Wednesday, September 29, 2004

The Best Laid Plans

After the events of September 11, 2001, what had previously been argued in the neoconservative camp, became firmly entrenched in the group think permeating broader foreign policy circles: that the status quo in U.S. foreign policy vis a vis the Muslim world was no longer an acceptable norm. Change was required, and a vast realignment of priorities was deemed necessary to counter the virulent anti-Americanism that was manifesting itself in brutal terrorist attacks and belligerent ideologies. Although tactical and strategic differences remained among the various foreign policy cliques, the need for re-evaluation was almost unanimous.

The most strident voices, those belonging to the neoconservatives in the Pentagon and the White House, were the ones that dominated the debate and shaped the policies adopted by the Bush administration. As such, these iconoclastic purveyors of their own version of the "new approach" became synonymous with the movement for change itself. Unfortunately, the other models for change were ignored, and opponents to the prevailing strategies (manifested in the doctrine of pre-emptive war) were labeled reactionaries who sought a return to the old failed policies. This has stifled the discourse, and obscured the many reasonable propositions that have been put forward as an alternative to the neoconservative narrative.

The first move came with the invasion of Afghanistan. Although not indicative of a paradigm shift, this was nevertheless a significant use of military force, and a break from the status quo of disengagement. One of the ideas posited in connection with the invasion of Afghanistan, apart from the obvious goal of removing the Taliban and disrupting al-Qaeda, did represent a watershed moment: the notion of nation building, specifically promoting democracy, could serve as an analgesic to the spread and appeal of radical Islamist ideology. This bold new strategy was touted as a means of combating extremist fundamentalism in places far beyond the war torn reaches of Afghanistan. Foreign policy scholar
Ronald Bruce St John recalls the scene:

...In June 2002, President Bush offered a far-reaching moral vision for the Middle East with democracy as the core ingredient. While a Palestinian state could not "be created by terror," he reasoned it could be built through reform centered on "new political and economic institutions based on democracy, market economics, and action against terrorism." He then expanded this vision to the entire Arab/Muslim world. Describing dignity, freedom, and prosperity as universal hopes, the president characterized the moment as "both an opportunity and a test for all parties in the Middle East. An opportunity to lay the foundations for future peace. A test to show who is serious about peace and who is not."
The goals were set, and the new outlook established. The United States would pursue a policy of assisting the spread of democracy, and the attendant representative institutions, throughout the Muslim world, whose peoples up until this point had mostly been subjected to unpopular despotic and dictatorial rule. This strategy was seen as a two-pronged attack on some of the underlying causes of terrorism: on the one hand, the image of the United States had long suffered among the inhabitants of these countries because the US was seen as assisting the repressive regimes, placing stability and access to oil over the interests of the peoples being mistreated. If successful, America would now be seen as an agent of freedom, and a force in opposition to the policies of the dictators and oligarchs.

In addition, democracy itself was deemed to be a moderating force. Free expression, human rights, voting privileges, economic opportunity, and all the other accompaniments of a democratic society would serve to take the momentum and appeal away from the merchants of martyrdom. Free societies, it was said repeatedly and with some validity, did not spawn terrorism.

In a column in the
Los Angeles Times, Max Boot quotes Alan Krueger, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton (and a Clinton administration veteran), and Jitka Maleckova, a professor of Middle Eastern studies in Prague on this part of the strategy:

"Apart from population - larger countries tend to have more terrorists - the only variable that was consistently associated with the number of terrorists was the Freedom House index of political rights and civil liberties. Countries with more freedom were less likely to be the birthplace of international terrorists. Poverty and literacy were unrelated to the number of terrorists from a country. Think of a country like Saudi Arabia: It is wealthy but has few political and civil freedoms. Perhaps it is no coincidence that so many of the Sept. 11 terrorists - and Osama bin Laden himself - came from there."

Paul Wolfowitz couldn't have said it better. Of course, even admitting that democracy promotion is in U.S. interests, there will be differences over how to go about it. Anyone not on the administration's payroll would concede that its performance has been far from flawless. But President Bush is on the right track because he recognizes the democracy imperative that too many of his critics unfairly dismiss as neocon nuttiness. [emphasis added]
As Boot points out, many policymakers and scholars on both sides of the political spectrum agree that promoting democracy is a laudable goal with tangible benefits in the war to stave of the spread of anti-American radicalism. The only difference for this bipartisan consensus, then, is the strategy employed to effect the changes desired.

The path chosen by the current administration, echoing the sentiments of the neoconservative thinkers and policymakers who had influence at the highest levels of the executive branch, was that of pre-emptive invasion and military intervention - first in Iraq, but with an eye on further engagements in neighboring countries. The rationale was that through the toppling of Hussein's Baathist rule, democracy would take hold in Iraq and spread across the Muslim world like a tumble of dominos - and if necessary, the invasion stage would be repeated in other nations where the chain of dominos was broken. This is the point at which many supporters of the democracy promotion theory, on the right and the left, diverge from the foreign policy dictates espoused by George W. Bush.

History is on the side of those that caution against the use of military means to achieve these ends, however praiseworthy they may be. Author
Michael Lind weighs in on the subject from the left:

The record is clear--most of the democratic transitions that have taken place in the world in the past two centuries have had nothing to do with foreign military intervention or military pressure, while most US military interventions abroad have left dictatorship, not democracy, in their wake. The two cases that neocons constantly return to, Germany and Japan, are among the few cases where democracy has been restored (not created ex nihilo) as the result of a US invasion. The Soviet bloc democratized itself from within in the 1990s, even though the United States did not bomb Moscow, impose a martial-law governor on the Poles or imprison former Hungarian Communist officials without charges in barbed-wire camps. In Latin America, Mexico became a multiparty democracy instead of a one-party dictatorship without US Marines posing for photos in the presidential mansion in Mexico City, and it was not necessary for American soldiers to kill tens of thousands of Argentines, Chileans and Brazilians for democracy to take root in those countries.

One must hope that American soldiers leave behind a functioning democracy in Iraq--rather than the dysfunctional autocracies and kleptocracies that were the legacy of US military occupations in the Philippines, Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti and Mexico. But it is likely that, if and when liberal democracy comes to the Muslim world in general and to the Arab world in particular, the gradual, largely bloodless transition will resemble those in Soviet Europe and Latin America and will not be the result of US military action or intimidation. The neocons--and the humanitarian hawks on the left--are simply wrong about how best to spread democracy.
Dissenting neoconservative author, scholar and professor Francis Fukuyama offers these observations from the right:

Of all of the different views that have now come to be associated with neoconservatives, the strangest one to me was the confidence that the United States could transform Iraq into a Western-style democracy, and go on from there to democratize the broader Middle East. It struck me as strange precisely because these same neoconservatives had spent much of the past generation warning - in The National Interest's former sister publication, The Public Interest, for example - about the dangers of ambitious social engineering, and how social planners could never control behavior or deal with unanticipated consequences. If the United States cannot eliminate poverty or raise test scores in Washington, DC, how does it expect to bring democracy to a part of the world that has stubbornly resisted it and is virulently anti-American to boot?

Krauthammer picks up this theme in his speech. Noting how wrong people were after World War II in asserting that Japan could not democratize, he asks, "Where is it written that Arabs are incapable of democracy?" He is echoing an argument made most forthrightly by the eminent Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis, who has at several junctures suggested that pessimism about the prospects for a democratic Iraq betrays lack of respect for Arabs. It is, of course, nowhere written that Arabs are incapable of democracy, and it is certainly foolish for cynical Europeans to assert with great confidence that democracy is impossible in the Middle East. We have, indeed, been fooled before, not just in Japan but in Eastern Europe prior to the collapse of communism.

But possibility is not likelihood, and good policy is not made by staking everything on a throw of the dice. Culture is not destiny, but culture plays an important role in making possible certain kinds of institutions-something that is usually taken to be a conservative insight. Though I, more than most people, am associated with the idea that history's arrow points to democracy, I have never believed that democracies can be created anywhere and everywhere through sheer political will. Prior to the Iraq War, there were many reasons for thinking that building a democratic Iraq was a task of a complexity that would be nearly unmanageable. Some reasons had to do with the nature of Iraqi society: the fact that it would be decompressing rapidly from totalitarianism, its ethnic divisions, the role of politicized religion, the society's propensity for violence, its tribal structure and the dominance of extended kin and patronage networks, and its susceptibility to influence from other parts of the Middle East that were passionately anti-American.

But other reasons had to do with the United States. America has been involved in approximately 18 nation-building projects between its conquest of the Philippines in 1899 and the current occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the overall record is not a pretty one. The cases of unambiguous success-Germany, Japan, and South Korea-were all ones in which U.S. forces came and then stayed indefinitely. In the first two cases, we were not nation-building at all, but only re-legitimizing societies that had very powerful states. In all of the other cases, the U.S. either left nothing behind in terms of self-sustaining institutions, or else made things worse by creating, as in the case of Nicaragua, a modern army and police but no lasting rule of law.
Despite history's counsel, and the advice of experts in the military and civilian segments of the government, the Bush administration professed that invasion was not only a legitimate means to achieve the ends of democratic transformation, but the prospects for success in such an endeavor were in fact very favorable. Some of the argumentation took on a rather disingenuous tone.

On the one hand, the invasion of Iraq was presented as the only possible option - that to choose not to invade was an endorsement of the status quo or the pre-9/11 paradigm. In this sense, they were successful in conflating the promotion of democracy with the doctrine of pre-emptive invasion, when in reality the two do not necessarily to go hand in hand. On the contrary, as history has proven, the one rarely follows the other.

It was quite common, and still is, to hear Bush's supporters say, "At least Bush is doing something about the situation" (implying that to not invade Iraq meant doing nothing) and "everything changed after 9/11" (suggesting that empiricism, logic and historical arguments no longer apply). Unfortunately, there were and are other measures that the Bush administration could have taken in order to do "something" in the arena of democracy promotion, and history, reason and logic are stubborn opponents and frequent vanquishers of misguided idealistic crusades.

As Lind and Fukuyama point out, most of the democratic transformations that have occurred in the last century, have been accomplished through internal movements, not external military interventions. Although the term has been met with derision and scorn from the hawkish quarters, "soft power" (which includes everything from diplomacy, economic engagement, intelligence agency activity, public relations, humanitarian efforts, foreign aid, funding of grass roots movements, etc.) has been an extremely successful means for providing an impetus for change in previously totalitarian regimes.

The full arsenal of soft power in the pursuit of democracy promotion has never been unleashed on the Muslim world and many of the options under this rubric remain on the shelf today, passed over in favor of the blunt tool of military invasion. Despite the public declarations by members of the Bush team that they were launching a comprehensive campaign of "soft power" to win over the hearts and minds of the Muslim world, our actual efforts have been light on substance and narrow in scope (I discussed this in depth
here). Other than a couple of media outlets, widely dismissed as propaganda, and some tepid public relations fare, little meaningful action has been taken on our part other than the bellicose.

Richard Clarke had these suggestions in an
Op-ed piece published in the New York Times:

We need to expose the Islamic world to values that are more attractive than those of the jihadists. This means aiding economic development and political openness in Muslim countries, and efforts to stabilize places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Restarting the Israel-Palestinian peace process is also vital.

Also, we can't do this alone. In addition to "hearts and minds" television and radio programming by the American government, we would be greatly helped by a pan-Islamic council of respected spiritual and secular leaders to coordinate (without United States involvement) the Islamic world's own ideological effort against the new Al Qaeda.
Clarke touches on one part of the equation which represents probably our biggest challenge no matter the route chosen: the intractable conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians from which so much anti-Americanism is cultivated. Re-invigorating the peace process is a must to restoring our credibility no matter what means we seek to employ to achieve our foreign policy directives with respect to this part of the world. Still, many claim that invading Iraq was the only option, if not itself a solution to the Israeli/Palestinian crisis (an outlandish claim in retrospect).

A recent post on one of the finest right-leaning blogs,
The Belgravia Dispatch, discusses an article by Princeton professor and Middle East scholar Michael Doran. In this article, Doran praises the overall goals of democracy promotion, and scolds Democratic hopeful John Kerry for his lack of clarity on this issue:

At best, the United States must play a strong supporting role by creating a political context that favors al-Qaeda's local enemies. Bush's speeches have pointed us toward the correct tool for this job: political reform in the Middle East. If the Democrats were serious about the Saudi threat, then they for Bush to take his own words about Middle Eastern reform more seriously.

But more to the point, for all its problems (and they are many), the Bush solution of reforming the Middle East to combat terrorism is the only serious plan on the table. The Kerry team tells us only that Bush -- operating out of dark and nefarious motives -- got everything all wrong. Kerry, however, has not even begun to explain how he intends to do better.
Granted Kerry has not fleshed out the full parameters of his strategy, and it would be comforting to hear that Kerry does favor the promotion of democracy (especially if he disavows the use of pre-emptive invasions as a means to achieve those ends), Doran overstates the efficacy of Bush's "plan." It is one thing to enact policies with the intent to create democratic reform, but what good is the "plan" if it is in fact counterproductive and it brings about a paradoxical effect? Professor Moran talks about "creating a political context that favors al-Qaeda's local enemies" but in reality, we have done the exact opposite - instead strengthening al-Qaeda's hand while weakening the popular support for al-Qaeda's enemies. If your actions bring about the opposite of the intended result, then no action would actually be better.

But there were better options than "no action" as I stated above. Not only were those "soft" methods, including peace process reactivation, not pursued vigorously, but we have actually hindered democratic reform movements that were already underway in Muslim countries. We have improved the standing of Osama Bin Laden and the fundamentalists, while the reformers are perceived as associated with the West - in particular America - and thus their credibility has been greatly reduced. Bin Laden's propaganda about the United States, that we are crusaders who seek to dominate, secularize and humiliate Muslims, once outlandish and fringe, has appeared prescient and garnered mainstream support because of our decision to go to war and subsequent mishandling of the effort. This is from an article appearing in Foreign Policy:

Bin Laden is a propagandist, directing his efforts at attracting those Muslims who have hitherto shunned his extremist message. He knows that only through mass participation in his project will he have any chance of success. His worldview is receiving immeasurably more support around the globe than it was two years ago, let alone 15 years ago when he began serious campaigning. The objective of Western countries is to eliminate the threat of terror, or at least to manage it in a way that does not seriously impinge on the daily lives of its citizens. Bin Laden's aim is to radicalize and mobilize. He is closer to achieving his goals than the West is to deterring him."
"What we're seeing now is a disturbing sympathy with al Qaeda coupled with resentment toward the United States, and we ought to be extremely troubled by that," said Shibley Telhami, a University of Maryland professor who commissioned a survey of Middle East residents in conjunction with Zogby.

Fareed Zakaria had this observation:

Bush does not seem aware that the intense hostility toward him in every country in the world (save Israel) has made it very difficult for the United States to be the agent of freedom. In every Arab country that I have been to in the last two years, the liberals, reformers and businessmen say, "Please don't support us. American support today is the kiss of death."
It is extremely important for the concept of democracy promotion to be fully explained and critically examined. I do not believe that you need to throw the baby (democracy in the Muslim world) out with the bath water (the invasion of Iraq). In pursuit of this, the entanglement of the goals and the means currently employed to achieve those aims must be parsed out and the two separated. In the context of Iraq, and US foreign policy regarding the Muslim world, the goals have actually been defeated time and again by the very methods that were chosen to implement them. With this in mind, we certainly need to reassess the "plan" though not necessarily the objective.

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