John Mearsheimer: Why does a smart country act so stupid?

When Barack Obama delivered his defining “dumb war” denunciation of war against Iraq in October, 2002, he was a state senator standing in at Chicago’s first big anti-war rally for the invited keynoter, John Mearsheimer, who’d been booked elsewhere.

It was John Mearsheimer, the foreign policy scholar at the University of Chicago, who’d drafted the ad — op-ed in the New York Times on September 26, 2002 — that I keep pinned over my desk 8 years later. “WAR WITH IRAQ IS NOT IN AMERICA’S NATIONAL INTEREST,” was the headline. Signed by 33 university-based analysts, the ad was a marker then of rare vision, independence and mettle in the “expert” ranks. (My interviews with these uncelebrated heroes are here). Their ad came to stand also for the sorry truth that hitting the target smack-on in these surreal times is not often a good career move. All of that was before Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt at Harvard wrote the book that made them famous, The Israel Lobby.

In conversation here at Brown this week, Mearsheimer is reviewing a course that’s been “all down hill” for nearly a decade. We face four big unfixable fiascos abroad, in the Mearsheimer brief — all legacies of the “radical, reckless” George W. Bush. Afghanistan is being driven by demography and war back into Taliban control. Iraq, centrifugal by nature, continues to tear itself apart. Iran is not about to foreswear nuclear sophistication. And Israel, hell-bent on extending settlements, will defy the world’s pressure for a two-state deal with Palestinians; a Greater Israel, with apartheid rules, will be “a festering sore” on the American imperium for decades to come.

For President Obama, Mearsheimer sees no ways out, no “clever strategies” at hand. Obama might better have told the country in the Spring of 2009 that, on sober review, our problems were beyond solving any time soon — that we had to lower expectations and be prepared to shift directions. But Obama has mostly stayed the Bush course with softer rhetoric; and lots of people are angry at him because none of the problems are getting fixed.

Mearsheimer makes (to me) the intriguing argument that the great snare and delusion on the way to these quagmires was the first brief “successful” war on Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001. What felt like a quick and easy toppling of the Taliban so soon after 9.11 persuaded the Bush warriors that the combination of air power and special forces could wreck regimes and install puppets almost overnight. This was the premise for the invasion of Iraq — with dreams of turning over Syria and Iran after that, on the way to transforming the Arab and Muslim worlds. In time, that Afghan victory proved a “mirage” and a trap. The Taliban hid out, then resurged. Hamid Karzai proved both incompetent and corrupt. Iraq proved to be a bottomless quagmire, and nine years later we are still bleeding in Afghanistan.

The confounding riddle for Mearsheimer in all this is why the upper reaches of the American establishment have been so slow about examining the damage, so stubbornly set in doctrines that don’t work. He underlines the correspondence between the Iraq disaster and the money meltdown that Michael Lewis memorably set out in our conversation about The Big Short last spring:

The big question in the United States is how is it that a country with so much intellectual capital could have screwed up not just foreign policy so badly, but the economy as well. … Virtually all the economists and all the key business people thought that the American economy was in terrific shape, and hardly any of them foresaw the tsunami that hit us in 2008. Something is fundamentally wrong here.

Let’s go back to the discourse about the Iraq war. The fact that so few prominent people in the national security establishment foresaw a problem here is really quite remarkable. I don’t think you had to be very smart to understand that invading Iraq was likely to lead to disaster. …

So this leads us to the question: what is wrong in the United States? How is it that a country with all this intellectual capital could have been simultaneously wrong about two such fundamentally important issues, the economy and foreign policy?

Truth be told, I don’t have a good answer.

John Mearsheimer with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, Brown University, September 27, 2010.

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  • Pete Crangle

    Jolly excellent discussion. Thank you Mr. Mearsheimer and Chris.

    Cassandra had a beautiful voice. I’m certain of this, because I never heard it.

    To be a wonk, an insider, a specialist, a wise-man regarding foreign policy (imperial in aspiration and realization), one must check their commitment to convictions at the door; likely to never be recovered again. For once you check your commitment to convictions at the door, you’ve passed through something for which you probably cannot recover. It’s not easy to travel the road of say someone like Daniel Ellsberg (certainly no saint). Some doors, that is, doors of personal crises, doors which relegate one to a pariah caste, tend to be one-way. Such is the nature of things as commitment and conviction. It can be a lonely journey.

    Convictions, and one’s commitments to those convictions, lead one to impractical personal behavior that feel intensely practical and pragmatic for professional reasons. Leading to a paradox of pragmatism. Such a paradox invites an examination of deeper truths. Such as the potential to examine status quo questions and pat answers. Interior MRI moments await many wise-men. For those who never arrive at such paradoxical places, double happiness blessings of bliss and willful ignorance are bestowed.

    Regarding President Obama/V.P. Biden: I would argue the following is axiomatic: America is an imperial power. Thus, if America is an imperial power, then it stands to reason that the executive branch must become an imperial manager and adapt to those tasks accordingly. After all, the office is larger than any one individual or in fact, any one administration (– observe the previous administration for an examination of behavior an administration that thinks it’s larger than the situation it is supposed to manage; at least for four to six years). If the country doesn’t like the hole it’s in for being an imperial power, it should: demand a draw down (from whom? the political elite?), or wait for it to buckle under the untenable weight that is still accumulating. There is no pleasant, unpainful way to become a non-imperial power once you’ve taken a bite at the apple.

    It seems highly likely that the professional class in charge of such matters will continue to kick the can down the road in the hopes of avoiding paying the bill for our policy decisions (domestic and foreign). It’s worked so far. So why make structural changes? If one thinks Iraq or the economic meltdown are wake-up calls, I would ask: what were Vietnam, Korea, two hot world wars, or the depression of the 1930s if not wake-up calls for serious change. The changes made have not dismantled those agencies for which a continuance of those types of crises can manifest. This is not a situation without hope, it’s one for which the virtues of patience are more effective than hopelessness or raw, unrestrained anger.

    Regarding the issue of facts and the fact based community: We’re living in a time of rhetoric and advertising style manipulation. The rhetoric is not tied to facts, but the urge to persuade, manipulate, coerce, etc. in service to the tenants of power and control. Those who traffic in such rhetoric serve the system, the system is not serving them.

  • a_professor

    Excellent interview, and as someone who knows Prof. Mearsheimer personally I hadn’t known the anecdote about Obama filling in for him, thanks.

    Readers may not be familiar with what Lydon means by “ad / op-ed”; there’s a very infuriating story there. In the runup to the war, Mearsheimer and other preeminent military analysts who were against invading Iraq, people like Barry Posen, Steve Walt, or Richard Betts, could not get op eds published in newspapers like the NYT or Washington Post. These analysts had written many op-eds over the previous 20 years about defense programs, the 1991 Gulf War, Bosnia, the rise of China, etc. Sometimes they trended hawkish (in favor of the 1991 war to push Iraq out of Kuwait), sometimes not (opposed to Reagan’s “Star Wars” program), but for years they’d been go-to guys when the media wanted Ivy League-level analysis of potential or current wars.

    But not in 2002-03. The leading papers simply would not run serious pieces against war in Iraq, despite multiple attempts by Mearsheimer, Posen, and others to place op-eds. Similar analysts who were in favor of the war, like Mike O’Hanlan or Ken Pollack, got everything from multiple op-eds to appearances on Oprah. So a group of 30 or so of these critics put up their own money and bought ad space in the Times, running a collective critique that way. It was really unprecedented. Someone like me (a fellow security studies professor) knew about it, but the casual reader could be forgiven for thinking in 2002 that there were no serious experts who thought invading Iraq as a bad idea. There were, but the national media actively hid that fact.

  • Pete Crangle

    Very interesting a_professor. I for one appreciate you sharing such insights.

    Could you, or anyone else, explain why this happened:

    But not in 2002-03. The leading papers simply would not run serious pieces against war in Iraq, despite multiple attempts by Mearsheimer, Posen, and others to place op-eds.

    Can a security expert tease out the motives for this sort of media response? Or, is it the case that the security specialist domain and the media domain view each other indifferently as black boxes with mutual interests in coordinating the public message space, and nothing more? Maybe Chris could line some folks up for a discussion on this topic.

    From my perspective your anecdote indicates an entanglement between the security domain and the media domain. And, it is not one friendly to a contrary view, regardless of popularity or unpopularity. Furthermore, in an effort to understand underlying motivations, I think it reasonable to suggest that the media domain is beholding to a large extent of their activity to returning value on shareholder investment. This is the charter of corporations. I would assume that players in the security domain, whose job it is to read the motives of various players in this sort of power tableau, would understand the motives of the media domain, and anticipate responses. I would think part of the job of a security specialist would be to understand how to push the pieces around to fulfill an agenda. That would seem an essential, elementary job requirement; understanding, anticipation, neutralizing, coordination, etc. Furthermore, I would expect it not in the interest of the security specialists to be willing to discuss publicly the nature of the interactions between the security domain and the media domain, lest the relationship risk compromise. Such exposures seem impractical in our current environment.

    Thus, as citizens, that would be someone like myself, how can we understand the dynamics that are in play? Other than to observe and interpret that there is massive pressure to keep the country involved in military tasks for which the outcomes are at best indecisive, and at worst zero-sum, profuse, mischievous, and interminable.

  • Sophie


  • I’d agree that The Troubles will not go away, not just in the U.S. but even more so in the parts of the world that the U.S, is targeting with it’s foreign policy. Though there may be no solution, or sunglasses to help us see the world as it is (or perhaps once was), a key to the problem, a missing word in this conversation, is the question of ‘Imperial” power and geopolitics. All the problems that Mearsheimer discussed (Israel/Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and a sort of failed state system) are related to legacies from European Imperialism and the disastrous geopolitical partitions drawn in its twilight. Rather than thinking thinking about the causes of such violence of the first half of the 20th century, the dawn of the so-called post-war and post-colonial eras, the U.S. decided to take up the imperial mantle in the cold war, globally fighting proxy counterinsurgency wars in post-colonial states in an effort to become a unipolar hegemon, a new kind of Empire, a messianic Leviathan backed by nuclear weapons and singular control over global markets. This belief is what people thought the U.S. had become at the end of the Cold War, what the attack on 9/11 was a challenge to, and what the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were driven by. I guess the only hope from these warped histories is to embrace rather than fight against an imperial approach to ‘ordering’ the world, and contest all the so-called solutions that it purports to have like nation-building projects, counter-insurgency and ill-defined global counter-terror campaigns, as well as the hope that despite years of failures ‘state’ solutions will work. If the near future seems like it is heading towards an apartheid state where a few haves for some illegitimate reason try to dominate the have nots, maybe the best hope is if decent people all over the world, and especially in the U.S. and Israel, revived and re-imagined a non-governmental anti-apartheid and human-rights movement.

  • JJWFromME

    Regarding the issue of facts and the fact based community: We’re living in a time of rhetoric and advertising style manipulation. The rhetoric is not tied to facts, but the urge to persuade, manipulate, coerce, etc.

    Sam Tanenhaus had an amazing speech during the last presidential election in front of the AEI:

    It sounds like the conservatives have basically demagogued themselves into a place almost beyond accountability to facts, etc. Amazingly, this 2007 speech basically predicted the rise of the tea party.

    Jim Sleeper had a useful summary (although it’s a bit on the breathless side):

    There’s this completely predictable substitution that goes on between considered facts of a situation and a kind of right wing populism, for instance you had people blaming the banking scandal on the CRA and Fannie and Freddie MAC. You have people at various outlets debunking it, but still the populist canard gets out there and reaches enough ears…

  • Potter

    Forgive the length of this post but there is a lot of truth in this interview and much that provokes.

    If Iraq Iran and Afghanistan ( leave aside the Israeli Palestinian conflict for a sec) are not solvable it also seems that continuing attempts have made things worse. Obama did, after apparently much consideration, decide to keep us stuck in Afghanistan. We are probably not going to leave Iraq so soon either.

    I agree that Obama is plenty smart. Mearsheimer says smart and yet not so smart- meaning he was inexperienced- which he was. This is the very apprehension that many of us, including myself, had when he was running for the nomination of his party. But the field did not look too good either. He was very attractive and uplifting in his campaign and promises. We risked with him. These were heady moments for many of us.

    Regarding Israel- indeed the question is why, again, smart people, so called Israel’s supporters here and there, are pushing Israel more and more into this very self destructive mode- the very existential threat that Israeli’s and Jews fear. It’s been called a kind of collective repetition compulsion by those familiar with work on the individual and trauma: having been so traumatized by that genocide in the not too distant past (the Holocaust coming after centuries of persecution) the Jewish collective psyche ( SOME, not all) is so embattled as to re-enact the existential drama over and over again in two ways: living in fear and hyper-vigilance that this will happen again ( “they will push us into the sea” “never forget” “never again”) and by needing an enemy and treating “the enemy” – the eternal enemy- (Arabs, the Palestinians) inhumanely, excusing it as justifiable, needing to totally defeated them, ongoing. No peace is possible… for some. In the past but much less so in the present, Palestinian rejection and violence has fed right into this psychosis. So it’s been encouraging to see Palestinians turn towards more passive resistance and state building at a time when it seems that a majority of Israeli’s have lost interest in peace. There is coming a time when there won’t be a choice, or even up to Israel to allow or not allow a Palestinian state.

    **Mearsheimer is absolutely correct when he says that Obama should have leveled with the American people early on and that would have protected him against a lot of criticism about his inability to fix insurmountable impossible difficult problems. Instead Obama was silent, not communicating with us. Then and now, late, defensive and critical of critics, he is trying to gain renewed support from progressives, liberals.

    Regarding the invasion of Iraq and the question about why so many who were against going to Baghdad in the Gulf War were for it after 9/11- Mearsheimer is not mentioning that there was a lot of criticism that we should have “finished the job”. Remember Schwartzkopf on the defense? So right after 9/11 there was an opportunity and an excuse for advisors to reverse themselves to “rectify” this mistake. In fact Bush himself, it was said, wanted to do this to complete what his father had begun. Where was daddy Bush? I think supporting his son.

    Fear of quagmire that came out of Viet Nam was construed by Bush (and I assume his foreign policy group) as the fault of war protesters and Democrats- ie not being allowed to finish the job.

    Mearsheimer’s analysis of our assessment of quick victory in Afghanistan, which was in fact a “mirage” leading us to the headiness of being able to do have a quick victory in Iraq and then go on to other countries in the Middle East sounds right. But I don’t believe these views were shared by so many in government and the opinion class in the media- and not even the public. There were many, like Gelb- who went along to get along in their various circles who are, I agree, nevertheless complicit,. But the brunt of the blame- belongs to GW Bush (also green as Obama as far as foreign policy went) and the circles of elders minding him in power. And indirectly it belongs to the rest of us. As we surely must know Republicans are so right and tough with re foreign policy. We buy this truism. All feel into line. Democrats, not wanting to look weak were silent or went along but for a few. (Jim McGovern our Representative in the House was one who did not go along.. and consistently to this day has voted and spoken out against the wars, including the “surges” ).

    Congress betrayed us. And while Obama did not create these problems he did prevent us from holding those in the executive branch accountable formally for doing great damage to this country.

    Regarding the main question- how could this (including the economic catastrophe in which we were about to “go off a cliff”) have happened in a country of smart people? We could say people in positions of responsibility allowed ( allow) themselves to be clouded by selfish goals ( as any child can see). They were willfully deaf to the Cassandra’s, impervious to basic logic and facts as Mearsheimer says. We’ve been betrayed and even mislead- including by the press. But I still have to say that I was finding enough to read in the New York Times at the time to know better- enough against the war on the editorial pages- aside from the Judy Miller articles now and then on the front page.

    Today I have my questions about liberal democracy without an engaged informed public. And I have my questions about whether we have a democracy or have or are headed for a corporatocracy.

    Thank you.

  • What is become interesting to me is folks like Mearsheimer, Bacevich, Chalmer Johnson have all been articulating both directly and indirectly that 1) we are an empire/imperialist state 2) that this is not sustainable 3) we are in denial about it and potentially our less than graceful descent from primacy into a position of sharing the stage with 1 maybe two others (china and India) will not serve us well

    Thanks for having Mearsheimer on…

  • sifta

    Mearsheimer’s remarks portend in a number of areas, especially with the backstory of a_professor. One of these is a commentary on the orientation and control of public discourse. The current picture has evolved from the thesis of Herman and Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent”, which posited that the mass media is skewed towards certain monied interests, and that the means of control are essentially ridicule (flak) and taboo (anti-communism). One could view Mearsheimer and Walt’s work on “The Lobby” as an evolution to that, but it still doesn’t seem to capture the full story.

    For instance, an in depth diagnosis of the financial crisis (from the opposite end of the political spectrum from Chomsky): indicates that the essence of the crisis comes down to widely adopted hard-headed delusions. Which is consistent with the picture portrayed in ‘The Big Short.’ Here, it’s *not* just foreign affairs, and it’s *not* just manipulation in the favor of a club of certain monied interests, all of whom seem to have been hit seriously in the pocketbook by the financial crisis.

    There is, of course, a question of whether there is a commonality in our foreign policy delusions and our economic policy delusions (and our education policy delusions, our immigration policy delusions, etc.). I tend to think that there is something fundamental going on here, though the full dimensions of it remain a bit of a mystery. For instance, how much of this is that policy problems are really getting harder as opposed to the policy formation process being broken, particularly in the feedback mechanisms?

    And what are the true changes are in the environment that the same system is giving inadequate results? It’s tempting to start with observable changes (e.g. introduction of internet communication or consolidation of media), and build a reductive argument. Maybe that’s it, but somehow it’s not a particularly satisfying analysis…

  • Bill R.

    I finished up Bacevich’s “Washington Rules” and have been revisiting Mearsheimer’s “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics” and it has finally dawned on me just why the realist school of international politics is so utterly, completely and hopelessly broken. Mearsheimer departed from realist orthodoxy in important and significant ways nearly twenty years ago. Morgenthau’s conception of equilibrium as the teleological focus of the balance of power -GONE ! The idea that of status quo powers – GONE ! Why SHOULD Mearsheimer and Bacevich attack the US Government for geopolitical overextension – for crying out loud, that’s what their theory of offensive realism says the US-as-hegemon is supposed to do !! These guys really need to look at the intellectual log in their own eyes and understand where their theories are taking them before they accuse the entire foreign policy establishment of stupidity.

  • Felix Tsintonis

    Hi Bill I think you misread mearsheimer’s Tragedy of Great Power Politics. according to his theory, the hegemon power will always try to stop other major power become regional hegemon. Iraq was not qualified for that and in fact no one can be a hegemon in middle east region except maybe Israel. the only threat to United States is China since she really want to be regional hegemon in northeast Asia. US-as-hegemon is supposed to avoid other major power to be a regional hegemon that’s what Mearsheimer advocate in his seminal book. therefore, according to this theory, it was not US national interest to go to Iraq since Iraq will never be regional hegemon in Middle east. the war in Iraq was an Israel interest not US national interest. that’s why the argument in line with Mearsheimer other book, Israel lobby, in which he saw that United States foreign policy has been hijacked by Israel interest and therefore it’s not representing the US national interest. I see his second book as a effort to analyse why the US foreign behavior is not in line with his theory

  • Archita Kashyap

    Very useful for the purpose of my dissertation. This website is very helpful for IR students.