Today's Guardian presents an editorial describing three lessons from Iraq, which the neocons are alleged not to have learned:
- American military doctrine has emphasised the use of overwhelming force, applied suddenly and decisively, to defeat the enemy. But in a world where insurgents and militias deploy invisibly among civilian populations, overwhelming force is almost always counterproductive: it alienates precisely those people who have to make a break with the hardcore fighters and deny them the ability to operate freely....
- A second lesson that should have been drawn from the past five years is that preventive war cannot be the basis of a long-term US nonproliferation strategy....
- A final lesson that should have been drawn from the Iraq war is that the current US government has demonstrated great incompetence in its day-to-day management of policy.
A few days ago at Eunomia, Daniel Larison wrote:
[T]he more obvious and depressing reason why liberal interventionists oppose some allegedly “self-interested” wars of intervention is that they only oppose these when a member of the other party is in the White House. The Clinton administration, and many liberal interventionists at the time along with it, obviously never had any problems with the idea of regime change in the name of national and regional security. They discovered their opposition to regime change in Iraq (oh, sorry, I mean “disarmament and enforcing U.N. resolutions”) when someone else was running the operation.We're painting with a broad brush here, but let's assume that a "liberal interventionist" is somebody who favors the use of military force to stop an injustice from occurring, and thus would favor interventions in places like the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Darfur, Afghanistan, and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Such an individual would likely have been disappointed by the Clinton administration's inaction in Rwanda, and may well have supported a humanitarian intervention in Iraq to depose Hussein. But is it truly fair to suggest that, for those who opposed Bush's war in Iraq, support or opposition to such intervention turns only on who is in the White House? If that were the case, why was support for intervention in Afghanistan so high among the same population of "liberal interventionists" who were wary of going into Iraq?
Perhaps we should revisit the subject of incompetence. The Bush Administration was not doing well, even in terms of domestic policy, prior to 9/11. This followed a campaign in which Bush had effectively conceded that he was a foreign relations tenderfoot, during the course of his campaign unable to name the leaders of such minor [cough] states as Pakistan - the country, in Bush's words, where the "Pakis" come from. Don't worry, though, we were told - he has "grown-ups" like Cheney and Rumsfeld who are familiar with foreign relations and will guide him through the difficult decisions. I know Bush is legendary about his ability to sleep at night, starting at 10 PM, even on the day of a national crisis. But something about Bush leading the nation into wars of choice, even if good could potentially come from intervention, should have given anybody pause.
Much of the liberal opposition, when it was not completely opportunistic and partisan, focused on Mr. Bush’s mistakes in how he was launching an aggressive war, and did not really claim that he was doing anything inherently wrong or unjustified. Many of the opponents on the left, or at least on the center-left, did not even object to the goal of regime change as presented by Mr. Bush, but wanted it to go through the proper channels with all of the appropriate institutional stamps of approval.This comment commingles two separate groups - those who opposed the war, and argued for following procees in order to impede Bush, and those who supported the war but still believed it best to follow proper process before going to war.
It's odd, in a sense, to hear the argument that it was liberals arguing for form over substance, as the opposite is often the case in our legal system. In law, the political left is associated with calls for substantive due process - did the process lead to the correct result - whereas the political right is associated with finality arising from procedural due process - right or wrong, if all of the rules were followed along the way the outcome should be allowed to stand.
Opponents of the war recognized pretty early that the odds of the Bush Administration getting a clear authorization for military intervention from the United Nations were poor. But even the Bush Administration wanted enough of a UN fig leaf that they pressed and lobbied for a resolution they could deem to amount to an authorization for use of force. It is possible that the Bush Administration would have been able to get a better resolution given more time, but it was generally recongized that the window of opportunity for war was closing. The primary reason for a proponent of the war to have called for greater adherence to procedure would have been to facilitate the building of a true international consensus for war, and a much broader military alliance with which to invade and occupy Iraq.
Something that is often forgotten when slogging through procedures and safeguards which seem cumbersome and anachronistic is that they were put into place for a reason. Sure, sometimes the reasons don't apply, and it can be wise to periodically re-examine old procedures to see if they need to be supplemented, revised or repealed. The Bush Administration likes to complain about the rules, but its apparent complete disinterest in creating a new set of rules to govern international conduct suggests that its primary motivation in criticizing the existing system is that it doesn't want any international oversight on its actions, or to be expected to adhere to any form of international law or custom. A liberal interventionist who highly desired the removal of Saddam Hussein might still be given pause by an approach to international law which would free other nations - whatever their actual motives - to declare and act on a "right" to engage in preventive and preemptive wars and "humanitarian" interventions against their neighbors. As Larison notes, it is easy to characterize those who call for adherence to international procedure as silly or unpatriotic.
The ”debate” over Iraq was unfortunately carried on primarily between liberals of the “yes, Hussein should be disarmed and/or overthrown, but…” view and the supporters of Mr. Bush’s invasion. (The non-liberal antiwar dissenters were constantly making their arguments, and were routinely making better ones than many on the left, but these dissenters were unfortunately never really in the main debate.)I disagree with that, in the sense that it was almost impossible for anybody involved in the public debate to avoid the "Hussein should be removed" trap. The technique is simple - get the anti-war individual to admit that Hussein's a horrible tyrant, then ask, "Wouldn't the world be better off if he were removed?" Or limit the scope of the question to the Middle East, or just to the people of Iraq. If you consistently say "no", you can be made to look every bit as ridiculous as somebody who supposedly favors the war but only if we jump through a succession of intricate procedural hoops.
Larison argues that true liberal interventionisms is potentially a greater danger to this nation than conservative interventionism "because there are no obvious limits to where American soldiers will be sent." Fortunately (or for liberal interventionists, unfortunately) there are not sufficient numbers of liberal interventionists to transform U.S. foreign policy, nor are there sufficient numbers of U.S. troops (make that, troops in the world) to make it a reality. Whatever the potential of liberal interventionism, to me interventionism packaged dishonestly in terms of self-interest seems to be the most dangerous, as it is the most likely to result in military action which proves counter-productive to U.S. and world interests.