1 September 2010
The Drum Unleashed (ABC online)
By Tom Switzer
In recent days, several high-profile neo-conservatives and backers of the Iraq war have indulged in some triumphalism.
David Brooks, writing in the New York Times, points to several key statistics - economic growth, basic security, and political and legal institutions - to show that "nation building works".
Paul Wolfowitz, a key architect of the 2003 invasion, says that Iraq could become the South Korea of the Middle East so long as the United States maintains a long-term commitment. Numerous US Republican activists, meanwhile, call on anti-war critics to "Apologise to Bush".
I beg to differ. Certainly, Iraq is in a much better position today than anyone had the right to expect several years ago. Since President George W Bush's decision to increase US combat troops in early 2007, the level of violence and deaths has dramatically declined and local politics has embraced the exhilarating, albeit complicated, quality of a functioning democracy. All true.
But none of this means that Iraq will necessarily become a viable democratic state once Uncle Sam's boot leaves the ground later next year. Will, for instance, those age-old ethnic and tribal tensions resurface?
Nor does the recent progress on the ground justify the original decision to invade Iraq seven and a half years ago. It certainly does not justify all the costs in terms of blood (more than 4,500 coalition deaths and scores of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths) and treasure (trillion US dollars and counting).
But the Iraq experience has produced one good thing, something that many Australians will appreciate: it has shattered three dangerous neo-conservative illusions that have warped US policy in the post-9/11 era. In international relations, the destruction of illusion is almost always healthy and although it has taken a huge cost in American blood, treasure and prestige, it is to be hoped that Washington will learn from recent experience, correct its course and adopt a world view more in accordance with a realist world view.
Now I've given up on the many times I myself have been derided as a "neo-con", especially on this site. It is a crude slur to apply on anyone who happens to be on the right of the political and ideological spectrum. But neo-conservativism has a peculiar intellectual linkage to hawkish liberal Democrats who fell out with George McGovern's isolationism as well as Kissingerian realpolitik in the 1970s; and I am not one of them.
Instead, I would describe myself as a conservative realist in the tradition of Hans Morgenthau, Brent Scowcroft and former ABC Boyer lecturer Owen Harries. I certainly have no problem with America throwing its weight around the world in the service of promoting its national interests and preserving the balance of power. But I decry the tendency of US policy to be idealistic. And the problem with US policy during the Bush years was precisely that: by seeking unlimited moralistic goals in place of specific limited national interests, Washington inflamed domestic opinion with appeals to utopian goals and had ignored the coasts of achieving them. All too often, Bush foreign policy was formed by several neo-conservative illusions, which thankfully have been shattered thanks to the Iraq experience.
The first of these illusions is the belief that preventive war was justified to combat rogue states. After the 9/11 attacks, it was confidently predicted that the twin pillars of national security policy during the Cold War - containment and deterrence - no longer worked against the Saddam Husseins of the world. As Bush said in 2002 (replayed with devastating effect in Oliver Stone's movie W): "After September 11, the doctrine of containment just doesn't hold any water as far as I'm concerned."
Today, it is clear that containment still has relevance. There is every reason to believe that any threat posed by Saddam, a cynical calculator whose overriding concern was consolidating power, not exporting martyrdom, could have been contained as it had been since the 1991 Gulf War. True, containment does not work against terrorists, who can run and hide, but rogue states do have a return address. Saddam knew if he smuggled weapons of mass destruction to Al-Qaeda or used banned weapons against US interests, his regime would have met, as Rice put it in another realist) life in 2000, "national obliteration" from the US nuclear arsenal.
Yet for preventive war advocates, containment meant, as The Weekly Standard's neo-conservative editors warned, coddling a "suicidal tyrant". Never mind that containment (sanctions, naval blockade, no-fly zone) kept that suicidal tyrant in his box for more than a decade. And never mind that although a strategy of containment lacked the ideological red meat the American people crave, it recognised the dangers of the unintended consequences a "liberated" Iraq delivered, especially in the immediate aftermath of Saddam's downfall: a power vacuum which culminated in widespread chaos, a vicious insurgency, and a strengthened shia Iran.
As Obama faces the challenge of dealing with a nuclear-bound Tehran or Pyongyang, he should recall the lesson that Bush and the neo-cons forgot: that if Stalin's Soviet Union and Mao's China could be contained, so can Iran's mullahs and North Korea's communists.
The second neo-con illusion is the belief that democracy is an export commodity. This noble but misguided idea was an article of faith not only among the neo-conservatives in and out of the Bush administration but also among the anti-McGovern liberal wing of the Democratic Party. None of this was surprising - such idealistic instincts are as old as the republic itself. In the post-9/11 context, neo-cons and liberal hawks were adamant that problems abroad stemmed from the authoritarian nature of foreign governments, that the new era heralded an Arab spring, that the time was ripe for the political transformation of the whole region and that history was on the side of good over evil. The examples of post-fascist Japan and West Germany, the argument went, could be replicated in the Middle East.
But the conditions and circumstances in post-war Iraq have been hardly conducive to the kind of dramatic social and political change that worked so well in US client states after World War II. For one thing, Japan and West Germany were genuine, coherent nation states with homogeneous cultures, whereas Iraq is an arbitrarily-created state with deep ethnic and tribal divisions. For another thing, Japan and West Germany had already modernised and had a history, albeit a blighted one, of parliamentary government on which the US-led occupation forces could build. Iraq is still in the process of modernising and, notwithstanding some of the progress that David Brooks identifies here, is open to all the disturbing ideological and sectarian forces that this process unleashes.
Although the US had long championed the idea of promoting democracy across the world, the Bush policy of regime change nonetheless marked a radical departure from established norms. In the immediate aftermath of Saddam's downfall in April 2003, Bush and the neo-cons threatened that they could use military power to topple authoritarian regimes in Syria and Iran and eventually reshape the Middle East along democratic lines. This was to be social engineering on a massive scale. To call this position conservative was a misnomer; it was a radical, grandiose agenda, and true conservatives as George Bush and John Howard should have known should always be conscious that radical change can lead to loss as well as gain and is fraught with the danger of unintended consequences.
The third illusion that guided neo-con policy was the Pax Americana or, as leading neo-conservative figures Bob Kagan and Bill Kristol once coined, "benign hegemony". This belief was engaged by neo-cons as well as liberal hawks following the collapse of the Soviet Empire and it gained more acclaim in the aftermath of 9/11. Even the words imperialism and empire, usually terms of abuse in American public discourse, were wholeheartedly embraced by many influential thinkers on the Washington think-tank circuit.
But the idea of a heavy-handed policy to remake the world in America's image was bound to generate widespread resentment, hostility and concerted political opposition. Such a scenario was evident in early 2003 when the French-led UN Security Council ganged up to thwart the US-led resolution to invade Iraq. And it has been evident in the way anti-Americanism rose dramatically during the rest of the Bush years. It remains to be seen whether Obama's worldwide popularity translates into more favourable global attitudes towards the American "hyper-power", as a French foreign minister called the US several years before Bush and the neo-conservatives arrived in the White House.
But if the US indiscriminately throws its weight around and treats potential partners with contempt and neglect, such posturing will inevitably galvanise a backlash. This is not a criticism so much of the US; it's more a reflection of the tendencies of power politics. Hegemony always seems like the ideal system to the nation practising it; the very effort to impose it will inspire coalitions to resist it.
None of this means that the collapse of the neo-con illusions presages the collapse of American. The US has consistently demonstrated remarkable ability to bounce back from adversity: think of 1812, the civil war, the Depression, Pearl Harbor, Vietnam and Watergate. It is just that the neo-con illusions that clouded American judgment during the Bush years have been shattered. And this is a good thing for America and the world.
Tom Switzer is a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and a former senior Liberal adviser.