Khalid Mohammed, Associated Press
The current crisis in Iraq is so messy, and all of its likely outcomes so tragic, that it’s hard to know what or even how to think about it. So let’s start with first principles, to get some grounding.

The current crisis in Iraq is so messy, and all of its likely outcomes so tragic, that it’s hard to know what or even how to think about it. So let’s start with first principles, to get some grounding.

Pacifism says that all use of force is wrong. Realism says that force is justified if it advances your interests. And the Abrahamic religions, which have helped to shape international law in these matters, say that the use of force must be governed by clear ethical rules that are accessible to all.

I believe in this third approach, often called the just war tradition. I admire pacifism, but cannot accept it. Realism strikes me as a weak conceptual framework, ultimately powerless to stand up to the idea that what I selfishly want will be good for everyone — too unsuspecting of what St. Augustine called the effects of sin on the intellect. So it seems that we’re stuck with trying to think through the right and wrong reasons for the use of force.

Shortly after 9/11, I was one of 60 co-authors of “What We’re Fighting For: A Letter from America,” in which we cited just war principles to defend the use of military force against the murderers of Sept. 11 and those who assisted them. The letter generated a worldwide reaction, most of it highly critical of us, including a “Letter to the American People” purportedly from Osama bin Laden and almost certainly from al-Qaida. At the same time, what ultimately resulted from these exchanges were face-to-face meetings with Arab and Muslim leaders that continue to this day in the form of a “Shared Values Initiative” sponsored by IAV, the think tank I direct, and the Sultanate of Oman.

In late 2002, the decision facing America was whether to invade Iraq. I was one of nine co-authors of “Pre-Emption, Iraq and Just War,” in which we cited the very same just war principles to oppose the about-to-be-launched U.S. attack on Iraq. The Bush administration at the time was advocating a doctrine called “pre-emption,” which says that it’s acceptable to attack your enemy before he has a chance to attack you. Just war principles largely preclude any such notion (although some pro-invasion writers turned intellectual somersaults trying to suggest otherwise) and we said so in our statement.

Looking back, I think our reasoning holds up. Many of the assertions offered to justify attacking Iraq — the Iraqi regime is linked to al-Qaida, the regime has weapons of mass destruction — turned out to be erroneous. And that’s precisely why just war theory guards so strongly against the notion of pre-emption — when war fever is running high and when you’re predicting the future, it’s easy to get basic facts wrong. Indeed, it’s common. Here is arguably the main reason why the just war tradition says “I can attack my attackers” but refuses to say “I can attack those I believe will attack me in the future.”

Which brings us to today. After more than a decade of U.S.-led war, after thousands of deaths and billions spent on the Iraqi government and military, Iraq is now tearing itself apart via a Sunni versus Shiite sectarian war. There is slim reason to believe that the various Iraqi factions have ever been, or will soon be, willing to share power, which is the only basis for the nation’s survival with some modicum of justice. Finally, al-Qaida and its offshoots — the very people who were said to be involved in Iraq in 2002, but weren’t — are now very active indeed in Iraq. The word “failure” seems barely adequate as a description of the policies that have produced these results.

Perhaps if our forces had acted differently, or stayed longer, the results would have been better. Perhaps the U.S. should have used, or should now consider using, targeted military force in neighboring Syria, where al-Qaida and its kin for years have created havoc that is now spilling over into Iraq.

Perhaps. But for me the main moral of this story is the importance of restraint. We didn’t understand Iraq in 2002 and we don’t seem to understand it much better now. We’ve made some heavy footprints there, but the idea that U.S. power can decisively influence Iraqi sectarianism seems from the beginning to have been largely a fantasy. The current crisis seems likely to end very badly, and it’s hard to see how anything that our military could reasonably do in the coming weeks and months would likely make things better.

David Blankenhorn is president of the Institute for American Values. You can follow him on Twitter @Blankenhorn3.