Making matters worse was the dysfunction that prevailed at the top level. President Bush, Mazarr says, “believed in belief itself,” a tendency that obviated the need to challenge assumptions or solicit second opinions. Vice President Dick Cheney, meanwhile, created his own foreign policy shop, which pursued its own agenda. Secretary of State Colin Powell lagged two steps behind his colleagues, never quite grasping that he had been marginalized. “To demonstrate his superiority, to dominate, to overawe,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld blustered, accrued authority and protected his turf. Yet when it came to making tough decisions, he ducked and deferred. Rumsfeld’s deputy Paul Wolfowitz, another important figure, was “moved more by grand ideas than by the bothersome trivia of execution.” Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, was herself given to what some of her associates called “magical thinking,” and never gained the respect of Cheney or Rumsfeld. All in all, according to Mazarr, a “truly astonishing degree of wishful thinking” permeated the upper echelons of government. It was like the court of Czar Nicholas II in 1917.
So while United States military commanders focused on the problem of getting to Baghdad, the question of what was to happen next became an orphan, ignored and unwanted. Rumsfeld in particular nursed the fantasy that the United States could “be liberator and hegemon at the same time” — freeing Iraqis from oppression, and then quickly converting Iraq itself into a compliant ally that would do Washington’s bidding, all with minimal muss and fuss. As a result, the disorder triggered by Saddam’s overthrow and the combined civil war and insurgency that ensued caught the war’s architects completely by surprise. For the next several years, American soldiers and Iraqi civilians were to pay a heavy price for what can only be described as malpractice on a Trumpian scale.
To explain all of this in terms of a misplaced messianic impulse — the self-described indispensable nation having a bad run of luck — may play well in Washington, where serious introspection is rarely welcome. Yet, ultimately, such an explanation amounts to little more than a dodge. After all, altruism rarely if ever provides an adequate explanation for the actions of a great power. Exempting the United States from that proposition, as Mazarr does, entails its own spectacular leap of faith.
The United States invaded Iraq not in response to a “vigorous missionary impulse,” but to avoid reckoning with this fact: Decades of wrongheaded policies in the Middle East had culminated on 9/11 in a cataclysmic episode of blowback.
National security policies conceived from the 1940s through the 1990s, reinforced after the Cold War by false assumptions of military supremacy, had produced the inverse of security. In the formulation of those policies, America’s missionary obligations had figured as the faintest afterthought, if at all. Sadly, Mazarr’s well-intentioned book is likely to provide yet another excuse to postpone reckoning with that failure.