I was reluctant to review Muhammad Idrees Ahmad’s The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War. With all the dramatic developments in the Middle East today — the ISIS crisis, the siege of Kobanê, the deepening nightmare in Syria, the escalating repression in Egypt, the fate of Tunisia’s democratic transition, the sectarianization of regional conflicts driven by the Saudi-Iranian rivalry — delving back into the 2003 invasion of Iraq seemed rather less than urgent. It’s hard enough just to keep up with the events unfolding day-to-day in the region. Reading — let alone reviewing — a detailed study of the internal processes that led to the United States toppling Saddam Hussein over a decade ago seemed remote, if not indeed a distraction.
But I’m glad I set these reservations aside and took the assignment. This forcefully argued and meticulously researched (with no fewer than 1,152 footnotes, many of which are full-blown paragraphs) book turns out to be enormously relevant to the present moment, on at least three fronts:
- ISIS emerged from the ashes of al Qaeda in Iraq, which formed in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq. Without the 2003 invasion, there would be no ISIS as we know it—and the region’s political landscape would look very different.
- The US Senate report on CIA torture has brought back into focus the rogues gallery of the Bush-Cheney administration — the same cast of characters who engineered the 2003 Iraq invasion. This book shines a heat lamp on that dark chapter and many of its protagonists.
- There is talk of a neoconservative comeback in Washington. This thoroughly discredited but zombie-like group are now angling for the ear of Hillary Clinton, who might be the next US president. Ahmad’s book provides a marvelously illuminating anatomy of the neocons, which has lessons that apply directly to this movement’s potentially ominous next chapter.
The central question Ahmad attempts to answer is: Why did the 2003 Iraq War happen? In one of the book’s most valuable sections, felicitously titled “Black Gold and Red Herrings,” he goes through several prevalent explanations/theories and takes them apart one by one:
Oil. “If Iraq was invaded for oil,” Ahmad writes, “then the US was remarkably negligent in securing the prize.” Iraq awarded its first major post-invasion oil concessions in 2009, and the big winners? Norway, France, China and Russia. Of the 11 contracts signed only one went to a US company (Exxon Mobil). The only sector in which US firms prevailed was oil services—but “in that sector the US has always enjoyed a virtual monopoly, invasions or no,” Ahmad notes.
It’s true that Bush and Cheney had worked in the energy industry, but US oil companies did not push for the invasion — in fact they lobbied to lift the sanctions on Iraq, which blocked potential profits. The oil industry has long favored agreements with governments, Ahmad notes; belligerence, in contrast, “has only jeopardized investments and brought uncertainty to future projects.” Did US oil companies try to cash in on the opportunity presented by the toppling of Saddam Hussein? By all means, but this is not to be confused, Ahmad argues, with why the invasion happened. Gulf energy resources have long been a vital US interest, he notes, but on “no other occasion has the US had to occupy a country to secure them.”
Free markets. Naomi Klein has done the most to popularize this notion with her widely-read 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, seeing Iraq as a paradigmatic case of disaster capitalism — of predatory market forces exploiting a society convulsed by shock and awe. But “beyond short-term gains for a few businesses,” Ahmad writes, “the war proved a disaster for the world capitalist system.” The world will be paying for the Iraq war for a bloody long time, as Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Blimes have demonstrated in The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict. (They later revised that estimate upwards.)
Market fanaticism of the Milton Friedman variety, Ahmad acknowledges, “was certainly ascendant in the aftermath of the invasion, but there is no evidence that it played any part in the deliberations over war” (emphasis mine). He shows, moreover, that Klein conflates neoconservatism and neoliberalism — two distinct doctrines. His excellent discussion of the differences between them provides a salient corrective to the widespread confusion about this, especially on the Left.
Global hegemony. The idea that the war was waged to expand US global dominance is belied, for Ahmad, by two facts: that it had “remarkably few supporters among the traditional advocates of American primacy” and that the results have been a geostrategic catastrophe for the United States on myriad levels. The first point might seem counter-intuitive, but as someone who wrote extensively about the Iraq debate in US foreign policy circles, I can confirm that Ahmad is exactly right about this. Attacking Iraq was a minority position in US officialdom. Against it were the realists of the sort who dominated the administration of Bush’s father and were pillars in the foreign policy teams of Reagan, Carter, Ford and Nixon: think national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, secretary of state James Baker and the late senior diplomatic adviser Lawrence Eagleburger. All of them opposed the war. As did Colin Powell. This has been largely obscured by the secretary of state’s infamous presentation to the UN on the eve of the invasion, one replete with lies and distortions. Not only Powell but virtually the entire state department, and indeed a significant swath of the military and intelligence establishments, opposed going to war.
Who, then, were the war party — and how did this minority faction get their way? The road to Iraq was paved with neoconservative intentions. Other factions of the US foreign policy establishment were eventually brought around to supporting the war, but the neocons were its architects and chief proponents. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, himself a supporter of the invasion, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in April 2003: “I could give you the names of 25 people (all of whom are at this moment within a five-block radius of this office [in Washington]) who, if you had exiled them to a desert island a year and a half ago, the Iraq war would not have happened.”
The neocons were obsessed for decades with toppling Saddam’s régime. Ahmad provides a thorough and instructive genealogy of the neoconservative movement, mapping both its intellectual coordinates and its “long march through the institutions” of the national security apparatus: from its roots in ex-Trotskyism, to the office of US Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, a hardline Cold Warrior, ascending into the Reagan administration and the Pentagon, and a labyrinth of magazines, think tanks and ad hoc committees. There is nothing conspiratorial about Ahmad’s analysis: he sees the neocons as a network of individuals (or what the anthropologist Janine Wedel calls a “flex-net”) with a particular ideological agenda, using the levers of the state and the media in pursuit of that agenda, in close coordination with one another. In this figure from the book he maps what he calls “the neoconservative core”:
The neoconservative core and Ahmed Chalabi. Richard Perle lies at the core of this unusually dense network with a direct, one-to-one relationship with every other member of the network. Albert Wohlstetter is the outlier mainly because he belongs to a previous generation. He is included because he played the crucial role in inserting apex neocons into government.
The neocons were the Iraq war’s sine qua non, but other stars had to align for the opportunity to present itself: the terrorist attacks of 9⁄11 were a godsend. The moment was ripe, and the neocons were abundantly prepared to exploit it. They “succeeded in using the shock and disorientation of the attacks to place Iraq…on the agenda and helped manufacture the case for invading it,” Ahmad writes. Indeed, such was their preoccupation with Iraq that many of them urged going to Baghdad immediately after 9⁄11, never mind Afghanistan. Deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz argued this case a mere four days after the terrorist attacks, at the first gathering of Bush’s national security team post‑9/11, held at Camp David. Not even Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary, supported Wolfowitz’s position — at least not at that point. (The “flipping” of Rumsfeld and Cheney — their metamorphosis from traditional conservatives, or “aggressive nationalists,” into two of the war’s key champions — was pivotal in the decision to go to war. Ahmad offers a discerning if ultimately inconclusive discussion of this opaque piece of the historical puzzle.)
But why exactly was toppling Saddam an idée fixe in the neocon mind? And how did this minority faction ultimately prevail over its rivals within the administration? Much of the book is devoted to answering these two critical questions. Ahmad’s discussion of the latter — his chapters on “Setting the Agenda” and “Selling the War” — are well crafted but cover familiar ground. There are several other books that tell that story, and Ahmad relies on them extensively in his own account. But his discussion of the former — the explanation he advances for what motivated the neoconservative crusade against Saddam Hussein — is this book’s real contribution.
The war was “conceived in Washington, but its inspiration came from Tel Aviv,” he writes, echoing the political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, authors of the influential (and controversial) book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy (which began as an essay in the London Review of Books). Mearsheimer and Walt, the two preeminent realist scholars in international relations theory, maintain that both Israeli leaders and the Israel lobby in the US urged the Bush administration to invade Iraq — a course of action, they contend, that was not in the geostrategic interests of the US but that Israel saw in its interests. Ahmad concurs with them. “Not all imperial projects are about economic predation: some simply aim to destroy political enemies”, he argues — correctly, in my view. But in taking out Saddam Hussein the US destroyed one of Israel’s political enemies. In so doing, Mearsheimer and Walt argue, it undermined American national interests.
The Institutional infrastructure of the Israel lobby.
Ahmad demonstrates in painstaking detail how the neocons in the Bush administration — especially in the Pentagon (Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith — think “Feith-based intelligence”) and the office of the vice president (Lewis “Scooter” Libby) — aggressively advanced the (Israeli) case for the invasion. “It’s a toss-up whether Libby is working for the Israelis or the Americans on any given day,” British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw remarked. Joe Klein, a centrist columnist for Time magazine (and himself Jewish) wrote that the neocons pushed for the invasion “to make the world safe for Israel.”
As Ahmad notes, however, the neocons operate on the basis “of what they think are Israel’s best interests” (his emphasis): whether the war, which has significantly strengthened Iran, was actually in Israel’s interests, is highly contestable. Many Israelis opposed the war. But as former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan contends, neoconservatism “is about enabling the most irredentist elements in Israel.” The neocons are more accurately seen as Likud-centric than Israel-centric.
Against the widely-held view that Israel does America’s bidding, Ahmad shows how Israelpolitik is at odds with both US geostrategic interests and those of global capital. Big Oil, the Business Roundtable and the US Chamber of Commerce have locked horns with the Israel lobby on multiple occasions over sanctions on Syria, Iran, Libya and other states — measures that the lobby pushed hard but the corporations opposed fiercely.
“US support for Israel, when considered not in abstract but concrete detail, cannot be adequately explained as a result of American imperial interests,” the late anti-Zionist and leftist writer Israel Shahak observed. “Strategically, Israel is obviously a huge burden for the U.S.,” notes Sullivan. This view is becoming increasingly clear to many observers and indeed to more and more in the US foreign policy establishment.
I find Ahmad’s arguments about the motivations behind the Iraq war — and his critiques of the dominant alternative explanations — broadly convincing. But I wish he had engaged directly with some of the criticisms of the Mearsheimer-Walt argument. I share his view that most of those criticisms are unconvincing and that the Israel lobby thesis generally stands up to scrutiny — but his defense of that thesis would have emerged stronger had he dealt with some of the more serious criticisms leveled at it. He doesn’t even mention, much less engage, the criticisms that Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, or Joseph Massad, for example, have advanced against Mearsheimer and Walt.
Like Ahmad, I think those criticisms are wrongheaded. They take issue with Mearsheimer and Walt at the level of their ideological framework, or the conceptual arc of their argument. They argue — to make a long story short — that Mearsheimer and Walt let the US off the hook, in effect, and are insufficiently anti-imperialist. But the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis is an empirical matter — the question isn’t what one thinks of their worldview in general (a worldview Ahmad and I both find deeply flawed, by the way) but whether their argument about why the US invaded Iraq in 2003 is correct or not. I agree with Ahmad that the evidence is on the side of Mearsheimer and Walt rather than their critics. But it would have made Ahmad’s defense of their (and his) case more compelling had he aired those arguments.
Finally, I want to pick a bone with Ahmad’s discussion of liberals and humanitarian interventionists. In a section polemically titled ‘From humanitarian intervention to shock and awe’, he takes them to task for forging a “neoconservative-liberal alliance” in support of the 2003 invasion. The liberal interventionists helped shape “the climate of debate,” he asserts, by “easing the inhibitions of some about the use of force.” There are two problems with this section.
First, he wildly overstates the extent of support for the Iraq war among liberals. In fact, the majority of liberal intellectuals and commentators opposed the invasion — but Ahmad fails to mention that any of them did. It’s true that several high-profile liberals signed on — infamously among them, Michael Ignatieff, Paul Berman, George Packer, David Remnick and Peter Beinart. (Ahmad includes several others in this group who are/were decidedly not liberal: Jean Bethe Elshtain was explicitly anti-liberal; Kenneth Pollack is a creature of the CIA and the National Security Council; Christopher Hitchens was a Trotskyist who morphed into a “neo-neo-con,” in the apt phrase of Ian Williams, and was decidedly hostile to liberalism.)
The pro-war liberals were disproportionately prominent. But in fact their support for the war was a minority position among liberal interventionists. In his important book The Left at War, Michael Bérubé lists just some of the liberal intellectuals and writers who opposed the Iraq war: Ian Buruma, Martha Nussbaum, Jürgen Habermas, Timothy Garton Ash, Richard Rorty, Stephen Holmes, Tzvetan Todorov, Mary Kaldor, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Ronald Dworkin, Saskia Sassen, Mark Danner, Samantha Power, Amartya Sen, Seyla Benhabib, Charles Taylor, David Held, Ian Williams, Kenneth Roth, David Corn, the editors of The Nation, Boston Review, openDemocracy, The American Prospect, and the New York Review of Books. (And this is only a very partial list.)
Ahmad takes the liberal writers Michael Tomasky and Todd Gitlin to task for “denounc[ing] anti-war voices” — but both Tomasky and Gitlin opposed the Iraq war. They had criticized opponents of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, not the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Ahmad approvingly quotes Tony Judt’s brilliant London Review of Books jeremiad “Bush’s Useful Idiots” (September 21, 2006), in which the late historian upbraided the liberal intellectuals who supported the war. I have written in praise of the piece myself. It was Judt at his best.
But Ahmad neglects to mention that Judt himself was a liberal who strongly supported the humanitarian interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor. Like most of us who supported those interventions, Judt strongly opposed the Iraq war — which, as Ahmad demonstrates, was anything but a humanitarian intervention. To their eternal shame, some humanitarian interventionists supported the Iraq war — but they were in the minority within the humanitarian interventionist camp. Judt belonged to the very camp that Ahmad criticizes for, in his view, providing intellectual cover for the Iraq war. In fact, Judt was squarely in the majority among liberal interventionists in opposing the Iraq war. Indeed, liberals and humanitarian interventionists articulated some of the most forceful arguments against invading Iraq.
It isn’t just that Ahmad gets the intellectual history wrong in this admittedly brief section of his otherwise outstanding book. The much more serious issue is that the arguments he advances against the principle of humanitarian intervention flirt with the very logic deployed, for example, by the targets of Ahmad’s sharpest criticisms in his more recent writings on Syria: those on the Left who steadfastly oppose any form of intervention in Syria on the grounds of defending the “sovereignty” of the murderous Assad régime. Ahmad finds those arguments as specious and pernicious as I do. And, to be sure, he concedes in passing that there are “crises where predatory states use the cover of sovereignty to tyrannize vulnerable populations.”
But he doesn’t think through the larger implications involved here. This is not the place to open a philosophical debate on humanitarian intervention. But I’ll close by posing a question to Ahmad: has the Syrian conflict, and the ideological fault lines that have formed around it, occasioned any rethinking on his part of the debates about intervention going back to the 1990s?
These criticisms aside, let me reiterate the enormous significance and relevance of The Road to Iraq. It is a work of tremendous intellectual diligence and moral seriousness. We are all indebted to Ahmad for undertaking this major contribution to the debate on one of the central events of this century, whose aftershocks continue to unfold daily, to disastrous effect. With the neocons poised to make a comeback, this book serves as a cautionary tale of bracing urgency. It is a must-read guide to the history of the present.
This article first appeared at The Drouth.