Conservative critics of the Bush Middle East policy increasingly scoff at one of that policy’s central notions, the idea of creating inspirational democracies in the region. As our own Jed Babbin put it earlier this week in a column titled, “Endgame Conservatives, Chapter Two,” the Bush administration’s policy says that:
“…In order to defeat Islamic terrorism we must establish democracy in the Middle East as a competitor to radical Islam. They have embarked on a strategy that requires success in Iraq before action is taken anywhere else. It is a self-imposed quagmire.”
Jed calls this policy “neo-Wilsonian.” That’s Wilson as in Woodrow, and the term invokes the failed League of Nations and the now-thought-dotty Wilson idea that he could end war via instruments of world sovereignty and negotiation.
Before the Iraq war began, when the President began to talk up the idea of transforming the Middle East by democracy, his liberal critics took aim at him, almost always implying that such an idea was simply dreamed up and had no intellectual underpinnings at all. Of course, that is not true. The idea had been discussed, written about, and analyzed for years at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, one of the country’s most renowned foreign policy study departments. The dean of that department was Paul Wolfowitz, later to be Bush administration foreign policy adviser and Deputy Secretary of Defense.
Wolfowitz and his ideological confreres came to be called, none too precisely, “neo-conservatives.” Ultimately, the idea of democracy-planting may prove to be as loopy as JFK putting the Ford Motor Company’s bookkeeper in charge of the military during the Vietnam war. But the idea has not yet been proven wrong. It has, in fact, proven right in many, many ways. It is worth the effort. I am not willing to give up on it.
WHERE JED AND OTHER ADMINISTRATION CRITICS have it wrong, I think, is that they conflate democracy-building with a soft-pedaled approach to making war. The United States can, and should, thoroughly defeat its enemies, leaving not a stone upon a stone of their capabilities (what we hope Israel is doing to Hezbollah right now in Southern Lebanon). Having dumped a regime (thoroughly), we can still help create the institutions of popular sovereignty when that is the right thing to do, as in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Indeed, it would be irresponsible not to. The only existing models for Middle East governments are corrupt monarchies and former Soviet client dictatorships. We cannot in good conscience defeat a terror-sponsoring state (say) and leave it with a leadership vacuum. Iran, for one, would not hesitate to step in to fill such a vacuum, whether directly or through its terrorist proxies.
It’s worthwhile here to remember that, while Iran is the worst of the terror sponsors, to some extent they all do it. They all do it — that is, Middle Eastern states all exercise power through cat’s-paw terrorist surrogates of one kind or another. Sometimes they share such groups, one with another. But they all do it. That relationship goes back to the 1960s, when Egypt created the PLO. And we can’t let that continue.
As for “democracy,” of course it is not a weapon, and perhaps that’s the wrong word to use, just as “terror” is the wrong word to use to describe our enemies. “Self-determination” will do. Some acknowledgement of the norms of modern Western commerce. An orientation toward peace, rather than toward self-serving military buildups.
And we should not be surprised that the people of the region don’t do things the way we do, that they’ll engage in foolish exercises of brinksmanship and bravado, that they will lie to one another, that they will engage in what to us look like fantasies. I refer to the invaluable article in Foreign East Quarterly by Norvelle B. De Atkine, “Why Arabs Lose Wars.”
In sum, we cannot simply exercise what John Derbyshire fondly calls “gunboat diplomacy” against states that threaten us, and then leave. We owe the world better. Indeed, we owe ourselves better. It isn’t easy to do, but that doesn’t mean we should quit.