June 25, 2008

Forward-Looking Foreign Policy After Iraq

There is something rarefied and useless with the endless post-mortems brought to bear on the alleged injustice of the Iraq War. We must act today based on the circumstances of today. We should concern ourselves with these post-mortems chiefly because they should guide future conduct. It would have been preferable, for instance, if the US never allowed chattel slavery, but having done so, there were other more just choices than destroying states’ rights and half-a-million Americans to be rid of it. This is to say that even in addressing injustice and other mistakes, we must be both just and prudent. A question of transitioning is distinct from a question of ends.

How to preserve US interests today having gotten embroiled in Iraq is the question of the hour, not whether it was wise to do so at first. Clearly it wasn’t. This is the consensus view of the vast majority of Americans. That said, policymakers always run the risk of “fighting the last war,” over-correcting earlier mistakes while discounting unknown or under-appreciated risks that are distinct from the most salient and recent error. Arguably fear of a repetition of the failed Somalia mission prevented military men from pushing more aggressively for a military response to bin Laden and al Qaeda after the Cole and embassy bombings of the late 90s.  This same fear of commitment, the so-called Vietnam Syndrome, led to the pusillanimous response to Soviet aggression in Latin America during the 80s.  Now, having over-reacted to an imaginary WMD threat in Iraq, an over-correction is likely . . . and it would be a major mistake.

This to say that there are foreign policy errors of both action and inaction. It’s always easy to look wise in hindsight. One-note-johnnies always get their day in the sun. It would have been wise to wipe out al Qaeda before 9/11 and, before that, not to be so closely involved with Israel and the Middle East after the Cold War ended. A strong case can be made that the preferred policy of the most vociferous Iraq War critics, that is a poilcy which is critical of most U.S. applications of force in foreign policy, has fueled certain harms too.  This is most apparent on the Korean peninsula, where a nuclear power governed by nut-cases has materialized due to a short-sighted U.S. policy of appeasement.

We are where we are, and we cannot right every wrong that has come down the pike, nor easily correct every mistake made by our predecessors. We must always chart a way forward. In this instance, any withdrawal from Iraq will impact the price of oil, the power and prestige of al Qaeda, the likelihood of others states harboring terrorists or developing WMDs, the power of US deterrence, the perception the US is a paper tiger, the instability in the region, U.S. military morale, along with other, unknown effects. This is to say, withdrawing from Iraq will not be costless for the United States in some very practical ways. Nonetheless, I believe this is a price worth paying, as the costs of staying are higher.  Just as we should not over-correct from a mistake, we should also not allow pride or habit or some mistaken sentimentality keep us going down the wrong-path until inescapable disaster occurs.

A conservative should acknowledge the costs of any foreign policy action along with the costs of any omission and be humble in the face of the various unknowns. Conservative statemen should seek, above all, to conduct decision-making in a prudent and empirical fashion informed by a wide range of historical examples, not just recent events or the events of 1939.

American conservatives have typically been realists in foreign policy, noting that the international order is anarchic, full of hostile forces.  Conservatives should remind us that this terrain is easily misunderstood, particularly by Kantian-style moral reasoning indifferent to the chief objects of a foreign policy: national independence secured through a balance of military power and diplomacy that communicate appropriate deterrence to any threats, along with the cultivation of the capabilty and willingness to deliver an appropriate military response in the case of necessity.  In this formulation, independence means at its core protection from invasion.  But it also requires free sea lanes, the prevention of foreign colonization of the western hemisphere, cooperation against pirates and international criminal organizations, and American access to essential raw materials and markets. This is practical stuff.  The idea that we can deductively reason our way from the Golden Rule to a sound foreign policy is, quite simply, well-wishing rooted in gnostic ideological thinking that fails to account for the role of force and disorder.

* This entry is adapted from a comment I left in this earlier thread begun by Paul Gottfried.

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