The Long Awaited Yglesias Doctrine

It seems to me that a lot of former Iraq War supporters haven't even seriously attempted to learn any kind of lessons from their/our errors. Peter Beinart is different. Here's what he has to say:

"All the Iraqi democratic voices that still exist, all the leaders and potential leaders who still survive," wrote Salman Rushdie in November 2002, "are asking, even pleading for the proposed regime change. Will the American and European left make the mistake of being so eager to oppose Bush that they end up seeming to back Saddam Hussein?"

I couldn't answer that then. It seemed irrefutable. But there was an answer, and it was the one I heard from that South African many years ago. It begins with a painful realization about the United States: We can't be the country those Iraqis wanted us to be. We lack the wisdom and the virtue to remake the world through preventive war. That's why a liberal international order, like a liberal domestic one, restrains the use of force--because it assumes that no nation is governed by angels, including our own. And it's why liberals must be anti-utopian, because the United States cannot be a benign power and a messianic one at the same time.

Thus far, I agree with all of that. Then I also agree with this:

That's not to say the United States can never intervene to stop aggression or genocide. It's not even to say that we can't, in favorable circumstances and with enormous effort, help build democracy once we're there.

What I don't agree with is his idea about how to construct a principled idea of constraint:

But it does mean that, when our fellow democracies largely oppose a war--as they did in Vietnam and Iraq--because they think we're deluding ourselves about either our capacities or our motives, they're probably right. Being a liberal, as opposed to a neoconservative, means recognizing that the United States has no monopoly on insight or righteousness. Some Iraqis might have been desperate enough to trust the United States with unconstrained power. But we shouldn't have trusted ourselves.

Call this the Condorcet doctrine. I think it has some logic to it. Obviously, it says something when the American public thinks one way on some major international issue and the public opinion in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and all of Europe thinks the other way. In particular, that was a good clue that American media and political leaders were misportraying the situation; literally all the mass publics with access to alternative opinion leadership were reaching a different conclusion.

As a general rule, though, I don't think Beinart's idea works. It treats the issue here as fundamentally epistemic -- we need a way to check whether or not some invasion scheme is a good one. I think the issue here is structural. The problem isn't that the United States is insufficiently virtuous to remake the world, but that no country is sufficiently virtuous to wield the level of power that would be required to remake the world. The exercise of power needs to be constrained by some kind of widely acceptable rules. I would propose that the use of force is legitimate when it is either:

  • In direct self-defense.
  • In defense of another country (i.e., we assist Costa Rica in repelling a Nicaraguan invasion).
  • When authorized by a UN Security Council resolution.
  • When called for by a relevant (i.e., the OAS can't authorize an invasion of Burma) regional organization.

Obviously, there's no guarantee that all wars undertaken under those conditions will turn out well. There are always going to be considerations of prudence and efficacy specific to the particular case.