Coming Full Circle

It is a curious trend in the politics of American foreign policy.

It is a curious trend in the politics of American foreign policy.  Realists propose a pragmatic solution to a pressing international problem, one achievable given the available resources and commitments.  Idealists denounce that solution as cold, heartless and immoral.  The situation deteriorates, and after lives and treasure have been wasted, the realists' solution is triumphantly unveiled by the idealists as a bold, decisive act of statesmanship.

In 1992, amidst the disintegration of Yugoslavia, realists around the world proposed that Bosnia be partitioned into ethnically-defined cantons, as a way to forestall civil war, recognizing that it would take a massive amount of force to impose a settlement on the three nationalities that comprised the country.  But they cried, "partition is immoral!  It violates self-determination, the right of people to free movement and free choice of residency!" True, it might require the evil of population transfers to implement.  It certainly went against the desire for a "multi-ethnic" paradise in the Balkans.  And so partition was taken off the table.  Three years later, after hundreds of thousands of lives were lost, millions driven from their homes and a country wrecked, the "historic" Dayton accords created a double-partitioned state (between a Serb republic and a Muslim-Croat federation that itself was partitioned between the two ethnic groups).

Prior to the commencement of the Iraq war, realists warned about oversimplifying political realities in Iraq.  If regime change was to be a goal of American policy, then creating a stable regime in Iraq should have been the priority.  Realists are not opposed to democracy, but they tend to believe it cannot be imposed at the point of a bayonet nor "declared" into existence after a single election. It takes institutions and the right environment to thrive.

Realists were skeptical of claims that a thriving and stable Iraqi democracy could be created in a short period of time, just as they were of claims that U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Bosnia by Christmas 1996.  Once again, the denunciations:  "You oppose democracy!  You coddle dictatorships!  You can't stop the human desire for freedom!"

That is very true, but the desire for freedom is not always realized,  and democracies are fragile things if not well tended.  For the last 150 years, Latin America has swung back and forth on the pendulum from democracy to dictatorship, in part because of economic circumstances and the lack of strong institutions that stabilize democracies.  It is not anti-democratic to advocate a policy of first laying the foundations for democracy before constructing the democratic edifice.

Indeed, as Ray Takeyh and I noted before the Iraq war began:

"Rather than blindly prop up authoritarian rulers or gamble on democracy, the United States has to opt for a pragmatic middle course and aim to produce liberal autocracies capable of managing rather than suppressing pluralism. Such regimes would also need to promote market reforms to ensure a viable distribution of wealth and opportunities for the burgeoning youth of the region. In a liberal autocratic order, democratic institutions and procedures such as parliaments, a liberal press and the rule of law would exist but be circumscribed by the executive power. Such an order permits opposition forces a limited voice in national affairs, including a degree of independent political space in the public square, in return for abiding by the rules of set down by the regime. In contrast to the totalitarian model, this system of governance recognizes the need for a degree of public participation as a means of injecting a measure of accountability in the system.  It also provides the best opportunity for a long-term alignment of the interests of the Arab middle classes with those of the United States."

The U.S., we felt, needed to focus on restoring a regime capable of delivering services and security in Iraq and not make the first points of business the shape of a future Iraqi constitution or federal state.  It also needed to avoid the impression that the Coalition authority was going to "run" Iraq until conditions were in place for democracy, because that might take decades.  Instead, we felt the best course of action--given the signal lack of enthusiasm among the American populace for supporting (with American blood and treasure) a long-term colonial project for Iraq--was to move quickly to institute a competent, provisional government that could get on with the tasks of establishing its legitimate credentials.

We wrote in the Los Angeles Times on September 7th:

"America's goal should be to transfer power to an indigenous regime as soon as possible, not to use Iraq as some sort of social-science laboratory for nation-building. The United States should select an efficient new leadership capable of initiating market and other reforms while also managing popular discontent with American policies. There is a great deal of talent in the midlevel ranks of the military and civil service that can be tapped for such a purpose. Empowering pragmatic local administrators (as opposed to exiled politicians) would ensure that the leadership is in touch with the needs of the Iraqi people, and that it would have a good chance of surviving even after the U.S. withdraws. The continuing unrest in Iraq today demonstrates that its citizens crave services, not abstract notions of pluralism. If a new regime improves the quality of life for Iraqi citizens, it will gain popular support - even if it was backed initially by the U.S."