November 20, 2004 | New York Post

The U.S. Repays its Debt to Iraq

By: Andrew Apostolou.

Noah Feldman's “What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building” is a well-argued call for a long-term U.S. commitment to Iraq. The book is original and refreshingly free of ideology and partisanship.

Feldman, who was a constitutional adviser to Ambassador L. Paul Bremer in Baghdad, believes that nation-building in Iraq is an act of U.S. self-protection, an attempt to create a state that will never threaten the world again. That does not, however, mean that the United States has the right to be selfish.

Feldman argues that U.S. actions must not fundamentally conflict with Iraqi interests even while the United States essentially holds Iraq in a form of trusteeship. The United States should only leave once there is a government that Iraqis can hold democratically accountable and that can protect itself.

Feldman is happy to offend those with partisan delusions.

A lawyer who worked for Al Gore in Florida in 2000, Feldman knocks down the Democrats' proposal that Iraq should be “internationalized.” The ethical dilemmas, and political problems, of nation-building would be no different with the United Nations in charge. The United Nations, after all, has its own selfish interests, such as those of its many member states that opposed overthrowing Saddam.

Equally, he criticizes the Bush administration for listening to exiles who downplayed the importance of sectarian identities in Iraq.

Unfortunately, the book has its limits. Along with an unattractive, academic style, Feldman strangely ignores all but the most recent history of U.S.-Iraqi relations. Underlying his neatly structured thesis is his uncertainty as to the legality of the liberation of Iraq in April 2003. Although he never takes a clear stance on this issue, Feldman seems to tilt towards calling the war illegal. His argument therefore dissolves from high-sounding ethics into basically saying that the United States messed Iraq up in 2003 and so has to clean it up from here on. There is no need for Wittgenstein analogies to understand that.

Yet the policy errors that create strong obligations toward Iraqis predate 2003. The U.S. government struggled for decades to deal with the emerging evil of Saddam's regime. Policymakers faced difficult choices, dilemmas that Feldman would have done well to grapple with. Saddam's 1980 invasion of Iran, for example, was an act of naked aggression. At that time, however, Iran's theocracy was regarded as the greater danger to U.S. interests and world peace.

After much muddle, the United States tilted towards Iraq, a decision that had some logic but little morality behind it.

So keen was the U.S. government to keep doors open in Baghdad that in September 1988 it thwarted a U.S. Senate attempt to impose sanctions on Iraq for gassing Kurdish civilians. The bipartisan sponsors of the sanctions bill were Sens. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), Al Gore (D-Tenn.) and Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). Opposing them was Colin Powell , then the national security adviser.

An equally bad decision was made after the Gulf War in March 1991 when the United States chose not to oust Saddam, despite a massive Iraqi rebellion against him. U.S. policy was defined then by Richard Haass (now head of the Council on Foreign Relations) as: “get rid of Saddam, not his regime.” Almost unchallenged by the United States, and using chemical weapons against civilians, Saddam survived.

It is surely from that sorry legacy that the obligations spring. There is a clear moral imperative not to stand by while innocent blood is shed — no footnotes are needed to cite that. Liberating Iraq was not illegal, it was a demonstration that U.S. foreign policy would rather be decidedly ethical than universally popular. The United States, and its allies, owe it to the Iraqis to finish the job.

– Andrew Apostolou is director of research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.