Many critics of the American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq cited the violation of state sovereignty as their chief concern. Invoking the United Nations Charter, opponents of these wars warned that American violation of Afghan and Iraqi sovereignty was illegal, immoral, and threatening to international order.
Forty years ago, these defenders of sovereignty would have been promoting sovereignty as a powerful battering ram for destroying empires and undermining the legitimacy of colonization. Eventually, empire became an illegitimate and extinct form of government; the hope was that acquiring state sovereignty would be the first step toward popular sovereignty. People living in colonies could choose their rulers only after shedding their colonial masters. Decolonization and democratization were to go hand in hand.
Today, however, the champions of sovereignty have become the conservatives. We should respect sovereignty, but it should not trump all other norms all the time. Defending Afghanistan’s state sovereignty in 2001 or Iraq’s in 2003 meant defending the wretched Taliban and Saddam Hussein. Both the Taliban and Hussein seized “sovereignty” by using brutal force.
In speeches justifying these wars, President George W. Bush proposed a liberty doctrine, which places the sovereignty of individuals above the sovereignty of the state. According to Bush, the sovereignty of regimes elected by their people cannot be violated. But those regimes not so constituted are illegitimate. Like those who embraced sovereignty as the intellectual counter to empire a half century ago, Bush embraces liberty as a weapon against dictatorship.
This liberty doctrine is not new. American presidents have sporadically deployed armed force to promote liberty in international politics. With his decisive actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush has given new impetus to the idea of promoting democratic regime change abroad.
Bush actively promoted democratic regime change in places ruled by dictators that were threatening the United States. He did not start by dethroning despots loyal to American interests. The real test of his commitment to this doctrine will be his passion for deploying nonmilitary means for the cause of liberty in places such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Russia.
The American people are unlikely to support another preemptive war in the name of democracy. Even if Bush remains committed to this new doctrine, others in his administration, in his party, on Capitol Hill, and in other strategic countries are less interested in the project. As the going gets rough in Iraq and budget deficits bloat in this country, the president may be tempted to let his doctrine of liberty morph into a smaller doctrine of stability.
Such a reversal, however, will vindicate the champions of sovereignty and delegitimize the American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. President Bush, therefore, must back up his rhetoric with long-term strategies for securing democracy. If he fails, these wars will have been wasted opportunities and be remembered instead as examples of using U.S. military might for U.S. material gain. If Bush stays the course and builds a bipartisan domestic coalition, then just maybe—forty years or so down the road—dictatorship will follow the same fate as empire and become an extinct form of government.