I think Andrew Sullivan misunderstands my point in my last post about the rise of ISIS in Iraq – but we may simply disagree. Let me try to be clearer and we’ll see.

My point was not that we are obliged to “fix” Iraq, or that the Iraqis have an infinite claim against us. You can’t be obliged to do the impossible, and obviously claims can’t be infinite. But claims can be very large without being infinite, and we shouldn’t pretend they don’t exist.

Nor was my point that there is “no difference” between action and inaction – those are Sullivan’s words, not mine. Obviously, there is an enormous difference between killing somebody and not preventing their death – and a really very big difference between the two if you don’t have any plausible means of prevention ready to hand. What I said is that inaction, for a hegemonic power assumed to be engaged essentially everywhere, is a kind of action. A policy of indifference is also a policy. That’s the difference between the United States and Sweden, and that difference is a consequence of the differences in our relative power.

Nor did I argue for military intervention, which I think would be counterproductive. As I said in the piece, leaving a residual force would have given us little leverage to drive a political settlement in Iraq, and in the absence of a political settlement violence was likely to resume, and escalate, as it has. I agree with Tom Ricks: we should not be surprised at how Iraq has deteriorated, and recent events not only don’t prove we should have left a residual force, but arguably prove the opposite – that leaving a residual force would have put us in an even worse situation.

I made the following analogy:

ISIS may be likened to the Khmer Rouge, who might never have come to power in Cambodia had we not bombed that country as part of our failed effort to defeat North Vietnam. Then, of course, it was our old enemy, Vietnam, that kicked out the Khmer Rouge from Cambodia. Similarly, if ISIS is prevented from overrunning Iraq, it will probably be because of intervention by Iran.

That doesn’t sound to me like a call for America to engage in air strikes or re-insert troops. Because it isn’t.

I will note in passing that I strongly opposed any intervention in Syria, among other reasons because I strongly suspected we’d wind up, unintentionally or not, supporting precisely the kinds of groups that have coalesced into ISIS.

Now, having said that, here’s how Sullivan ends his post:

Leave it alone. And do what we can to protect ourselves. That doesn’t guarantee anything. But intervention guarantees far worse.

That’s the attitude I’m arguing against. No, we can’t “fix” Iraq, and renewed military intervention would be counterproductive. But we do owe the Iraqis more than a determination simply to “protect ourselves.” We owe it to them to do what we can to ameliorate the situation.

So what can we actually do?

The single most helpful thing we can do, it seems to me, is to work to prevent this from becoming a regional war. That means working with Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia to see that all of their interests will be harmed by such a war, and that instead their interests lie in laboring to produce a political settlement in Iraq. We have less influence than we once did in Turkey, and we have very little influence in Iran. One would hope that after all this time we have some influence in Saudi Arabia, though there’s only intermittent evidence of this. Nonetheless, we should use what we have, and try to bring these powers, potentially enemies of each other, into something resembling concert. This is basically what Leon Hadar advocates, and, as he notes, we won’t be able to force any of these powers to do what we wish - all we can do is try to influence them through diplomatic engagement, both with carrots and sticks.

But here’s the thing: there will be costs associated with both those carrots and those sticks. We have other goals with all of these countries; we can’t get everything we want. Whether we should pay those costs or not is partly a function of how much we feel we owe Iraq.

Daniel Larison also responded to my post, and also seems to think I favor renewed military intervention, which I do not. In fact, I agree with much of what he writes, particularly this:

The question is not whether the U.S. has done a great deal to create the current situation in Iraq–obviously it has–but what the U.S. can constructively do to remedy the country’s many woes. A government may be responsible for something and nonetheless be completely unqualified to repair the damage it has done. While there is a certain justice to the idea that the people responsible for breaking something are obliged to fix it, that takes for granted that they have the first clue how to rebuild what they’ve destroyed.

But I have a bone to pick with this:

If we took this definition of “indirect responsibility” seriously and applied it consistently, there is almost no event in the world for which the U.S. would not be somehow “indirectly responsible.” That way lie madness, endless conflict, and exhaustion.

I understand what he means, but I think he’s confusing what I intended as description for prescription. My definition of “indirect responsibility” is simply to say that once you have positioned yourself as a global hegemon, declared yourself “indispensable” and arrogated to yourself rights that are not granted to any other state, of course you are indirectly responsible for just about everything that happens, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the situation. The madness lies not in my description of reality but in the reality itself.

We should seek to change that reality. Perhaps I am overly pessimistic, but I assume that this will be a difficult and lengthy labor, with many setbacks along the way. I am hard-pressed to name another hegemonic power that acceded peacefully to a more multi-polar reality. Most empires decay before crumbling with catastrophic speed. Moreover, a policy of – let’s call it “diplomatically-engaged restraint” – may well produce some results that look practically indistinguishable from that crumbling. Indeed, that’s exactly what John McCain sees in Iraq right now. We should be aware of that fact – and that was the point of my parting line about “minding our own business” not necessarily leading to any kind of solution to the world’s conflicts.

In the meantime, we emphatically do not need to intervene everywhere to solve every problem. But that’s not the same thing as saying that we don’t need to have a policy – or that our policy can plausibly be tailored to a narrow vision of the national interest. We are simply too powerful, and too enmeshed in too many commitments.