Twenty Years After Invading Iraq, American Liberalism Is Discredited Yet Still Dominant

US imperialists’ post–Cold War directionlessness was solved by 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq — only for Iraq and the entire “war on terror” to lead to disaster. The imperialist liberal vision has been thoroughly discredited. So how is it still staggering on?

US president George W. Bush gives an address aboard the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003. Behind him a banner reads “Mission Accomplished.” (Stephen Jaffe / AFP via Getty Images)

In 1989, Francis Fukuyama predicted that the human species had reached “the end of history.” Throughout the world, elites had recognized that liberalism, characterized by political democracy and free markets, was the only ideology capable of addressing humanity’s problems. To Fukuyama, this suggested that eventually, whether it took a year, a decade, or a century, at some point in the future, all of humankind would embrace technocratic liberalism.

It was unclear, though, what the end of history would mean for US foreign policy. Since liberalism’s advent in the era of the French Revolution, the ideology was connected with empire. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, liberalism served as a primary justification of empire, as states from the British to the French to the American insisted that it was right and good to “promote” liberal values at the barrel of a gun. The word “liberal” itself was spread across Europe by Ur-liberal imperialist Napoleon Bonaparte.

The modern American empire was part of this proud tradition. During the Cold War, the United States became the global hegemon, and like previous hegemons, it constantly undertook military interventions abroad. To justify their nation’s wars, US elites claimed that they were defending liberalism against communists who wanted to destroy it.

But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the imperialists faced a problem: as the Cold War wound down and the Soviets, per Fukuyama, began to accept liberal capitalist principles, the US empire started to lose its raison d’être. If the United States no longer faced an existential communist enemy, there was no justification for a globe-spanning empire. What were the imperialists who were still bent on maintaining that empire to do?

The answer: go on the offensive. Instead of waiting for history to end abroad, the United States would force its end — with missiles and troops, if necessary.

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was part of this post–Cold War liberal project. (While the term neoconservative has the word “conservative” in it, neocons are basically just Cold War liberals with a different name. Moreover, in a technical sense, both Democrats and Republicans embody different species of liberalism.) The military-industrial complex’s profit-seeking motives and the never-ending US thirst for oil were key causes of the invasion, but leftists should be careful not to downplay its ideological origins. Not every imperialist is as nakedly and unabashedly power-hungry as Dick Cheney; some need to imagine that they are good people carrying out a noble cause. They are able to do so by persuading themselves that their efforts are righteous and necessary for human progress.

The war and occupation that followed the March 2003 invasion, though, failed to realize imperialist dreams. It turned out that democracy could not be exported with weapons and that the promises of “liberal” imperialism were a fantasy. The Iraq War put the kibosh on the idea that “democracy promotion” was a viable political project. Today, one rarely hears it invoked by those trawling the corridors of power.

From the perspective of 2023, the Iraq War fiasco was the first of many events that suggested that “the end of history” might be less stable than Fukuyama imagined. Since Iraq, we’ve witnessed the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s inability to save a drowning New Orleans; experienced a Great Recession from which many in the United States never fully recovered; a “humanitarian” mission in Libya that wound up destroying the state and reviving that nation’s slave trade; and the repeated collapse of seemingly legitimate businesses, from Theranos to FTX to Silicon Valley Bank. End-of-history liberal hegemony, it seems, might not have been all it was cracked up to be.

But this leads to a question: Why haven’t these manifold disasters engendered a coherent and broad-based ideological response to such liberalism? Though we’ve seen the reemergence of reactionary populism on the Right and democratic socialism on the Left, neither has proven capable of seriously challenging Fukuyaman liberalism. For all his bluster, Donald Trump was a one-termer who basically governed like a typical Republican, while Bernie Sanders was unable to defeat Joe Biden. Tragically, liberalism’s continued dominance suggests we remain at history’s end.

This is the problem that socialists must confront on the twentieth anniversary of the Iraq War, a war that killed and deracinated millions of innocents. Why has this blundering and imperialist liberalism proved so resilient? And more importantly, what can we do about it?