Politics & Policy

National Interests & Honor

State-building in Iraq.

The U.S. Army has a new base near my house. I cannot contact them in person, or visit them. The area where I live…is full of terrorists. But I wish to know the e-mail of some of the U.S. commanders to contact them in case that I have some important information about terrorists. I feel that the American soldiers came to my area to support me and my people, so I have to cooperate with them. Please, send me the e-mail of any U.S. commander you know here. I shall not hesitate to help the people who left their wifes, sons, and country to support us. I shall do my best to support your people here.

This striking message, relayed to a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, is from a courageous Iraqi citizen living outside of Baghdad. It is a lens through which we can discern elements of the larger picture now unfolding in both Iraq and in the United States. On a tactical level, this communication indicates that the surge of American troops into the Iraqi capital is being replicated elsewhere around the country, as our soldiers take up new positions far removed from their forward operating bases and situated in the very hearts of neighborhoods, towns, and villages. On the domestic front, this statement speaks to us on two levels in the midst of the debate now underway about how to move forward, or fall back, in Iraq. It reminds us that both our national interests, and our national honor, are at stake in the weeks and months ahead.


The gutsy author of this note embodies at least five of the many American national interests on the line in Iraq and in the broader Middle East — interests that are actually shared by vast numbers of people in that country and in the region, notwithstanding the noise level recently emanating from Najaf, the bitter acrimony in al-Anbar, and the battle for Baghdad now underway. The first two of these objectives are interrelated and pertain to Iraq itself, namely, the renewal of Iraqi society and the revitalization of the Iraqi state. The Bush administration has prioritized the first goal since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It is often underestimated, and frequently misunderstood, yet is essential to our success. In a recent article in the journal First Things, George Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the acclaimed author of numerous books, expands our comprehension of why the renaissance of Iraqi society is so vital by considering it in philosophical and theological terms, that is, by placing it in the context of the just-war theory. The precepts of this paradigm, he points out at the start, validate our presence in Iraq, despite the serious setbacks that we have encountered there. “Regime change in Iraq was a necessity,” Weigel writes. “It was necessary for the people of Iraq; it was necessary for peace in the Middle East…and it was necessary in order to challenge an Arab political culture warped by irresponsibility, authoritarian brutality, rage and self-delusion — out of which emerged, among other things, contemporary jihadism.”

Weigel reaches this conclusion via the systematic application of the two criteria of just-war theory: ius ad bellum, or “war-decision law,” and ius in bello, or “war-conduct law.” Yet he goes further, calling for a deeper understanding of the former principle. Inherent in ius ad bellum, he believes, is the nature of the post-conflict environment, or “a legitimate public authority’s duty to do what is good, which in the case of war does not end with repelling evil but includes the duty to build the peace of tranquillitas ordinis, the peace of a just public order.” In other words, the “proportionate and discriminate use of armed force must aim at the construction of the peace of order, which is composed of security, justice and freedom.” Indeed, “the duty to build a secure peace in the aftermath of war is intuitively grasped by morally serious people.”

Still, how is tranquillitas ordinis achieved in Mesopotamia? According to Weigel, the sine qua non of the creation of a just public order is a second shared American and Iraqi national interest, i.e., successful state-building, which is distinct from the more ambitious goal of nation-building. Weigel recognizes that some foreign-policy experts may “have brought a settled skepticism about ‘nation-building’ to their thinking about post-Saddam Iraq. But state-building was in fact the responsibility we had taken on by determining that regime change in Iraq was a necessity. Strengthening the severely attenuated sinews of Iraq civil society, and building the rudiments of democratic self-governance amid massive economic dislocations (and bad economic habits)” are therefore essential to the construction of a just postwar order.

George Weigel is correct. State-building in Iraq is a legitimate American interest. It is an appropriate alternative to nation-building, which is a longer term aim that the Iraqi people themselves must complete once their government is reestablished on a firmer footing. General Petraus has incorporated it into his new counterinsurgency strategy at the national, provincial, and local levels. It is also what we are seeking in Afghanistan and in other countries, where failed states are the incubators of terrorist organizations. More to the point, it is citizens like our letter writer quoted at the start of this essay who are strengthening the Iraqi state, men and women who are working in partnership with the Coalition to craft a government that will establish security, justice, and freedom. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis — elected representatives in parliament, officials in government ministries, soldiers in the army, men, and women in the domestic security forces — have taken up the challenge to construct a new Iraqi state, one that will, over time, establish a just public order and, in the process, renew Iraqi society.


Our Iraqi correspondent also personifies two American national interests that pertain to the larger regional setting. President Bush, for instance, has repeatedly asserted that one of his stated war aims is to transform Iraq into an ally in the war on terrorism. In a speech at the Naval Academy in 2005 he said, “Advancing the cause of freedom and democracy in the Middle East begins with ensuring the success of a free Iraq…By strengthening Iraqi democracy, we will gain a partner in the cause of peace and moderation in the Muslim world, and an ally in the worldwide struggle against the terrorists.” At a news conference in October 2006 he noted, “Our security at home depends on ensuring that Iraq is an ally in the war on terror and does not become a terrorist haven like Afghanistan under the Taliban.” During a meeting at the White House two months later, President Bush told Abdul-Aziz Al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), that the United States will “work with the sovereign government of Iraq to accomplish our mutual objectives, which [are] a free country that can govern itself, sustain itself, and defend itself; and a free country which will serve as an ally in the war against the extremists and radicals and terrorists.” Making certain that Iraq becomes a dependable international partner is thus a clear strategic interest. Who will translate this aim into reality? Individuals like our Iraqi colleague, who seeks contact with American authorities. Countless others in the country are also working assiduously to transform Iraq into an ally of the United States, often in the most trying of circumstances. Thus through the prism of a single person can we witness the larger geopolitical and historical forces at work in Mesopotamia.

By the same token, our Iraqi messenger represents another American interest with regional implications, that is, the long-term viability of the forces of moderate Islam. The Middle Eastern scholar Daniel Pipes has frequently argued that in the war on terror, “militant Islam is the problem, and moderate Islam is the solution.” He labels adherents of the former ideology “Islamists.” One of the primary roles of the United States and the West, he believes, is to support moderate Muslims, those who embrace “a modern Islamic message, [and an] anti-Islamist message.” In Iraq, which in the post-Saddam Hussein era “is becoming a primary battleground for militant Islam,” Pipes insists that “our strategic goal must be to defeat militant Islam, to render it marginal and weak. As we did with fascism in 1945, as we did with communism in 1991, so we must do with militant Islam.”

What is required to achieve this goal in Iraq are people like our associate quoted at the outset, whose words reveal a moderate Muslim willing to confront militant Islamists, especially with the assistance of the United States Army. According to a recent article by Amir Taheri, this Iraqi is not alone. American efforts to reach out to moderate Muslims are attracting support across the Middle East, even from left-wing elements who now see the United States “as an ally against Islamist and totalitarian pan-Arab movements.” In Iraq, for example, secular “Social Democrats and other center-left groups supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and continue to play a significant role in the new pluralist system. They are resolutely opposed to a premature withdrawal of American and allied forces.” In Lebanon, Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the Progressive Socialist Party and patriarch of the Druze community, “realized that his life-long anti-Americanism had been misplaced when he saw ‘long lines of people, waiting to vote in Iraq, in the first free election in an Arab country.’” Jumblatt adds, “In our region, the United States has become a force for good.”


There is a fifth American national interest at stake today, namely, the commitment of the United States to complete the mission in Iraq must be unwavering — and must be seen to be unwavering by our friends and by our enemies. This fundamental interest has national, regional and, indeed, global implications. Our credibility depends on it. Our allies rely on it. Our enemies doubt it is true. Our Iraqi correspondent is betting everything on it.

The United States must persevere — and must be seen to be persevering. The consequences of retreat would be grave. As President Bush said in his remarks to the Naval Academy, “Setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would send a message across the world that America is a weak and an unreliable ally. Setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would send a signal to our enemies that if they wait long enough, America will cut and run and abandon its friends. And setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would vindicate the terrorists’ tactics of beheadings and suicide bombings and mass murder — and invite new attacks on America.” One month ago he likewise told the American Legion that “If American forces were to step back from Baghdad now, before it is more secure, the scale and scope of attacks would increase and the intensity would increase. A contagion of violence could spill out across the entire country, and in time, the entire region.” Writing in Foreign Affairs in January, Lew Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore, warned that “If the United States leaves Iraq prematurely, jihadists everywhere will be emboldened to take the battle to Washington and its friends and allies. Having defeated the Russians in Afghanistan and the United States in Iraq, they will believe that they can change the world.”

All the same, the duty of the United States to fight on in Iraq is not just a concrete national interest, it is also a matter of national honor. The war against extremist Islamic terror and the states that sponsor it is the great struggle of our age. Can we afford to abandon the Iraqi people in the midst of this fight? Dare we repeat the aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991, when Shiites and Kurds rose against Saddam Hussein, only to be cut down? James Bowman, author of the book Honor: A History, penned words then that are relevant today. “Honor is ultimately about being true to your word, and if American words — of which there has never been any shortage — are not backed up by deeds that bespeak American seriousness, and American willingness to sacrifice as well as to preach, then Uncle Sam becomes merely ridiculous on the world stage and the safety of the nation he symbolizes is itself put in danger. It may be that Americans no longer have the spirit to wish for death before such dishonor. If so, then let them become a North American Switzerland, a country content to protect, with the help of geography, its own freedoms and to leave the rest of the world to its own devices.” In a speech last year, Bowman issued a warning that bears repeating: “Any responsible government has got to consider the national honor as a precious legacy that many have paid for in blood, and that has to be preserved if we are to continue to enjoy national freedom and autonomy as well as to avoid war with those who, in its absence, will find us a soft target.”

Innumerable Iraqi men and women have placed their trust in American national honor. One Iraqi official, when asked recently if the United States military should leave his country, had this to say: “About your question, me and approximately all Iraqi people want that the U.S. Army stay in Iraq now, because if your Army left my country, our future will be destroyed and the freedom that we get, it will be lost. I hope that the American government will still help us until we reach the required safety and freedom.”

Yes, serious challenges remain in Iraq. There is much work to be done. We will be called upon to make further sacrifices. Still, our nation has an obligation to finish what we have started. When we liberated Iraq, millions of Iraqis heeded our call to stand and fight. We cannot forsake them now, our bravest allies in the Middle East. In his message opening this essay, our Iraqi writer proudly said, “I will do my best.” It is thus incumbent upon Americans to do the same. Vice President Cheney agrees. “We have only two options in Iraq — victory or defeat,” he told the Veterans of Foreign Wars last year. “And this nation will not pursue a policy of retreat. We will complete the mission, we will get it done right, and then we will return with honor.” This is the right way to proceed. For, ultimately, it is not only our national interests that are on the line in Iraq, but our national honor as well.

Joseph Morrison Skelly, a college professor in New York City, is an academic fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.


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