In a 1971 essay written for The New York Review of Books, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt placed responsibility for the then-still-ongoing Vietnam War at the feet of “self-deceived deceivers.” These were the senior US officials who in selling the American people on war in Southeast Asia came to believe the untruths, half-truths, and evasions they themselves had contrived to justify a grotesquely needless conflict.
The deceivers thereby fell prey to their own duplicities, with the nation as a whole left to pay an exceedingly heavy price. Yet Vietnam is hardly unique as an example of self-deceived deceivers leading the nation on a march to folly. The Iraq War, its 20th anniversary now at hand, offers another example.
Why did the United States in 2003 embark upon this disastrous war of choice? The simple answer — “Bush lied, people died” — is misleading and unhelpful, the equivalent of holding Lyndon Johnson uniquely responsible for Vietnam.
While critics may find it gratifying to fix personal responsibility for the Iraq War on President George W. Bush, doing so is itself an evasion. Bush was himself an instrument of others and a prisoner of circumstance, as much as he was an instigator.
The United States invaded Iraq in a desperate attempt to evade the implications of 9/11. The end of the Cold War, slightly more than a decade before, had ostensibly rendered a decisive verdict on the course of history. Freedom as embodied by the American way of life had triumphed. The way ahead now appeared clear. The future was ours to define.
The events of Sept. 11, 2001, suggested otherwise.
A new generation of self-deceived deceivers wasted no time in formulating a rebuttal. This was the global war on terrorism, which turned out to be as ill-conceived as the domino theory devised to justify Vietnam. Compounding their error, they also persuaded themselves that “liberating” Iraq — a country of modest importance possessing an inept army and ruled by an inconsequential if brutal dictator — held the key to reaffirming the inevitable triumph of American-style freedom and democracy.
As in Vietnam, however, the self-deceived deceivers advising Bush — Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz, along with their media enablers — confronted a stubborn adversary unimpressed by American ideological pretensions and unintimidated by US military might. Instead of a quick victory, the result was an agonizingly protracted war that evoked innumerable comparisons with Vietnam itself.
To this day, American culture and politics bear the scars of Vietnam. Based on preliminary results, the legacy of the Iraq War will be similarly unfortunate. In no small measure, the horrors falling under the heading of Trumpism and culminating in the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021, can be traced directly back to Bush’s cadre of self-deceived deceivers. Put simply, were it not for the Iraq War, Donald Trump probably would never have become president.
The irony of our present moment is that President Vladimir Putin of Russia has prompted the emergence in Washington of a new cohort of self-deceived deceivers. When President Biden depicts the Ukraine War as “a battle between democracy and autocracy [and] between liberty and repression,” he revives the simplistic ideological justifications for war that Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush had employed in their own day.
Yet ideology provides a poor lens through which to interpret reality with its complexities and contradictions. In 1971, Arendt warned against the inclination of those who exercise power to “fit their reality … into their theory.” Using theory as the basis for policy paves the way for self-deceiving deception.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a criminal act of great recklessness. So too was the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Biden appears to believe that the Ukraine war provides a venue whereby the United States can overcome the legacy of Iraq, enabling him to make good on his repeated assertion that “America is back.” Underneath this expectation is an insistence that war can serve as a means of redemption, healing the wounds that afflict our nation.
The experience of Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush in the wars over which they presided cautions against indulging in such a delusion.
Andrew Bacevich is chairman and cofounder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.