Monday, October 29, 2007

Lesson From Iraq: Difficulty is No Cause for Hypercaution

Former Bush administration speechwriter Michael Gerson has a new column up at Newsweek on the lessons to be learned from Iraq. In the opening paragraph he states an obvious point: Regime change is difficult. But he makes a more substantial argument with his case against excessive caution:

There is also danger in learning the wrong lessons from Iraq—or in overlearning the lessons of caution. Some claim the American project in Iraq was doomed from the beginning, because Iraqis and Arabs more broadly are culturally incapable of sustaining democracy. That is a familiar historical charge, made in other periods, against Catholics in Southern Europe, Hindus and Muslims in India, Eastern Orthodox in Eastern Europe, and Confucian cultures across Asia. All of these groups experienced difficult days in their democratic transitions—moments when the skeptics seemed to be vindicated. Did Indian democracy look to be successful when more than a million people died by violence during the partition process in the later 1940s? But in all of these cases, betting against the advance of democracy was a poor wager.

It may be possible that the Arab world is the great exception to this trend of history; but if so, Iraq does not prove it. Americans who first entered Iraq did not report an inevitable sectarian conflict. To the contrary, the Shia were remarkably patient during the first two years after the liberation. Iraqis of every background, including most Sunnis, were pleased that Saddam was gone and were generally inclined to withhold judgment about the occupation. There was little resentment at the size of the occupation force, and great hope that the arrival of the Americans would improve the lives of the Iraqi people. Nor were the successive elections an illusion. They were real achievements. Iraqis voted under considerable threat, in percentages greater than do Western democracies—advances that should not be forgotten or denigrated.

Given these events, an imperious contempt for the Shia—a belief that barbarians will always be barbarians—is neither fair nor helpful. Iraqi patience and goodwill were not lacking; rather, they were squandered when the Coalition failed to provide security and basic services. Sectarian conflict was not preordained—it intensified when many of the Shia lost confidence in the ability of the Coalition and Iraqi army to defend them and turned for protection and revenge to militias and death squads. Iraq does not demonstrate that democracy is impossible in the Arab world; it demonstrates that founding a new democracy is difficult in a nation overrun by militias and insurgents.

This is not to say that support for democracy in the Arab world always requires immediate elections. Such elections in Saudi Arabia, for example, would likely result in a government more oppressive and dangerous than the current one. But in Iraq there was no alternative to elections. After the invasion and liberation—undertaken, it bears repeating, primarily for reasons of national security—the president was not about to install a potential Shia dictator in place of the old Sunni dictator. That kind of cynical power game would likely have facilitated a massive Shia retribution and perhaps even genocide against the Sunnis. Democracy is necessary in Iraq precisely because it is the only political system that eventually can tame sectarian tensions, giving the Shia majority the influence it deserves, while guaranteeing the rights and representation of the Sunni minority.

But democracy in Iraq certainly has enemies—jihadists, Baathist holdouts, and religious militias—who happen to be some of the worst criminals on the global stage. We have been led by history to a simple choice: do we stand with the flawed democrats of Iraq, or abandon them to overthrow and death? Some foreign-policy realists argue that such considerations of honor mean little in international affairs. But this national commitment is more than a matter of chivalry. If America abandons Muslim leaders and soldiers who are risking their lives to fight Islamic radicalism and terror—in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere—the War on Terror cannot be won.

Another false lesson is found in the assertion that the Iraq War has actually been creating the terrorist threat we seek to fight—stirring up a hornet's nest of understandable grievances in the Arab world. In fact, radical Islamist networks have never lacked for historical provocations. When Osama bin Laden proclaimed his 1998 fatwa justifying the murder of Americans, he used the excuse of President Clinton's sanctions and air strikes against Iraq—what he called a policy of "continuing aggression against the Iraqi people." He talked of the "devastation" caused by "horrible massacres" of the 1991 Gulf War. All this took place before the invasion of Iraq was even contemplated—and it was enough to result in the murder of nearly three thousand Americans on 9/11. Islamic radicals will seize on any excuse in their campaign of recruitment and incitement. If it were not Iraq, it would be the latest "crime" of Israel, or the situation in East Timor, or cartoons in a Dutch newspaper, or statements by the pope. The well of outrage is bottomless. The list of demands—from the overthrow of moderate Arab governments to the reconquest of Spain—is endless.

America is not responsible for the existence of Islamist ideology. Yet the shifting prospect of American success or failure in the Iraq War does have an effect on the recruitment of radicals. All "pan movements"—political ideologies that claim historical inevitability—expand or contract based on morale. Bin Laden talks of how the Arab world is attracted to the "strong horse"—the victor, the evident winner—and there is truth in that claim. In an ideological struggle, perception matters greatly, and outcomes matter most. Israel's perceived defeat in Lebanon in 1982 helped produce a generation of terrorists, convinced that armed struggle could humble their enemy. If America were really to retreat in humiliation from Iraq, Islamist radicals would trumpet their victory from North Africa to the islands of the Philippines … increase their recruitment of the angry and misguided … and expand the size and boldness of their attacks.

Perhaps the most dangerous and self-destructive lesson that might be drawn from Iraq is a hyper-caution indistinguishable from paralysis. In a backlash to the Iraq War, some Democrats seem to argue that any future American action or intervention will require both certainty as to the validity of our intelligence and international unanimity. The evidence on weapons of mass destruction must always be conclusive, or else it must always be mocked and dismissed. The United Nations must always grant its blessing and legitimacy. Were America to accept these ground rules, we would become a spectator in world events. The demand for intelligence certainty would allow flickering threats to become raging fires before any action were taken to extinguish them. The demand for international unanimity would make interventions to prevent genocide or ethnic cleansing nearly impossible. America acted in the former Yugoslavia under President Clinton without U.N. support, and may need to do the same in other places in the future. At some point, caution becomes demoralization, and humility becomes humiliation.
That's most of his piece, actually. His new book, from which this excerpt is drawn, might be worth a good look as well.