Some Thoughts on U.S. Responsibility in Iraq


[1] The issue addressed to the symposium concerns the nature of U.S. obligations to Iraq. The language of obligation suggests the editors of JLE have in mind a moral question, and, indeed, there is a moral question here, although it is of a certain sort. More precisely, the question of U.S. obligation to Iraq is a political question, which is to say, it is a question about the proper use of American power and appropriate goals for American foreign policy. 

[2] One might wonder why the foreign policy question should be posed now, so late in the game, nearly six years after 9/11 and four years after the start of the Iraq war. The answer, of course, has to do with the ineffectiveness of current American policy. That policy aimed to weaken global terrorism, but the inability of the United States to establish law and order in Iraq has allowed the country to become a safe haven for terrorists. The policy aimed to establish democracy in Iraq, but the inability of the United States to manage Iraqi tribalism has opened a path toward civil war. The policy had planned on using success in Iraq to launch a political transformation of the Middle East, but U.S. failure in Iraq threatens stability throughout the region. In short, the seeming impotence of American power forces us to raise the political question anew.

[3] A new answer to the political question must begin by interpreting the reasons for previous failures, and inevitably such interpretation will involve controversial judgments about political reality. My judgments are shaped by what I take to be a version of Christian realism. Those judgments cannot be defended here, but only presented. Christian realism as I understand it holds that the use of power, and possibly force, is indispensable in fostering earthly peace, but it holds also that power is limited in the objectives it can effectively and rightly pursue. The "realism" of this position lies not only in the way it recognizes the exercise of power as legitimate, but also in its supposition that the effectiveness of power is related to its proper use. To be sure, the connection between effectiveness and political morality can be overstated (tyrants can be effective for a good while); however, a profoundly ineffective political policy almost certainly reflects a misuse of power. The realist suspects, therefore, that U.S. failures in Iraq are related to the inappropriate use of American power. 

[4] Some attribute failure in Iraq to the Bush Administration's mismanagement of the war. But that explanation does not go deep enough. The Bush Administration mismanaged the war because it underestimated the difficulties of post-war reconstruction, and it underestimated the difficulties of post-war reconstruction because it overestimated the extent and effectiveness of American power. Failure in Iraq thus stems from a fundamental political mistake: the overreaching of American power.

[5] Overreaching begins with hubris, and hubris was manifest in the way the Bush Administration prepared for war. Its strident unilateralism reflected a false belief that the United States could achieve its ambitious foreign policy objectives without international support. Thus the Bush Administration disregarded the ways in which its uses of power were affecting the international political order. Its unilateralism undermined both the United Nations and the regimen of international law. As a consequence, nations with an interest in strong international frameworks (and that would be almost every nation other than a superpower or a rogue) started to perceive competition between American interests and their own. That complicated the question of Iraq by mixing it up with a question about restraining American power. Many small nations, even democratic ones, had a partial interest in seeing the United States thwarted in Iraq, in the hope that a thwarted U.S. would be less unilateral and more internationalist. 

[6] The Bush Administration, however, disregarded the possibility that shifting alignments in the international political order could influence outcomes in Iraq, and this overweening confidence contributed to its mismanagement of the war. The decision to rely on troop levels insufficient to the task of establishing order in post-war Iraq-although resting partly on excessive confidence in the ability of military technology to simplify the political condition-was also a matter of necessity, given that many traditional American allies were unwilling to assist in the war effort. Disdain for international experience in nation-building meant the United States entered Iraq without drawing on the lessons of that experience and, indeed, without even anticipating the kinds of difficulties characteristically attendant upon nation-building. Rampant looting and lawlessness caught the administration off guard and were flippantly dismissed as a sign of democracy by the Secretary of Defense, who later mistook an emerging insurgency for residual lawlessness.   

[7] Even the policy goals the Administration set for Iraq were built on hubris, because they depended on excessive confidence in the ability of military force to effect political transformation. Force, when it is effective, is never more than an aspect of power, and power, to be effective, must be attuned to local political contexts. Manufacturing democracy in a country without substantial democratic traditions after nearly forty years of totalitarian dictatorship would have been enormously ambitious under ideal circumstances. Success in Iraq depended upon the support of local ethnic groups and cooperation from neighboring countries. The Bush Administration, however, overlooked ethnic divisions within Iraq and disregarded the fact that two neighboring countries, Syria and Iran, had strong interests in seeing an Iraqi democracy fail. Thus the democracy-building aspect of the Bush Administration's policy was to work not by tapping into democratic currents already present in Iraq, but by creating those currents from scratch with the help of Iraqi émigrés and a robust use of force. A more realistic plan might have relied on Tinker Bell and her fairy friends to sprinkle democracy dust on Baghdad.    

[8] These fundamental mistakes in the use of power place the primary responsibility for current problems in Iraq on the United States. That does not translate, however, into a moral obligation to stay the course. Past mistakes cannot be undone, and political obligations are determined by the current context. A new answer to the political question must begin with a sober assessment of the extent and limits of American power.  

[9] If U.S. failure in Iraq is in fact a consequence of overreaching, victory in Iraq is impossible. To overreach, by definition, is to employ power in pursuit of objectives that cannot be realized. To recognize that the United States has overreached in Iraq is to recognize that American power cannot determine the course of events there. It is to recognize defeat. That is unpalatable. Politicians remind us that defeat in Iraq will damage U.S. interests and is, therefore, unacceptable. But, unfortunately, one cannot rebut defeat with deductive argument-any more than one can create democracy with fairy dust. Whether the United States can win in Iraq is a question of fact, the answer to which depends upon an assessment of the political realities. 

[10] The policy question has thus become: What is the best way to lose the war? To talk about losing the war is to concede that any conceivable resolution of the conflict in Iraq will damage U.S. interests. To search for the best way to lose, however, is to recognize that American power is still a factor in the region that can influence, but not dictate, the course of events.    

[11] Determining the best way to lose is a matter for public deliberation and political decision, which means it is a matter beyond the scope of this essay as well as the competence of this writer. At the very least, however, losing well would seem to require that U.S. presence in the region be reconfigured in a way that accords with the limits of American power while simultaneously working to prevent a wider regional conflict. Losing the war cannot mean total retreat. Whatever the ambiguities of American power, it plays an important role in shaping relations among states in the Middle East. A complete American departure would leave a power vacuum that would destabilize the region further. Rather than abandoning the Middle East, U.S. policy should seek to establish a configuration of power that lays the foundation for future political engagement. Future U.S. engagements should be more tempered and modest in their aims, but the stability of the region almost certainly depends on a prudent use of American power. 

[12] Perhaps finding the best way to lose does not differ all that much from what some have called "redefining victory." Semantic gymnastics pose no serious problem, and may even serve a political purpose, provided one recognizes that after victory has been redefined it will include setbacks to U.S. interests. Setbacks, unfortunately, are a consequence of overreaching. In the best case scenario, the Iraqi misadventure will mark the end of an overly ambitious period of American foreign policy and a sober return to political realism.  


© August 2007
Journal of Lutheran Ethics

Volume 7, Issue 8