More on Iraq and Wikileaks

07Apr10

I’m turning to Stephen Walt:

This tells me that this incident wasn’t unusual, which is of course why no disciplinary action was taken against the personnel involved. What is different in this case is that two Reuters journalists got killed, and eventually a video got leaked and put on the internet. And if this particular episode is just one among many, there must be plenty of Iraqis who lost relatives to American firepower or at least had reason to fear and resent it. Not too hard to figure out why pressing for a rapid U.S. withdrawal now wins votes there.

Notice that I am not suggesting that the personnel involved failed to observe the proper “rules of engagement,” or did not genuinely think that the individuals they were attacking were in fact armed. Rather, what bothers me is that they were clearly trying to operate within the rules, and still made a tragic error. It reminds us that this sort of mistake is inevitable in this sort of war, especially when we rely on overwhelming firepower to wage it. When we intervene in other countries, this is what we should expect.

One last point: one of the fundamental problems for a country with an interventionist foreign policy is that it frequently does things that others don’t like and sometimes resist. If U.S. citizens do not know what their own government is doing, however, they won’t understand exactly where that hostility is coming from. Instead of recognizing it as a reaction to their own policies, they will tend to assume that foreign opposition is irrational, a reflection of deep ideological antipathies, or based on some sort of weird hostility to our “values.” Believing ourselves to be blameless, and motivated only by noble aims, we will misread the sources of anti-Americanism and overlook opportunities to reduce it by adjusting our own behavior.

It is therefore vital for American citizens to know about the various things that are being done in the name of our national security. We need to know about drone strikes, targeted assassinations, civilians killed by mistake, support for corrupt or vicious warlords, “covert” actions against foreign regimes, etc., as well as similar activities undertaken by allies with whom we are closely identified. Whether those various policies are still justifiable and/or effective is a separate issue (i.e., the benefits may be worth the price of greater hostility, though I am personally skeptical) but at least we won’t be surprised when those who have experienced the sharp end of American power are angry at us, and we won’t be as likely to misinterpret it.

I find it hard to argue against this logic. I haven’t seen anyone taking shots at Walt and Greenwald, and I just checked the Corner, so one would think that’s all I have to do. As a liberal, this angers me in a strange way; instead of just reflexively attacking liberals on a matter of foreign policy, the Corner seems to simply be denying this issue’s existence. Thus, I have to conclude that they acknowledge the brutality of the video, and they know it would hurt their neocon ideology if the public knew the reality of a war conducted even with precision bombs.

But this is what we really, really need to come to grips with in this country. I’m not calling for a hasty withdrawal from our various occupations; there are real, practical concerns that this could be destabilizing. However, we need to acknowledge, as Walt does in his column, that anti-Americanism is not merely rooted irrational Islamism. Innocent people are dying. Towns are destroyed. While it’s true that terrorists and insurgence can be even more brutal, innocent people die as a result of their attacks against us and their regional enemies. That’s partially our doing; as we removed tyranny, we have installed anarchy.

And again, I want to be clear, our wars will have to go on for now. It’s a terrible reality, one that was at least partially driven by our past fantasies of our military’s capabilities. Hopefully, those fantasies will stay in the past as we proceed with our dealings with Iran.

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