Larison’s Feaver

ten-years-after-saddamI may soon be able to post a more extensive examination of The American Conservative’s anti-Americanist conservatism, especially as represented in Daniel Larison’s writings on foreign policy. This morning, we can look at Mr. Larison’s response to Peter Feaver’s 10-years-after piece on the invasion of Iraq.1 While addressing the first of five supposed myths or types of myth said to have “contaminated” the war debate, Larison attacks the entirety of Feaver’s presentation: “What Feaver has done in this case, as he does in most of the rest of his post, is to state an absurd argument that no war opponent makes as if it were common claim made about the Iraq war.” Larison does harm to his own credibility with such a blanket dismissal, since anyone can click to Feaver’s essay and discover a series of arguments which, “absurd” or not, are in fact commonly recited, and recited and recited and recited: especially numbers 3, 4, and 5: conspiracy and other “true explanation” theories; neoconservative capture of foreign and military policy-making; “Bush lied, people died.”

Feaver’s No. 1, on Saddam-AQ “links,” the only “myth” the blogger specifically addresses, is a topic that seems almost impossible to discuss rationally or strategically, and any attempt to do so here will be complicated by the odd phraseology of Feaver’s topic sentence, which Larison quotes in full:

1. The Bush administration went to war against Iraq because it thought (or claimed to think) Iraq had been behind the 9/11 attacks.

If we set aside the strange notion of an administration going to war because of what it “claimed to think,” Feaver does go on to offer a clearer explication of the Bush Administration case such as it was, a partly speculative, partly strategic linkage between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein different from but not necessarily exclusive of direct operational linkages relating to 9/11 or to any other specific events or acts.

That the public polled in the mass does not administer such nuances with high precision and consistency seems an eternal characteristic of mass public opinion, so it is difficult to attribute particular artifacts of polling – i.e., widespread remnant belief in the supposedly thoroughly debunked or disavowed “linkage” – strictly to Bush Admin PR. In such matters, it can be difficult even to find the nettle, much less to grasp it: At the risk of making an easily misunderstood general argument about the state of the world as we find it, it would be a feature of neo-imperial policy or one might even say of neo-imperial reality that everything is potentially linked to everything else, if not already, then if the hegemon so wills, or even as soon as whatever person, fact, or incident comes to the hegemon’s attention. That would be the meaning of a global order, for good or ill. Acknowledgment that American perception of a link or possible or potential link is in a certain sense by definition a significant link would not be a justification of any particular action, for instance to break such a link, as conjured, through application of overwhelming military force, but it helps to explain why public opinion remains stubborn about it: Belief in such a link is in itself a politically significant linkage, and the mass of believers can never be wrong to confess to a pollster their intuition of this fact, which is at the same time the fact of their intuition. Put simply: We were the link between Saddam and Al Qaeda.2

Feaver’s second “myth” is in an odd way the most interesting one. The claim that “missionary democracy” really was the Bush or perhaps guiding neoconservative impulse all along was something more often heard from defenders of the war and especially of the occupation policy through the mid-2000s. The idea, frequently supported via Bush’s Cincinnati address of October 2002, would be invoked against conspiracy-mongers and other war opponents who refused to grant any conceivable positive intentions to Bush et al. From the perspective of general political debate, democratization amounted to substitute or best runner-up war aim following the collapse of the “WMD” justification. As an expression of a positive ambition of the war and occupation, a goal supposedly worth fighting and sacrificing for, this democracy argument gained a post-purple finger second life during the Surge debates, when application of Petraeus COIN strategy was depicted as the basis or potential basis for a just and durable post-conflict order in which liberal-democratic values would be adapted to the local terrain.

I have lately heard the same arguments from pro-Islamist or anti-imperialists or anti-interventionists who opposed the Surge and the invasion on the same grounds – that is, because they oppose any attempted forcible democratization of the Islamic world. Mr. Larison often provides examples, generally as attacks on neoconservatism, liberal internationalism, and (vulgar) exceptionalism, of the arguments that Feaver seems to be isolating here, if in a slightly different language. In other words, Larison himself is among those frequently and pointedly making the argument that Larison says no one ever makes.


  1. John Judis’ “The Eve of Destruction What it was like to oppose the Iraq War in 2003” is an especially interesting contribution among the many retrospectives being published this month. []
  2. added after initial posting []

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  1. re: Feaver’s list of myths: I recall hearing the 3rd one from war supporters (i.e.: “Iraq is strategically important because of its oil, & we have an opportunity to make Iraq more politically favorable to us”) to an extent.

    The discussion around this is portrayed as “hah, we’re gonna steal their oil!” vs considering oil as a factor by the opposition at all being denounced as crazy talk. If ones argument in opposition is more along the lines of “what a sovereign foreign nation chooses to do with its natural resources is not a legitimate grounds for war”, just because Damn Hippies can agree with it doesn’t make the concept itself nothing more than Damn Hippie “Blood for oil!” talk (to extent that being such automatically sticks it Out Of The Mainstream, that is).

    • No doubt everyone on any side or sub-side of any war argument will run into trouble to whatever extent he or she over-interprets a particular talking point that makes whatever sense it makes only in a particular argumentative context, or, even worse, over-interprets someone else’s over-interpretation, or still worse, over-interprets someone else’s over-interpretation of someone else’s over-interpretation. We’re all subject to the tendency to say much less and much more than we mean to say, or than we might have thought we even could say or mean.

      I think Feaver is right that the discourse is “contaminated” by myths, but maybe the notion that there is a single discourse on the war is also a kind of myth, or maybe the total discourse on the war has to be understood as a discourse made up of multiple relatively autonomous discourses. The overdetermination of war is also the overdetermination of a war of discourses. At any moment in the course of such a war, it is easy to mistake the discussion with which one is most familiar for “the” discussion, or to take the merely apparent results of whatever latest battle as the actual results of the actual war. Right now, we seem to be under an intellectual consensus regarding a particular war narrative, allowing for claims of having been “right” or confessions of having been “wrong.” That such a superficial consensus depends upon suspicion regarding a former superficial consensus might awaken new suspicions. That it mostly seems not to ought to reinforce them…

  2. If one was solely concerned with oil, the target would have been Saudi Arabia, WMD was the consensus argument, because most everyone from the SVR to Jordanian Mukharabat thought they had them.

  3. The argument as I remember was not mere possession, although th weapons inspectors cast doubt on even that, but immenent threat.

    Friends and foes agreed Iraq might have some/the capacity/the intention of some form of WMD, but the considerable international resistence to the war included the assessment that whatever Sadam had it did not constitute an immentent threat, that the sanctions and monitoring should continue.

    The vacuum created by the doubtfulness of immenent threat created space for alternative explanations.

  4. Well most of the parties, opposed to the war, like the French, Germans and Russians, were in Iraq’s pocket, If Iraq had readily available stockpiles, they would like likely have used them, and the casualties would be magnitudes higher then what we saw, the same tribesman who did little to fight the Baathists for nearly 40 years, were all to willing to murder the coalition forces, so I’m not terribly surprised about that.

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  1. […] we continue the walk down memory lane, bob recalls for us the “imminence” debate, which raged on for years, and is one element of the “Bush lied, people died” theory of […]

  2. […] defied, and, hardly coincidentally, of the bad guys’ first victims. For financial traders, that vexingly tenacious, quasi-mythical or imaginary link between 9/11 Al Qaedists and the defiant tyrant leader of enemy Iraq would have been more real or […]

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