In many ways, the pattern emerging in Iraq closely resembles that in Bosnia where, in election after election, the various groups–Serbs, Croats, and Muslims have each failed to move beyond voting their ethnicity and where, 10 years after the Dayton agreement ended the Bosnian war, an externally-appointed High Representative still exercises ultimate control. Of course, Iraq may or may not fare as Bosnia has, but our experience in that part of the Balkans does provide a warning of the difficulties in creating a national identity and a firmly rooted democracy.
However, let us posit, for the purposes of argument, that the following political consensus emerges: The Iraq experience demonstrates that the exercise of raw American power in a war of choice can not only unseat an unpleasant villain but also provide a region-wide catalyst for a movement toward American-style market democracy in a region thought inhospitable to the democratic impulse. If this turns out to be the dominant analysis, present and past critics will be awkwardly placed, finding themselves in a similar position to those who went to the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s and returned saying that “I have seen the future and it works.” In short, those of us who had opposed the invasion of Iraq will feel like chumps, though we will rightly remind ourselves that the debate over whether to bomb Baghdad was always about means, not ends.
The political implications would be far-reaching if the left were again perceived to have been on the wrong side of an age-defining national security debate, as happened somewhat in defiance of the factual record over the Cold War. This perception might unleash a realignment on the left, perhaps producing a latter-day version of Scoop Jackson, the senator from Washington who, in the 1970s, rallied opinion within the Democratic Party against what he regarded as softness on the Soviet Union and America-hating over Vietnam. Jackson was one of the catalysts of today’s neoconservative movement. This example might repeat itself, with a new generation of disillusioned Democrats defecting to Republican ranks or modes of thought. Advocates of “soft power” and multilateralism would have to slog uphill. Within the right, the implications would also be significant, sounding the final exit from influence of the Cold War’s stability-minded, interest-based realists associated with President George H. W. Bush. On foreign policy, the now-dominant Republican, pro-democracy interventionists may make common cause with their like-minded Democratic counterparts (of whom there are surprisingly large numbers, starting with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright) to form a new consensus between neoliberals and neoconservatives, based around explicit use of American power, including the military option, to assert American values.
Instead of a gradualist, evolution-encouraging approach based on a wide international consensus, the United States might return to a more unilateralist, more revolutionary model not unlike that of the “rollback” days of former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and of the “best and brightest” technocrats whose anticommunist idealism led to the Vietnam War. Around the world, governments who fall short of our values might worry that they could become targets for activist regime change. Those quaking might include not only despots ruling regimes in the Middle East, but also closer-to-home America-taunting nuisances such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. The “Anglosphere” way of doing things would gain in prestige, thus strengthening the hand of, for example, Paul Wolfowitz at the World Bank to emphasize the link between poverty and lack of democracy. Empire–albeit dressed in some alluring disguise to do with “good governance”–would be back in business.
Whether any of this comes about lies in the laps of the gods. In May 2003, we went through the temporary exhilaration of “Mission Accomplished” only to plunge almost immediately into two of the most disastrous years in recent American foreign endeavors, as the administration’s failure to prepare for administering Iraq became manifest. The ensuing chaos also demonstrated fairly conclusively that the connection between the administration’s policies in Iraq and its actual outcome is one of coincidence rather than intelligent design. In the broader Middle East, there is still a severe risk that the “power to the people” bug introduced by the Iraq intervention will turn the region into a rerun of 1920s Germany, where the seeds of World War II began to incubate, rather than of Eastern Europe in the 1990s. The Saudi rulers, for example, make no secret of their concern that large numbers of their citizens are now receiving a free and highly-practical education in revolutionary insurgency in Iraq. While the administration hopes that Iraq serves as the incubator of Islamic Jeffersons, it is just as possible that they will get a series of Fidels and Ches.
The administration’s approach to Iraq has thus far displayed notable intellectual affinities to the Catholic Church’s liberation theology in 1970s Latin America, particularly in its use of ideology to challenge entrenched incumbents. At that time, of course, the United States was on the other side of the debate, and foreign policy makers in Washington were hugely pleased when Pope John Paul II put an abrupt stop to the uppity priests who were trying to promote popular anti-regime pronunciamentos. In Iraq and throughout the wider Middle East, the whirlwind is still there to be reaped, in Iraq perhaps by the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army and elsewhere by other virulent anti-American forces.
Fortunately, there are signs that the administration realizes this. Although it is not above allowing its lighter-headed advocates to indulge in rhetorical backfilling, wholesale rewriting of history and the drawing of credulity-straining connections (Iraq, the Palestinians, Lebanon, Syria, Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan; Libya was once on the list but now we are not so sure), top-decision-makers act, for purposes of practical policy, as if they know all this is hogwash. Recently, top decision-makers have adopted a much more measured tone, one that is more in line with classic realism than with neoconservative aspirationalism.
Many of the more passionate advocates of our policies in Iraq are being moved to less influential positions. The president’s recent renewed outreach to our allies, together with the efforts of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have been genuinely effective in producing a more constructive international climate. This more pragmatic approach, if maintained, should provide the best platform for a non-disastrous outcome in the Middle East. It will be a major irony–and a gross indictment of Democratic political fecklessness–if, by repudiating the very policies that were leading to disaster, the administration gets to claim that those policies were right all along. But history and politics are full or ironies. It might just happen.
Jonathan Clarke is co-author most recently of America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order. He is a foreign affairs scholar at the CATO Institute.