Walking with the Devil

March 1, 2007 Topic: Security Regions: Persian GulfMiddle East Tags: Iraq War

Walking with the Devil

Mini Teaser: The United States must avoid getting trapped in its commitments with unstable regimes, and Iraq is the prime example.

by Author(s): Hilton L. Root

BY THE George W. Bush Administration's self-imposed standards, a successful conclusion to the Iraq War was well within reach. The president declared victory on May 1, 2003, a constitution was ratified on October 15, 2005, and a general election took place on December 15 to elect a permanent 275-member Iraqi council. The current government, headed by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, took office on May 20, 2006. Yet this government-as of early 2007-had not met one of Washington's benchmarks regarding national reconciliation, security or governance. Maliki's government refused to distance itself from radical clerics or curb their private militias. Non-sectarian technocrats were not invited to join the cabinet. Police units that practiced sectarian partisanship were not suspended. Government ministries stacked with loyalists bred corruption.

How could a government so utterly dependent on American collaboration defy U.S. wishes, yet hope for U.S. forces to remain in Baghdad? With ample evidence of Iraq's failure to meet the public security and civil service criteria of a secular state, why has the Bush Administration not tied aid to policy performance? Why has it not made continued support contingent on achieving explicit milestones?

The trap the United States faces in Iraq exemplifies a recurring dilemma in U.S. foreign policy: Presidents have continuously coddled client regimes unwilling to make the political trade-offs necessary for national legitimacy. Similarly, throughout the Cold War, despite American rhetoric about overseas reform and rejuvenation and ambivalence about backing dictators, many American political leaders relied on one authoritarian regime to help defeat another, more odious authoritarian regime. And there were the proxy wars, too: arming Iraq against Iran and the mujaheddin against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Such myopic policies consequently impaired America's ability to forcefully advocate domestic reforms in those regimes. Once engaged, U.S. support and subsidies typically preclude a withdrawal option, weakening American demands for pro-reform quid pro quo terms.

Such is the U.S. commitment trap: Committed to the survival of allies, yet lacking the leverage to discipline recalcitrant regime leaders, America creates a strategic vulnerability that even weak client states can exploit. The commitment trap acts as a repressive force that reduces America's credibility as a reform advocate. It binds the United States so that it cannot walk away from allies without its credibility suffering. Curiously, this trap isn't sealed abroad, but at home in the fears that have driven the U.S. electorate since the Cold War began.

Client regime reform is certainly within the American ideological tradition, and attempts at such efforts have been an important component of U.S. security policy since the Cold War. For example, meeting with the Shah of Iran in 1949, Secretary of State Dean Acheson suggested that the best way to deter war and achieve security "was not by military preparations but by so developing our free economic and social structures as to protect them from foreign aggression and upheaval." Presidents Kennedy, Eisenhower and Carter gave similar advice to the shah. However, under the threat of civil war or external aggression, even presidents who entered office advocating overseas reform eventually reinforced the very regimes they once condemned. Regardless of their political philosophies, every president has put democracy on hold when larger security issues arose. And as keen observers of U.S. policies, autocrats, such as the shah, use security threats-either of insurgency or invasion-to serve their private ambitions.

Why are we not surprised, then, that Maliki wagers that Bush will hold extremists responsible for his government's failures and admonish the prime minister's detractors for underestimating the difficulties of implementing reform? In the past, a client regime obtained commitments from America by painting dire scenarios of "either me or the possibility of something far worse." In fact, it was the implicit strength of the U.S. commitment that allowed client regimes like those of the shah, Chiang Kai-shek, Ferdinand Marcos, South Korean generals and a whole host of autocrats in Latin America and Africa to ignore external requests for accommodation and reform that frequently enjoyed strong internal support. Thus, the commitment trap can turn a great power into a creature of a smaller power: The tail wags the dog. The client can gain leverage because adversaries, other clients and the domestic political opposition within the United States will all interpret the failure to defend an ally in need as the erosion of U.S. credibility. Such reasoning by Washington is exactly what Maliki is counting on.

The United States has three ways to approach the problem of reform: 1) work with the incumbent to implement reform; 2) buttress the incumbent by suppressing opposition; or 3) withdraw support and abandon the incumbent. In a 1961 address delivered in the Dominican Republic soon after the assassination of dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, President Kennedy explicitly referred to them all: The United States, he said, "had three options, in descending order of preference: a decent democratic regime, a continuation of the Trujillo regime, or a Castro regime. . . . We ought to aim at the first, but we really can't renounce the second until we are sure that we can avoid the third."

The third option has, with few exceptions, remained unthinkable. No matter how repugnant a regime, its loss as an ally has invariably damaged the president's domestic political credibility. Asserting that more U.S. resources should have been committed earlier and more intensely to Chiang Kai-shek, Republicans excoriated the Truman Administration for losing the mainland. The president's dilemma is that the U.S. incumbent administration, not some developing country, is always the final domino to fall. The loss of China helped precipitate the Democrats' loss of the White House in 1952. A prisoner of his own rhetoric, President Bush now fears being attacked from within his own party for not having done enough to prevent the spread of terrorism throughout the Middle East and beyond.

Moreover, changing a government's policy generally requires changing the government itself, along with its major institutions. In America during the Cold War, it was impossible to argue publicly that a radical leftist regime was preferable to a repressive rightist regime. Unpredictable behavior is far worse than the status quo. "Sure he's a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch", a phrase of disputed origin, at various times has referred to Franco and Somoza. If insurgents even appear ascendant, a client regime can strengthen its position in Washington by arguing that it represents the only alternative to chaos and uncertainty. Again, the more power a regime gains over the U.S. foreign policy process and the more assurances of U.S. support it receives, the fewer incentives exist for greater accountability-either to America or its own citizens.

Reform, especially when its outcome may be more perilous than existing circumstances, is very difficult to pitch domestically, chiefly because the U.S. public often lacks understanding of the historically complex social and political conditions of allied regimes. Opting for security and stability makes more sense than promoting uncertain projects, even those aimed at reducing inequality or ethnic favoritism caused by corruption and clientelism. Better to support a friend in need.

With regards to political and social development, the unpredictable relationship between cause and effect further weakens the case for reform. The wide variance of predictions of social collapse adds to the confusion. One observer may determine that a country is on the verge of becoming a failed state, another that it is ready to turn the corner. Since the diagnosis of social stability widely varies, so will the remedy. How close a country sits to the fault line will determine what reforms are needed and in what sequence; and since no one can definitively say if a regime is on the verge of collapse, sticking with a friend means that we can always return to reform later.

Currently, the incumbent administration as well as the Democratic opposition face pressure not to "lose" Iraq. Supporters of the Iraq War argue that abandoning the Shi‘a-dominated government will facilitate a jihadi victory, and having beaten the Russians in Afghanistan and America in Iraq, they will seek regional hegemony. Hoover Fellow Thomas Sowell offered a particularly compelling example of this logic in an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal:

Whether we want to or not, we cannot unilaterally end the war with international terrorists. Giving the terrorists an epoch making victory in Iraq would only shift the location where we must face them or succumb to them. Abandoning Iraqi allies to their fate would ensure that other nations would think twice before becoming or remaining our allies.

Let us consider a possible scenario resulting from the Iraq War and consistent with entrapment. The Shi‘a ascendance in Iraq, which includes sectarian allegiances that penetrate the army and the police, widens the gulf between the Shi‘a and Sunnis. Policies of extreme de-Ba‘athification, such as limiting Sunni access to Iraq's oil revenues (the expectation is that they will receive less than 10 percent), continue to feed Sunni support for the insurgency. A winner-take-all outcome means that a Shi‘a dictatorship will replace a Ba‘athi dictatorship, plunging the country into a civil war under the banner of democracy.

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