Thursday, September 04, 2008

A War that Must Be Won in the Name of Truth

Gregory Gause (a professor at the exceedingly awesome University of Vermont), has a guest post up at Marc Lynch's place that is, as they say, well worth the read. Gause describes some of the recent actions undertaken by Prime Minister Maliki and suggests that they form part of a larger strategy to consolidate power, solidifying Maliki's role as some new military strong man (like Saddam, only Shiitier!). In this respect, Gause's post provides some additional evidence to bolster an argument that I have been making for the better part of the past four months (most recently here and here).

Marc Lynch penned a follow up piece in which he offers some mild criticisms of Gause's post (some valid, some perhaps a bit unfair). On the unfair side of the ledger, Lynch claims that Gause focuses more on Maliki's intentions while neglecting to discuss Maliki's capacity to actually execute the plan. But, contra Lynch's critique, Gause's piece is punctuated with the recurring question of whether or not Maliki is overreaching. In other words, Gause remains more agnostic about Maliki's abilities than Lynch gives him credit for.

That being said, Lynch is right to note that:

[Gause] could go further in considering the American role in empowering Maliki's assertiveness, even when that goes against avowed U.S. preferences. [...]

What's hardly been discussed is whether it would serve U.S. interests if [Gause] turns out to be right.

True. In my previous two posts on the subject, I tried to raise some of those issues. First, I pointed out that one of the publicly stated rationales for the invasion of Iraq was the need to change the image of the United States as the patron of despotic regimes in the region. While there is definitely truth to the notion that our continued support for anti-democratic, and often brutal, regimes has tarnished our image, and that al-Qaeda and other radicals draw inspiration from these policies (and utilze them via propaganda), there was a certain disconnect between that reality and the argument that we could remedy the situation by forcefully changing the regime of one of the few dictators that we didn't support. Invading Egypt or Saudi Arabia made more sense if that was the concern.

The bridge that was supposed to broach this gap in logic was the revamped domino theory: that if we could turn Iraq into a model democracy, democratic change would spread throughout the region like some form of highly infectious contagion (with the resulting elected governments having friendly relations with the US and Israel, naturally). Belief in this re-tread of the Vietnam era formulation was so prevalent that in 2005, after a few minor election-related rumblings, many war boosters were quick to proclaim the arrival of an "Arab Spring" of democratic upheaval. Hindsight reveals this enthusiasm to be as premature as it was naive.

Which brings us back to whether US interests will be served by Maliki's emergence as an anti-democratic strongman who uses the military (and police forces) to violently crush dissent. Certainly not if there is any legitimate hope that Iraq the Model could provide a catalyst for democratic reform in the region. In addition, our active role in the process will set us back even further in terms of providing succor to al-Qaeda and other radicalizing agents. My conclusion from a prior post stands:

Perhaps more troubling, though, is the additional propaganda boon given to al-Qaeda and other anti-American elements seeking to radicalize the region. In short, the US will be portrayed (accurately in many respects) as assisting a Shiite-led, anti-democratic government in a bloody crackdown on Sunni factions - and other [non-Sunni] Iraqi factions that pose a threat to that government through the democratic process. All for the promise of beneficial access to oil and permanent military bases.

They will continue to hate us for our freedom.

The more cynical - or realistic depending on the level of jaundice in your eye - might argue that a relatively stable Iraq governed by a strongman who is on more-or-less friendly terms with the US (and open to some level of US troop presence and exploitation of the Iraqi oil industry) would be a decent outcome all things considered. Besides, the cynics might argue, all that purple fingered democracy ballyhoo was more about marketing than actual, hard-nosed foreign policy objectives.

Perhaps that is so, but there will be real costs in terms of the radicalization of a new wave of terrorists. To the extent that we take the "war on terror" seriously, our dubious role in Iraq should not be underestimated. And someone should probably tell Sarah Palin that God doesn't root for such callousness.

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