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A Different Country

`Why, exactly, did you support this war?" asked my wife the otherday. A fitting question for my last TRB, since people have beenasking it of me and this magazine since we made that disastrousdecision more than four years ago. For myself, perhaps the mosthonest reply is this: because Kanan Makiya did.

When I first saw Makiya--the Iraqi exile who has devoted his life tochronicling Saddam Hussein's crimes--I recognized the type: gentle,disheveled, distracted, obsessed. He reminded me of the SouthAfrican exiles who occasionally wandered through my house as a kid.Once, many years ago, I asked one of them how the United Statescould aid the anti-apartheid struggle. Congress could imposesanctions, he responded. Sure, sure, I said impatiently. But whatelse? Well, he replied with a chuckle, if the United States were adifferent country, it would help the African National Congressliberate South Africa by force.

If the United States were a different country. For him, theimplication was obvious: The United States wasn't that kind ofcountry. It was an anti- revolutionary power with a longpro-apartheid record. The United States didn't liberate countries,at least in the postcolonial world. At best, it stood aside.

I agreed. But, as the years passed and liberals debated war andpeace, the phrase kept nagging at me. If the United States were adifferent country, and not merely motivated by oil, it could betrusted to expel Saddam from Kuwait. If the United States were adifferent country, one really concerned about human rights, itcould be trusted to bomb Slobodan Milo?sevec out of Bosnia andKosovo. At some point during the 1990s, I began to see it as a trap.There were no other, purer methods and no other, purer country. Atleast, that was how the Kuwaitis and Bosnians and Kosovars andAfghans seemed to feel.

Then Makiya came along, beckoning the United States further. TheGulf war had been mostly about oil; Afghanistan mostly aboutself-defense. They required little idealism. Bosnia and Kosovo, onthe other hand, had been multilateral efforts conducted from 15,000feet. They required little risk. Makiya was proposing something farmore ambitious: a ground war, not to stop an ongoing genocide, butto overthrow a horrific regime. The war did have a nationalsecurity rationale (although, in retrospect, it collapsed in late2002 when the United Nations restarted inspections and thoseinspections found no weapons of mass destruction). But even thatwas linked to a moral argument, since hawks believed that Saddam,like past totalitarians, might export the cruelty he was inflictingat home. (To some degree, he already had.) That's why Makiyainsisted that an Iraq invasion do more than merely replace Saddamwith a more pliant Baathist general. In deadly earnest, he wasasking the United States to become what that South African exilecould not even contemplate without laughing: a revolutionarydemocratic power. For Makiya's neoconservative allies, the idea wasintuitive: In their air-brushed narrative, that's what the UnitedStates had always been. But Makiya knew better; he knew that theUnited States had intervened more frequently in the Third World toquash democracy than to spread it. He knew that the Bushadministration had other, darker motives. And yet, made desperateby Saddam's horrors and his resilience, he was willing to gamble.

I was willing to gamble, too--partly, I suppose, because, in the eraof the allvolunteer military, I wasn't gambling with my own life.And partly because I didn't think I was gambling many of mycountrymen's. I had come of age in that surreal period betweenPanama and Afghanistan, when the United States won wars easily andthose wars benefited the people on whose soil they were fought.It's a truism that American intellectuals have long been seduced byrevolution. In the 1930s, some grew intoxicated with therevolutionary potential of the Soviet Union. In the 1960s, somefelt the same way about Cuba. In the 1990s, I grew intoxicated withthe revolutionary potential of the United States.

Some non-Americans did, too. "All the Iraqi democratic voices thatstill exist, all the leaders and potential leaders who stillsurvive," wrote Salman Rushdie in November 2002, "are asking, evenpleading for the proposed regime change. Will the American andEuropean left make the mistake of being so eager to oppose Bushthat they end up seeming to back Saddam Hussein?"

I couldn't answer that then. It seemed irrefutable. But there was ananswer, and it was the one I heard from that South African manyyears ago. It begins with a painful realization about the United States: We can't be the country those Iraqis wanted us to be. Welack the wisdom and the virtue to remake the world throughpreventive war. That's why a liberal international order, like aliberal domestic one, restrains the use of force-- because itassumes that no nation is governed by angels, including our own. And it's why liberals must be anti-utopian, because the UnitedStates cannot be a benign power and a messianic one at the sametime. That's not to say the United States can never intervene tostop aggression or genocide. It's not even to say that we can't, infavorable circumstances and with enormous effort, help build democracy once we're there. But it does mean that, when our fellowdemocracies largely oppose a war--as they did in Vietnam andIraq--because they think we're deluding ourselves about either ourcapacities or our motives, they're probably right. Being a liberal,as opposed to a neoconservative, means recognizing that the UnitedStates has no monopoly on insight or righteousness. Some Iraqismight have been desperate enough to trust the United States withunconstrained power. But we shouldn't have trusted ourselves.

"Why, exactly, did you support this war?" asked my wife. Her sisteris an Army brigade surgeon at Camp Taji, north of Baghdad, treatingkids burned from head to toe. (For more on her experience, see"Soft Power," page 34.) Our toddler niece is in San Antonio,spending the year without a mom. I'll always consider Makiya ahero. But I haven't seen him, or read anything he's said orwritten, in several years. He's living, and suffering, with theconsequences of this war, I suppose. And so are we.

Peter Beinart is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

By Peter Beinart