Were We Wrong?

The Bush administration settled the argument about whether inspections could ever contain Saddam Hussein by making the issue moot. But the next phase of a broader debate continues. The Iraq War is the first step in a new and alarming policy, which we might call the Wolfowitz Doctrine. On the issue of unilateralism, the doctrine holds that multilateral institutions such as the United Nations are distractions at best and that European allies are weak sisters who put their own parochial interests ahead of global security. Both sets of associations require strong U.S. leadership to be useful at all; and when the United Nations or our allies resist, they are to be overridden. We do this because we need to, and because we can.

On the issue of preemption, the doctrine considers preemptive war a straightforward calculus of costs and benefits, not of international law or global public opinion. Saddam Hussein could be deposed with relatively light loss of American and Iraqi civilian life. The benefit of one less tyrant and of grudging respect for American toughness made the gamble an acceptable risk. Oddly, in making the case for war the administration put great weight on the likelihood that Saddam Hussein had and would use chemical or biological weapons. But in calculating the actual risk that this would occur, the same war planners seemed to conclude that the risk was minor.

On the matters of nation building, democracy and the advancement of U.S. interests, the doctrine contends that all three go hand in hand. A more democratic Middle East will necessarily be more civic, modern, capitalistic, open and hence pro-American. The doctrine -- one part Woodrow Wilson, one part William McKinley -- assumes that bringing democracy to such places as Iraq is practical, desirable and sincere.

Before the debatable issue of a U.S. war to oust Saddam Hussein was decided by simple might, critics raised the issue of collateral damage -- to institutions and alliances that America actually needs in its vigilance against terrorism and to the good will of billions of people that American citizens and businesses count on. Critics also raised the plain implausibility of mixing Wilson and McKinley. Either America crudely advances its perceived national interests based on raison d'├ętat or America tries to build a stable world by respecting what Wilson called national self-determination and helping to strengthen international institutions on behalf of collective security and the rule of law. It is awfully hard to do both.

With the shooting winding down and the Baathists on their way out, we can resume the debate that the war has overshadowed. A victory lays bare the weaknesses of the broader doctrine.

Take the elements one at a time. Is unilateralism a sound basis for policy? Even if America has the power to wipe out despots militarily, even if the administration is unconcerned about the legitimacy of such adventures, we need international institutions and alliances. What are the real threats to our security in this era? They are nuclear proliferation and terrorism. In resisting these we need the cooperation of such diverse nations as China, South Korea, Pakistan, Turkey and Russia -- not to mention the Atlantic Alliance -- to pool intelligence reporting, track financial underwriting of terrorists and pursue common strategies to contain regimes such as North Korea's. This war has undermined these alliances.

Is preemption a sound policy? Sometimes it is, if the world accepts a double standard. The Romans had an expression for it: Quod licet Jovi, non licet bovi, meaning what is allowed for the gods is not permitted for cattle. But are other sovereign nations prepared to accept the status of cattle? If America can launch preemptive war against Iraq, why not China against Taiwan, or Pakistan against India, or Argentina against Britain? We haven't proven that preemptive war is acceptable policy, only that might makes right. But do we really want to live in a Hobbesian international system?

The most dangerously naive aspect of the Wolfowitz Doctrine is the premise that bringing democracy to the Middle East by force is either feasible or a source of good will for the United States. The claim is wholly lacking in historic memory. The United States and Great Britain are resented in the Arab world for a catalog of reasons. Nowhere in the world was Western policy more a creature of raison d'├ętat and less an idealistic effort to spread civility and democracy. The British, in close alliance with Anglo-American oil interests, created artificial sheikdoms, which in turn were overthrown by such people as Saddam Hussein. At times, when it was convenient, the United States allied itself with both old-fashioned and modern despots. As disseminators of democracy, we have dirty hands from a century of cynicism, and we are far from sincere even today. The Wolfowitz Doctrine makes clear that in post-Hussein Iraq, U.S. national interests come first, Iraqi democracy a distant second. This will win scant affection, in Iraq or elsewhere in the world.

The war was surely debatable. The larger doctrine cries out for resistance.

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