Washington Monthly, May 2004
The strategy that won the Cold War could help bring democracy to the Middle East– if only the Bush hawks understood it.
During 2002 and early 2003, Bush administration officials put forth a shifting series of arguments for why we needed to invade Iraq. Nearly every one of these has been belied by subsequent events. We have yet to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; assuming that they exist at all, they obviously never presented an imminent threat. Saddam’s alleged connections to al Qaeda turned out to be tenuous at best and clearly had nothing to do with September 11. The terrorists now in Iraq have largely arrived because we are there, and Saddam’s security forces aren’t. And peace between Israel and the Palestinians, which prominent hawks argued could be achieved “only through Baghdad,” seems further away than ever.
Advocates of the invasion are now down to their last argument: that transforming Iraq from brutal tyranny to stable democracy will spark a wave of democratic reform throughout the Middle East, thereby alleviating the conditions that give rise to terrorism. This argument is still standing because not enough time has elapsed to test it definitively–though events in the year since Baghdad’s fall do not inspire confidence. For every report of a growing conversation in the Arab world about the importance of democracy, there’s another report of moderate Arabs feeling their position undercut by the backlash against our invasion. For every example of progress (Libya giving up its WMD program), there’s an instance of backsliding (the Iranian mullahs purging reformist parliamentarians).
What is certainly true is that any hope for a “domino theory” rests with Iraq’s actually becoming something that resembles a stable democracy. But here, too, there has been little progress. Despite their heroic efforts, American soldiers have been unable to make the country consistently stable and safe. Iraq’s various ethnic entities and political factions remain deeply divided. Even the administration has concluded that the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council lacks credibility with the ordinary Iraqis it is intended to represent. The country’s reconstituted security forces have been ineffectual–indeed, in some cases, they have joined the armed resistance to our occupation. The ease with which the demagogue Muqtada al-Sadr brought thousands to the streets and effectively took over a key city for weeks has sparked fears that an Iranian-style theocracy will emerge in Iraq. And the American and Iraqi civilian death tolls continue to mount.
Whether or not you agreed with the president’s decision to invade Iraq–and I did not–there’s no doubt that America has a right and a duty to take whatever actions are necessary, including military action, to protect ourselves from the clear security threats emanating from this deeply troubled part of the world. Authoritarian rule in these countries has clearly created fertile ground for terrorists, and so establishing democratic governance in the region must be seen as one of our most vital security goals. There is good reason, however, to question whether the president’s strategy is advancing or hindering that goal.
President Bush’s approach to Iraq and to the Middle East in general has been greatly influenced by a group of foreign-policy thinkers whose defining experience was as hawkish advisors to President Reagan and the first President Bush, and who in the last few years have made an explicit comparison between Middle Eastern regimes and the Soviet Union. These neoconservatives looked at the nest of problems caused by Middle East tyranny and argued that a morally unequivocal stance and tough military action could topple those regimes and transform the region as surely as they believed that Reagan’s aggressive rhetoric and military posture brought down the Soviet Union. In a March 2002 interview on CNN, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, one of the main architects of the Iraq war, argued that the moral judgment that President Bush made “very clear, crystal clear in his State of the Union message” in which he laid out the Axis of Evil is “exactly the same kind of clarity, I think, that Ronald Reagan introduced in understanding the Soviet Union.” In a speech last year, Defense Department advisor Richard Perle made the comparison even more explicit: “I have no doubt that [Bush] has the vision that Ronald Reagan had, and can envision, can contemplate change on a very large scale in Iraq and elsewhere across the region.” (more…)