Monday, December 13, 2004

Why Realism isn't a Realistic Option

Courtesy of Across the Bay, comes this article by Michael Young from the libertarian magazine Reason. As Young points out, the "realists" have been at the forefront of opposition to the invasion of Iraq, and the Bush doctrine of fostering the growth of democracy in the Middle East. The most prominent "realist" critic is Brent Scowcroft, National Security Advisor for President George H.W. Bush:

As a reporter from the New York Observer put it after interviewing Scowcroft last summer: "Most of all, Mr. Scowcroft reiterated his skepticism about the prospects for gunship democracy in the Middle East—outlining the kind of realism for which George W. Bush's father was known around the world."

In a phrase abounding with Hobbesian skepticism, Scowcroft said: "It's not that I don't believe Iraq is capable of democracy. But the notion that within every human being beats this primeval instinct for democracy has not ever been demonstrated to me."

As Young notes, Scowcroft and company advocate an immediate restart of the Israeli-Palestinian "peace process", "engaging" with the Iranian regime, looking for the first available exit from Iraq, and abandoning the neocon silliness about fostering free societies in the Middle East. The realist program, in short, is to return as far as possible to the pre-9/11 state of affairs.

For realists such as Scowcroft, the main goal of foreign policy is to preserve international stability. Threats are to be managed and contained, not eliminated. The realist prescription for the Middle East is to do everything possible to maintain the status quo. Dramatic change is to be avoided. Seeking to transform the political culture of the Arab world, as the Bush administration has done, is a fool's errand that will only bring instability that threatens America's interests. This quest for stability was the driving principle behind American foreign policy in the Middle East until 9/11.

In light of the current situation in Iraq, where we have lost over 1100 lives in a messy, difficult counterinsurgency war, it is tempting to believe that returning to the realist approach is the best option. However, when you look at the actual record of the realists concerning the Middle East during the 1980's and 1990's, the desire for nostalgia wanes substantially.

It was the realists who led the United States to assist Saddam Hussein during his war with Khomeini's Iran during the 1980's. Contrary to leftist assertions, such assistance was a drop in the bucket compared to what the Iraqi dictator received from the USSR and France. More problematic were the attitudes behind this assistance. For realists such as Scowcroft, Saddam was an "Arab DeGaulle", someone we could do business with, a force for regional stability. As a result, America shamefully turned a blind eye to Saddam's horrific atrocities, such as the gassing of the Kurds, and failed to take seriously his threats against Kuwait.

Unfortunately, the First Gulf War had no effect on the realists. At the end of that conflict, in one of the most disgraceful episodes in the history of American foreign policy, the first President Bush called for the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam, then stood by and did nothing while the Iraqi tyrant massacred tens of thousands of Shia and Kurds. For Scowcroft and the other realists in the Bush 41 White House, the last thing they wanted was a popular uprising against the Baathist regime. Instead, they hoped for a nice, neat coup in which a somewhat more respectable Sunni strongman would take power and preserve Iraq as a force for "stability" in the region. Failing such an event, Saddam would be left alone, "contained" by economic sanctions and the threat of American force.

It was this decision, more than any other, that started America down the road to 9/11. In order to contain Saddam, American forces had to be stationed in Saudi Arabia on an indefinite basis, thus providing Osama bin Laden with his primary justification for declaring war on the US in August 1996. The suffering of Iraqis under sanctions, which were both exaggerated and exacerbated by the Baathist regime, also helped fuel anti-American sentiments in the Muslim world. The same Arab regimes that Washington protected in the name of stability allowed their media to produce a ceaseless flow of vile anti-American propaganda. As a result of these developments, according to the 9/11 Commission Report as many as 20,000 jihadists were motivated to attend al-Qaeda's training camps in Afghanistan from 1996-2001. Planning for the 9/11 operation itself began in 1999. It should be noted that most of this period was one of relative calm between Israel and the Palestinians.

At the same time, Saddam soon turned containment to his own advantage. Just by surviving the Gulf War, Saddam was able to claim victory over the US. His regime became one of the major sources of anti-American incitement in the region, even broadcasting Wahhabi sermons at the behest of Osama bin Laden. By exploiting the UN Oil-for-Food program, the Iraqi regime was able to rake in over $21 billion in illegal revenues. It is safe to say that little if any of this money went to alleviate the suffering of the Iraqi people. Charles Duelfer recently testified before Congress that the budget of Iraq's Military Industrial Commission increased from $7.8 million in 1998 to $500 million in 2003. Some of this money was also used to fund Palestinian suicide terrorism against Israel. Despite not having stockpiles of WMD, Saddam remained a destabilizing force in the Middle East.

During the 1991-2003 period, Baathist Iraq ceased to be the bastion of secularism it is so often portrayed as, and became an open sponsor and promoter of Sunni Islamism, both within Iraq and throughout the Middle East. Saddam's number two man, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, is himself a committed Islamist and played a prominent role in the regime's "Islamization" campaign. Thanks to the impact of sanctions and this indoctrination, as Thomas Friedman has noted, the Iraq we found in 2003 was a far different place than it was in 1991:

You know all those masked Iraqi youth you see in the Al Jazeera videos, brandishing weapons and standing over some foreigner whose head they are about saw off? They are the product of the last decade of Saddamism and sanctions. Those youth were 10 years old when the U.N. sanctions began. They are the mushrooms that Saddam and the sanctions were growing in the dark. The Bush team had no clue they were there.

These deracinated, unemployed, humiliated Sunni Iraqi youth are our biggest problem today. Some clearly have become suicide bombers. We can't say what percentage, because, unlike the Palestinians, the Iraqi suicide bombers don't even bother to tell us their names or do a farewell video for mom. They not only are ready to commit suicide on demand, but they are ready to do it anonymously. That bespeaks a very high level of commitment or psychosis, or both.

We are currently dealing with the consequences of the creeping Wahhabization of Sunni Iraq, in the form of the Baathist/Islamist insurgency. Had we not invaded, we would have been confronted with those consequences under even more dangerous circumstances in the future.

9/11 was the price of realism. All of the major problems we currently face in the Middle East were allowed to fester and grow during the period when realists such as Scowcroft ran American foreign policy. While the Reagan, Bush 41, and Clinton Administrations pursued the chimera of stability, jihadist terrorism, Islamist fanaticism, and deep seated anti-Americanism all developed into the dangerous challenges we face today. Decisions made in the interests of preserving regional stability, such as not overthrowing Saddam in 1991, only added to the growing undercurrent of instability.

The old order in the Middle East, with its brutal dictatorships and corrupt autocracies, cannot last. If we do nothing, the forces of fanaticism that produced 9/11 will continue to grow. Only by transforming the political culture of the region towards democracy and pluralism can we end the underlying conditions that fuel the jihadists. As the realists correctly point out, this will be neither cheap nor easy. If we do not change the politics of the Middle East, however, bin Laden and Zarqawi certainly will. Realism is simply no longer a realistic option.


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