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.

P.S.

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.

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12 thoughts on “Idealism with a Sword

  1. Well said. We disagree on the god thing but I’m very close to your stance regarding foreign policy.

    I am going to dissent just a tad.

    You write, “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.”

    I don’t see “these wasted years” as being determinative. Wasted? Without question. Determinative? No.

    I am very convinced that our battle in the Near East, with Islam, Persia, Arab, whatever short-hand you wish to use, has been baked into the cake. I take Samuel Huntington and his “Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” as my guide. I see some of Huntingon in what you said. But Huntingon said the the West and Islam are destined to clash, I know, a way to simple shortening of his book, but that is my view. Huntington writes,”…after the Cold War…Global politics began to be configured along cultural lines.”

    Generally the Left condemned Huntington, way to deterministic for their thinking. The Right pretty much embraced the view. The Right could envision a Manichean argument being made. President G.W. Bush, the preeminent Manichean of our age saw a way to start a phony hot war with Iraq, and bring western values to that country.

    Huntigton rejects the notion that the West can accomplish such a task. Islam, to it’s very bones, rejects western values. Islam is male dominated. It rejects pluralism. It rejects democracy. It places god’s law above civil law. Islam does not value the state, it places value in the religion. It values a sort of pan-Islamic notion where coreligionist are valued more than the artificial nation state where Moslem’s reside.

    As I said, a clash is pretty much baked into the cake.

    So back to the top. W.G. Bush only(?) exacerbated the condition, he did not bring it about.

    President Obama will have to deal with the remnants of the Bush policy. I see a policy of limited engagement as best. Stress diplomacy and try, try, try, to avoid military action. If war comes let it be the enemy that forces our hand. No more phony preemptive wars.

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  2. Quick thoughts: No, it was most certainly not GW that brought this “clash” about. Prior to this we’ve seen the rise and fall of Empires–the Byzantine, the Ottoman, etc.–no, this is a much larger story to be sure.

    However, that was not the thrust of my argument. Given that said Clash of Civilizations exists and will continue to do so, we should avoid ideological interventionism in favor of practical trade relationships or (hopefully someday) as little a relationship as possible at least in the trade of oil. Avoidance, really, of that quagmire of a region may be our best eventual policy.

    Thanks!

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  3. Few things beyond air, water, shelter and food can be considered good for “the world generally.”

    This is a radical multicultural point of view. You must know that “the world generally” agrees that national sovereignty, pluralism, respect for individual rights are also “good for the world generally.”

    a cruel man, to be sure, but one who cared little for the Islamists. Saddam Hussein may have posed some small threat to our ally, Israel, but hardly more than the Iranians.

    After the first gulf war, Saddam had made many moves to form alliances with Islamists and to give his regime an Islamist cast. He was harboring wanted terrorists, along with the Ansar al Islam group and Zarqawi; he was making $25 thousand payoffs to families of Hamas suicide murderers.

    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.

    Iran will benefit from our intervention in Iraq, but not as much as they want. They have legitimate interests in Iraq, but now they have to deal with us there as well. They are hardly the nation that will benefit the most—that would have been true without the surge.

    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?

    Of course it wasn’t. It was teetering on the edge of an explosion no matter what. That’s one reason why we invaded.

    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.

    Hussein was using the money to rebuild his military. The oil-for-food scam involved key members of the UN Security Council as well as UN officials themselves. This does not show “isolation.” It shows integration in the same way that other criminal groups are integrated into the global economy. To call this “containment” is illusory. The oil-for-food scam is one reason why Iraq was dangerously unstable in 2002.

    The world, and the Middle East, have gotten along just fine without Democracy for centuries.

    You should read the UNDP reports on the Arab/Muslim world. Then tell me if you still think they “have gotten along just fine without Democracy for centuries.” Of course they haven’t. “Getting along just fine” does not include being home to the world’s most despotic regimes and its petri dish for terrorism.

    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.

    According to you, when did these “rogue elements” declare war on us? Do you date this from the foundation of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt in the 1920s; to Qtub’s radicalization of that movement in the 1950s? To the synthesis of the Muslim Brothers and the Wahabbi state in the 1960s and 70s? Because in every case, these “rogue elements” declared the US to be its “far enemy.” These “rogue elements” have included the Saudi state, which for decades has financed the expansion of their Wahabbi ideology throughout the world and including the US—where Islamic studies at US universities are heavily endowed by Saudi money. Or would you rather go back to classical the classical jihad of the Arab/Islamic empire? Whatever time you choose, what did this meddling consist of? In contrast, listen to Zawahiri. He’s speaking to the faithful, not making propaganda for the West. Where is the “meddling” you refer to?

    We also extend our hands to every Muslim zealous over making Islam triumph till they join us in a course of action to save the umma from its painful reality. [This course of action] consists of staying clear of idolatrous tyrants, warfare against infidels, loyalty to the believers, and jihad in the path of Allah. Such is a course of action that all who are vigilant for the triumph of Islam should vie in, giving and sacrificing in the cause of liberating the lands of the Muslims, making Islam supreme in its [own] land, and then spreading it around the world.

    Your idea that our “meddling” has somehow caused an Islamist “backlash” is false according to the facts—our “meddling” in the Muslim/Arab world has been mainly about trade and oil. The few exceptions to this, like the 1953 CIA-sponsored coup in Iran, do not even approach the level of “meddling” we have been responsible for in Latin America. And the only “backlash” this has caused is general resentment. No one there has declared war on us.

    But much more importantly, your idea of “meddling” echoes the Islamist idea of “defensive jihad,” which is only designed to appeal to Western ideas of justice and thus obscure the Islamists true ideals. This portrays their declaration of war on us as some kind of reciprocity for our “meddling.” This ignores the fact the the whole idea of “resiprocity” is foreign to Islamists. For them the only source of justice is Islamic law. Therefore, even if the US abandoned the region entirely—including Israel—jihad would continue because Islamic law enjoins them to jihad to spread Islam over the whole world.

    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?

    This is the nucleus of the problem, whether you’re a neocon or a realist. Islamists want to impose their own version of globalization on the world. The comparison with the Cold War is apt because the USSR tried the same thing with their version. Along with this, though, you’re assuming that all world cultures value evolution. This is false. The Islamists explicitly reject it, for example. The impediments to their imposing an Islamic order on the world include evolution itself, which they anathematise and punish accordingly under Islamic law.

    It’s naïve to think that we can negotiate with entities like Hamas. They reject the whole idea of negotiation in the first place—just read their official charter if you don’t believe me. They—and all Islamists—have a world view opposed to ours. They will not negotiate their world view, just as we won’t negotiate ours. The gunslingers in your example have to share a world view if they are to negotiate. That would be the first rule of negotiations. After that, then, yes, we can negotiate with Hamas or Iran or anyone else because it’s precisely our world view we’re fighting for. Aside from this, with respect to Iran, we have had back-channel negotiations with them for years. Negotiations are ongoing. They have produced deals in Iraq, which led to the disarming of the Shia militias last year, for example. It’s hard to follow them because they’re not public. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Don’t believe all the campaign speeches you hear.

    As for being backed into a corner: I don’t think al Qaeda agrees with you on that one. They were run out of Iraq and they have been significantly degraded as a fighting force. They’re the ones hiding out in caves in the mountains, not us. Right? Hiding out in caves means that they’re backed into a corner.

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  4. Islam, to it’s very bones, rejects western values. Islam is male dominated. It rejects pluralism. It rejects democracy. It places god’s law above civil law. Islam does not value the state, it places value in the religion. It values a sort of pan-Islamic notion where coreligionist are valued more than the artificial nation state where Moslem’s reside.

    Exactly! This is why they declared war on us. This is why no negotiations are possible because to negotiate, one must accept pluralism and the nation-state to begin with. If Islamists did that, then there would be no war.

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  5. Nonsense, Roque. We have been meddling, and you have to have your head in the sand to think otherwise. We’ve been sticking our hands into a nest of vipers and expect not to get bitten. Of course no amount of our pre-9/11 activities justify in any way the jihadists attack on our civilians. But when dealing with irrational entities we have to be careful. Defensive jihad–jihad in general–is just an overly aggressive, globalist form of nationalist expansionism. And we think we can overcome the notions that gave rise to that by implementing democracy in the region? How exactly does that work?

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  6. Roque

    Exactly! This is why they declared war on us. This is why no negotiations are possible because to negotiate, one must accept pluralism and the nation-state to begin with. If Islamists did that, then there would be no war.

    It must be nice to have such a cut and dry, simplistic, one-sided perspective with which to rationalize and condense all the world’s nuance. It allows you to say such absurdly simplistic things. If only they were like us there’d be no war. We’d all live in peace and harmony. Right, the West has gotten along so well. We never warred amongst ourselves, right? Oy vey…

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  7. ED Kain:
    I don’t get it. Weren’t you the guy who was all about advancing debate etc etc? Exactly how does calling me a simplistic idiot (or one who spews nonsense whilst having his head in the sand) do that? Do you imagine you’re being arch and sarcastic?

    Why don’t you humor me, then? Come up with a bunch of examples of our meddling—not counting the ’53 coup in Iran. Because I can’t. I’m taking “meddle” to mean unwarranted intervention. I could easily reel off twenty examples of the top of my head with respect to Latin America but I can’t with respect to the Arab/Muslim world. When and where have we meddled, aside from when we discovered, drilled for, refined, and distributed the oil in the region, and in the process made them rich? Wait! I remember one. 1956. The invasion of Egypt by France, GB, and Israel. They were on the road to Cairo and Nasser was all set to commit suicide with his entire cabinet. We told them to back off or else, thereby handing Nasser a mammoth propaganda victory. Is that the kind of meddling you mean? If that’s what you mean, then sure, we’ve meddled a lot, like when we provided support for the jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan or supported the UN humanitarian mission in Somalia. But usually “meddling” has a negative connotation. So… what are you talking about.

    Then again, this question of meddling is only a side-point. We agree that it’s not really relevant to understanding the jihadist’s aims, even if it were true. It’s just that I’m tired of hearing this “backlash” meme. It’s false and it’s ass-backwards because they attacked us in the first place for reasons of their own.

    I mentioned many of your errors of fact and interpretation. Like your idea that Iraq was a stable nation prior to the invasion and that it was contained by the oil-for-food scam. Like your idea that “the world, and the Middle East, have gotten along just fine without democracy for centuries.” These alone would allow me to return the insults you have leveled at me, but I won’t. You see, I’m interested in advancing the debate.

    As for

    It must be nice to have such a cut and dry, simplistic, one-sided perspective with which to rationalize and condense all the world’s nuance. It allows you to say such absurdly simplistic things. If only they were like us there’d be no war. We’d all live in peace and harmony. Right, the West has gotten along so well. We never warred amongst ourselves, right? Oy vey…

    I don’t think you really know how to use sarcasm very well. It just comes off as childish. For one thing, I don’t believe that peace and harmony are possible, ever. I just said that if they accepted the principles of pluralism, sovereignty of the nation-state and so forth, we could negotiate with them in good faith—therefore there would be no war. Why is this so simplistic for you? It means that they do not share our values and that to imagine that they do will cause all kinds of problems, like thinking that “jihad in general is just an overly aggressive, globalist form of nationalist expansionism.” It can’t be anything like that because they do not deposit loyalty in the nation-state. They want to map the world with Islamic law, according to their own words. This has nothing to do with nationalistic expansion.

    I really have no idea how to “overcome the notions that gave rise” to Islamism. I don’t think I proposed any policy whatsoever. For sure, I never said that “implementing democracy in the region” was the way. I don’t believe that it’s as simple as “implementing democracy” or denying that we can ever “implement democracy.” I believe that the idea of “government of the people…etc etc” is an important starting point—meaning, anti despotism. But there are no magic policies. Politics has been called the “art of the possible.” We need artists of the possible to know where, when, how to “implement” and when, where, and how not to. To me, it’s a practical question, not a question of finding the correct formula. As a personal matter, I don’t come down on either the idealist or the realist side for this very reason.

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  8. So someone who spews simplistic nonsense is not an idiot? What would you call him then?

    Besides that, do you feel like taking a stab at argument instead of just calling me names?

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