Professors Debate Iraq and the Role of the U.S.


As HLS’s faculty celebrities go, Professors Noah Feldman and Duncan Kennedy may come from two of the most personally distinct positions possible. Convened for a discussion Tuesday evening on Iraq and nation building – part of the multi-part “Confronting Empire” panel series – the two engaged in freeform debate after eager spectators waived their right to questions. The professors quickly moved from the immediate topic of Iraq to the broader role of America in the world today, and to their own outlooks on nationality, culture, and belonging in American society.

From the outset, Kennedy wasted no time raising the controversial. Invoking an article he wrote outlining the “case for losing in Iraq,” he asked whether it would be a good thing for the U.S. to substantially reduce its global presence. His answer: “Let’s embrace ourselves as losers in the world”.

The Critical Legal Studies pioneer moved rapidly through several indications that U.S. power was diminishing, and that remaining in Iraq and elsewhere was a losing proposition. Belying the U.S. belief in total military supremacy, he said, the capacity for resistance against American occupation had become substantial. New technology and techniques, including the invention of improvised explosive devices, and the adoption of suicide bombing, had outpaced the American military’s ability to maintain control. At the same time, arms manufacturing had shifted from former Soviet satellites to “second world” states like Iran, which made it easier for U.S. adversaries to gain possession of weapons.

In the economic realm, Kennedy noted, the rise of India and China was creating demand for resources worldwide – resources largely in the hands of regimes which wanted autonomy from the sphere of American “empire.” At the same time, he mused, the demand might turn out to be so great that the United States itself might revert to a source of resources for rising new powers. He joked of “a fantasy” in which “all we have left” was to become a breadbasket of wheat, “the Ukraine of the world.”

These military and economic factors, Kennedy said, would result in the United States losing control of its traditional spheres of influence. At the same time, however, he wondered whether this wholesale abandonment of “empire” was not a good thing. U.S. power, he pointed out, had resulted in the propping up of a number of unsavory regimes and the commitment of a number of atrocities, dislodging the notion that there was a moral necessity to continuous American power projection.

After briefly sparring on the real reason for the recent decline in violence in Iraq – neither attributed it to the surge – Feldman took the opportunity to paint Kennedy into an ideological corner.

He noted that his adversary’s musings on the United States’ possible agrarian future were akin to the political position taken up by anti-imperialist agrarian populists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Comparing Kennedy to William Jennings Bryan, he said that “small-r republicanism” might be as attractive today as it had been to Jefferson, or, for that matter, republican Rome. Still, he noted, it didn’t “enable [a state] to add value” economically.

Feldman then moved into the arena of global power politics, asking “who will win” if the United States were to abandon its role as a guarantor of global order. On this, he took a Hobbesian position – chaos was likely to ensue. He suggested that Kennedy’s hopes for withdrawal were akin to a “fantasy of redemption” driven by the selective application of a historical model – the end of communism, but only as it had happened in Poland, and not, say, Yugoslavia.

Iraq, Feldman observed, was an example of what happened when disorder was actively promoted. The answer to the question of “why people are killing one another in Iraq,” he said, is that there is “no state to stop it” – it had been obliterated by the invasion and occupation of the country. Feldman said, however, that it was unlikely the United States would make the same mistake of consciously promoting disorder in a country such as Iraq – or Vietnam – “for at least another thirty years.” He concluded by noting that India and China were unlikely to want to take on the burden of stabilizing the world while they could reap the benefits of the United States paying to do so. In sum, he said, “the sky isn’t falling, it’s just floating down”.The crux of the debate began to emerge with Kennedy’s response. He hit back by noting that attempts to prop up world order had sometimes resulted in further destabilization. The clash of perspectives continued in a different direction with the example of German reunification: Feldman argued that it had only been possible with the United States maintaining a presence, guaranteeing other states did not become fearful of, and gang up on, Germany.

Kennedy said that it had been possible not as a result of U.S. power in that given moment, but as a consequence of many years of political and ideological development.Ultimately, the two professors appeared to disagree most strongly about what American power actually meant for the world. Feldman retained a belief that the exercise of U.S. power could promote moral values, whereas Kennedy saw less to admire. “I want to overcome my WASP ruling class identification with the U.S. as a proxy” for personal power, he said, as the debate came to a head. In response, Feldman deadpanned, “I don’t have the luxury of thinking of my country that way”. He said that he “did not see … the right to rule as something [conferred] to me by birth” but was glad to be a member of a participatory state.

Kennedy softened the tone with a joke: he “thank[ed] God” that “through interbreeding” WASPS no longer “dominate[d] the SAT”. Still, the confrontation ended with the uncomfortable feeling that there were far deeper fissures to be engaged before these two academics – much less those who decide the direction of U.S. foreign policy – could see eye to eye.