This week marks the ten-year anniversary of the second U.S. war against Iraq. As might be expected, the anniversary has been the occasion, at least in the narrow world of foreign policy circles, to deliberate on the impact of that war on the U.S. and the world. Much of that deliberation has tended to focus on the politics surrounding the war, the “intelligence failures” behind the decision to go to war, and the “mistakes” made over the course of the war. While these are all worthy topics for discussion and debate, there are other even more fundamental issues associated with this war which don’t seem to get the attention they deserve either within the narrow confines of the foreign policy world or the broader public sphere. This is because these issues disturbingly shed light on the nature of unchecked U.S. power and its role in the international system.
The first issue involves the uniquely American belief that the U.S. has the right to intervene militarily in any part of the world. Many people might reflexively balk at those words, thinking they are an exaggeration or reflect unpatriotic sentiments. But the fact remains that the doctrine of pre-emptive or preventive war, which was used to justify the war in Iraq, remains to this day the pre-eminent feature of U.S. foreign policy. Skeptical readers might insist that the Iraq war put an end to this aspect of U.S. foreign policy by demonstrating the costliness of maintaining such a global posture. However, arguing that pre-emptive war is unwise from the standpoint of costs is not the same as arguing whether the U.S. has the right to engage in such a policy. In all the talk about U.S. involvement in Iraq, there has been not a single prominent voice either in government, the media, or more generally in the public sphere that has questioned America’s right to intervene there. Even critics of the war tend to point to its economic costs, its strain on the military or its effect on global public opinion in voicing opposition. But almost never do the same critics question America’s right to act. If this tendency existed before September 11, 2001, the events of that fateful day have only served to exacerbate it. All one needs to do is examine the U.S.’s current posture towards Iran’s nuclear program to see the extent to which the doctrine of preventive war still applies. By its continuing insistence that it will not accept Iran developing a nuclear weapons capability and that “all options are on the table” to prevent it from doing so, the United States is effectively declaring that it has the unilateral right to enforce other states’ compliance with international treaties, including through military means. Again, even the most liberal “doves” don’t question America’s right to act militarily against Iran. They merely question the wisdom of doing so. The refusal of such critics to even engage the issue of America’s right to intervene in the affairs of other countries demonstrates how powerfully this norm is ingrained in American society. The Iraq War has not changed that.