Iraq War: Between Liberalism and Realism

Why did the United States invade Iraq? There are many ways to answer this question, two of which are more established in the international studies literature: Realism and Liberalism (Idealism). I would like to say I am a realist; however, I believe that even a realist should calculate power politics and security on various levels of power: capability to influence other states, rather than mere raw military; and the security outcomes rather than a strategy. Mankind is made up of unique creatures whose natures differ and vary extremely. As we know from our daily life, for example, not all children can be treated in a same way. Some children would love to listen what we say and obediently follow what we ask them to do. Some would like to do what we prohibit and not to do what we urge them to do. That is also the case of human being at any ages. States, as a highest manifestation of human organization, would behave in such various ways that a mere military approach in power politics, no matter how sound the generalization might be, is not enough.

In the case of invasion of Iraq, both Realism and Liberalism seemingly can explain why the invasion was pursued. Generally speaking, the Realism approach would understand The U.S. invasion as a “natural” behavior of any great power politics — reminiscent to what Athenians said to Melons. On the other hand, Liberalism believes that ideas can change the world, and ideas of democracy, peace, and order should be brought about in the international order. The U.S. invasion of Iraq is a way of making the pax democratica: stopping democide by establishing a democracy.

My paper would argue that even if we follow realist or liberal explanations, we would find that the Iraq War is a failure project of either way. While, to Realism, a great power politics should seek to accumulate its power and domination, I would argue that the invasion of Iraq decreased the U.S. power instead. Rather than enhancing its power in the international stage, the invasion has simply put The U.S. in a very difficult position since. In cases where The U.S.A is supposed to have a more bargaining power, it cannot do what it needs to do. On the other hand, if Liberalism is all about spreading democracy, Iraqis, and Americans as well, have to pay too expensive for this ideology.

I will elaborate my argument in the last section of this paper. Before dealing with this argument, it is worth analyzing the Bush administration from two different realist versions, offensive realism of Mearsheimer and “ideal realism”[1] of Mandelbaum, and a liberal theory in Huntley.

The Logic of Great Power

The U.S. invasion of Iraq, seen from Mearsheimer’s offensive Realism, is very understandable. According to Mearsheimer, great powers concerned with figuring out how to survive in a world where there is no agency to protect them from each other. The great powers are rarely content with the current distribution of power; and they will use force to alter the balance of power if they think it can be done at a reasonable price. In this way, the ultimate goal of a state is to be hegemon in the system.[2]

The invasion of Iraq, therefore, is just one measure to promote The U.S. hegemony in the Middle East. At that time The U.S. knew that behind the international embargo, the Russian and France companies took an advantage in the business of Iraqi oil. American companies could not join the party because their state prohibited them from doing business with a state that promotes terrorism. From the point of view of The U.S., it also threatened The U.S. hegemony in the region. Therefore, the invasion is necessary for the ultimate goal of The U.S.’s hegemony. The invasion of Iraq, a realist would say, is the way to accumulate power politics.

The invasion was at the outset clearly framed and campaigned in realist way. The reason to fight against Saddam Hussein was that he had developed WMD and reactivated their nuclear program. A realist approach would urge the great powers to use its military power to defend itself from such a threat and outside aggressor. According to Mearsheimer, if the calculation supports military action, the great power will be more than willing to use military power to change the balance and accumulate their power. War against Iraq would not risk The U.S. internationally and it would win the war easily. The U.S., seen from the realist perspective, did what a great power should do.

Meanwhile, following realist approach of Mandelbaum, The U.S. invasion is even “morally” correct. As a “government” of the world, one of its functions is providing security and state-building. It is a moral obligation of the government to create security for a region. Therefore, Mandelbaum sees The U.S. intervention in the north Iraq as a “humanitarian intervention” and “on behalf of the Kurds”.[3] It was humanitarian because it was aimed at protecting oppressed citizen and The U.S. has no any interest. It may also the logics when helping the Iraqi people to have their own government by toppling the unwanted government. More than the logic of great powers that send their army for their own interest, The U.S. invasion of Iraq is motivated by a selfless interest. This is a benign Goliath who sacrifices himself for others.

However, following the realist argument, we can still ask this question: did the invasion enhance The U.S. power in the Middle East? And did the invasion is a “legitimate” function, if any, of a World’s government? I would answer this critical question in the last section of this paper. Here we will first look at the invasion from the liberal point of view.

Liberalism and the Trap of Political Rhetoric

To some analysts, indeed it is the very liberal ideas of making democratic world that drives the administration to invade Iraq; particularly, the liberal idea that has been developed in its neoconservative version. George Pecker in his The Assassin’s Gate, for instance, clearly elaborates the genealogy of this war and its relation with the neoconservative ideas.[4] To neocons, like Kagan, the United States is a liberal society and as a great power The U.S. has to use its power to advance the principles of a liberal civilization and a liberal world order.[5] Iraq is a nail in the field of liberal civilization. For one with hammer like the United States, it is his moral obligation to save the liberal world by striking this nail down.

We can understand too the invasion from Huntley’s argument. To Huntley, repeating many other supporters of the democratic peace theory of Immanuel Kant, a democracy would not kill its own subjects and likewise fight other democracies. Democracy is the best strategy to stop wars and democide. But why is it a war against Iraq to reach peace? Not answering directly to this question, however, he said, “To get peace and preserve freedom, however, they must be prepared to go to war and to stop aggressive dictatorship, because these breed wars.”[6]
Pre-invasion Iraq, viewed from this point of view, was the best case to be made. Saddam Hussein was a dictator who killed his subjects, gassed the Kurds in the north, and massacred many others. His totalitarian state was also a danger to his neighboring states. He waged a war for years against Iran. Then, he invaded Kuwait in 1990. He at least also had bombed Saudi Arabia during his invasion of Kuwait. In addition, the most important rationale for many Americans, Saddam was a threat for America’s closest ally in the Middle East, Israel, whom The U.S. seemingly would do anything to defend.

In many senses, Iraq was more than eligible to be struck down and transformed into a democracy. If Iraq can be transformed into a democracy, as the Bush administration frequently boasts, it would not kill Kurds, Shiite, or then Sunni. Accordingly, it would bring about peace in the Middle East because Iraq, as a democracy, would not fight other democracy. Ultimately, the invasion would save Israel from evil state in its next door.

Such a pax democratica is exactly what the Bush administration follows after the war. While the initiation of this policy was campaigned in realist logics, a pre-emptive war against a rouge state; Bush shifted his argument to idealist rhetoric soon after he failed to prove the existence of WMD. This idealist rhetoric is used hopefully to win the public support. First, as Mearsheimer points out, Americans dislike Realism.[7] To win their support, Bush has use ideal-liberal slogans. Second, toppling Saddam Hussein was a right decision to establish a democracy; and a democracy is a way to transform Iraq from a rough state, an enemy to the United States, to a friendly state. Furthermore, it is often compared to Japan and Germany in after World War II when they have became America’s allies by the time they were transformed into democracy.

If it is the case, we can easily point out here that idealism, such as Huntley’s Pax Democratica, would explain only an outer level of Iraq War. We are not doubtful at all that Bush has frequently boasted democratizing Iraq; but we also really know exactly that he is not really concerned with democracy — he does not bother with authoritarian regimes of Pakistan and Saudi, and he reluctantly supports a democratized Palestine. If democracy was really a strategy for Iraq, he should have talked about this in the beginning, instead of more realist argument of the threat of a W.M.D.

The Price of Invasion

Let us now evaluate the invasion from both Liberalism and Realism. After Saddam Hussein was removed from his reign, Iraqis have been left in chaos. It has been three years and what we see in Iraq is not a democracy, rather a messed-up state vulnerable of civil war. A democracy would not kill its citizens, but the citizens could kill their fellow. Democracy is ideas, culture, and institution. An election, a parliamentary government, and political parties are not enough for a state to be democratic. Even though the new government has been elected, Iraq is still far away from a democracy.

The most intolerable aspect of this coerced democracy is the cost of lives of Iraqi and of American soldier as well. The incidence of suicide bombings has increased dramatically since the occupation to the point where these bombings are daily events. Religious-ethno conflicts arose too as the ethno and religious groups compete to fill the vacuum of power in the post-Saddam Iraq. If democracy worth to be fought for, Iraqis and Americans have to pay quite a bit for this ideology.

From the realist perspective, the invasion has weakened American position in at least two cases I can make. The first case is the international row caused by the publication of the prophetic cartoons in Denmark. In this case, it sounds odd that the champion of liberty and freedom of expression has to take a side of the angry Muslims while even some Muslims, and the Danish government as well, take a side of the Danish cartoonist’s right. The Bush administration was in the difficult position because of its problematic Iraqi invasion and occupation. The U.S. is not able to defend its traditional allies in the continent because it really needs Muslim support for Iraq.

The second case is the Iranian nuclear. Not as Kagan suggests, this guy with hammer in hand now has to think twice and more to strike down the nail Iran. First, The U.S. can not handle the smaller Iraq with an appropriate way and it has been necessarily not well done. Second, the invasion of Iraq has proven that transforming a rough state into friendly state is a gambling expensive to pay. The new elected government, dominated by Shiite, is not as friendly to The U.S. as it is hoped. They are very possible to be a second Iran in the Middle East, closer to Iranian mullah than to The U.S.. The Bush administration is far from being powerful to prevent Iranian nuclear program and its competitors, the ex-superpower Russia and the emerging superpower China, have received more power values from The U.S.’s lost since.

Still, from the realist perspective, the liberal idea of promoting democracy in the Middle East is, as Bush must realized it after the Iraqi election, not a good idea for this time and place. The democratized Middle East only gives a way for the fundamentalist to take over the power democratically. As in the Palestinian case, and would be the case of Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon, democracy is a powerful and legitimate tool for the political Islam to win the public support amid oppressed citizens under the current authoritarian and American-friend regimes.

The invasion of Iraq, therefore, seen from both liberal and realist theories, is “understandable” and “explainable”; however, the result of the invasion, seen from either way, is not “justifiable”. (*)

[1] I am cognizance of the risk of treating Mandelbaum as a realist. His ideas are based on a power politics theory, believing in a great power extending its power over the world. However, he is also an idealist saying that this great power is benign one. To some extent, I would prefer to call him a neo-conservative rather than a realist.
[2] John J Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, New York and London: Norton, 2003, p. 21.
[3] Michael Mandelbaum, The Case for Goliath: How America Acts as the World’s Government in the 21st Century, New York: Public Affairs, 2005, p. 65.
[4] George Packer, The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq, New York: FSG, 2005.
[5] Robert Kagan, Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order,
[6] James Robert Huntley, Pax Democratica: A Strategy for the 21st Century, New York: St. Martin Press, 1998, p. 3.
[7] Mearsheimer, The Tragedy…, p. 23. He interestingly says, “…foreign policy discourse in the United States often sounds as if it has been lifted right out of a Liberalism 101 lecture.”

1 Komentar

  1. This is an excellent and appropiate view of both IR theories, you should write more often!


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