Liberal Hawks Reconsider the Iraq War

Winning the Cold War for Democracy
June 1996 - June 2006.
Jan. 14 2004 10:23 AM

Liberal Hawks Reconsider the Iraq War

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There are several topics that run through the letters you've published, so I'll try to sort them out that way instead of just answering individual posts.

1. Totalitarianism.

I'm a great admirer of Paul Berman and Terror and Liberalism (my thoughts about it can be found on the back jacket). Paul understood and explained the ideological nature of the 9/11 attacks before anyone else, and in my view his essential argument still holds up. But Paul's argument is grand theory, rooted in history, literature, and philosophy, and one thing it does not do is provide a readily apparent strategy. In the case of Iraq, its altitude is too high to explain the war and its aftermath. Because we are fighting Muslim totalitarianism, Paul says, and because Saddam was a totalitarian who was also a Muslim, the war in Iraq was the first, or second, step to take in the fight. But why does that necessarily follow? Baathism was not a rising totalitarian mania. It was a decaying totalitarian ideology that had long since lost its ability to inspire millions across borders to engage in mass acts of murder and suicide (to use Paul's terms). According to Kanan Makiya, the original expert on Baathism (see Republic of Fear), Iraq after the Gulf War lost its totalitarian nerve and became a criminal state: This explains the condition of its bureaucracy and, to an extent, the mind-set of its people after liberation. Conflating Saddam's regime with the worldwide Islamist movement leads to serious intellectual confusion and makes it harder to keep the latter in our sights. It also, in the short run, has unquestionably made it harder to fight the latter—the U.S. military had to pull special forces troops out of eastern Afghanistan to be used in counterinsurgency in Iraq. I wasn't surprised to read yesterday that Saddam warned Iraqi insurgents against cooperating with Islamists coming across the borders to fight jihad.

The Iraq war was unfinished business from the 1990s, an extension of arguments about the assertion of American power (see back issues of Commentary and Weekly Standard) and humanitarian war (see back issues of Dissent and the New Republic). Now that Saddam is gone and we're in Iraq, of course we should do everything possible to create conditions for liberalism to take root; and there's a chance that in the very long run those conditions could spread to other Muslim countries now controlled by dictatorships. In this sense, Paul and Tom Friedman are saying much the same thing, in different language. Before the war, I was ready to accept these possibilities as one argument for war, but about this my view has changed: The time I spent in Iraq was an education in the limits of war as an instrument of political transformation and the limits of America as its standard-bearer. Liberal democracy requires participation and consent, and as long as American military power is the prime tool for building it, Muslims around the world are unlikely to change their ideas. We need to decouple America and the promotion of democracy; the Iraq war did the opposite. The fact that tens of millions of Muslims around the world harbor increasingly hateful feelings toward America might not be rational, but it is a serious problem if this is a war for liberalism (as I think it is), though it isn't a reason not to fight worldwide Islamism.

2. Democracy abroad.

This might well be the only long-term answer to Islamism and its terrors. The Bush administration sometimes says so, but its actions often undermine its speechwriters' best efforts. As far as I can tell, the top policymakers see the war on terrorism as a matter of killings terrorists, as many as possible, which fits with the hard-edged "realism" most of them brought to the administration. The problem is that we don't know how to change other societies. Iraq so far is a sharp lesson in humility. Supporters of the war are fond of analogizing to Germany and Japan, but those countries had experienced total defeat after prolonged war, and the occupying powers enjoyed a legitimacy that the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq can only look back on with envy. In Eastern Europe, long-term support for dissidents helped end Communism and pave the way for democracy. But those forces were internal. There are very few comparable trends in the Muslim world today, outside of Iran. War is a very blunt instrument for such delicate work—going into Iraq with tanks and then trying to nurture democrats is like doing the finish on cabinetry with a sledgehammer. The war set powerful forces in motion that at the moment are hardly moving in a democratic direction.

The alternative model is something more like the Cold War than World War II—a long, difficult campaign, on many fronts, economic, political, cultural, as well as military, to nurture liberal forces in Muslim dictatorships without strengthening the hand of their enemies, until large parts of those societies begin to embrace liberal ideas. This is unglamorous, frustrating work. It doesn't provide a quick moral frisson. And it requires a longer attention span than most Americans, including liberals, hawks, or combinations of the two, have generally been able to muster.

3. Democracy at home.

Fred Kaplan is right: How we went to war matters a lot (which is why I wrote in my first post that the weapons question remains a scandal waiting for a dramatizer—perhaps a journalist as polemically gifted as Christopher Hitchens was when it came to the deceptions of Nixon, Kissinger, and Clinton). Bush damaged alliances and institutions abroad because, as his national security strategy makes plain, he thinks they're disposable. (The damage done by the French was about equal—this was a case of codependency.) As for democratic process at home, the president has never shown a great deal of regard for that, either. By March, when Fred wrote his renunciation, the wreckage was already considerable, the war inevitable—and as far as being able to pull it off, that depends on what "it" is. For me, it was getting rid of Saddam and his regime. But the things Bush broke on the way to war badly need repair—not just as ends in themselves, but because without alliances and institutions, and without the informed consent of the American public, we're a lot less likely to win the larger war that started on Sept. 11.

George Packer

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