The Iraq War: Learning lessons, ignoring history

Talk about a gap between serious academic history and the policy community. The New York Times, which has made a big deal of the tenth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, offers a stunning case in point. At least five different items in the paper for Wednesday, 20 March, seek some perspective from “authorities” heavy tilted toward policy specialists and former Bush administration officials. There is nary a historian of any sort to be seen.

The paper’s editorial on the anniversary advances several startling propositions suggested by the U.S. experience in Iraq. These include getting our intelligence right, approaching decisions for war with an open mind. and understanding our regional influence is limited. Of course, nothing about how the press should guard against get rolled by the White House in the run up to war!

One of the David Petraeus acolytes, John Nagl, offers an op-ed that adds an additional deep insight: war holds surprises so military leaders need to be flexible. Unfortunately nothing more profound can be expected from a counter-insurgency camp whose use of history over the years has been at best tendentious.

David Sanger’s report on the lack of consensus on lessons learned features extensive quotes from ex-Bush officials offering predictable justifications. Sanger clearly has no historians in his Rolodex so what he reports comes from the echo chamber that is the policy world.

Five experts jump into a debate over whether removing Saddam Hussein was a good idea. No card-carrying historians of Iraq, the Middle, or U.S. foreign policy in this mix.

Perhaps the most revealing piece is Peter Baker’s treatment of Washington’s relative silence on the anniversary. He notes that the capital like the country more generally “seems happy to wash its hands of Iraq.” The real lesson learned, his piece suggests, is to forget wars that don’t go well. Just celebrate the ones you win. Forgetting may already be a sturdy feature of the American way of war. Silence followed the aftermath of the conquest of the Philippines, the frustrating war in Korea, and the Vietnam War (at least for a decade).

Anyone in the lesson business who wants to ignore history does so at their own peril. As any historian worth their salt will tell you, assessing a war just ten years gone is very difficult. Not enough time has passed for dispassionate perspective; partisanship and wishful thinking are still strong (a point that Times inadvertently drives home). Moreover, the evidence on which any compelling judgment depends is thin; it will take years for the historical record to become full enough to tell us with confidence who did what to whom and why.

But along with these cautions historians would make an additional point. The past is always helpful in setting context, and it is indispensable in cases so close to the present and so poorly documented as Iraq is. How did U.S. involvement in the region help set the stage for the Iraq imbroglio? Were there long-term forces or preoccupations in play that may have helped drive U.S. policymakers toward their decisions? What other wars offer parallels with Iraq that might be revealing? What long-term developments internationally and at home might have facilitated or obstructed the march to war?

Historians pursuing these kinds of questions can shed badly needed light on important issues otherwise for the moment necessarily obscure. Perhaps here’s the issue the Times staff might have explored: how can history serve as a resource to help us understand Iraq and our role in the world more generally?

Nationalism and the debate over U.S. hegemony

[The following is my contribution to a symposium on the end of the American century that appears in the most recent issue of the RSA Journal (Revista di Studi Americani) published by the Italian Association of North American Studies. I am grateful to the editors for permission to post my essay here.]


I devoted the Conclusion of The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance (University of North Carolina Press, 2007) to the issue of hegemony. Returning to the topic today, I find that the fate of U.S. hegemony has become a hot topic that evokes both pessimistic and optimistic appraisals.

Historians and political scientists with a historical bent have gravitated toward the view that U.S. hegemony is in deep trouble. David S. Mason’s The End of the American Century (2009) is a good case in point. Mason surveys the erosion of American dominance in compelling domestic and international detail. His conclusion: “At a minimum, the United States will suffer decline in wealth, standard of living, and global influence” (215). Others convinced of the weakness of the U.S. position emphasize that dominance even at its zenith in the post-World War II years was limited and from the 1970s was badly battered. (Good recent summations of this perspective can be found in the Andrew Bacevich and Walter LaFeber contributions to The Short American Century: A Postmortem [2012], edited by Bacevich.)

Those pessimistic about long-term U.S. prospects can point to the doleful conclusion of intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, the broadly damaging 2008 economic crisis, the frustrating resistance on the part of regional powers (from Iran and Russia to China and North Korea), and the prolonged and ineffectual hand-wringing over fiscal affairs.

Despite this evidence for U.S. decline, some observers cling to optimism. Robert J. Lieber, Power and Willpower in the American Future: Why the United States Is Not Destined to Decline (2012), embodies that tendency in spades. Lieber makes the slide in U.S. influence a recent development, dating it from the 1990s, and he minimizes the ground the U.S. has lost since the triumph over the Soviet Union. Invoking familiar neo-conservative themes, Lieber contends that lost ground can be recovered through social and ideological mobilization at home. By restoring something akin to the old Cold War outlook, Americans will regain the confidence and policymakers the capacity critical to the continuation of global leadership. Thus can the United States live up to its special mission in the world and serve as the indispensable guarantor of international order, security, and liberal values.

International relations realists seem to maintain a guarded optimism about U.S. prospects grounded in a conviction that policymakers in Washington can preserve U.S. dominance if they correctly read and adjust to the current configuration of interstate power, the rise of new non-state actors, and the challenge of acute trans-national problems. Steven Weber and Bruce W. Jentleson in The End of Arrogance: America in the Global Competition of Ideas (2010), for example, think a salvage operation possible. U.S. leaders have only to bring their policy in line with the world as it is today rather than with a world nostalgically remembered. To take another example, G. John Ikenberry’s Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order (2011) contends that the liberal global order that the U.S. put in place is still basically intact and amenable to U.S. leadership. This realist tendency to make continued U.S. influence dependent on reading international developments aright is also evident in the U.S. government’s recent forecast, the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds (2012).

In reviewing these divergent pessimistic and optimistic approaches, I am struck by the absence of attention to U.S. nationalism as an element in the decline equation. The Tea Party revolt and the seemingly eternal presidential election campaign have provided forceful reminders of how badly frayed the national consensus has become and how important national consensus is as the basis for politics and policymaking. Nationalism’s conceptual utility is precisely its capacity to get us to reflect on what collective views Americans have embraced and how those views with both domestic and international ramifications have changed.

Bringing nationalism into the picture is strikingly easy to do. The ground has been prepared by a large, sophisticated collection of theoretical writings going back to the 1980s, and on that ground has arisen a considerable body of historical scholarship on various facets and phases of U.S. nationalism. This rich literature can help us think about the currently troubled U.S. position in three basic ways:

–First, U.S. nationalism is important today as earlier because it provides indispensable framing for policymakers by addressing the three preoccupations central to most nationalisms. It tells us who qualifies as a full citizen and thus has a genuine voice in national affairs, what kind of role the state should play as the embodiment and proponent of nationalist values, and what foreign forces pose a threat to the nation’s survival and values so serious that they require a collective response.

–Second, consistent with a central theoretical point, U.S. nationalism is not fixed but rather has evolved. It has arguably gone through three stages over the last two and half centuries. The most recent ran from the end of the nineteenth century to the 1960s and was organized around and promoted by a modernizing, burgeoning American state. This state-dominated nationalism came to accept and even advance an expanded understanding of citizenship (overcoming previous racial and gender barriers). And it was fixated on and galvanized by a string of international dangers beginning with the Kaiser’s Germany and Bolshevism, continuing with Hitler’s Germany and Tojo’s Japan, and concluding in its heyday with a communist monolith that gave way to distinct Soviet and Chinese threats.

–Finally, U.S. nationalism, again true to the general pattern, has never been static. What it means to be an American has always been contested — and quite intensely so at those points of transition from one phase of nationalist faith to another. We arguably find ourselves today at one of those points of transition with the old state-centered nationalism losing its grip.

Our current transition is in part the result of the demise of the world of empire and interstate conflict in which state-centered nationalism took shape. Today’s globalized world poses different challenges and imposes different constraints. The transition is also a result of a striking changes in U.S. society since the 1960s. The most important may be the rise of a consumer regime that has thoroughly reshaped the basic outlook as well as daily activities of most Americans (a development adroitly sketched by Emily Rosenberg in the Bacevich volume). But there are other contenders for the loyalty of Americans including the free-market religion so assiduously promoted over the last three or four decades not to mention a resuscitated version of the old statist faith along the lines articulated by Lieber.

Only when some alternative view speaks in a clear and broadly appealing way about the nature of citizenship, the role of the state, and the identity of the “dangerous other” will the country be able to move on to a new, fourth stage of nationalism, and only then will U.S. leaders gain the policy compass they so badly need. When and how this transition might occur no one can confidently predict. Even more difficult to anticipate is what impact a new nationalism might have on U.S. hegemony — whether to breathe new life into it or to intensify its problems.

This is only a sketch of the contours of U.S. nationalism as I think it applies to the current hegemonic disarray. Readers wanting more detail can turn to my December 2012 Krasno lecture ( An even fuller treatment should in time appear in a book tentatively (and perhaps immodestly) titled “Bridging the Gap: Academic History and the Future of U.S. Foreign Relations.”