Having had the privilege of appearing on C-SPAN's Washington Journal earlier this week, I am happy to report that interest in international events and in America's conduct of foreign affairs remains active "outside the Beltway." The sophistication manifested by many of the questions posed by callers indicates that people do closely follow what is happening in the world.
In some of the post-appearance correspondence that I have received, I have observed how the pragmatic realist approach emphasized by In the National Interest aroused the ire of "true believers" on both the Right and the Left. Two myths in particular are worrisome.
The first one arises out of the mantra of "the United States is the world's only superpower", which has been corrupted to mean that the United States possesses unlimited and/or inexhaustible power. The notion, therefore, that the United States needs to go to other states with its hat in hand to request troops and funds for reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan is galling, especially when it means having to deal with French and German concerns.
The reality is that the United States has chosen to devote only a fraction of its potential to deal with current problems because most Americans are unwilling to make the sacrifices that would be needed for the U.S. to truly handle these situations unilaterally. Most Americans do not wish to sacrifice their sons and daughters (not to mention their standard of living) for the sake of establishing a democratic imperium around the globe. Americans tend to be charitable Jacksonians--they wish to decisively deal with threats to national security and they are prepared to send charity overseas to deal with humanitarian crises (witness the proliferation of advertisements on domestic television to solicit donations for "the children" suffering in other lands), but they have little desire to take on the burden of actively reconstructing other societies. Unlike their counterparts from Oxford and Cambridge a century ago, there is no steady stream of graduates from Harvard or Stanford to serve in what are rapidly becoming America's overseas dependencies.
This has an impact on the second myth, that "democracy solves everything"--usually abbreviated to "elections solve everything." Set up a regime, construct the ballot boxes, build the polling places, and everything will be all right.
But democracy requires fertile soil to take root. It requires things like the rule of law, mediating institutions such as national political parties, a civil society creating a comfortable zone of space between the individual and the state. These things do not come into existence overnight by waving a magic wand. They require time, effort, and funding. Like vines in the vineyard, they need constant and careful cultivation.
But just as important, for democracy to be America's ally in other lands, it requires a confluence of interests. Democracies have historically not fought each other not because they shared similar political systems, but because they shared common interests that would have been fatally compromised by armed conflict. The United States forged common institutions with Europe and East Asia because of common threats posed by the USSR and China (and these institutions are increasingly under strain in a post-Cold War world precisely because the affirmation of a common democracy is insufficient to provide a basis for collective action).
If democracy is to succeed in Iraq, and if a democratic Iraq is to be an American ally, there needs to be both strong institutions and a strong middle class in Iraq that identifies its well-being with the cultivation of ties with Washington. All of the current evidence suggests that those groups most likely to coalesce into a new Iraqi middle class--including the professionals and small businessmen--are the ones which have increasingly negative attitudes toward the United States, based on the perceived failure of the occupation to restore basic services and create conditions of greater order and security. This, in turn, arises out of the fact that while the United States has sufficient forces on the ground for basic security, it needs additional support to begin the transformation of Iraq.
We have reached a moment of decision. We can scale back our plans for Iraq commensurate with our existing level of funding and troop support. The Administration can try to convince Americans (or, more accurately, their representatives in the Congress) to allocate more support (at the possible expense of tax cuts or funding for domestic programs) to implement more extensive reconstruction efforts in Iraq. Or we will have to turn to other partners to provide increased aid. These are the stark choices. Continuing to cling to beliefs about America's inexhaustible power or how rapid democratization will "solve" everything can only result in disaster. After all, as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest.