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The 2003 Iraq War was one of the great disasters in the history of American
foreign policy. This conclusion is by now, and for good reason, very widely
accepted. In the years since the war, however, other, less useful conventional
wisdoms have formed. Among these, none is more salient – or more mis-
leading – than the notion that the war was a product of liberalism. This view
has been promoted and endlessly repeated by prominent academic realists
such as John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, Barry Posen, Christopher Layne
and Michael Desch. These academic realists were early and vocal critics of
the war, which they indict as the product of essentially liberal American
foreign-policy impulses, manifest in both liberal-internationalist and neo-
conservative circles.

In the realist critics’ telling, the Iraq War was part of a more general
post-Cold War liberal expansionism that led the United States to militar-
ily intervene in more places and advance increasingly ambitious goals of
democracy promotion and regime change. As they see it, American foreign
policy in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence
of unipolarity lacked external restraints, and thus attempted to realise
long-standing Wilsonian liberal agendas for the transformation both of
oppressive regimes and of the international system itself. For the academic
guardians of realist wisdom, the unipolar moment was a dangerous opening
for American liberal idealism to pursue a revisionist agenda sure to create

Realism, Liberalism and the Iraq
War

Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry

Daniel Deudney is Associate Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. G. John Ikenberry is
Albert G. Milbank Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University.

Survival | vol. 59 no. 4 | August–September 2017 | pp. 7–26 DOI 10.1080/00396338.2017.1349757

8 | Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry

disorder. What the world needed instead, in the words of Stephen Walt, was
the ‘taming of American power’.1

This picture of the ideological origins of the Iraq War, and its relationship
to realism and liberalism, is fundamentally flawed. As with any war, there
are many actors, threads of justification and debates about its causes that
confound any simple story.2 But the Iraq War, we argue, was straightfor-
wardly the result of the pursuit of American hegemonic primacy. Its origins
flowed readily from an ancient and prominent body of realist thought that
argues that international order comes from concentrations of power, rather
than from shifting balances of power. This primacist agenda was amplified
in its urgency and seriousness by an acute experience of vulnerability to
weapons of mass destruction, potentially unrestrained by deterrence, thus
harkening back to another body of earlier, but recently neglected, realist
thought about security and interdependence.

The principal architects of this ill-fated venture, all accounts agree, were
vice president Richard Cheney, secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld
and deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz. There are many ways
to describe the political ideologies of these three figures, but ‘liberal–
internationalist’ is not among them. For all three, the primary objective of
the war was the preservation and extension of American primacy in a region
with high importance to American national interests. They viewed Iraq as a
regional revisionist state with a demonstrated record of chemical-weapons
use and a long-standing ambition to acquire nuclear weapons, posing an
inevitable military threat to American forces and allies in the region. For
these hegemonic realists, the decisive defeat of Iraq also promised to provide
a worldwide demonstration of the capacities and willingness of the United
States to defend its global position against challengers such as North Korea
and Iran, and to dispel lingering doubts created during the Clinton years
about America’s willingness to use force.

The academic-realist account of the ideological origins of the Iraq War
emphasises the influence of neoconservatism. All accounts of neoconserva-
tism point to its hybrid character, partially liberal and partially primacist.3
To the extent that the academic realists indict neo-conservativism, they
are also implicitly indicting a strain of realism as well as a version of lib-

Realism, Liberalism and the Iraq War | 9

eralism. Thus the debate about the ideological origins of the Iraq War is
an intramural dispute among realists as much as a clash between realism
and liberalism. Furthermore, the academic realists blame the 2003 invasion
on the strain of liberal internationalism that emphasises the promotion and
spread of democracy and idealist humanitarianism. In reality, most liberal
internationalists opposed the war. What support they did offer was largely
based on an appreciation of the acute security threats posed by the diffu-
sion of weapons of mass destruction, and the violence interdependence they
produced, as well as the imperative to maintain and strengthen multilateral
arms-control regimes.

Varieties of realisms
Since the middle years of the twentieth century, the heights of American
academic international-relations theory have been commanded by a succes-
sion of influential theorists who call themselves realists. The first wave were
European émigrés, such as Hans Morgenthau, John Herz, Arnold Wolfers
and Henry Kissinger, as well as the native George Kennan and Robert W.
Tucker, who saw themselves as tutors to the unworldly Americans and dis-
pellers of national American idealism. These realists not only brought the
prestige of European intellectuals, but also placed themselves in a line of
thought traced back through an illustrious ancestry of historians and politi-
cal theorists – Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Ranke and E.H.
Carr.4 Continuing the realist lineage in the later decades of the twentieth
century, figures such as Kenneth Waltz, Robert Gilpin, Samuel Huntington
and Robert Jervis exercised great intellectual influence inside the academy,
as well as speaking insightfully to the contemporary puzzles of American
foreign policy. Over the last two decades, the mantle of leadership has fallen
to a new generation of academics, most notably John Mearsheimer, Stephen
Walt, William Wohlforth and Barry Posen. Academic realists have had
influence far beyond their numbers in part because they largely eschewed
successive waves of social-scientific methodological revolution, which gen-
erated often trivial and obscure findings. They were also influential because
their foreign-policy advice could support an extremely wide range of
policies. On the burning questions of the time – conducting the Cold War,

10 | Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry

nuclear strategy and the Vietnam War – prominent academic realists spoke
with great clarity on all sides of the debate.

The diversity of realist policy advice is rooted in the great variety of realist
theory. Realism is not a single theory but rather a cluster of related – and
often conflicting – schools of thought about the basic questions of political
order, both domestic and international. Realists clash in answering the fun-
damental question: where does order and security in international politics
come from? Three varieties are particularly important for understanding
the ideological origins of the Iraq War. One school, ‘equilibrium’ or ‘balance
of power’ realism, holds that order and security arise from a distributed or
balanced configuration of power, and posits that states should – and will –
resist efforts by any state to establish a dominant position. A second major
realist school, ‘hegemonic’ realism, holds that order requires concentra-
tions of power, and provides an agenda for how preponderant states can
provide order and sustain their position. Where balance-of-power realists
see an equilibrium of power as the source of international order and sta-
bility, hegemonic realists maintain that order derives from concentrations
of power. A third school, ‘interdependence’ realism, relatively neglected in
recent decades, advances the view that high levels of security interdepend-
ence (present when mutual vulnerability is very high) make international
anarchy unacceptably perilous, and it suggests that effective government
will and should consolidate at successively larger scales.

Each of these schools has an ancient lineage; their insights have been
handed down and repeatedly rediscovered. Sometimes the schools work
together, but often they are at sharp odds, making realism as a body of
theory and practice both extremely comprehensive and internally conflicted.
Furthermore, some of these realist theories have close affinities to various
liberal and other schools of international political thought, while others are
antithetical. The schools of realism have such an enduring presence not
simply because of the sophistication of their theories or the antiquity of their
lineages, but also because they address problems that recurrently confront
societies and leaders in political life.

In addition to this variety of substantive theories, realism is cleaved by
the division between the theoretical–academic and practical–operational.

Realism, Liberalism and the Iraq War | 11

Academic theorists develop and test general propositions, and seek to
speak truth to power, by offering policy advice from outside of govern-
ment. In contrast, what might be termed operational realists populate the
diplomatic and military decision-making positions in states, where they are
forced on a continuous basis to make time-urgent judgements with limited
information and often with far-reaching consequences. Classical theorists
of realism often held positions of political power, and wrote on the side or
in retirement. However, the second half of the twentieth century, particu-
larly in the United States, has been marked by a new stratum of full-time
university realist scholarship, which in its volume and sophistication is his-
torically unprecedented. In the American context, academic realists speak
from positions in universities and commonly attempt to derive their advice
from the larger theories of realism. Operational realists, by contrast, eschew
theory and are first and foremost concerned with guiding and conducting
American foreign and military policy. Despite these profound differences,
realists of all varieties and stations emphasise that successful statecraft –
and especially the execution of war – is as much an art as a science. For good
theory to produce good outcomes, it must be accompanied by practical pru-
dence, thick situational knowledge and organisational competence, as well
as the smile of Fortuna – simple good luck.

Balance-of-power realism and the Iraq War
Vocal realist critics of the Iraq War cast themselves as the embodiment of realist
insight generally, but in reality they mainly hail from the balance-of-power
school.5 This line of realist thought and practice emphasises that international
order is ultimately based upon a distribution of power among the leading
states that is roughly balanced. In this view, power checks power, and the ten-
dency of states to expand almost inevitably evokes balancing counter-actions
by other states. This brand of realism found its classic expression in the practice
of the European balance of power and the periodic struggles against hegem-
onic mastery by a succession of leading states from the Habsburgs to the Third
Reich.6 It was particularly relevant during the Cold War, and provided the
intellectual foundations for the doctrine of containment, the extended alliance
system along the rimlands of Eurasia, and strategies of nuclear deterrence.

12 | Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry

With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the bipolar system,
the sudden emergence of the United States as the unipolar power posed,
for balance-of-power realists, a signal set of dangers. Unchecked by a peer
rival, the United States was able to pursue expansive agendas for changing
the regimes of smaller states and the imposition of American preferences
everywhere. As the order stemming from the balance of power was under-
mined, America became a source of disorder. American foreign policy
became driven less by the exigencies of inter-state rivalry and more by
domestic ideological preferences and interest groups. Overwhelmingly,
these domestic impulses were liberal in character, manifest in an attempt to
remake the world in the image of American liberal democracy and capital-
ism. Thus in the 1990s, the United States pushed the expansion of NATO
across the Warsaw Pact states and into the periphery of the former Soviet
Union, riding roughshod over Russian objections.7 The United States began
to deploy military force for humanitarian assistance and to change the inter-
nal regimes of smaller states deemed illegitimate by American standards.
Somalia, Kosovo, Haiti – the United States intervened in the pursuit of its
expanded vision of a world order modelled on America itself and its prefer-
ences.8 In sum, without a threat, the United States became over-committed
in places that had little to do with fundamental national-security objectives,
and where the capacity of the United States to achieve favourable outcomes
was often limited. Believing it was no longer in a realist world, in this view,
America could pursue the universal realisation of a liberal world order with
all the means at its disposal.

Given this supposed trajectory, the Iraq War was a natural next step. The
move by the Bush administration in the wake of 9/11 to inflate the threat
of terrorism, and to postulate liberal-democratic regimes as the solution,
provided the writ for a war of democratic imperialism against Iraq. Repeated
proclamations by the Bush administration of the need to ‘rid the world
of evil-doers’ and to bring the ‘blessings of liberty’ to oppressed peoples
everywhere were, for the balancing realists, the smoking gun of liberal
culpability for the Iraq invasion.9 As much of the political establishment
and public opinion was rushing to endorse the Bush administration’s
call to arms, the restraint realists stood firm and vocally condemned the

Realism, Liberalism and the Iraq War | 13

war as an ill-conceived ‘war of choice’ based on inflated estimates of Iraqi
capabilities and motivations. They predicted that the forceful imposition of
democracy in the alien culture of Iraq was surely doomed to fail. In short,
the Bush administration’s justification for the invasion as a war for freedom
constituted a textbook case of American liberal-democratic imperialism,
overconfidence in military power and cultural ignorance.

There was no doubt in the realist critics’ minds that the ultimate culprit
for this imbroglio was American liberal-democratic ideology. These critics
pointed to a variety of arguments that rooted the Iraq invasion in the
American regime and its distinctive principles of legitimacy and order. For
liberals, no regime is ultimately legitimate unless it rests upon the consent
of the governed, and free peoples have both an interest and responsibility
to roll back the iron hand of oppression. In this view, America is first and
foremost an idea of freedom – and it is in the ultimate interest of the United
States to bring about a free world. A corollary liberal claim that also seemed
to lead to the Mesopotamian expedition was ‘democratic peace theory’,
according to which liberal democracies do not make war on one another.
Saddam Hussein had been a particularly murderous tyrant who had repeat-
edly sacrificed large numbers of his citizens to both his domestic dictatorial
ambitions and foreign aggressions. This made him the ideal poster child
for membership in an ‘Axis of Evil’ and a compelling target for the virtu-
ous wielding of American military might. Simplistic versions of these sorts
of arguments deployed by the Bush administration provided, according to
restraint realists, unmistakable evidence that the Iraq War was at its heart a
liberal war.

Hegemonic realism and its playbook
A fundamental fallacy afflicts the academic realist critics of the Iraq War –
they falsely identify their branch of realism with realism in general. In fact,
the crucial fact overlooked by such critics is that the venture makes perfect
sense in terms of the logic and policy prescriptions of the hegemonic school
of realism. While all versions of realism have distinguished pedigrees,
the hegemonic version of realism arguably appeared before the balance-
of-power version – making an appearance in Thucydides’s account of the

14 | Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry

Peloponnesian War. The view that order comes from an imbalance of power
– rather than a balance of power – is also central to the realist understanding
of the state, which is based, as Max Weber classically observed, on a monop-
oly of the legitimate use of violence. For this school of realism, order, inside
and out, comes from concentrations of power. Hegemonic realists view
international history as cyclical, with periods of order based on concentra-
tion, giving way to periods of disorder as power disperses to more actors.

Like their equilibrium rivals, hegemonic realists also look to modern
European history, with the example of Pax Britannica as a hegemonic order
based on British naval and mercantile dominance.10 In this account, this long

period of order and relative peace was followed by a hegem-
onic interregnum out of which emerged Pax Americana.
Among the leading theorists of this version of realism
are E.H. Carr, Robert Gilpin, Paul Kennedy and William
Wohlforth.11 An even stronger version of this line of think-
ing appears in the ‘offensive realism’ of Mearsheimer,
which holds that states seek security by sustaining regional
hegemony, a view that would seem to align with the poli-
cies of American primacists in the Middle East.12

Hegemonic realists argue that a leading power provides order to the
overall system by promulgating and underwriting a set of rules and institu-
tions that add regularity and predictability for actors large and small. The
leading state plays a distinct role unlike the roles of the smaller powers,
thus adding a degree of functional differentiation to international politics.
A hegemonic order is not based solely on the preponderant power of the
leading state but also on its capacities – and willingness – to solve common
problems that face all states in the system. The hegemonic order gains dura-
bility and legitimacy as the leading state embodies and promulgates a model
for organising societies with wide application and appeal. Although hegem-
onic orders are based on concentrations of power, they fall short of being
empires because the lesser powers retain their formal sovereignty as well as
considerable room for manoeuvre and even influence on the leading state.

Like its equilibrium-realist sibling, hegemonic realism provides a play-
book for policymakers on effective courses of action. Most importantly, a

Hegemonic
realists view
history as
cyclical

Realism, Liberalism and the Iraq War | 15

hegemonic state must take measures to prevent the emergence of potential
challengers while avoiding commitments that exceed available resources. In
assuming the role of hegemon, the leading state is required to use military
force more often than smaller states, but to do so in ways that do not under-
cut the legitimacy of its preponderance or excessively tax its capacities. The
ideal situation for a hegemonic state is when the secondary states share its
regime principles and ideologies, which gives its position legitimacy and
lowers the costs of policing and imposing order on recalcitrant outliers.

In playing the role of hegemon, the leading state must prioritise those
places within its sphere that have the greatest power potential. In addition,
the leading state must assume an enlarged and extended set of interests that
are not just its own, but encompass the important interests of its clients.
Furthermore, a hegemonic state must be conservative of scarce military
resources, and thus should be particularly attentive to making sure that its
military actions have a wide demonstration effect, unambiguously signalling
its superior capacities, credibility and resolve. Faced with rising rivals that
exceed its capacity to fully dominate, the hegemonic playbook recommends
selective retrenchment and appeasement, as well as domestic rejuvenation
of its power assets. In sum, hegemonic realism, a major variant of realist
theory, underpins a distinctive hegemonic statecraft that differs in impor-
tant ways from the practices recommended by balance-of-power realists.13

With the rise of the United States to global prominence, the hegem-
onic versions of realist thinking and policy have tended to flourish within
American foreign- and defence-policy circles. Unlike balance-of-power
realism, the policy audience for hegemonic realism is limited to leading
powers. As the United States has come to play the role of hegemon on succes-
sively larger scales, the operational-realist mindset has naturally gravitated
toward the practices of hegemonic realism, even in the absence of academic
support. And conversely, the balance realists speak and propose policy in
directions that are often at wide variance with the actual policy tendencies
of the American national-security state.

Despite these fundamental differences, all schools of realist theory share
in common a recognition that translation from general theory to specific
policy is more art than science. Stepping from abstractions derived from

16 | Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry

theories of history and political order to concrete decisions of foreign policy
is fraught with ambiguities, uncertainties, potential for misperception and
slippages of all kinds. Good theory can lead to disastrous policies, and good
policies do not always derive from general theories.

The Iraq War and hegemonic realism
The Iraq War, far from being contrary to realism and the embodiment of
liberal agendas, is straightforwardly intelligible as a hegemonic-realist war.
This is true despite the fact that it might have been a poor application of
hegemonic realism and was in many crucial ways bungled in its execution.
Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were all seasoned operatives with exten-
sive experience in defence and foreign policy. More importantly, all three
had been associated, in the decade before the war, with efforts to enunci-
ate a post-Cold War American grand strategy centred on the maintenance of
American primacy and preventing the emergence of a peer competitor.14 And
all three had viewed Saddam Hussein as a threat to American hegemony in
the pivotal region of the Middle East, and particularly the Persian Gulf.

Containing two-thirds of the world’s recoverable petroleum reserves,
the Gulf had been viewed by US policymakers as vital to the American
hegemonic system – and the United States had made major efforts to
forge alliances, recruit clients and subsidise friendly regimes in the region.
American hegemonic grand strategy in the Middle East never attached any
significance to political democratisation, and the United States had forged
close relations with a variety of autocratic and feudal monarchical regimes
who routinely violated Western and American norms of human rights and
political accountability. The oil resources of the Middle East were even more
important to pivotal American allies in Europe and East Asia than they were
to the United States itself.15 Furthermore, the long American involvement in
the region had been extremely beneficial to large and politically influential
American oil companies, banks and defence contractors. Given all of this,
American hegemonic security thinkers did not view the protection of this
regional order from challengers as at all problematic.

To American policymakers, there was no doubt that Saddam Hussein
posed a revisionist threat to the American order in the region. The Iraqi

Realism, Liberalism and the Iraq War | 17

government had invaded Kuwait, and it held a vision of pan-Arab national
consolidation that marked for elimination the ancien régimes in Saudi Arabia
and the Gulf emirates. Furthermore, the Persian Gulf War of 1991, in which
Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz had played prominent roles, was viewed
as a great political–military triumph, the only clear-cut American military
victory since the end of the Second World War. By the late 1990s, however,
this accomplishment was starting to unravel. Given Iraq’s oil resources, it
was just a matter of time until the regime would pose another significant
threat to regional order. If Iraq was in 2002 greatly weakened by sanctions,
American policymakers viewed this as an opportunity to eliminate a clear
rival before his power was rebuilt. Not surprisingly, Cheney, Rumsfeld and
Wolfowitz had all publicly urged the overthrow of the Hussein regime for
more than a decade before the actual 2003 invasion.

Furthermore, a decisive overthrow of the Iraq regime would serve another
goal of the primacists – the demonstration of American military–techno-
logical superiority. Of the three principal advocates of the war, Rumsfeld
was particularly interested in showing off the new potency of the advanced
conventional weapons that the United States had been acquiring, at great
expense, since the end of the Cold War. The expectation was that a quick
and decisive American dispatch of the Iraqi regime with high technology
and low American casualties would send a general message of ‘shock and
awe’ to other potential revisionist states that might encroach on America’s
extended interests. The primacists thought that the hesitancy of the Clinton
administration in using the full weight of America’s military advantages
had undermined the credibility of American commitments and sown doubts
about American resolve. A quickly victorious war against Iraq would not
only remove a chronic threat in the vital Persian Gulf region, but also shore
up the hegemonic reputation of the United States across the board.

Democracy promotion was among the many rolling rationales for the
war offered by the Bush administration. As the post-invasion situation in
Iraq deteriorated, the administration increasingly stressed the objective of
turning Iraq into a liberal democracy. The academic-realist critics of the war
point to this coercive democratisation agenda as evidence for the essentially
liberal wellsprings of the invasion. It is more plausible that the promo-

18 | Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry

tion of democracy was a solution proffered by the Bush administration to
simultaneously sustain public support for the war and provide a template
for post-war Iraqi reconstruction. Democracy was not the core objective: it
emerged both as a means to legitimate the war and as a programme for
making Iraq into a new pillar of the hegemonic American order in the region.

Interdependence realism and the Iraq War
Despite the compelling logic of invading Iraq for the primacists in
Washington, it is hard to imagine the war occurring without the terrorist
attacks of 9/11 and the spectre of terrorism with weapons of mass destruc-
tion. Although this new threat loomed large in the decision-making calculus
of the Bush administration, the school of realist thought that offers insight
into this type of security problem – interdependence realism – has had little
recent salience among academic realists. While equilibrium and hegemonic
realisms have a vibrant presence in the realist academy, the arguments of the
interdependence school have been largely shunted aside by academic real-
ists at the same time that they have become important for the liberal school
wrestling with the multi-sided patterns of rising global interdependence.

The core insight of the interdependence school of realism is argu-
ably the most basic and the earliest of realist ideas. Its core idea is that
anarchy, understood as the absence of government, is incompatible with
the minimum level of security necessary for human survival in a situation
where political actors are readily capable of inflicting lethal violence on one
another.16 Claims about the perils of high levels of violence interdependence …

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