The Corner

National Security & Defense

Ideas Have Consequences

U.S. Army paratroopers in Afghanistan, September 2017 (Corporal Matthew DeVirgilio/US Army)

In the process of correcting Senator Josh Hawley and others on the details, I think my colleague Ramesh Ponnuru is understating the importance of ideas and ideology over the last 20 years of American foreign policy. We didn’t go to Afghanistan for an idea, nor Iraq, he contends. Ponnuru cites Bush’s ideologically extravagant second inaugural — the one that talked about the United States lighting a “fire in the minds of men” in its crusade against tyrants-as an “after-the-fact” justification in the absence of weapons of mass destruction.

It’s true that the public was sufficiently moved by arguments for avenging the 9/11 attacks and preventing others, but it’s wrong to think policymakers weren’t moved by ideology or intoxicated by the atmosphere it produced.

Early after 9/11, George W. Bush announced that U.S. foreign policy would not make a distinction between the terrorists and those who harbored them. Namely: state actors. Very quickly, this policy began to generate a theory that pitted democracy on the side of moderation, modernity, and peace, and tyranny on the side of terrorism and instability. At the State Department, Paul Wolfowitz would predict that Iraq would be the first Arab democracy, and it would “cast a very large shadow, starting with Syria and Iran, across the whole Arab world.”

By August of 2002, Vice President Cheney was advancing an early version of the new democratic-domino theory. “Regime change in Iraq would bring about a number of benefits to the region. When the gravest of threats are eliminated, the freedom-loving peoples of the region will have a chance to promote the values that can bring lasting peace,” he said. So, I think it’s a misjudgment to say that Bush’s second inaugural was merely a post-hoc rationalization for a war that lost a casus belli.

There was a post–Cold War surge of optimism about globalization, and it produced a lot of burble about how countries with McDonaldses don’t go to war with each other. That optimism was initially nurtured with big rewards: peaceful transition for post-Soviet Republics, NATO expansion, expansion and prosperity for the EU, an end to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and great hope for Chinese democracy. In some ways, it was less an idea than a mood. 9/11 was felt as a serious shock or violation of this optimism. And the ideas generated in response to it seem in retrospect like a militant attempt at recovering that optimism about the post-Soviet world. The sunny uplands of democracy and peace were still the future, but we would have to fight for it.

This maybe wasn’t the dominant theme for public consumption, but news reports from before the start of the Iraq War were attentive to the ideas and ideology underwriting it. And we shouldn’t totally downplay the humanitarian and democratizing motives of the public, either. President Bush established the America’s Fund for Afghan Children shortly after 9/11, and we made much of the purple fingers in post-war elections in Afghanistan. It was important not just to avenge our attackers but to be seen as doing good.

Obama’s team may have rejected Bush’s unilateral approach, but they too tended to be naive about what democracy would mean in certain countries of the Middle East.

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