Iraq Discredited Liberal Interventionists. Why are they Still in Charge?Roundup
tags: Iraq War, international relations, Liberal Internationalism
Daniel Bessner is an associate professor in International Studies at the University of Washington. He is a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and a contributing editor at Jacobin.
In 1989, Francis Fukuyama predicted that the human species had reached “the end of history.” Throughout the world, elites had recognized that liberalism, characterized by political democracy and free markets, was the only ideology capable of addressing humanity’s problems. To Fukuyama, this suggested that eventually, whether it took a year, a decade, or a century, at some point in the future, all of humankind would embrace technocratic liberalism.
It was unclear, though, what the end of history would mean for US foreign policy. Since liberalism’s advent in the era of the French Revolution, the ideology was connected with empire. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, liberalism served as a primary justification of empire, as states from the British to the French to the American insisted that it was right and good to “promote” liberal values at the barrel of a gun. The word “liberal” itself was spread across Europe by Ur-liberal imperialist Napoleon Bonaparte.
The modern American empire was part of this proud tradition. During the Cold War, the United States became the global hegemon, and like previous hegemons, it constantly undertook military interventions abroad. To justify their nation’s wars, US elites claimed that they were defending liberalism against communists who wanted to destroy it.
But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the imperialists faced a problem: as the Cold War wound down and the Soviets, per Fukuyama, began to accept liberal capitalist principles, the US empire started to lose its raison d’être. If the United States no longer faced an existential communist enemy, there was no justification for a globe-spanning empire. What were the imperialists who were still bent on maintaining that empire to do?
The answer: go on the offensive. Instead of waiting for history to end abroad, the United States would force its end — with missiles and troops, if necessary.
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was part of this post–Cold War liberal project. (While the term neoconservative has the word “conservative” in it, neocons are basically just Cold War liberals with a different name. Moreover, in a technical sense, both Democrats and Republicans embody different species of liberalism.) The military-industrial complex’s profit-seeking motives and the never-ending US thirst for oil were key causes of the invasion, but leftists should be careful not to downplay its ideological origins. Not every imperialist is as nakedly and unabashedly power-hungry as Dick Cheney; some need to imagine that they are good people carrying out a noble cause. They are able to do so by persuading themselves that their efforts are righteous and necessary for human progress.
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