American militarism and the US political establishment: the real lessons of the invasion of Iraq

Vivek Chibber


In the haze of popular memory, and even in intellectual circles, the most common explanation for the American invasion of Iraq is a simple one: that it was the brainchild of the neo-conservative cabal grouped around Bush II, and it was motivated in large measure to open the door for American oil majors to take control of the region. Among intellectuals and foreign policy experts this line has been taken further, to the effect that the heightened militarism embodied in the invasion reflected a watershed in foreign policy more generally, evident along several dimensions--from soft power to hard power, multilateralism to unilateralism, economic coercion to military coercion, etc. One of the most common descriptions of the Bush ascension is that it signalled the turn to a New Imperialism--in contrast to the policy orientation that preceded it, and reminiscent of the global hegemony established by England two centuries ago. To some, like Niall Ferguson, this was a development to be welcomed, a sign that America was finally accepting the responsibility that comes with power; to more sober minds, of course, it was something to be deplored. If these diagnoses were accurate, then the implication of the set-backs in Iraq would be simple--a return to the status quo ante, a turn away from unilateralism, the abandonment of aggressive militarism, and perhaps even an abatement of the imperial impulse. The task is to assess the extent to which they are in fact true. How much does the Bush interregnum represent a break from the recent past, and how much of his agenda can we expect to continue into the next administrations? We are thus obliged to turn to recent history in order to place his decisions in the longer flow of policy.

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