Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence, and America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy
By Michael J. Mazarr
New York: PublicAffairs, 2019
512 pp., $30.00
Reviewed by Andrew J. Forney
Lieutenant Colonel Andrew J. Forney, USA, Ph.D., is a Strategist currently assigned to the Strategy and Force Development Branch within the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.
Horror movies build fear through a series of formulaic events. A young couple drives into the dark woods, or a teenager, home alone, descends into a dimly lit cellar. No one ever checks behind the door—we all know what is coming next, but the outcome still scares us because, by knowing, tension has built. Sure, there may be a few jump scares, but for the most part we are not really surprised. We continue to watch, enthralled and unable to look away.
For a generation of national security professionals and military officers, reading about the run-up to the Iraq War can feel like watching a bureaucratic horror movie. After almost two decades, we know what is lurking behind the faulty assumptions, and reading ever more quickly, page after page, we wonder if this time the toxic brew of naivete and hubris will not lead us down the tortured path that we know in our rational minds it will. Closing our books about that war—and Michael Mazarr’s Leap of Faith is among the very best volumes—we almost want to scold ourselves: We fell for the same tricks, and we ended at the same frustrating place.
So why do we read these books? You might as well ask why we watch horror movies. Beyond providing entertainment and the thrill of being scared, horror movies wrestle with those things we do not like to talk about: fear, loneliness, and despair. For those who experienced the Iraq War, be they Soldiers, civilian professionals, or politicians, there remains a desire to understand similar, complex issues. From biased executive decisionmaking processes, through an over-militarization of foreign policy, to a national accounting for the events spawned by the American intervention in Iraq, Mazarr explores them all in Leap of Faith, confronting difficult subjects with an eye toward explanation. And, unlike many other books that share the “Modern Warfare” shelf at the bookstore, this volume reflects a more fulsome use of first-person accounts, not only from declassified materials but also from dozens of interviews with individuals who were there. Mazarr invested hundreds of hours gathering the day-to-day essence of the run-up to the war, and it shows. No other work on the early decision to go to war in Iraq benefits from a deeper bench of personal reflections.
These interviews and anecdotes outline the contours of a bipartisan National security momentum, defined by the pairing of a deep messianic tradition in American foreign policy with a driving belief in untrammeled American exceptionalism that defined the post–Cold War era. Mazarr shows how this momentum generated, gradually, its own certainty, one that framed global events into a Manichean “good vs. evil” bipolarity. The attacks on 9/11 catalyzed these beliefs, cementing the “us vs. them” predilections present in many senior leaders’ minds. A generational bias against Iraq, practiced by multiple Presidents and both political parties, allowed for a feat of near prestidigitation: the shift of focus from Afghanistan to Iraq within days of the attacks in New York and Washington, DC.
In the process, avenues of discourse and dissent became closed off or were assumed away, leaving few means to “off-ramp” from a future war against Saddam Hussein and Baghdad. Behind this intellectual force, Mazarr further details the bureaucratic machinations that turned ideas into reality. Here he pulls no punches, heaping blame on then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and former Vice President Dick Cheney—not only for their policy biases and predilection toward military force but also, more important, for the way they managed the bureaucratic infighting to widen their fiefdoms within the interagency community, often for no other reason than to increase their political sway. Just as with the boogeyman under the bed, we as an audience know these biases are there, but fully seeing the implications they had, and how they absolutely subverted the National security process, remains disconcerting, nonetheless.
By adding recently declassified British accounts of the internal debates regarding the war, and the minutes from interrogations of senior Iraqi leaders (to include Saddam himself), Leap of Faith places what had been a decidedly American narrative in an international context. The disbelief, in both London and Baghdad, about the unchecked American drive toward war resonates throughout the book. As Mazarr points out, the United Kingdom had taken steps to account for its support and involvement in the Iraq War, something that he believes the United States still must do. Only by executing a formal accounting of the decisions that led to war in 2003, as per the British model, can we better understand the implications of the war on American politics, foreign policy, media, and society.
To this end, Mazarr apportions blame for the mistakes made between 9/11 and the start of the war in March 2003. Such a step is less akin to preparing to adjudicate punishment and more a recognition that adjudicating accountability can lead to understanding and, eventually, reckoning. And while he does hold Rumsfeld and Cheney chiefly responsible for the events that befell the United States before and after the start of the war, he also realizes that limiting the discussion to this timeframe does not fully address the scope of the tragedy. The mistake to invade Iraq, as Mazarr sees it, has many fathers: a national security process driven by consensus over debate, a foreign policy that under-resources diplomacy, a media swayed by jingoistic arguments for war, and many others. Mazarr struggles to find discernment, and its practice, in American society.
Leap of Faith deserves a place on the bookshelf of every leader in the joint force and the National security policy community, alongside Cobra II, The Assassin’s Gate, To Start a War, and the U.S. Army’s recent retrospective volumes on the conflict to round out a full appreciation of the Iraq War. What Mazarr provides, and most other books on this subject do not, are several policy recommendations intended to provide alternative perspectives on international crises to senior leaders, keep pathways for discourse open, and prevent the overstepping of bounds within the interagency community and its collaborative processes. Although not all suggestions may be implemented, they come from a logically sound place and deserve further consideration. Mazarr realizes the difference between a horror movie and foreign policy decisionmaking. Here we can talk to the audience.
Here we can say, “Don’t go in there.” JFQ