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Political analysis and other daily rants on the state of the nation

Sunday | March 02, 2003

Snake Eyes

In today's New York Times, columnist Tom Friedman says Bush's vision of using the Iraq invasion to bring peace and democracy to the Middle East is "the greatest shake of the dice any president has voluntarily engaged in since Harry Truman dropped the bomb on Japan." It's "the mother of all presidential gambles" and "an audacious shake of the dice."

OK, Tom, we get the gambling metaphor.

Understand that this is from someone who supports Bush's vision, in which a liberated Iraq would serve as a sort of pilot project for the democratic transformation of the Arab world. Friedman thinks this is "bold."

Now I may way off base on this, but I'm going to guess that like me, most Americans don't particularly want a Commander in Chief who gambles with our national security. The Middle East isn't a craps table, and American GIs are not poker chips. If Bush wants to roll the damn dice, let him go to Vegas.

But Friedman is right: Bush's postwar plan is a game of chance. But it's more like a roulette wheel, with Shrub betting the works on double zero. Except that would give him better odds.

Yet, a lot of otherwise intelligent people seem to think this is a sensible strategy.
What's going on? Do all these people all have a gambling problem? Or have they just collectively lost touch with reality?

Something like the latter. They've put themselves in a position where they almost have to believe Bush's pitch, because the alternative is to admit that United States is now caught in a terrible trap in the Middle East, thanks to our alliance with Israel, our tacit acceptance of Israel's settlement of the West Bank and Gaza, and the industrial world's dependence on Gulf oil.

The "thinking hawks" -- those who, like Friedman, support the war, but only reluctantly -- recognize the status quo in the region is becoming intolerable. And they realize invading Iraq is going to smash that status quo beyond repair. To justify their support for Bush's war, they need to see a solution.

So the thinking hawks have bought into Bush's vision, which actually belongs to the superhawks -- the small cadre of neoconservative intellectuals, such as the Pentagon's Paul Wolfowitz and Doug Feith, who first pushed for the war, and who now dominate postwar planning.

The neocons claim they want to remake Iraq into a model state – stable, peaceful and reasonably democratic, in the sense of having at least some of the features of a Western-style parliamentary government. Beyond that the vision gets pretty fuzzy. But, if I understand Shrub correctly, the shining example of a free Iraq would encourage the Arabs to dismantle their corrupt police states and embrace the blessings of democracy.

I wonder what kind of the odds the London bookies would give on that outcome.

It would be easy to dismiss the "democracy" project as just mindless PR -- eye candy to distract the country from the real task at hand, which is grabbing Iraq's oil fields.

I wish we could. That kind of evil would at least be straightforward. But to a degree, I take the neocons at their word. I think they really do want to transform the Middle East and promote "democracy" -- at least as they understand it.

Of course, at this point, Bin Ladin could probably win a free election in any Arab country by a landslide. The neocons certainly know this. But they seem to think that if they can take down the radical regimes in the area -- Iraq, Syria and Libya -- and replace them with moderate, pro-Western military governments, these might later evolve into at least quasi-democracies, like Turkey did.

They appear to have plans for the other Arab countries, as well. They want to prod the Saudi family into breaking with Wahabi fundamentalism. They want to force the Egyptians to reform their economy. And they want the Lebanese government to help kick Hezbollah out of south Lebanon.

But most of all, I think the neocons want to intimidate the Palestinians. By strong-arming the remaining Arab belligerent states into making peace with Israel, they hope to force the Palestinians to the bargaining table, where a "peace" settlement, on Ariel Sharon's terms, can be dictated.

Now this is a mighty ambitous agenda -- more than maybe even a superpower can hope to achieve. Just ask the British. After World War I, they tried to remake the Middle East, in part by establishing Iraq as a friendly constitutional monarchy -- the British idea of a model state. The experiment was a flop, leading to coups, military dictatorships, and, ultimately, the Ba’ath and Saddam. And the British were in Iraq for almost 30 years – fifteen of them under a formal mandate from the League of Nations to run the place.

The neocons aren't idiots; they know the historical record. So how can they believe in their own plan? They have to believe, because the alternatives are so grim: rising fundamentalism, more suicide bombings, an endless intifada in the West Bank and Gaza, and the demographic "threat" that Palestinian population growth will eventually turn Israel into the Jewish South Africa.

Or, on the other hand, the prospect of having to dismantle the settlements and withdraw unilaterally from most of the occupied territories. This would mean the death of the Likud dream of Greater Israel. And it could quite possibly trigger something close to a civil war.

These are unbearable choices. So something dramatic has to be done. The Germans call it a "flight forward" -- attempting to escape from a intolerable situation by taking even bigger risks. Like a gambler doubling his bets to try to climb out of the hole.

As reckless as all this sounds, it's downright modest compared to what the thinking hawks have in mind. The don't want some watered-down version of military rule -- democracy on training wheels. They want the real thing. They want to disassemble, repair and reassemble the Arab world as if it were some kind of defective auto part. And they want to start by remaking Iraq in America's own image, as we did Germany and Japan after World War II.

The thinking hawks understand these particular examples may not be too relevent now. As Joshua Mica Marshall recently put it: "By 1945, we had pretty much destroyed the Germans' and Japanese' will to fight . . . The same set of circumstances won't apply to Iraq. And that should be a cause of real concern."

Yes, it should. Particularly since several leaders of the Iraqi opposition have threatened to turn against us if the liberation of Iraq turns into the long-term military occupation of Iraq.

Marshall also realizes that our new and improved Iraq might not prove very popular in the Middle East: "An American invasion of Iraq," he writes, "will at first almost certainly be viewed as a neo-Imperialist attempt to take over an Arab country, secure its oil wealth, and do various other bad things." Perish the thought.

But what conclusion does Marshall draw from this? That the U.S. must be prepared to dig in deeper, stay longer in Iraq: "The only chance of changing the equation is to undertake the sort of thorough-going internal transformation of the country that we managed in Germany and Japan." Otherwise, he adds, the U.S. will "get the fruits of all the region's deep-seated pathologies and no chance to uproot them."

This is mighty odd logic – about as bizarre as the "we had to destroy the village to save it" reasoning of the Vietnam War. It goes something like this: In order to win the Middle East over to our side, we have to inflame Arab nationalism and provoke popular rage with a lengthy military occupation of Iraq. That way, after these countries have been turned into democracies, their citizens will be happy to vote for moderate, pro-Western politicians who will support the United States in the struggle against terrorism.

Excuse me, but on what planet does this even remotely make sense? Is there anything that suggests America is the right country to overhaul an ancient culture, riddled with religious and ethnic tensions, that got hung up on the conveyer belt between medievalism and modernity? Us? The guys who couldn't find most foreign countries on a map, and don’t care?

And are the American people really prepared to sacrifice the blood and treasure it would take to try?

The thinking hawks are rational enough to understand how far-fetched this all sounds. So why are they willing to bet the ranch on it?

Because, having bought the premise that war is the lesser evil, they really have no choice. They have to buy the postwar vision as well. What's the alternative? Bugging out as soon as Saddam is dead and his weapons destroyed, leaving some ex-Ba'thist thug of a general behind to guard our new oil wells.

For people who don't want to think of this war as an imperialist adventure, that's a miserable thought. So, as Marshall puts it, "Once the decision for war is made, it (the democratic transformation of Iraq) is really the only policy we can pursue. But the scope of enterprise is awe-inspiring."

I can imagine a young liberal journalist, say in 1964, writing a similar line about a different war. Would he have still believed it in 1970?


Posted March 02, 2003 01:45 AM | Comments (96)


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