Israelpolitik, the Neocons and the Long Shadow of the Iraq War—A Review of Muhammad Idrees Ahmad’s book ‘The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War’

This essay first appeared in The Drouth (‘The Thirst’), a quarterly magazine published in Glasgow (Issue 50, Winter 2014/2015). I wrote it in December 2014.

The Road to Iraq book coverThe Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War
By Muhammad Idrees Ahmad
Edinburgh University Press
£19.99

Reviewed by Danny Postel

I was reluctant to review this book. With all the dramatic developments in the Middle East today—the ISIS crisis, the siege of Kobanê, the deepening nightmare in Syria, the escalating repression in Egypt, the fate of Tunisia’s democratic transition, the sectarianization of regional conflicts driven by the Saudi-Iranian rivalry—delving back into the 2003 invasion of Iraq seemed rather less than urgent. It’s hard enough just to keep up with the events unfolding day-to-day in the region. Reading—let alone reviewing—a detailed study of the internal processes that led to the United States toppling Saddam Hussein over a decade ago seemed remote, if not indeed a distraction.

But I’m glad I set these reservations aside and took the assignment. This forcefully argued and meticulously researched (with no fewer than 1,152 footnotes, many of which are full-blown paragraphs) book turns out to be enormously relevant to the present moment, on at least three fronts:

  • ISIS emerged from the ashes of al Qaeda in Iraq, which formed in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq. Without the 2003 invasion, there would be no ISIS as we know it—and the region’s political landscape would look very different.
  • The US Senate report on CIA torture has brought back into focus the rogues gallery of the Bush-Cheney administration—the same cast of characters who engineered the 2003 Iraq invasion. This book shines a heat lamp on that dark chapter and many of its protagonists.
  • There is talk of a neoconservative comeback in Washington. This thoroughly discredited but zombie-like group are now angling for the ear of Hillary Clinton, who might be the next US president. Ahmad’s book provides a marvelously illuminating anatomy of the neocons, which has lessons that apply directly to this movement’s potentially ominous next chapter.

The central question Ahmad attempts to answer is: Why did the 2003 Iraq War happen? In one of the book’s most valuable sections, felicitously titled ‘Black Gold and Red Herrings’, he goes through several prevalent explanations/theories and takes them apart one by one: Continue reading “Israelpolitik, the Neocons and the Long Shadow of the Iraq War—A Review of Muhammad Idrees Ahmad’s book ‘The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War’”

Advertisements

Teaching John Stuart Mill in Iran: A Conversation with Norman Finkelstein

Norman Finkelstein is of course best known for his work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—his bookslectures and media interviews on the subject over the last three decades—and for the considerable controversy it has generated.
 
Less known is that for many years he also taught political theory. It might come as something of a surprise that among his favorite works is John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. This might come as a surprise since Finkelstein is well to the left of most admirers of the iconic nineteenth-century liberal thinker. Of course Mill was also a socialist and a feminist—indeed an early one (see Martha Nussbaum’s comments at the end of this interview). But in postcolonial studies Mill is widely regarded as an imperialist and a racist. An ambiguous and contested legacy, to be sure—which is part of Mill’s enduring hold on us.
 
Finkelstein recently taught a short course on Mill’s On Liberty in Iran. There’s a whole literature devoted to this phenomenon. Norma Moruzzi has written about reading Hannah Arendt in Iran. Ali Paya and Mohammad Amin Ghaneirad have mapped the multiple spheres of influence that Jürgen Habermas enjoys in Iran. The Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo has published a book of conversations with Isaiah Berlin. (I myself have written a short book on Iran’s engagement with liberal thinkers.) When leading political thinkers (of varying persuasions) from Europe or North America—from Habermas and Antonio Negri to Richard Rorty and Immanuel Wallerstein—visit Iran, their lectures are major events and occasion considerable buzz. (For more on this, see Mehran Kamrava’s book Iran’s Intellectual Revolution, Farzin Vahdat’s God and Juggernaut: Iran’s Intellectual Encounter with Modernity, and Mehrzad Boroujerdi’s Iranian Intellectuals and the West.)
 
But Finkelstein did something a bit different. His students weren’t the usual liberal-minded suspects—who represent a significant swath of Iran’s educated classes, incidentally (a phenomenon that is underestimated and trivialized by many Western leftists, which I regard as a form of Left Orientalism).  It would have been easy for him to teach the depredations of U.S. and Israeli policy in such a context—but it also would have been incredibly boring. He did something far more interesting. He taught Mill to largely conservative-oriented students in an institution that cranks out apparatchiks for the Islamic Republic.
 
That is just wickedly cool. Here’s our recent conversation about that experience.
 
 
The interview was filmed on April 24, 2014, as part the series of conversations with our guest lecturers that our Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver produces.