Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Neglect of Foreign Policy is Never Benign: A Lesson From Iraq

On the Mirror of Justice, we will never reach common ground on whether the invasion of Iraq under President George W. Bush was a terrible mistake or a difficult necessity.  We will not agree about whether the exit of troops from Iraq according to a timetable set by President Barack Obama was a welcome end to combat (for Americans anyway) or a reckless step that risked reversal of any progress that had been achieved in that country.  And we certainly will not reach anything approaching a consensus about what the United States should do now, if anything, by way of military, diplomatic, and international measures, while more and more of Iraq falls under the dominion of brutal terrorists.

Iraq-CIA_WFB_MapLet us, however, pause for a moment in our debates about general Iraq policy in the past and specific policy responses to the current crisis.  Surely as Catholic thinkers, we can jointly reaffirm that benign neglect in foreign policy is not an option.  Indeed, neglect is never truly benign.

Yes, we will continue to disagree among ourselves on what form of engagement is most consistent with our values and most prudential in operation.  But we can and should endorse affirmative, meaningful, and continuous engagement by the United States in some way with the rest of the world, most definitively including troubled regions.  As a matter of national self-interest, dedicated attention to events beyond our borders is crucial.  But it is also demanded by our moral commitment to the greater good and to the dignity of every person across the globe.

Those of us privileged to participate on the Mirror of Justice are all over the map on questions of foreign policy.  We hold a wide range of views on whether and when the United States should intervene with military power in troubled regions around the world.  We do not share a common belief in the wisdom or efficacy of international institutions on matters of world and regional security.

But I believe I can say with confidence that none of us advocates a withdrawal into isolationism or would accept an “America First” attitude, in which we would avert our eyes to the suffering of those afflicted by unrest or oppression in faraway places.  “Live and Let Die” was a catchy title for a James Bond film (and the accompanying Paul McCartney song).  Catholic concepts of public responsibility and human dignity leave no room for such abdication.

Now Barack Obama is hardly the first President to appreciate that foreign affairs do not top the list of concerns for most Americans, who will always put bread-and-butter issues first (for good or ill).  And seldom do events overseas prove to be decisive in American elections.  While public dissatisfaction with President George W. Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq played a minor role in President Obama’s election victory in 2008, the financial crisis and economic collapse were the deciding factors.  As the 2012 campaign demonstrated, the Obama team understood that domestic matters usually will lead in political calculations.  Moreover, then-state-Senator Obama had consistently opposed the war in the Iraq and called for early withdrawal, an opposition that was a more significant element in his nomination victory over Hillary Clinton.

In sum, President Obama’s “eager[ness] to put Iraq in America’s rearview mirror,” as Peter Beinart puts it, was understandable.

Fatigue, however, is not a policy.  Believing that a particular policy of engagement was a mistake does not justify substituting a new policy of non-engagement.  While weariness about a nagging problem naturally leads to avoidance, disregard usually proves counterproductive or even dangerous.  More often than not, we'll find the ignored problem thrust back into our faces, at a most inopportune time and more bothersome than before.

As Peter Beinart explains in a pointed but well-balanced analysis in The Atlantic today (here), President Obama has largely ignored Iraq, not only in military terms but also in diplomatic and other ways.  Beyond withdrawal of troops, he has been delinquent in setting and energetically pursuing a positive Iraq policy.  Importantly, the issue is not whether the policy is right but whether there really was any policy at all.  Those responsible for foreign policy within the administration, and especially those in the diplomatic corps, have warned repeatedly that indifference and diplomatic apathy could bring deterioration in Iraq.  But to do something more concerted would have “meant investing time and energy in Iraq, a country [the Obama Administration] desperately wanted to pivot away from.”  And so we arrived where we are today.

The unraveling situation in Iraq proves once again that neglecting troubles is likely to produce the opposite of what we desire — a crisis that cannot be ignored.  And if the unfolding human tragedy were not enough to demand our attention, the rise in power and resources of an organized terrorist bloc is unlikely to be confined to the region of Syria and Iraq.  If we were to suffer another horrific terrorist attack on American soil, traced back to the terrorist forces rising in Iraq, a future President may have to consider sending American troops back into the deserts of Mesopatamia.  Let us pray that day does not come.

Again, like the American people generally, the Mirror of Justice community remains sharply divided on questions about the wisdom of military policies inIraq under the last two administrations.  But that disagreement should not overshadow an agreement on the need for vigilance and perseverance, whatever may be the policy formulation.  We surely have learned again the lesson that withdrawal and inattention leave us in a world of hurt.  At the very least, let us hope the lesson of neglect in foreign policy learned in Iraq does not come too late for the future of Afghanistan.


Sisk, Greg | Permalink