It is not too much to say that my early and fervent opposition to the Iraq War on realist grounds was the seminal professional moment of my life so far. I was against the war for many reasons. It ignored the global structure of the world, assuming omnipotent U.S. power over the planet that simply didn’t exist and disregarding the primacy of local political factors. It was of the most dubious moral reasoning to blithely assume that America could, or should, impose democracy on Iraq at the point of a gun, knowing next to nothing about domestic Iraqi history or culture.
Even then it was easy to forecast that the intervention would leave American rival Iran the dominant power in the destabilized region, enhancing our enemy’s power, and that the war would cost trillions of dollars, kill thousands, and accomplish nothing but a draining away of vital American power that would be needed in areas of the world more pressing to U.S. interests.
At the time, incredibly, both neoconservatives on the right and Wilsonian hawks on the left made common cause in favor of what was surely a war of choice, a promiscuous intervention doomed to fail. There was a final, conclusive reason I was against the Iraq war, then and now: The American people sensibly would not stand for the utterly disproportional conditions that were the only way such an exercise could succeed — colonialism in all but name.
By definition, after invading the place (and no one doubted this would happen), the U.S. would be in the business of picking Iraqi winners and losers. Anyone tarred with the brush of being in too close cahoots with the foreign invaders would be deemed a stooge of Washington — the U.S. foreign policy elite almost unanimously forgot that other people are nationalists, too — and would lose the precious elixir of local legitimacy.
Therefore, to sustain our new political allies, given their lack of local support, the U.S. would have to remain in Iraq indefinitely, quasi-colonizing a country where America demonstrably had no primary national interests. It is one thing to remake first-order priorities Germany and Japan over decades, countries that were central to U.S. victory in the Cold War. It is entirely another to engage in such an overwhelming commitment for a place that is of only passing importance to Western interests in a region that, even then, decreasingly mattered — all the while Asia was and is where much of the geopolitical risk and strategic reward are centered.
In other words, while American elites of both parties might never have met an intervention they didn’t like, the sensible American people thought otherwise and ultimately would not permit such a disastrously wrongheaded neocolonial strategy from going forward.
One of the most positive aspects of Donald Trump’s coming to power has been his routing of the Republican neoconservative foreign policy establishment. It is almost impossible to overestimate the importance of Iraq in this political process, a war that literally everyone knows was misguided at best, and utterly disastrous at worst.
Despite the siren calls of the Washington foreign policy elite, President TrumpDonald TrumpCheney says a lot of GOP lawmakers have privately encouraged her fight against Trump Republicans criticizing Afghan refugees face risks DeVos says 'principles have been overtaken by personalities' in GOP MORE has had the good sense to (mostly) steer clear of the Syrian morass, and while he has yet to fully wind down the forever war in Afghanistan, he has taken real steps to end that brain-dead conflict. For all his bluster, Trump is the only president in memory who has not initiated a foreign adventure, aware as he is that promiscuous wars of choice have not left America safer, but only poorer and at a tragically high cost of treasure and especially American blood.
But if the Republican Party is now run by realists who think war — though always a policy option — should be the last choice of American statecraft, and then only if primary national interests are at stake, the same cannot be said of a Democratic Party obsessed with nation-building and humanitarian interventions, particularly in countries where the U.S. has no real interests at all.
Earlier failed attempts at nation-building — often engaged in and championed by Joe BidenJoe BidenPelosi sets Thursday vote on bipartisan infrastructure bill Pressure grows to cut diplomatic red tape for Afghans left behind President Biden is making the world a more dangerous place MORE’s present inner circle — in Haiti, Somalia, Afghanistan, and especially Iraq, amount to the failure of an entire utterly erroneous worldview, of an America without a superpower rival, whose modernizing instincts are shared by everyone throughout the globe, and where other countries generally welcome U.S. interventionism, eschewing their own national identity and nationalism itself. Of course, as Iraq ought to have clearly shown, such a world simply does not exist.
But all these real-world data points may not stop the Democratic foreign policy elite, should they win the White House in just a few days’ time; it is unlike Wilsonians to let facts get in the way of their theory, however debunked it might be.
What will stop Wilsonian Democrats from their further efforts at promiscuous adventurism over time is the sanity of the American public itself. A recent opinion poll on Americans’ attitudes toward foreign affairs, conducted for my political risk firm by Public First, decisively charts the “Iraq effect.”
The only modern war those polled felt was worth the huge sacrifice was World War II, which had 54 percent support. Not a single other modern conflict managed to garner even a paltry 30 percent support, with Vietnam (17 percent), Iraq (25 percent) and Afghanistan (27 percent) faring particularly badly. By a decisive 47-17 percent, respondents felt that American military involvement overseas makes the country less safe; by an overwhelming 56-12 percent, those polled felt the U.S. intervenes in too many countries’ affairs.
Remember these numbers the next time the Democratic Wilsonian foreign policy elite heedlessly push American military intervention in a country that few have heard of. After Iraq, we are all Republican-style realists now.
Dr. John C. Hulsman is president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a global political-risk consulting firm headquartered in Milan, Germany and London. A life member of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, Hulsman is a contributing editor for Aspenia, the flagship foreign policy journal of The Aspen Institute, Italy.