The Iraq post It

September 24, 2003

The Iraq post

It seems like everyone who aspires to be anyone in the blogging world has written about Iraq. I thought I had too, but it does not appear to be in my archives. I suspect that I talked about it with my modern US class this spring but never wrote down my thoughts. So, here we go.

The problem with the current debate about Iraq is that it focuses on the wrong things. Pro-war folks harp on how evil Saddam Hussein's government was or assert that there was a tie to Al-Queda. Anti-war folks harp on the superficial proofs offered by the Bush administration as justification for the invasion. The real question is not about the start of the war, it is about the future of the peace.

Over the winter and early spring it was very obvious that the Bush team was pushing for a confrontation with Saddam Hussein and Iraq. It was not obvious why they were doing so, why they suddenly chose to care that Hussein was obstructing UN resolutions.

No one who follows the news, the real news and not the Fox propaganda machine, believes that Iraq had meaningful contact with Al Queda before September 11. Hussein had a lot of contact with Palestinian suicide bombers and anti-Israeli terrorism, but a Stalinist regime that came to power on secular pan-Arabism, embraced modernism and secular society, and systematically repressed most Shiite and many Sunni Muslims had nothing in common with a violent offshoot of Wahabi Sunni Islam that was trying to provoke an East-West conflict in order to inspire religious unity. That dog won't hunt.

The best argument for why the Bush team was pushing for conflict was expressed in a series of backdoor interviews and organized leaks. The official underground line was that the Bushies were convinced that if they overthrew Hussein and created a democratic regime in the Middle East they would get rid of both mechanical and structural threats to the United States in the future. Bush was, according to interviews, convinced that Iraq was working on an atom bomb, working on a delivery mechanism, and within five years of being able to ship a bomb into the United States in a cargo container. He saw this as a clear and future danger to the safety of the nation, and chose to act. The broader, structural, approach was supported by Wolfowitz and others and hinged on creating a viable democracy in the Middle East.

The logic was that toppling Hussein and creating a democratic society would both deter other strong men from supporting international terrorism and, by giving power to Arab people, show the desperate poor folks who people the fundamentalist mosques that they could change the world by secular means. The first is simple threat theory. The second hinges on the commonly made observation that, in Algeria and Egypt and Iran, people turned to radical Islam because a strong armed state had shut down all other modes of political action and social protest. With no jobs, no technical education, no political voice and no future, the theory goes, they went through the mosques and into the streets.

So, by creating a viable democracy in Iraq the United States would short circuit fundamentalism's core appeal and also provide an alternative to the strong men and martial law governments that dominate the Middle East. The whole thing hinged on the contagion of liberty, the notion that once Arabs saw political freedom and the concomitant economic opportunity in one nation that they would push for it in other countries. A stable, prosperous, democratic Iraq would thus start Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia on the route towards democratic capitalism and a free society.

Finally, the pre-war spin story went, the United States could not make these goals the outward face of its policy in the region. To do so would rub the Saudi princes' noses in the way that the United States held that their closed society was a bad thing. Unsaid was that there is no basis in international law for an intervention in one country in order to influence political activities in other, neighboring countries. So, the Bush team produced a thin cover story hinging on weapons of mass destruction and hints of an Al Queda link.

The Anti-Bush crowd has been focusing on the thinness of the official cover story, parsing the claims about yellowcake, parsing the way that Bush's prose implied that there was a link between Iraq and Al Queda without ever stating that link, and otherwise bogging down in the mechanics of the big lie.

I think they are missing the point.

Lets take the Bush team at their implied pre-war word. Lets assume that the long-term goal of the war is indeed to create a vibrant democracy on the banks of the Euphrates. Lets pass on the questions of international law, wrap ourselves in the UN resolutions, and deny our political goals even as we work to fulfil them. How then should we judge policy in Iraq and how then should we suggest alternatives.

For the record, I said pre-war and I say again now, that this is a high-risk strategy, that if it works it will work wonderfully, and that I hope that it does work. I do believe in the contagion of liberty, it has worked in the past and it will work in the future. The long term goals are positive despite the cynical way that they were implemented.

But are the policies currently being pursued on the ground in Iraq working to further and achieve those democratic goals? There I just do not know the answer. The news I see is fragmented and politicized. I have seen a number of accounts of Iraqis welcoming American troops, of setting up new local institutions, there are now hundreds of newspapers where once there were only a few state-run newspapers. So some of the infrastructure of a democratic society is beginning to appear. Iraq was one of the more secular states in the Middle East and it was also one of the more entrepreneurial. There are a few early signs that Iraq might well become a powerhouse.

There is also bad news - not just the continuing guerilla attacks in the middle of the country. Those are bound to continue as long as a few people are willing to organize them and the bulk of the Iraqi people is not willing to shame and condemn them. Beyond that, it appears that the war planning staff forgot to plan for peace - a damning indictment of the whole idea that the subtext of the war was building a democratic society. Many of the rebuilding contracts have been let on a no-bid basis to a firm with close ties to the administration, and other firms tied to the government have also been getting a lion's share of the work. This looks bad, it not only breaks the rule about Caesar's wife, it looks like the worst sort of government looting from the glory days of Tammany Hall and machine politics. When will we learn that a plaster contractor billed $200,000 a room to refinish the new City Hall?

If I were giving advice to Democratic strategists, it would be to focus on the implementation of the post-war policy in Iraq. Argue from administrative competence, argue against good-ole-boy contracting, argue against people who over commit the nation without a plan, and make SURE that you have a plan yourself. We can't un-make the decision to go to war. All we can do is work hard to make sure that the lasting peace is in the interest of the nation, the ENTIRE nation, and that won't happen until we create a postwar settlement in Iraq where most Iraqis themselves feel that they are better off in a democratic society with voluntary religion and a vibrant economy.

Posted by Red Ted at September 24, 2003 12:03 PM | TrackBack