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April 1, 2007

Why We Fight Over Foreign Policy

Different perspectives yield different conclusions.


Why do we disagree so stridently about foreign policy? An easy answer is because leaders lie about events abroad.1 Take the decision to invade Iraq. Didn’t Tony Blair say before the war that Iraq could assemble a nuclear weapon in 45 minutes? He was obviously lying, right? Or what about George W. Bush, whose cia director said at the time that it was a “slam dunk” that Iraq had nuclear weapons? He obviously knew better. Didn’t he?

Well, maybe. But what if we disagree not because leaders are wicked and lie but because they, like we, see the world differently and assemble and emphasize different facts that lead to different conclusions? Saddam Hussein evaded un inspectors. That’s a fact. But was he hiding something like weapons of mass destruction (wmd)? Or was he behaving as might any leader of a country that comes under external threat? Answers to those questions are interpretations. Some looked at Iraq’s glass and saw it was half full of wmd; others concluded that it was half empty.

Simplify but not simple

No subject in the world is as complex as foreign affairs. You are dealing not just with natural facts, such as disasters and disease, but also with social facts such as human beings who change their minds and behave creatively. Natural facts — like a virus — don’t do that. They behave according to fixed laws. Further, social facts are embedded in different cultures. People from different cultures interpret the same facts differently. What does a devout Muslim see when he or she walks by a Christian church? In some cases, an infidel institution. Not exactly what a devout Christian sees. Individual human beings and diverse cultures create multiple meanings from the same set of facts. Given this enormous complexity, how do we make any sense at all out of international affairs?

We simplify. We approach the world with labels and models that direct us toward a particular slice of reality. We can’t see it all, so we use our learning, experience, and judgment to select a direction, to look for certain facts that are important to us in terms of how we believe the world works. Surveying the material for his biography of Abraham Lincoln, Carl Sandburg wrote that “anyone dealing with the vast actual evidence cannot use the whole of it . . . therefore . . . he . . . picks what is plain, moving, and important.”2 We have to neglect some facts not because we are ignorant or ideological but precisely because we can know something only if we exclude something else. If we knew everything, we’d know nothing until we knew what was important to us — and what’s important to us is a matter of personal perspective and judgment. Thus, we emphasize certain facts, and our opponents often emphasize other facts, perhaps the very ones we deemphasize. We reach different conclusions not because we dissemble and lie but because we see the world differently and judge different facts to be more important.

Consider four facts related to North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons — the accumulation of weapons-grade plutonium before 1994, the 1994 agreement which froze the plutonium production program, the start-up in the late 1990s of a separate uranium enrichment program, and the termination of the 1994 agreement in 2002. Those who believe that direct negotiation with North Korea is the best way to handle this issue emphasize the second and fourth facts. The freeze agreement prevented further production of plutonium and thus capped the amount of weapons-grade materials available to produce nuclear weapons. The termination of the agreement allowed North Korea to resume plutonium production and test a bomb in October 2005. Thus, from this point of view, the termination of the agreement was a mistake even though North Korea had begun a separate enrichment project because that program was still a long way from producing weapons-grade materials.3 Those who believe that sanctions and isolation are the best way to deal with the problem emphasize the first and third facts. North Korea already had weapons-grade material before 1994 and could have tested a bomb at any time with that material. Moreover, it broke the 1994 agreement by starting up the enriched uranium program. So terminating the 1994 agreement did nothing except make explicit what was going on anyway, a stealth program to acquire nuclear weapons. Better from this point of view to rally allies and isolate North Korea until it disclosed and dismantled all nuclear weapons programs.

Are these positions just partisan — the one supporting President Clinton’s policy of negotiation, the other President Bush’s policy of isolation? Possibly, but I’d wager they are also the product of different perspectives about what causes things to happen in international affairs. One believes that North Korea can be persuaded to give up nuclear programs by inclusion and negotiated compromise, the other that North Korea can be dissuaded from nuclear weapons primarily by isolation and material sanctions. The first is not unwilling to threaten force, as Clinton reportedly did in 1994, and the second is not unwilling to consider negotiations, as Bush did in 2005 (reaching the most recent agreement announced in February 2007). But the relative difference in emphasis is clear.

Thus, all leaders, analysts and citizens simplify when they debate foreign affairs. And therein lies our problem. We forget that we are simplifying and claim veracity and truth for our insights. Our opponents must be depraved or incompetent if they do not agree with us. How many people say today they hate George Bush or, in the 1990s, Bill Clinton? Emotions take over for common sense. Since we have to simplify to make any sense of world affairs, why not go all the way? Make the world really simple and divide it into two groups, those who are good and agree with us and those who are evil and disagree with us. We’re all guilty of this. Bush oversimplified when he said after 9/11, “those who are not with us are against us.” But Democrats, who deplore Bush’s comment, oversimplify when they say Bush is evil and lied to us about the Iraq War.

In this essay, I try to show that the Iraq War and almost all foreign policy issues are not in the first instance about brilliant and stupid or honest and mendacious people. They are rather matters of perspective and judgment. People struggle to simplify and make sense of an extraordinarily complex world. In the process they emphasize different facts even when they see the same facts. For example, proponents of the Iraq War saw the incomplete facts about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction as evidence of what he was hiding. Opponents of the war saw the same facts as evidence of what he did not have.

In the end, people take responsibility for how they see the world. That we simplify and emphasize different aspects of reality does not excuse us from moral accountability. Some people do lie. We have to make judgments about good and evil. But before we denounce each other as evil, which seems to come earlier and earlier in our foreign policy debates, wouldn’t it be nice if we knew more about the different ways in which people legitimately see the world and differ in their emphasis and interpretation of the facts, often the same ones?

Three perspectives

Theorists of international relations have long recognized three principal ways to think about the world and select and evaluate facts. The realist perspective thinks about the world primarily in terms of a struggle for power, alliances, and the threat and use of force. The liberal perspective looks at it more in terms of expanding cooperation and complex interdependence through trade, negotiations, and international institutions. The ideational or what political scientists today call constructivist or identity perspective sees it largely in terms of what people and states believe — the ideas, norms, and values they share that shape their discourse and identity. Many of us are familiar with these perspectives or simplified versions of international relations theories (the theories themselves become endlessly complex), but we may not fully understand how directly they influence our day-to-day debates.

In the realist outlook, people and states worry most about their survival and seek sufficient military power and wealth to protect themselves against would-be adversaries. Because states exist separately, they have to look out for their own security. There is no single center of legitimate power, a World 911, that they can call upon when attacked. The United Nations, in this sense, is not a world government. A domestic government has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. No domestic group can take up arms legitimately against the state. But the United Nations has no such monopoly. It can use force only with the consent of the great powers on the Security Council, and Article 51 of the un Charter gives all states the right to use force to defend themselves whether or not the United Nations approves. State power decides the way international institutions work and defends the nation’s values or identity.

Thus the world from this perspective works through a contest and balancing of military and economic power to protect national security. Weak states unite against strong states and do what they can to prevent might from making right. The terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001, appear from this perspective as “a war in which the weak turned the guns of the strong against them . . . showing . . . that in the end there is no such thing as a universal civilization of which we all too easily assume we are the rightful leaders.”4 The realist perspective interprets this event as a contest between the weak and the strong in which there is no rightful universal authority except that which each state decides.

The liberal perspective sees the world in terms of institutional cooperation and world order, not material struggle and balancing. It asks why international life cannot be similar to domestic life in which a single authority does exist and enforces common rules and law. After all, the scope of governmental authority has expanded since the beginning of time. Villages became towns, towns cities, cities merged into states, and today states constitute nations and unions such as the European Union. Why can’t society eventually become global, and common institutions and laws prevail at the international level just as they do today at the domestic level? Modernization pushes us in this direction. The world is becoming smaller through the interdependence of communications (diplomacy), transportation (trade), professional societies (epistemic communities), urbanization and industrialization (bureaucracies), common problem solving (law), and environmental protection (planet earth). The habit of cooperation slowly diminishes the significance of power and ideological differences.

From this perspective, states don’t just seek power to survive. They also seek to form more perfect unions. Thus, the attacks of 9/11 represented not another cycle in the struggle between the weak and strong but a failure of the international community to include the weak and address their grievances. As Caryle Murphy commented about 9/11 in the Washington Post (September 16, 2001), “if we want to avoid creating more terrorists, we must end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a way both sides see as fair.” Ignoring oppression and marginalizing people create conflict. What deters conflict, then, is not balancing forces but removing the alienation that prompts the conflict in the first place.

The identity perspective sees the world in terms of dialogue and dispute about values, norms, and identities. How groups and states envision themselves and others drives their use of power and their behavior in common institutions. States don’t just seek to survive; they seek to survive as a particular kind of society — for example, a democratic or a theocratic society — and they use international institutions to shape a common discourse and develop shared identities. Ideas influence power and institutions, not the other way around.

From this perspective, the attacks of September 11 are the consequence neither of a power struggle nor unresolved grievances but of incompatible or insufficiently shared identities. As Jim Hoagland wrote in his Washington Post column nearly a year after the 9/11 attacks (August 1, 2002), “The removal of Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat are necessary but not sufficient conditions [to resolve the Middle East conflict] . . . [and] the administration cannot rely . . . on a now discredited peace process. . . . Only a level and clarity of American commitment to democratic change . . . will calm an ever more deadly conflict.” The argument deemphasizes the use of force — the removal of certain leaders by force is not enough — and does not expect much from negotiations or diplomacy — cannot rely on the discredited peace process. Only a change in the identity of regimes in the Middle East that creates a more common dialogue can discipline the use of force and realize the promises of diplomacy.

Which perspective matters more?

People and political leaders apply these perspectives simultaneously. Serious people look at the world in multiple ways. They collect and evaluate facts from different perspectives. But when they act, they have to choose. Why? Because we can’t focus on everything and get anything specific done, and we don’t have unlimited resources to do everything.

So, let’s say the president of the United States needs your advice today about the next steps in Iraq. Do you agree with his plan to surge troops in Baghdad to defeat the sectarian extremists, or do you believe negotiations within as well as outside Iraq are more urgent than ever, as the Iraq Study Group recommended? Or do you remind him that neither military force nor negotiations can succeed without less corrupt and more democratic countries in the region, as he argued in his inaugural address in 2005?

Well, you say, all of these things are necessary, and President Bush himself has implemented policies to address all of them. But some policies conflict and others come first. “In a choice of evils,” Abraham Lincoln once said, “[war] may not always be the worst.”5 Nevertheless, war increases instability, and makes democracy in Iraq more, not less, difficult. Negotiations to end the Arab-Israeli dispute may lessen terrorism, but then terrorism may make negotiations useless. President Clinton mediated an Arab-Israeli agreement in December 2000 only to see it blown up six weeks later by Palestinian extremists (intifada) and Israeli hardliners (election of Ariel Sharon). However worthy that agreement was, extremists who held the balance of forces on the ground torpedoed it.

So you have to tell the president which policy matters more and how the country can afford it. And you do that by judging one policy to be more important than another. As one example, you advise the president that prosecuting the war in Baghdad is a priority to weaken extremists in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, eventually enabling moderate governments to negotiate a peace settlement that can stick and encourage longer-term economic development and democratic progress. This judgment is realist. It doesn’t ignore liberal (negotiations) and identity (democracy) factors, it just says that the use of force is needed to quell extremism as a way to improve the situation on the ground and facilitate negotiations and longer term developments (preventing a repeat of Clinton’s experience). Or, as a counterexample, you advise the president, as the Iraq Study Group recently did, that negotiating a regional solution to the Iraq problem and a wider Middle East peace settlement takes priority over defeating extremists because it will alleviate the grievances that fuel extremism, enabling moderates to regain control of security and military forces, shut down terrorism, and open the way to economic growth and political reforms. This judgment is liberal. Again, it doesn’t ignore realist (extremists) and identity (reforms) factors, it just says that negotiations to achieve fairness and equity among Iraqis and between Palestinians and Israelis will legitimate existing governments, empowering them to end violence, pursue economic development, and promote democratic reforms.

Where, you might ask, is the concern in these two recommendations for human rights in the Middle East, especially women’s rights? Must women be long suffering and wait for the defeat of extremists or the fruits of negotiations before they can expect democratic reforms? An identity perspective offers a third line of advice to the president which emphasizes democracy over security and negotiations: promote constitutional reforms and elections to make governments in Iraq and the Middle East more transparent and accountable, exposing extremism and corruption and building trust to negotiate lasting prosperity and peace. This is the policy the Bush administration actually pursued from 2003 to 2006 (remember the ink-stained fingers of people who voted), while critics, taking a more realist or liberal perspective, complained that security was being neglected or that diplomatic negotiations were being postponed.

These alternative pesrspectives illuminate the contours of the Iraq debate. The neoconservatives, who dominated policy in 2003–2005, advocated the need to overthrow the government (regime change) to end the pursuit of wmd in Iraq and set the stage for wider negotiations in the Middle East. This identity perspective is now in retreat. Realist strategists opposed the invasion in 2003 because they feared the instability that would result from the change of governments. They stressed containment and balancing power to resolve conflicts, whatever the ideology of governments. They are now back in fashion. And liberal strategists, who criticized the failure to avoid war by negotiations and then to push negotiations after the war when America was strong, now push talks with Syria and Iran when the United States is weak. They see negotiations as a way out of the war even as U.S. forces draw down and radical regimes such as Iran and Syria gain influence. Each perspective advocates a different key (cause) to unlock the riddle of Iraq — ideas such as democracy, balancing such as containment, and negotiations to facilitate compromise.

Perspectives illuminate other debates. Take the issue of how to deal with China. Liberal approaches say, negotiate with an authoritarian China to integrate it into the world economy, thereby reforming China’s economy and eventually opening up its political system. What if in the meantime you make China stronger and it remains or becomes hostile? Realist perspectives worry about this and advise strengthening military alliances with Japan and South Korea and balancing China’s military buildup, especially in the Taiwan Strait. Where in either the liberal or realist judgment, one might ask, is an emphasis on human rights and protection of dissidents in China? Well, it’s not there or not there as much as it would be in a judgment made from an identity perspective. In this case, you would advise the president to give higher priority to democratic reforms in China, backing moderates in Beijing to temper aggressive foreign policies toward Taiwan, improve the regional climate for common trade and investment opportunities, and eventually transcend territorial and military disputes. In this case, ideas change institutions and ultimately resolve military conflicts, rather than institutional factors (e.g., détente, arms control, etc.) managing military tensions and later changing political ideas. Which factors — material (power), interactive (institutions), or political (ideas) — cause other factors is a crucial judgment, and people of good will and high intelligence differ in the judgments they make.

Let’s look more closely at two controversial cases of differing judgments in the Iraq War — the question of links between Iraq and al Qaeda, and the issue of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

Links between Iraq and al Qaeda

Gathering intelligence illustrates vividly the reality of facts and perspectives. Information does not exist in a vacuum or pop up on the computer screen because it is there. You have to ask for it or click the mouse in certain places to discover it. I learned this lesson firsthand while serving on the National Security Council in the White House. An intelligence officer paid me a first visit. Naïvely, I expected him to give me a briefing on the facts in my area of responsibility (which was international economic affairs). Instead he asked me what I was interested in. It was the right question. He could have given me a briefing based on what he thought was most important. But as a good civil servant (there are still many) he recognized that I was part of a newly elected administration that had the right by democratic process to set priorities. Either way, the intelligence officer or I would select and go look for certain facts depending upon what we were interested in.

And so it was with intelligence gathered about contacts between al Qaeda and Iraq and Iraq’s wmd. Various intelligence agencies (there are many) went after specific facts. In the first instance they did not do this because they were political. They did it because they had to. Where would they start without some question (bias)? Some civil servants, to be sure, are outright political and leak policies when they oppose them, just as appointed officials are sometimes dogmatic and insist on facts that are consistent with what they are looking for. But most civil servants and political appointees are not ideological. They are simply interested in different things, because they have to be interested in something to gather and evaluate any facts at all.

Fortunately, these differences make for good intelligence. You want as many different people or agencies gathering facts from as many different perspectives as possible. Clearly they need to communicate with one another and share these different facts. That was a shortcoming in the intelligence gathering before 9/11, both during the eight years of the Clinton administration, when a self-imposed legal wall separated domestic and foreign intelligence gathering, and the eight months of the Bush administration when a new administration viewed the policies of the previous administration with skepticism and took several months to get its own act in order. But that shortcoming has been corrected. The one thing you cannot expect or correct from this competitive gathering of intelligence is agreement. If that’s the objective of the director of national intelligence, the new structure will fail. Intelligence will always be discordant and muddled. There are no slam dunks in intelligence. As the Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland wisely notes (July 29, 2004), “Most of the time you are not going to have perfect knowledge for making decisions. . . . The key point is always going to be the judgment you then make from what is almost always imperfect intelligence.”

On the issues of contacts between al Qaeda and Iraq, policymakers made different judgments based on the same facts. Policymakers in the Defense Department made too much of al Qaeda contacts with Iraq, but critics in Congress and elsewhere made too little of these contacts. Here’s what the 9/11 Commission said in its report issued in summer 2004, a report widely regarded as objective even though it seemed to blame Bush more for eight months of dawdling on the terrorist threat than Clinton for eight years:

around this time [1997] Bin Laden sent out a number of feelers to the Iraqi regime, offering some cooperation. None are reported to have received a significant response.

In mid-1998, the situation reversed: it was Iraq that reportedly took the initiative. In March 1998, after Bin Laden’s public fatwa [the declaration of a holy war] against the United States, two al Qaeda members reportedly went to Iraq to meet with Iraqi intelligence. In July, an Iraqi delegation traveled to Afghanistan to meet first with the Taliban and then with Bin Laden. Sources reported that one, or perhaps both, of these meetings were apparently arranged through Bin Laden’s Egyptian deputy, Zawahiri, who had ties of his own to the Iraqis.

Similar meetings between Iraqi officials and Bin Laden may have occurred in 1999 during a period of some reported strains with the Taliban. According to the reporting, Iraqi officials offered Bin Laden safe haven in Iraq. Bin Laden declined, apparently judging that his circumstances in Afghanistan remained more favorable than the Iraqi circumstances. The reports describe friendly contacts and indicate some common themes in both sides’ hatred of the United States. But to date we have seen no evidence that these or the earlier contacts ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship. Nor have we seen evidence indicating that Iraq cooperated with al Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States.6

Opponents of the decision to go to war did not hesitate to emphasize the conclusion that “no collaborative operational relationship” existed between Iraq and al Qaeda. But supporters of the decision wondered about the contacts that did exist, especially the offer by Iraq in 1999 to give bin Laden safe haven in Iraq. Although bin Laden declined that offer at the time, the offer suggested a very substantial motivation to collaborate. After all, Iraq was offering to become another Taliban government to harbor and support bin Laden and al Qaeda. And, although bin Laden said no, if Iraq offered safe haven once, might it not do so again? Moreover, what constitutes collaboration in the shadowy world of nonstate actors? What is that threshold and how do we know when it is crossed? Is it unreasonable to conclude from this intelligence that Iraq and al Qaeda might collaborate operationally in the future? Is it unreasonable to conclude that they won’t? Both seem like reasoned judgments of the facts made from different perspectives.

My purpose here is not to resolve this dispute but, on the contrary, to note that it cannot be resolved, especially not by claiming that the facts either way are a “slam dunk.” Perspectives influenced these judgments as much as facts. Those looking at this intelligence from a liberal perspective, which emphasizes interdependent relationships between al Qaeda and Iraq, would be looking for repetitive interactions and joint behavior. No concrete intelligence that connects the two parties operationally, no connection warranted. Those looking at it from a realist perspective would pay more attention to the broader strategic context in which these relationships existed. Al Qaeda and Iraq had a common enemy in the United States and thought once to collaborate against that enemy. Might they not do so again, especially after 9/11 (the earlier offer of safe haven came in 1999)? The first would see no significant interactions between al Qaeda and Iraq; the second would see a potential alliance and common adversary against the United States.

Still others, it might be recalled, argued that Iraq and al Qaeda would never collaborate because one was secular and the other sectarian. Although made by some realist commentators, this judgment is not realist. It is an identity judgment. Iraq and al Qaeda cannot collaborate because their political identities are too dissimilar. Realist judgments would never argue that ideological factors are more important than strategic ones. Yet, in this statement, ideological differences (identity) between Iraq and al Qaeda are driving them apart more than strategic (realist) antagonisms toward the United States are bringing them together.

Weapons of mass destruction

The intelligence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction provides another instance of differing judgments about the same facts. We can’t possibly do justice to the whole issue here. But consider the following. Not only American, but all the major intelligence services (British, French, German, Russian, Chinese, Australian, etc.) concluded in early 2003 that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.7 Hans Blix, the head of the un inspection effort in Iraq, reported as much to the Security Council two weeks before the invasion began: “intelligence agencies have expressed the view the proscribed programs [in Iraq] have continued or restarted in this period [since 1998].” “It is further contended,” he noted, “that proscribed programs and items are located in underground facilities . . . and that proscribed items are being moved around Iraq.” From this information, Blix himself drew the judgment that, although Iraq had undertaken “a substantial measure of disarmament,” Iraq’s actions, “three to four months into the new resolution [referring to un Resolution 1441], cannot be said to constitute immediate cooperation, nor do they necessarily cover all areas of relevance.”8

These were the facts before the invasion. There is no doubt that some policymakers went beyond the facts. They concluded, as Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet did, that the evidence Saddam Hussein had wmd was a slam dunk. But critics make the same slam dunk assessment when they claim (in retrospect) that the facts were clear he did not have wmd. To be sure, there were dissenting views about Saddam’s weapons within intelligence agencies. As I have already noted, there always are. Nevertheless, intelligence agencies, like decision makers, have to make judgments because the facts alone do not decide. All major western intelligence agencies made the same judgment that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. That suggests the evidence before the invasion was fairly convincing. Fair-minded analysts acknowledge as much. As columnist Jim Hoagland noted in the Washington Post (July 29, 2004), “If you look at the way Saddam Hussein acted, any reasonable person would have concluded that he was hiding those weapons, just from what he said and did.”

After the invasion (and one might argue only because the invasion allowed a thorough search of Iraq for wmd), we now know that Saddam Hussein did not have any actual weapons, although he did have some related capabilities to make such weapons. So what happened? Did political leaders deliberately manipulate or manufacture the facts? Although Congressional investigations thus far (additional ones are coming under the new Democratic Congress) have found no evidence that Bush and other administration officials pressured the intelligence agencies to come up with the facts they wanted, many today conclude that these officials did just that.9 Many in Britain believe Blair did the same thing, especially when he highlighted the intelligence dossier that claimed Iraq might be able to assemble a bomb within 45 minutes. Partisanship and politics drive such conclusions. Do we gain anything by arguing that such weighty decisions are driven by political perfidy? Not very much. If the intelligence services of France, Germany, and Russia also concluded that Saddam Hussein had wmd, did their leaders too manipulate the facts? Hardly, since these leaders opposed the war. More likely, leaders on both sides of the issue simply interpreted the same facts differently. Perspective, not politics, drove leaders’ decisions.

Bush officials defined the problem as waging the war on terror and preventing rogue states from acquiring wmd, which they might pass on to terrorists. In their view (and more than a decade of Iraqi obstinacy supports it), diplomacy and international sanctions had failed. Iraq kicked out un inspectors in 1998, and aside from firing a few errant missiles, the U.S. and un did nothing about it. If diplomacy was to have another chance, force would have to be used to get the inspectors back into Iraq and then to threaten Iraq with invasion if it did not fully cooperate. It’s possible that the neocons had a plan from the very beginning to attack Baghdad and correct the mistake they believed Bush’s father made in 1991 by not getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Maybe foreign policy is all about blood feuds and personal elite politics. But maybe it is not. The Bush administration may have honestly believed, based on a realist assessment of what drives behavior in international affairs, that a much stronger utilization of force was necessary to make diplomacy and international institutions work.

And in a significant way they were right. Deploying an invasion force in the Persian Gulf in fall 2002 achieved what missile firings in 1998 failed to achieve. Inspectors returned to Iraq. Diplomacy was given another chance. Now the issue was how much time to give the inspectors to track down suspected wmd and whether in the end to trust Saddam Hussein and the judgment of the Security Council that Iraq had fully and verifiably disarmed. Complicating matters further, as war supporters saw it, was the fact that France and Russia, each of which has a veto on Security Council action, had substantial economic stakes in Iraq, both legitimate in the form of commercial contracts and illegitimate in the form of bribes extracted under the un oil-for-food program.

Opponents of the decision to go to war made the case for continuing inspections and requiring international agreement in the Security Council to legitimize the use of force. They were not opposed to the use of force, any more than Bush or Blair officials were opposed to the role of inspectors and diplomacy. But, assessing the situation more from a liberal perspective that emphasizes diplomacy and international agreement, they believed, as Hans Blix intimated in his report, that Saddam Hussein had gone a long way to satisfy the international community that he had no wmd and would clarify remaining uncertainties if he was given enough time. They were more willing to trust Saddam and more eager to use international institutions, namely the veto system in the Security Council, to delay the use of force. If the United States was suspect in its desire for diplomacy — just a way station toward war, as critics contended — un officials and war opponents were suspect in their willingness to use force — not a last but a past resort (no longer applicable in modern-day international affairs). Critics of the war never acknowledged that an invasion force was necessary to retrieve the diplomatic option of un inspectors. But, equally, supporters of the war never made clear what evidence from inspections would ultimately satisfy them that Iraq had fully disarmed. The reluctance of both opponents and supporters of war to come clean reflects their relative preference for the use of diplomacy and force. It is a matter of emphasis and perspective, not of bad faith and politics.

Other analysts emphasize the role of actor identities and see the war determined largely by Saddam’s paranoia. Was Saddam really bent on acquiring nuclear weapons when we find out he had none? Was he eventually willing to comply with international inspections and rules when he danced around the inspectors so many times? Maybe the issue for Saddam was not wmd per se, as realist perspectives saw it, or complying with international rules, as liberal perspectives saw it, but Iraq operating according to an ideological and normative code that alienated it from the rest of the world. Iraq, in short, acted in accordance with the dictates of its paranoid politics and ruler rather than an intention to acquire wmd or eventually satisfy un inspectors.

Some evidence for this ideational view of Iraq’s behavior exists. One of the great mysteries of the Iraq war is why Saddam Hussein gave up everything, including eventually his life, for nothing, since he had no wmd. This is something realists said he would never do. He was a survivor, not suicidal. Yet, if he knew he did not have wmd, why did he risk his regime pretending he did? A bluff may be rational, but not if it is pressed to the point of being called. Perhaps he did not know whether he had wmd, which then suggests he was disconnected from his own regime as well as the international community. Or perhaps he just didn’t believe the U.S. and its allies would attack, or that France, Russia, and other supporters would let them attack. Diplomacy would save his regime. But all of these speculations suggest that he was out of touch; that, as identity perspectives argue, there was no significant shared discourse or knowledge between Saddam Hussein and other players that might have led to a peaceful resolution of the dispute through common understandings. Liberal and realist factors — diplomacy and even rational deterrence by force — never had a chance to work because identity factors overrode them.

The same identity perspective, of course, can be used to explain U.S. behavior. The neocons were out of touch and never seriously considered how big the threat was and how many troops would be needed to contend with it, which realist perspectives stressed, or what specific results of the inspection process they would accept, which liberal perspectives stressed. They were driven all along by an ideological view of the world that distrusted other states and international negotiators unless they were similarly ideologically oriented. This identity perspective, it might be argued, also drives the Bush doctrine of democratizing Iraq and the Middle East region. A peaceful solution to wmd or serious political disputes, such as the Arab-Israeli dispute, is unlikely, according to this view, unless the governments in the region share more fundamental values including pluralism, human rights, and the rule of law.

Analysts employing a liberal perspective assume diplomacy and institutions can work in spite of such ideological or regime differences. Indeed, they argue, that’s the whole point of diplomacy. As the Iraq Study Group argued, you talk with your enemies in particular. Analysts who see the world more in identity than institutional terms, however, wonder which countries can be counted on to ensure that diplomatic agreements are implemented, especially in institutions that are divided among countries of different ideological persuasions and affinities. Still other analysts, who see the world in realist terms, conclude that all the talk about ideology and democracy is just that, talk. Ideas are epiphenomenal and other interests matter more. Neocons and Bush simply disguised their real motives — to depose Hussein and settle old scores — with a lot of rationalization about wmd and democracy. When no wmd were found, they shifted their rationale to promoting freedom and democracy.

Compare, evaluate, prioritize

Perspectives provide a powerful tool for understanding why we disagree about foreign policy. They illuminate not only contemporary but historical debates.10 People of good faith differ in the judgments they make about the principal causes of world events. Serious analysts consider all perspectives and gather as many facts from each perspective as they can. But they can never gather all the facts, and they must still interpret which facts are more important than others. Just as they are condemned to select something in order to understand anything, they are also condemned to make different judgments and thus to disagree.

Yes, it is possible and necessary to narrow disagreements, to formulate hypotheses from different perspectives about how the world works, and to look for new facts that can adjudicate between alternative propositions. That is the scientific method, and all serious people use it. But scientific method is not truth. It is a tool to analyze in a rationalist or positivist manner an infinitely complicated world. Even natural scientists demur from declaring that they have discovered the truth. They may demonstrate that a proposition is not false, that is, it seems to be consistent with the way the world is. But all good natural scientists know that their propositions do not capture the real world as it actually is. An alternative proposition may also be consistent with their results. In physics, quantum mechanics explains subatomic phenomena on the basis of probability, while Newtonian mechanics explains planetary phenomena on the basis of fixed bodies. Both theories work within their domains, but the worlds they postulate are completely incompatible. The actual world is obviously something different from either theory. So physicist and mathematicians are looking for another theory that might tell us about a world which accounts for both Newtonian and quantum mechanics and much more. That’s string theory, but there’s no guarantee that it will be the final word either. If we have that much trouble knowing the way the natural world actually works, whose parts do not have a will of their own, shouldn’t we be more modest about what we can know about the social world of international politics?

The social sciences, especially world affairs, are much more complicated. The subjects they study —  human beings — do have minds of their own, and they can and do often change their minds on a whim. How do we capture the laws by which such a world works? For the most part, we don’t. We adopt different perspectives, gather facts suggested by those perspectives, compare, evaluate, and ultimately prioritize those facts. In the process we make different judgments and give weight to different perspectives. The miracle is that we don’t disagree more than we actually do.

Politics works against the recognition of the role of perspectives. Each side insists that the facts speak for themselves when the facts favor its interpretation. Lee Hamilton, a respected former Democratic congressman and co-chair of the 9/11 Commission, gave a recent example. Appearing at a September 11, 2006, press conference with his Republican co-chair of the 9/11 Commission, Thomas Kean, Hamilton said: “Facts are not Republican, and they’re not Democratic. They’re not ideological. Facts are facts.” But, revealingly, he made this comment to rebuke his Republican co-chair; they were having a dispute about the facts in an abc docudrama, “The Path to 9/11.” Facts may not be Republican or Democratic, but they have to be interpreted by Republicans and Democrats. Hamilton said what we all say when we want to claim the facts for our point of view. We say the facts are a slam dunk. But they never are.

Given these complexities, could we be more modest? Could we tone down the personalization of debate, as well as all attempts to beat each other up with “the” facts. Our opponents on an issue are not stupid or evil. They speak from a different perspective, and we can listen carefully to them to divine how and where they emphasize and evaluate facts differently than we do. David Brooks, the respected New York Times columnist, demonstrates how we all use perspectives when we present our own conclusions. Asking about current leaders in Iran, he wrote (September 21, 2006):

Do they respond to incentives and follow the dictates of what we call self-interest? . . . Or, alternatively, are they playing an entirely different game? Are the men who occupy the black hole that is the Iranian power elite engaged in a religious enterprise based on an eschatological time frame and driven by supernatural longings we can’t begin to fathom?

Brooks is addressing and contrasting the realist (material self-interest) and identity (religious aspirations) perspectives on Iranian leadership. In the same article, he mentions a third perspective, the liberal one. Many intellectual elites, he writes, counsel a code of caution toward the Iranian leadership: “Be tolerant of cultural differences, seek to understand the responses of people who feel oppressed, don’t judge groups, never criticize somebody else’s religion.” These are all respectable ways to address an enormously complicated problem. But they are not compatible with one another. We have to choose. Brooks makes his choices:

The Muslim millenarians possess a habit of mind that causes them to escalate conflicts. . . . They seem confident they can prevail, owing to their willingness to die for their truth. They don’t seem to feel marginalized but look down on us as weak, and doubt our ability to strike back. . . . With America exhausted by Iraq, . . .Western policy is drifting toward the option . . . that is containment. . . . In other words, a policy that was designed to confront a secular, bureaucratic foe — the Soviets — will now be used to confront a surging, jihadist one.

For Brooks, “a habit of mind,” “a surging, jihadist one,” an identity perspective drives Muslim fundamentalists. The millenarians do not feel “marginalized” because they are weak or excluded by international diplomacy and institutions, as a liberal point of view might emphasize. Rather they feel strong and empowered by their ideas, “their truth,” and are willing to die for it. So they won’t be stopped by realist strategies that try to contain or counterbalance them. Their ideas preclude compromise and deterrence.

Others will certainly disagree with Brooks. But they will do so by making different judgments about the same facts. They may argue that the jihadist mind-set comes from marginalization of Islamic grievances in the past and may be alleviated by inclusion and compromise in the future. Or they may conclude that ideological mind-sets do eventually respond to containment and material counterpressures, just as George Kennan predicted in 1947 that communist fundamentalists would eventually mellow if the United States contained Soviet expansion in Europe.

These differing judgments are all logical and can be understood without disparaging our political opponents. Indeed, one can even argue they are all necessary if we are going to see the world in as many different ways as possible, because we cannot see it as it actually is. While each of us, as a moral human being, has to make a choice, all of us together can benefit from the differences. We can thank the people we disagree with because they remind us that none of us has a corner on the true nature of the world we inhabit, especially the world of foreign affairs.


1 “Bush lied about Iraq” brings up 1.26 million hits on Google; “Blair lied about Iraq” brings up 1.13 million.

2 Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years Volume 1 (Harcourt Brace and World, 1939), vii.

3 See Nicholas D. Kristof, “Talking to Evil,” New York Times (August 13, 2006).

4 Ronald Steel, “The Weak at War with the Strong,” New York Times (September 14, 2001).

5 Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln, 90.

6 The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, authorized edition (W.W. Norton, 2004), 66. <<p>7 A New York Times editorial (November 15, 2005) disputed the claim that other intelligence agencies agreed with U.S. intelligence. The White House fired back the same day with a fact sheet supporting the claim. Perhaps the best adjudicator of this dispute is a former cia agent who was in the intelligence community in spring 2003 before he left the cia and became a sharp critic of the administration. Paul Pillar wrote in “Intelligence, Policy, and the War in Iraq,” Foreign Affairs 85:2 (March/April 2006): “the Bush administration was quite right: its perception of Saddam’s weapons capacities was shared by the Clinton administration, congressional Democrats, and most other Western governments and intelligence services.” See also Mortimer B. Zuckerman, “Foul-ups — Not Felonies,” U.S. News and World Report (November 14, 2005).

8 “In a Chief Inspector’s Words: A Substantial Measure of Disarmament,” excerpts from reports by Hans Blix and Mohammed El Baradei to the un Security Council, New York Times (March 8, 2003).

9 For example, the bipartisan report by the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2005 concluded that it “did not find any evidence that administration officials attempted to coerce, influence, or pressure analysts to change their judgment related to Iraq’s wmd.” And the Robb-Silverman report was equally clear: there was “no evidence of political pressure to influence the intelligence community’s prewar assessments of Iraq’s weapons programs” or “to skew or alter any . . . analytical judgments.”

10 See the debates on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European wars, World Wars i and ii, and the Cold War in my book, Perspectives on International Relations: Power, Institutions, and Ideas.