Why Are We In Iraq? (And Liberia? And Afghanistan?)
By MICHAEL IGNATIEFF
New York Times, September 7, 2003
In the back alleys of Iraq, the soldiers from the 101st Airborne and First Armored Divisions are hot, dirty and scared. They want to go home, but instead they're pinned down, fighting off hit-and-run attacks and trying to stop sabotage on pipelines, water mains and electric grids. They were told they would be greeted as liberators, but now, many months later, they are an army of occupation, trying to save the reputation of a president who never told them -- did he know himself? -- what they were getting into. The Muslim fighters rushing to join the remnants of Saddam Hussein's loyalists in a guerrilla war to reclaim Iraq have understood all along what the war has been about -- that it was never simply a matter of preventing the use of weapons of mass destruction; rather, it was about consolidating American power in the Arab world. Some in the administration no doubt understood this, too, though no one took the trouble to explain all their reasons for going to war to the American people or, for that matter, the rest of the world.
But now we know. Iraq may become for America what Afghanistan became for the Soviet empire: the place where its fight against Islamic jihad will be won or lost. Nor is the United States the only target. The suicide bomb that killed Sergio Vieira de Mello and decimated his team has drawn the United Nations into the vortex. The United Nations came to Baghdad to give American nation-building a patina of legitimacy. Now the world body has been targeted as an accomplice of occupation. If the United States fails in Iraq, so will the United Nations.
To see what is really unfolding in Iraq, we need to place it in the long history of American overseas interventions. It is worth remembering, for example, that when American soldiers have occupied countries before, for example Japan and Germany, the story started out much the same: not enough food, not enough electricity, not enough law and order (and, in Germany, ragtag Nazi fighters). And if this history is part of what drove us into Iraq, what doctrine, if any, has determined when and where Americans are sent to fight? Before the United States sends troops to any future front -- Syria? North Korea? Iran? -- it is crucial to ask: What does the history of American intervention teach us to hope and to fear? And how might the United States devise a coherent strategy of engagement suited for the perils -- and possibilities -- of the 21st century?
From the very beginning, the American republic has never shrunk from foreign wars. A recent Congressional study shows that there has scarcely been a year since its founding that American soldiers haven't been overseas ''from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli,'' chasing pirates, punishing bandits, pulling American citizens out of harm's way, intervening in civil wars, stopping massacres, overturning regimes deemed (fairly or not) unfriendly and exporting democracy. American foreign policy largely consists of doctrines about when and where to intervene in other people's countries. In 1823, James Monroe committed the United States -- militarily, if it came to that -- to keeping foreign colonial powers out of the entire Western Hemisphere. In 1906, Theodore Roosevelt added a corollary giving the United States the right to send in troops when any of its Latin American neighbors engaged in ''flagrant wrongdoing.'' Most Latin Americans, then and now, took that to mean that the United States would topple any government in the hemisphere that acted against American interests. Early in the last century, American troops went ashore to set up governments in Haiti and the Dominican Republic and chased Pancho Villa around Mexico. And this kind of intervention wasn't just confined to pushing around Latin Americans. Twelve thousand troops were sent to support the White armies fighting the Communists in the Russian Civil War that began in 1918. In the 1920's, during the civil war in China, there were 6,000 American soldiers ashore and a further 44 naval vessels in the China Sea protecting American interests. (Neither venture was much of a success. Both Russia and China eventually went Communist.)
Despite George Washington's call to avoid foreign entanglements and John Quincy Adams's plea that America should abjure slaying monsters abroad, splendid isolation has never proved to be a convincing foreign policy for Americans. First in 1917 and then again in 1941, American presidents thought they could keep America out of Europe's wars only to discover that isolation was not an option for a country wanting to be taken seriously as a world power -- which, from the beginning, is precisely what America desired. Intervention required huge sacrifice -- the haunting American graveyards in France are proof of this -- but American soldiers helped save Europe from dictatorship, and their hard fighting turned America into the most powerful nation on earth.
Americans may think that their troops used to stay at home and that intervention and nation-building used to be rare. In fact, regime change is as old a story in American foreign policy, as is unilateralism. Until the United Nations came along in 1945, the United States did all this intervening without asking anyone's permission. But after watching America be dragged into world war because the League of Nations had been so weak, Franklin Roosevelt decided to back the creation of a muscular world body. He was even willing to hand over some authority over interventions to the United Nations Security Council, leaving it to the council to decide which threats to international peace and security gave states the right to send in military force. Cold-war deadlock on the council, however, frustrated the Roosevelt dream. Besides, a substantial body of American opinion has always questioned why the United States should ask the United Nations' permission to use force abroad.
After World War II, the boys may have wanted to come home, but Truman kept American soldiers on guard around the world to defend free governments from Communist overthrow. This meant shoring up the Greeks in 1947 and sending troops to prevent South Korea from going under in 1950. But anti-Communism had its limits. It did not mean going to the aid of the Hungarians when they rose up against Soviet domination in 1956. When the Soviet tanks rumbled into Budapest, Eisenhower turned a deaf ear as the Hungarians begged over the airwaves for American help. Ike decided that intervention that risked conflict -- perhaps nuclear conflict -- with a great power was not worth the candle.
Never pick on someone your own size, which in our time means someone with nuclear weapons: this has been Rule No. 1 of intervention since the end of the Second World War. Minor rogues, would-be tough guys like Saddam Hussein, perhaps, but never someone who can actually deliver a nuclear bomb. (We are about to see whether this rule holds with regard to North Korea.) Even the enormous American intervention in Vietnam took great care to avoid a direct clash with Russia and China.
When Lyndon Johnson sent half a million troops to Vietnam, he thought he was containing Communism in Asia (without threatening either the Chinese or Russian regimes that were financing North Vietnam's campaign). Johnson never realized his ultimate enemy was Vietnamese nationalism. The 58,000 names carved into the black granite of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington are the measure of Johnson's mistake. Rule No. 2 of American intervention evolved out of Vietnam: Never fight someone who is more willing to die than you are. (This is the rule now being tested by the hit-and-run attackers and suicide bombers in Iraq.) The Vietnam veterans who came to command the American military -- led by Colin Powell -- also settled on Rule No. 3, which remains much debated: Never intervene except with overwhelming force in defense of a vital national interest. (Thus this summer's gingerly approach to Liberia.)
But what has been the national interest once the cold war ended and the threat of a growing Communist empire evaporated? No clear national interest has emerged. No clear conversation about the national interest has emerged. Policy -- if one can even speak of policy -- has seemed to be mostly the prisoner of interventionist lobbies with access to the indignation machine of the modern media. America in the 1990's intervened to oust an invader (the first gulf war), to stop civil war (Bosnia), to stop ethnic cleansing (Kosovo), to feed the starving (Somalia) and to prevent a country from falling apart (Macedonia). America also dithered on the sidelines and watched 800,000 people die in three awful months in Rwanda, when airstrikes against the government sponsors of the genocide, coupled with reinforcement of the United Nations troops on the ground, might have stopped the horror. Rule No. 4: Never use force except as a last resort (sometimes turned into an alibi for doing nothing).
During the Clinton years, there were presidential directives that sought to define exactly what the Clinton doctrine on intervention might be. But no doctrine was ever arrived at. There was a guiding principle: reluctance to shed American blood. Thus, Rule No. 5 in American interventions: When force is used as a last resort, avoid American casualties. Since the Clinton administration's interventions were not of necessity to protect the national interest -- whatever that was at the time -- but matters of choice, this made a certain amount of sense, at least in terms of domestic politics.
The problem with Rule No. 5 is that it made force protection as important as mission accomplishment and may have sent the wrong signal to the enemy. By cutting and running after the botched intervention in Somalia in 1993, for instance, Clinton might have led Osama bin Laden to believe that Americans lacked the stomach for a fight. Ten years later, we may still be paying the price for that mistake.
By the end of the 1990's, conservative commentators were complaining that Clinton's intervention doctrine, such as it was, had lost touch with national interest and had degenerated into social work. The Bush campaign vowed that the 101st Airborne wouldn't be wasted escorting foreign children to school and promised to bring the boys home from Bosnia. (They remain.) As far as the Bush administration was concerned, too much intervention, where too little was at stake, was blunting the purpose of the military, which was to ''fight and win the nation's wars.'' Of course, at the time he became president, the nation had no wars, and none loomed on the horizon.
Then came Sept. 11 -- and then came first Afghanistan and then Iraq. These two reversed Rule No. 4. (Only use force as a last resort.) Now the Bush administration was committing itself to use force as a first resort. But the Bush doctrine on intervention is no clearer than Clinton's. The Bush administration is committed to absolute military pre-eminence, but does anyone think that Clinton's military was less determined to remain the single -- and overwhelming -- superpower? The Bush doctrine is also burdened with contradiction. The president took office ruling out humanitarian interventions, yet marines did (finally) go ashore in war-torn Liberia. During the 2000 campaign, George Bush ruled out intervention in the cause of nation-building, only to find himself staking his presidency on the outcome of nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq. Having called for a focused intervention strategy, he has proclaimed a war on terror that never clearly defines terrorism; never differentiates among terrorist organizations as to which explicitly threaten American interests and which do not; and never has settled on which states supporting or harboring terrorists are targets of American intervention. An administration whose supposed watchword is self-discipline regularly leaks to the press, for example, that its intervention list might include Syria or Iran -- or might not, depending on the day of the week you ask. The administration, purposefully or not, routinely conflates terrorism and the nuclear threat from rogue nations. These are threats of a profoundly different order and magnitude. Finally, the administration promises swift and decisive interventions that will lead to victory. But as Afghanistan shows (and Iraq is beginning to show), this expectation is deluded. Taking down the state that sheltered Osama bin Laden was easy; shutting down Al Qaeda has proved frustratingly difficult. Interventions don't end when the last big battle is won. In a war on terror, containing rather than defeating the enemy is the most you can hope for. Where is the doctrine acknowledging that truth?
The Bush administration, as no administration before it, has embraced ''pre-emption.'' It's a strategy of sorts, but hardly a doctrine. Where is the definition of when pre-emption might actually be justified? The angry postwar debate about whether the American public (and the British public, too) were duped into the Iraq war is about much more than whether intelligence estimates were ''sexed up'' to make the threat from Hussein seem more compelling. It is about what level of threat warrants pre-emptive use of force. Almost 20 years ago, George P. Shultz, as Reagan's secretary of state, gave a speech warning that America would have to make pre-emptive intervention against terrorist threats on the basis of evidence that would be less than clear. Since Shultz, no one has clarified how intervention decisions are to be made when intelligence is, as it is bound to be, uncertain. As Paul Wolfowitz, the Bush administration's deputy secretary of defense, has candidly acknowledged, the intelligence evidence used to justify force in Iraq was ''murky.'' If so, the American people should have been told just that. Instead, they were told that intervention was necessary to meet a real and imminent threat. Now the line seems to be that the war wasn't much of an act of pre-emption at all, but rather a crusade to get rid of an odious regime. But this then makes it a war of choice -- and the Bush administration came to power vowing not to fight those. At the moment, the United States is fighting wars in two countries with no clear policy of intervention, no clear end in sight and no clear understanding among Americans of what their nation has gotten itself into.
There has always been an anti-intervention party in American politics, one that believes that the Republic should resist the temptations of empire and that democracy at home is menaced when force is used to export democracy abroad. During the war to annex the Philippines in 1898, the fine flower of the American intellectual and moral elite was dead set against the war: the humorist Mark Twain, the union leader Samuel Gompers, the multimillionaire Andrew Carnegie, the social critic and activist Jane Addams. From these luminaries of yesteryear to the luminaries of today -- Norman Mailer, Noam Chomsky, the Dixie Chicks -- intervention has been excoriated as an imperial misadventure, justified in the language of freedom and democracy but actually prosecuted for venal motive: oil, power, revenge, political advantage at home and nefarious designs abroad.
The anti-intervention party in American politics often captures the high moral ground but usually loses the war for public opinion. With the single exception of Vietnam -- where the sheer cost in blood made the exercise seem futile both to moralists and realists alike -- the American public has never been convinced that the country would lose its soul in overseas wars. On the contrary, Americans have tended to get caught up in the adventure. They have also believed at times that intervention can serve their interests. When anti-interventionists in the months before the invasion of Iraq thundered, ''No blood for oil!'' many Americans no doubt thought, ''If you won't fight to defend the oil supply, what will you fight for?''
Still, Americans want even this kind of interest backed by principle. Whether it is because America is a religious country at heart, ever concerned with the state of its soul, or just trying to set a better example than the nasty imperialists of old, its leaders have always justified intervention in righteous -- or at least disinterested -- terms. Teddy Roosevelt incessantly spoke of the restoration of civilized values when he laid hands on Cuba and the Philippines. His ulterior motives -- guarding the sea lanes to the Panama Canal he planned to open, securing naval bases in the Pacific -- were played down, lest they introduce a note of vulgar calculation into the proceedings. Likewise in Iraq, much mention was made of human rights and democracy and much less about the obvious fact that the operation was about oil, not in the callow sense of going to war for the sake of Halliburton but in the wider sense of America's consolidating its hegemonic role as the guarantor of stable oil supplies for the Western economy.
Yet oil is not the whole story, as capitalist interest has never been. From Teddy Roosevelt to George W. Bush, moral feeling has made a real difference to the timing and scope of interventions. Just compare Bush the father with Bush the son. The father is a cold-eyed realist. In 1991, he did not think the oppression of the Kurds and Shiites justified going all the way to Baghdad. His son is more a hotblooded moralist. Bringing freedom to the Iraqis seems to matter to him, which is why, perhaps, he rushed to Baghdad not caring whether he had a coalition behind him or not. This is not to say that this president's moralism is unproblematic or that it has gone unchallenged. When he went to the United Nations in September 2002 to make his case for action against Hussein, Amnesty International released a statement objecting to his citation of Hussein's abject human rights record as a ground for the use of force. Nothing makes human rights activists angrier than watching political leaders conscript human rights into a justification for aggression. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, both of which had denounced Hussein's tyranny for some 20 years with little or no support from successive American administrations, had good reason to be suspicious of the motives of a presidential Johnny-come-lately to the human rights cause. Nonetheless, this put human rights advocates in the curious position of denouncing Hussein but objecting when someone finally proposed to do something about him. To oppose an intervention that was bound to improve the human rights of Iraqis because the man leading that intervention was late to the cause would seem to value good intentions more than good consequences.
Some of the immediate consequences of the Iraq intervention have been good indeed: a totalitarian regime is no longer terrorizing Iraqis; Shiites marching in their hundreds of thousands to celebrate at their shrine at Karbala, along with professors, policemen and office workers demonstrating in the streets of Baghdad, are tasting freedom for the first time; Iraqis as a whole are discovering the truth about the torture chambers, mass graves and other squalid secrets of more than two decades of tyranny. The people may be using their freedom to demand an early exit of the troops who won it for them, but that is exactly how it should be. If the consequence of intervention is a rights-respecting Iraq in a decade or so, who cares whether the intentions that led to it were mixed at best? But it does matter that American intentions were never really spelled out and that the members of the Bush administration do not seem to have a clear intervention policy on Iraq or anywhere else. Establishing and sustaining a rights-respecting Iraq will depend, in part, on setting a policy and convincing the American people of it. And future interventions will depend on policy coherence, too.
Yet it is also true that if a rights-respecting regime is not the result in Iraq, blame cannot simply be laid on the Bush administration. Anti-interventionists assume that all the bad consequences of an intervention derive from ignoble American intentions, just as pro-interventionists tend to accord American good will miraculous power. In this, both sides mistake the true limits of American capacity to determine outcomes. The way things are going in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III and his proconsuls in Baghdad must be fondly wishing that the reality of Iraq could be shaped by any American intentions at all.
The anti-interventionist party also charges that American good intentions in Iraq might be more credible if the United States defended human rights more consistently throughout the world -- though how this might be brought about without sending in the troops from time to time is at best unclear. Tony Blair, whose human rights bona fides are not in much dispute -- he had already dispatched British troops to prevent massacre and chaos in Sierra Leone before signing on for the Iraq invasion -- says he thinks the demand to intervene consistently or not at all is an argument for sitting on your hands. In the early days of the Iraq war, when British opinion was still against him, Blair remarked to a journalist at 10 Downing Street: ''What amazes me is how many people are happy for Saddam to stay. They ask why we don't get rid of Mugabe, why not the Burmese lot? Yes, let's get rid of them all. I don't because I can't, but when you can, you should.'' A lot of people who would call themselves defenders of human rights opposed intervention in Iraq for sound, prudential reasons -- too risky, too costly, not likely to make America safer -- but prudence also amounted to a vote for the status quo in the Middle East, and that status quo had at its heart a regime that tortured its citizens, used poison gas against its own population and executed people for the free exercise of religious faith.
Human rights could well be improved in Iraqi as a result of the intervention. But the Bush administration did not invade Iraq just to establish human rights. Nor, ultimately, was this intervention about establishing a democracy or saving lives as such. And here we come to the heart of the matter -- to where the Bush administration's interventions fit into America's long history of intervention. All such interventions have occurred because a president has believed going in that it would increase both his and his country's power and influence. To use Joseph S. Nye Jr.'s definition, ''power is the ability to obtain the outcomes one wants.'' Presidents intervene because successful interventions enhance America's ability to obtain the outcomes it wants.
The Iraq intervention was the work of conservative radicals, who believed that the status quo in the Middle East was untenable -- for strategic reasons, security reasons and economic reasons. They wanted intervention to bring about a revolution in American power in the entire region. What made a president take the gamble was Sept. 11 and the realization, with 15 of the hijackers originating in Saudi Arabia, that American interests based since 1945 on a presumed Saudi pillar were actually built on sand. The new pillar was to be a democratic Iraq, at peace with Israel, Turkey and Iran, harboring no terrorists, pumping oil for the world economy at the right price and abjuring any nasty designs on its neighbors.
As Paul Wolfowitz has all but admitted, the ''bureaucratic'' reason for war -- weapons of mass destruction -- was not the main one. The real reason was to rebuild the pillars of American influence in the Middle East. Americans may have figured this out for themselves, but it was certainly not what they were told. Nor were they told that building this new pillar might take years and years. What they were told -- misleadingly and simplistically -- was that force was justified to fight ''terrorism'' and to destroy arsenals of mass destruction targeted at America and at Israel. In fact, while Hussein did want to acquire such weapons, the fact that none have been found probably indicates that he had achieved nothing more than an active research program.
The manipulation of popular consent over Iraq -- together with and tangled up with the lack of an intervention policy -- is why the antiwar party is unresigned to its defeat and the pro-war party feels so little of the warm rush of vindication. Even those who supported intervention have to concede that in justifying his actions to the American people, the president was, at the least, economical with the truth. Because the casus belli over Iraq was never accurately set out for Americans, the chances of Americans hanging on for the long haul -- and it will be a long haul -- have been undercut. Also damaged has been the trust that a president will need from his people when he seeks their support for intervention in the future.
Critics view Iraq as a perilous new step in the history of American intervention: unilateral, opposed by most of the world, an act of territorial conquest. The truth is we have been here before. The Iraq operation most resembles the conquest of the Philippines between 1898 and 1902. Both were wars of conquest, both were urged by an ideological elite on a divided country and both cost much more than anyone had bargained for. Just as in Iraq, winning the war was the easy part. The Spanish fell to Commodore Dewey even more quickly than Hussein's forces fell to Tommy Franks. But it was afterward that the going got rough. More than 120,000 American troops were sent to the Philippines to put down the guerrilla resistance, and 4,000 never came home. It remains to be seen whether Iraq will cost thousands of American lives -- and whether the American public will accept such a heavy toll as the price of success in Iraq. The Philippines also provides a humbling perspective on nation-building in Iraq. A hundred years on, American troops are back in the Philippines, hunting down guerrillas, this time tied to Al Qaeda, and the democracy that Teddy Roosevelt sought to bring to that nation remains chronically insecure.
Roosevelt's ''splendid little war'' may not have done much for the Philippines, but it did a lot to make America a leading power in the Pacific. If Bush succeeds in Iraq, he will reap geostrategic benefit on the same scale. America's enemies understand this only too well. The current struggle in Iraq is much more than the death throes of the old Hussein regime. The foreign fighters who have crossed into Iraq from Syria, Iran and Palestine to join Hussein loyalists in attacks on American soldiers know how much is at stake. Bloodying American troops, forcing a precipitous withdrawal, destroying the chances for a democratic Iraq would inflict the biggest defeat on America since Vietnam and send a message to every Islamic extremist in the region: Goliath is vulnerable.
But the American Goliath recovers quickly from failure, and this keeps presidents throwing the interventionist dice. Nor is the risk of imperial overstretch -- which kept the Romans and the British from battering every available barbarian rogue -- a very real constraint on America's propensity to intervene. The occupation of Iraq is forcing the military to run at a high operational tempo, but still there appear to be enough troops to land in Liberia and garrison Bosnia and South Korea and all the other outposts of the imperium. Indeed, intervention is getting cheaper. The second gulf war cost half as much as the first gulf war and required about half the number of troops, and actual combat lasted a little more than half the time. If neither the risk of failure nor the cost of deployment is likely to restrain American use of force, what about the risk of casualties? While Clinton believed that Americans didn't want their sons and daughters dying in wars of choice, studies show that Americans are prepared for casualties in wars -- if they understand them as wars of necessity. Besides, Americans count on precision missiles and stealth aircraft to deliver crushing lethality at low risk to American troops. Impunity lowers the threshold of risk for intervention. But that threshold does remain, and an army of occupation is particularly vulnerable. Nobody knows whether one of the president's Democratic opponents will manage to turn the deadly drip of bloodshed in Iraq into an electoral liability. Only one president -- Lyndon Johnson -- was brought down by a botched intervention, but no president since has been able to afford to ignore that warning.
If we take stock and ask what will curb the American appetite for intervention, the answer is, not much. Interventions are popular, and they remain popular even if American soldiers die. Even failure and defeat aren't much of a restraint: 30 years after Vietnam, America is intervening as robustly as ever. What Thomas Jefferson called ''decent respect to the opinions of mankind'' doesn't seem to exert much influence, either. About Iraq, the opinions of mankind told the Bush White House that the use of force was a dangerous and destabilizing adventure, but the intervention went ahead because the president believes that the ultimate authority over American decisions to intervene is not the United Nations or the world's opinion, but his constitutional mandate as commander in chief to ''preserve, protect and defend'' the United States. This unilateral doctrine alarms America's allies, but there is not a lot they can do about it. When Bush went to war, he set the timetable, and not even Tony Blair, who desperately needed more time to bring his domestic opinion with him, was able to stretch it out.
To date, the only factor that keeps the United States from intervening is if the country in question has nuclear weapons. One of the factors driving pre-emptive action in Iraq was the belief that were Hussein to acquire a nuclear or mass-casualty chemical or biological weapon, it would then be too late to use force. No wonder a Pakistani general is supposed to have remarked in 1999 that the chief lesson he drew from the display of American precision air power in Kosovo was for his country to acquire nuclear weapons as quickly as possible.
After Iraq, the key question is when the nuclear taboo will be broken. Already in 1994, over the last crisis with North Korea, the Clinton administration gamed out the possibilities of a conventional strike against a North Korean reactor where it believed nuclear weapons were being produced. Fortunately, it decided not to, realizing that any strike, either with conventional or the small precision nuclear weapons the United States is known to possess, might trigger horrendous military retaliation against South Korean or even Japanese cities.
There is actually a more daunting intervention possibility on the horizon. The United States recognizes one China but guarantees the security of Taiwan. Clinton sent the Navy into the China Sea in 1996 to make sure the Chinese respected that commitment. The freedom of Taiwan, one of the great success stories of American power in Asia, remains precarious. Were the Taiwanese to provoke the mainland, were the Americans to fail to hold them back or were the Chinese leadership to seek to divert attention from troubles at home with bellicose nationalism abroad, America might find itself having to decide how to confront a nuclear power of more than a billion people in defense of an imperative commitment to the freedom of 23 million. Doing so would require the president to break, or at least to threaten to break, the nuclear taboo that has restrained American intervention strategy since Hiroshima. Given American history, which seems to say that resolute use of force always pays dividends, it is difficult for the United States not to believe that it can get its way by relying on military force alone. Yet such a doctrine might end up endangering everyone, including itself.
For all its risks, Americans, by and large, still think of intervening as a noble act in which the new world comes to the rescue of the old. They remember the newsreels of G.I.'s riding into Rome in 1943 or driving through the lanes of northern Europe in 1944, kissing the girls and grabbing the bouquets and wine bottles held out to them by people weeping with gratitude at their liberation. All this has changed. There were few tearful embraces when the marines rode into Nasiriya, no bouquets and prayers of thanks when the Army rode into Baghdad. True, Iraq is not the first time an American intervention has been unpopular. Iranians were not happy that the C.I.A. engineered the overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953, Chilean democrats didn't like what was done to Allende and students the world over protested against Vietnam. But these occasions apart, and right through the Kosovo intervention in 1999, our allies kept faith with American good intentions. Now all that moral capital has been spent. Some Europeans actually think, to judge from a few polls, that George Bush is more of a threat to world peace than Osama bin Laden. This may be grotesque, but it makes it much harder for American interventions to find favor in world opinion.
Its allies wept with America after Sept. 11 and then swiftly concluded that only America was under attack. The idea that Western civilization had been the target was not convincing. While America and its allies stood shoulder to shoulder when they faced a common Soviet foe, Islamic terrorism seemed to have America alone in its sights. Why cozy up to a primary target, America's allies asked themselves, when it will only make you a secondary one? Indeed, after Sept.11 an astonishing number of the United States' friends went further. They whispered, America had it coming. Aggrieved Americans were entitled to ask, For what? For guaranteeing the security of their oil supplies for 60 years? For rebuilding the European economy from the ruins of 1945? For protecting innumerable countries from Communist takeover? No matter, after Sept. 11, memories of American generosity were short, and the list of grievances against it was long.
As the Iraq debate at the United Nations showed so starkly, the international consensus that once provided America with coalitions of the willing when it used force has disappeared. There is no Soviet ogre to scare doubters into line. European allies are now serious economic rivals, and they are happy to conceal their absolute military dependence with obstreperously independent foreign policies. Throughout the third world, states fear Islamic political opposition even more than American disapproval and are disposed to appease their Islamic constituencies with anti-American poses whenever they can get away with it.
There are those who think that the damage done by the Iraq debate at the United Nations can be repaired and that a coalition of the willing, at least one with more active players, might have been possible if the United States hadn't been so backhanded with its diplomacy. Yet the days when the United States intervenes as the servant of the international community may be well and truly over. When it intervenes in the future, it will very likely go it alone and will do so essentially for itself.
If this is the new world order, it will have costs that the rest of the world will have to accept: fewer humanitarian interventions on behalf of starving or massacred people in the rest of the world, fewer guarantees of other people's security against threat and invasion. Why bother with rescue and protection if you have to do everything alone? Why bother maintaining a multilateral order -- of free trade, open markets and common defense -- if your allies only use it to tie Gulliver down with leading strings?
American unilateralism will have costs for the United States too. The first gulf war was paid for by a coalition of the willing. The cost of the second one will be borne by the American taxpayer alone. The Bush administration affects not to care about the price tag of unpopularity abroad; foreigners don't vote. But Iraq has shown the costs, monetary and otherwise, that are added to the exercise of power when friends don't trust your intentions.
But can a war on terror be fought alone? The allies have intelligence networks and some good counterterrorist squads, and in a battle with Al Qaeda, the biggest breaks have come from the police work of specialists in Spain, Britain, Germany and Pakistan. In a war on terror, an isolated America whose military power awakens even the resistance of its friends may prove a vulnerable giant.
There is a way out of this mess of interventionist policy, but it is also a route out of American unilateralism. It entails allowing other countries to have a say on when and how the United States can intervene. It would mean returning to the United Nations and proposing new rules to guide the use of force. This is the path that Franklin Roosevelt took in 1944, when he put his backing behind the creation of a new world organization with a mandate to use force to defend ''international peace and security.'' What America needs, then, is not simply its own doctrine for intervention but also an international doctrine that promotes and protects its interests and those of the rest of the international community.
The problem is that the United Nations that F.D.R. helped create never worked as he intended. What passes for an ''international community'' is run by a Security Council that is a museum piece of 1945 vintage. Everybody knows that the Security Council needs reform, and everybody also knows that this is nearly impossible. But if so, then the United Nations has no future. The time for reform is now or never. If there ever was a reason to give Great Britain and France a permanent veto while denying permanent membership to Germany, India, Brazil or Japan, that day is over. The United States should propose enlarging the number of permanent members of the council so that it truly represents the world's population. In order to convince the world that it is serious about reform, it ought to propose giving up its own veto so that all other permanent members follow suit and the Security Council makes decisions to use force with a simple majority vote. As a further guarantee of its seriousness, the United States would commit to use force only with approval of the council, except where its national security was directly threatened.
All this is difficult enough, but the next step is tougher still. The United Nations that F.D.R. helped create privileged state sovereignty ahead of human rights: a world of equal states, equally entitled to immunity from intervention. One result has been that since 1945 millions more people have been killed by oppression, abuse, civil war and massacre inside their states than in wars between states. These have been the rules that made tyrants and murderers like Saddam Hussein members in good standing of the United Nations club.
This is the cruel reality of what passes for an ''international community'' and the comity of nations. United Nations member states will have to decide what the organization is actually for: to defend sovereignty at all costs, in which case it ends up defending tyranny and terror -- and invites a superpower to simply go its own way, or to defend human rights, in which case, it will have to rewrite its own rules for authorizing the use of force.
So what rules for intervention should the United States propose to the international community? I would suggest that there are five clear cases when the United Nations could authorize a state to intervene: when, as in Rwanda or Bosnia, ethnic cleansing and mass killing threaten large numbers of civilians and a state is unwilling or unable to stop it; when, as in Haiti, democracy is overthrown and people inside a state call for help to restore a freely elected government; when, as in Iraq, North Korea and possibly Iran, a state violates the nonproliferation protocols regarding the acquisition of chemical, nuclear or biological weapons; when, as in Afghanistan, states fail to stop terrorists on their soil from launching attacks on other states; and finally, when, as in Kuwait, states are victims of aggression and call for help. These would be the cases when intervention by force could be authorized by majority vote on the Security Council.
Sending in the troops would remain a last resort. If the South Africans can persuade Mugabe to go into retirement, so much the better. If American diplomats can persuade the Burmese junta to cease harassing Aung San Suu Kyi, it would obviously be preferable to using force. But force and the threat of it are usually the only language tyrants, human rights abusers and terrorists ever understand. Terrorism and nuclear proliferation can be contained only by multilateral coalitions of the willing who are prepared to fight if the need arises.
These rules wouldn't require the United States to make its national security decisions dependent on the say-so of the United Nations, for its unilateral right of self-defense would remain. New rules for intervention, proposed by the United States and abided by it, would end the canard that the United States, not its enemies, is the rogue state. A new charter on intervention would put America back where it belongs, as the leader of the international community instead of the deeply resented behemoth lurking offstage.
Dream on, I hear you say. Such a change might lead to more American intervention, and the world wants a lot less. But we can't go on the way we are, with a United Nations Charter that has become an alibi for dictators and tyrants and a United States ever less willing to play by United Nations rules when trying to stop them. Clear United Nations guidelines, making state sovereignty contingent on good citizenship at home and abroad and licensing intervention where these rules were broken might actually induce states to improve their conduct, making intervention less, rather than more, frequent.
Putting the United States at the head of a revitalized United Nations is a huge task. For the United States is as disillusioned with the United Nations as the world is disillusioned with the United States.
Yet it needs to be understood that the alternative is empire: a muddled, lurching America policing an ever more resistant world alone, with former allies sabotaging it at every turn. Roosevelt understood that Americans can best secure their own defense and pursue their own interests when they unite with other states and, where necessary, sacrifice unilateral freedom of action for a common good. The signal failure of American foreign policy since the end of the cold war has not been a lack of will to lead and to intervene; it has been a failure to imagine the possibility of a United States once again cooperating with others to create rules for the international community. Pax Americana must be multilateral, as Franklin Roosevelt realized, or it will not survive. Without clear principles for intervention, without friends, without dreams to serve, the soldiers sweating in their body armor in Iraq are defending nothing more than power. And power without legitimacy, without support, without the world's respect and attachment, cannot endure.
Michael Ignatieff, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, is director of the Carr Center at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.Category: War in Iraq