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Stop Gotcha Politics on Iraq

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In his post earlier this week on the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, Tom Hayden quotes a line from a 2004 Foreign Affairs article by Lee Feinstein and me radically out of context and infers from it a position that neither Lee nor I hold. The line is: "the biggest problem with the Bush preemption strategy may be that it does not go far enough." It occurs in the following paragraph: "Addressing [the danger of "a brutal ruler acquiring nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction"] requires a different strategy, one that maximizes the chances of early and effective collective action. In this regard, and in comparison to the changes that are taking place in the area of intervention for humanitarian protection purposes, the biggest problem with the Bush preemption strategy may be that it does not go far enough." (Emphasis added.)

The point of the article, entitled "A Duty to Prevent," was not to approve the war in Iraq, still less to encourage another such venture, but rather to make the point that to improve the chances of effective multilateral responses to situations like the apparent build-up of weapons of mass destruction in a nation under U.N. sanctions it was critical to update multilateral rules and to develop the capacity for preventive action far short of the use of force.

This debate has already gone several rounds. Atlantic blogger Matt Yglesias picked up the same line from the same article and drew the same inference in an op-ed in the LA Times last fall. I emailed him and explained, speaking for myself (I am not advising any campaign):

I would not rule out unilateral action under any circumstances; a nation that had chosen to try unilaterally to stop the genocide in Rwanda in the face of both global and regional inaction would be hard to condemn. Similarly, it is imaginable that the United States or any other nation could conclude that it had absolutely no choice but to use force to defend its vital interests. But the entire point of our article was to minimize the likelihood of either of these situations ever occurring by embracing doctrines in the humanitarian and the non-proliferation area that would spur non-military collective action early in the game and would ensure global or at least regional authorization of force if it came to that. It is worth remembering that Kofi Annan himself told the General Assembly in September 2003, after the invasion of Iraq: It is not enough to denounce unilateralism, unless we also face up squarely to the concerns that make some States feel uniquely vulnerable, since it is those concerns that drive them to take unilateral action. We must show that those concerns can, and will, be addressed effectively through collective action." Lee and I had been running a roundtable for the American Society of International Law and the Council on Foreign Relations called "Old Rules, New Threats" for several years before the invasion of Iraq; this article was the outgrowth of a lot of that thinking.

Yglesias quoted this paragraph in a subsequent post and added that he found little to disagree with, although he questioned whether it is politically or legally possible to define "vital interests" in a way that does not open the door to unilateral interventions by many countries. That's a fair question and a fair debate, one that I would happily join with Tom Hayden.

Hayden's post and many other commentaries surrounding the fifth anniversary of the invasion are a microcosm of the problem with our Iraq policy as a whole. The debate is still far too much about who was right and who was wrong on the initial invasion and far too little about how, in Obama's formulation, to be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in. That does not mean that those of us who were wrong about Iraq -- with whatever nuances, explanations, and justifications we might care to offer -- do not have a great deal to answer for. We do. But it does mean that until we can fix the mess we are in, everyone who cares about what happens both to our troops and to the Iraqi people should force themselves to face up to the hard issues on the ground rather than indulging in the easy game of gotcha.

I'll start by offering a metric for how to assess any candidate -- and any expert's -- plan for Iraq. The test for the best policy should be the one that is most likely to bring the most troops home in the shortest time (to stop American casualties, begin repairing our military, and be able to redeploy badly needed military assets to Afghanistan), while also achieving the most progress on the goals that the administration stated publicly as a justification for invading in the first place: 1) ensuring that the Iraqi government could not develop nuclear or biological weapons of mass destruction (done); 2) weaken terrorist groups seeking to attack us (this goal was based on false premises then, but is highly relevant now); 3) improve the human rights of the Iraqi people; and 4) establish a government in Iraq that could help stabilize and liberalize the Middle East. No policy can possibly achieve all of those goals. But the policy that offers the best chance on all five measures is the policy we should follow, in my view. And applying those measures to concrete policy proposals is the debate we should be having.