Tuesday, March 07, 2006

When I Was in High School

Today, I had the great opportunity to hear the Heritage Foundation's Peter Brookes give a talk on the future challenges of U.S. foreign policy. Like the good bureaucrat he is, Brookes' talking points were along those lines inherent to DC security types: the world is a dangerous place and we, the U.S., have the right and duty to maintain order while pursuing our interests in tandem. He is a realist of the American exceptionalist vein -- our impeccable history and ideals give us carte blanche to dictate the structure of the global order.

Along realist grounds he pointed indeed to grave threats to international stability: Iran's nuclear policy and their record of international terrorism, China's tremendous growth, and related to both, the world's energy security. Actually I have no doubt that he and I would see eye to eye on many problems facing the U.S. and the world. For better, although I make this statement with reservation, the U.S. is the global hegemon and maintains a decently liberal global order when it's in our interest to do so. The main variable that always must be kept in play is just that: U.S. interest. Although I'm sure Brookes understands that U.S. interest doesn't necessarily mean it coincides with the world's interest, his job description precludes him from voicing such doubts or discontents.

And this is the problem I have with the Brookes' and the bureaucrats and the conservative intelligentsia in which he travels. They never allow it to creep into their minds that U.S. interests deter democracy and liberalization in many corners of the world. I posed a simple question to him and his answer is instructive to say the least.

I asked, "As a supporter of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, do you repudiate U.S. policy towards Iraq during the 1980s?"

He answered, "I don't know, I was in high school at the time."

He was ducking the question, so I pressured him a bit saying his answer was ridiculous. He hunkered in a bit and told me the story of the 1979 Iranian hostage situation and how Iran was our enemy and we were using Iraq to balance against Iranian expansion and the export of Khomeini's revolution. So basically he gave the tried and true answer that international relations is dirty business and that in makes for strange bedfellows. I agree it does and it probably always will. This of course is the logic of realpolitik most famously associated with Henry Kissinger during the Nixon and Ford Administrations.

That's fine. But the problem is that Brookes worked for an Administration who used the rhetoric of human rights along with national security concerns to garner support for our invasion and occupation of Iraq. If I remember correctly, Bush consistently pointed out that Saddam had gassed his people and this, if nothing else, should lead to his disposition. What Bush always forgot to mention was that the precusors for those same chemical weapons came from the West and were used throughout the war against the Iranians and the Kurds as we looked the other way. After reading the declassified documents, Joyce Battle of the National Security Archives concludes:
The current Bush administration discusses Iraq in starkly moralistic terms to further its goal of persuading a skeptical world that a preemptive and premeditated attack on Iraq could and should be supported as a "just war." The documents included in this briefing book reflect the realpolitik that determined this country's policies during the years when Iraq was actually employing chemical weapons. Actual rather than rhetorical opposition to such use was evidently not perceived to serve U.S. interests; instead, the Reagan administration did not deviate from its determination that Iraq was to serve as the instrument to prevent an Iranian victory. Chemical warfare was viewed as a potentially embarrassing public relations problem that complicated efforts to provide assistance. The Iraqi government's repressive internal policies, though well known to the U.S. government at the time, did not figure at all in the presidential directives that established U.S. policy toward the Iran-Iraq war. The U.S. was concerned with its ability to project military force in the Middle East, and to keep the oil flowing.
This is where Brookes' argument starts to lose coherence if morality, responsibility and accountability mean anything in the sordid affair we call international relations. If he was for the Iraq war on the grounds the president ventured -- i.e. human rights as well as national security -- then he should be able to say that prior U.S. policy towards Iraq was misguided because, in a sense, we are making amends for the wrongs we perpetuated on the Iraqi people more than a decade and a half ago and that it made the U.S. less safe in the process (a Hitchensesque argument). Simply, without the knowledge of chemical weapons the West gave him and our shut mouth policy toward his deployment of them, Hussein would have had a harder time killing innocents and violating the laws of war.

Of course Brookes can always fall back on realpolitik as a bulwark against this line of moralist reasoning, but then, all I have to ask of him is this: Could the Bush Administration have persuaded the American people initially into supporting the war in Iraq once they discovered WMDs didn't exist or at least weren't there in the volume the President maintained?