pei and Kaplan noted, the United States achieved its aims only in tiny Panama and Grenada: “a success rate of just 14 percent.” Moreover, they cautioned, “ethnically fragmented countries, such as Iraq, pose extraordinary challenges to nation builders because, lacking a common national identity, various ethnic groups … tend to seize the rare opportunity of outsiders’ intervention to seek complete independence or gain more power. This can trigger national disintegration or a backlash from other ethnic groups, with the outside powers caught in the middle.”
Indeed, “despite what interveners hope,” writes George Washington University’s Alexander B. Downes, “more than 40 percent of states that experience foreign-imposed regime change have a civil war within the next 10 years.”
Obama’s great mistake, then, according to the neoconservatives, was that he missed his chance to have U.S. troops stick around, “caught in the middle.” The idea was to keep a residual force of perhaps 20,000 Americans there indefinitely, taking fire while waiting for the emergence of the Shiite Nelson Mandela. Not a great plan.
If Iraq was a doomed enterprise from outset, who’s to blame? We tend to think of the Iraq War as a neoconservative project, and with good reason. But they weren’t alone.
“The underrated villains in this drama,” Matt Yglesias observes, “are the leading Democratic Party politicians of the 2002-2003 era.” Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Madeline Albright — “the whole crew” — went along. In 2003, center-left opinion on Iraq was dominated by a kettle of “Liberal Hawks” nearly indistinguishable from the neoconservative variety. Brookings scholars proved instrumental as well, playing a key role in getting liberal opinion leaders behind the war.