As I mentioned last week, the Lowy Institute's Reports From a Turbulent Decade, our tenth anniversary anthology, is now available in bookshops and online (just in time for Father's Day).

Reports from a Turbulent Decade coverWith speculation building that the US is about to intervene in the Syria conflict, this is a good moment to extract part of Owen Harries' contribution to the anthology, After Iraq. Owen was a senior Australian diplomat and founding editor-in-chief of The National Interest from 1985 to 2001. Here are some of the lessons he offered in 2006 for America's post-Iraq foreign policy:

  • If you destroy an existing order, you are saddled with mess and the responsibility for putting something workable in its place. As former secretary of state Colin Powell succinctly put it to president George W Bush before Iraq, quoting the warning displayed in china shops: ‘You break it, you own it.’ It will be particularly important to keep this in mind in formulating policy towards Iran, a bigger country than Iraq, in the near future.

  • It is prudent not to allow too blatant a discrepancy to develop between your ends and your means. The moral costs of doing so are likely to come high. Thus, if you claim to be promoting freedom, democracy and the rule of law, it will be dangerous to your image and credibility to engage in torture, or ‘extraordinary rendition’, or to violate habeas corpus. The more elevated your moral claims, the more blatant the discrepancy.

  • The claim that double standards in one’s favour are justified – a claim often made by neo-conservatives – fits badly with claims of moral superiority. To say that I am justified in behaving worse than you because I am morally superior to you does not really carry conviction.

  • In considering the extent to which other countries should trust America to use its vast power in a non-threatening way, Americans should consider the extent to which they themselves are prepared to trust other states, even states which have much less power than the United States. Trust is a scarce commodity in international politics.