Sunday, May 30, 2004

Democratizing Iraq? The Intellectual Failures of the Intellectuals

As we enter the endgame of our catastrophic intervention into Iraq, it is helpful to remind ourselves how we got into this shameful mess. In earlier posts, I have been examining some of the errors that informed the pro-war left. I now want to say something about the pro-war right.

Under this rubric, there are two interesting--and any number of plain loony--arguments: one, a geopolitical argument; and two, a Leninist (or democratic) argument. (These, please remember, are the non-loony arguments.)

The geopolitical argument--apparently believed, if not openly proclaimed, by Cheney (our de facto President)--was premised on the need to secure "our" oil supplies and bolster "our" Middle Eastern military bases. The underlying assumption of this argument--again never openly proclaimed--is that Saudi Arabia is an unstable regime likely soon to implode. There are two aspects of this argument worth mentioning. First, this geopolitical argument is but one of a number of different arguments put forward (and probably believed) by the architects of the war. It would, however, be difficult, in advance of further interviews and archival investigation, to gauge the precise causal significance of this argument. Those, like the omniscient Noam Chomsky, who believe that these geopolitical considerations were the principal reasons for the war have yet to prove their case. Second, the geopolitical argument might actually have some prima facie merit. In other words, (and contra Chomsky et al ) there might conceivably be a case for ensuring, through military means, a stable supply of oil. The geopolitical argument certainly merits some debate.

Yet while I think we ought to debate the geopolitical argument, it faces, what I believe, are two overwhelming problems. First, this argument requires an open commitment to Realpolitik: our interests are more important than others merely because they are ours; and might makes right. No one I know-with the possible exception of Niall Ferguson--has made this argument in justification of the Iraq War. No one, I think, seriously wishes to live in such a world. Second, this argument rests on the assumption that a stable supply of oil requires foreign direct intervention. It is not, however, obvious why we in the west cannot buy our oil from whatever regimes takes shape in the Middle East. Even Mullahs need mullah.

If the geopolitical argument for the Iraq war thus fails, this leaves the Leninist" argument (a term and argument I have borrowed from Ken Jowett). For much of the 1990s, the US government pursued a Marxist policy towards the rest of the world. It thought that the spread of global capitalism would lead to a global convergence around "Western" values. Tom Friedman's writings offered a vulgar, simple-mided version of this optimistic position. 9/11 rang the death knell for the Marxist strategy and the birth (following Jowett's terminology) of a Leninist strategy. From this perspective, the US decided, post 9/11, to set itself up as a revolutionary vanguard and spread democratic capitalism by military force. The neoconservatives are in this respect all Leninists. These Leninists drew ideological support from a number of intellectuals on the right (most New Republic contributors) and the left (Christopher Hitchens and Michael Ignatieff amongst others) who saw a democratic Iraq as the precondition for stability and order in the Middle East.

How sensible is this Leninist strategy of constructing a democratic Iraq? Many observers in 2002 and 2003 always argued that this strategy would never work. And yet a number of politically-connected Middle Eastern experts--including Fouad Ajami, Kanan Makiya, and Bernard Lewis--promised us that a democratic Iraq was fully within our grasp. A number of these alleged Middle Eastern experts have now issued embarrassing and shameful mea culpas telling us that they didn't really know much about Iraq.

Oddly, a number of intelligent and thoughtful right wingers--including Dan Drezner and Andrew Sullivan--still believe that a democratic Iraq remains a viable (and perhaps even the best) current policy option. I believe that they are wrong. The arguments recently, for instance, put forward by Dan Drezner in support of democratizing Iraq are nearly all specious. (In a later post, I will carefully explain why.)

There are five arguments that suggest that the USA and its allies cannot transform Iraq into a democracy. If these arguments are valid, then the current mess in Iraq is less a failure of implementation (as Drezner, Sullivan, and others maintain)than a failure of conception. I will name these five arguments as follows:

(i) The Millian argument: John Stuart Mill (last seen on a lawnmower) once argued that multinational states could not support representative institutions. The clamor of the Kurds for their own independent sovereign state suggests that he is right. Unless a state possesses a fairly substantial conception of nationality (or "we-feeling"), democracy does not work. (This is not to say, however, that democracy cannot work in a multi-ethnic state like Canada, Britain, or India. It is simply that multi-ethnic states need some overarching conception of nationality.)

(ii) The Tocquevillean argument: democracy presupposes a period of social leveling, a period that destroys tribal and feudal hierarchies. The so-called Middle Eastern experts (cited above) told us that Iraq was a modern secular state--quite unlike Afghanistan--we now know this not to be the case. Saddam, as it now turns out, was no Stalin, no Louis XIV--he simply bought off without transforming the tribal leaders. It is extraordinarily difficult to democratize a tribal society.

(iii) The Miltonian Argument. Milton's Satan (in Paradise Lost) says that he would prefer to rule in hell than serve in heaven. There are, it would now seem, enough Miltonian Satanists in Iraq to suggest that they will never accept a form of government that is perceived as foreign. To accept such a form of government would be to accept that there is something deeply flawed in their own religion, customs and traditions. This line of thinking informs all nationalism, a political ideology that remains, for better or worse, the most potent in the modern age.

(iv) The Moqtadr al Sadr argument. One of the most naive beliefs of the pro-democratizers--evident in Drezner's articles, for instance--is that "an open society" will in Iraq yield a democratic regime that is not anti-American and not anti-Israel. The problem with this argument is that if most Iraqis hate America and Israel--as now seems to be the case--then an open society will yield a democratic Iraqi government run by people with views not too different from those of al Sadr. Anyone under any illusions about the "enlightened" views of the more moderate Ayatollah Sistani should take a look at his webpage. This leads to the question (put poignantly by Cheney's hapless underling): "Why do they hate us?" And this in turn leads us to argument number (v).

(v) The Chuck Graner argument. The torture, humiliation, and brutality of Abu Ghraib are not, as Don Rumsfeld protested, "Un-American." They are quintessentially American, as today's FT reports. Chuck Graner and Ivan Fredericks are standard issue US Prison Guards. We brought our particular form of homegrown horror to the Middle East. And there's plenty more where that came from. While we Americans like to pretend that we are a force for good in the world, there are many features of our society--features that we don't like to discuss--that are sick. We remain, in many ways, a violent, vulgar nation of religious bigots. It is hardly surprising that other peoples do not wish to be occupied by us.

Democratize Iraq? It's enough to make one weep. Yes, America has been failed by its incompetent leaders. But it has been failed too by its intellectuals. All who supported the war on the grounds of democratizing Iraq should apologize to the world for their hubris.

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