Tuesday, November 20, 2007
The Fogged Goggles Of War
I understand why Kevin Drum needed a drink after reading this Anne Applebaum column about the collateral damage of Iraq. Applebaum begins by correctly describing the impact of the Iraq War on our credibility, and as I wrote yesterday, Congressional Democrats would do well to pay attention to the way she frames her assessment of the good news out of Iraq (short version: don't get too excited about it).
But after acknowledging the difficulty of convincing people to take anything we say seriously when they basically no longer take anything we say seriously, Applebaum goes on to lament that in such a climate of distrust, we'll never be able to convince our European allies of the need for a military strike. Which effectively leaves us with a policy of crossing our fingers and hoping that Iran either doesn't end up with a bomb, or remains deterrable if it does.
Now, as things stand, I think a unilateral strike on Iran would be disastrous, so to see this kind of stuff on the WaPo editorially page definitely makes me want to reach for a drink, too. I'm also not convinced that the chances of the crossed fingers approach resulting in acceptable outcomes are zero, although that doesn't make it a very attractive policy option.
But having said that, I think that on a broader level, the Iran standoff illustrates the way in which the Iraq War has fogged our own (meaning war opponents) goggles a bit as well. Take for instance Matthew Yglesias' use of a Richard Holbrooke quote about Saddam Hussein and Iraq from back in January 2001 to illustrate the risks of a hawkish Hillary Clinton presidency. As Kevin Drum later pointed out, a hard line on Saddam Hussein was perfectly reasonable in January 2001.
As for Iran's nuclear program, I think that in the absence of the Iraq fiasco, a hard and even bellicose line would be widely regarded as reasonable today as well. In fact, were it not for the aftermath of the Iraq War, there probably would be broad domestic support for a unilateral strike -- or at least the credible threat of the use of force -- and probably tacit support in both Europe and the Middle East as well.
Now that's not to say that such a consensus would have been any more correct today than it was in the run-up to the Iraq War, either on the facts or on the strategic consequences of such a strike. But if in the absence of the Iraq War, the Iran nuclear standoff would have risen to the level of liberal hawks' threat threshhold (which I think is the case), the question becomes, What has the Iraq War changed? Are we simply adjusting our foreign policy to the realities on the ground, or have we re-considered the underlying principles that led to the mistakes in the first place? I think it's a discussion that's worth having, if only to find out whether we're being pragmatic or wise.