Not all Americans concerned about the Bush administration’s headlong rush to war with Iraq are on the political left. Many conservatives and serious academic students of international politics are equally troubled. I am one of them.

This administration‘s Iraq policy is, simply, antithetical to American national interests. I come from the Realist school of foreign policy, which emphasizes the competitive, power-political nature of international politics. We Realists are by temperament calculators, not crusaders. We think in terms of national interest and the balance of power. We recognize that wise statesmen resist the temptation to use power promiscuously, and we stress the virtues of prudence, and self-restraint, in foreign policy.

Although we Realists get criticized a lot — in part because self-styled “Realists” like Paul Wolfowitz and other neoconservatives give true Realists a bad name — we tend to be cautious when it comes to using military power. Military power is a blunt instrument, and war often leads to unanticipated geopolitical fallout that negates the fruits of victory on the battlefield. So we ask hard questions. How real is the threat? If the U.S. uses military power, will we be better or worse off at the end of the day than if we had refrained from going to war? Are the interests at stake important enough to justify the human and economic costs, and political risks, of going to war?

In this context, I and leading Realist scholars — including, notably, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Barry Posen of MIT — harbor grave doubts about the administration’s Iraq policy.

My political convictions also lead me to doubt the wisdom of Washington‘s Iraq policy. Although there are not many of us left, the Republican foreign-policy tradition represented by the late Ohio Senator Robert Taft has not entirely disappeared. In our tradition, we worry that a policy of foreign-policy excess — to be blunt, a policy of imperial aspirations — undermines important domestic political values that we conservatives hold dear (or, at least, used to hold dear before the so-called “national greatness” neocons hijacked American conservatism): a federal government of limited size and power (which, by the way, is a point with which civil libertarians on the left should agree), fiscal responsibility, moderate taxation and an emphasis on domestic needs over external ambitions.

Taft Republicans have never been “isolationists” and, indeed, always have understood that the U.S. needs robust military capabilities. But we also believe that America is fundamentally secure, that its interests are not served by grandiose foreign-policy ambitions, and that a bloated Pentagon comes with the pursuit of those ambitions. Taft Republicans entertain no desire to embark on crusades to democratize the world, or to impose American culture and values on the distant corners of the globe.

Given this background, I have the following doubts about the wisdom of the administration’s Iraq policy. To begin with, there is no threat to American national interests that justifies going to war at this time. Iraq does not have nuclear weapons, and is not likely to have them anytime soon. And with respect to chemical and biological weapons, Iraq lacks the capability to attack the United States. Iraq could only attack the U.S. with these weapons by turning them over to terrorists like al Qaeda and relying on them to do the job.

The Central Intelligence Agency has pulled the rug from beneath the administration‘s rationale for war. CIA analysts deem it extraordinarily unlikely that the secular Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein would arm radical Islamic terrorists with weapons of mass destruction. It is not in Iraq’s — or Saddam Hussein‘s — self-interest to do so. If Iraq supplied terrorists with weapons of mass destruction to attack the U.S., Washington would find out — and American retaliation would be swift and terrible. Deterrence does work, even if the administration’s civilian armchair strategists like Wolfowitz & Company claim otherwise.

The CIA, however, has issued a caveat: If Saddam Hussein is convinced that the U.S. is going to use military might to remove him from power, all bets are off and Iraq may indeed use terrorists to strike at the United States with weapons of mass destruction. So, by pursuing “regime change” in Iraq, the administration‘s policy may bring about the very actions that it claims it is going to war to prevent.

Saddam Hussein has been successfully contained for 11 years. Iraq is less of a threat today than it was at the time of the Gulf War in 1991 — its capabilities and economy degraded by years of sanctions. There has been no event or action undertaken by Iraq — what diplomats call a casus belli — that would suggest that containment now must give way to war. And here, it is important to note that it’s not just the CIA that believes the administration‘s war policy is mistaken. An impressive array of retired four-star generals — including Wesley Clark, Joseph Hoar and Anthony Zinni — all have counseled against abandoning the containment policy and attacking Iraq. From a national-security standpoint, there is no more reason to go to war today than there was on September 10, 2001. In truth, the administration’s hawks — especially the Wolfowitz crowd — were chomping at the bit to attack Iraq while the rubble of the World Trade Center was still warm. For them, 911 was a convenient pretext for settling the previous Bush administration‘s unfinished business with Saddam Hussein, not a real justification for going to war with Iraq.


President George W. Bush, however, and other top administration officials tell us that going to war to bring about a regime change is the right thing to do because Saddam Hussein is a reprehensible tyrant. Which, of course, is true (but which also overlooks the fact that when national interests have so required, the U.S. has never had trouble jumping into bed with nasty dictators, including Saddam Hussein himself in the 1980s). But there are lots of nasty dictators and regimes in the world, and Americans should be really worried about the implications of a foreign-policy doctrine — the so-called Bush doctrine — that invests the U.S. with the right, or duty, to use its military power to engage in overseas crusades to remove the world’s “evil ones.”

Are we as a nation prepared to engage in perpetual war to overthrow them, even when they pose no security threat to the U.S.?

Now, if Saddam Hussein could be disposed of easily, and cheaply — and by cheaply, I mean with little loss of American lives — a case could be made that the payoff would justify the small price that would have to be paid. But there is no assurance at all that Saddam Hussein can be overthrown cheaply and easily.

For sure, since the early 1990s we Americans have become used to thinking of war as sort of a real-life video-arcade game in which the high-tech U.S. military is able to win wars — the first Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan — quickly, and almost painlessly. This time, however, while there is no doubt the United States will defeat Iraq on the battlefield, there‘s plenty of doubt about how high the cost of victory will be.

Many military experts believe the Iraqis learned some lessons from their defeat in 1991, and that this time they will adopt a different strategy: entrenching themselves in Baghdad and other major cities. Go see Black Hawk Down, or Enemy at the Gates, to see how costly it is to fight an enemy block by block. Moreover, Baghdad is a sprawling city of 5 million people. If the U.S. is forced to root out the Iraqi army from Baghdad, there would be a humanitarian crisis of the first magnitude, and the deaths of many Iraqi civilians — broadcast on CNN or, worse, Al Jezeera — would be a public-relations disaster for the U.S. in Europe, and in the Islamic world.

The Bush administration has given no indication that it has an effective strategic response if, indeed, Saddam Hussein tries to turn Baghdad into a Middle Eastern version of Stalingrad. Instead, the administration’s “strategy” seems to consist solely of the hope that Saddam Hussein will be overthrown by the Iraqi military, or that Iraqi troops simply will refuse to fight. No one can rule out these possibilities, but serious strategy must be based on something more than hope.

Of course, as the 19th-century Prussian strategic theorist Karl von Clausewitz famously observed, wars are fought to attain political objectives. But when it comes to thinking about postwar Iraq, the administration‘s policy does not even rest on something as tangible as hope, but instead is the product of wishful thinking. When senior administration officials say that Iraqis will welcome U.S. troops as liberators, and that America will transform Iraq into a democracy, it’s time to worry about what they have been smoking — and inhaling.

Iraqis may well pray for Saddam Hussein‘s demise. That does not mean they will welcome an American occupation army and military government. Not only is nationalism a powerful force, but in this case the element of a “clash of civilizations” — Islam vs. “The West” (read the U.S.) — inescapably will be present. Not only are American troops likely to be regarded by Iraqis as a hostile, alien presence, but by overthrowing Saddam Hussein, a U.S. war against Iraq easily could spark ethnic and political conflict that could lead to Iraq’s disintegration. The U.S. would have to umpire the competition for power among various factions in postwar Iraq, and would be faced with the challenge of establishing democracy in a country that has less than zero experience with democracy. Notwithstanding breezy comparisons with the U.S. post–World War II occupations of Germany and Japan, Iraq offers a much less hospitable theater for the latest chapter in that long-running U.S. foreign-policy soap opera, “Adventures in Nation Building.”


Regime change in Iraq, in short, is a long-term imperial vocation. And this is to say nothing of the regionwide consequences of a U.S. military campaign against Iraq. A war against Iraq may result in a battlefield victory, but the political consequences are likely to be unpleasant. Fragile U.S. client regimes (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia) may be threatened by domestic instability. There is likely to be an areawide anti-American backlash. And there will be more terrorism directed against the U.S., not less.

For sure, if the United States wants to go to war with Iraq, the rest of the world is powerless to stop us. The U.S. today is a hegemonic great power. “Hegemony” is the fancy term we political scientists use to describe a single great power that dominates international politics by virtue of its overwhelming military and economic power — as the U.S. does today. History tells us a lot about the fates of hegemonic powers, and it is a tale that should give Americans pause. Hegemony has never proved a winning grand strategy for great powers for the simple reason that when one state is too powerful, everyone else feels threatened. And just as kids on the playground join forces to oppose a school-yard bully, other states in international politics coalesce to put hegemonic powers in their place. The history of modern international history is littered with the wreckage of defeated hegemons and empires.

Bush administration officials seem to think the U.S. enjoys a special exemption from history in this regard. Flushed with triumph in Afghanistan, and the awesome display of American power, they talk of a “new American empire.” U.S. policymakers have succumbed to hubris in the false belief that American dominance is an unchallengeable fact of international life.

They believe the U.S. can use its muscle to bring about regime changes, and to compel others to embrace American-style democracy and free markets. They believe America can impose its will on the world, and stabilize endemically turbulent regions like the Persian Gulf and Central Asia.

Don‘t bet on it, however. The lessons of the past tell us that the very fact of America’s overwhelming power is bound to produce a geopolitical backlash. It is only a short step from the celebration of imperial “glory” to the recessional of imperial power. The United States must be careful not to overreach, and fall victim to the “hegemon‘s temptation” by overextending itself strategically. At the end of the day, hegemons are defeated not just by the counterhegemonic behavior of other states, but by mounting internal weaknesses — economic, political and social — caused by the burdens of hegemony, which are a consequence of their own overweening geopolitical and ideological ambitions. That is, hegemons fall victim to what Yale historian Paul Kennedy famously called “imperial overstretch.” If the Bush administration indeed goes to war with Iraq, it will have embarked on a fateful policy that pushes the United States down the road to imperial overstretch, and decline. And that is why Realists, and we Taftian conservatives, believe the administration is following an ill-considered policy with respect to Iraq.

Christopher Layne is Visiting Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent articles are “A New Grand Strategy,” The Atlantic Monthly (January 2002), and “Offshore Balancing Revisited,” The Washington Quarterly (Spring 2002).

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