Wednesday, January 05, 2005

What Might Have Been

The good people at the Daily Demarche have invited TIA to partake in an extended discussion premised on the hypothetical posit, "What if we never invaded Iraq." The two denizens of the Daily Demarche, Smiley and Dr. Demarche, have already published their versions of events, as has Marc Schulman of American Future. In that sense, I perhaps have an unfair advantage in that I can respond to some of their postulations. I will try to keep that to a minimum, though, and offer as balanced and independent an appraisal as possible.


The story begins in the months after 9/11 and with the invasion of Afghanistan which occurred in actual, not hypothetical, history. Immediately after the attacks of 9/11, contrary to the designs of Bin Laden, most Muslims were outraged, shocked, and disgusted by the violence and destruction perpetrated in their religion's name. The mayor of Teheran criticized the attacks, there were candlelight vigils across the country that regards the US as the "Great Satan," leaders of various nations, including our erstwhile foe Muammar Qaddafi, voiced stern condemnations, and there were outspoken denunciations from religious leaders of all faiths. Of note was the reaction at Cairo's Al Azhar mosque which is, as
Spencer Ackerman noted, the "closest thing Sunni Islam has to a Vatican."

Days after September 11, 2001, Al Azhar's university rector, Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, issued a Koranic condemnation of the attacks: "Attacking innocent people is not courageous, it is stupid and will be punished on the Day of Judgment."
The rest of the world was taken with sympathy for America, and this afforded the Bush administration a rare position of strength, support, and leverage from which to undertake several bold new measures aimed at addressing many of the underlying problems behind the attacks and the ideology of jihad. The general perception was that the United States was justified, al-Qaeda needed to be dealt with, and the United States had no ulterior motives. In truth, the United States did have an ulterior motive of sorts, but it is one that was not unpopular: the concept that Afghanistan could be made more democratic, and through this, change the shape of the region. Senator Joe Biden famously remarked:

Remember all the talk that the Muslim street was going to rise up if we went into Afghanistan?" One reason it didn't was the near-unanimity of the international community in support of the invasion.
This lack of uprising and outrage was a great shock to Bin Laden. He was left somewhat demoralized and disillusioned by his failure to incite a widespread popular movement. He thought the invasion of Afghanistan would have been enough, but he had also anticipated and expected a disproportionate reprisal by the Americans, a wild lashing out at an unrelated Muslim nation that would provoke anger amongst Muslims and scorn from the international community. But the Bush administration had outsmarted him, instead opting for a popular effort to retaliate against the perpetrators of a near-universally recognized crime. For an example of what Bin Laden expected, look at what the reaction at the same mosque described above would have been had we invaded Iraq:

Yet fury over the invasion of Iraq turned Al Azhar's denouncement of Bin Laden into approval of his ideology. On the eve of the war, the mosque's scholars wrote, "According to Islamic law, if the enemy steps on Muslims' land, jihad becomes a duty on every male and female Muslim."

In this sense, Afghanistan did not hinder our efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Muslim population we are trying to influence in order to isolate and marginalize the radicals. Still, the democracy promotion part of the equation was not so clear a victory.

Afghanistan was less than an ideal destination to attempt nation building and democracy promotion - and that is an understatement. The country had been racked by decades of conflict, the economy was in shambles (which many who believe that certain economic preconditions are necessary for the birth of democracy warned was a non-starter), the population consists of myriad disparate ethnicities with competing interests, armed militias and warlords controlled various fiefdoms within the borders, there were none of the attendant democratic institutions or even precursors, and many other reasons to boot. Given the size of the task, success would require sustained effort on the part of the United States and the international community. Decades of dedication, nurturing, aid, security personnel, focus and attention were needed to midwife this long suffering nation into modernity and democracy.

That being said, the stakes were high and the outcome was worth fighting for. If the US could pull this off, the world - and most importantly the Muslim world - would be changed forever. This would serve to restore the image and credibility of the US in the region of the world where our image was most in need of rehabilitation. We could erase the bitter memories of abandonment that many Afghanis and other Muslims harbor following our withdrawal from our first stint in Afghanistan during that nation's revolt against the Soviets. It would go a long way toward undercutting the ideological appeal of al-Qaeda and for many the US would be seen as a force for good again.

Thankfully, due to the lack of competition from Iraq, the Bush administration was able to maintain a robust military and intelligence detail trained squarely on Afghanistan, which also monopolized the bulk of the money, resources, and other nation building assets in our arsenal. Although the road was bumpy, and the process resulted in many setbacks, the Taliban was nearly eradicated, opium production was severely curtailed, the war lords were brought to the table (sometimes forcibly), President Karzai's influence extended well beyond Kabul, and Afghan's had a cause for hope and optimism beyond any Afghan's recollection. In addition, rumors abounded that Bin Laden perished either in the fierce siege of Tora Bora, or the related flanking maneuvers undertaken at the Pakistani border by a large US military presence that was never diverted to Iraq.

Even if he survived the campaign, it was argued, his operations had been decimated, many members killed or captured, and his ideology was waning in its appeal and luster. This was due in large part to the intensive US military conduct, the subsequent nation building in Afghanistan, the other bold strategies outlined below, and the lack of the type of response anticipated by Bin Laden.

A Shift In Strategy

Seizing on the momentum from Afghanistan, and the buttressed popular opinion lingering from 9/11 sentimentalities, the Bush administration began a visionary task of realigning our priorities in the Middle East. Realizing the urgency of the matter in the grand context, the Bush administration followed the proposal of the 9/11 Commission and engaged the Islamic world in a "true battle of ideas." The administration wisely eschewed rhetoric that cast the war on terror as a new "Crusade" or as a struggle of good vs. evil, and this assuaged fears of a clash of civilizations or American imperialism. The Bush team quickly
realized that "attempts to change Islamic opinion with an Arabic-language satellite-television news station and an Arabic radio station carrying rock music were simply not enough."

Instead, the administration began funding a program to replace the hate-fostering madrassahs with modern educational programs, and provided resources for other pro-democracy and reform movements which had themselves been gaining momentum following the soul searching introspection that had occurred in the Muslim world in the wake of 9/11. We promoted democracy using strategies narrowly tailored on a country-by-country basis or "provided practical steps for moving theocracies and autocracies in that direction." Our pro-democratic efforts was perceived as sincere because our exhortations were not seen as hypocritical in view of our bombing, torture, and occupation tactics in Iraq. We began to "successfully work behind the scenes with our Muslim friends to create an ideological counterweight to the jihadis."

In this sense, the Bush administration adroitly averted the strategic blunder in the war of ideas that an invasion of Iraq would have led to. Although he supported the invasion of Iraq,
Fareed Zakaria never uttered these words:

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."
Encouraged by the improved rapport, and strengthened by the active US involvement, reform movements and pro-democracy efforts began gaining momentum on their own, resulting in a domino effect of change in the region. This evolution closely resembled the international spread of one-time internal movements that took place in the vast majority of regions that had chosen democracy in areas as diverse as Eastern Europe, Russia, Mexico, South and Central America, and Asia. Though the process was gradual, progress was apparent early on, and continues to this day.

These developments caught Bin Laden, and like minded jihadists, off guard. His propaganda about an American led crusade appeared hollow. There was no "war on Islam." America was, after all, working with Muslims, and had not extended aggressions beyond Afghanistan. The wellspring from which they sought to recruit new martyrs was not as fertile as it would have been had America reacted as Bin Laden wanted and expected. While anti-Americanism was not extinguished overnight, nor did terrorism cease to be a threat, the Muslim culture developed less tolerance for such actions and began to closer resemble Western societies like Spain, England, and America - plagued with less virulent domestic terrorist problems. Aid, support, and reverence for the jihadists began to recede, and their were not a myriad of copycat organizations that sprouted up in the wake of the Iraq campaign. Most importantly from a logistical perspective, the jihadists would be denied a new training ground and central hub now that their Afghan base was destroyed. As described by
Matt Yglesias:

...denying al-Qaeda its Afghan sanctuary has done more than many appreciate to screw up its operations. Even with many leading personnel still at large, without even a vague address to report to, would-be jihadis couldn't really sign up. Thus, despite rising anti-Americanism and the continuing appeal of the Salafi jihad in principle, it was hard for the network to gain new nodes and grow new cells.

But now we need to add the growth of the Iraqi insurgency into the equation. Once again, as during al-Qaeda's Afghan period, a would-be jihadi knows where he needs to go. He knows -- as I know and as you, the gentle reader knows -- that you can fight Americans in Iraq. He knows that the jihad takes place primarily in the "Sunni triangle" and the "triangle of death" both in the vicinity of Baghdad. He knows that the Syrian border is said to be the source of most of the insurgency's external inputs of manpower, money, and materiel. In other words, once again if you want to join the jihad, you know what to do. But of course once you get to Iraq, if you do make contact with someone, he'll want you to fight in Iraq not in the USA. Thus, having created a new global locus for the jihad as part of the strategic error that was the Iraq War, we also get the side benefit of "flypaper." Basically, US civilian casualties are displaced onto US military personnel and Iraqis of various stripes.

So far, so good (or so bad). The real question, however, is what happens if the jihad in Iraq ends? It would be remarkably odd if we wind up killing every single jihadi before going home. Either we'll need to start pulling troops out with many jihadis still in the field, or else we'll start gaining the upper hand and many jihadis will make themselves scarce. Either way, a new generation of recruits will have signed up, new networks will have been formed, and when people depart Iraq (either because we've won, or else because we've lost) they'll go somewhere else and start waging jihad there. Most of the native-born Iraqis who've joined up for the fight against America will probably stay put in Iraq, but not all of them will. You still won't be talking about a huge number of people, but the flipside of the insight that al-Qaeda was never a particularly large organization is that al-Qaeda never needed to be a particularly large institution to mount attacks on the scale of WTC, Bali, Madrid, etc.
Foreign and Domestic Policy

Recognizing this unique moment in history, with the will of the world behind us, the Bush administration took a pro-active approach to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Realizing that this conflict was the fount of much anti-American zealotry, the Bush team took an even-handed, no-excuses, hard-line approach with both Sharon and Arafat, crafting something along the lines of the Oslo land for peace arrangement - but with teeth. Capitalizing on the spirit of cooperation fostered amongst our European allies in the Afghanistan campaign, European peacekeepers were introduced into the region, and the CIA once again resumed its counter-terrorism tripartite cooperation with the Israelis and the Palestinians. There was zero tolerance for terrorist organizations, and through concerted diplomatic effort, Sharon was prevented from heavy-handed reprisals. Though the process is ongoing and punctuated by frequent setbacks, as extremists try to derail the effort, the sheer will of the Bush administration, the perceived urgency of the situation, and the fortuity of Arafat's death, helped to start the long march toward peace.

Released from the need to court Russian cooperation in Iraq, the Bush team was also able to keep the pressure on Putin in Chechnya, and rebuke him for other anti-democratic tendencies and changes in the Russian political structure. Bush never claimed to have looked into the soul of Putin, instead taking a slightly sterner stance with the worrisome Russian leader. Putin has been more cautious in his embrace of totalitarianism, and has cooperated more with the international community regarding Chechnya, though much work remains.

Without the need to commit massive amounts of money to Iraq ($200 billion and counting), the Bush team initiated a comprehensive overhaul of the nation's internal defenses. Targets were hardened, points of entry secured, the borders monitored, and in general, America was made a less hospitable target for would be terrorists. For example, when
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham requested $379.7 million to protect various Energy Department facilities where nuclear weapons are designed, manufactured, and stockpiled, the White House wisely approved the full amount rather than the scaled down sum of $26.4 million they would have been forced to sign off on had they been contending with the resource drain of Iraq.

In addition, rather than cutting funding for the Nunn-Lugar programs for securing the hundreds of tons of poorly guarded
loose nuclear material in the former Soviet republics, President Bush vastly ramped up these efforts, which resulted in an impressive network of security precautions and destruction of vast quantities of dangerous materials that had previously been ripe for the picking by terrorists.

Fresh from the resounding military victory in Afghanistan, while fear of the impressive US military might was at its apex, not yet diminished by the apparent struggles in occupying another nation such as Iraq, the Bush administration used credible threats of force to induce Iran and North Korea to relinquish their nuclear weapons production activities. Hailing the strategies employed in gaining the
cooperation of Libya, the Bush team offered an elaborate array of carrots and sticks, including the alternate threats of massive sanctions and promises of economic development - with the whole of Europe on board (despite the often contrarian France). Like Libya, the sanctions/incentives model, backed up by the very real threat of force as exemplified by the Afghan campaign still fresh in the mind of many, led to a series of breakthroughs on non-proliferation.


Having taken a balanced and engaged approach to the two members of the "axis of evil" most advanced in nuclear capacity (North Korea and Iran), the Bush administration now turned to Iraq. The administration began to use threatening rhetoric and posturing in order to get access for UN weapons inspectors. While the inspectors were doing their work, the Bush team kept the heat on Iraq, provoking unease in some of Europe's capitals. While the inspectors did not locate any weapons, the US did learn of rampant corruption in the UN's Oil for Food program. Capitalizing on the outrage over the incident, and using its threatening posture and belligerence, the US was able to strengthen the sanctions and inspections regime that had proven so successful, despite the graft, up to this point. In addition, some of the sanctions were "smartened" so as to soften the blow on the Iraqi population.

Although some countries, like France, were hesitant, it was decided that stronger sanctions was the best way to avoid an all out war, and since they had been so successful in maintaining a WMD-free Iraq, they should be continued. By averting war, the US was able to save $200-300 billion (maybe more), the lives of between 1,500-3,000 troops, 200-300 independent contractors, as well as hundreds of coalition forces (again, maybe more).

Saddam continued to pen romance novels and harbor desires for WMDs, but he lacked the means to acquire them, and realized that if his efforts were discovered, he would bear the brunt of even more punitive measures. In the words of the Duelfer report:

The former Regime had no formal written strategy or plan for the revival of WMD after sanctions. Neither was there an identifiable group of WMD policy makers or planners separate from Saddam. Instead, his lieutenants understood WMD revival was his goal from their long association with Saddam and his infrequent, but firm, verbal comments and directions to them.
Although his regime was a source of concern for many years to come, he remained effectively boxed up and contained. In the event that Saddam somehow managed to acquire nuclear weapons, he would have selfishly hoarded them to himself, using their power to raise his prestige and balance out Iran and Israel which he perceived as his biggest threats and primary motivation for acquiring nuclear weapons. Also from the Duelfer report:

Iran was the pre-eminent motivator of this policy. All senior level Iraqi officials considered Iran to be Iraq’s principal enemy in the region. The wish to balance Israel and acquire status and influence in the Arab world were also considerations, but secondary...

Iraq Survey Group (ISG) judges that events in the 1980s and early 1990s shaped Saddam's belief in the value of WMD. In Saddam’s view, WMD helped to save the Regime multiple times. He believed that during the Iran-Iraq war chemical weapons had halted Iranian ground offensives and that ballistic missile attacks on Tehran had broken its political will. Similarly, during Desert Storm, Saddam believed WMD had deterred Coalition Forces from pressing their attack beyond the goal of freeing Kuwait. WMD had even played a role in crushing the Shi'a revolt in the south following the 1991 cease-fire.
In the meantime, the Kurdish north continued in its de facto independence and thrived as a self-styled democratic society. Other less fortunate Iraqis continued to suffer under the repressive measures of the Baath party. Political dissidents and religious leaders seen as hostile and threatening to Hussein were routinely tortured, brutalized and frequently murdered. Security and order for the average Iraqi, however, were maintained more or less uninterrupted. The continued hardship of the Iraqi people, like so many others living under brutal dictators in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere, was seen as an unfortunate reality that few remedies could address without making matters worse and destabilizing the region.

It is hard to predict when, but at some future point, as Francis Fukuyama prophesied, the inevitable befell Iraq. Like most democratic transformations in the history of humanity, Iraqis themselves rose up to usurp the Baath Party's despotism and democratic reform overcame Iraq. It is not clear if Iraq was able to settle its domestic and ethnic differences peacefully, but the process was not as influenced by foreign actors pulling in different directions, so peaceful cooperation was more likely.

Much credit went to the Bush administration's visionary program of democratic impetus and cooperation started in the years after 9/11. President Bush's Middle East policy is regarded as the greatest success in American foreign policy since the Marshall Plan. As an aside, TIA never came into existence, and one left-leaning blogger continued to pursue his legal career in anonymity, less roiled by what he perceived as a very misguided foreign policy and an administration that had deviated from common sense and empiricism.

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