Rethinking the Strategy

June 1, 2004 Tags: BalkansDiplomacy

Rethinking the Strategy

Mini Teaser: 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.

by Author(s): Dimitri K. Simes

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 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 Kerry. It is a bit disingenuous on their part to criticize the Bush Administration for launching a campaign against Iraq for reasons in many respects similar to those behind 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 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 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 to remove Saddam, 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 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 Chalabi, 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 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, 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 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?

It seems that it is most practical and moral to focus on those things that are doable and vital in terms of American interests. What we need is a stable, governable, non-tyrannical and, most importantly, non-hostile Iraq--an Iraq which will not become a sanctuary for international terrorists of all stripes. As long as that much can be accomplished, what kind of government emerges in Iraq, how the Sunnis, the Shi'a and the Kurds relate to each other, what role Islam plays in Iraq's political life, and even whether women have full political rights, are not concerns into which the United States should be prepared to invest a great deal of blood, treasure and international prestige.

Once the Iraqis understand, and only when they understand, that the United States has no long-term ambitions for their country--because America has fairly narrow objectives--it will become much easier to win the cooperation of whomever is in power in Iraq. If they see the U.S. not as a long-term occupier but as a tough but visiting marshal, American leverage would actually increase. We would be able to point out to the Iraqi authorities and people alike that noncompliance with U.S. preferences could lead to a quick withdrawal of most American forces from Iraq, and an end of most American assistance. Being left to their own devices is not what the majority of Iraqis seem to favor at this point, as long as they are allowed to become masters of their own destiny.

The United States is fortunate to have considerable support at the UN for a new international role in Iraq that would greatly limit America's responsibilities. The U.S. should welcome this role, for Iraq is less a prize than a burden. As long as vital U.S. interests are protected, we should welcome Iraq becoming the responsibility of others, especially when the Iraqis and most Arabs seem to prefer this scenario.

What we need to keep in Iraq in the long run is not a major occupation force but a limited number of highly mobile units that would allow us to go after any terrorists on Iraqi territory. Policing Iraq, however, should become the responsibility of others as soon as humanly possible--especially Muslim nations, with a particular emphasis on those who have multiethnic and multireligious populations and thus would have the expertise to deal with situations like Iraq. Finally, we should learn the right lessons from our difficulties in Iraq.

We should learn to control our messianic instincts. It is revealing that even after Iraq, some thoughtful people capable of reflection, both neoconservatives and liberal interventionists, seem to find a new danger--namely, that there will be a counterattack not of terrorists but of American realists. Neoconservative columnist David Brooks sounded this note, writing in the New York Times on May 8, 2004:

"In this climate of self-doubt, the "realists" of right and left are bound to re-emerge. They're going to dwell on the limits of our power. . . . They're going to tell us to lower our sights, to accept autocratic stability, since democratic revolution is too messy and utopian. That's a recipe for disaster."

A day later, approvingly echoing Brooks, a leading Democrat, Senator Joseph Biden, appearing on Face the Nation, warned that the "realists are going to take hold", promoting the

"notion that we are incapable of affecting events in the world for the good of the world and the good of our nation. And that is the single greatest damage that's going to be done here."

In the spirit of the new Wilsonian bipartisanship, President Bush agrees. As he stated at the Air force Academy,

"Some who call themselves realists question whether the spread of democracy in the Middle East should be any concern of ours. But the realists in this case have lost contact with a fundamental reality. . . . America is always more secure when freedom is on the march."

True enough, as long as freedom marches forward because of choices states make themselves. America can provide gentle encouragement. But we are demonstrably less secure when our pro-democracy zealotry creates a global backlash that alienates friends, confuses allies and adds new recruits to the ranks of our enemies.

Essay Types: Essay