August 27, 2006

Gerson's Straw Men

In a widely quoted recent Newsweek piece, Michael Gerson, a former Bush speechwriter, wrote:

A second point: the promotion of democracy in the Middle East is messy, difficult, but no one has a better idea.

There is no question that democratic societies are more likely to respect human rights, less susceptible to ideological extremism, more respectful of neighboring countries, more easily trusted with nuclear technology.

Yet the democracy agenda is under heavy questioning. Some critics—who might be called soft realists—concede the spread of democracy is desirable. It is just not possible. They argue that democratic governments require democratic cultures, which develop over centuries, and have never developed at all in the Arab Middle East.

Realism, however, is not always identical to pessimism. Arab societies, in fact, have strong traditions of private association, private property and a contractual relationship between ruler and ruled. It is not realism to ignore unprecedented elections in Afghanistan and Iraq and serious reforms elsewhere. The past half century has shown that the cultural obstacles to democracy are less formidable than many predicted, from Roman Catholic Southern Europe to Orthodox Eastern Europe to Confucian Asia. Our times provide strong evidence that liberty improves life and that people in many cultures eventually prefer liberty to slavery. And Americans, of all people, should not be surprised or embarrassed when our deepest beliefs turn out to be true.

Other critics of the democracy agenda—what might be called hard realists—think democracy in the Middle East may be possible, but it is not desirable because elections are likely to bring anti-American radicals like Hamas to power.

It is certainly true that democracy means more than voting. Successful democracies eventually require the rule of law, the protection of minorities, the defeat of corruption, a free press, religious liberty and open economies. Any democracy agenda worthy of the name will promote all these things.

But it is something else to claim that democracy itself is a threat in the Middle East because dictatorships are more stable. This duplicates the argument of the dictators themselves: it is us or the Islamists ... the junta or the jihad. But the choice is false. Political oppression in nations like Egypt has increased the standing and appeal of radicals and forced all opposition into the mosque, while state media continues to provide a steady supply of anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism. The real choice to be made in the Middle East is between radicals and democrats; both groups have been emboldened by the events of the last five years. We may have limited time to take the side of democratic forces—not merely as an act of altruism, but as an act of self-defense.

Gerson's conception of "soft realists" is an out and out straw man. You see this argument peddled around many of the more boorish blogs (and there are many)--most of which don't care a whit for innocent Arabs being felled by collateral damage (whether in Lebanon, or Iraq, or wherever), but erupt into spasms of self-righteouseness if one questions Bush's breezy 'freedom is on the march' nostrums. How dare you question the freedom agenda? Are you racist? Do you think Arabs are not fit for democracy? Disgusting! And so on. As I said, you've seen the argument made frequently, doubtless, and it's a straw man. One can be a soft realist, to use Gerson's lexicon, and so believe democracy is desirable--but question whether this can be successfully achieved by, say, invading Iraq, allowing massive disorder to prevail--with the country tottering on the brink of civil war--or too hastily cheerleading elections in Palestine, and then working in concert with Israel to attempt to scuttle the new government that prevailed at the ballot-box. Gerson, alas, doesn't broach such subtleties (good evangelicals, it appears, often find such nettlesome details rather on the pesky side, as it might keep 'clarifying moments' at bay), that is to say, alternately, the reckless ineptitude (Iraq) or brazen hypocrisy (Palestine)--though his faith-based call to arms has evidently led to much head-nodding exultation among the flock.

Next Gerson tees up straw-man #2, namely the so-called 'hard realists'. This crew, according to Gerson, think democracy is perhaps possible in the Middle East, but fearing the rise to power of Islamic radicals (and as good Kissingerian realpolitikers regardless), prefer to cozy up with the authoritarian satrapies of the region, thus showcasing a dismal tendency to prefer cursed stability to the glorious freedom taking root in the region. Put differently, in this tired narrative, hard realists are short-sighted, cold-hearted folk who lack the gumption to, say, cut off aid to Mubarak to usher in the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood (the worrisome specter of "one man, one vote, one time"). How niggardly of them, to deny the great Arab masses the fruits of Bushian freedom, and how breathtakingly dangerous too--as this addiction to stability at all costs has the effect of imperiling the American polity--by allowing long simmering repressions to continue to fester in the Arab world, and thus leading doubtless to more 9/11s on our shores. As I said, yet another straw-man, but one that I note was widely applauded among the usual suspects as a grand, re-invigorated Gersonian call to arms as November beckons (Gerson: "If American "cowboy diplomacy" did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it." Well, rah-rah, then!).

Unfortunately, Gerson neglects to mention a third category in his little schema. Call us skeptical realists, perhaps. Don't get me wrong. We are not but unsentimental Palmerstonians, to a man. Beyond direct calculations of national interest, we certainly believe there are moral considerations that need to be brought to bear in the foreign policy decision-making process. For instance, we found Reagan's stance against Soviet totalitarianism wise and effective (note, of course, that Reagan actually talked to the Soviets). So we understand that a moral dimension has its place, and always will, in the prosecution of U.S. foreign policy. We realize too, as security hawks, that the spread of democracy typically has the effect of reducing the specter of war and conflict. Which is to say, we like democracy, and we are happy to see it spread. But we are not fanciful adventurers--and we want to ensure requisite resources are brought to bear, and utopic outcomes are not breezily assured, and we suspect the effort will take place in gradualist fashion, via economic liberalization as much as political reform, and certainly not under the barrel of Israeli (Gaza, West Bank, Lebanon) or American (Iraq and, for some of the dimmer neo-cons salivating away, prospectively 'Syran') guns. We realize too that democracy is more than a 'ballot-cracy', more than waving purple fingers around in what was mostly a national census showcasing the rise of Shi'a revanchism in Iraq. We further realize that Bush's clumsy attempts to spread democracy in the Middle East are flailing rather dismally (see, again, the 30-day carte blanche to Israel to engage in a fanciful expedition to 'eradicate' Hezbollah, which helped put another nail in the coffin of America's repute in the region, not to mention the Cedar Revolution, or the emptily quixotic exercise that were the Palestinian elections, swiftly met with aid cut-offs which predictably have spurred on a grave humanitarian situation, and most of all, an Iraq adventure that has unleashed, in the face of our inability to provide for basic order, national furies that most Americans don't even begin to understand, as well as great skepticism about America's policy objectives in the region), and that in the face of such debacles, we must not curl up like bovine Pavlovians and ask for more of the same--but rather demand strategic changes. To do so, we must face reality square-on, learning from our mistakes and re-appraising our strategy, rather than rushing blindly towards the next misadventure with open arms.

To help this process along, let me offer some observations and even some lessons learned, and then open up this discussion to comments. Democracy, in my view, cannot be achieved by grotesquely undermanning a nation-building effort after militarily unseating a dictator in a nation riven by sectarian and ethnic tension (see also Iran, as many in the dumbed-down Beltway are urging a repeat there). Put differently, creative destruction is not an approach to sober statecraft. And on the challenge of terrorism more generally, as the London plot showcases, our real challenges are not necessarily presented by under-educated Afghan peasants gravitating to madrassas in Peshawar, say, but rather Muslim middle-class British and French and Dutch youth watching al-Jazeera on their satellite televisions in East London, the banlieu, and Amsterdam--becoming radicalized as they grapple with the vying tensions of disorienting Western liberties, feelings of alienation amidst under-employment and life in stand-alone ethnic ghettos, and not least a sense of humiliation and indignity born of the carnage they see beamed in on news shows from places like Lebanon and Iraq. Another observation, to those who hanker to unseat, say, the Saudi monarchy--is to point out that the Saudis have been much more effective of late in combatting al-Qaeda in their own country, than we have been in reducing the specter of growing extremism in the region and beyond. As former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman recently put it, when asked how Saudi efforts to fight terrorism were going:

The answer is that they’re [the Saudis] winning. (We, of course, are not.) So what is it that they are doing right? They have essentially discredited the extremist ideology in their own mosques, by driving the radical imams from the pulpits. They have co-opted or seduced or induced to defect a large number of people who were terrorists or were heading in that direction, and who are now going straight. They’re killing anybody who’s left.

What the Saudis are doing is precisely how the British succeeded against the IRA. By contrast, we are not dealing with the issue of ideology. Worse, our actions are actually provoking and aiding recruitment. We’re killing a lot of people, but a great deal of those we are killing are not at all associated with extremists, they just happen to be in the way.

No, we are not convincingly dealing with the ideological component of this struggle. By refusing to shut places like Guantanamo, or to fire Rumsfeld and raze Abu Ghraib immediately after that horrific scandal, or to be an honest broker in the Arab-Israeli dispute, spearheading and leading forward a peace process no matter how difficult, or to more assiduously work with the Indians to move them towards a resolution of Kashmir with Pakistan, or to better understand that continued chaos in Iraq leads many Arabs to disdain America's role in the region, among so much more, none of us, whether naive post-Wilsonians pining for an end to tyranny in our time, or soft or hard or skeptical or luke-warm or whatever realists, or progressives, or isolationists--none of us are going to achieve our policy goals--which is to say effectively defending America's national interest against the scourge of international terrorism. (Others might recommend, as James Fallows has recently written in the Atlantic, that we just go ahead and declare victory, the GWOT over, if you will. It is true, as Fallows has written, that the original al-Qaeda organization has suffered quite harsh blows. Still, alas, the original al-Qaeda has mestastasized, not least as we've too often pursued policies that have made us into something akin to a Bin Laden recruiting sergeant, so that Fallow's recommendation to declare we've prevailed in the GWOT and pack our bags leaves me, to say the least, rather unconvinced).

What is needed instead is 1) continuing to devastate al-Qaeda's network, 2) trying as I've recently written to (so belatedly) pursue a true success strategy in Iraq, 3) better understanding the hugely important ideological dimension of this war (including importantly the impact of our policies on Muslim minorities living in the West), 4) looking at reform in the Arab world as a more incremental process, involving economic reform as much as hasty political ones, while less often unconvincingly preaching about democratic freedom to those in Riyadh or Cairo where the alternatives, at least in the short term, would likely be far worse (yes the Muslim Brotherhood might someday become more like European Christian Democrats, say, but over decades, not simply because of hasty elections pursued under conditions of incipient chaos, as democracy entails more than balloting, of course, but also the rule of law, the maturation of political parties, the protection of minority rights, economic reform, and more besides), and 5) moving very seriously to resolve festering territorial disputes such as the West Bank or the Golan Heights or Kashmir. These are the makings of a true success strategy (admitedly imperfect ones, I don't pretend to be proferring panaceas here) in the wider Middle East and North African region, not resort to the same tired bromides and failed strategies of the past half-decade, that Gerson's call to arms mostly counsels.

UPDATE: A reader well acquainted with James Fallow's piece in The Atlantic writes in:

The "pack our bags" part is EXACTLY AND EXPLICITLY what the article does NOT recommend....even the sub-head [of the Fallows piece] says that a large reason for declaring the open-ended state of war over is so that the harder and more sustained campaign to squash the copy-cat/metastasized cells can work BETTER. (Eg, note that the British authories, who actually DID break the airline-bombing cell, did so not with declarations of war but with old fashioned means of penetration, agent recruitment, surveillance, etc.)

That's a better description of Fallow's argument, it is true.

Posted by Gregory at August 27, 2006 04:17 PM


Posted by: Jessica Copeland at August 27, 2006 07:36 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I think the journos call this "burying the lede" (bottom of page 3 of Gerson's piece):

"If American 'cowboy diplomacy' did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it."

I think most parents would rather be raising their children in Beijing than Baghdad right now. Prosperity, not democracy, is the goal. What's sad is that there is enough wealth buried beneath the sands of Iraq to turn every Iraqi family into millionaires..

We chose to give this wealth to Cheney's pals and corrupt Iraqi politicians instead of the people of Iraq...that is what the fighting is all has little to do with primitive superstitions.

Posted by: monkyboy at August 27, 2006 08:03 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"Put differently, creative destruction is not an approach to sober statecraft..."

An excellent post, Greg, and, fwiw, I think you are fundamentally right in every respect. However, this formulation, correct as it is, runs into two major problems when applied to present US foreign policy in the Middle East/Islamic world:

First, the Bush Adminstration (who are, after all, the ones in charge of things) have proven themselves FAR better at the "destruction" part of the equation: their attempts at the "creative" part (as we have seen in Iraq) have fallen way, way short. Disastrously so in Iraq and Lebanon, and possibly in Afghanistan as well.

Secondly: why do you think (if you do) that the Adminstration's FP "team" even give a flying **** about "sober statecraft"? Except maybe if they need to have it look that way for the media.
Since 2001, the G.W. Bush Administration has firmly committed itself to the PNAC/neocon methodology of conducting foreign relations: a) a neoimperialist interpretation of "American leadership" on the world stage as being defined as other countries backing US agendas in every case; b) a blind faith in the efficacy of military force as an instrument of foreign policy (and NOT always as a last resort, or as a mere "threat"); and most importantly c) an pervasive and unshakeable fixation on having every single policy and/or action filtered and spun in the context of domestic politics - for the domestic political advantage of the Adminstration and its Party, that is - and an obsession with "message management" which colors ALL of its doings; good, bad, or indifferent.

Posted by: Jay C at August 27, 2006 10:06 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


Good work, for trying to put forth an alternative vision, however imperfect. It's important to try to come up with coherent alternatives, even in a situation so contradictory so as to make all catchphrases bad ideas in their own unique way.

You're right that foreign events drive domestic extremism at home, and domestic extremism is where the seriously cripping potentialities lie.

Having said that, not only foreign events involving high-profile bombings by Western powers, but also base conflicts and base conditions, drive anti-Western terrorism.

I absolutely agree with you on solving the regional drivers and keeping violence to a minimum within the region. Critical. However, keeping violence to a minimum also genuinely includes drawing a line in the sand on domestic repression. You will **never** de-radicalize Arab populations while they are run by dictatorships and statist, undiversified economies. And no Mubarak or Saudi counterterror program will solve the problem. Those regimes are doomed. Their successes are temporary and empeheral. They will eventually be surprised.

Where I break with you is as follows: while we should avoid using military force to topple our "enemies" while no clear or realistic plan exists to pacify, reconstruct, and enlighten the population afterwards - (and there is no such thing as a realistic plan for the above with Syria on one side of your country, and Iran on the other)

We absolutely should be using confrontational means short of military force to force reform on our autocratic Arab "allies" - or else, force the collapse of their regimes.

The Islamic revolution in Iran has been deterrable and negotiable from almost the day they took power. Their revolution was seriously suffering from internal rot within two decades. There are no genuinely revolutionary governments in the international system. They all run into the realities of their power to create change quickly, and become a lot more complicated.

The only genuinely revolutionary movements are stateless actors like Al-Quieda. They are also, the only ones directing terrorist actions against the West.

We have leverage, right now, while Mubarak is still in power, to shape the Muslim Brotherhood towards a more explicitly democratic persona. We will have leverage, with the Brotherhood, immediately after their assumption of power, to trade our willingness to tolerate their regime for their willingness to obey democratic principles.

A geuninely democratic Islamist regime is no threat to America. The Islamists on the outside are both more interested in democracy, and more susceptible to pressure to change, then are the autocracies we support.

Posted by: glasnost at August 28, 2006 12:40 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


Good work at pointing out the straw men neo-cons and Bush supporters keep propping up. I wonder why more don't catch these straw men, and why opponents keep taking the bait.....

As for the rest, this is my opinion. I do not see any actual credible improvement on the war on terror as long as the Bush Administration remains in power. They've had their numerous opportunities to admit mistakes and actually make appropriate changes, but due to domestic politics, of looking like losers, they opt to keep things the same. Much of what you recommend will not be implemented with a Bush administration in power. They must be removed before any real, and serious, change can ever happen. The madness will continue for another two years, I'm afraid, unless Democrats win in November and impeach Bush, or Republican Congressmen get some balls and stop shirking their Constitutional responsibility. I sadly don't see that happening.

We can sit and talk about how to improve our fight against terrorists, and spread democracy abroad, but unless real change comes in American politics, all these discussions will remain academic. You want change, Mr. Djerejian, then get Republicans out of power!

Posted by: Daniel at August 28, 2006 02:25 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Huh? What?
Too many words spoil the broth. This is not complicated. We're in the initial states of a global religious war. Whatever we can do to undermine religious Islamic fanatics, the better it will be for the rest of us (that includes bombing them).

These Islamic dick-heads want to install an Islamic world order (did you see the Fox News reporters hostage ‘conversion” ? Have you been reading Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s letters?

Religious Islam isn’t interested in secular democracy. They have a different view. Imagine Pat Roberson or James Dobson able to shape the US constitution to their liking, and multiply that by a factor of 4.

You’re not going to “shape the Muslim Brotherhood towards a more explicitly democratic persona.” Those are the asshole who massacred 60 European tourists at the Egyptian ancient temple in Luxor, slicing up European girls in shorts and stuffing religious scripts into their wounds.

We’re in a religious war… you better retool your brain and stop running down intellectual dead end alleys if you want to come up with a workable strategy to keep us from getting nuked here.


Posted by: Jay Jerome at August 28, 2006 04:07 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Jay, why fight a religious war against Muslims? We'll inevitably have millions dead, on both sides.

Far better to bring about political and economic freedoms in the Muslim world. They will prosper, and when they do their religious convictions will die just as ours have in the West. Prosperous people have no time for fanatacism or faith. In time, the Muslims will become just as depraved and secular as we are.

Win the religious war? For Christianity? Our religion is dead. Lets kill theirs, too.

Posted by: Nick at August 28, 2006 04:20 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"Jay, why fight a religious war against Muslims? We'll inevitably have millions dead, on both sides.... Far better to bring about political and economic freedoms in the Muslim world."

That's the kind of wrong thinking I'm talking about -- economic freedoms won't make radical Islam more tolerant -- Iran, for instance: an economically viable country, lots of dough from oil, an educated middle class, but ruled by strict Islamic Mullahs who really, truly, in their hearts and minds and bones-- believe that religion trumps democracy.

You need to step back and start looking at Islamic theocracy for what it is: nations (becoming nuclear) governed by leaders with irrational religious beliefs.

Read Islamic history. It's a tolalaterian religion. It's main tenet is submit, or die... really, that's the basis of Islam.

Posted by: Jay Jerome at August 28, 2006 04:37 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Have you been reading Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s letters?

'Can one be a follower of Jesus Christ (PBUH), the great Messenger of God, feel obliged to respect human rights, present liberalism as a civilization model, announce one's opposition to the proliferation of nuclear weapons and WMDs, make 'War on Terror' his slogan, and finally, work towards the establishment of a unified international community - a community which Christ and the virtuous of the Earth will one day govern, but at the same time, have countries attacked. The lives, reputations and possessions of people destroyed and on the slight chance of the presence of a few criminals in a village, city, or convoy for example, the entire village, city or convoy (are) set ablaze.

'Or because of the possibility of the existence of WMDs in one country, it is occupied, around one hundred thousand people killed, its water sources, agriculture and industry destroyed, close to 180,000 foreign troops put on the ground, sanctity of private homes of citizens broken, and the country pushed back perhaps fifty years. At what price? Hundreds of billions of dollars spent from the treasury of one country and certain other countries and tens of thousands of young men and women - as occupation troops - put in harms way, taken away from family and loved ones, their hands stained with the blood of others, subjected to so much psychological pressure that everyday some commit suicide and those returning home suffer depression, become sickly and grapple with all sorts of ailments; while some are killed and their bodies handed to their families.'

Makes a lot of sense to me.

Posted by: David Tomlin at August 28, 2006 05:01 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

You need to step back and start looking at Islamic theocracy for what it is: nations (becoming nuclear) governed by leaders with irrational religious beliefs.

Jay, you need to step back and look at Islamic regimes, such as Iran's, by studying their actual behavior in the past and present, in depth, before spewing megalo-paranoaic theories of religious war.

You're an indirect convert to the cause of Osama Bin Laden. He believes in the same apocalyptic conflict as you. No one else, including the government in Iran, is thinking along those lines.

Nice catch, David Tomlin.

Posted by: glasnost at August 28, 2006 05:14 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Jay's idea provides the only possible rationale for our iraq adventure.

The goal isn't to reconstruct iraq or to bring them to democracy or anything like that. It's to destroy a key section of the pan-arab economy, and split them, and build bases we can use to attack east and west.

It doesn't matter whatsoever what any arabs or muslims think -- at least, trying to influence their thinking is both futile and irrelevant. If we can klil enough of them that the rest can't recover, then we win. Once you assume that muslims are all fanatics who can never be swayed from their determination to kill us all, then you must conclude that there is no other way to win. We must kill them all before they kill us. It's the only way to be sure.

This insane approach has a lot of flaws, but it has one supreme virtue. It explains what we're doing in iraq. For any other goal our behavior simply makes no sense. But if you look at it this way, it makes perfect sense. We don't have a shred of a credible reconstruction plan because we never intended to reconstruct iraq. Why would we do that, it would be like germany reconstructing france.

We have never had a plan for civilian security in iraq, because we don't want iraqi civilians to have any security. "Security" in iraq translates to killing insurgents only, along with whatever civilians get in the way, because they are all fanatics who can never be our allies.

We did our best to start ethnic cleansing and then we backed off into our big bases -- because the more iraqis fight each other the less we need to fight them and the more we can concentrate on building up those bases for offensive purposes.

From every other perspective the iraqi war looks like a fiasco. But from Jay's perspective it all makes sense.

The next step is to bring economic ruin to iran, perhaps along with killing a large number of their military-age men. Then we need a way to destroy pakistan while securing their nukes. I have no idea what the plan would be for indonesia and malaysia, that may depend on how the earlier battles unfold.

If you accept that we're already in the beginning stages of a war of extermination, and we're trying to disguise it as democratization, then the actual strategy on the ground fits together. If you assume that there's a real attempt at democratization etc then it all looks utterly incompetent.

No matter how crazy you think Jay is, it appears he's tuned into the real thing.

Posted by: J Thomas at August 28, 2006 05:17 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"...curl up like bovine Pavlovians..."?

If Greg isn't careful, Jacob Weisberg at Slate is eventually going to start a feature called "Djerejianisms."

Posted by: Zathras at August 28, 2006 05:28 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Yes Z, I got a tad carried away with some of the verbiage, it appears! still, i stand by my arguments....fwiw...

Posted by: greg at August 28, 2006 11:39 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Isn't it interesting that on both sides the only parties that really want to fight each other are the religious zealots, both in Christian and Muslim world.....more secular people want to live in peace.

It's a shame really, what better way to further undermine the good names of Christ and Mohammed than this? That religious fanatics on both sides of the isle advocate war and murder.....

Posted by: Daniel at August 28, 2006 12:15 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

this is related to the previous thread, but:

did Steyn really say that Powell was doing minstrel shows?

That's class, that is. Real class.

And further proof of how the die-hard Bushists really feel about the "diversity hires" they parade in their cabinet.

Posted by: kid bitzer at August 28, 2006 02:43 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Jay said:

"You need to step back and start looking at Islamic theocracy for what it is: nations (becoming nuclear) governed by leaders with irrational religious beliefs."

Sounds like Gerson and Bush, except we're already "nuclear."

Gerson is a shallow thinker (if he thinks at all), in the grip of a faith-based ideology. He thinks his ideology encompasses and determines reality, therefore he ignores reality (hence his scorn for soft or hard realists, who don't share the inspiration of his "noble" project). Inevitably, catastrophe follows, which is then described as "things are going well in the global war on terror."

I hadn't realized that the "arguments" of people like Gerson were still to be taken seriously, or require any detailed deconstruction. They aren't meant to be arguments; they are statements of faith. "You're either with us or against us."

The Iraq war is an ideological war, detached from the niceties of national interest, regional strategy, or tactical alternatives. That's why Bush can't adjust, and why he can't leave. To do either would bring the ideology into question, and that would create fundamental crisis within the cabal. In fact, within the cabal, Iraq is no longer a question or deserving of any analysis; the only question at the present time is whether and when to expand the crusade to Iran.

I see it often: the Bush administration is analyzed as if it were a rational actor, and that its effort to construct a (presumably rational) approach to achieve its stated goals has misfired on objective mistakes and realities. I think this is a presumption that the Bush administration no longer deserves. The administration is not like you and me (nor does it want to be); it's in a bubble of faith-based adventurism, for which rational analysis and rational re-adjustments are not only unnecessary, but are actually symptoms of defeatism, lack of patriotism, and possibly treason.

The best we can hope for at this time is to escape this administration with as little damage as possible. However, the cascade effects of an attack on Iran are imponderable, particularly if that attack is nuclear.

Posted by: MD at August 28, 2006 03:23 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Greg, a great post out of many good ones over the past few days.

The 'graph that begins "Unfortunately, Gerson neglects to mention a third category in his little schema," may well be the single best example of what many are now calling "progressive realism" I've seen yet.

The remarks about Saudi and the UK's success against the IRA are also well made. I've maintained for a long time that, of the two prevalent counter-terrorism paradigms currently in use, the UK's model is by far more successful than the US/Israeli one. British military commanders said the same thing way back when the occupation of Iraq first began and have continued to say so ever since.

Regards, Cernig @ Newshog

Posted by: Cernig at August 28, 2006 03:52 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

This is my favorite FP are the crtic of Bush jr and co. that best articulates their shortcomings.
Democracy that fails to take hold or is illiberal (current ME governments) can be the most dangerous. For all the misapplied Hitler analogies(iran, iraq, nk) that the neo-con like to throw around they never acknowledge that a democracy of sorts, in the Wiemar republic, in fact spawned Hitler!
Granted, that liberal democracy in the world has usually been a good thing for the global system and in turn the US. If the implimentation is taken to the extreme(like bush jr) a scenerio could arise where the endeavor fails, the US ends up bankrupt financially and universally despised....clearly democarcy is not ALWAYS in the US self interest to impliment.
All of this is much to complicated for the voter....the US gets the foreign policy it deserves. In a nation of religious fundies, AIPAC and people who think Saddam was behind 911 the HL Menken qoute "never bet against the intellect of the american puclic" has never been more true. How does the situation improve? Somebody give me some cause for hope.

Posted by: centrist at August 28, 2006 04:28 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I find it humerous that so many debate whether democracy is not only possible and/or preferable in the Middle East...when our own government is NOT a democracy - at least it wasn't set up as such. There is a very large distinction between a Federalist Republic and a democracy. Democracy without the protections of a Federalist state (and a sound/hard currency) is simply a stopping ground on the way to dictatorship. The US is in a long battle against the removal of these Federalist principals and this current "battle" with Islamic Fundamentalists will just speed up the process. We turned the page on a sound currency when Nixon closed the gold window and the decay of Federalism has been steady for a long time. It is a sad reality but one that is wholey predictable to anyone who studies history.

I honestly laughed out loud reading Jay Jerome "nations governed by leaders with irrational religious beliefs"! Um....I would place Bush far closer to that camp than to a rational/secular leader!

Posted by: james dailey at August 28, 2006 06:01 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Thanks for the update. Fallows point is that there can't be a "war" on terror. It was necessary (IMO, now) to use military force to remove the Taliban from power, and it would have been vastly better to use sufficient force to remove bin Laden entirely.

But the reason the use of military force made sense is because bin Laden was effectively a state actor. In other instances, state supported terrorism has been followed by military reprisals.

The danger from a metastisized islamist movement is not one that can be effectively dealt with by a military force, just as (as noted in an article in the most recent foreign affairs) the "drug war" can't be won by military force.

The continued blatantly cynical and dishonest use of fear and racism for political gain is the real problem here.

Posted by: jayackroyd at August 28, 2006 06:49 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Subtly, finess, and patience are needed all three of which seem to be an anathma to the current administration and they seem to see all 3 as weaknesses. They want what the want, they want it on their own terms, and they want it now. Playing against subtly, finess, and patience has worked in the past because Americans like the hard-charging, cowboy diplomacy as an image if not the actual results. It appeals to much of the inner psyche of many Americans (hence the love for John Wayne) and is (or seems to be) easy to understand and straightforward.

Posted by: ET at August 28, 2006 07:07 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Dan, as far as I can tell, there are basically two camps vis-a-vis democratization in the Middle East: Those who believe that our moral responsibilities are mitigated by our practical abilities, and those who don't. Gerson is in the latter camp. You (and I) are in the former.

Posted by: Daniel A. Munz at August 28, 2006 07:29 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

...uh, make that "Greg." Mental hiccup.

Posted by: Daniel A. Munz at August 28, 2006 09:16 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Ok Jay:

"Read Islamic history. It's a tolalaterian religion. It's main tenet is submit, or die... really, that's the basis of Islam."

Read Christian history. I hate to tell you, but historically Christianity was just as violent, if not moreso, than Islam. Both religions have long storied histories of being exploited for violence. What does that prove? Nothing. Islam can be interpreted peacefully, or violently; so can Christianity. Bring economic and political stability to the middle east, and the rhetoric becomes peaceful. And as I said before, eventually people will start ignoring the religious leaders altogether, like they do in the West...

And J. Tomas:

"If you accept that we're already in the beginning stages of a war of extermination, and we're trying to disguise it as democratization, then the actual strategy on the ground fits together. If you assume that there's a real attempt at democratization etc then it all looks utterly incompetent.

No matter how crazy you think Jay is, it appears he's tuned into the real thing."

It is *possible* that the US government orchestrated such a delicate move with the express purpose of bringing about a Sunni-Shiite civil war throughout the Islamic world. And its possible that 9/11 was a government conspiracy too. But dont forget about occam's razor.

Your perception of the US government is inaccurate. It isn't this cunning and agile entity that you seem to believe it is. Its more analogous huey. Way too big for its own good, mildly retarded, and usually makes things worse in its awkward effort to make them better.

Besides, even if the US government was capable of what you say, you would still be wrong to suggest that sewing chaos in the middle east is good for America's stability. The threats of the future won't come from nation-states, they'll come from small groups of terrorists. And the more chaos there is, the more such groups there will be.


Posted by: Nick at August 28, 2006 09:54 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Nick, I'm using occam's razor. If you assume our goals are what we say they are, then nothing our government has done makes sense.

If you assume that our goals are to win a war against an islamofascist empire that's only just starting to gel, then it all fits together perfectly.

I agree with you that chaos in the middle east is not truly in the interest of the USA, and that small groups of terrorists will be our biggest threat until the chinese are ready to make their move. But I'm not ready to assume that our top policymakers agree with us about that. They might believe that a muslim empire that controls all the middle east oil plus the malaysian/indonesian oil etc would be so hard to beat that we have to start now.

Posted by: J Thomas at August 28, 2006 11:29 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

J Thomas, do you think our government is infallible?

What about the Vietnam war? Did that help us? No; it was a strategic mistake. Our government is very capable of making great strategic mistakes.

Its pretty clear that our action in Iraq has, among other things, greatly strengthened Iran. Of course it has. Saddam was a counterbalance to Iran for decades; he was their greatest enemy. When Iran troubled us, we would just arm Saddam to the teeth and unleash him on the Iranians. Now not only have we destroyed Iran's greatest enemy, but we've replaced him with a friendly Shiite-dominated government. Seems like an obvious mistake for an expert strategist to make =/. The simplest answer is that there was no expert strategist running the show. It was run by a bunch of pseudo-intellectuals that were entirely divorced from reality.

And after our awkward response to Katrina, was there really any doubting that our federal government is grossly incompetent? Not that the state and local was any better in that case, but that doesnt matter.

Posted by: Nick at August 29, 2006 12:50 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"What the war in Iraq was really about" has always been the conundrum. There's too much evidence of too many conflicting (often mutually exclusive) motives and goals for the war - while at the same time no hard evidence of any kind that would enable someone to pick the "real" reasons, motives, or goals.

Empirically, all we have to go on are the results. And the results don't support a claim that liberation and democratization were the real goals. The results support a hypothesis that sowing chaos and ruination were the real goals. Of all the stated reasons for the war, "terrorist flypaper" comes closest to being proven true based on results achieved. The Bush Admin meant to create a charnel house, and that's exactly what they accomplished.

So we're left with wondering what benefit(s) the Bush Admin saw in reducing Iraq to the state it's in.

I'm inclined to dismiss claims that they were looking to the long-term, either that Iraq would eventually settle down to a stable, democratic, Western-leaning state or even that the US would eventually emerge as the entity in control of the oil.

The former claim can be dismissed out of hand. The forces the US unleashed, or allowed to be unleashed, are not the crucible from which stability and democracy emerge. To take the two examples from past history that Bush supporters generally bring up, neither Japan nor Germany suffered the complete social, political, and economic meltdown that Iraq is suffering; and Japan and Germany also had the benefit of the Marshall Plan after the war was over.

To say that Iraq will be stabilized and democratic in some fashion, at some unknown indefinite point in the future, is intellectually empty. The further into the future you go, it's just as likely Iraq would have achieved some kind of stability and democratization without the invasion - or, indeed, achieved the same kind of meltdown once Saddam was gone, regardless of how he was shuffled off the scene. (In the latter case, at least the US wouldn't be morally and ethically culpable; we would not have spent so much blood and money; and our domestic politics would not have been so degraded.)

The latter claim, that we would somehow be in control of the oil, depends on one of two things happening: that whoever in Iraq (or Kurdistan) controls the oil would be "on our side," or that, no matter how bad things get in Iraq, the US will still have enough of a military presence to occupy the oil fields without meaningful challenge. Neither strikes me as a likely outcome. No one in Iraq is "on our side" at this point. And a US military presence that focuses solely on the oil fields is going to be attacked on a regular basis, from all sides, and overrun.

So we're left with two possible "real" reasons. One: the war in Iraq was an exercise in pure nihilism (Cheney and the neocons) with a soupcon of religious and megalomanical fervor (Bush and the theocons). Two: the war in Iraq was intended to distract the people of the US, and shatter our political norms, in order for the Bush Admin and its sponsors to reap the political and financial benefits.

Since those two hypothetical "real reasons" aren't mutually exclusive, and are borne out by results, I think they might be the actual "real reasons."

Posted by: CaseyL at August 29, 2006 02:32 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Gregory, far too much of your analysis is focussed on Rumsfeld and America, too little on Iraq and the Iraqi people, except in the abstract as helpless victims who, when killed, add to your reasons to support your policy.

I supported the war, and support the war, and claim it's not a "fiasco" -- despite your defeatism. I said less than 2500 US soldiers killed would be an "A", less than 5000 would be a "B"; Bush has moved from A to B. You fail to list any scale, or measure.

The 1972 question in Vietnam: pull out or stay the course ... which meant active support for a corrupt S. Viet gov't to fight the Paris Peace Accord violating N. Viet murderers. The winners who, after S. Viet surrender, murdered some 600 000. Which should be horrible shame to the US, and especially to the "anti-war" movement, who advocated that result (pull-out; accept commie victory; accept murder).

The Vietnam "solution" -- time. 17 more years of commitment, at least.

The ONLY Iraqi solution -- time. Time for the Iraqis who want freedom to learn how to fight for it and achieve it. Time for the Iraqi mothers who have lost children to say: STOP KILLING.

If Saddam's army had fought better, and killed 6000 troops in the first month, but then been more completely beaten, the war would probably be less unpopular today. Because of American impatience -- with other people.

Gen Casey has put forth a phased time table -- why not address it?
I think it's a little better course than adding more men now, but if the Gen. had asked for more men, I'd support that, too.

I think freedom is winning; but slowly. Yet while I like the second and third points of your option (3) (Kagan, occupy Baghdad, earlier post), you totally fail to convince me why pulling out is better if 3.1, 3.2, and/or 3.3 is not followed (more troops; more local/ less big base; more talk with surrounding countries).
More troops probably means casualties, especially in the first months; more local troops means more exposure, more US deaths; more talk might mean an expression of weakness, and therefore more foreign based terrorists de facto, while paying lip service to US requests. I don't know; but know I don't know -- your analysis doesn't convince me that you do know differently.

Your current 4 items are all fine: 1-fight AQ, 2-"success strategy" (though not agreed upon which one!), 3-ideological (VERY important), 4-incremental Arab reform.

The fanatical Muslims are fighting Women's Lib, Gay Liberation & marriage, and Pornography, among other free speech and religion rights which they oppose. It's a fact that secular Westerners believing in such "freedom" are failing to reproduce at the minimum 2.1 child replacement rate -- the secular West is demographically doomed unless something changes. What is changing in Europe is the importation of Muslims, who like keeping their women barefoot and pregnant. Isn't the birthrate in France beginning to stabilize, because the high Muslim rate? The anti-Christian, pro-promiscuity folks in the West keep saying the tolerant Catholics opposed to teen sex and abortion are as big, or bigger, threat than the Muslims. This is sad.

But, just as a "success strategy" in Iraq hasn't been agreed on, neither is there a common ideology of the West to combat the unification and peace available when all in the world submit to Allah.

5-resolve territorial issues; great idea. But are you saying that Bush could just wave his magic wand and solve them? Or, why haven't they been solved before, and what has changed to make them solvable now? Seems silly to hate Bush because he has not succeeded under harder circumstances where Clinton, and Bush, Reagan, Carter all failed.

Only Iraqis can win in Iraq -- not America, not Bush, not neo-cons, not me, not Gregory. I can't prove this, but I'm sure it's the truth.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad at August 29, 2006 02:58 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

While I strongly disagree with you, I'm glad you're thinking about these issues and writing so well.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad at August 29, 2006 03:12 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Tom Grey, I have to respect your choice to give General Casey a blank check to prosecute the continuing war. It's quite possible that Casey knows best and no one else can be allowed to know enough to make any sort of reasoned choice. I took that stand pretty much all the way through vietnam. I was young then.

The trouble I see about looking at the iraqis is that we don't have any friends left in iraq except the kurds. So what does it mean for us to win? As you point out, we can't win. What good is it for us to fight another long war we can't win?

Posted by: J Thomas at August 29, 2006 04:42 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Really good post, with the exception of the shabby swipe at Gerson's religious faith. I would say it's beneath you, Greg, but you've done it so regularly recently that it's sort of par for the current course. Sort of makes you Hitchens without the charm...

Posted by: Tim Schultz at August 29, 2006 06:44 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

From Tom Grey:

"Time for the Iraqi mothers who have lost children to say: STOP KILLING."

The echoes of Nancy Reagan saying "Just say no" are amusing to me. I have a feeling your advice, however well intended, will be as effective. (Also, presumably American mothers who have lost children over there get to say the same thing, I trust. And I say this not being interested at all in Cindy Sheehan much.)

Posted by: Ned R. at August 30, 2006 01:08 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"blank check" -- sort of like "we can never win" in Vietnam, right?
I think 17 more years of low level fighting is a lot shorter than "never".

Neither Greg nor any Leftist has specified an acceptable timetable for success or level of US casualties for success. (I have: 2500 = A, 5000=B, 10 000=C) Without such a standard, each and every casualty is used to support defeatism.

No blank check, but continued monitoring -- and I think the progress justifies continuation.

We can't win-- but like S. Korea as compared to Vietnam, we can help a democratic, more human rights oriented Iraq come into existence. Including spasms of democratically elected anti-human rights Shia or Sunni fundamentalists.

Will even 50 US deaths a month be the 2006 total? How few would the level have to be before one would support 5 - 10 more years at that level?

America doesn't know how to fight, and win, a guerrilla/ terrorist war. Greg's points 1, 3, & 4 are great starts -- he doesn't convince me at all that "stay the course" is worse at his point 2, Iraq success.

5, getting better borders elsewhere, seems a setup for failure; it is a good outside of the WoT, and its failure is also outside (Japan and Kurila Islands?).

Of course, I support the superiority of human rights: free speech and free religion, with a democratic gov't. I think fighting, and risking death for self and those around, for such ideals is good. The terrorists are fighting for what? To kill Americans? For the honor, against the shame, of Arabs? of Muslims?
In order to keep raping women and to keep their own wives subservient?

The terrorists need to be fought -- it's a shame most of the West is "free riding" on the US military forces, but that's unlikely to change, except that the US could be moving its NATO forces South and East.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad at August 30, 2006 03:51 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"blank check" -- sort of like "we can never win" in Vietnam, right?

Tom, it's too soon to tell how long it will take to win in vietnam. Similarly we could argue about whether we might have won quicker if we'd followed some other strategy.

America doesn't know how to fight, and win, a guerrilla/ terrorist war.

I agree. So why would you think we can win in vietnam or iraq? We don't know how.

Actually, we do know how, there are two general approaches. One is to support the natives in developing a democratic government and then bow out. This tends to mean a lot of reconstruction etc and not much fighting. We constantly point out that we're leaving pretty soon whether they get things organised or not. When somebody destroys stuff we point out that we're on our way out and we're building stuff for them and the enemy is destroying their stuff. When somebody attacks us and hides we point out that we're leaving and it's cowardly and rude to kill us, and don't do much of a counterattack unless they expose themselves. When somebody threatens natives we point out that in democracies that kind of thing doesn't happen and if they have the backing of the people how come they need to do it? They can vote, and they can have their own representatives watch the ballot boxes. Violence means they're admitting they're a minority who wants to enslave the rest.

This approach tends to work for getting democracy but we wind up on the outside looking in. They only wind up our friends if they think it's in their interests.

The second approach is unrelenting brutality. Convince them that we'll genocide them if they resist us, and kill the ones who don't believe us, and after awhile they'll cave in. This worked for us in the philippines. It worked for the chinese in tibet. It didn't work for the french in algeria because they weren't willing to commit enough resources. After 10% of the population of algeria was killed the french pulled out, when they probably could have won if they just killed another 10%. This approach was difficult for the USA in 1900 and it would be more difficult now, unless the government first gets firm control over the media.

We kind of fell between two stools in vietnam. We tried a combination of both approaches and it didn't work. We're falling between in iraq too. Hsrd to see how we could do otherwise. If we'd told the iraqis that the Ba'ath party could run for election without hindrance and get as many seats as they won honestly by secret ballot, we'd have had a lot less trouble from the start. They'd all get the idea we'd let them have a real democracy and not just restrict it to people who agreed with us. But we *wanted* to restrict it to people who agreed with us.

Will even 50 US deaths a month be the 2006 total? How few would the level have to be before one would support 5 - 10 more years at that level?

It isn't just the lives. How much money is it costing us and what are we getting for our money? Having a lot of soldiers holed up in big fortresses may not be worth much. Or is it? It certainly doesn't have much to do with promoting democracy.

The terrorists are fighting for what?

Usually terrorists declare what they're fighting for. If you wonder what some particular group of terrorists is fighting for, see if it's up on a website or something. The american terrorists' demands from 1776 are widely available, we call it the Declaration of Independence.

Posted by: J Thomas at August 30, 2006 05:05 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
Freeman's view: The answer is that [the Saudi's are] winning. (We, of course, are not.) So what is it that they are doing right?
  1. They have essentially discredited the extremist ideology in their own mosques, by driving the radical imams from the pulpits.
  2. They have co-opted or seduced or induced to defect a large number of people who were terrorists or were heading in that direction, and who are now going straight.
  3. They're killing anybody who's left.

Thank's for posting this, Greg. This is the first piece of good news I've seen in quite a while.

Posted by: Kenneth Almquist at September 1, 2006 12:11 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

We "could have" won in Vietnam by continuing support of the S. Vietnamese gov't, and especially use US air power against N. Viet violations of the "Paris Peace Accords" -- and mostly make the S. Viet responsible for on-the-ground law enforcement. The minimum force to stop the S. Viet from losing was too much for Ford, after Nixon resigned -- but the S. Viet collapse was far faster than any military imagined.

As fast as the Iraq collapse? Perhaps even faster.

We can "win" in Iraq, in "enough time". 5, 10, 20 years? How long before the Iraqis support rule of law, themselves?

On the cost, the main cost is the people, not the cash. However, on cash, "aid" should be replaced by "loans", asked for and spent by elected Iraqis. The free money from Uncle Sugar has certainly helped promote corruption, that demon of most democracies and especially young ones.

The "porkbusters" giant database of spending for the US would be a good idea to export to Iraq, especially for US aid there, to start. It would be good for every gov't, actually.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad at September 1, 2006 09:46 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

We "could have" won in Vietnam by ....

Tom, thank you. I was discussing just this thing in the other thread.

"This kind of groupthink was what kept us in vietnam so long. This kind of groupthink is what keeps some people thinking even today that we were on the verge of winning in vietnam when we finally gave up."

Thank you for exemplifying my point.

Posted by: J Thomas at September 1, 2006 11:33 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

About Belgravia Dispatch

Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

More About the Author
Email the Author

Recent Entries

The News
The Blogs
Foreign Affairs Commentariat
Law & Finance
Think Tanks
The City
Epicurean Corner
Syndicate this site:

Belgravia Dispatch Maintained by:

Powered by