December 1, 2006
Now that most Americans are coming around to realize that a decisive victory in Iraq is no longer a serious possibility, the hand-wringing has begun in earnest. This is understandable, but totally unnecessary. People need to get a grip! Despite all the wishful thinking about a "graceful exit" from Iraq (see bottom paragraph), the reality is likely to be rather messy and inconclusive. Now that the transition of power and authority to the Iraqis has begun, the outcome is no longer fully under our control, and there is nothing to be ashamed of in acknowledging that fact.
David Ignatius ponders the implications of engaging Iran in a dialogue over security in Iraq, but President Ahmadinejad's government is extremely unlikely to be of any help. I think a pro forma offer should be made out of pure diplomatic necessity, gaining some breathing room as a prelude to a renewed (but more selective) offensive effort in the region. To Ignatius, the most discouraging sign is that the White House is now focused on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a necessary precursor to fixing things in Iraq. Not much chance of that happening.
Likewise, Charles Krauthammer derides the suggestion to get Iran and Syria to cooperate, but his main target is the realists on the Iraq Study Group who make that suggestion and who deprecate the whole notion of promoting democracy abroad. Krauthammer grants that Bush has often gotten carried away with Wilsonian universalist rhetoric, but reminds us that if such idealism were really the primary guidepost of Bush's foreign policy, then we would be intervening in places like Chad, Burma, or Darfur. Liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias retorts that Krauthammer is falsely assuming that democracy in Iraq will automatically lead to a government that is friendlier to us. He has a point there, especially about the vain notion that we should presume to guide political outcomes in Iraq, but he overplays it. Krauthammer is often identified with neoconservatives, but he is not an ideologue. He correctly interprets foreign policies as a subtle blend of national interests and ideals, not as a dichotomous choice between the two. In U.S. foreign policy, such a blend has always been the "gold standard" of success. Liberals often fail to recognize that a harmony between interests and ideals is possible.
[By the way, some pundits are mocking the Iraq Study Group as irrelevant or as advocating no major shift in U.S. war policy -- the Mudville Gazette, for example -- but they miss the point. As I wrote on Nov. 13, "The purpose of the Study Group is to give various groups in this country a voice in setting a new policy direction, i.e., it's more about policy process than substance."]
Two weeks ago Krauthammer explained "Why Iraq Is Crumbling." He quoted Ben Franklin's remark after the U.S. Constitution was drafted, saying we had "a republic, if you can keep it." It appears that Iraq can't keep the republic we bestowed upon them, which if true would be an enormous pity. (That reminds me, we would all be better off if President Bush and others spoke more often about promoting republican forms of government than democracies, which can be unstable and prone to trample upon minority rights if the country's civic culture is not prepared for self-government.) Our armed forces did all they could to give the Iraqis a chance to govern themselves peacefully, and they are blowing the opportunity of a lifetime. Krauthammer rightly acknowledged that the United States made mistakes in Iraq, but it is anybody's guess as to whether things would have turned out much differently in the absence of strong leadership committed to pluralistic government.
In the midst of these sober observations, we should look at the undeniable accomplishments of the Iraqi liberation. Fouad Ajami, who is usually critical of U.S. policy in the Middle East, derides the nostalgic wish of some realists (Brent Scowcroft, I assume) that the United States will revert to the old habit of making deals with despots for the sake of reliable access to oil:
But in truth there can be no return to the bosom of the old order. American power and the very force of what had played out in the Arab-Islamic lands in recent years have rendered the old order hollow, mocked its claims to primacy and coherence. The moment our soldiers flushed Saddam Hussein from his filthy spider hole, we had put on display the farce and swindle of Arab authority.
(Link via Instapundit.) Ajami rejects the notion that Bush was naive to promote democracy in the Middle East, or that the mission has failed:
The American project in Iraq has been unimaginably difficult, its heartbreak a grim daily affair. But the impulse that gave rise to the war was shrewd and justified.
That is a refreshingly upbeat and authoritative take on the situation. One lesson is that both the ardent pro-war and anti-war factions fail to grasp that, even with the reversal of fortunes in Iraq, the United States has brought about a permanent shift in Middle Eastern politics. In the short term, most of the consequences will appear negative to us, because the pent-up resentment has been unleashed. Over the next few years, however, Arab citizens will be ready (hopefully) to assume more responsibility for self-government. If they fail this time around, that's too bad. History is full of unpredictable twists and turns, and stubborn tendencies (traditions, bad habits) often thwart hopes for human progress. That's one of the central insights offered by the realist tradition in international relations. Maybe after another generation or two of awful violence and cruel tyranny, the Arabs will have matured politically to the point that democracy (or something like it) is a reasonable prospect. If so, we'll be ready to help. If not, don't blame us.
There is one more reason to claim success from our liberation of Iraq: It served notice to the United Nations that if the members of the Security Council fail to enforce its own sanctions, the United States will reserve the right to do so instead. Is that arrogant? It depends on your perspective. Obviously, it will seem that way to smaller and weaker countries. One of the "burdens of hegemony" is enduring the resentment of other countries who do not appreciate the stability and security provided by great powers. Rudyard Kipling used to write about that theme quite a bit. Personally, I dislike anything that approaches an imperialistic foreign policy stance, but once in a while you have to throw your weight around to get things accomplished. What I am suggesting, basically, is a Machiavellian gambit to induce the other great powers and middle powers to reform the U.N. Security Council process so that it works the way it is supposed to work. In other words, using realist means toward idealist ends.
[Speaking of the Machiavellian approach to politics, a few months ago I was alerted about a book on just that subject: Samson Blinded: A Machiavellian Perspective on the Middle East Conflict, by Israeli politician Obadiah Shoher. See samsonblinded.org. Very intriguing.]
The Great Unknown is whether the Iraqi government has either the will or the ability to assert central government authority. Many people suspect that Prime Minister Maliki is tacitly encouraging Shiite militia forces to engage in "ethnic cleansing" operations against the Sunnis. One such person is national security adviser Steven Hadley, whose leaked memo forced a one-day postponement of the meeting in Jordan between President Bush and Maliki. (See Washington Post.) In the secret memo, Hadley was much more negative and skeptical of Maliki than his public comments. Who did the leaking? Was this a Machiavellian ploy by the White House to put pressure on Iraq even while Bush expresses confidence that Maliki is the right man for the job? And what does Bush really mean when he rejects suggestions for a "graceful exit" from Iraq, insisting that we will "complete our mission" as long as the Iraqi government wants us there? Is he putting U.S. Armed Forces under the command of the Iraqi government? I see a danger that President Bush's uncompromising stance may begin to backfire if he does not choose his words more carefully.