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.