When Freedom Requires Force

Article excerpt

What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building By Noah Feldman Princeton University, Press, 200 pages, $19. 95

Recently I received an e-mail from an Iraqi friend describing his continuing struggles with electricity, heat, running water, explosions. So when I picked up Noah Feldman's short volume titled What We Owe Iraq, my immediate response was: they need help with power, gasoline, fresh water, safety. Oh, and democracy.

Of those necessities, Feldman really only addresses the last. As signaled by its subtitle, War and the Ethics of Nation Building, the book is not a solicitation of practical relief for Iraqis, but a lawyerly discussion of what's involved in creating democracies in conquered or failed states, a topic that has suddenly and spectacularly impressed itself on American minds.

Feldman focuses primarily on post-Saddam Iraq (with nods to nation-building in Germany, Japan, and the Balkans), and the moral and ethical challenges the U.S. faces in changing Iraq's destiny. He's well-suited to the task: An Arabic-speaking scholar of constitutional law and Islam, Feldman served as senior constitutional adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.

Nevertheless, this book--compiled from lectures Feldman delivered at Princeton in April 2004--feels detached from the pointed question implied by its title. Not until the final line does the author offer a direct answer: "What we ultimately owe Iraq is to let the Iraqis grasp nationhood and sovereignty for themselves--and to keep it, if they can."

The book feels outdated, too: The recent elections and the formation of a new Iraqi government have made the question of America's role in Iraq much less urgent. We're now entering the stage where Iraqis solve their own problems. The parts of this book that have continuing value are the guidelines Feldman lays out for rescuing failed states.

Early on, Feldman dispatches two common attitudes toward nation-building. The first is the "realist" school, which would have America cozy up to "strongmen" congenial to our interests. If such real politik worked in the Cold War, Feldman argues, it is disastrous today: "Terrorist movements tend to emerge where ... citizens believe the state denies them their rights and does not represent them."

By the same token, he dismisses those who say it is indefensible to depose dictators to serve U.S. interests. Such a position subjects America to a paralyzing "moral test akin to a requirement of altruism." Instead, Feldman argues that international interventions are permissible for matters of security if "our objectives coincide with the interests of other peoples or nations, and if we adopt appropriate means to achieve them." I myself often encountered Iraqis who understood this principle of "shared interest." As one said to me, "Even if the WMDs had been a trick Bush used to invade Iraq, we'd say 'Fine--whatever it took to finish Saddam. …