International Relations heavyweights come out against invading Iraq

Thirty-three leading scholars in international relations and international security published an ad opposing the invasion of Iraq on the New York Times op-ed page last Thursday. It hasn’t gotten much attention in the blogosphere, partly because the balance of discussion here leans hawkish and partly because, as it turns out, the Times rips off its advertisers by not including the texts of opinion ads on its website, so the text and signers list has been unavailable on line.

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It caught my eye because it carried the names of two of my mentors, Thomas Schelling and Carl Kaysen, both of them scarily smart, calm, wise, famous, serious, not chronic signers or doves, and indisputably expert on questions of strategy. (Schelling is the author of the game-theory classic The Strategy of Conflict and of Arms and Influence; Kaysen went from the Kennedy White House to the Directorship of the Institute for Advanced Study.)

My friends who follow IR tell me that the rest of the list is comparably heavyweight, with Mearshimer (who seems to have been the prime organizer), Walt, Waltz, and Glaser apparently especially noteworthy. The group also stands out because several of the signers, including Mearshimer, are distinctly of the “realist” rather than the “legalist” school in international relations; if they say they think a war isn’t in our national interests, that’s what they mean, not that they think war isn’t nice.

So I take it the members of the group are expressing their expert opinion rather than merely lending their prestige to support their political tendencies. That doesn’t mean they’re necesarily right. But it does mean that those of us who know less about these matters than they do owe their views some deference. I observe with concern that the position they’ve taken is more dovish than the one I’ve been tentatively offering; they’re prepared to say that war is not a good alternative even if we can’t force SH to disarm without it. I’d like to know if there are people with equivalent credentials on the pro-war side of the question.

Too much of what is said on the anti-war side of the debate comes from sources it’s easy to dismiss: pacifists, or near-pacifists, and reflexive opponents of anything the US does overseas. Roughly speaking, I’m not really interested in hearing from anyone who opposed the Gulf War or the war that removed the Taliban from power; I can guess where they stand before they say anything, and the net effect of their intervention is probably to build support for Bush.

But this statement, like the testimony of Clark and Shalikashvili, is in a different league. I’m starting to get very queasy about all this; we may be about to bite off more than we can chew.


A friend who does this stuff for a living, and is fully qualified to evaluate the statement, reports that:

1. The list of signers is so heavyweight it could be a sumo team.

2. The arguments don’t hold water. Deterrence is fine if you don’t have any alternative, but a disarming strike is more reliable as self-defense. SH may or may not be fully deterrable, and there’s always the risk that he will pass WMD’s along to Al Qaeda or someone else to use against us without leaving any Iraqi fingerprints. Moreover,

It has become increasingly clear that many regimes in the region, most notably Saudi Arabia, are morally bankrupt and politically untenable over the long term. If we are to be on the right side of history (and protect vital US interests) the US needs to think strategically and creatively about changing the status quo, not preserving it. War against Iraq will be costly, I agree. But costs alone shouldn’t drive US policy. Costs weighed against potential benefits should. In my view, the math argues for war now.


I am deeply troubled by the idea that we should not act unless/until the threat of SH becomes ‘imminent.’ ( A point not made explicitly in the ad but one that lurks beneath the surface). If we believe the ad, we attack only after we or our allies have been hit. Some defense!

A more generous interpretation — that we invade only if Saddam appears to be on the verge of attacking the US or an ally — assumes our intelligence is good, which it isn’t. Remember India and Pakistan in 1998? We learned of the “imminent testing” only AFTER the nuclear devices had already gone off. (It’s kind of like having a burglar alarm that sounds only once you’ve been shot in the head). The “wait until we’re in greater danger” approach also suggests a naive understanding of military operations. We need weeks, if not months, to adequately deploy to the Middle East for any serious invasion. Recommending a quickie “invasion on the fly” in the event things go south isn’t just misguided. It’s misleading. It suggests a false sense of the possible. IR theorists should know better.

So there you have it. Now, the fact that the arguments in the ad aren’t convincing to a professional doesn’t mean that the conclusions are wrong, or that the people who wrote the add don’t have better arguments, or effective refutations to the ones above. But at least someone who understands the issues, and has read the arguments as presented, isn’t convinced, and thinks we ought to go to war.

I’m still in doubt.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: