Nikolas Gvosdev: Bait and switch tactics continue…


I realize that readers of TWN are still absorbing the impact of John Bolton’s recess appointment, but I wanted to shift gears if I might.
I was perusing the August 8, 2005 issue of The New Republic and was flabbergasted by its editorial, “Constitutional Crisis.” One of the ongoing topics of discussion on TWN is the search for a “moderate middle” in foreign policy but as a number of contributors have pointed out, there is also an ongoing bi-partisan alliance between Republican neo-conservatives and Democrat “hawks.”
The TNR editorial stands in contrast to what will be the editorial statement in the forthcoming Fall 2005 issue of The National Interest, which calls for defining standards for a realistic victory in Iraq:

What do we mean by “realistic victory”? We mean a meaningful success that would be widely interpreted as a victory by traditional international standards, namely, destroying a hostile regime and establishing a reasonably friendly, efficient, and non-tyrannical government that threatens neither the United States nor regional allies like Israel.

But the editors of TNR raise the following point, in discussing the new Constitution for Iraq and its likely emphasis of sharia law: “The idea that 1800 American troops died so that Iraqi women can enjoy the full blessings of religious medievalism ought to disturb the Bush administration and the American public.”
When I read that phrase, I can’t explain why, but my blood began to boil. Upon reflection, I guess my reaction breaks down as follows:
We’re back to the old bait and switch tactics. I thought that American troops lost their lives because Iraq under Saddam Hussein was said to pose an imminent threat to the security of the Middle East and of the United States, possessing weapons of mass destruction that were on the verge of being handed over to terrorists. More recently, I thought that the main rationale for the continued American presence in Iraq was to prevent the country from becoming another Afghanistan — and for those who are interested, I highly recommend Alexis Debat’s reporting on Zarqawi’s global ambitions.
But beyond that, the deliberate naivete — what did you expect from opposition groups that described themselves as a supreme council for the Islamic Revolution? That they were going to be secular Western liberals?
Next, the recommendation — that the United States use its leverage to influence the writing of the Constitution along lines we support. The problem here is that this leads to one of two outcomes. Either Iraqis will write the most democratic constitution in the whole wide world, one they have no intention of enforcing — after all, Stalin’s 1936 USSR Constitution was, on paper, far more liberal and desirable than the American one. Or the United States will be constantly interfering in Iraq’s internal affairs to try and force unwilling compliance with those standards.
(Plus, let’s reverse the picture for a moment. Can you imagine the reaction here in Washington if a Chinese magazine were to editorialize that China should use its immense financial leverage via purchase of our treasury bills to encourage the United States to improve its human rights record? After all, the People’s Republic duly issues a report every year highlighting what they believe are our shortcomings in the human rights field.)
But TNR does have an important point — it would be a major step backwards if Iraqi women lost rights that Saddam Hussein’s regime guaranteed. Which leads me to another unpopular point to make: that democracy is not always the fruit of regime change.
Let’s take Syria. By all accounts, Syria is a repressive dictatorship. It crushed by brutal force an Islamist uprising (by the same means that our ally Egypt and Algeria’s generals did). But every observer I’ve talked to also notes that outside of the sphere of politics life in Syria is pretty tolerable.
Take one example — visit the website of the Archdiocese of Aleppo. For a Christian minority in a Muslim majority society, they seem to enjoy a good deal of freedom. Plus there seems to be many of the attributes of a flourishing civil society –cultural and educational institutions, youth groups, women’s groups, etc. (By the way, there is a reason why Iraq’s Christians have been leaving the country, many seeking refuge in Syria, by the way.) Yes, there are real limits — in one of the photos of an ecumenical gathering in Aleppo, the portrait of al-Asad gazes down — but within those limits there is also genuine free interaction.
I don’t mean this to be an apologia for the Ba’athist regime in Damascus. But I bring this up because we in Washington have tended to be very cavalier in talking about regime change for places like Syria or Uzbekistan. Yes, there are dictatorships in place there. But there are also worse options. And just because they call themselves “democrats” doesn’t make it so.
This brings me back, finally, to the question at hand — hard choices. The United States, at the end of the day, is not omnipotent. Our financial resources are limited; the time and attention of our leaders is limited; the capacity of our institutions (including the White House staff, the military and the State Department) is limited; and our political capital with other governments is limited.
John J. Mearsheimer, in remarks last year and in a short essay for the forthcoming issue of TNI, makes the following point:

Realists are often accused of disliking democracy and even of being anti-democratic. This is a bogus charge. Every realist I know would be thrilled to see Iraq turned into a thriving democracy. Realists, however, are well aware of the difficulty of spreading democracy, especially by military means. They also understand that even if the enterprise is successful, that is no guarantee that peace will break out.

And as one of my colleagues just noted — we can’t have it both ways. Either we are an imperial power who sets the rules and then are prepared to enforce them (and pay the costs) or we allow Iraq’s process to go forward — a process, by the way, that we created — even if we are displeased with the results.
Nikolas Gvosdev