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Open Access Publications from the University of California

“We Must Help Them Build Free Institutions”: Neoliberal Modernization and American Nation-Building in Iraq


After the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, neoliberal hawks in the Bush administration embraced the goals of liberating the Iraqi people from economic constraints. This fast regime change, however, soon turned into a long quagmire that required a nation-building effort, reflecting the language of modernization theory. Thus, in the case of the Iraq War, two distinct and opposing theories of economic development—neoliberalism and modernization—merged together. What made this possible was the nature of analyzing American history through a lens of exceptionalism, as well as the transformative moment in the post-Cold War 1990s that began to remake the Middle East as the next adversary of the American superpower. This article uses this episode to suggest that intellectual histories of political economy need to reconsider narratives that present dominant theories through rigid periodization, while relying on works from Walt Rostow, David Harvey, Benjamin Barber, Timothy Mitchell, and Michael Latham, as well as rhetoric from George W. Bush and other neoliberal voices around the invasion.

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