Time to Come Ashore

December 11, 2002

Time to Come Ashore

Let me start by reflecting on a few things that were said earlier.

Let me start by reflecting on a few things that were said earlier. (1) One was about bringing the evidence to legitimize and justify the war. There is one thing that I think everybody has overlooked--we are going to have retroactive evidence. Even though I would like us to be able to have a smoking gun, I don't know how close we are going to come to producing it when the President decides that it is time

I also want to endorse what was said about the positive effects of American success. I think the war in Afghanistan is the template. The immediate effect of the war on Afghanistan is that it was a stunning success--it made everyone think twice about what America was and what the United States could do. I think some of that has dissipated over the last year as we have been fairly uncertain what to do about Iraq, and that skepticism about American resolve would certainly revive if we end up doing nothing about Iraq. Let me say a few words about the reasons why a campaign against Iraq has to be done.

There are three rationales. The obvious one is the weapons of mass destruction. You cannot allow Saddam to acquire them. It would also serve as an example in the future; if we were to exercise the political death penalty on Saddam, this would have a deterrent effect on others who are trying to acquire these weapons. In and of itself, the weapons of mass destruction argument would be enough to justify the war. That is essentially what the administration has done--they have pinned the entire case on a single argument. I understand why the administration has done this, because that is the only way we are going to convince allies.

There are two other reasons. The second is the issue of American credibility. If for no other reason, having said what the President has said--starting with his "axis of evil" speech, the speech at West Point and all the way through the year--he has consistently said that this state of affairs will not stand. If he doesn't follow through, I think there will be a tremendous collapse of everything we had achieved by the war in Afghanistan. That would be a great strategic setback. And it would have negative effects on the region, especially on the war on terrorism.

The third reason I think is the one that nobody wants to say, because it will lead us to the discussion of Arab democracy. September 11 changed our assumptions about the world. It marked the end of the "end of history." We really thought that at the end of the Cold War we were done with existential struggle against existential enemies. We had sixty years of it, and at the end, we succeeded, they vanished. I remember when we were writing in The National Interest during the early 1990s, thinking about where the next enemy was going to come from, the best candidate was China. That's what we came up with; there were not many people who said it was going to be "Osama bin Laden" and Islamic radicalism. After 9/11 we discovered that we once again had an existential enemy and that it has been harbored in the Arab world. I don't, however, believe it to be "pan-Islamic." To be honest, it is Arab extremism--both secular and Muslim. We see Saddam adopting the language of the Islamic radicals but of course he is a Ba'athist and a secularist. His language might be fundamentalist but it is a form of Arab extremism.

We need to understand also how this came about. After the Second World War we decided to be "Wilsonian" everywhere in the world. There was no Asian exceptionalism, no European exceptionalism. In Latin America we insisted on democracy. We were going to try and democratize the whole world, to make it like us--but we had two exceptions: Africa (because it was strategically irrelevant and chaotic) and the Arab world. Arab exceptionalism was the real serious example. For sixty years, Franklin Roosevelt's bargain with Ibn Saud was in place--you give us oil and we give you protection and refrain from interfering with how you run your internal affairs. The bargain ended on September 11. I think what happened is we realized we can no longer accept Arab exceptionalism--meaning the resistance to modernization and democratization. In the long run, if the Arab world remains an isolated island, harboring anti-Americanism, the deepest and the most virulent in the world, as well as developing weapons of mass destruction, it will be an intolerable threat.

This brings me to my third reason for the war in Iraq, what I would call "coming ashore." Our attitude to the Arab world has always been that we could be the "offshore balancer" of last resort. We would pacify the regime by buying off the corrupt governments in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. We would police and we would patrol offshore. This hands-off, offshore policy, I think, is over. Iraq will be the first act in the play of an America coming ashore in Arabia, trying to do what it did in Germany and Japan. I know the analogy is obviously a strained one but I think, historically, this is what the mission is. It's not just about weapons of mass destruction or American credibility. It's about reforming the Arab world. I think we don't know the answer to the question of whether the Arab-Islamic world is inherently allergic to democracy. The assumption is that it is--but I don't know if anyone can answer that question today. We haven't attempted it so far. The attempt will begin with Iraq. Afterwards, we are going to have empirical evidence; history will tell us whether this assumption was correct or not.

I remember when it was said that Asia was resistant to democracy. It too had a "special culture" and there was no way that we could impose Western democracy. Yet, lo and behold, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong are examples of modernizing and democratizing parts of Asia. The idea that Confucianism is somehow hostile to democracy proved to be incorrect. We will now learn whether Islam or Arab culture is also an impediment to democracy. Iraq is an attempt to do this. I think the goals obviously have to be modest early on--changing the regime, changing the geopolitical status of Iraq, and so on. I am skeptical as to whether we can produce a functioning Western-style democracy style in Iraq, but perhaps we could achieve something close to it. The pre-civil war Lebanese model was reasonable stable, reasonably democratic, accommodating and tolerant. The Hashemite kingdom is not a bad model--while it is not Western democracy, it is a decent, fairly liberal way of life. (2) If we can achieve something like either of these in Iraq it will be a great success. It may also have a contagious effect. I think this has to be done. We have to come ashore in the Arab world, we have to make an attempt at changing it--and it can only start in Iraq.

(1) See especially, "War on Iraq: Comments on the Symposium", also contained in this issue.

  1. I would also add that Jordan has had to walk a tightrope, balancing its instinctive pro-American sentiments with the geographic reality of being sandwiched Iraq and Syria. We can only imagine what it might be like if there is an American-occupied Iraq on one side, and how Jordan will be able to act differently--openly supporting us.

Charles Krauthammer, a nationally syndicated columnist, serves on the editorial board of The National Interest.