Wednesday, March 22, 2006

At Least He Did Something

At the risk of being accused of taking down a straw man, allow me to indulge in a little limited anecdotal reminiscence. In the first year or two after the invasion of Iraq, when debating the merits of the invasion as part of a strategy to undermine the appeal and capacity of Salafist terrorism, it was common to hear some variation of the phrase, "At least he (meaning Bush) is doing something." In fact, the argument hasn't exactly fallen out of favor in many circles.

This statement is, in part, a roundabout critique of Clinton's actions (or lack thereof) vis-a-vis al-Qaeda, as well as a nod in the direction of the argument that the status quo in the Muslim world/Middle East was no longer acceptable.

The line of reasoning for the latter argument holds that our policies with respect to the Muslim world had been on a misguided trajectory over the past several decades. The evidence cited is that these policies failed to prevent the emergence of such a virulent strain of terrorism. 9/11 was the wake-up call, and so our outlook must be re-aligned in reaction to this watershed moment. For some this meant that we needed to flex our military muscles in the region and thus inspire fear in those that would martyr themselves in order to attack us, and for others that we must usher in an era of terrorism-eradicating democracy. There was and is, of course, disagreement on the means chosen to accomplish these aims even among those that share common cause.

Tony Blair's recent speech defending Britain's support for the invasion of Iraq, continuing role in that country and related topics echoes many similar sentiments - though not exactly making the same arguments [emphasis added]:

And in the era of globalisation where nations depend on each other and where our security is held in common or not at all, the outcome of this clash between extremism and progress is utterly determinative of our future here in Britain. We can no more opt out of this struggle than we can opt out of the climate changing around us. Inaction, pushing the responsibility on to America, deluding ourselves that this terrorism is an isolated series of individual incidents rather than a global movement and would go away if only we were more sensitive to its pretensions; this too is a policy. It is just that; it is a policy that is profoundly, fundamentally wrong.

And this is why the position of so much opinion on how to defeat this terrorism and on the continuing struggle in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Middle East is, in my judgement, so mistaken."

My problem with the general argument that the status quo had to change - and that "inaction" and "opting out of the struggle" are/were not feasible courses of action - is that these arguments are far too frequently weaved together with the decision to invade Iraq as if they are inextricably linked. Which I think Blair does here, albeit in a somewhat indirect way. This creates a false impression that there was a binary choice: you were either for maintaining the status quo or you were in favor of invading Iraq. With us, or against us. No alternative.

But is this really the case? Given the unbridled creativity and myriad options available to this nation's foreign policy institutions, thinkers, pundits and policymakers, there were most certainly other means to disturb the status quo without invading Iraq. Other methods of "action" absent the current Iraqi campaign.

The military incursion into Afghanistan certainly accomplished something. Further, our various intelligence agencies and associated military assets could have, and did, snap into focus post-9/11 - redirected at disrupting the worldwide threat of terrorism that had revealed itself as something that required attention and resources. Surely that is not "inaction."

And there are, and were, a whole host of other tools in the kit capable of altering, and interacting with, the course of political, social and economic development in the Muslim world without a concomitant militarily imposed regime change exercise in Iraq. Some of which we are currently employing, some we aren't.

In fact, critics of the administration could argue that other than invading Iraq, not enough has been done to disrupt that same menacing status quo that we are so warned of. Others, even some administration supporters, have argued that invading Iraq has been a net negative, even if it altered that status quo. Not all disruptions are good disruptions. I don't know how Osama, Zarqawi and/or Iran views this break from the norm, but I have my guesses.

In truth, there was a veritable ocean of possibilities between inaction and invading Iraq. Some of which we have explored and continue to explore - which belies the suggestion that it was an either/or situation. And in the realm of massive foreign policy undertakings, with limited resources and competing exigencies, doing "something" can make a bad situation worse if that "something" is a poorly thought out, strategically bungled, massively costly and incompetently executed war. Just a thought.

[UPDATE: Praktike and I were hunting the same game today, as evidenced by his synergistic post which came in mere seconds after mine on the American Footprints site. Prak has a nice quote from Fukuyama regarding the folly of the reckless "shake up the status quo" policy. Prak also adds this to the conversation (addressing, in part, the "flex our muscle" to sow fear/humiliation in the Muslim world strategy):
... just want to connect this Fukuyama quote with my earlier post rejecting the idea that humiliating the Arab world was a good strategy for achieving positive change. The historical analogy is imperfect, but let's remember that after the Arab states' humiliating loss in 1948 there came a series of Arab nationalist coups followed by dictatorships and then ... a humiliating loss in 1967, which was followed by a tactical loss but small strategic victory in 1973, which was followed by the rise of Islamist movements and, the rise of the PLO, the Lebanese Civil War, the first Palestinian intifada, and so forth. I think you get the idea.
It's worth checking out his prior post too. He's right of course.]

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