Iraq and the Virtue of Selfishness

What better journalistic symbol of the Beltway know-it-alls than the Washington Post? Their coverage of the Iraq debate in the run-up to invasion mirrored the uncritical assumptions and stereotyped thinking that led to our quest for “weapons of mass destruction” that didn’t exist – and their commentary in many instances epitomized the hubris that led to what General William E. Odom rightly describes as the biggest military blunder in our history. Post editorialists contributed mightily to the misinformation that was deliberately spread by the administration, and their columnists were first to jump on the pro-war bandwagon, with Charles Krauthammer and the neocon brigade leading the charge. Now, as the nation observes the fifth anniversary of this avoidable catastrophe, we are subjected to yet more editorials taking opponents of this war to task: those who call for withdrawal of US forces, the editors of the Post aver, are being “unrealistic.”

It isn’t enough that half a million or more Iraqis, and 4,000 Americans (plus 50,000 wounded) have paid a horrific price for the Post‘s abdication of its journalistic responsibility – they want more victims.


The Post‘s latest peroration takes the familiar form of the “hard realities” trope: only they, being responsible and sober sorts, have the verve to take on the Hard Realities – first and foremost of which is the utter impossibility of leaving Iraq in the foreseeable future. This is the conventional wisdom in the Washington Beltway, as pervasive as antiwar feeling is beyond the boundaries of that narrow province.

The editors take a perfunctory jab at the President, who “rightly” claims “credit” for the escalation of the war: their only quarrel with Bush is that his trumpeting of a coming “victory” seems, to them, “premature.” Then they go after their real targets: the Democratic presidential candidates, who have pledged to withdraw our troops from Iraq – albeit, in one case, a bit disingenuously, as far as her own responsibility for our present predicament is concerned.

Be that as it may, the hubris that infects all of official Washington – regularly given voice on the Post‘s op ed page – has reached fever pitch, to wit:

“The president at least recognizes, from ‘hard experience,’ how quickly progress in Iraq can unravel. Yesterday he pledged not to order troop withdrawals beyond the five brigades due to return home by this summer unless ‘conditions on the ground and the recommendations of our commanders’ warrant it. That means that if Mr. Obama or Ms. Clinton become president, he or she will be the commander in chief of at least 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Yet their speeches suggest an understanding of the conflict and the stakes for the United States that is as detached from reality as they accuse Mr. Bush of being when he decided on the invasion.

“Barely acknowledging the reduction in violence, the Democratic candidates insist that U.S. troops are, as Ms. Clinton put it, ‘babysitting a civil war.’ In fact, the surge forestalled an incipient civil war, and U.S. commanders and diplomats in Iraq don’t hesitate to say that if American forces withdrew now, sectarian conflict would probably explode in its full fury, causing bloodshed on a far greater scale than ever before and posing grave threats to U.S. security.”

“Reality,” for the Post editorial board, doesn’t mean recognizing that, after five years, we have nothing to show for our efforts but thousands of dead, tens of thousands wounded, and a mountain of debt. Nor does it mean recognizing the failure of the “democracy”-implantation experiment, an error for which many thousands – Iraqis and Americans – paid with their lives. For the editors of the Post, it means the recognition that American power, once established, can never be abandoned: no matter how far-flung the outpost, no matter how peripheral – or diametrically opposed – to our real interests, and regardless of cost. We must “pay any price,” as our most overrated President put it, and “bear any burden.” But must we?

The assumptions behind the Post‘s magisterial dismissal of calls for withdrawal are never challenged in Washington, where the conceit and power-intoxication of the elites is most concentrated. Assumption number one is that our actions in Iraq must be predicated on what is good for the Iraqis – and the equation of our national self-interest with this inclination. To the Post, the re-introduction of “sectarian violence” would be the worst possible outcome, and all hail to Bush for surging ahead with the Surge. Yet it is necessary, here, to separate out what is good for the Iraqis – or, at least, some individual Iraqis – and what is good for us.

Now, stifle those squeals of outrage, for a moment, and consider the virtue of selfishness in foreign policy, especially in this instance.

Given that the invasion and conquest of Iraq was a mistake, and remains so, let us look at what the American occupation has averted: an all-out civil war, the vaunted and feared “sectarian violence” that the Post and other stay-the-coursers invoke as the reason we can’t leave. This was partially aborted on account of our massive military presence, but what’s important to understand is that it was the inevitable result of the invasion. We smashed the Iraqi state, and shocked and awed the Ba’athist party apparatus out of existence, paving the way for a bid by the Shi’ite majority to fill the void.

This was bound to be resisted by the Sunni elites, who had dominated the Ba’athist regime: if we had simply gone in, crushed Saddam, and marched out in the wake of the President’s “mission accomplished” proclamation, the dreaded civil war would have been bloody but brief. The large, well-organized, and well-armed Shi’ite party militias, backed by Iran, would have made short work of the Ba’athist remnants, and that would have been the end of that. A Shi’ite strongman would have taken Saddam’s place soon enough, and the sectarian battle would have died down: surely it would not have persisted five years after the break-up of Saddam’s hated regime.

A natural process was aborted, the struggle for power was not allowed to be played out, but Washington has merely succeeded in delaying the inevitable. Powerful indigenous religious and social forces have been held in uneasy abeyance by US troops, who are, today, sitting atop a pressure-cooker constantly in danger of exploding.

Like the Federal Reserve‘s pumping cash into a system bankrupted by government and private debt, which can only delay the day of reckoning, the efforts of the American colonial administration and its occupying army to keep “order” merely prolongs the consolidation process of the emerging Iraqi state.

John McCain wants a century of this. If we continue on our present course, urged on us by the editors of the Post, he’ll get his hundred years – or, at least, until the Treasury is emptied.

The great enemy of both the Fed governors and their foreign policy equivalent is deflation. In the case of the former, the deflation of overvalued assets, including the value of the almighty American dollar: in the case of the latter, the deflation of the hubris that animates our elites, who imagine themselves lawgivers to the world.

If we withdraw from Iraq, the sectarian violence delayed for so long will no doubt be terrible, exacerbated by the recent turn in US policy of encouraging the Sunnis and even arming them – supposedly against al Qaeda – which further postpones and complicates the resolution of Iraq’s internal crisis. Yet the blame for this rests squarely on the shoulders of the War Party. It is just like the neocons to blame others for the consequences of their own policies, and that’s just what they’re doing – even as they call for the acceleration of the very policies that led us to the present disastrous moment.

The virtue of selfishness in foreign policy is that it allows us to see clearly what this policy realm is really all about, and that is the pursuit of narrowly and specifically American interests. It isn’t about spreading “democracy,” or uplifting the global masses into modernity: billions in US taxpayer dollars are supposed to be going to the defense of our shores, and the legitimate interests of American citizens overseas. It may be that the stationing of American troops in, say, Darfur, or Iraq, will prevent some people from being massacred, or allow some degree of freedom, however, conditional and ephemeral, and yet it has to be asked: at what cost? And I am speaking, here, of moral costs, as well as the economic consequences of our present foreign policy.

Asked if fighting the Iraq war was worth it, Americans overwhelmingly answer no, but the elites – speaking through the Washington Post – think the question is itself impertinent, and, in any case, impermissible. We, the peons, must be made to pay any price, bear any burden in the endless task of funding – and dying for – the Beltway’s delusions of imperial grandeur.


This interview with Scott Horton of Antiwar Radio turned out a lot better than I remembered. I’m not always at my best in the morning, and that morning in particular was, as I recall, rather rocky – yet I almost sound thoughtful, although maybe I was just tired.

The official publication date of my book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, is May 30. You can pre-order, though, through Amazon. It is published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

I wrote Reclaiming in 1992. It was published the next year by the Center for Libertarian Studies, went through two editions, and then went out of print. It is an alternative, and admittedly polemical, history of conservatism in America, seen through the prism of changing foreign policy perspectives, from the “isolationism” of the Old Right to the openly imperialistic doctrines of neoconservatism.

ISI is bringing it back, with a new introduction by George W. Carey and commentaries by Scott Richert and David Gordon, as well as the original introduction by Pat Buchanan.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].