Monday, January 24, 2005

A Leap in the Dark

Ruel Marc Gerecht's book The Islamic Paradox (hat tip: reader DL) argues that America must nerve itself to spreading democracy in the Islamic world even though it will probably result in the emergence of anti-American governments largely hostile to Israel.

... the march of democracy in the Middle East is likely to be very anti-American. Decades of American support to Middle Eastern dictators helped create bin Ladenism. Popular anger at Washington’s past actions may not fade quickly, even if the United States were to switch sides and defend openly all the parties calling for representative government. Nationalism and fundamentalism, two complementary forces throughout most of the Middle East, will likely pump up popular patriotism. Such feelings always have a sharp anti-Western edge to them. That is what Professor Lewis called “the clash of civilizations.”64 Fourteen hundred years of tense, competitive history is not easily overcome, but this antagonism can diminish.

Gerecht's book is a fascinating look at the evolution of American political policy in Iraq, centering on the CPA's slow discovery that Westernized intellectuals -- the sort policymakers and the press love -- represented nothing in the way of popular sentiment. He recounts how attempts to create a new Iraqi democratic framework based on caucuses foundered on the rock of Islamic structures, which -- and this is the crux of his argument -- had been slowly becoming democratic themselves in reaction to Middle Eastern dictatorships. Nothing short of elections at which the various Islamic structures could run as political parties would do. The result was that the while the January 30 Iraqi elections became the genuine goal of the majority of the people of Iraq, the form of government which it is likely to produce may bear little resemblance to previous conceptions of democracy.

Gerecht relentlessly points out how Khomeini's Iran eventually became the most pro-American country in the region, free of the anti-Americanism of Cairo simply because the Iranians were left to discover for themselves that the 'Koran did not hold all the answers'; at least, not to fixing potholes or delivering electricity. He constrasts it to the elder Bush's decision to support the military junta in Algeria against fundamentalist Islamists, who would by now be discredited or just another party had they been allowed to take over the reins of government. "Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East Edward Djerejian’s famous defense of the first Bush administration’s fear of Islamic extremism -- 'one man, one vote, one time'-- defined clearly Washington’s discomfort with the possibility that free elections could empower Muslim fundamentalists, who could be zealously anti-American and ultimately antidemocratic." That was a mistake, he believes, which George W. Bush is unlikely to repeat. Written before the November elections, the book's main concern was that a Kerry victory would result in a 'quick withdrawal strategy'; a return to the traditional preference for short-term 'stability' over a long-term commitment to democracy.

Only a quick-withdrawal policy advanced by a determined Kerry administration, admittedly a possibility given Senator Kerry’s deep-rooted Vietnam-era sensibilities, could shatter American perseverance. But Kerry would run against the 9/11 understanding widely held, if not publicly confessed to, by many of the Clintonites who would staff his administration. They know that running from Iraq—by declaring a victory over Saddam Hussein and getting out—would be seen throughout the Muslim Middle East as an enormous defeat for the United States. Bin Ladenism, which psychologically kicked into high gear after President Clinton’s “Black Hawk Down” retreat from Somalia, could be supercharged by a rapid American departure.

Although Gerecht doesn't say directly, the key factor which enables America to confidently face democratic regimes of all sorts, even the kinds that are anti-American, is the availablity of raw power, the kind which permits it to deal with skeptical and even hostile Shi'ite clerics in Iraq today. The kind of power that became available once the Soviet Union had rotted away, plus the will in Washington to exercise it. That power, plus the natural divisions in the Islamic world, has made America simply too big not to deal with.

"We need the Americans, but the Americans need us. Democracy in the Middle East will not be possible without us," quietly intoned Sayyid Ali al-Wa’iz, a senior Shiite cleric of Baghdad’s Kadhimayn shrine, one of the holiest in Iraq. Dressed in white, weak, if not dying, from twenty-three years of detention, the son and grandson of grand ayatollahs, al-Wa’iz smiled softly as he tried to sit up in his bed. "We don’t want to repeat the revolution of 1920 [when Shiite clerics rose against the British occupation]. We want democracy this time and we want the coalition troops to go home safely."

This kind of commitment to the outcomes of  the democratic process, even if they are unwelcome, represents a very considerable risk. Unnoticed in Peggy Noonan's critique of President George W. Bush's Second Inaugural Speech as having 'too much God' was the fact that it invoked a wholly different paradigm from Ronald Reagan's City on a Hill. Bush's peroration did not come from Winthrop, but from the Declaration of Independence. Reagan had asked:

And how stands the city on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure, and happier than it was 8 years ago. But more than that: After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she's still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.

But as the shining city stood, so too would the outer dark continue to enfold it. In Winthrop's original formulation, America was condemned to be a City on a Hill; forced to keep the fires lit against the night. "For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses . . ." On the day the light failed, other, dark spirits would alight beneath the extinguished torch. But the Declaration of Independence contained a new element; the suggestion that the flame could not be contained, because all men could be kindled by it. Logically it was the flame, not the torch of liberty, that was invincible; that once released could not be restrained. The light would go to the nations, until the darkness was no more. It was an altogether more dangerous proposition. There were hints in Bush's Second Inaugural Speech that he understood or at least had thought about the sheer hazard of it.

Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen, and defended by citizens, and sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities. And when the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own. America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way. ...

... Some, I know, have questioned the global appeal of liberty though this time in history, four decades defined by the swiftest advance of freedom ever seen, is an odd time for doubt. Americans, of all people, should never be surprised by the power of our ideals. Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul. We do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny because we do not accept the possibility of permanent slavery. Liberty will come to those who love it.

... We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom. Not because history runs on the wheels of inevitability; it is human choices that move events. Not because we consider ourselves a chosen nation; God moves and chooses as He wills. We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul. When our Founders declared a new order of the ages; when soldiers died in wave upon wave for a union based on liberty; when citizens marched in peaceful outrage under the banner "Freedom Now" they were acting on an ancient hope that is meant to be fulfilled. History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the author of Liberty.

When the Declaration of Independence was first read in public and the Liberty Bell was sounded in celebration, a witness said, "It rang as if it meant something." In our time it means something still. America, in this young century, proclaims liberty throughout all the world, and to all the inhabitants thereof. Renewed in our strength tested, but not weary we are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom.

Actual foreign policy is unlikely to be formed in such absolutist terms. The usual considerations of national security and commercial gain will probably play a large part in concrete decision making. But unless the 'proclamation of liberty throughout all the world' is wholly rhetorical, it undoubtedly represents a step into uncharted paths.


Interested readers may want to read this closely related piece by Victor Davis Hanson in Commentary Magazine entitled Has Iraq Weakened Us?  Hanson argues that Iraq has opened up new strategic opportunities. (Hat tip: Powerline)

There are lessons here for those who claim that American flexibility has become increasingly constricted and American choices all but foreclosed. In fact, as Iraq comes slowly under control, the opposite prognosis is at least as likely to be the case. Precisely because of proven American resolve in Iraq, the United States now commands both military and diplomatic options -- well short of another Iraq-style invasion -- that were not at its disposal previously. ...

The U.S. might, to begin with, pressure the UN Security Council to go beyond its recent call for Syria to end its occupation of Lebanon by demanding internationally supervised elections, to follow immediately upon the departure of the Baathists. ... Other equally bold diplomatic initiatives could be undertaken, their credibility similarly enhanced by the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. For example, the present Middle-East-aid policy of the United States is a relic both of the cold war (pump oil and keep out Communists) and the 1979 Camp David agreements (subsidize Egypt). Such short-term measures, carrying the odor of entreaty if not of bribery, hardly reflect our current aim of promoting consensual government. With both Saddam and the Soviets gone, granting weapons and money to the regime in Cairo—nearly $50 billion since 1979—is becoming counterproductive. What advantages the United States receives in “moderation” is overshadowed by the venomous anti-Americanism that is the daily fare of millions of Egyptians, whipped up and manipulated by state-sponsored clerics and media.

One may argue that VDH is making a virtue out of a necessity, that however one slices it, a commitment in Iraq soaks up troops that prevent deployments elsewhere. Chester explores this issue at length in a comprehensive review of Mark Helprin's growing criticism that the Bush Administration has not fully mobilized America's military resources to provide it with the margin of strength necessary to pursue its strategic goals. Chester calls it a 'conservative critique of the war'. An excerpt from Helprin says:

From the beginning, the scale of the war was based on the fundamental strategic misconception that the primary objective was Iraq rather than the imagination of the Arab World, which, if sufficiently stunned, would tip itself back into the heretofore easily induced fatalism that makes it hesitate to war against the West. After the true shock and awe of a campaign of massive surplus, as in the Gulf War, no regime would have risked its survival by failing to go after the terrorists within its purview. But a campaign of bare sufficiency, that had trouble punching through even ragtag irregulars, taught the Arabs that we could be effectively opposed.

But Helprin's accusation that the Bush strategy suffers from the "fundamental strategic misconception that the primary objective was Iraq rather than the imagination of the Arab World" is immediately denied -- I will not say refuted -- by Gerecht, who sees the emergence of an Arab and democratic Shi'ite-dominated state as a fundamental shift in the political foundations of the entire region, if not to very currents of Islam itself. While Helprin may well be right about US defense being underfunded, it is at least worth considering whether the approach of establishing a democratic process in Iraq is not at least as strategically imaginative as the implied alternative of serially conquering of Syria and Iran; or at least threatening to.

It seems clear at least, that Abu Musab "Z-Man" Zarqawi considers the elections an existential threat, which he would not have done had they been an irrelevancy and a dead end. Austin Bay writes:

Z-Man’s been suckered. Z-Man is the troops’ nickname for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Al Qaeda’s jefe in Iraq. Z-Man has declared a “fierce war” on democracy. Z’s taken Bush’s bait -- except the President's “bait” of promoting democracy and declaring war on tyranny and 0ppression isn’t mere bait, it’s essential American values. ...

The media and blogosphere have been focusing on the philosophical and theoretical elements of Bush’s speech and America’s “democracy on the offensive” strategy. But the strategy seeks to address a very concrete issue: “technological compression.” Technological compression is a fact of 21st century existence–and it is the superglue bonding American foreign policy idealism and foreign policy pragmatism. I think my Weekly Standard article of January 3, 2005 frames it accurately: “Technology has compressed the planet, with positive effects in communication, trade, and transportation; with horrifyingly negative effects in weaponry. Decades ago, radio, phone cables on the seabed, long-range aircraft, and then nuclear weapons shrunk the oceans. September 11 demonstrated that religious killers could turn domestic jumbo jets into strategic bombers -- and the oceans were no obstacles. “Technological compression” is a fact; it cannot be reversed. To deny it or ignore it has deadly consequences.”

And it is because technology has compressed the planet that events in Iraq escape the bounds of locality and have a bearing on the entire region. Clearly, the debate over the grand strategy in Iraq is far from settled, but there are no arrogant ignoramuses on either side.

(Trivia. The word "Z-Man" is a relic from a 1960s movie entitled Beyond the Valley of the Dolls written by none other than the Roger Ebert. The age of the movie is given away by the fact that Z-Man is terrifyingly revealed to be a transvestite before the final scene, a development which would have earned Ebert condemnation from the European Union or some such today.)