Neocons are accused of having started the war in Iraq in order to further the naive and unattainable dream of bringing liberal democracy to the Middle East.
But the Iraq War was actually a multi-determined one—although the Left often seems to focus sequentially on whatever cause they might be critiquing at the time, pretending for the moment it was the only cause of the war, or at least the most important one.
I doubt that the goal of imposing democracy, in and of itself, would ever be considered a justification for war, even by neocons. The reasons for this war that were stated most often and emphatically were (in no particular order) (a) defensive: the idea that Saddam actually had WMDs or was developing them shortly and might give them to terrorists and/or threaten neighbors (b) humanitarian: the repressiveness and extreme cruelty of his regime, including sadistic torture and mass murder on a large scale; and (c) legal: his violations of the terms of the Gulf War armistice, including his lack of cooperation with UN arms inspections, which also of course ties in with the first reason.
But critics of the war routinely disregard these reasons—or, rather, they cite them only when trying to debunk them (“no WMDs”). They see the “real” impetus behind the war as having been to control that country’s oil (the complaint on the Left) and/or to impose democracy on Iraq (this is a complaint of both the Left and the isolationist wing of the Right, although each group complains for different reasons).
To the isolationists on the Right, neither humanitarian motives nor the goal of making Iraq a democracy would have justified an invasion. Only the idea that Saddam represented a substantial and uncontrolled threat to our security, or that of our allies, would have sufficed.
The Left, however, has traditionally considered that military intervention in other countries can be justified for humanitarian reasons. In fact, humanitarian reasons alone are often considered by the Left as sufficient for such intervention. So, why their objection to overthrowing Saddam?
Saddam’s rule was widely acknowledged as tyrannical and murderous; this fact is really not in dispute. So, to the Left, the invasion should have been overdetermined, not underdetermined; the fact of Saddam’s butchery of his people ought to have been enough. But the Left opposed the war from the start with such vigor that one can only conclude humanitarian considerations and goals were hollow in this case.
So, was it Bush Derangement Syndrome—anything the nefarious Bush does is automatically wrong? Alliance with internationalism and “old Europe,” which had its own reasons for opposing the war (hint: they were not humanitarian)? Or was it the fact that Iraq has strategic importance to the US (unlike, for example, Haiti), and that deposing Saddam could benefit us, making the prospect of doing so a self-interested one as well as a humanitarian one and therefore automatically suspect (only when a war is for purely humanitarian reasons, it seems, does it pass the Left’s muster)?
Or is it the fact that the Left likes to make a big to-do about its humanitarian goals, and yet almost always opposes the possible ways to free a people from an oppressive regime, such as military intervention or other means of forced change, such as assassination? (See this, for example.)
Once the decision was made that it was necessary to remove Saddam, the US faced the question of what its role should be in determining what sort of government might replace him. These were the choices: (a) walk away and let things sort themselves out without US help (likely to result in much bloodshed and a new tyrant of some sort, and perhaps a worse one); (b) in the time-honored realpolitik manner, install a dictator friendly to us who would crack down on the opposition in a Draconian way; or (c) try to help establish a functioning liberal democracy.
The Bush Administration choose (c) as the best of a bad lot (“bad” in the case of (c) only because of its difficulty in execution), and in doing so they made the error of underestimating the murderous forces arrayed against them. But those who criticize the decision are comparing choice (c) to an imaginary ideal alternative that simply did not exist.
What about the alternative of not going to war, and leaving Saddam in power (really, the only remaining one)? If that had happened, no doubt his own carnage and obscene cruelty to his people would have continued—and, on his death, would have gone on under the hands of his murderous sons, schooled almost from birth in sadism and power. And, when sanctions against Saddam were lifted (as they would have been—and fairly quickly, at that), all the evidence indicates that he might indeed have assembled a nuclear and/or chemical arsenal and given it to terrorists to use, or threatened his neighbors with it. These arguments about the probable results of inaction in Iraq are pooh-poohed by the Left, of course, who need to ignore them in order to maintain their own stance.
But why were all the alternatives in Iraq either so bad—or, if desirable (democracy), so very difficult to achieve? Some people are of the opinion that Islam is innately incompatible with democracy. But there are countries in the world (Turkey, for example) in which the two coexist, although somewhat tenuously. And Iraq itself has its own history with democracy: a system of constitutional monarchy somewhat resembling the traditional British one, with a bicameral legislature featuring an appointed branch and an elected branch, and a Constitution. This phase lasted approximately 25 years, from 1925 to the early 1950s, and was toppled in 1958 by a military coup that ended the monarchy and abolished the parliament. That ushered in the current era of dictatorships, culminating in Saddam, who had learned from the errors of previous dictators and consolidated his power through a long-lasting reign of terror.
Yes, Islam and democracy are a not an easy match, but they seem to be a possible one. Another—and perhaps more important reason—it’s been difficult for democracy to gain traction in Iraq is not any inherent and absolute incompatibility, but that fact that a population as traumatized as the people of Iraq have been under decades of Saddam have had their social contract broken. To use a therapy cliché, the country has become dysfunctional, both structurally and psychologically. Saddam unified the nation through force and through fear, warring against all groups who might be his rivals. Thus, the seeds of great anger and the need for payback were sown on the part of the victims, as well as the creation of a climate of distrust, one in which the use of violence had become the standard way of dealing with differences. And this climate had lasted for decades.
Another factor not to be ignored in the difficulty of establishing an Iraqi democracy is the influence of its neighbors such as Iran, who have a vested interest in causing instability in Iraq to spiral, and who see a golden opportunity to create a sphere of influence there.
The difficult task the Bush Administration took on in Iraq was not impossible, in my opinion. But it required a great deal: commitment to a fairly lengthy period of occupation, knowledge of the best way to go about the task in terms of balancing firm guidance with increasing Iraqi autonomy, the effective sealing of the borders, willingness to suffer US casualties that would be far greater than in a quick operation such as the Gulf War, and a US public who understood the long-term need for commitment and sacrifice as well as the possible payoffs of success.
It’s very clear that not all of those necessary elements were in place. Some deficits were the result of errors in judgment or execution in situations that could or should have been anticipated; some were due to the rise of unforeseeable circumstances.
But wars virtually always contain errors and surprises. I remain of the opinion that declaring “failure” in Iraq is premature, and that if the will were there on the part of the American people, Iraq could still—over a period of some years—become a functioning if imperfect democracy, with the ability to defend itself against internal and external threats. But I am not at all convinced that we have this will.
However, I am well aware the task is a difficult one. As far as I know, Iraq is the first time it’s been tried under these exact conditions. Can a nation that has been under the lengthy sway of a brutal and divisive dictator who is then violently overthrown by an outside force, a nation with divisive factions and a weak history of democratic institutions, lacking a strong sense of national identity, be rebuilt as a democracy after a war to depose that dictator? A further question, if the answer is in the affirmative, is what the minimal conditions would be for the success of such a transformation.
We need to know the answers, because it is possible that another set of circumstances might arise in the future–especially in this brave new world of rogue nations and international terrorism—in which we find we have no realistic alternative but to invade another country and try to rebuild it. My guess is that we can and should be far more cautious about doing so next time, both in our threshold for invasion and in the comprehensiveness of the plans we make—that is, that we learn greatly from our mistakes.
But, unfortunately, we may again find ourselves in the regrettable and dangerous situation in which all possible choices we face are very bad—and that the neocon agenda is (to paraphrase Churchill)—the very worst of them, except for all the others (although I will no doubt be labeled “warmonger” for even venturing to say it).
But the truth is that developments in recent years have made it possible, for the first time in history, for rogue nations and/or terrorists—or both in league with each other—to wreak havoc on the West. It used to be that such elements either threatened only their own people, or that the destructive power of their aggressive acts were limited by their own undeveloped technology. But technological advances in weaponry combined with modern communications and ease of travel, as well as an influx of money, have it possible for a small and fiercely angry group to obtain weapons with enormous destructive power, and to deploy them against the West, with the help of rogue nations and leaders who feel their own interests lie in such an attack.
Encouraging the growth of liberal democracy in the region would short-circuit that process, if successful. The big question is, of course, can it be successful, and what are the keys to that success.
Do the Iraqi people themselves want a liberal democracy? The high voting turnout in the elections can be seen as a “yes;” or, if one wants to be cynical, as a strategic effort to grab power for one group against another (of course, this is not incompatible with democracy; peaceful elective power struggles are part and parcel of it).
The evidence is that many Iraqis value liberty, however, even if they have no idea how to effectively combat the forces conspiring to deprive them of it. In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, New York Times journalist John Burns, a reporter who has observed and written about Iraq for many years (and who is certainly no neocon), and who has spoken to a large number of Iraqis, said:
…so yes, I do believe, number one, that most Iraqis still believe that for all of the price they have paid, amidst all of this chaos, that the possibility of a different kind of future for the country that was opened by the arrival of American troops was net an advantage….
And then Burns stated the dilemma in all its complexity, including the fact that we don’t yet know whether the goal of liberal democracy is possible there:
[M]y sense of it is that if [the Iraq reconstruction] fails, that history may say it was mission impossible from the beginning, which is to say that when you remove the carapace of terror that Saddam had imposed on that society, what was revealed underneath it was an extremely fractured society which had never resolved the question of power, political and economic power…[A]n extremely complex, extremely violence-prone society, a society that has proven to be resistant to, not yet ready for, and maybe will not be ready for a very long time, for Jeffersonian democracy of the kind that the United States hopes to install there. We’ll have to see what history’s verdict is, but my sense is that Iraqis still, in the main, are happy at least that Saddam is gone, very unhappy about other things, but happy to see him gone.
Iraq has been a tragic country for a long time. It remains one today. But history has not yet given its final verdict on whether it will continue to remain so indefinitely.