The first phase of the Iraq Wars came to a dramatic—and ominously prophetic—denouement on that heady day in April 2003 when U.S. Marines stormed into central Baghdad and pulled down a statue of Saddam Hussein that the local citizenry couldn't quite manage to topple.
Several months later, James Turner Johnson, our foremost historian of the just-war tradition, wisely observed that neither the Iraq War in its largest sense nor the moral debate about the war was going to end any time soon. Just-war thinking, as Johnson reminded us, is not only about the justification of the resort to armed force or the ways in which that force is deployed. Just-war thinking also includes a serious moral analysis of the goal of peace, to which the use of armed force must be ordered. Just war in the age of global jihadist terrorism, he wrote, “is not simply about the right, even the obligation, to use armed force to protect ourselves, our societies, and the values we cherish; it is not only about how we should fight in this cause; it is ultimately about the peace we seek to establish in contrast to the war the terrorists have set in motion. We are, as Augustine put it, to ‘be peaceful . . . in warring,' that is, to keep the aim of peace first and foremost, and not only to ‘vanquish those whom you war against' but also to ‘bring them to the prosperity of peace.' . . . The ideal expressed in the just war tradition . . . is an ideal in which the use of force serves . . . to create peace. This is a purpose that must not be forgotten.”
Just-war thinking is usually taken to include the moral analysis of the ius ad bellum and the ius in bello: “war-decision law” and “war-conduct law,” to use William V. O'Brien's modern terms for two clusters of distinct but related moral criteria. The secular just-war theorist Michael Walzer has been proposing for some years that there is another leg, so to speak, on the just-war stool: a ius post bellum (as Walzer styles it), a set of moral criteria for defining the peace to be sought as the moral goal of the use of armed force. “It seems clear,” Walzer wrote in November 2003, “that you can fight a just war, and fight it justly, and still make a moral mess of the aftermath—by establishing a satellite regime, for example, or by seeking revenge against the citizens of the defeated (aggressor) state, or by failing, after a humanitarian intervention, to help the people you have rescued to rebuild their lives.”
Walzer suggests that the opposite—an unjust war (ad bellum or in bello) that nonetheless produces a just peace—is “harder to imagine.” Yet, he concedes, it's not completely beyond the realm of moral and political possibility that “a misguided military intervention or a preventive war fought before its time might nonetheless end with the displacement of a brutal regime and the construction of a decent one.” It is not hard to imagine the situation that Walzer—who argued in early 2003 for a “little war” strategy of intensified sanctions and extended no-fly zones as a means of toppling Saddam Hussein—has in mind here.
James Turner Johnson has noted that Walzer, whom he credits with significant contributions to the revival of just-war thinking, is nevertheless strikingly uninterested in the tradition's intellectual history. Thus it is perhaps not surprising that Johnson, a true intellectual historian as well as a man trained in theology, is inclined to think that what Walzer calls the ius post bellum is, in fact, already embedded in the ius ad bellum criterion of “right intention,” rightly understood. Right intention is one of the deontological criteria of the ius ad bellum: It denotes a moral duty, not merely a prudential judgment (such as the ad bellum criterion of “last resort”). In this respect the criterion of right intention is like the ad bellum criterion of “just cause”: Right intention is a specification of a legitimate public authority's duty to do what is good, which in the case of war does not end with repelling evil but includes the duty to build the peace of tranquillitas ordinis, the peace of a just public order.
I am inclined to Johnson's position here, arguing as I did twenty years ago that the theo-logic of the just-war way of thinking contained within itself what I then called ius ad pacem: The proportionate and discriminate use of armed force must aim at the construction of the peace of order, which is composed of security, justice, and freedom. Yet whether postwar peacemaking is conceived as a separate cluster of just-war criteria, as Walzer proposes, or as an implication of right intention, as Johnson insists, the duty to build a secure peace in the aftermath of war is intuitively grasped by morally serious people. The shoulder badge worn by the Anglo-American staff of General Dwight D. Eisenhower's Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force during World War II captured this intuition: Against a black background symbolizing the darkness of Nazi aggression, a sword whose rising flames bespoke liberation and justice pointed to a rainbow (hope) surmounted by sky blue, the color of peace and tranquility.
Indeed, one might argue that the democratization of Germany, Italy, and Japan after World War II (motored economically by the Marshall Plan and defended militarily by NATO and the American security guarantees to a disarmed Japan) was a belated recognition by the American people and their political leaders that the United States had failed the test of the ius post bellum in the aftermath of World War I, with globe-shaking and lethal consequences. A similar argument is underway today: How, if at all, is America to help secure the peace in Iraq, more than three years after the conclusion of what was then called, somewhat innocently, the “major combat” phase of the war?
Framing that debate correctly in just-war terms means recognizing that there have been, in fact, four Iraq Wars since a U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq in March 2003:
-* The first was the war to depose Saddam Hussein's regime and create the political and military conditions for the possibility of responsible and responsive government in Iraq. It was quickly concluded at a very low cost in coalition military and Iraqi civilian casualties. -* The second—the war against Baathist recalcitrants and other Saddamist die-hards—erupted shortly after a decisive military victory had been achieved in the first war. Both coalition and civilian casualties increased significantly. -* As Jihadists such as the late, unlamented Abu Musab al-Zarqawi of “al-Qaeda in Iraq” flooded into the country, they deliberately created a third Iraq war, whose aims included not only driving the infidels from Mesopotamia but also destabilizing the fragile Iraqi democracy they regarded as an offense against Islam. -* The fourth war, between Sunni “insurgents” (terrorists, in fact) and Shia death squads and militias, broke out in earnest after the bombing of a major Shia shrine, the Golden Mosque of Samarra, in February 2006—a decisive event in which al-Qaeda operatives seem to have played a part. The second, third, and fourth wars continue to overlap.
While there has been relatively little criticism of the in bello conduct of the first of these four wars (the war to depose the Saddam Hussein regime), the members of the relevant academic guilds, such as the Society of Christian Ethics and the Catholic Theological Society of America, seem, in the main, to have concluded that the invasion of March 2003 did not satisfy the ad bellum criteria of a just war.
Yet, as I wrote in FIRST THINGS a year ago, that conclusion is more often asserted than argued. Advocates of “little war” such as Walzer have yet to show how their sanctions-plus plan would have resulted in the regime change in Baghdad they agreed was imperative. Indeed, proponents of this view have never met the criticism that sanctions-plus would have placed morally unsustainable burdens on the civilian population of Iraq, given the totalitarian character of the Baathist regime.
Meanwhile, proponents of “more diplomacy”—even those who would, in the final analysis, have reluctantly countenanced the use of armed force if “more diplomacy” failed—seem unwilling or unable to reckon with the recalcitrance exhibited by several permanent members of the U.N. Security Council in late 2002 and early 2003. When Dominique de Villepin, then the French foreign minister, told U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell that France would never, under any circumstances, approve the use of armed force to enforce the U.N.'s Iraq resolutions (much less to depose Saddam Hussein), he meant it. And there is nothing in the international record of Vladimir Putin these past three years to suggest that he would, eventually, have “come around” on the question of Iraq. Had the coalition not invaded Iraq and deposed the Baathist regime, Saddam Hussein would have slipped out of the so-called box (a favorite trope of Madeleine Albright) and, as the authoritative Duelfer Report makes clear, would have been back in the weapons-of-mass-destruction business in relatively short order—this time politically strengthened throughout the region by his successful defiance of the United States and its allies. That, in turn, would have encouraged Jihadists everywhere to think, as they did in the 1990s, that the Great Satan was feckless: a “weak horse,” in Osama bin-Laden's infamous phrase.
One of the less-than-helpful media games that has confused debate on Iraq these past five years is to demand of politicians whether Iraq was a “war of necessity” or a “war of choice.” The fact is that it was both. It cannot be seriously doubted that a revitalized Saddam Hussein regime that had successfully defied more than a decade of U.N. sanctions would have been a mortal peril to its neighbors and to world order. Regime change in Iraq was a necessity. It was necessary for the people of Iraq; it was necessary for peace in the Middle East; it was necessary to vindicate the fragile steps toward world order that had been taken since Eisenhower's staff wore those flaming-sword shoulder badges; and it was necessary in order to challenge an Arab political culture warped by irresponsibility, authoritarian brutality, rage, and self-delusion—out of which had emerged, among other things, contemporary Jihadism.
The only choices in the matter were about who and when: Who would depose Saddam Hussein and his regime? Would they act under yet another U.N. resolution? And when would Saddam and his regime be taken down?
Saddam is gone. But while significant parts of Iraq have been pacified (and the Kurdish north is doing well), there is precious little of the peace of order in Baghdad and in Anbar province. Thus those who, like me, would continue to argue for the moral rightness of the decision to use armed force to depose the Saddamist regime must wrestle with the questions posed by Walzer's ius post bellum and Johnson's right intention, rightly understood. That wrestling must include a recognition of the mistakes made by analysts and U.S. policymakers before, during, and after the major combat phase of the war.
The primary failure of American policy-planning is summarized neatly by the New York Times' Michael Gordon and General Bernard Trainor in a fine book, Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq: “What was missing was a comprehensive blueprint to administer and restore Iraq after Saddam was deposed, and identification of the U.S. organizations that would be installed in Baghdad to carry it out.” That lack of a strategic blueprint for post-Saddam Iraq reflected, even as it led to, other errors.
American analysts and U.S. policymakers miscalculated the degree to which post-Saddam Iraq would quickly become a battlefield in the wider war against Jihadism—which, in Iraq, unleashed a series of bloody events that have made the political stabilization of the country far more difficult. In The Foreigner's Gift, Fouad Ajami writes that the quick collapse of a Saddamist regime that had cowed much of the Middle East exposed the “false world” in which Arabs had been living: a world characterized by that distinctive “Arab mix of victimology and wrath” that had defined the Middle East's politics for decades. Such exposure was intolerable to the remaining Baathists in Iraq and Syria, to the forces of the status quo among the Arab leadership, to the apocalyptics in Tehran, and to Jihadists everywhere. And so each of them, in their several ways, worked to impede the success of the “foreigner's gift” to Iraq of political freedom and the forms of democratic self-government.
Had we recognized that the “links” between Iraq and jihadist terrorism were of a different sort than the conspiracies for which Western intelligence agencies were searching—had we understood that, in the Jihadists' worldview, a democratic Iraq, created by American military and economic power linked to Iraqi people power, was intolerable—then we might have understood that the Jihadists would bend every effort to turn Iraq into what Ajami calls a “devil's playground,” the porous borders of which “were a magnet for jihadists looking for a field of battle”: Jordanians, Syrians, Lebanese, Saudis, Palestinians, Iranians, all of whom grasped the fact that, if America were to succeed in Iraq, and Iraq to succeed as a modern Islamic society, their various dreams would be dealt a major, perhaps lethal, blow. On this field of battle, the Jihadists were de facto allies of other miscreants: the Syrian government, the Iranian government, and the Hamas government of the Palestinian Authority, none of whose behavior toward Iraq was seriously challenged by the forces of Arab “moderation” (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia) nor by the United States and its allies.
In sum, American analysts and policymakers did not grasp quickly enough that major combat in Iraq had only (to quote Robert Kaplan) “shaped the battlefield” for what was coming next: a counterinsurgency war against Baathist and Iraqi military die-hards and Jihadists (in which America's information-technology military advantage would be gravely weakened), followed by a sectarian conflict between Iraqi Sunni and Iraqi Shia dominated by terrorist tactics, all of which raised grave issues of Iraq's governability.
Even though executing the war plan had required a lot of improvisation along the road to Baghdad and in the capture of Baghdad itself, the United States was reasonably well prepared for the first Iraq war: the war to depose Saddam Hussein and create the possibility of responsible and responsive Iraqi government. America was prepared neither militarily nor politically for the three wars that followed—the war against the remaining Iraqi Baathists and their allies, the war against Zarqawi and other Jihadists, and the post-Samarra war between Shia and Sunni.
American analysts and policymakers also miscalculated badly in imagining the degree of damage done to the fabric of Iraqi civil society by more than twenty-five years of Baathist totalitarianism. This, in turn, led to underestimating seriously the difficulties in accelerating a return to a functioning economy after the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime. As Robert Kaplan writes, describing the situation as he experienced it in the spring of 2004:
The social and cultural refuse created by the [Baathist] regime was everywhere, overwhelming the American authorities. While clichés abounded about the talent of the Iraqi people and their ability to quickly build a vibrant capitalist society, officers of the 82nd Airborne who had been [in Iraq] for months told another, more familiar story: of how Iraqis, like their Syrian neighbors, had in recent decades not experienced Western capitalism so much as a diseased variant of it, in which you couldn't even open a restaurant or a shop without having connections to the regime. Above the level of the street vendor, in other words, capitalism [in Iraq] would have to be learned from scratch.
The social incapacities induced by Saddam Hussein's totalitarianism intersected with the depredations to civil society caused by the wider Arab Islamic culture of “false redeemers and pretenders” (as Fouad Ajami describes it) to make the formation of a rudimentary democratic political culture in Iraq extremely difficult. That problem has been compounded, in turn, by the capacity of al-Jazeera and other new-technology Arab-language media to spread lies; as Ajami writes in The Foreigner's Gift, “the new technology was put at the service of an old and stubborn refusal to face and name things as they are.”
The third error to which bad planning led us was the lack of adequate resources allocated for post-Saddam reconstruction in Iraq. As Max Boot writes in his book War Made New:
[A] dangerous [post-Saddam] security vacuum [was exacerbated by a] . . . lack of reconstruction assistance. Only $2.5 billion had been budgeted initially to rebuild Iraq, an amount that would prove grossly inadequate, given the dilapidated condition in which Saddam Hussein's misrule and a decade of sanctions had left the country and especially its oil industry. (Administration officials would later claim that they had no idea in advance of how run-down everything was, but private experts had foreseen the need for at least $25
billion to $100 billion in reconstruction aid.) In November 2003 Congress voted $18
.4 billion in further aid for Afghanistan and Iraq, but the money had to flow through so many bureaucratic brooks and eddies that only a trickle reached its ultimate destination. As of December 2004, just $2 billion had been spent in Iraq—and much of that went for security and overhead costs incurred by American contractors.
Here, as in the days before the attacks of September 11, the American intelligence community did not provide policymakers and planners what they needed, for American intelligence failed to grasp just how much damage had been done to Iraq's infrastructure by the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein's perverse priorities in the 1990s, and sanctions-driven economic stagnation.
To make matters worse, there was a serious lack of bureaucratic coordination among American agencies responsible for reconstruction efforts in Iraq from the beginning. Struggles between the Department of Defense and the Department of State over which of the two would be the lead agency in postwar Iraq—struggles that the White House could have resolved, but did not—exacerbated the lack of interagency coordination. According to Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor in Cobra II, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld distrusted the State Department's capacity to lead and coordinate, and he feared that the bureaucratic sluggishness at Foggy Bottom would end up balkanizing Iraq. Rumsfeld may also have believed that the Defense Department could restore order in Iraq as efficiently as the U.S. military and its allies had defeated Saddam's army. This vacuum of bureaucratic leadership made it even more difficult to recognize that the original levels of reconstruction aid anticipated were gravely deficient. The administration did not grasp quickly enough the truth that “money is ammunition”—a lesson about fighting a post-liberation counterinsurgency war that the new commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, identified a year and a half ago.
Bush-administration officials may, as Gordon and Trainor suggest, have brought a settled skepticism about “nation-building” to their thinking about post-Saddam Iraq. But state-building was in fact the responsibility we had taken on by determining that regime change in Iraq was a necessity. Strengthening the severely attenuated sinews of Iraq civil society, and building the rudiments of democratic self-governance amid massive economic dislocations (and bad economic habits), were essential objectives of any ius post bellum strategy. All of this should have been thought through more carefully before March 2003—not to mention when it became unmistakably clear, a year after the “major combat” phase of the Iraq Wars.
Bad planning created a fourth error, when American policymakers failed to devise an effective “hearts-and-minds” strategy for post-Saddam Iraq. After dominating the information dimensions of the first war, the war against Saddam Hussein's regime, the United States too often left the information field to sources of misinformation and disinformation like al-Jazeera, with serious strategic consequences. Max Boot describes the deleterious effects of this default on the first battle for Fallujah in April 2004, a crucial moment in the second of the four Iraq Wars:
On April 4, 2004, two Marine battalions launched an assault on Fallujah. Five days later, while Marines were still battling their way into the city, the offensive was suspended because of inflammatory media coverage, primarily on the Arabic satellite news channel al-Jazeera, which claimed that Marines were deliberately targeting mosques and civilians. [Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul] Bremer, [General John] Abizaid, and other senior officials feared that, if the operation continued, support for the U.S. would crumble throughout the country. . . . In Fallujah, negative news coverage succeeded in doing what Saddam Hussein's military had failed to do: it stopped the mighty U.S. military in its tracks. As Lieutenant General James Conway, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, put it, “Al-Jazeera kicked our butts.” The Marines had to leave Fallujah, handing the insurgents their most notable victory.
That disinformation-driven failure in Fallujah was itself a blow to building responsible government in Iraq, and it would be reversed only months later at the cost of numerous American and Iraqi casualties.
This broad inventory does not exhaust the catalogue of American military and political failures in Iraq, which are described in painful detail in Cobra II and elsewhere—and those mistakes began early. To take but two crucial examples: The looting and the general breakdown of public order that followed the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime should have been met with a far firmer response. The near disappearance of Iraq's borders, the openness of which permitted, indeed encouraged, large numbers of Jihadists to enter the country, is a problem that began immediately after major combat ended; subsequent events have proven that it cannot be solved by Predator drones alone. Unwilling to appear as anything other than liberators, however, and lacking the troops to maintain public order and patrol the borders, the U.S.-led coalition let the window of opportunity they had opened by the swiftness of their military victory in the spring of 2003 close.
Others share the blame here. Where were America's allies, not to mention the “international community,” when large numbers of troops for border security and massive funds for reconstruction were required? But that should not diminish the sense of responsibility to be borne by the United States: We had taken the decision to depose the Saddam Hussein regime; we were in charge; and we had failed to think through, prior to the invasion, the worst-case scenarios, several of which were to unfold with savage rapidity.
Donald Rumsfeld has become, in some circles, a convenient scapegoat for all this; and, indeed, his seeming refusal to concede the difference between the force levels needed for a lightning-swift military campaign and the force levels required for domestic security and border control played no small role in the failures of the past several years. Yet it should also be recognized that Rumsfeld got some things right. It was Rumsfeld who correctly insisted that the information-technology revolution meant that Saddam could be toppled with fewer troops than had been required to eject him from Kuwait in 1991, and it was Rumsfeld who, with General Tommy Franks, insisted that the field commanders get moving again when the first phase of the invasion had stalled. Moreover, the failure of imagination that resulted in both a U.S. military and a Coalition Provisional Authority unprepared for the postwar ungovernability of Iraq rests with the government's entire national-security apparatus, not just with the Defense Department. When British historian Niall Ferguson argued some years ago that the United States lacked an imperial playbook, he was, it is now clear, on to something important.
So what does all this mean for the immediate future? Is Iraq, to cite the new speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, “not a war to be won but a situation to be managed”? How are Americans, sobered by the events of the recent past, to react to President Bush's description of our circumstances in the 2007 State of the Union message: “This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we're in. Every one of us wishes this war were over and won. Yet it would not be like us to leave our promises unkept, our friends abandoned, and our own security at risk. . . . It is still within our power to shape the outcome of this battle. Let us find our resolve, and turn events toward victory.” Where do second and third thoughts on Iraq, filtered through the prism of Michael Walzer's ius post bellum or James Turner Johnson's amplification of the just-war criterion of “right intention,” lead us?
The first place they ought to lead us is to the conclusion that the worst answer to the dilemma of Iraq—the worse answer from a moral point of view, and the worst answer from strategic point of view—is to follow Congressman Jack Murtha and many others in saying, “We're out.”
What would “out” mean? At the moment, it would certainly mean a genocidal war of Balkan ferocity or worse within Iraq. That war would almost as certainly draw in both Iran and the Sunni powers of the region; if Iraq imploded, Iraqi Kurdistan would be severely tempted to declare its independence, perhaps in league with fellow Kurds in the adjacent areas of Turkey and Iran. And then, it seems almost certain, the entire region would explode, with incalculable political, economic, and human costs. In the midst of that chaos, al-Qaeda and similar networks would find themselves new Iraqi havens, as they did in the chaos of the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan—which would, in turn, likely mean that the United States would have to go back into Iraq in the future, under far, far worse circumstances than we face today.
The Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group, not otherwise notable for its strategic insight (indeed, most notable for its reiteration of the old shibboleths of “stability”), recognized this much, at least. And yet there are those who, for a variety of reasons—a misguided pacifism, despair over governmental ineptitude, Bush Derangement Syndrome, political calculation—insist that “we're out” is the only answer. In truth, “we're out” is the only answer that utterly fails to satisfy the ius post bellum, however one construes it. “We're out” is contemptible, and it is dangerous.
How, then, does the administration's new strategy comport with a rightly understood ius post bellum? As some of its friends have noted from time to time, this has not been an easy administration to help, although in my limited personal experience it has been an administration open to arguments that cut across the grain of current policy. In any event, senior officials of the Bush administration seem to have learned more from their mistakes than have their most vociferous critics, many of whom seem locked in fall 2006 campaign mode.
Thus Secretary Rumsfeld has been replaced. A firmer line has been laid down to the Iraqi government. The U.S. military has done one of the things it does far better than journalistic, ecclesiastical, or congressional America: It has studied its mistakes and learned from them. A strategic review has led to a new counterinsurgency military strategy for the pacification of Baghdad and Anbar province. That effort will be led by General David Petraeus, a man who has thought long and hard about the failures to date of U.S. efforts in Iraq.
Whether Petraeus has, in the initial surge, been given sufficient forces to do the counterinsurgency job for which he wrote the current U.S. Army Field Manual remains to be seen. It seems likely that, if he thinks he needs more, he will ask for more, as he promised the Senate Armed Services committee during his confirmation hearings; and it seems just as likely that President Bush will give Petraeus what Petraeus says he needs, no matter what the short-term political cost. No one should expect a quick turnaround in Iraq, given the amount of ground that has already been lost in the second, third, and fourth Iraq wars. But if Petraeus' clear-hold-and-build strategy blunts both Sunni and Shia terrorism and begins, within a year, to show genuine results in a Baghdad in which the Iraqi government is no longer barricaded inside the Green Zone, then perhaps we may hope that the 2008 presidential campaign season will address the ongoing problems of Iraq—and there will still be serious problems in 2008, without a doubt—in a more thoughtful way than our domestic politics seems capable of at the moment.
But what if the Petraeus strategy fails, for whatever reasons—an intractable local situation, inadequate force levels, a complete breakdown of congressional support? What would the ius post bellum suggest then?
It would not suggest that “we're out” has automatically become the strategy of moral choice. It would be morally wrong to abandon the Kurds to their fate, yet again; indeed, Charles Krauthammer has proposed that, in the event of a collapse of governance in Baghdad, the United States should “move much of its personnel to Kurdistan, where we are welcome and safe.” Such a move would not only fulfill a moral obligation to a people American policymakers betrayed in 1991, when the George H.W. Bush administration allowed Saddam Hussein to reimpose control on Kurdish (and Shia) areas we had encouraged to rise in revolt against the Baathist regime; it would also, arguably, give the United States a strategic position from which to try to direct events in the region in a better direction once a measure of stability had been achieved in Iraq. Whether any future president or Congress would be capable of proposing, much less doing, that is another question entirely. Should the Petraeus strategy fail, the domestic political pressure for complete U.S. withdrawal could become irresistible.
There has been much talk of “realism” in recent months, most of it involving the misguided appeasement of tyrants such as those in Syria or apocalyptics such as those in Iran. An older realism—a realism like that of Reinhold Niebuhr—would not be out of place in the intellectual armament of those willing to think through the strategic and moral thicket that is Iraq today. As the past four years should have reminded us, elements of the Christian realist sensibility remain essential intellectual furnishing for anyone thinking in a morally serious way about U.S. foreign policy in the twenty-first century: an understanding of the inevitable irony, pathos, and tragedy of history; alertness to unintended consequences; a robust skepticism about schemes of human perfection (especially when politics is the instrument of salvation); a way of cherishing democracy without worshiping it. Yet, as Reinhold Niebuhr himself understood, realism must always be complemented by a sense of the possibilities of human creativity in history.
Dean Acheson once recalled that, at another moment when history's tectonic plates were shifting, the task he and Harry Truman faced “only slowly revealed itself. As it did so, it began to appear as just a little bit less formidable than that described in the first chapter of Genesis. That was to create a world out of chaos.” The Bush administration, notwithstanding what it has gotten wrong, has gotten this precisely right, even if the permanent national-security bureaucracies have been slow to follow suit. The challenge today is quite similar to that faced by Truman and Acheson, Marshall and Vandenberg, confronted by an ideological enemy with global ambitions in the late 1940s. In building a twenty-first-century world out of the chaos caused by the intersection of feckless twentieth-century Western policies and global Jihadism, Americans should certainly be realistic. But in being realistic, we would do well to remember the counsel of the late public philosopher Charles Frankel: “The heart of the policy-making process . . . is not the finding of a national interest already perfectly known and understood. It is the determining of that interest: the reassessment of the nation's resources, needs, commitments, traditions, and political and cultural horizons—in short, its calendar of values.”
The Bush administration's efforts to accelerate change in the Arab Islamic world were determined by a realistic assessment of the situation after September 11, when the “custodians of American power,” as Fouad Ajami notes, “were under great pressure to force history's pace.” To attempt to accelerate the transition to responsible and responsive government in the Middle East was a realistic objective, given an unacceptable status quo that was unstable, corrupt, and producing terrorists and Jihadists determined to challenge those corruptions and then expand their power globally.
Accelerating the transition to responsible and responsive government in the Arab Islamic world was the grand strategic idea that impelled the United States to bring the “foreigner's gift” to Iraq. The implementation of that idea has been, in many respects, a failure thus far; but the idea itself was a noble one. And the prescription it embodied was correct. As Bernard Lewis has argued, “the war against terror and the quest for freedom are inextricably linked, and neither can succeed without the other.” We may be sure that the war against terror will suffer commensurately if the Iraqi phase of the quest for freedom and a new politics in the Arab Islamic world is frustrated. No one—in the Congress, in the churches, in the academy, or on the street—can wish for that and still claim the mantle of moral seriousness.
George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His new book, Deserving Victory: An Open Letter to the American People, will be published in November.