A charge should be laid at the door of those who urged America onward into Iraq this year, and it should come not from pacifists, United Nations groupies or Uncle Sam-baiters, but from those on the Right who think that a great power does have special responsibilities, including – sometimes – a responsibility to intervene.
We should charge the neoconservatives with fouling it up. We should charge them with spoiling the case. We should charge hotheads in the media with egging an administration into making a fool of itself when wiser friends urged restraint. The yee-hah tendency in the Pentagon and in the press has besmirched, by misapplication, a decent philosophy of muscular great-power diplomacy of which the civilised world may have future need.
It is unoriginal but true to remark that people tend to fight the last war, learning the wrong lessons from recent mistakes. Some historians say that the trauma of the Crimea headed British foreign policy unwisely away from engagement in Continental Europe. The horrors and mistakes of the first world war contributed mightily to the reluctance to fight another, feeding the mood for appeasement. The shame of the Holocaust may have dulled moral sensibilities to the mistakes Israel is making in the Middle East. The collapse of America’s calamitous engagement in Vietnam frightened a generation in the West off the more interfering approach we should have taken to sinister or corrupt forces developing in the Third World.
When what you do could set a precedent, you have a special responsibility to get it right. In Iraq, the neocons got it wrong. There was nothing wrong in principle with an argument for pre-emptive action to forestall danger, but everything wrong with its application in this case.