Idealism with a Sword
Scott, remarking on the improving conditions in Iraq, asks:
If this is a trend that continues and increasingly results in a lowering of violence that both adds to the stability of Iraq and enables American troops to come sooner rather than later, and if the democratic process in Iraq presents the conditions under which a greater degree of civil society is able to take greater hold better integrating Iraq into the global economy and thereby raising the general quality of life for Iraqis and imporiving the degree of stability in the region, would we not count that as a positive development for Iraq and the world generally?
The “world generally” is a rather broad statement. Few things beyond air, water, shelter and food can be considered good for “the world generally.” What’s good for one slice of the globe may not be good for another. For instance, once upon a time Iraq was ruled over by a secular Sunni dictator–a cruel man, to be sure, but one who cared little for the Islamists, and less for his neighbor Iran–strategically in line with our own views. Saddam Hussein may have posed some small threat to our ally, Israel, but hardly more than the Iranians. Now, with the Sunnis in the minority, strategic ties to Iran have been strengthened, and the anti-American sentiment in the Middle East has not only grown, but been bolstered by an Iraq/Iran alliance. Certainly when Scott implies that a stable Iraq is good for “the world” we can see that no part of the world will benefit more than Persia, a once near-isolated power in the region, its potential threat to the West dampened by its hostile neighbors.
Scott takes an “ends justify the means” approach when musing over this matter of Iraqi stability and democracy. But prior to our invasion was that country not stable? Was it any less stable than any other dictatorship in the Middle East, or the world at large? Burma, Syria, Saudi Arabia, North Korea–these nations, and many more, stand ideologically opposed to the United States. All pose some potential threat. And yet each nation is basically stable, essentially contained at least to some degree by the world community, through economic sanctions, trade barriers, and other means. Iraq was even more contained, its economy and livelihood even more isolated than any of these nations are today–a strategy that was arguably nearly as ill-guided as our current efforts, given the ensuing poverty of the Iraqi people and the oil-for-food scandal that enriched Hussein and others at the expense of the national well-being of the Iraqi people.
Brent Snowcroft remarked recently: “We are the well-wishers of all who seek freedom. We are the guarantors only of our own.” This sense of American interest is never so black and white as many would like. The Middle East is the source of much of our oil, a commodity that America is sadly quite dependent on. A stable, oil-producing Mid-East is essential to the American interest. However, American interest does not require that the Mid-East is also populated with ideologically similar States, or that any of our oil exporters govern as Democracies. The world, and the Middle East, have gotten along just fine without Democracy for centuries. Saudi Arabia, one of the least Democratic nations on Earth has done a perfectly acceptable job of supplying us with our oil for decades, and this trade relationship has also ensured that we have never once gone to war, neither State has attempted to topple the others’ Government or “change” its regime, and neither has bothered to implement their own vision of what’s best for the others’ people.
Unfortunately, our meddling in the region and our lack of understanding of the culture, has lead to some rogue elements within Saudi Arabia to declare Holy War on us. Suddenly the pragmatic relationship of trade is replaced by two ideologically opposed forces waging a sort of indeterminable war against one another: on the one hand, Democracy, on the other Islamism. Gone are the notions of national self-interest; gone is the de facto peace that healthy trade creates. Just ideology and guns.
Scott claims that “responsible interventionism is action directed at removing unwarranted impediments to the deeper forces of evolution.” Let us for a moment pretend that our vision of geopolitical evolution is not that of an American, but rather that of a fundamentalist Islamic leader, or perhaps of the grand maestro of terror himself, Osama bin Laden. Would these visions align with our own? Would the stated impediments be the same? Or consider the Soviet interventionism into Eastern Europe during the Cold War. To the Russians, liberalism was the impediment to “the deeper forces of evolution.”
This is the fallacy of ideologically-driven interventionism. It elevates an ideology not only above those of our enemies (and allies), it also elevates that ideology and its inherent idealism above the interests of our own nation. Our national interest should have dictated that the forceful implementation of a Democratic, and therefore Sunni Iraq, preceding the advent of a friendly Iran, would pose at least as much of a threat to our security and interests as a Baathist Iraq. A foreign policy based on realism would have allowed for a routing of the Taliban in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, but would never have attempted to achieve democracy there or a “victory” in the currently batted about sense of the word. Empires crumble in the mountains of that impenetrable land.
And yet here we are, embroiled in a war in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in some some greater, ubiquitous war on terror. Here we are, backed into a corner of our own devices, yet still refusing to sit down and use diplomacy with our enemies. The first rule of peace negotiations is to bring everybody with a gun to the table. If you leave just one gunslinger out of the talks, the entire process can be derailed. And yet we demand some abstract set of preconditions in order to even talk to Iran, and in the meantime, Tehran begins building nuclear warheads. We refuse to sit down with Hamas, and peace between Israel and her surrogate Palestinians is further away than it was thirty years ago.
This is what happens when we elevate our idealism above our national interest; when we project our own history, our own political evolution, on to all the rest of the world–as though Iraq has the proper traditions and historical circumstances to just become a democracy in the way America once did. The very British nature of our customs and philosophies paved the way for American democracy to take root. Iraq has none of this tradition, nothing of the Western Republic, no magna carta to spark the seeds of a potential representative government, no Rome. The only thing Iraq has in common with America , is Americans who have fought and died to make these two democracies a reality.
In the end, no matter the stability achieved, no matter the success of Iraq’s elections, Iraq will not provide America with a bulwark against our many threats. The endless war on terror will go on. Iran will exist stronger than ever before. Israel will remain entrenched, the peace talks all but guttered out. Pakistan will move further and further toward total meltdown, and the Islamists will come closer than ever before to possessing a real nuclear capacity. All these wasted years and wasted opportunities will leave America only more vulnerable, more exposed, and less capable to address new threats when they arise. This is a result of our ideology, our idealism, and our arrogance. Cold, calculated realpolitik would have served us better, and will in the future if we are wise, and humble enough to set down our democracy evangalism and accept that we are indeed the well-wishers of all who seek freedom, but the gaurantors only of our own.
Michael Yon sums all of this up rather eloquently:
Afghanistan is a gaunt, thorny bush, growing amid rocks and dust on dry windswept plains, sweltering deserts, and man-crushing mountains. Its neighbors are treacherous. The Afghan people are mostly living relics, only more advanced than hidden tribes in the Amazon, but centuries behind the least advanced European nations.
Afghanistan is a gaunt, thorny bush, subsisting on little more than sips of humidity from the dry air. We imagined that we could make the bush into a tree, as if straw could be spun into gold or rocks transmuted to flowers. If we continue to imagine that we can turn the thorny bush into a tree, eventually we will realize the truth, but only after much toil, blood and gold are laid under the bush, as if such fertilizer would turn a bush into a tree. We did not make Afghanistan what it is. Afghanistan has existed for thousands of years. It grows the way it grows because the bush drops seeds that make more bushes, never trees.
We must alter our expectations for Afghanistan. There are bigger problems afoot. The ice is melting, banks are melting, and the prestige of great nations that do great things is melting, because they thought they could transform a thorny bush into a tree.
And this is exactly the fallacy of interventionism for ideological reasons. We seek to turn thorny bushes into trees, and no force, no military strength will ever be capable of such a feat.