The Leap of Faith in Iraq

The Iraq war remains the critical crucible of American foreign policy that has set the table for today’s debates on defense strategy. Twenty years ago, the U.S. presidential election was largely a referendum on the decision to invade Iraq, and the expansive view of America’s role in the world won that election. Now, in 2024, we have a very different view within the Republican party.

That’s kind of amazing. That’s kind of Iraq.

Therefore, I can’t get my fill of books looking back at the history of America’s decision to invade Iraq. I’ve read several already and have more in my book queue to read.

I recently finished Michael Mazarr’s Leap of Faith. Here’s a passage that just leaped off the page:

“We’ll stay there about a month,” one source described the basic idea, then “hand it off to the Iraqis, and come home.” The concept, one official recalled, was that you would “cut off the head” of the Iraqi regime and then witness a “rapid and inevitable march toward Jeffersonian democracy.” (The image was perhaps unintentionally revealing; not many things can make an energetic march with their head cut off.) Barbara Bodine, a highly experienced State Department Mideast expert who became involved in the postwar governance of Iraq, incredulously explained the idea to documentarian Charles Ferguson: “We would go in, and there would be a fully functioning Iraqi bureaucracy. They would all be in their offices, at their desk, pen and paper at the ready. And we would come in and, essentially, you know, take them off the pause button.”

One senior official suggested that the war advocates fell into this concept as a way of avoiding costs. His hunch, he said, was that they had persuaded themselves of it because they so desperately wanted to do something about Iraq, and taking seriously the true costs of unseating Saddam would undermine their whole case. This was yet another product of faith-driven decisions guided by sacred values: when the imperative pushes leaders to ignore consequences but the reality of those consequences keeps pressing itself on them, decision-makers have to generate a scheme that resolves the resulting cognitive dissonance, one that allows them to believe that they really are dealing with those consequences. In the case of Iraq, that scheme was simple: the United States simply wouldn’t be involved in the messy aftermath. A Department of Defense memo from August 23, 2002, includes a section called “Vision for Iraq’s future,” which concluded simply, “We will stay around for as long as necessary, but not a moment longer.… We are already working with Iraqi opposition groups to plan for the post-Saddam regime.”

All of this, of course, ran flatly in the face of every nation-building exercise of the 1990s, from Panama to Haiti to the Balkans, where the NATO-led Implementation Force (IFOR) had initially employed some sixty thousand troops to keep order and where IFOR’s successor, the Stabilization Force, still had some twelve thousand troops as of 2002. But those were tainted, Clintonite efforts. It also ran up against the findings of just about any meaningful study of Iraqi society, which made clear that corruption ran marrow-deep and that no technocratic elite remained from which to fashion a thriving society. But the advocates had a gleaming counterexample to flash at any doubters, a powerful reservoir of fuel for their own wishful thinking about the burden the United States would face in the aftermath: Afghanistan. Washington had installed a government and got out, apart from small residual forces. It had worked, they thought at the time, beautifully. Some military officers and Defense civilians alike “seemed so intoxicated by their success in Afghanistan” with new models of light-footprint warfare, one source explained, that “nobody was interested in contingency planning in case these assumptions didn’t materialize.” These perceptions, of course, were cropping up before the hard work in Afghanistan had really begun—before the nation building was underway, without which the regime change could not be cemented into place; before the deadening awareness that the Taliban could not actually be defeated; before anyone would anticipate that the United States would still be there in 2018, spending $45 billion in a single year on its unrelenting Afghan project. But no one was looking that far ahead.

This is not just what happens in foreign policy. It’s endemic to policymaking in general. The tendency is for people, from the activists that advocate for a cause to the elected officials that advance that cause, to focus on a narrative of need that blots out consideration of the cost to meet the need.

Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of We were winning when I was there.