I was willing to gamble, too--partly, I suppose, because, in the era of the all-volunteer military, I wasn't gambling with my own life. And partly because I didn't think I was gambling many of my countrymen's. I had come of age in that surreal period between Panama and Afghanistan, when the United States won wars easily and those wars benefited the people on whose soil they were fought. It's a truism that American intellectuals have long been seduced by revolution. In the 1930s, some grew intoxicated with the revolutionary potential of the Soviet Union. In the 1960s, some felt the same way about Cuba. In the 1990s, I grew intoxicated with the revolutionary potential of the United States.
Some non-Americans did, too. “All the Iraqi democratic voices that still exist, all the leaders and potential leaders who still survive,” wrote Salman Rushdie in November 2002, “are asking, even pleading for the proposed regime change. Will the American and European left make the mistake of being so eager to oppose Bush that they end up seeming to back Saddam Hussein?”
I couldn’t answer that then. It seemed irrefutable. But there was an answer, and it was the one I heard from that South African many years ago. It begins with a painful realization about the United States: We can’t be the country those Iraqis wanted us to be. We lack the wisdom and the virtue to remake the world through preventive war. That’s why a liberal international order, like a liberal domestic one, restrains the use of force—because it assumes that no nation is governed by angels, including our own. And it’s why liberals must be anti-utopian, because the United States cannot be a benign power and a messianic one at the same time. That’s not to say the United States can never intervene to stop aggression or genocide. It’s not even to say that we can’t, in favorable circumstances and with enormous effort, help build democracy once we’re there. But it does mean that, when our fellow democracies largely oppose a war—as they did in Vietnam and Iraq—because they think we’re deluding ourselves about either our capacities or our motives, they’re probably right. Being a liberal, as opposed to a neoconservative, means recognizing that the United States has no monopoly on insight or righteousness. Some Iraqis might have been desperate enough to trust the United States with unconstrained power. But we shouldn’t have trusted ourselves.