Cappella Zielinski on Mazarr, 'Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence, and America's Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy'

Michael J. Mazarr
John P. Cappella Zielinski

Michael J. Mazarr. Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence, and America's Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy. New York: PublicAffairs, 2019. xiv + 512 pp. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5417-6836-9

Reviewed by John P. Cappella Zielinski (Air University, Air War College) Published on H-War (June, 2020) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version:

When Messianic Sensibility Meets Moral Imperative

In Leap of Faith, Michael J. Mazarr adds to the vast wealth of published literature, information, and opinion about the Iraq War by exploring the character of decision-making on complex issues and asking profound questions about the limits of US power and the accountability of its use. He attempts to answer how the George W. Bush administration managed to stumble into war with so little regard for what would happen afterward. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was a mistake and tragedy, rather than an intentionally cruel act or mendacious conspiracy. It was a mistake representing arguably the single most deeply flawed judgment in modern US foreign policy.

Mazarr explores the decision to invade Iraq chronologically, beginning with the first Gulf War. Each chapter recounts a key phase of the process: origins of convictions, key players, role of 9/11, justifications for invasion, and deliberations leading to the final decision. He provides an account drawn from open sources and over one hundred interviews and informal conversations with participants at various levels in the decision-making process. He consulted memoirs of officials with access to detailed government records and also reviewed all declassified documents available from the US and British governments. His organization and presentation of material is strong and his arguments are logical and convincing. Mazarr’s account is important because no single volume previously assembled the breadth of known evidence to date in one place, he demonstrates what many people think they know about the origins of the war is wrong, and a deeper understanding of the pattern bringing the decision to life will help recognize the next tragedy before it occurs.

The decision to invade Iraq is a tragically typical example of how America’s worthy global ambitions can go terribly wrong and how senior leaders come to intuitive, moralistic judgments as one antidote to the profound uncertainty of national strategy. Mazarr argues that there was willful negligence of historic proportions, but two factors best explain this tragedy: the fuel of American missionary ambitions and the spark of an intuitive, values-driven judgment. These factors provide context for understanding the decision to invade Iraq. Not unique to the Iraq War, these twin flaws affect the thinking of US senior officials across eras and lie in wait, ready to reemerge in future national security decisions. Negligence and culpability abound, but more important than blame is understanding patterns in US foreign policy consistently preceding tragedies.

Mazarr provides explanations within both individual and domestic political levels of analysis. He postulates an argument within the individual psychological approach to national security decision-making in political science theory, a case study supporting agency arguments as a key explanatory variable. Mazarr argues that the role of individual personalities and perspectives in the Bush administration, leaders who came to their judgments in highly personal, idiosyncratic ways, is central because of the potential for biases like wishful thinking and motivated reasoning, both on full display in the decision to invade Iraq. Similarly, domestic sources of US foreign policy include political culture and foreign policy attitudes of its leaders, shaping political preferences. The dominant national belief system, the vigorous missionary impulse characterizing America’s approach to international affairs, contends security is not achievable through isolation. The Iraq case highlights these two general tendencies conspiring to bring about this disaster: the dangerous marriage of deeply embedded national beliefs about the US role in the world, with a passionate, urgent, even desperate imperative to act.

The pattern of misjudgment behind the war stems from the essential character of national security decisions regarding highly complex problems clouded with vast amounts of uncertainty. Rather than focusing on consequences and careful cost-benefit analyses, major national security judgments are often unconscious, instinctive, and emergent, reflecting moral imperatives rather than reasoned analysis. In addition, senior officials exhibited moralistic and values-based, rather than instrumental or outcome-oriented, decision-making. Leaders advocating for and ultimately deciding to invade Iraq did so out of an emergent sense it was the right and necessary thing to do, with a degree of conviction, a belief bordering on faith, a feeling of obligation so strong it bulldozed through any objections or warnings. Ultimately, the United States would not make anything approaching a considered judgment to invade Iraq. Instead, it tumbled into war, reacting to events, driven by half-considered assumptions and powerfully held worldviews. The decision was not a calculation of benefits, costs, and risks, but rather, it simply felt right.

Collective beliefs about America’s role in the world offer an explanation for why the United States leaned the way it did. The proximate cause, however, was an intuitive, emergent mechanism of judgment driven primarily by imperatives about the right thing to do, more moralistic than rational. Values, rather than consequences, drove judgments of decision makers serving an imperative. This explanation fits within Max Weber’s concept of value rationality—people making decisions not on what they think will most benefit them but to fulfill the right thing to do, something right for its own sake. Mazarr argues that values-based thinking often guides foreign policymakers, leading them to choose between policies based not on facts but on their interpretation.

The key influence on President Bush’s choices after 9/11 was not neoconservative ideology, but the reigning missionary sensibility, blended with Bush’s own sense of God-given purpose to keep Americans safe after 9/11 which changed the risk calculus. This helps explain the dangerous way the decision was made, emerging gradually, with arguments, memos, and events building toward a final judgment, an emergent, indirect, and intuitive, rather than deliberative, decision process.

If there is weakness in Mazarr’s argument, it is his quick dismissal of alternative explanations as conspiracy theories. By dismissing alternative explanations, rather than debunking each in turn, he misses an opportunity to explore structural explanations or provide elucidation of a richer tapestry of contextual factors at play. For instance, F. Gregory Gause argues that the commitment to democracy in Iraq was an important ancillary justification. As the buildup to war progressed, the Bush administration adopted a more expansive view. Defeating Iraq would change the strategic picture and political balance of the Middle East, opponents would think twice about challenging the United States, and a democratic Iraq would be a positive force for regional change.[1]

Perhaps Mazarr’s greatest contribution is a cautionary tale for US foreign policymakers. The marriage of the driving engine of messianic sensibility in US foreign policy and a moralistic urge to act in service to sacred values often produces disasters. This pattern is reemerging on major national security challenges: China, Russia, and Iran. Awareness by all is the best risk mitigation strategy, and for leaders to think before acting ... before the United States does it again.


[1]. F. Gregory Gause, The International Relations of the Persian Gulf (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 184-240.

Citation: John P. Cappella Zielinski. Review of Mazarr, Michael J., Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence, and America's Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy. H-War, H-Net Reviews. June, 2020. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

The origins of the 2nd Iraq War, like the origins of World War I, are an endlessly fascinating topic of debate. Of course I haven't yet read Mazarr's book, only this review, but it immediately stirred up a lot of doubt about what Zielinski seems to be saying about its central theme. Was this really America's moral failure, giving in to our collective "missionary ambitions?"

I have serious doubts about this, starting with the fact that this invasion was initiated by a minority presidential administration, headed by the loser of the popular vote who would also almost certainly have been the loser of the electoral vote had a partisan Supreme Court not overturned centuries of constitutional principal and halted the Florida recount. (Others' mileage may vary, of course, but my understanding is that states have always managed their own elections, and if the Florida Supreme Court had already decided to continue the recount that should have been the last word.) At any rate, America was hardly united -- except by the collective shock of 9/11. We had a minority president in office and I think there is not much doubt that the majority (losing) candidate and his administration would have pursued an entirely different course in foreign policy.

That the Bush administration was so determined on war against a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 therefore reflects a decidedly minority viewpoint that prevailed in part because Congress, in passing the AUMF, largely abdicated its responsibility -- as it had, sadly, done decades before during the Vietnam War. Both abdications happened in part because of deeply flawed intelligence, which led Congress and, by and large, the news media and the public to defer to the Chief Executive.

Many of us in the Intelligence Community (and, I suspect, many within the CIA Directorate of Intelligence) doubted or completely rejected what was published in the infamous Iraq WMD National Intelligence Estimate of 2002 that underpinned the Bush Administration's decision to invade Iraq the following year. I have always hesitated about accusing my Langley colleagues of "politicizing intelligence" but there is not much doubt in my mind that the Agency leadership steered the DI and the rest of the IC in the direction demanded by key policymakers, up to and including the vice president. Those within the State Department and other agencies who took a hard look at Iraq saw little actual threat but a great deal of posturing on the part of Saddam Hussein, which played all too well within the astonishingly uninformed US news media. In fact, my understanding is that Iraq was largely in compliance with the UN Resolutions, and there can be no doubt that Saddam's regime posed little or no threat to anyone in the region or the rest of the world. The Iraqi military was, after the debacle of 1991, a shadow of its former self and the WMD threat was nonexistent -- as the post-invasion investigations conclusively proved.

So, call it an American moral failure if you like, but in my view it was chiefly a judgment failure of a minority of zealots who had gained power in the US through very complicated political and judicial circumstances. My own moral failure was not to resign in principle, a failure shared by many further up the federal food chain than me, but hey -- I had a family, needed a salary and health care, you know the story.

Just read Ralph's most perceptive views on the 2nd Iraq War.

Whether or not Intelligence was 'politicized' as mentioned Ralph was in much better position to know or be aware. In any event, even IF it were not, as it moved up and forward to the political levels of US Govt., it certainly would have become so, being as that is their province and job.

This is not to get into a political discussion, even as right not today some 1 million estimate protestors are expected in DC over recent domestic tragedies every bit as wrenching as the 2nd Gulf War. This, merely an aside mention while reply to a couple of points Ralph has brought into focus.

The State view mentioned was shared at that time, the Iraq situation did not appear to present any threat; even so, those in the Administration then seems determined the US would not take the NY attack without responding and Iraq became for them something to demonstrate the US would not just roll over and call it a day. Hence, those events leading up to and actual invasion of Iraq proper which had been rejected as the end objective for the 1st Gulf War. A limited war over Kuwait became an all out war over Iraq. This way the critics of that 'limit' could get their decisions made into policy and events by marching to Iraq proper, 'to finish the job', which to them had not been completed.

This critical decision was not just a matter of semantics but very decisive conclusions and outcomes. This leads to concurrence with Ralph's observations about minority of zealots being the cross upon which this 2nd Gulf War
took place.

My 2nd point was/is merely a comment upon our Federal system of Govt. To which the authority for elections is indeed left to the States, having been setup that way by the Founding Fathers. It is also a source of various difficulties that have ben shown in the modern era to history and politics. Elections are the province of States not the Federal Govt.