Rethinking the Strategy

(This "Realist" column will appear as part of The National Interest's summer 2004 symposium, "Iraq at the Turn.

(This "Realist" column will appear as part of The National Interest's summer 2004 symposium, "Iraq at the Turn.")

In order to deal effectively with America's predicament in Iraq, it is essential to understand that we had begun to walk down the road to Baghdad long before September 11, indeed, quite before the Bush Administration came to power. After the end of the Cold War, a new triumphalist mindset, shared by influential groups in both the Republican and Democratic parties, began to develop an unstoppable momentum. It was Madeleine Albright who started bragging about the United States being an indispensable nation. It was a number of senior officials in the Clinton Administration-and eventually President Clinton himself-who, frequently taking a casual attitude to the facts, brought the United States into the Balkans in a desire to transform the former Yugoslavia-even if it required a military action without un blessing and in violation of international law, as in the case of Kosovo.

Some of these officials are now important advisors to the presumptive Democratic party nominee for president, Senator John F. Kerry. It is a bit disingenuous on their part to criticize the Bush Administration for a campaign against Iraq that in many respects is similar to American attacks in the Balkans-except that Slobodan Milosevic, unlike Saddam Hussein, was not an enemy of the United States, was not suspected of having weapons of mass destruction (wmd) and harboring international terrorists, and was less tyrannical than Saddam Hussein, as his removal from power by democratic means has demonstrated. And of course the Balkan wars took place before 9/11, which means that they occurred in a context of much less pressure to take pre-emptive action against potential threats.

It was during the Clinton era that the export of democracy and nation-building became major drivers of American foreign policy. It was also during the Clinton Administration, back in 1998, that regime change in Iraq became official U.S. policy, having been enthusiastically supported by a bipartisan congressional majority.

Regime change, of course, goes far beyond containment. It is not based on the preservation of the status quo, and it left Saddam with few inducements to comply with U.S. preferences. Under Clinton, America was unprepared either to successfully intimidate Iraq or to offer a realistic prospect of accommodation. After 9/11, could the United States safely assume that we could continue with the de facto annexation of the Kurdish north, our aggressive policing of the no-fly zones, our frequent air attacks on Iraqi military targets, and our plots to overthrow Saddam himself, and still believe that the Iraqi dictator would sit idly by and attempt no retaliation against the United States, directly or indirectly, using his terrorist connections? Intellectual honesty requires an acknowledgment that in the post-9/11 world, a change of regime policy in Iraq had to lead to an attack against the Saddam Hussein regime.

But if the Bush Administration could be excused for taking military action against Iraq, it has never been able to offer an adequate explanation of its other ambitions, most importantly, to use Iraq as a launching pad for a transformation of the so-called "Greater Middle East." How the invasion of an Arab country-in the absence of a successful movement on the Arab-Israeli dispute-could be perceived by the Arabs as a friendly action escapes logic. The administration clearly was tempted to use military victory in Iraq as a shortcut around the difficult, but from the Arab viewpoint, crucial U.S. role in resolving the Palestinian issue. Some in the Bush Administration went so far in their flights of analytic fancy that they were taken for a ride by a clear charlatan like Ahmed Challabi, who promised not just to normalize relations with Israel, but indeed to build a pipeline to the Jewish State. Pipe dreams are not prescriptions for serious policymaking.

Interestingly, quite a few influential proponents of the transformation of the Middle East held two contradictory beliefs. On the one hand, they asserted that the Arab world was ready for democracy. On the other hand, they held the proposition that democracy, or anything else the United States wanted, could be imposed on the Arabs, who, it was claimed, were particularly subservient to force. The belief that it was possible for an outside hegemonic power to impose democracy by the armed fist so as to bring freedom to the Middle East acquired considerable popularity among influential neoconservatives and liberal interventionist circles alike.

With fantasies like these, it is no wonder that the United States badly misjudged what to expect and how to proceed in Iraq. What we need now is a serious and realistic evaluation of U.S. objectives in Iraq. Two of them have been fulfilled already. We may now be satisfied that there are now no wmd-at least in any considerable quantity-in Iraq. And, of course, the Saddam regime is no more. So, is the United States obliged to engage in nation-building against the wishes of the vast majority of the Iraqi people? Is that a credible goal for American foreign policy? Is it a democratic goal in a situation in which at least 82 percent of the Iraqi people oppose American and other coalition forces?