In the Face to Face dialogues, I made the point that the U.S. should make a distinction between its efforts to promote democracy and its responses to security threats. Otherwise, the perceived hypocrisy in its diplomacy may anger and alienate both allies and enemies, leaving America alone and precluding the possibility of multilateralism in the future. I’ve elaborated on these thoughts (rather at length – sorry about that!) here:

There is something we have come to know as the Democratic Peace Theory. The idea behind it is heartwarming and perhaps even true. It says that democracies do not wage war against one another because freedom-loving folk are in their very nature averse to war. The Cold War seemed to confirm this view, since the democracies of the West banded together to maintain peace among one other, a peace they perceived to be threatened by the Soviet Union, otherwise known to some Republican presidents as an “evil empire.” Some have attributed this elusive peace among Western European nations to their alliance against a common enemy; one cannot rule out the argument, however, that Western Europe was comprised of relatively liberal democracies for the first time and that this was the key to maintaining peace. Indeed, both World Wars, which had plagued the first half of the 20th Century, could be attributed to the inherent dangers in imperialism and dictatorships respectively. The logical conclusion to this neat theory is that in order to promote peace, one must promote democracy.

How one looks at any matter related to security – national or global – has changed fundamentally since the end of the Cold War. I do not wish to bore the reader by belaboring points made already and more skillfully by so many others, so I will merely state the main points of this change in the global security situation. The most elemental change is that a balanced and stable bipolar global security situation has ceased to exist, dissolving into a system comprised of a multitude of actors that can no longer be lumped into two camps. The strategic interests of these new players vary immensely and, in some cases, are not known with any precision to others. The latter is partly due to the rise of non-state actors, such as terrorist groups, whose aims are only vaguely known at best. The stockpiles of nuclear weapons leftover from the Cold War have also become a major factor, as the collapsed Soviet Union has had difficulties in securing these weapons, which are (simply by virtue of the USSR’s dissolution itself) now located in a great number of different states whose loyalties are not as clear-cut as during Soviet times. The reliance on one of the world’s two nuclear super powers is no longer a given in the strategies of many nations, and so the efforts on the part of other nations to acquire nuclear weapons are significantly more serious than before. Most recently brought to our attention in India, Pakistan and now Iran and North Korea, is that the Non-Proliferation Treaty cannot be viewed as an adequate means of achieving atomic security. Slowly, governments – and not merely experts – are waking up to the gravity of the problem. Lastly, and perhaps most nebulous in its nature and its consequences, is the rise of extremist Islam, which is both hard to define and clearly difficult to control from outside the Muslim belief.

The above changes may have been obvious to scholars and other experts for years. They are now obvious to many more, thanks to the hijacking of four commercial airplanes on September 11, 2001. Within a quarter of an hour, the U.S. was made painfully aware of the nature of the changed global security situation. The response was to attack the Taliban and pursue Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the groups who had given the planners haven and who had carried the attack out, respectively. This was clearly a tactical reaction to a breach of security as well as to a credible, continuing security threat to the United States, and by association, NATO. The resultant efforts to stabilize a post-Taliban Afghanistan were just that: after-operations operations. A tactical move with a long-term strategic perspective, the U.S. sought to prevent the rise of a new regime with similar fundamentalist and anti-Western bents in the power vacuum that followed the war. This is not to discredit the attempts/success at establishing democratic institutions in Afghanistan, but it certainly was not the motivation for going to the country, nor should it have been.

As we move to U.S. military efforts in Iraq, I would like to state for the record that I will not speculate as to the “real” reasons for going to Iraq. I would not be able to prove to anyone that the motivation was oil, revenge, the establishment of a strategic base in the Middle East, the promotion of democracy or even a truly perceived security threat, nor do I care to. I will concentrate on what happened – invasion – and what the American government has stated its motivation to be – first an imminent threat and weapons of mass destruction and these days to liberate the Iraqi people and spread democracy – as well as the reactions in the Middle East and Europe – fear/respect for American military prowess and resentment of the U.S. for projecting its power in the manner it has.

Beginning with the last element, resentment, I will go out on a limb and posit that in this case, resentment stems from the perception of hypocrisy in the American position. The narrative goes something like this: America states a tactical reason for invading a sovereign nation. The stated strategic policy toward Iraq had been regime change since 1998, but this time there were real and imminent threats posed by Saddam. However, as every person who listens to or reads the news now knows, these reasons were shaky at best, hogwash at worst. So the Bush Administration did a flying lead change and began claiming that freeing the Iraqi people and bringing them the democracy they have desired all along was the real and important reason for waging war. Comparisons were made to the reestablishment of democracy in post-war Germany.

Wait. Hang on. What? Germany? U.S. participation in the Second World War was two-fold: it was a response to an attack by an enemy in Pearl Harbor and it was a campaign to help America’s allies in Europe in defeating an enemy who had already invaded. The United States entered an already waging war, helped bring it to an end, then entered multilateral efforts to prevent such a war from ever occurring again by stabilizing and democratizing the offender. If anything, one can compare Germany to Afghanistan. But what happened in Iraq? The U.S. invaded a country that was hostile to America, true, but that was by no means engaged in waging war against America or anyone else for that matter. Had we arbitrarily invaded Hitler’s Germany prior to 1938, then it might be a comparable situation, and indeed, history tells us that such an action may have prevented a horrific war. Such an action, considering American foreign policy at the time, however, would have been unthinkable. Furthermore, based on England and France’s 1930s foreign policies, such an action would probably not have enjoyed tremendous international support. It is a difficult posture to defend: making peace and granting freedom by waging war.

A few other inherent contradictions in U.S. policy and actions complete the list of reasons why some may perceive the Bush Administration as a bunch of hypocrites. The United States defied international democratic mechanisms in its efforts to spread democracy. It cooperated and continues to cooperate strategically with autocracies (Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt) in order to be able to promote democracy in other countries in the region. The United States decries human rights violations in Iraq while balking at allowing international groups to look into the possibility that America may be enabling human rights violations as well. And perhaps most tragically, the U.S. went into Iraq ill prepared for the task of stabilization and democratization. Even the nature of the military deployment into the region seems to indicate that the only thing on the U.S.’s horizon was combat.

What message is the U.S. sending? It’s not clear, is the simplest answer. It is certainly a mixed message, blending the noble principles of democracy with strategic interest. It’s clear that America reserves the right to invade a country even if it does not pose a significant security threat, which leaves the question open whether it will act militarily against a state that does. Based on U.S. actions regarding Iran and North Korea thus far, the answer seems to be no. In fact, the decision to go after Iraq instead of, for example, North Korea, shows that the U.S. reserves the right to do anything for any reason. Secondly, it seems to indicate that it prefers to go after weak countries than strong ones. Of course it’s possible that U.S. intelligence on Iraq was simply bad and that there was a real belief among decision makers that the threat was real. But if that’s the case, then those who truly threaten America can take comfort in the fact that 1) the U.S. may never figure out what they’re really up to and 2) even if they do, the international community will have little faith in their intelligence. In other words, the American message is muddled, alienates allies and encourages enemies, a situation poorly suited to improving global security and ultimately doomed to leaving the United States abandoned by its allies, alone both financially and military to pursue its strategic interests.

What should the United States have done? To answer this question would betray my opinion on the war in Iraq, and I simply do not know. I prefer to look at another, more productive question: what should the U.S. do in the future? For starters, the mixed messages need to stop. George W. Bush likes to use the phrase “we are sending a strong signal” to potential enemies that it does not pay to be undemocratic or anti-American. I posit that this is exactly the opposite of what U.S. foreign policy has been doing since 2002. A change must occur in the realm of diplomacy. Strategy aside, America needs to change the labels it gives its various campaigns. There should be two tracks.

The first I will call the “war on tyranny and poverty.” This is the ongoing promotion of democracy, human rights and the alleviation of poverty based on the Democratic Peace Theory. These will essentially be social, economic and humanitarian aid policies that will contribute to collective security. It is forward-looking, strategic and long-term. Think peace-keeping efforts and economic incentives for democratic reforms.

The second track consists of strategic and tactical responses to immediate threats and actual security breaches. This is not justified with any noble causes. It is a no-frills policy to protect Americans at home and abroad. This is realpolitik and there is no need to justify it with bedtime stories. Besides, as the case of Afghanistan showed, when a security threat is real, multilateral support comes almost automatically. The U.S. needed no great marketing strategy to sell its invasion of Afghanistan, because despite some notable objectors, most agreed that it was a justifiable response to an atrocious attack. After all, Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty was invoked for the first time in the wake of September 11th.

The United States needs to get rid of its trump cards, especially the “war on terrorism,” which is merely a blank check – supposedly endorsed by God – to do whatever whenever wherever. As Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in a recent op-ed piece for The New York Times, “President Bush’s ‘global war on terror’ is a politically expedient slogan without real substance, serving to distort rather than define.” Such diplomacy makes it impossible to justify the war in Iraq. Indeed, I’m not sure whether I would label it as democracy promotion or a tactical response because no one has ever gotten a clear answer from the U.S. government as to why this war occurred. Perhaps more importantly, it is precisely the distortion and thus the perceived hypocrisy that results from this rhetoric that alienates our allies and further enrages our enemies.

The United States has a tradition of implementing decisive tactics in the pursuit of its interests, and it is my position that there is a time and a place for such action. After all, Article 51 of the UN Charter grants all nations to act in “individual or collective self-defense.” But when high morals get dragged into the debate, a dangerous mix-and-match politics emerges. As George Soros pointed out, the U.S. tried to spread democracy in Iraq in exactly the wrong way – at gunpoint. And it is irresponsible at best to justify such messages and actions by invoking September 11th. I am no military expert, nor am I qualified to evaluate specific operations, strategies or tactics. But when it comes to diplomacy, the promotion of democracy and the pursuit of strategic interests, one thing is clear to me: even in a post-9/11 world, we can send clear messages and justify our actions with the applicable arguments, not with messianic mission statements. If we do not, multilateralism in both the promotion of democracy and tactical defense will no longer be an option, as we will have alienated our allies.