In contrast to disciplines pertaining to the hard sciences and much of its brethren within the social sciences, scholars within the field of international relations struggle to endorse and subsequently implement policy that adequately alleviates potential security threats in the international system. Of course, the dynamic nature of the international community does not facilitate this process, but nevertheless, if a discipline is to be evaluated based upon its ability to foresee future actions based upon generalizable events of the past, the field of international relations has a rather subpar track record of preventing substantial outbreaks of conflict in a non-reactionary manner.
The double-edged failure of the League of Nations to rebuild Europe after World War I and to extinguish the prospect of a second Great War is certainly a prominent example, but even in relatively contemporary times in the post-Cold War Era, respected theorists of widely influential schools of thought have fallen victim to making fallacious predictions—namely the neorealist prediction that history would repeat itself in the form of conflict between the great powers of Europe, and the liberal ‘end of the world’ idea that the democratization of many states would result in a peaceful world (Mearsheimer 1990: 27, Fukuyama 1989: 9). Accordingly, although new formidable theories are continuously brought to the forefront of the discipline—examples include Kaldor’s economically-influenced, blurred actors-focused ‘new wars’ thesis and amended Marxist interpretations—, the foundational theory of realism maintains a significant following because it succinctly humanizes the international community as a rational actor desiring power and security (Kaldor 2009: 1).
Realism has also recently benefited from the enhanced scrutiny of Syria in light of the present revolution; Bashar al-Assad’s willingness to balance power in the form of aligning Syria with ‘Western Sunni Moderates’ such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt has illustrated that, as acknowledged by Hinnebusch, Syria, “…embarked on ‘defensive unionism’…as a way of seeking legitimacy, neutralizing domestic opponents and acquiring external patrons” (Hinnebusch 2008: 264). Thus, realists will note that Syrian action illustrates states still adhere to an ‘interests over ideology’ balance of power approach. However, as will herein be argued with a particular focus on the 2003 Iraq War, realism—although maintaining tenets that do apply to the behavior of the international community—is not ‘realistic’ in exposing the functioning of contemporary world politics. Rather, realism in conjunction with other prevalent theories—elite interests, Marxism, and social psychology to name a few—is dually a more ‘realistic’ interpretation of contemporary world politics, but more importantly, in accepting the validity of components of a culmination of theories, theorists and policy-makers alike have the greatest chance of benefiting society by means of foreseeing potential dilemmas.
Prior to discrediting a strictly realist understanding of contemporary world politics when examining the Iraq War, one must provide the arguments that realists raise. One such argument is that Saddam Hussein—whether it is demonstrated in his invasion and looting of sovereign Kuwait in order to compensate for mass debt following the Iraq-Iran War or in his eventual withdrawal during the Gulf War after realizing his forces were wildly outmatched—never deviated from being a rational actor. Thus, in regards to the Gulf War withdrawal, Soderblom asserts that, “…when history is read in this context, it demonstrates that deterrence theory works against Saddam” and that Iraq’s use of force “was merely a gesture to avoid Saddam’s classification as weak in the face of US imperial power” (Soderblom 2004: 26).
These premises are inconclusive from a number of vantage points—the first of which being that an invasion of Kuwait would not abide by realist balance of power principles. Iraq invaded Kuwait without securing U.S. support, and furthermore, Kuwait had been a stark enemy of Israel and had the friendliest relations with the Soviet Union of any Persian Gulf Monarchy (LaFeber 2002: 358). Additionally, ‘deterrence theory’ is not synonymous with a UN declaration of war; Iraq withdrew from the Gulf War because they could not defeat a coalition of 34 states—if deterrence theory had worked, perhaps Saddam would have submitted to multiple UN condemnations, resolutions, and sanctions. Prior to even examining the ideological and sectarian influences encapsulating the region at the time, the aforementioned realist argument appears flawed.
However, a second realist argument simply asserts that, in realist terms, the U.S. invasion was a rational way to demonstrate power post-9/11, to prevent the potential collaboration between Iraq and anti-American terrorists with the intention of using WMDs, and to obtain military control of Iraq’s petroleum reserves (Mayer 2004: 1). In hindsight, though, the ‘evidence’ for WMDs was of course deliberately falsified, and as opposed to expeditiously demonstrating power through the air and procuring oil, the U.S. proceeded to decimate a society under the ambiguous claim of liberal democratization. In response, realists will immediately ascertain that they did not support the invasion of Iraq nor would they claim that the democratization of Iraq in 2003 was feasible—referencing Israel’s occupation of Lebanon from 1982-2000 and U.S. occupation of Vietnam as examples exposing the impracticality of ‘the liberal emancipator’ approach (Mearsheimer 2005: 4). The irony here is that the realist overlooks the very reason why liberation does not work, at least swiftly, in traditionally undemocratic regions: the peculiarities—structure, identity, domestic and foreign objectives—that vary by state. For surely, if every state was internally identical, widespread instantaneous democratization would be even simpler than Fukuyama envisioned. Hence, realism may have been able to accurately predict the limitations of the paradoxical dichotomy that is neoconservatism, but a reluctance to acknowledge the monumental effects of the substate, let alone the suprastate as well, makes it unrealistic in contemporary world politics whilst standing alone.
Since realism does not adequately account for the vastly distinctive characteristics of respective states that hinder the prospect of accelerated change, perhaps alternative theories can explain the nature of the Iraq War. And based upon the aforementioned flaw of realism, liberalism and its prioritization of non-state institutions may be better equipped. As Lieberfeld notes, “contradictions such as the role of anti-democratic states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan as key allies in a U.S.-led War on Terror, can be understood as…the strategic ends of liberalism over whatever realist means are required to achieve them” (Lieberfeld 2005: 17). In other words, the prospect of Wilsonian idealism prompted the U.S. to abandon rational realist principles—namely ironically joining forces with undemocratic states to spread democracy.
While this supposition has credence, the dilemma with the liberal perspective is that—apart from ‘spreading democracy’—the U.S. did not use liberal means leading up to the declaration of war. The Bush administration bypassed and spied on the UN, and additionally, liberalism fails to explain why the U.S. chose to attack Iraq instead of other undemocratic states and why key Bush administration members openly desired regime change in Baghdad pre-9/11 (Lieberfeld 2005: 7). Ultimately, the very mechanisms that liberals expect to prevent unjust wars—the internal and external constraints of peace-desiring institutions and subjects—simply did not provide significant resistance. Krasner characterizes this deficiency as the “malleability of norms,” and one can only deduct that such deterioration results in the malleability of liberalism (Krasner 2001: 19).
Alas, if U.S. leaders were able to bypass juxtaposing constraints that are associated with realism and liberalism so easily, then conceivably elite interests overpower contemporary restraints on such monopolization of power and influence. As Lieberfeld contends, “government decisionmakers convinced themselves that an invasion was essential to national security, while political and financial self-interest actually played a significant, perhaps decisive, motivating role” (Lieberfeld 2005: 10). In accordance with ‘social psychology’ and ‘personality’ theories, leaders create a ‘subjective reality’—and the fragile vulnerability of the American people post-9/11 mitigated the abuse of leadership. Other prevalent factors include what Pieterse calls the “Israelization of U.S. foreign policy,” and, “the triumph of the Pentagon over the Department of Commerce, of territorially fixated oil and arms forms over globalised corporations” (Pieterse 2004: 20-23).
In this view, trans-state ideological partnership—between the U.S. and Israel—is actually more important than the liberal interpretation that contemporary partnership arises from necessary economic interdependence. And of course, the ‘triumph of the Pentagon’ solidifies the American pretense that wealth can be acquired forcefully rather than through abstract, unreliable cooperation. Such empirical evidence surely reasserts that solely realism is not realistic, but furthermore, that any strict theory would omit vital factors to the explanations of the functioning of the Iraq War and the international community as a whole.
Thus far the Iraq War has seemingly revealed how particular mainstream theories fail to explain cause and effect in the international system; in short, ideological and psychological factors attributed to decision-making are incompatible with realism, and liberal theory loses legitimacy insofar that an unprovoked democracy attacked a non-democracy—leaving the supposed savior-like democracy responsible for mass civilian suffering. And even in the case of ‘psychological factors’ and ‘groupthink,’ Lieberfeld notes, “it [groupthink] does not account for the origins of the particular policy whose flaws go unrecognized” (Lieberfeld 2005: 15).
At this juncture, international relations theorists may feel helpless; for if individual elites who continuously fall in and out of power are responsible for foreign initiatives, generalizability is practically impossible. Henceforth, the intention will be to emphasize generalizable theoretical lessons that were learned or reinforced during the Iraq War.
One such lesson is that in the absence of a clear and imminent threat, leaders may go to war because they perceive a low-cost, low-risk opportunity to make partisan political gains (Lieberfeld 2005: 19). The Iraq War of course eventually blossomed into a high-cost, high-risk war for the U.S., but in contrast to the realist proposition that states will typically go to war when their hegemonic status is at risk, the Bush doctrine reveals that in the modern unipolar system—and this continues to be evidenced by U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen under the Obama Administration—the hegemon will pursue low-cost, low-risk military initiatives that are financially and/or politically agreeable.
Furthermore, another point in regards to the hegemon that is detrimental to realism being ‘realistic’ is that, if power is usurped by elites with narrow interests who succumb to domestic and transnational bribery in conjunction with constructed fears, then the hegemon cannot a priori be characterized as a rational actor. According to Hinnebusch, “the Iraq War arguably shattered the assumption that because the hegemon created and benefits most from the status quo, it has a natural interest in stability. Both the liberals’ benign hegemon and the realist hegemon pursuing the national interest seem wide of the mark” (Hinnebusch 2006: 456). Under the circumstances, sovereignty becomes conditional, and conditional sovereignty is obviously incompatible with realist and liberal ideology. Hinnebusch goes on to conclude that U.S. behavior is best explained by, “some combination of structuralism’s material class interests and constructivism’s view of how fear and identity are used to shape notions of threat…” (Hinnebusch 2006: 455). Summarily, the functioning of contemporary world politics appears to have absolute and contingent facets—and consequently multiple static, constructed, and progressive theories are more ‘realistic’ than a lone realist conception.
In conclusion, realism—as evidenced in several case studies including the 2003 Iraq War—is not ‘realistic’ in exposing the functioning of contemporary world politics primarily because states cannot be classified as rational actors and, with the rise in the prominence of non-state actors, states no longer control the means of war from a material or economic standpoint. And in the absence of bipolarity, a lack of formidable domestic and international constraints allows the hegemon to police the world as it pleases. Contrary to Ikenberry’s assertion that the U.S. would act as a benevolent ‘offshore balancer’ promoting economic and political security in the Middle East, Jervis’ belief, “[that] it is the exception rather than the rule for states to stay on the path of moderation when others do not force them to do so,” emerges as the more veracious portrayal of unipolarity (Ikenberry 2001: 203, Jervis 2003: 372).
In sum, while the Iraq War can be characterized as a war of choice dictated by elites’ and transnational networks’ narrow interests of constructing fear and making political and/or financial gains, the Iraq War and general trend of contemporary world politics is nonetheless alarming for realists. With the apparent emergence of ‘imperial overstretch’ coupled with no subsequent balancing effort by the rest of the world—in fact most ‘disinterested’ states bandwagoned with the U.S.—the realist doctrine does not offer alternative ways to constrain the hegemon. Hinnebusch proposes that, “…we may be in a new world order (or disorder) where Marxist theories of imperialism provide the most promising point of analytical departure” (Hinnebusch 2006: 461). The emergence of elite interests and the social psychological factors affecting decision-making at the state and substate level—highlighted in the Iraq War—may very well give Marxist interpretations along with a multiplicity of other theories newfound life as realism refuses to adapt with the rest of the ‘realistic,’ unbalanced world.
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