The Road to Iraq: Unipolarity and Partisan Ideological Polarization

Via Henry Farrell over at Crooked Timber, a paper by some of my old teachers Jack Snyder, Robert Shapiro and Yaeli Bloch-Elkon on the Iraq war:

Why did America invade Iraq? The glib answer is “because it could.” In the unipolar moment, the immediate costs and risks of using military force against Saddam Hussein’s hollow, troublesome regime seemed low to U.S. leaders.

But this explanation begs the important questions. Disproportionate power allows greater freedom of action, but it is consistent with a broad spectrum of policies, ranging from messianic attempts to impose a new world order to smug insulation from the world’s quagmires. How this freedom is used depends on how threats and opportunities are interpreted through the prism of ideology and domestic politics. In this sense, unipolarity was a permissive cause of the Bush Administration’s preventive war doctrine and its application in Iraq. America’s unprecedented power combined with the motivation and opportunity presented by the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack to permit the President to reframe the assumptions behind American global strategy.

The free hand in strategy is an enduring feature of American foreign policy. Unipolarity simply gave it unprecedented latitude…

What changed in 2001 was not just the terrorist attack, but also the ideological and political environment that made the most of it. Three decades of increasing partisan ideological polarization on domestic issues culminated in the Bush Administration’s extending it into the realm of foreign policy. Even before September 11, the Bush Administration was well stocked with Republican hawks and neo-conservative ideologues who already had in their briefcases the blueprints to reframe American strategy. These ideological revolutionaries in foreign policy emerged as a result of the same underlying partisan incentives that had earlier polarized partisan stances on domestic policy. While the American public has remained centrist, less moderate activists in both parties have been able to exploit the primary system, money politics, and media message control to succeed by appealing mainly to their partisan bases.