Monday, October 20, 2008

That's What You Get When You Misuse What I Invent, Your Empire Falls and You Lose Every Cent

Rich Lowry neatly summarizes the political advantages inherent in claiming the mantle of morality in foreign policy making, as Bush and his neoconservative supporters have attempted to do rather ostentatiously:

Bush’s emphasis on the inherent hunger for freedom is powerful. It clothes his foreign policy in an undeniable idealism. It puts his liberal opponents in a tight spot, because it is awkward for them to object to the kind of sweeping universalism they have always embraced. It might be simplistic, but that is often an advantage in political communication.

Lowry is right in as much as he decscribes a short-term, domestic, political expedient, and Bush has been able to capitalize on this uplifting narrative to great effect, especially early on in his tenure, both in terms of achieving his policy objectives and commanding the public's support. Part of this has to do with the attractiveness of the message, especially for those that have the luxury of thumping their chest from a safe distance. As Rob Farley observed while reviewing an interesting back and forth between Stephen Walt (realist) and Joshua Muravchik (neoconservative):

Indeed; the moral component of neoconservatism has always been the appearance of moral rectitude, rather than any practical effort to achieve moral goals. This makes it particularly appropriate for creatures of the Beltway, who endure no real costs for their moral postures.

However, there are underlying contradictions that limit the effectiveness of using this facade of idealism and, in the end, the rhetoric itself can serve to box-in its purveyors and/or accentuate the hypocrisy. Take, for example, the pervasive anti-Muslim bigotry amongst the population that Bush draws his support from - a demographic reality that co-exists, uncomfortably, with the fact that Bush's policies are sold, at least publicly, on the basis of bestowing the gifts of freedom and democracy on various Muslim nations at great cost to the American people.

Along these lines, Neoconservatives seem to have a tough time deciding if Muslims are uncivilized brutes, congenitally incapable of embracing democracy, or if, to the contrary, they are so ready for American-style governance that simply conducting airstrikes on Muslim nations will cause pro-American democracy to spring up organically like shoots through bomb-tilled soil.

Then there is the inability of the Bush team to make accommodations for democratic expressions that go against predictions and preferences, such as the outcome in Gaza where elections that were pushed for on a rapid schedule by the Bush administration (against Israeli and moderate Palestinian warnings) resulted in Hamas coming to power. The Bush administration reacted with hostility to the newly elected government, casting its democracy promoting agenda as a cynical, self-serving and highly contingent brand of idealism.

Iraq, too, has been an interesting case study neoconservative rhetoric on democratization confronting real world democratic outcomes and popular opinion.

Recall, initially, that the Bush team hoped to put off elections in Iraq for several years, allowing for stewardship by viceroy (kicking it colonial school) and then later a limited sovereign. However, relenting to pressure from Iraqi leaders like Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, the Bush team first handed the reins over to CIA asset Iyad Allawi and, next, to an elected Iraqi government that, despite Bush administration hopes/predictions, did not include Ahmad Chalabi or, in any significant measure, Iyad Allawi. Instead, a coalition, comprised mostly of religious fundamentalist Shiite parties with significant and long standing ties to Iran, emerged as the dominant force.

This was less than ideal from the Bush administration's perspective, to understate the frustration of purpose: the new Iraqi government would not be a friend of Israel's, would not countenance being a base for launching attacks on neighboring Iran and would, in fact, quickly open warm relations with Tehran. And these were the positions of our "allies" - our adversaries were openly attacking our troops and civilian personnel.

Still smarting from the results of the Gaza elections and, to some extent, the Iraqi elections, the Bush administration took a more proactive role in trying to shape the political landscape ahead of regional Iraqi elections - targeting the factions most hostile to a prolonged US military presence (the Sadrists), while bolstering Maliki's power and authority vis-a-vis the Sadrists and his other rivals. These actions were pursued under the (most likely false) assumption that Maliki would welcome a prolonged US military presence. While Maliki's hand has indeed been strengthened by US efforts (to the extent that he has even begun challenging his closest Shiite allies in some arenas), the end result may be of little value to US policymakers seeking to establish an enduring military foothold in Iraq.

Months ago Maliki began making noises opposing certain aspects of the rather one-sided strategic framework and SOFA agreements put forth by the Bush administration: specifically, Maliki demanded an actual timetable for complete withdrawal of US troops, control over important national security decisions (actions launched internally and externally, ie) and limitations on the immunity for US personnel sought by the Bush administration. At the time (and since), there was much speculation about the source of Maliki's assertiveness: whether he actually found the proposed terms repugnant, or whether he had been forced to oppose them because of their extreme unpopularity amongst the Iraqi population.

As I wrote at the time: Regardless, our position is untenable in the long run. Maliki will either push us to the exits as he desires or, eventually, be forced to respond to the dictates of the ballot box or other popular upheaval/challenges even if he would prefer to keep his bodyguards around for longer. So how would the neoconservative set handle the fruits of its democratization efforts in Iraq when the outcome does not suit its long term designs?

Unsurprisingly, the McCain camp prefers the "Maliki-is-forced-into opposing us for domestic political concerns" storyline. As if this would be reassuring to those that favored a long term military presence in Iraq. "Don't worry, he just has to say that to the Iraqi people to get their votes, but after elections, he'll go back on his word and the Iraqi people won't notice." Or something.

Not everyone was convinced. Seeing the handwriting in the Iraqi constitution, conservatives such as Andy McCarthy and John Derbyshire began railing against Maliki's close ties to Iran (facts that were ignored or downplayed when Maliki was cast as our anti-Iranian "friend" and the more nationalistic/anti-Iranian Sadr was the pro-Iranian "enemy"). McCain's top foreign policy advisor, Randy Scheunemann, as well as spokesman Michael Goldfarb, stated that Maliki's position would be taken under advisement, but that John McCain would not be bound by the decisions of Iraq's democratically elected government. Said Goldfarb:

The disposition of a sovereign, democratically elected government is one of the conditions that will be taken into account."

One condition to be considered! My friends, that's democratization we can believe in!

Recently, the Maliki government (bolstered by Sistani and other Shiite powers) has grown even firmer in pressing its prerogatives. Maliki realizes that the Bush administration is more desperate to get these deals done than he is. Time, as it were, is on his side. Sistani has stepped in in recent weeks to demand that parliament gets a vote - a concession that will forestall the passage of any laws that contain many items from the controversial Bush administration wish list. As Spencer Ackerman puts it:

With the agreement in the final phases, most Iraqi political factions, including Maliki's, are balking at the deal. A parliamentary rejection to the deal as it stands isn't out of the question. Already the deal includes terms that the Bush administration has been dragged kicking and screaming into accepting -- most importantly, a promise to leave Iraq entirely by 2011 at the latest, which is a reversal of everything Bush has ever said about "timetables" for withdrawal.

What happened? Most importantly, the administration again miscalculated the depth of Iraqi hostility to the occupation. It especially miscalculated the degree of pressure placed on Iraqi leaders from their people not to sign away the country's independence, especially with provincial elections looming next year.

I would also add that the Bush administration miscalculated what Maliki himself likely views as his top priorities, his dependence on US forces and our leverage over him. As Reidar Visser notes:

Maliki knows about the forces of Iraqi nationalism and has always known that at some point the popular pressure towards withdrawal of foreign forces will force him to stand on his own feet. Hence, his calculation has probably been to maximise his benefits as a strongman ruler in the window that is available to him...The timeline for the full withdrawal – the end of 2011 – seems almost perfect from Maliki’s point of view, as he can use that period to exploit the American presence as much as possible before the nationalist pressures become unbearable. Clues to his motives may be found explicitly in the text of the agreement: the United States undertakes to deliver “cooperation in carrying out operations against al-Qaida, other terror groups and outlawed groups, including remnants of the former regime” and “bolstering the security capabilities of Iraq” – in other word, to make Maliki a very strong ruler and to help him sideline his political adversaries.

In short, the democratic process in Iraq, and our putative dedication to it, is making it almost impossible to pursue the two prized items on the neoconservative/neo-colonial agenda: enduring military bases and sweetheart oil deals. Sigh. Empires aren't what they used to be, when conquest could be sold to the masses without concealing the ugliness of the endeavor under all that democratic wrapping paper.

Should be interesting to observe how our neoconservative champions of freedom and democracy react to the Maliki government's increasing independence and freer exercise of sovereignty. No doubt it is one condition they will consider.

[UPDATE: Matt Duss has more]

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