Triumph of the New Wilsonism

Triumph of the New Wilsonism

Mini Teaser: No national interest was cited as a rationale for America's Libya campaign; the action was justified solely on humanitarian grounds. This marks a fundamental break with past U.S. policy prescriptions for such military interventions.

by Author(s): Nikolas K. GvosdevRay Takeyh

If preventing the Soviet Union from furthering its toehold in the region was the paramount objective of earlier administrations, the Clinton team focused on isolating the so-called “backlash states” that “seek to advance their agenda through terror, intolerance and coercion.” This propelled the United States to prevent the potential resurgence of Iraq, to prolong the policy of coercing Iran, and to continue to isolate bad actors such as Libya and Yemen. All this necessitated partnerships with authoritarian monarchs and presidents and militated against any “third wave of democratization” in the Middle East to complement developments in Eastern Europe and Latin America. But the Clinton administration was also uneasy about accepting the cold dictates of realism that rated interests over values. Hence, continued support for autocrats was justified by arguments that governments in the region lacked the skills to engineer transitions to democracy. That is why the U.S. government, working with private-sector democracy initiatives, began to churn out programs to train judges, publish guides on voting procedures and extend financial support for NGOs that pledged their commitment to liberal values (but which commanded very little popular support). Still, one heard little sustained public criticism about Egypt’s deformed politics, Saudi support for inflammatory Islam or a Persian Gulf order comfortable with its autocratic ways.

Indeed, when Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani removed his father and took control of Qatar in 1995, this coup d’état was quietly hailed as the possible beginning of a generational transfer of power in the Middle East that would bring younger, more liberal leaders to power. These expectations were heightened when Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father Hafez as president in Syria in 2000 and quickly dropped hints about “reform.” This “Damascus Spring,” when liberal-leaning discussion groups sprang up in the capital, proved short-lived. But these assumptions helped define a strategy of accepting the status quo for the foreseeable future while training a group of democracy activists and waiting for the next generation of supposedly more liberal leaders to take power.

IT WAS perhaps inevitable that the tragedies of 9/11 would jolt the Washington establishment and call into question the value of America’s long-standing relationships with regional despots. Indeed, the argument was soon advanced that the United States was being imperiled by the lack of democracy in the region, which nurtured a dysfunctional political culture serving as a feeding ground for organizations such as al-Qaeda. The approach embraced by previous administrations was explicitly rejected; the United States could not wait for generational change to “drain the swamp” through gradual reform and liberalization. Speaking in Cairo in 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice bluntly commented that “for sixty years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East—and we achieved neither.”

But the use of U.S. power to promote democratic change through direct intervention remained a contested proposition. In the past, concerns about costs to U.S. interests had always acted as a brake on American interventions unrelated to national interests. Large-scale interventions, particularly using conventional military forces to achieve forcible regime change, were expensive and risky. Reagan’s Grenada operation and George H. W. Bush’s Panama incursion were the exceptions, not the rule. The limitations of the Cold War also meant that large swaths of the world were effectively “off-limits” for U.S. action. These considerations were very much evident in the arguments marshaled by former national-security adviser Brent Scowcroft in his famous Wall Street Journal op-ed of August 2002, which decried the rush to war in Iraq.

But the 1999 Kosovo operation marked a critical turning point in how Washington conceptualized the risks and opportunities of intervention. In contrast to the first Gulf War, which occurred with the concurrence of Moscow and Beijing, this action lacked their support. But opposition to military intervention in the former Yugoslavia wasn’t sufficient to prevent it from occurring. And the operation took place in a part of Europe that only ten years earlier would have been deemed a no-go area for NATO forces. The apparent ease of the campaign—an air war that was nearly casualty free for the allies and produced a capitulation and transition without need of ground forces—also changed the intervention calculus in Washington, displacing the failed legacy of Vietnam with a belief that a “shock and awe” campaign could produce dramatic on-the-ground transformations.

There was near unanimity in Washington that Saddam Hussein, as Scowcroft noted, was

a menace. He terrorizes and brutalizes his own people. He has launched war on two of his neighbors. He devotes enormous effort to rebuilding his military forces and equipping them with weapons of mass destruction. We will all be better off when he is gone.

But there were very different ways to prosecute the war. An invasion designed to decapitate the regime and ensure that Iraq was disarmed would look very different from a campaign aimed at reconstructing the country in the image of postwar Germany or Japan. So the subsidiary theme of the invasion was that removing Hussein would not be enough; a prospective democratic government in Baghdad would establish an inclusive polity that would be accountable at home and align itself with U.S. security interests abroad, including concluding a peace treaty with Israel and aggressively containing Iran and Syria.

In some of his most eloquent speeches, George W. Bush cast aside the assertion that the Arab masses were ill equipped for self-determination and democratic accountability. But he also cautiously emphasized that America would safeguard its interests while redeeming its ideals. The assumption was that, starting in a reformed Iraq, an empowered Arab citizenry would choose leaders focused on fixing broken economies, addressing institutional decay and the consequences of the region’s demographic bulge—rather than striving to thwart U.S. security interests. To be sure, the process would be unsteady and sometimes tumultuous, but in the end large areas of a new Middle East would be governed by popularly elected regimes that would freely choose to join a U.S.-led global order as opposed to plotting against its norms.

The first part of the Iraq invasion fulfilled the promise of Kosovo: Saddam Hussein was removed quickly with few coalition casualties. But securing the democratic peace in Iraq proved far more elusive, reawakening the ghost of Vietnam as more soldiers were killed and wounded and as costs kept rising (to a cumulative total of $1 trillion). And Iraqi elections have overwhelmingly empowered ethnosectarian parties whose leaders did not play out the role scripted for them by Washington. None of the grandiose expectations of American officials were fulfilled. Indeed, from an unwillingness to condemn Hezbollah or Syria to the maintenance of close ties with Iran, first the Bush and now the Obama administrations have expressed repeated frustrations with the government of Nuri al-Maliki.

Elsewhere the picture was similar. The 2005 Cedar Revolution in Lebanon initially brought to the fore a pro-Western coalition of parties but ended up strengthening Hezbollah’s hold on the country. The Bush administration’s flirtation with the proposition that promoting democracy advances American security in the Middle East came to a sudden end with the results of the January 2006 elections in the Palestinian territories. There was an air of unease about the entire situation, as the radical Islamist group, Hamas, seemed poised to undo the political hegemony of Fatah. In previous decades, Washington might have called for postponement of the elections or acquiesced to their rigging by Fatah to produce a more desirable government. However, the Bush administration had invested so much in its democratic advocacy that it almost had no choice but to watch the ballots being cast and hope for the best. When it was over, Hamas won seventy-four out of 132 parliamentary seats and claimed the post of premiership. In due course, Palestinian unity would fall apart, and Hamas would confine itself to Gaza, from which it would periodically launch missile attacks against Israel. Not for the first time, the Middle East escaped Washington’s preferred template and confronted the United States with choices and decisions that it had hoped to avert.

In the aftermath of the Palestinian elections, the Bush administration’s democratic enterprise limped along, devoid of ambition or any clear agenda. Coercive pressure for reforms in places such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia was abandoned. The administration returned to “practical” issues—stabilizing Iraq, resuming the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and attempting to restrain Iran’s ambitions. The Bush team fell back on the earlier paradigm of relying on hereditary monarchs and authoritarian presidents to deliver stability in the region. The league of despots proved as useful to the Bush administration as it did to its predecessors. In a sense, realism seemed to have overwhelmed the ideological convulsions of post-9/11 Washington.

The second half of the Bush administration focused its efforts not on forcible regime change but on regime rehabilitation followed by gradual liberalizing amelioration: cultivating liberalizing autocrats who could retain control over the process and keep U.S. security interests intact but who would lay the groundwork for an eventual democratic transition. As Zakheim noted:

Brandishing “democracy” like a sword over the rulers of other nations, distancing itself even from those rulers who initiate reforms, on the grounds that they are moving too slowly, and creating an atmosphere that leads them to believe that they will be destabilized if not forcefully removed, will not enable the United States to achieve its objectives in the Middle East.

Image: Pullquote: Mubarak, Qaddafi and others threatened by revolts from below had assumed that close cooperation with America’s security agenda for the Middle East would buy their regimes a certain degree of immunity from U.S. criticism and pressure. They were wrong.Essay Types: Essay