Our Good Intentions in Iraq: More Imperialist Assumptions in Liberal Criticism of the Invasion/Occupation

One underlying assumption of those who characterize the US occupation of Iraq as a "mistake" is that US leaders have noble intentions. Foremost among these noble intentions is their honest yearning for a peaceful and democratic world in which ordinary citizens can exert meaningful influence over their governments.  


Many liberal commentators are very explicit about the good intentions of US policymakers. In June 2005, Newsweek‘s Baghdad Bureau chief Rod Nordland wrote an article entitled "Good Intentions Gone Bad in Iraq," which subsequently appeared on Michael Moore’s website. Nordland wonders if perhaps the US invasion and occupation of Iraq would have been successful had the Abu Ghraib scandal not come to light. He explains the torture and other abuses committed at the prison by saying that "[a] few soldiers will always do bad things," and that "the incompetence of their leaders" was partially responsible for the recurrence of the abuses [1]. Rather than drawing attention to the military culture that dehumanizes all enemies and seeks to mold young people into drone-like killing machines, Nordland blames the problem on a few bad apples. As for those at the top, it’s a shame that their "incompetence" prevented them from implementing their magnanimous, selfless plans for bringing democracy to Iraq.  


Newsweek‘s Senior Editor Michael Hirsh shares these feelings. In a May 2007 article on Paul Wolfowitz, former Deputy Secretary of Defense under Bush and then-President of the World Bank, Hirsh describes his subject as "a genteel, brilliant figure" who humbly serves the public good "with the best of intentions" (the article’s title). He quotes a former assistant to Wolfowitz who says that his ex-boss "‘deeply, deeply cared’ about making the world a better place." Regrettably, though, Wolfowitz’s heart was just too big, leading him to pursue over-ambitious goals: "If Wolfowitz has a fatal flaw, it’s an obsession with One Big Idea that would set the world right" [2]. Sympathetic ruminations about the "agony" of well-intentioned policymakers who have made mistakes are extremely common in mainstream criticism of the Vietnam and Iraq Wars [3].


Clyde Prestowitz even makes the good intentions of US policymakers the central focus of his book, subtitled The Failure of Good Intentions. Throughout the book a recurrent metaphor for the US is the Puritan notion of a "city upon a hill":


My purpose in this book is to try to explain to baffled and hurt Americans why the world seems to be turning against them, and also to show foreigners how they frequently misinterpret America’s good intentions. [4]


Prejudiced or naive foreigners just aren’t capable of seeing that US leaders are really good, honest people who act with the interests of the world’s poor and marginalized at heart. US policies like support for Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians, massive military aid to top human rights violators like Egypt and Colombia, and toppling of democratic governments in Iran, Guatemala, Chile, and elsewhere have blinded the world’s people to the good intentions of the US government. If they could just be taught to look past the United States’ "mistakes" they would realize that "our intentions are usually honorable" [5]. The US isn’t wrong or malicious, just misunderstood.


Some liberal critics of the Bush administration seem even more convinced of the US government’s noble goals in Iraq than Bush himself is. Almost anything Thomas Friedman has written in the last six years could illustrate this point. In November 2003 he called the invasion/occupation of Iraq "one of the noblest things this country has ever attempted abroad" [6]. Four years later he reiterated the same "moral logic":

After 9/11, we tried to effect change in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world by trying to build a progressive government in Baghdad. There was, I believed, a strategic and moral logic for that. But the strategy failed, for a million different reasons, and now it is time to recognize that. [7]

Friedman, we must remember, is enormously popular and enjoys extraordinary access to venues where he can expound on the noble intentions of US militarism. The mainstream acceptance of the notion that US leaders have good intentions for Iraq is reflected in the professional success of people like Friedman and Prestowitz.


US policymakers also share a deep commitment to the well-being of US soldiers in Iraq. As the Times editors tell us, "Lawmakers, regardless of party…will always stand behind the brave men and women in the armed forces" [8]. But they do not reconcile this argument with the lack of body armor and safety equipment given to US troops, the US government’s cutbacks in veterans’ benefits, or, of course, the fact that US policymakers have held US forces hostage in Iraq for the last five years [9]. It does not require elaborate or sophisticated reasoning to recognize that being forced to remain in a situation of incredible violence, stress, and discomfort for no good reason is contrary to an individual’s best interests. Not surprisingly, US soldiers in Iraq have expressed a strong desire to come home: in February 2006, 72 percent said the US should withdraw completely within one year [10]. But according to commentators like the Times editors, the bipartisan Congressional bodies that continue to fund the war nonetheless share a deep commitment to our soldiers in Iraq.


Commentators and media publications that applaud the honest intentions of the US government naturally ignore or downplay the economic and geopolitical interests driving US foreign policy. This point is apparent upon examination of media coverage of one of the clearest examples of the US economic interest in Iraq: the US-backed oil bill that has been before the Iraqi Parliament for over a year. If passed into law, the bill would guarantee foreign corporations control of between 64 and 87 percent of Iraq‘s oil—including access to all as-yet-undiscovered oil. Those corporations’ share of initial oil profits would be around 75 percent, declining over several decades to 20 percent, a share "that is twice the industry average for such deals" [11]. The bill is strongly supported by major oil companies and has solid bipartisan support in the House and Senate; its passage constitutes one of the key "benchmarks of progress" agreed upon by the Democrat-led US Congress in 2007. Two-thirds of Iraqis oppose it [12].


Nearly all major media and war critics have parroted the official government line, presenting the bill as a necessary measure for "equitably distributing oil revenues" among Iraqis [13]. Most have expressed frustration at the Bush administration’s inability to push the proposal through the Iraqi Parliament and/or the latter’s incompetence for not passing it into law. The Times editors have told us that the law would ensure "an equitable division of oil wealth," but they angrily complain that such "goals have not been met, and the administration has virtually abandoned them" [14]. Only on very few occasions have those who rely on the Times, Post, and similar newspapers for information been given any concrete information about the actual stipulations of the proposal [15]. Even some critics on the Left who see through most official mantras about US intentions in Iraq assume that the law’s passage would be an important step toward "sharing oil revenues" among  Iraq’s Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish populations, and complain that this "oil-sharing statute is stalled in the Iraqi parliament" [16].


In sum, mainstream liberal commentators almost universally imply that the US government has good intentions in Iraq. No one dares to mention one of the most fundamental truisms of modern capitalist societies: that the interests of economic and political elites tend to run counter to the interests of ordinary people. In fact, accepting the notion that US leaders strongly desire a genuine, participatory democracy for Iraqis—a notion that is demonstrably false on many counts—seems to be a prerequisite for writers who wish to gain access to national media in this country. In a more democratic scenario, the mass media would represent a far broader spectrum of opinions, many of which would question this and other common assumptions. But the powerful no more desire a functioning participatory democracy for their own society than they do for Iraq. As the common liberal refrain of "good intentions" suggests, they have been remarkably successful in limiting the scope of critical debate.





[1] Nordland, "Good Intentions Gone Bad in Iraq," Newsweek, 13 June 2005.


[2] Hirsh, "With the Best of Intentions," Newsweek, 21 May 2007.


[3] On the "agony" of LBJ, see Brian VanDeMark, Into the Quagmire: Lyndon Johnson and the Escalation of the Vietnam War (New York/Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991), 216. See also Thomas Ricks’s section on "Colin Powell’s regrets," including the author’s own regrets that "sadly" Powell will not be remembered for his "decades of public service" but for his February 2003 presentation to the UN on the need for invading Iraq. Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), 406-07.


[4] Prestowitz, Rogue Nation: American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions (New York: Basic Books, 2003), 5.


[5] Ibid., 15.


[6] Friedman, "The Chant Not Heard," NYT, 30 Nov. 2003.


[7] Friedman, "Iraq Through China’s Lens," NYT, 12 Sept. 2007.


[8] "Democrats Find Their Voice," NYT, 17 Nov. 2007.


[9] Incidentally, one vote to cut veterans’ funding occurred in the very same week that the US invasion of Iraq was launched, a day after Congress had passed a resolution to "Support Our Troops." Ashley L. Decker, "Support the Warrior Not the War: Give Them Their Benefits!" CommonDreams.org, 28 Mar. 2003. Available from http://www.commondreams.org/views03/0328-11.htm.


[10] Zogby International and LeMoyne College, "U.S. Troops in Iraq: 72% Say End War in 2006," 28 Feb. 2006. Available from http://www.zogby.com/search/ReadNews.dbm?ID=1075.


[11] Quote from Danny Fortson, Andrew Murray-Watson, and Tim Webb, "Future of Iraq: The Spoils of War," Independent, 7 Jan. 2007. http://www.agrnews.org/?section=archives&cat_id=63&article_id=1677&rowx=0. Other figures from Antonia Juhasz, "Spoils of War: Oil, the US-Middle East Free Trade Area and the Bush Agenda," In These Times, 15 Jan. 2007.


[12] For info on oil companies, see See Consumers for Peace, Consumer’s Guide to Gasoline (updated Dec. 2007), 2-3. Available from http://www.consumersforpeace.org/pdf/consumers_guide_update12_18_07.pdf; For Iraqi poll, see Oil Change International, "Iraqi Oil Law Poll: June-July 2007." Results and relevant links available at http://priceofoil.org/iraqi-oil-law-poll-june-july-2007/.


[13] "Congress’s Challenge on Iraq," NYT, 22 Mar. 2007.


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


[15] For rare exceptions, see the op-ed by Antonia Juhasz, "Whose Oil Is It, Anyway?" NYT, 13 Mar. 2007; and the above-cited article by Paul Krugman, "A Surge, and Then a Stab" (though it’s worth noting again that Krugman in the same piece employs the language of "failure" criticized above).


[16] Joe Conason, "What They Call ‘Progress’ in Iraq," Truthdig (online), 16 Jan. 2008. Available from http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/20080116_what_they_call_progress_in_iraq/.


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