Michael J. Mazarr. Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence, and America's Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy. New York: PublicAffairs, 2019. xiv + 512 pp. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5417-6836-9.
Reviewed by John P. Cappella Zielinski (Air University, Air War College)
Published on H-War (June, 2020)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
When Messianic Sensibility Meets Moral Imperative
In Leap of Faith, Michael J. Mazarr adds to the vast wealth of published literature, information, and opinion about the Iraq War by exploring the character of decision-making on complex issues and asking profound questions about the limits of US power and the accountability of its use. He attempts to answer how the George W. Bush administration managed to stumble into war with so little regard for what would happen afterward. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was a mistake and tragedy, rather than an intentionally cruel act or mendacious conspiracy. It was a mistake representing arguably the single most deeply flawed judgment in modern US foreign policy.
Mazarr explores the decision to invade Iraq chronologically, beginning with the first Gulf War. Each chapter recounts a key phase of the process: origins of convictions, key players, role of 9/11, justifications for invasion, and deliberations leading to the final decision. He provides an account drawn from open sources and over one hundred interviews and informal conversations with participants at various levels in the decision-making process. He consulted memoirs of officials with access to detailed government records and also reviewed all declassified documents available from the US and British governments. His organization and presentation of material is strong and his arguments are logical and convincing. Mazarr’s account is important because no single volume previously assembled the breadth of known evidence to date in one place, he demonstrates what many people think they know about the origins of the war is wrong, and a deeper understanding of the pattern bringing the decision to life will help recognize the next tragedy before it occurs.
The decision to invade Iraq is a tragically typical example of how America’s worthy global ambitions can go terribly wrong and how senior leaders come to intuitive, moralistic judgments as one antidote to the profound uncertainty of national strategy. Mazarr argues that there was willful negligence of historic proportions, but two factors best explain this tragedy: the fuel of American missionary ambitions and the spark of an intuitive, values-driven judgment. These factors provide context for understanding the decision to invade Iraq. Not unique to the Iraq War, these twin flaws affect the thinking of US senior officials across eras and lie in wait, ready to reemerge in future national security decisions. Negligence and culpability abound, but more important than blame is understanding patterns in US foreign policy consistently preceding tragedies.
Mazarr provides explanations within both individual and domestic political levels of analysis. He postulates an argument within the individual psychological approach to national security decision-making in political science theory, a case study supporting agency arguments as a key explanatory variable. Mazarr argues that the role of individual personalities and perspectives in the Bush administration, leaders who came to their judgments in highly personal, idiosyncratic ways, is central because of the potential for biases like wishful thinking and motivated reasoning, both on full display in the decision to invade Iraq. Similarly, domestic sources of US foreign policy include political culture and foreign policy attitudes of its leaders, shaping political preferences. The dominant national belief system, the vigorous missionary impulse characterizing America’s approach to international affairs, contends security is not achievable through isolation. The Iraq case highlights these two general tendencies conspiring to bring about this disaster: the dangerous marriage of deeply embedded national beliefs about the US role in the world, with a passionate, urgent, even desperate imperative to act.
The pattern of misjudgment behind the war stems from the essential character of national security decisions regarding highly complex problems clouded with vast amounts of uncertainty. Rather than focusing on consequences and careful cost-benefit analyses, major national security judgments are often unconscious, instinctive, and emergent, reflecting moral imperatives rather than reasoned analysis. In addition, senior officials exhibited moralistic and values-based, rather than instrumental or outcome-oriented, decision-making. Leaders advocating for and ultimately deciding to invade Iraq did so out of an emergent sense it was the right and necessary thing to do, with a degree of conviction, a belief bordering on faith, a feeling of obligation so strong it bulldozed through any objections or warnings. Ultimately, the United States would not make anything approaching a considered judgment to invade Iraq. Instead, it tumbled into war, reacting to events, driven by half-considered assumptions and powerfully held worldviews. The decision was not a calculation of benefits, costs, and risks, but rather, it simply felt right.
Collective beliefs about America’s role in the world offer an explanation for why the United States leaned the way it did. The proximate cause, however, was an intuitive, emergent mechanism of judgment driven primarily by imperatives about the right thing to do, more moralistic than rational. Values, rather than consequences, drove judgments of decision makers serving an imperative. This explanation fits within Max Weber’s concept of value rationality—people making decisions not on what they think will most benefit them but to fulfill the right thing to do, something right for its own sake. Mazarr argues that values-based thinking often guides foreign policymakers, leading them to choose between policies based not on facts but on their interpretation.
The key influence on President Bush’s choices after 9/11 was not neoconservative ideology, but the reigning missionary sensibility, blended with Bush’s own sense of God-given purpose to keep Americans safe after 9/11 which changed the risk calculus. This helps explain the dangerous way the decision was made, emerging gradually, with arguments, memos, and events building toward a final judgment, an emergent, indirect, and intuitive, rather than deliberative, decision process.
If there is weakness in Mazarr’s argument, it is his quick dismissal of alternative explanations as conspiracy theories. By dismissing alternative explanations, rather than debunking each in turn, he misses an opportunity to explore structural explanations or provide elucidation of a richer tapestry of contextual factors at play. For instance, F. Gregory Gause argues that the commitment to democracy in Iraq was an important ancillary justification. As the buildup to war progressed, the Bush administration adopted a more expansive view. Defeating Iraq would change the strategic picture and political balance of the Middle East, opponents would think twice about challenging the United States, and a democratic Iraq would be a positive force for regional change.
Perhaps Mazarr’s greatest contribution is a cautionary tale for US foreign policymakers. The marriage of the driving engine of messianic sensibility in US foreign policy and a moralistic urge to act in service to sacred values often produces disasters. This pattern is reemerging on major national security challenges: China, Russia, and Iran. Awareness by all is the best risk mitigation strategy, and for leaders to think before acting ... before the United States does it again.
. F. Gregory Gause, The International Relations of the Persian Gulf (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 184-240.
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John P. Cappella Zielinski. Review of Mazarr, Michael J., Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence, and America's Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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