It was reckless to engage in preventive war in Iraq. This is old news. But it raises four fundamental questions about the future of U.S. foreign policy that we must try to answer: Is preventive war ever justified? If so, under what circumstances? How can we, perhaps together with other countries, manage an occupation that puts a defeated country back together and gets it on its feet rather than leads to its falling apart? And what does the experience in Iraq tell us about other future challenges to the United States as a world leader, and for future leaders here at Georgetown?
We justified invading Iraq on the basis of its having or developing weapons of mass destruction and supposed operational ties to al Qaeda. The possibility that Saddam Hussein might transfer his weapons to terrorists to use against us was regarded as a grave security threat to the United States, which we were justified in preventing by any means. But there were no weapons of mass destruction and few Iraqi links to al Qaeda.
We expected liberated Iraqis to greet our soldiers with flowers and cheers. We expected that we would be able to set up a responsible democracy that would be supportive of U.S. policies in the region and that would change the strategic configuration in the Middle East for the better. Our incompetence as occupiers and the resistance of the Iraqis to foreign occupation (not for the first time, historians will remind us) quickly turned the liberation cheers into bullets and bombs aimed at our soldiers and other Iraqis.
By now, it is clear that the elected government of Nouri al aliki, relying on sectarian support from radical elements in the Shia population, cannot or will not control the conflict in that country, which now approaches a civil war. And neighboring states appear on the brink of intervening in the conflict in Iraq to further their own interests.
In short, our experiment with preventive war in Iraq has turned what was an economic and human rights disaster under Saddam’s regime into a catastrophe for us and the Iraqis. It has also destroyed a fragile but useful regional balance of power, opening the door for regional war and Iranian hegemony, and has made us less, rather than more, secure. And now we have no idea how to fix the mess in Iraq, and a growing number of Americans just want the United States to get out, whatever the consequences.
What would we do in a country like North Korea — where presumably we are even less familiar with conditions and culture — or a hostile Pakistan?
Anyone who saw the film on the threat of nuclear terrorism in the United States last month sponsored by the Mortara Center for International Studies, the Center for Peace and Security Studies and the School of Foreign Service and heard the debate between SFS Dean Robert Gallucci and Professor Dan Byman on the threat of WMD is probably losing sleep contemplating the ease with which terrorists armed with nuclear material could fashion a simple bomb, smuggle it into the United States and set it off in one or more cities, causing millions of causalities and an economic disaster. This terrible possibility – far from unlikely, by all accounts – offers a strong justification for preventive war.
If another government, like North Korea, Iran or a radicalized Pakistan, has nuclear materials and is willing to pass them on to terrorist groups like al Qaeda who have already threatened to use them against the United States and its allies, it’s hard to argue that we shouldn’t act to prevent such a threat, even if it means taking down another government.
Clearly, we need better intelligence (and better judgment) than we had with regard to WMD in Iraq and Saddam’s intention to share WMD with al Qaeda.
We also need to exhaust all diplomatic means before marching to war. But how long do we wait and how much international support should we seek for the use of military force? Maybe there is a debate out there on these issues, but I haven’t heard it.
A further question: What do we do after a successful preventive intervention? There was no planning and a lot of foolish decisions by the United States in occupying Iraq. But how should we have planned for the occupation of a country very different from ours and one we knew almost nothing about?
How do we restore order? Do we try again to create democratic governments, or do we just look for a powerful leader to take charge? Are order and democracy together even possible in deeply divided societies? These are questions former colonial powers confronted in the last century and before. What were their answers? And have we dared to ask them?
These questions pertain not just to preventive war against countries with WMD. They might also arise in a world struggling with severe global warming where one major power refuses to control its carbon dioxide emissions, or where a government threatens genocide against its peoples – for example, as in Rwanda in 1994 or, in the view of some, today in Darfur. These situations are potential threats against our security, in the case of climate change, and against our values.
These are difficult questions and promise to become increasingly frequent. The answers to these questions will touch the lives of every Hoya. I wonder what they think about them today .
Carol Lancaster is an associate professor of politics and the director of the Mortara Center for International Studies. Behind The Podium runs every other Tuesday.