Neocons Want U.S. Back in Iraq: Here’s Why

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“America must always lead,” President Barack Obama told West Point graduates during his May 28 commencement speech.

It would seem those four words should not prompt much criticism from the president’s conservative critics, who argue his stance on American foreign policy is weakening the country. Essentially, Republican lawmakers have made the same argument: the United States must take a leadership role on the world stage. But congressional Republicans and the Obama administration disagree over the form that leadership should take. “Our allies are looking to America for leadership, but rather than acting boldly and speaking with moral clarity this president’s tenure has been marked more by obfuscation and weakness,” stated Speaker of the House John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, in a response to the defense of his approach to foreign policy Obama gave at West Point.

Circulating through the national dialogue are two explanations for Obama’s desire to minimize the United States’ global footprint. The more generous of the two theories is that Obama is both exercising caution in involving the U.S. in further global entanglements and listening to a war-weary American public. The other possibility is that Obama entered the White House with far too little experience in foreign affairs, and therefore has struggled to effectively exercise American power abroad.

In a speech last week, Republican Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin added to that second narrative, describing Obama’s foreign policy as “weak and indecisive” to the point that U.S. credibility abroad is being damaged. “The world isn’t perfect, and we shouldn’t try to make it so. To say we’re the leader is not to say we’re always the enforcer. Instead, we’re the chief advocate — for our interests and our principles — because a lot of people in the world share our principles,” the lawmaker stated, and – at least, superficially — his foreign policy vision does not sound substantially different that that of the president.

Ryan noted that it is not the responsibility of the U.S. to make the world a perfect place, and so did Obama. Ryan said that the U.S. should not always be the “enforcer,” and Obama himself noted that “to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution.” However, Ryan was arguing for a military buildup and for a more vigorous foreign policy vision. The difference between the right and the left is not so much in the broader rhetorical arcs. Rather, the  disagreement is centered on how Obama has responded to the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, and now the growing violence in Iraq.

Just as Republicans and Democrats argue over the nature of the president’s foreign policy objectives and his skills and effectiveness in global affairs, the right and the left debate how his foreign policy decisions have impacted international relations.

According to historian and Brookings Institution foreign policy commentator Robert Kagan, the United States is in the midst of an identity crisis. In a recent piece for the New Republic, titled “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire,” the government is allowing the world order that was created in the aftermath of the Second World War to break down not because the country’s power is declining, or because the world has grown more complex, or even entirely due to a war-weary American public — but because of “an intellectual problem, a question of identity and purpose.” The result of the nation’s collective rejection or forgetting of “the assumptions that undergirded American foreign policy for the past seven decades,” he wrote,  “American foreign policy may be moving away from the sense of global responsibility that equated American interests with the interests of many others around the world and back toward the defense of narrower, more parochial national interests.” Or, in other words, the U.S. is choosing to allow the liberal new world order to crumble.

Obama described a different scenario in his West Point speech. “By most measures, America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world. Those who argue otherwise — who suggest that America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away — are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics. Think about it. Our military has no peer. The odds of a direct threat against us by any nation are low and do not come close to the dangers we faced during the Cold War,” he argued. “From Europe to Asia, we are the hub of alliances unrivaled in the history of nations. The values of our founding inspire leaders in parliaments and new movements in public squares around the globe.  And when a typhoon hits the Philippines, or schoolgirls are kidnapped in Nigeria, or masked men occupy a building in Ukraine, it is America that the world looks to for help.”

But Kagan’s point was not to dismiss Obama as an ineffectual leader. He aimed to critique the national mood and provide an argument for interventionism. As a historian, his aim was to highlight the historical pressures that led to a revolutionary transformation in how America viewed the world. And he devoted nearly 7,500 words to that task, beginning with 1920s America and culminating with the United States’ military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“What Americans had rejected before World War II was a steady global involvement, with commitments to other nations and responsibilities for the general well-being of the world,” he noted, which is what the so-called “internationalists” of the time wanted, including Theodore Roosevelt. In the 1920s, national interests did not require the U.S. to involve itself in the crises of foreign countries. But as Franklin D. Roosevelt realized by 1941, “America’s prosperity and its security depended on a healthy world economy.” It took a great deal of idealism to convince the American public that the world’s problems “cannot be solved if America does not accept its full share of responsibility in solving it,” Kagan wrote, quoting a 1943 statement made by the American intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr. As Kagan explained, that thinking guided the country’s entry into the war and provided a blueprint — or “grand strategy” –for new world order in peacetime.

But as the generations passed, pushing the Second World War into the memories of only the oldest Americans, Kagan believes that country has forgotten “the old lessons on which the grand strategy was premised,” namely that the promotion of a liberal world order would defend America’s interests and those of other nations as well. As Dean Acheson — Secretary of State for President Harry S. Truman — said at the time, Americans had to learn to “operate in a pattern of responsibility which is greater than our own interests.” That was the great foreign policy revelation. To be clear, Kagan does not believe that the American people had any special virtues, but rather “some remarkable advantages that put the United States in a historically unique position,” like geographical distance from the centuries-old conflicts of Europe and the Middle East.

Now that “World War II is as distant from today’s ‘millennials’ as the Civil War was from the generation of the 1930s,” they have a far different world view. “Americans today are not isolationists, any more than they were in the 1920s,” he argued. “They favor the liberal world order insofar as they can see how it touches them. But they are no longer prepared to sacrifice very much to uphold it.” Contributing to that view, he wrote, is that fact that during the Cold War, the “moral conundrum” of having to use power to enforce American ideals for the greater good was easier to ignore when it was justified as being in defense of national interests. “But actions taken in defense of world order are fraught with moral complexity,” he added.

Kagan has a diagnosis. Americans need to understand some important truths about foreign affairs: all solutions create more problems, and there is no perfect ending to a war. “To insist on outcomes that always achieve maximum ends at minimal cost is yet another form of escapism,” he argued. But “Americans seem overwhelmed by the difficulty and complexity of it all. They yearn to return to what Niebuhr called ‘the innocency of irresponsibility.’” In his opinion, this sentiment runs through the Obama administration. As evidence, Kagan quoted Peter Baker of The New York Times who reported in 2009 that the president intended to deal “with the world as it is rather than as it might be.” That is “a standard realist refrain and has been repeated time and again by senior Obama officials as a way of explaining why he decided against pursuing some desirable but unreachable ‘ideal’ in this place or that.” Yet, according to Kagan, the liberal world order has always been a “concerted effort not to accept the world ‘as it is.’” In deciding to deal with the world as it is, Obama is making a mistake by not responding to “the signs of the global order breaking down are all around us.”

Still, Obama is facing what Kagan has labeled a “foreign policy paradox.” Countless surveys show a divided American public. A poll conducted last December by Pew Research Center in conjunction with the Council on Foreign Relations found that the number of Americans who believe the United States is playing a less important and powerful role in the world is growing — increasing from 20 percent in 2004 to 53 percent in 2013. Yet, the American public that criticizes the president for his lack of assertiveness in foreign affairs also increasingly argues that the U.S. does too much to solve world problems. Increasing percentages want the federal government to “mind its own business internationally” and pay more attention to domestic problems. Now, 52 percent of Americans subscribe to that view, a jump from 30 percent in 2004. Plus, nearly three-quarters of Republicans — whose party leadership faults the president for growing U.S. isolationism — also want the government to focus more on domestic affairs than on foreign affairs. Republicans are more likely to make that criticism than Democrats,  52 percent to 46 percent.

The numbers clearly illustrate a paradox such as Kagan described. Yet, he believes the president should resist the American public’s desire for a more isolationist foreign policy that limits large responsibility and eschews a muscular approach to conflicts. That belief has earned Kagan his own critics, especially now with the Iranian government losing control of territory to Sunni extremists.

Further, U.S. involvement in Iraq would likely be hugely unpopular. According to Pew survey data from January of 2014, the share of Americans who believe the U.S. failed to achieve its goal of transitioning Iraq into a democratic nation-state has risen dramatically, jumping from 2012’s 33 percent to 52 percent. Nine years of war — resulting in 4,500 American casualties, 32,000 wounded, $800 billion in American tax dollars spent, and now renewed violence — has left half the American public convinced that U.S. had made the wrong decision in using military force in Iraq. There is little partisan difference on the subject of success in Iraq, according to Pew. While neither Gallup nor Pew has polled on the possible return of U.S. troops to Iraq, January’s numbers suggest that a return would not be met with enthusiasm. For now, as Obama said in Friday news conference, U.S. troops will not be sent back to Iraq — although he has left open the possibility of air strikes and military aid. Furthermore, as the militant members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continue to advance, the president notified members of Congress Monday that approximately 275 U.S. military personnel will be deploying to Iraq to support and secure the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

But, of course, the debate of “who lost Iraq” has already begun.

In an interview with The New York Times, Kagan said that American action to halt the militants is “imperative.” While the time has passed, he also asserted that had American troops not withdrawn from the region and taken action in Syria, the crisis would have been averted. “It’s striking how two policies driven by the same desire to avoid the use of a military power are now converging to create this burgeoning disaster,” he stated. He believes that the possible fall of Baghdad demands action from President Obama. For the GOP, presidential inaction could help the party regain its edge in foreign policy in the upcoming congressional midterm elections.

It is important to note that the Iraq War largely discredited neoconservatives, who argued fervently for exporting U.S. democratic ideals to the Middle East through the use of military force. But as his interview with the Times reveals, Kagan believes the return of organized terrorist groups in the region “has created the climate to again make the case for interventionism.” Kagan — whose father the Times characterized as “a patriarch of neoconservatism” — prefers to be called a “liberal interventionist.” He has attempted to describe his advocacy as bipartisan, according to the interview. Kagan even commented that he feels “comfortable” with Hillary Clinton on foreign policy. “If she pursues a policy which we think she will pursue,” he added, “it’s something that might have been called neocon, but clearly her supporters are not going to call it that; they are going to call it something else.”

While the Times did not devote many sentences to a counter-argument to Kagan’s essay, his beliefs are far from popular. For example, Ron Paul has asked whether the United States has done enough damage in Iraq. He believes the United States should learn from what was the United States’ biggest foreign policy disaster of “our generation.” The arguments against interventionism, which Kagan brushes away in his essay as escapism, sound very rational to the American people and a number of lawmakers as well. The idea that America may not be in the best positioned country to intervene or that it may not have the right to intervene with military power in another nation’s conflicts has many adherents, including Ron Paul. As Obama explained in his speech at West Point, there is a middle ground between isolationism and military intervention, meaning the United States should be centrally involved in efforts to curb aggression without becoming involved in multiple proxy wars.

“It’s a case for interventionism but not overreach,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, said in an interview with the Times after the speech. “We are leading, we are the only country that leads, but that leadership has to be in service of an international system.”

Compared with Ron Paul, Democrats have created a much more narrow argument against further intervention. Congressional democrats argue Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is to blame for the renewed violence because he refused a security agreement that would have kept U.S. forces in the country. According to that viewpoint, Maliki’s failure to subdue sectarian tensions between the Shiite-dominated government, minority Sunni, and Kurdish populations has directly led to the current problems. “What’s happening in Iraq today is an absolute tragedy, but it is much more a consequence of our invasion than our withdrawal,” Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “The blame for what’s happening right now is squarely at Maliki’s feet. This is not a responsibility of the United States.”

Republicans, while far from calling for a return to an interventionist foreign policy, claim that the president’s decisions to review options is simply a cover for his indecision. “We shouldn’t have boots on the ground, but we need to be hitting these columns of terrorists marching on Baghdad with drones now,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Edward R. Royce, a California Republican, said in a statement Friday. Meanwhile, Republican Representative Michael McCaul of Texas — Chair of the House Homeland Security Committee — said of the Obama administration “is wringing its hands as Baghdad is about to fall. This is not leadership.”

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