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[Elizabeth Shackelford] Consensus in foreign policy can be dangerous

With the 20th anniversary of the launch of the Iraq War, I’m reminded of the remarkable consensus behind that decision, which passed with strong bipartisan support. Experts, journalists and well-known media personalities joined the bandwagon too.

Often, consensus is good. It clears away opposition and helps make things happen. But too often, quick agreement on hard problems is a sign of dangerous groupthink instead.

This wide support has not aged well. It launched a bloody war, at a cost of $2 trillion and an estimated 300,000 lives. It led to a violent insurgency and the creation of the Islamic State militant group. Generations of Iraqis will continue to suffer the consequences.

And so will America. Although the material suffering in Iraq dwarfs our own, I’m not sure America will ever escape the long tail of distrust that has understandably followed us since then.

The original sin was the decision to go to war on a dishonest pretext. That foundation gave rise to our use of torture, rendition, indefinite detention without due process, militarized policing back home and a severely undermined international reputation.

It’s tempting to lay blame on individuals -- President George W. Bush for leading the charge, or Vice President Dick Cheney or Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for talking a perhaps unwitting president into action.

But this failure had a slew of enablers on both sides of the aisle and across the national security industry: people driven by fear, both personal and political, and simple, old-fashioned revenge. Emotion, not reason, drove this consensus, with patriotism playing a strong part too. It was easy to go along with the “Rah-rah America” refrain. Questioning it was considered weak, and the more who went along with it, the harder it was for others to raise their hand and object.

We like to laud consensus in America, particularly in an age of such extreme partisanship in our politics. But let Iraq be a reminder that agreement isn’t necessarily a positive end in itself. Hard questions usually require hard answers, and it’s rarely easy to reach a quick consensus on hard answers. The value of a consensus decision is no greater than the decision itself, and in the case of Iraq, the decision was catastrophic.

People naturally find comfort in consensus -- it spreads out both credit and blame. But the danger of consensus is that it forecloses other, often better, ideas and the debate that a lack of consensus demands.

I write this today not simply to lament mistakes of the past but in hopes it makes us more cautious and self-aware in the future.

First, we must acknowledge the cost of our dishonesty in Iraq to our reputation within the world. Trust that is broken is hard to build back, and in our hubris, we haven’t invested much in trying to do so. But distrust of what motivates our actions lingers.

Today, that legacy of dishonesty is undermining our efforts to build support for Ukraine. The prevailing American position is that we are right, Ukraine’s defense is just, so other countries have no excuse to stay on the fence.

But the Global South has a justified skepticism of American forays in the name of democracy and human rights. By owning up to our own mistakes before and our role in undermining the international order we helped build, we might have greater traction in persuading more countries that they can trust our position today.

Second, we must be cautious in our approach to China, as it is a country we need to work with to face shared challenges like climate change and future pandemics. The growing bipartisan consensus on China, however, is driving us toward an aggressive stance that could put needed cooperation out of reach. The reality is that China is deeply economically integrated with the United States and our allies, and its economic and diplomatic engagement around the world translates into significant global sway.

This doesn’t mean that we turn a blind eye to China’s bad acts. America must be cautious about relying on China for national security-sensitive products and push back on China’s maritime claims that threaten freedom of navigation in the major shipping lanes of the South China Sea. We should also continue to speak up in defense of democracy and human rights. But we must leave room for cooperation though, too. Calls for normalizing relations with Taiwan or openly committing to its defense are the kinds of decisions that could render cooperation impossible.

The best answer for our engagement with China is probably a complicated one unlikely to emerge from a consensus view. Just like in 2003, our political leaders might feel good haranguing a bad guy and assuring their constituents that they’re ready to be tough, but a hard-line consensus toward China could march us into war again.

The consequences of that bad decision would be harder to ignore.

Elizabeth Shackelford

Elizabeth Shackelford is a senior fellow on US foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She was previously a US diplomat. She wrote this for the Chicago Tribune. -- Ed.

(Tribune Content Agency)

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