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  • American Foreign Policy after Iraq
  • Robert J. Pranger (bio)

Given the ongoing and intense controversy in the United States over the Iraq war and a draw-down of American forces from that country’s turmoil, it may seem premature at this time to think of any foreign policy “after” Iraq, but increasingly we will see evidence of such thinking in the debate on how to end this conflict. America’s greatest strength is its optimism, even at the lowest points of public despair. Questions are even now being raised, as the 2008 presidential campaign becomes the center of national attention, about basic foreign policy issues for the future, despite the pessimism surrounding American conduct in Iraq. These broader issues concern a fundamental problem: what is right for the American people in foreign policy?

From basic tenets of national interest and rule of law flow four important topics that any intelligent citizen — not only academics and government officials — must confront in light of the US experience in Iraq and in the wider war on terrorism since 9/11. First, there are not only American objectives in the world but American limitations as well. Second, any ideology of power — left, right, or center — must be compatible with America’s traditions of lawful conduct of government. Third, wider civilizational values of robust citizenship, natural law, and cosmopolitan inclusiveness, each with its origins in classical Greece, invariably prove necessary to support any tradition of responsible government in foreign as well as domestic policy. And fourth, any doctrine of national interest must be consistent, rather than in conflict, with an idealistic worldview. A discussion of each topic will illustrate some of the issues that should receive attention in the course of this debate on the fundamentals of future American foreign policy. [End Page 55]

The United States emerged not only from an armed revolt against England in the eighteenth century but from a constitutional and intellectual revolution within the English polity during the seventeenth century. One cannot read Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence without noting its kinship to Locke’s Second Treatise on Government of 1690, just as Burke’s justification of the American war of independence in the House of Commons hearkened back to the rights of all English subjects in the Bill of Rights of the Glorious Revolution as well as earlier constitutional landmarks, beginning with the Magna Carta. And the zeal the new Constitution displayed for rule of law in all public action manifested a concern not only for well-established governmental authority but for individual political conduct as well, an almost Hobbesian dread of the unauthorized behavior of ordinary citizens and leaders alike. In more contemporary and less political terms this fear, found also in the high philosophy and drama of classical Greece, is expressed by one of the characters in Iris Murdoch’s novel Nuns and Soldiers (1980): “What can morality, what can philosophy achieve against the volatile faithlessness of the human mind?” It is hardly surprising that the American political system, dedicated from its origins to individual rights, should also be a government of lawyers. Nor is it any wonder that a strong tendency in American foreign policy has been to favor the rule of law among nations.

Limitations as Well as Objectives

As the Vietnam War began to create increasing unrest in the American public, there appeared a greater acknowledgement of “the limits of intervention.” A similar realization has returned to public consciousness as the violence in Iraq has escalated. These limits are found not only in national economic deficits but in military capabilities. Americans are ambitious people but also innately pragmatic to the point where experience is taken seriously in planning for the future. In the 2008 presidential election this issue will receive considerable attention. When conservatives as well as liberals begin to raise questions about the practicality of continuing current levels of US military and economic efforts under current foreign policy objectives, it is likely that adjustments will be made in international commitments. [End Page 56]

While public anxiety about the war in Iraq and the state of the US economy are put into separate questions in public opinion polling, with economic concerns now surpassing worries...


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pp. 55-67
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2019
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