In recent days, two debates have broken out in the American media about Iraq. The first is about the wisdom of renewed military intervention to halt, or roll back, the gains made by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The second is about whether policymakers and pundits who supported invading Iraq in the first place have the standing to advocate going to war there again. Not surprisingly, hawks generally consider debate number two a diversion, and have tried to forestall it with comments like, “Regardless of what anyone thinks of going into Iraq in 2002 …” and “Now is not the time to re-litigate … the decision to invade Iraq in 2003.” Not surprisingly, doves generally believe that conducting debate number one without debate number two is like going into surgery without inquiring why the doctor who’s about to cut you open botched the operation the first time.
I think the doves are right, with one caveat. One of the most frustrating aspects of American foreign-policy discourse is the fact that it takes place a la carte. A crisis emerges, a familiar group of commentators appear on TV to discuss it, and they present their comments with a kind of virginal, pre-lapsarian innocence, as if nothing they said before is of any relevance. This isn’t only a problem because their past opinions may have been wrong. It’s also a problem because their past opinions may conflict with the ones they’re offering today. In the real world, America’s military capacity and diplomatic leverage are limited, which creates difficult tradeoffs. Take an ultra-hard line against Moscow’s takeover of Crimea and it may become harder to win Russia’s backing for continued sanctions against Tehran. Bomb Iran and it may become harder, both logistically and politically, to also bomb Iraq (starve the government of revenue with big tax cuts and you may find it harder to do either). The a-la-carte nature of foreign-policy punditry prevents commentators from having to confront those tradeoffs, which allows uber-hawks like Bill Kristol and John McCain to urge the most aggressive response to each successive crisis without explaining how America can go to DEFCON 1 against all its adversaries at the same time.