Thursday, December 07, 2006

I Love You Just The Way You Aren't

Jim Henley makes some excellent points that have been made before, but definitely bear repeating [emph. added]:

Shortly over a decade ago, a relative few Sunni radicals mostly from two countries where America underwrites oppressive governments - Egypt and Saudi Arabia - decided to take their struggle to “the Greater Enemy.” In response to those radicals’ greatest success, the closest thing to a brain trust the executive branch could put together settled on a grand strategy of “democratizing the middle east,” not by withdrawing support for autocracies we were propping up - autocracies that produced the bulk of anti-American terrorists - but overthrowing one of the few oppressive Sunni governments America wasn’t sponsoring. The action is overwhelmingly likely to lead to the crushing of a Sunni society that was not producing anti-American terrorists until we moved in. No Sunni observer will fail to see that the United States made it possible, especially if we follow the public Baker-Hamilton plan.

Yes, we took the one country in the region that was near the bottom in terms of contributing radicalized young militants to the broader causes of violence in the name of Islam and likely made it into a future top producer. In the process, we ensured that anti-American animus would be the driving force and raison d'etre for these future Iraqi cadres (to the extent it wouldn't have already). All in the name of the "War on Terror" mind you.

Neoconservatives and other war supporters frequently made the case that it was our support for corrupt/apostate regimes in the region that was feeding the cauldron of radicalization and anti-Americanism. It was argued that young Muslims saw us as guarantors of their oppression through our ties to these regional despots, and, thus, the hostility. There is more than a shred of truth to this contention, but just consider how the premise was used to further a contradictory policy.

In order to better the perception that we act as the defender of Muslim autocracies, we attacked and toppled one of the few corrupt/apostate regimes in the region that we didn't support. Which was going to convince young Egyptians and Saudis of our...lack of support for Mubarak and the House of Saud?

Uh, er, huh?

The most frequent retort I have encountered when pointing out these inconsistencies is that a US attempt to impose regime change at the barrel of a gun in those other countries (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan) was not logistically feasible. This is, of course, true. Saddam, on the other hand, represented an easy - if illogical - target.

According to the extension of this theory, once democracy was firmly implanted in Iraq, it would do the work of regime change for us by spreading outward in a wave of regime-changing, democratic revolutions. If such sweeping change were achieved, it would eliminate the impression that we were supporting repression in the Muslim world. We could say: "See, we only support democratic regimes!" Everybody loves us, flowers, candies, etc.

This, though, is just as incoherent an argument as the ones cited above. The reason is simple: We don't actually want democratic revolutions to occur in most of the nations in the region for fear of what would result (especially the three most problematic in terms of terrorism: Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan).

If we truly wanted to foster democratic change - or weaken these regimes to the point of susceptibility to same - we could have at least taken the initial step of "withdrawing support for autocracies we were propping up" - as Henley pointed out. That would have been easier, and cheaper, than the forced regime change approach (not sending billions in aid, or blowing trillions on invasions/occupations, actually saves money!). Even if this shift in funding/assistance didn't result in democratic change overnight, we could have at least enjoyed the boost to our image that would have resulted from no longer being viewed as the facilitator of dictatorial rule in the meantime.

But we didn't cut funding/assistance then, and we won't now, for the simple reason that democratic revolutions in most of those countries would bring to power groups that would be even more hostile to our interests (see, ie, Hamas and Hezbollah). Perhaps Musharaff in Pakistan offers the starkest example of this, but Mubarak and the Saudi regime have been quite adept at milking this dynamic as well. So we continue to support them, prop them up, and pretend that we secretly want some form of internal democratic revolution to occur when that eventuality represents a legitimate fear that we work against.

What we really want (and much confusion stems from the selective definition of "democracy" that we are operating under) is democratic regime change that would result in pro-American, Israel-tolerant regimes. That, though, is just not in the cards due to the attitudes of the majority of would-be voters in these countries. This is true whether such democratic change were the result of the hoped-for "Iraq the Model" effect, or more aggressive efforts on the part of our government to achieve democratic change in these countries absent forced regime-change. Matt Yglesias riffing on a Charles Krauthammer column captures this well:

Next comes the key phrase [from Krauthammer], the mind-blowingly obvious error that lurks at the heart of the project. "We are trying to bring democracy to Iraq in particular because a pro-Western government enjoying legitimacy and popular support would have been the most enduring means of securing our interests there." Now ask yourself, what does the fact that a pro-western, popular, and legitimate government in Baghdad would serve our interests have to do with the logic of toppling Saddam and then holding an election? It also makes sense if you simply assume -- for no reason at all -- that an election will bring to power a government eager to support America's regional strategic ambitions. The upshot? "We should nonetheless make a last effort to change the composition of the government and assemble a new one composed of those -- Kurds, moderate Sunnis, secular Shiites and some of the religious Shiites -- who might be capable of reaching a grand political settlement."

You see! We invaded Iraq to build a democracy, but the Iraqis ruined it by voting the wrong way, so we can fix things by dictating to them the terms of a more appropriate parliamentary coalition. After that perhaps we can unleash Chiang!

The same criticisms can be leveled at our reaction to the election of Hamas by the Palestinians, and failure to recognize Hezbollah's legitimate political base.

Thus, for proponents of the "democratic dominoes" theory to be vindicated, "Iraq the Model" would have to accomplish two monumentally difficult tasks: First, Iraq would need to be a democratic catalyst capable of ushering in serial revolutions throughout the region. But at the same time, it would have to initiate a radical paradigm shift in the attitudes of the eventual democratic masses within these countries - from anti-American/Israeli to pro-American/Israel-tolerant.

That, folks, is the stuff of big dreamers and fools. Though, to be honest, more the purview of the latter.

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