Politics does not reward nuance. Even less so in times of crisis. Confronted with a serious threat to our national security, we expect displays of strength and unflinching resolve from those in power. Such demands are especially pronounced in the United States, where the populace has been raised on the certainty that theirs is the greatest country in the world. Yet chest-beating displays of patriotism and an unshakeable belief in American exceptionalism do not lead to good policy.
The war in Iraq two decades ago was propelled by precisely this combination of hubris and moral absolutism, which compounded catastrophic errors of judgement. Following the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, the then president, George W Bush, launched his global war on terror, which he defined as a “war against all those who seek to export terror, and… those governments that support or shelter them”. It was obvious from the start that such a war would be unwinnable. But not to the Bush administration or the Washington foreign policy establishment. Those who questioned the wisdom of launching a worldwide war against an abstract noun, or who cited the lack of evidence linking al-Qaeda with Saddam Hussein, were told they just didn’t “get it”.
In fact, the decision to go to war in Iraq was “essentially sealed in cognitive amber” within 24 hours of the 9/11 attacks, according to the political scientist Michael Mazarr, who traced the origins of the conflict in Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence and America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy (2019). Catalysed by the “hothouse atmosphere of fear and vulnerability” in Washington, and the delusions of a president who “believed in belief itself”, Mazarr shows how “loyalty-enforcing groupthink” took hold. The disastrous consequences are well-documented.
[See also: Explainer: The A-Z of the Iraq War]
Twenty years later, those lessons have not been learned. Once again, the drumbeat of war is growing louder in Washington, where the political class is transfixed by China. Those fears are mirrored in Beijing. Early this month, Xi Jinping accused the US of implementing a policy of “all-round containment” against China. His foreign minister, Qin Gang, warned that the two powers were heading towards “conflict and confrontation” that could threaten the “future of humanity”.
“On both sides, there is growing fatalism that a crisis is unavoidable and perhaps even necessary,” argues Jessica Chen Weiss, a political scientist who served on the policy planning staff at the US State Department between 2021 and 2022. She was unnerved by her time in Washington, where she observed that the “desire to avoid appearing ‘soft’ on China” seemed to have permeated policy discussions. When analysts and officials “feel the need to out-hawk one another to protect themselves and advance professionally”, Weiss warned, “the result is groupthink”.
The outcome of that contest to “out-hawk” one another was evident in the hysterical reaction to the Chinese spy balloon floating over the US in February. The Ohio senator JD Vance was one of a number of Republican lawmakers who posed with his rifle pointed at the sky as the demands to shoot down the balloon grew increasingly shrill. While Joe Biden exhibits a less excitable approach to China in general, his decision to order the shooting down of three additional flying objects, which turned out to be unconnected to the first balloon, proved that he is not immune to the pressure to be seen to act.
Further evidence of the current tenor of debate in the US Congress is the spectacle of the new House select committee on China. Its first hearing was conducted on prime-time television on 28 February to investigate “The Chinese Communist Party’s Threat to America”. As the committee chairman, Mike Gallagher, a Republican congressman from Wisconsin, informed viewers in his opening remarks: “This is an existential struggle over what life will look like in the 21st century – and the most fundamental freedoms are at stake.” Over the next three hours, committee members decried the threat from China. Predictably, the experts who were invited to testify all agreed that the US must take a tougher line.
Mazarr has long warned of the troubling parallels between the evolving discourse on China and the run-up to the war in Iraq. The moral absolutism had returned, he told the Sinica Podcast in December, and the debate was again being reduced to a simplistic narrative that depicted the US as the hero and China as the villain.
There is another disturbing echo in the recent surge in hate crimes in the US against Asian Americans, especially since the start of the Covid pandemic in 2020, which recalls the violence against Muslim and Sikh Americans after 9/11. Events have also taken a distinctly McCarthyist turn as a group of Republicans has called for the FBI to investigate Dominic Ng, Biden’s nominee to chair an Asia-Pacific business council, who is Chinese American. In February, Judy Chu, the first Chinese American congresswoman, denounced as “racist” and “disgusting” questions posed by a Republican colleague about “where her loyalty lies”.
Washington is not yet gripped by the same level of hysteria that prefaced the invasion of Iraq. But it will take courage to break with the allure of “loyalty-enforcing groupthink” and to meet these complex challenges instead with seriousness and nuanced debate. That would demonstrate real strength.
[See also: The road to war in Iraq]
This article appears in the 15 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Iraq Catastrophe