Posted: October 3, 2007
hat General David Petraeus reported is not exactly news: Iraq is a mess, though a slightly improved one. The "surge" is working, in the real but limited sense that it is buying some time for Iraqis to reconcile—and for Americans to reconcile themselves to the near certainty that the Iraqis will not. Then we can blame them for the mess, begin to draw down our forces in good conscience, and decide how long and in what capacity to stick around the area.
But will we have learned anything? The Iraq War has been a blow to the entire U.S. foreign policy establishment. The neoconservatives have taken it on the chin, but the truth is that realists, liberal internationalists, and the devotees of diplomacy, development, and democracy have all been confounded by it.
The neocons' current prominence in the foreign policy debate owes as much to the simplifications of liberal (and, to be sure, intra-conservative) demonology as to their actual influence on the Bush Administration. Nevertheless, they proudly took the lead in advocating the Iraq war writ large—as the catalyst of a democratic transformation in the whole Middle East. This strain showed up very early. Only a month after 9/11, Max Boot, writing in the Weekly Standard, was already suggesting, "To turn Iraq into a beacon of hope for the oppressed peoples of the Middle East: Now that would be a historic war aim."
Yet all along a few neocons have opposed the grander vision of the war, and a few others have since broken ranks over it. Three new books provide insight into the quiet neoconservative debate over Iraq. The late Jeane J. Kirkpatrick takes an old-school, skeptical stand against the war. Norman Podhoretz, as old-school as they come but on this question solidly with the war's neocon defenders, flashes his polemical genius on behalf of the Bush Doctrine. John Agresto went to Iraq to help build democracy but came back talking about the law of unintended consequences. A second-generation neocon who has rediscovered the central cautionary theme of the first generation, he may be a harbinger of things to come.
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It was not widely known that Jeane Kirkpatrick had opposed President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq. She kept her reservations to herself, and even accepted the administration's offer to defend the war's legality before the United Nations Human Rights Commission, meeting in Geneva in 2003. But she confined her case to the invasion's legality, not its wisdom or necessity, because she believed it neither wise nor necessary. Even in arguing for its legality, she rejected the administration's claim of a right to wage preemptive war. Instead, she defended the military action on the narrow grounds that it was a continuation of the 1991 Gulf War. United Nations Resolution 687, which formally dictated the terms of that war's ceasefire, had been violated flagitiously by Saddam. The 2003 intervention, legally speaking, was in her view merely an enforcement action under the terms of that Resolution (and a more recent one, 1441, demanding that Iraq cooperate with the weapons inspectors), not a new war.
This former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (1981-85, under Ronald Reagan) and longtime professor of government at Georgetown University did not like to criticize sitting presidents. (She made an exception for Jimmy Carter, God bless her.) With her death in December 2006, the country appeared to have lost any chance of her counsel on the war. But her posthumous book addresses Afghanistan and Iraq in its final chapter, and in fact Iraq haunts the whole volume.
Making War to Keep Peace has a certain hurried quality to it, and the main argument is never cogently stated. Yet Kirkpatrick's extraordinary ability to stitch together ideas and events is clear throughout, as are her keen intelligence and love of country. The book is basically a study of America's post-Cold War foreign policy, centering on the decisions for military intervention abroad made by the George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations. She has more respect for the former than the latter, but she has criticisms of each.
The book is also a study of new world orders. With the Cold War's end, America faced "for the third time in a century," she writes, "the need and the opportunity to try to control violence, aggression, and war" in order to "create peace in Europe and the world." For the third time in a century, the U.S. chose to do so by promulgating "a new world order" based on international organizations, laws, and peacekeepers. Wilson had sought such a world after World War I, Franklin Roosevelt after World War II. After the Cold War, it was George H. W. Bush's turn.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait in late 1990, Bush decided to assemble a vast international coalition to expel Saddam's forces. It took months to marshal the alliance because Bush insisted on getting the U.N. Security Council's blessing for every step. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher warned him against this. For Bush, however, international consensus was a condition and a sign of the new world order. He wanted to reinvigorate the U.N. and the principle of collective security, although he was prudent enough to keep the actual direction of the war in American hands.
When it came time to finish the tyrant, however, Bush again deferred to the international consensus, proving that his foreign-policy realism had an idealism of its own. In truth, the decision to let Saddam and his elite forces escape seemed hard for Bush himself to accept. "Still, no feeling of euphoria...," he wrote in his diary the day after hostilities ceased. But he steeled himself. "Going in and occupying Iraq," he explained later in his memoir, "thus unilaterally exceeding the United Nations mandate, would have destroyed the precedent of international response to aggression that we hoped to establish."
The Clinton Administration took this idealism to greater lengths, investing heavily in a foreign policy of "assertive multilateralism." The doctrine worked, sort of, in the Balkans, but the administration's nation-building projects foundered in Somalia, Haiti, and almost everywhere else.
Kirkpatrick argues that America's efforts to establish a new world order in the 20th century failed. They neglected the sovereign rights of nations, permitted the U.N. to get big ideas, and, to varying degrees, wasted the military in illusory peacekeeping and nation-building, instead of leaving those projects to long-term cultural, market, political, and religious forces.
Sound familiar? It is hard to know whether she is describing the current Bush Administration's predicament in Iraq or the Clinton Administration's in Haiti: "the country lacked virtually all the requirements for a democratic government: rule of law, an elite with a shared commitment to democratic procedures, an educated populace, a sense of citizenship, a decent standard of living, and habits of trust and cooperation." In fact, this is her description of Haiti. But her account of Iraq is virtually identical, except that she drops "an educated populace" and "a decent standard of living." Iraq had those, which put it one or two steps above Haiti in fitness for democracy. One or two steps, she implies by the parallel, is not enough. She argues, too, that the Reagan Doctrine applied only to free peoples struggling against oppressors; she wonders if the Iraqis are a people, much less one struggling for its freedom.
Kirkpatrick was a practicing social scientist from the realist school. She studied power, its use and constraint; and she studied political culture, which was more or less everything else that might influence power's deployment. She shied away from the analysis of the ends or the justice of democratic government in favor of the science of its "requirements" and "procedures." She shared this preference with many of the other American social scientists who were prominent first-generation neoconservatives. In her belief in the shaping power of cultural forces, the dangers of abstract principle, and the limitations of social engineering at home and abroad, she was very much in the neoconservative mainstream.
As a distinguished diplomat herself, she pronounces in her book on the "twin goals of our foreign policy": "first, ensuring our security and, second, promoting democracy and human rights. An appropriate balance between the two must exist," she writes, "and that balance must be determined within the unique circumstances of any situation." A balance of realism and idealism, in other words, is the statesman's unchanging goal amid changing situations. But is there not some integral connection between our security and our cause in the world? Why choose to promote democracy and human rights in the first place? Or is this less idealistic than it may seem, because we are the kind of a people that has no choice but to pay homage to these values—the outcomes of our own cultural forces?
These are the kind of questions she did not like to ask, questions that circumscribed her science and her brand of conservatism. Yet her practical good sense (along with her admiration for President Ronald Reagan) suggests that she also knew better than to regard good foreign policy, or for that matter good politics, as simply a series of tradeoffs between the security that we need and the morality that we can spare.
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Norman Podhoretz, who edited Commentary for 35 years and is now its editor-at-large, has a very different view of Iraq and, not incidentally, of George W. Bush. He does not have "any doubts about the leadership of George W. Bush," and thinks he will someday be considered a great president, alongside Harry Truman, to whom Podhoretz frequently compares him. Written before Bush announced that the previous strategy in Iraq was not working and switched to the "surge," World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism betrays no hint that the war is off-course or that democratization is anything but central to the struggle. In fact, it is a better book for it. Podhoretz set out to write the strongest possible case for the Iraq War on its original grounds—as an application of the Bush Doctrine. For a vigorous, uncompromising defense of the Bush Doctrine, this is the book.
Critics of the war are legion, of course, and it is on them that the author trains his fire. Podhoretz pummels everyone from his old ex-friend Norman Mailer to conservatives who have dared to criticize the administration's competency to those whom he calls the "domestic insurgency"—"journalistic devotees of the Vietnam syndrome," isolationists right and left, liberal internationalists, and realists like Brent Scowcroft. He assails William F. Buckley, George F. Will, Harry V. Jaffa, and the writers of this journal for their alleged defeatism, and Francis Fukuyama, Michael Ledeen, Max Boot, Joshua Muravchik, Kenneth Adelman, and Frank Gaffney for other lapses from war orthodoxy.
Podhoretz is a grand, pugnacious figure in American conservatism, and the contrast between his frenetic refutations and the absolute calm of his prose style is a part of his enduring charm as a writer; the effect can be mesmerizing. And this book does some things very well. It details succinctly and devastatingly how successive American administrations emboldened the terrorists. It contains as lucid an account of the controversies over Saddam's weapons of mass destruction as you will find. It traces the radicalization of the Democrats, providing a handy record of their anti-war and anti-Bush fevers. And it proves, above all, that the Bush Administration's objectives in the war are "marked by more than a touch of nobility."
In some respects, indeed, Podhoretz's arguments are sharper than Kirkpatrick's. He points out that after World War II Germany and Japan were transformed into viable democracies in about a decade, not the ages that she seems to suggest cultural evolution requires. Alluding to what political scientist Samuel Huntington (in his 1991 book of the same title) dubbed The Third Wave of democratization that swept the world beginning 30 years ago, Podhoretz asks why Iraq and the whole Middle East could not be the next to be lifted by the rising tide. Kirkpatrick does not even try to explain why so many previously undemocratic countries—e.g., Namibia, Mongolia, Guatemala—turned democratic so quickly. Her favorite Huntington book is The Clash of Civilizations (1996).
Nonetheless, Podhoretz's analysis in World War IV leaves a lot to be desired. To begin with, there is the matter of the title, that is, the name of the war. One of his few very gentle criticisms of President Bush is that he missed his chance to give this conflict its proper name. He understands why Bush faltered: he feared either misleading or confusing the American public. Misleading it, because Bush did not want to seem to endorse a war against a billion Muslims around the world, nor a conventional world war involving mass armies and surrender ceremonies; confusing it, because even if he had accepted the nomenclature of world war, he didn't want to leave people wondering what happened to the third one.
In Podhoretz's own view, the Cold War (1947-1989) was World War III, which shows that a world war does not have to involve huge pitched battles between nation-states. But the point is over-broad. War's demarcations are always somewhat inexact because they are political. Hitler's reoccupation of the Rhineland was in one sense the beginning of World War II, but in another merely its prelude-a point, to be followed by many others, where the gathering conflict might have been but was not headed off, alas.
The Cold War involved bloody proxy clashes between the great powers in places like Korea and Vietnam, and the constant threat of even more serious global conflagration. It stayed "cold" because the biggest, bloodiest battles never broke out, and because the global struggles involving propagandists, diplomats, spies, assassins, and coups d'etats did not trigger a general war. If the Soviets had invaded Western Europe through the Fulda Gap and launched preemptive nuclear attacks on the United States and its allies, then the term World War III would instantly have been used to distinguish this hot war from the preceding cold one: "World War III has broken out!" So although calling the Cold War a world war makes sense—it was the global geostrategic conflict succeeding World War II—that limited sense would be stretched to the breaking point by terming the "long struggle against Islamofascism" the fourth world war. The present war involves a handful of regimes in the Middle East, and does not involve serious military confrontation in Europe or Asia or on the high seas—theaters that have been central to all previous world wars.
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Then there is Podhoretz's defense of the Bush Doctrine. There is justice in Bush's desire to see free peoples liberated from tyranny, and prudence in his insistence on the right, under extreme circumstances, to wage war to preempt or even prevent attack. Podhoretz roundly vindicates him on each count. But Podhoretz offers weak arguments and little evidence for what he calls the second pillar of the Bush Doctrine, the presumption that political oppression causes terrorism and Islamofascism. This theory, popularized by Natan Sharansky and embraced by the president, holds that it is essential to democratize the oppressive regimes of the Middle East, which is to say, every regime in the Middle East save Israel, in order to "drain the swamps" in which terrorism breeds. Podhoretz underlines the need "to push all the states in the greater Middle East—every last one of them—toward democracy."
This is now the defining argument of the contemporary neoconservative movement, distinguishing the neo-neocons from the paleo-neos like Kirkpatrick; and it has been adopted all too easily by many garden-variety conservatives eager to follow the president's lead. But the argument fails for several reasons.
In the first place, misgovernment doesn't always give rise to terrorist opposition. The Soviet Union did not breed a terrorist opposition; it bred Natan Sharansky and many other dissidents, along of course with many faithful and hypocritical followers of Marxism-Leninism. Many of the 9/11 terrorists and most of the killers who struck in London and on the continent lived not under Middle Eastern tyranny but enjoying all the comforts and freedoms of Western liberal democracy. Their actions were not protests against tyranny but against that democracy. If they resented the West for supporting their home countries' unsavory regimes, they did so mostly because they despised those regimes as apostate or heretical, i.e., less complete religious tyrannies than they preferred.
When out of disgust with misgovernment terrorists do arise, one would expect them to strike, in the first place, their own hated regime. In vowing no more 9/11s, however, Americans are concerned not with terrorists killing Saudis or Egyptians but with Saudi and Egyptian terrorists killing Americans. They were, and are, enabled to kill Americans because their perverted regimes deflect and co-opt their anger, channeling it against us through various missionary and terrorist networks around the globe kept in business for just such purposes. This fact might indeed be grounds for "draining the swamps," if we knew how to or could do that. But it is also grounds for a much simpler strategy. Give the tyrants a choice: keep your alligators in your own swamp, or we will feed you to them.
Podhoretz rewards those proffering blunt counsel like that—particularly Angelo Codevilla, Mark Helprin, and me in the pages of the CRB—with the designation "Superhawks." Our constant advice, beginning after 9/11, was to smash Saddam's regime but not to allow our troops to get bogged down in an elaborate occupation of Iraq. We urged the continued threat of military force to intimidate other bad actors, for example, Syria, Iran, and Janus-faced allies like Saudi Arabia, into ceasing their export of anti-American terrorism, or else. In Commentary, Podhoretz confessed sympathy for this policy, and a faint echo of that sympathy remains in his book. But he rejects our advice as unrealistic, citing our "refusal to take account of the character of the American nation."
He seems to mean that Americans won't abide such a tough policy. They believe in Colin Powell's Pottery Barn rule—if you break it, you own it—and having dashed Saddam's regime to pieces, they insist on sticking around to help the Iraqis rebuild. But for how long, and at what price? (Besides, Powell's stricture would result in many fewer interventions than Podhoretz would like.) Now, it's true that Americans aren't ancient Romans. But far from envisioning a Carthaginian peace in the region, the misnamed Superhawks recommended a war of limited but overwhelming force and firmness now, so as to make unnecessary the continual, stinting, and ineffective use of American force later on, as during most of our occupation.
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In the event, America finds itself somewhere in between. Our strategic policy in the larger Middle East has taken a back seat to the war in Iraq. Doubtless we've achieved a certain intimidating effect (though not the one the CRBrecommended) summarized in a recent bumper-sticker: Be Nice to Us, or We Will Bring Democracy to You. But our ability to maneuver in the region, and to induce the terror exporters to go out of business, has decreased significantly. (Syria and Iran are probably more active than ever, and the Saudis perhaps only marginally less so.) This strategic blow might be redeemed by the establishment of liberal democratic regimes in Iraq and its neighbors. But this is the final point on which Podhoretz's argument disappoints: is it possible to democratize Iraq, much less "every last one" of its neighbors?
Decent democratic government is always desirable, but each case is different and the question about Iraq is how possible is such a regime? Kirkpatrick explains why it is unlikely, as does Agresto more acutely and expansively. What's remarkable about Podhoretz's attempt to answer the question is how little he says about it. He claims, paradoxically, that the Iraqi insurgency itself is "a tribute to the enormous strides that had been made in democratizing and unifying the country under a workable federal system." Granted, the Sunni insurgents fear democracy in Iraq because the Shiites are the majority. But the Shia and their militias welcome it for the same reason. Neither faction sees democracy, at least yet, as liberal democracy devoted to the equal—and equally God-given—rights of human beings.
Podhoretz avers that the Middle East of today is not "thousands of years old" or the product of "some inexorable historical process powered entirely by internal cultural forces." The states of the region were "all conjured into existence less than one hundred years ago" by the French and British out of the ruins of the defeated Ottoman empire. He concludes, therefore, that there is nothing utopian about uprooting such regimes, "planted with shallow roots by two Western powers," and "with the help of a third Western power" planting a better political system in their place. Before the French and British and even before the Ottoman empire, of course, the Middle East was not exactly a democratic paradise. The obstacles to democracy are planted deep, and whether American-inspired regimes will outlast those imposed by the British and French is a tougher question than he lets on. Still, he is right to remind us that liberty remains a powerful human longing, despite the obstacles.
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Irving Kristol famously defined the neoconservatives as liberals who had been "mugged by reality." The theme of John Agresto's Mugged by Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions is that in Iraq it is America and the neocons who have been surprised and assaulted. A neocon himself, Agresto is the former president of St. John's College in Santa Fe who spent nine months in Iraq with the Coalition Provisional Authority advising on the reconstruction of Iraqi higher education. He has written a very good book, modest in its ambition to explain what he saw and did, but ambitious in its desire to make sense of the colossal "failure of good intentions" that he witnessed there. He writes plainly and pungently, and his anecdotes tell us much about Iraq that Americans need to know.
No one arrived in Iraq with higher expectations of the good that could be done than Agresto. Like "absolutely every American I knew in Iraq," he longed to be part of "the liberation of a people from despotism and their entrance into freedom." Almost from the beginning, however, Iraqi reality clashed with his idealism. It was "rather disconcerting," he reports, "to drive by a beggar on the street with a cardboard sign around his neck that read in Arabic, ‘Will Kill for Money.'"
The condition of the Iraqi universities was shocking for different reasons. They quickly turned from one of the most pro-American sectors of society to the most anti-American. Once the cult of Saddam was discredited, Islamic fundamentalism rushed in to fill the void. Here and there liberal professors and courageous administrators tried to hold out against the tide of the new fanaticism, but they were soon overwhelmed. Many were assassinated. As in Germany in the 1930s, it was the students who expelled freedom from the campuses, supported by the local sectarian militias. Under Saddam, girls had attended mostly the same schools and classes as boys. Under the new campus regime, classes were segregated, female students had to wear the hajib, and faculty and students alike were forced to abide by religious law. "Whoever has a romantic notion of students, of their idealism, their open-mindedness, and their liberality," he says, "should take a look at Iraq and think again."
Neither Kirkpatrick nor Podhoretz says much about Islam and its relation to democracy. Agresto confronts the issue boldly. He met many moderate Muslims, but the religion's public tone in Iraq was set by the fundamentalists of every stripe, whom he calls "religious fanatics." Even "the more moderate and less fanatical" Muslims still saw "their version of sectarian truth as more important than general religious toleration." As for the Ayatollah Sistani, renowned in America for his moderating influence and solicitude for elections, Agresto fingers him as "an open anti-Semite" and "not-too-subtle anti-Christian" who is "bent on establishing a theocracy not far removed from that in Iran."
When you add the illiberal propensities of Islam to the cultural effects of a status-based society, socialism, and tyranny, the Iraqis do not exactly look like Jacksonian democrats. Agresto provides a careful, thoughtful analysis of the cultural damage done. Iraq's traditional society of clans and tribes, consumed by a "constant concern with rank, place, and honor," breeds a "culture of entitlement" in which work is despised and accountability shunned. Saddam's government added a "culture of dependency" by addicting everyone to food handouts, subsidized housing, free education, free health care, free electricity, and virtually free gasoline (three cents a liter; like Iran, Iraq exports oil and imports gasoline, making the subsidy doubly ridiculous). And his tyranny engendered a "culture of fear and hesitation" across the board.
The cumulative effect of these factors is an Iraqi character that is not fit for self-government, at least not yet and probably not for a very long time, according to Agresto. "Hard as it is to say," he declares, "still it must be said, that it did not seem that the majority of Iraqis had, or had yet, the souls of free people." He dismisses as "happy talk" President Bush's various assurances to the contrary. All human beings desire to be free? Most Iraqis would choose security over freedom, "and many others would choose being Islamic and submissive to Allah's word over being free any day." All men desire to live as democrats? Most Iraqis "would rather be governed by religious leaders of their own sect than by their neighbors."
In the end, though, what surprised Agresto more than the Iraqis' indifference to democracy was the Americans' ignorance of it. We take it for granted, and have forgotten both the private and civic virtues it requires and the moral principles and constitutional architecture on which it depends.
For instance, in assembling the Iraqi Governing Council and advising the Iraqis later on their constitution, we (and the United Nations) steered them towards systems of proportional representation by party slate that were guaranteed to exacerbate all the divisions within Iraqi society. But we did not just divide and immobilize the legislature. Rejecting one of America's greatest constitutional achievements, our experts joined in eliminating all prospects of a unitary republican executive. Agresto outlines the seriousness of the problem:
Under the Transitional Administrative Law, there was a prime minister, two presidents, and a presidency council, all at the same time. And now, under the new constitution, there's a prime minister, a separate president with whom he shares executive power, a vice president, two deputy prime ministers, and a cabinet of ministers. Both president and prime minister are drawn separately from the parliament.
Mugged by Reality is less insightful on why neoconservatives were so gung-ho about democratization as the solution to the Middle East's problems. Agresto speculates that the neocons neglected the importance of culture because they had spent so much time studying the thought of ancient Greece, with its emphasis on the discovery of universal truths about human nature and politics. Podhoretz is not that kind of neocon. And it's hard to believe that studying too much Plato was the reason why the flock of neocons influenced by Leo Strauss became enthusiasts of global democracy. It has more to do with their view of American republicanism as essentially modern and rooted in enlightened self-interest, in low but powerful motives available to human beings everywhere.
When combined with the younger neocons' admirable, in a way, desire to ennoble American democracy by enlisting it in popular government's expansion around the world—a crucial part of the "national greatness" agenda—the neoconservative path to Iraq became paved with good intentions. As a corrective, Agresto recommends that his fellow neocons
listen to more old-fashioned conservatives who know something about the fallenness of our natures, conservatives who know the ease with which we war against each other when not held in check by moderating institutions, civic virtue, and mild rather than furious religious teachings.
That's good advice for anyone who doesn't want to be mugged again by reality.