Iraq the “Mistake”: The Pitfalls of Pragmatic Criticism of the War in Iraq

"Voltaire, notably, was racist, but often opposed slavery on practical rather than moral grounds. So did David Hume, not because he believed in the equality of blacks, but because, like Adam Smith, he considered the whole business too expensive. Indeed, in France as in England, the arguments for or against slavery in formal political arenas were more often than not couched in pragmatic terms."

                                                                        —Michel-Rolph Trouillot [1]


In the last several years liberal commentary on Iraq has abounded with terms like "mistake," "blunder," "misadventure," "quagmire," and "foreign policy failure" [2]. All of these words—common throughout liberal criticisms of the war—express opposition to the Bush administration, but stop short of any moral or ethical

critique of the invasion and occupation that have killed over a million people, obliterated a country, and destroyed millions more lives in the process. Instead, they focus on pragmatic and tactical details of policy, thus reinforcing many of the harmful assumptions behind our militaristic foreign policy.

Most mainstream commentators who criticize the war attack the Bush administration’s failure to deliver a swift and low-cost "victory" in Iraq; that is, they criticize the handling of the occupation, not the fundamental immorality of launching an unprovoked military siege on an underdeveloped country which would inevitably kill, and has killed, mostly poor civilians. By this logic the US aggression against Iraq, regardless of the human devastation it wrought in Iraq or its flagrant breach of the world community’s most sacred principles, would have been acceptable or even praiseworthy had the invaders "won" the war and extricated themselves with a minimum of US casualties and low financial expenditures.

The New York Times editorial staff is a prominent example. Prior to the March 2003 invasion the Times editors vacillated between drumbeating for the war and tepidly cautioning that the administration allow more time for weapons inspectors [3]. Over the next four years they increasingly criticized certain aspects of Iraq policy, but maintained support for the occupation. On July 8, 2007, after nearly 52 months of war, the editorial desk finally called

for a full US withdrawal from Iraq "as quickly and safely as we can manage" [4] Yet in that editorial and subsequent ones the Times editors have not offered any substantial moral or legal opposition to the invasion/occupation. Instead, they have spoken of "Mr. Bush’s failure" and the US "misadventure" in Iraq [5]. They have criticized "President Bush’s
misguided course on the war" and complained that "Mr. Bush and his Republican allies continue to resist reason" [6]. In November, four months after their call for withdrawal, the editors politely asked "the president and his Republican allies to concede their failed war policy and change course" [7]. Among the many Times editorials dealing with Iraq since 2002, the harshest statements against the war have characterized the president as "reckless and irresponsible

," for "stubbornly refus[ing] to order a "change of course" in Iraq [8].

A number of widely-acclaimed books have criticized the Iraq War for these same reasons. Their titles usually reveal the nature of their criticisms: Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (2006); American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions (2003); Blind into Baghdad (2006). The premise of Fiasco, authored by the Washington Post‘s Thomas Ricks, is that the "invasion was launched recklessly" and that US leaders and military officials "then occupied the country negligently" [9]. Ricks blames the Bush administration for "incompetence and arrogance" and military officials for "unprofessional ignorance of the basic tenets of counter-insurgency warfare" [10]. Clyde Prestowitz’s treatise on "the failure of good intentions" is similar, criticizing mainly the "inconsistency and neglect" of US foreign policy that has led to occasional "atrocious mistakes" [11]. For James Fallows of The Atlantic Monthly, the main problem with the invasion/occupation was the lack of sufficient planning: "The administration could not have known everything about what it would find in Iraq. But it could have—and should have—done far more than it did" [12].

The most prominent critic in this vein is columnist Thomas Friedman of the Times. Friedman spent most of a November 2003

op-ed attacking and mocking the Left for opposing the illegal invasion of Iraq. He argued that "the liberal opposition to the Bush team should be from the right—to demand that we send more troops to Iraq, and more committed democracy builders, to do the job better and smarter than the Bush team has" [13]. Friedman’s editors at the Times essentially echoed this argument in January 2007 in a discussion of the leading presidential candidates:


From the start, if the United States was ever going to be successful in Iraq, it needed far more troops than Mr. Bush sent in 2003. We are encouraged that many of the candidates promise to avoid repeating such a huge mistake. [14]


Upon the January 2007 announcement that 20-30,000 more US soldiers would be sent to Iraq, Friedman

enthusiastically to Bush, saying that "the way you have fought this war—with our pinky—is contemptible. For three years you would not summon the military means to back your lofty ends" [15].

Perhaps if we had simply carpet-bombed the entire population of Iraq in March 2003 then everything would have been okay. Sun Tzu’s famous dictum of "one hundred battles, one hundred victories," quoted by Thomas Ricks on the dedication page of his book, is accepted by most critics of the war; only unsuccessful imperialism incurs their wrath. This framework of pragmatic or tactical criticism of the war is widespread among mainstream liberals. It has even manifested itself in the writing of liberals like Times columnist Paul Krugman, who is normally quite progressive on both domestic and foreign policy. Krugman has criticized "the people who lied us into an unnecessary war, then lost the war they started" [16]. He makes valid points—obviously the invasion was based on lies, and was unnecessary—but nonetheless clings to the same basic critical framework which stops short of moral and legal opposition to the war.

The basic lesson is that had the illegal, unprovoked invasion of Iraq been followed by a quick, low-cost victory for the US (as the first Gulf War was), it would have received almost universal praise among liberal intellectuals (as the first Gulf War did). If we had "won," things would be perfectly fine. The tendency to criticize tactical failures rather than moral ones has characterized most liberal commentary on the Vietnam War as well. Critics have usually described the slaughter of several million people in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia as a costly "failure of judgment" by US policymakers [17]. Marginal dissidents like Noam Chomsky, Norman Solomon, and John Pilger have frequently

called attention to this tendency within liberal criticism of US foreign policy [18]. They have also noted how commentators’ pragmatic criticisms lie far to the right of the US public, a strong majority of whom criticized Vietnam as "immoral" and 54 percent of whom have said the Iraq War is "not morally justified" [19]. Nonetheless, pragmatic or tactical criticism continues to prevail among liberal war critics, and the writings of people like Chomsky, Solomon, and Pilger is seldom accepted by major mainstream publications.

            If we are truly serious about preventing future violence and aggression, we must reject the elite mentality—common to most intellectuals in the mainstream—that excludes moral considerations from its evaluation of US foreign policy. Instead, we must insist on grounding that evaluation in the moral principles that form the basis of international and human rights law, and which most of the world has long agreed upon. 





[1] Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 80.


[2] A poignant October 2006 analysis noted that during the previous month "the USA’s sizeable newspapers and wire services ran articles referring to Iraq as a ‘quagmire’ several times a day, while "major U.S. media outlets ha[d] associated Iraq with the term ‘quagmire’ thousands of times in 2006." Norman Solomon, "Iraq Is Not a Quagmire," Media Beat (online), 2 Oct. 2006. Available from


[3] Howard Friel and Richard Falk, The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy (London/New York: Verso, 2004), chapters 1-4. The Times‘ occasional doubts about the invasion before March 2003, however weak and half-hearted, were based not on moral or legal premises but on pragmatic grounds like the fact that the invasion did not have "broad international support" (quoted on page 43).


[4] "The Road Home," NYT, 8 July 2007.


[5] "Congress’s Challenge on Iraq," NYT, 22 Mar. 2007; "Democrats Find Their Voice," NYT, 17 Nov. 2007.


[6] "Democrats Find Their Voice."


[7] Ibid.


[8] "Don’t Tie the Next President’s Hands," NYT, 17 Jan. 2008; "Congress’s Challenge on Iraq."


[9] Ricks, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), 3.


[10] Ibid., 4.


[11] Prestowitz, Rogue Nation: American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions (New York: Basic Books, 2003), 11, 15. Prestowitz notes that by titling his book "Rogue Nation" he does not disagree with the US’s systematic disregard for international law and morality; in fact, he says, "I don’t believe the United States is evil or a rogue as Saddam is" (6). The US is usually right, but it’s the way in which it flouts international norms that he says has angered foreigners.


[12] Fallows, Blind into Baghdad: America’s War in Iraq (New York: Vintage Books, 2006), 46. The chapter where this quote appears was originally published as an essay, "Blind into Baghdad," in the January/February 2004 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.


[13] Friedman, "The Chant Not Heard," NYT, 30 Nov. 2003. My emphasis.


[14] "Unfinished Debate on Iraq," NYT, 13 Jan. 2008.


[15] Friedman, "Make Them Fight All of Us," NYT, 12 Jan. 2007.


[16] Krugman, "A Surge, and Then a Stab," NYT, 14 Sept. 2007.

[17] Brian VanDeMark, Into the Quagmire: Lyndon Johnson and the Escalation of the Vietnam War (New York/Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991), 221.


[18] For example, see Noam Chomsky, "We Own the World" (June 2007 Z Media Institute speech), available in revised form at

http://www.zcomm.org/zmag/viewArticle/16101; Friel and Falk, The Record of the Paper, 7; Solomon, "Iraq Is Not a Quagmire."


[19] CNN Opinion Research Corporation, 26 June 2007. Available from http://i.a.cnn.net/cnn/2007/images/06/26/rel7c.pdf.   

Leave a comment