September 12, 2003

Armchair Generals R Us

Long post coming. Hold on to your hats. Apologies for repeating some of the things I’ve said on these subjects in the past.

No September 11th anniversary remarks, exactly: I pretty much wrote my anniversary entry back in the middle of the summer. The best anniversary piece I saw (amid a sea of banality) was Robert Wright’s “Two Years Later, A Thousand Years Ago” on the New York Times’ op-ed page. Aspects of Wright's thinking definitely resonate with my own: people who think about the war on terror in terms of Iraq or military force are thinking too small.

I received a couple of interesting responses about my September 8th entry. A few people felt I had broken with my usual style of trying to see all sides of an argument and leaving room for a shared conversation between people with different convictions. A few also commented that while I make it clear what I think is a losing strategy, I don’t say enough about what it takes to win the war on terror, or even why I think we’re losing, really.

Fair enough. I will say that I really do think that some of the “flypaper” arguments, including versions of them emanating from the Administration, are either knowingly dishonest or transparent bunk. In either case, I’m also not real clear on why a patriotic shitstorm doesn’t descend on people who are basically arguing that US soldiers should serve as human targets. As I’ve said here before, it’s hard for me to leave room for legitimate , complex argument with pundits and writers who don’t recognize a responsibility to track the shifting sands of their own claims and logics and acknowledge when they’re rethinking earlier claims and premises.

That to me is one of the differences between an ideologue and a public intellectual: the ideologue is only an opportunistic chameleon, refashioning his claims at will to maximize the fortunes of his political faction. If Andrew Sullivan wants to argue that it was never about WMD, and that Iraq was only chosen as a target because of existing pretexts, that it doesn’t really matter which Islamic authoritarian state we attacked as long as we attacked one, that’s up to him, but it’s definitely moving the goalposts. If he wants to claim it’s still about building a liberal democracy that will then spread inexorably, that’s also up to him, but he might want to say something, anything, about how exactly he thinks liberal democracies actually come into being and how that could be done in this case.

If I charge Sullivan or others with that task, then I need to rise to the challenge myself. Since I do accept that there is a war on terror, why do I think we’re losing it? And what do I think needs to be done instead? What’s my game plan?

Why do I think we’re losing?

There have been some undeniable successes. I’m not as impressed with the follow-up, but the initial operation in Afghanistan was masterful on several levels. Some of the changes to security both domestically and worldwide have been equally impressive and effective. And for all that the Bush Administration gets criticized for being unilateralists, they have actually managed to turn the question of terrorism into an effectively global, urgent matter and to align most states behind a consensus that combatting terrorism is an important goal for the 21st Century.

However, my first major argument that we are losing the war has to do not with the fact of the Administration’s unilateralism but the style of it. The key security figures inside the Administration have been determined even before September 11th not just to carry a big stick but to speak loudly about it, to bray to the heavens their disinterest in what everybody else thinks. This is completely unnecessary and ultimately self-defeating. It is one thing to quietly determine that in pursuit of legitimate objectives in the war on terror, the United States will not be checked, slowed or diverted, and to quietly communicate to key allies and important geopolitical players this determination. It is another thing entirely to go out of your way to insult, belittle and demean the rest of the world, even to the point of politically undercutting your closest ally, as Donald Rumsfeld has done to Tony Blair on two or three occasions.

So first, we are losing because, as I wrote at the start of the war in Iraq, we cannot win alone, or even just with Poland, England and a number of other nations in our corner. That has obviously become clear even to the President just purely in terms of the costs of the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq, but it goes deeper than finances. American conservatives continue to rail against anti-Americanism abroad as if they could argue (or even attack) it into submission. It doesn’t matter whether it is wrong, morally or rationally. It exists. It is real. It is powerful. It determines in many cases whether the war on terror goes well or goes badly, whether other societies vigilantly watch for and argue against terrorism and understand themselves to be in the same boat and in the same peril as the United States. The degree and depth of anti-Americanism in the world today would not exist were it not for the unnecessarily antagonistic, contemptuous style of the Bush Administration in pursuing the war on terror. This is not a binary thing: it is not as if there would be no such anti-American response had the Bush Administration been the soul of discreet diplomacy, nor is it the case that existing anti-Americanism makes it impossible to achieve meaningful success against terrorism. It merely makes it considerably more difficult. Unnecessary things that make success in war more difficult are bad.

Second, we are losing specifically because we squandered a considerable amount of ideological and persuasive capital with the clumsiness of our justifications for the war in Iraq. This is where the shifting sands of rationalization really do matter, and matter not just as bad arguments but as bad public relations of the kind that cannot be undone through compensatory slickness at a later date. The choice of Iraq as target, then, handed our opponents in the war on terror a propaganda coup that they could scarcely have dreamed of in 2000. We voluntarily cast ourselves as the imperialist brute that our enemies have long caricatured us as.

Third, we are losing specifically because we have shown little interest in opening meaningful lines of persuasive connection to the Islamic world, and have given a great deal of unintentional credibility to the thesis that the United States is pursuing an apocalypic crusade against Islam itself. I am not talking here about happy-happy we are the world Islam-is-a-religion-of-peace stuff here. I am talking about three quite specific things that we could do and are not doing.

a) We have to regard a stable settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a urgent requirement for our own national security, not merely as some altruistic gesture on behalf of world peace. Settling that conflict and appearing to adopt a rigorous neutrality about the fundamental claims of Israelis and Palestinians in the process, e.g., operating from the premise that both peoples have an inalienable right to national sovereignity, is as vital a war aim as taking out the Republic Guard positions near Baghdad was. Our apparent (here I could care less whether this is “real” or not) favoritism towards Israel and the Sharon government in specific is an absolutely mortal blow to our chances of isolating terrorist organizations from the broader span of Middle Eastern societies.

b) We must recognize what the wellsprings of al-Qaeda and other Wa’habist organizations really are: Saudi money and a condition of political alienation throughout the Arab world that the reconstruction of Iraq, should it succeed, will not magically eradicate. We have to find better levers to move autocrats than the threat of invasion, because most Middle Eastern autocracies already knew what we are now discovering: invasion and occupation of even a single society is expensive, difficult and perilous even for the mightiest superpower, and the chances that even the most psychotically gung-ho gang of American neoconservatives could do it again and again throughout the region are minimal.

c) Our targeting of Iraq in the first place, compared to our initial attack on Afghanistan and the Taliban. More cosmopolitan interests throughout the Islamic world readily recognized the legitimacy of regarding the Taliban as a source of instability and terrorism. But equally they knew what US planners either did not know or refused to countenance (or cynically ignored) that the links of Hussein’s regime to Islamacist terrorism were in fact strikingly tenuous and in some cases actively antagonistic—and yet, here we were, devoting an enormous amount of effort and power to making Iraq our primary target. Loathsome as Hussein was (and apparently still is), much of the Arab public knows that his loathsomeness was only distinguished by its extremity, not its general type, and his links to the kind of terrorism that struck the US on September 11th were weak. He wasn't the right guy to hit. This has given dangerous credibility within the Islamic world to the proposition that the real logic of the attack on Iraq is a general, flailing assault against all things Islamic or a greedy quest for oil. When someone like Andrew Sullivan stands up and says, “Well, we had to attack somebody, and Saddam Hussein seemed the most convenient”, it tends to confirm that suspicion.

Fourth, we are losing because US policy-makers within the Bush Administration (and conservative pundits) continue to think about a democratic Iraq roughly the way Field of Dreams thinks about baseball spectators. If you invade and occupy, they figured (and still seem to think), it will come. The opposite of tyranny is not democracy. Democracy is made, and made from the roots and branches of a society. It is not given out the way a G.I. gives out Hershey chocolate. The U.S. military can only be the security guards for the people who will really make Iraq democratic. The people who do the real work have to be the people who already know a lot about Iraq from the bottom-up: Iraqis themselves, Americans, Europeans, Middle Easterners, anyone who has spent time there and brings useful technical and administrative skills to the task. Iraqi democracy will have to be locally intelligible and adapted to its history and culture. Its people will need to have a sense of ownership over and responsibility for their own fate. And it’s going to cost a boatload of money, far more than $87 billion, because we’re going to need to build the infrastructure of economic and technical prosperity on our own dime. That’s what being an enlightened occupier is all about. It’s also going to cost American lives. Far more of them, in fact. Not because in some macho fashion, as “flypaper”, we’re fantasizing about drawing all the terrorists in the world to Iraq and killing them all, but because for the military to be security guards for the reconstruction of Iraq, and civilian planners and experts to advise and instruct, they’re all going to have to be available, public, accessible and vulnerable. You can’t do any of that work inside a bunker.

Wright's observations in his New York Times article are critical. It is not wrong to believe that we are at a moral crossroads between the expansion of human freedom and its diminishment. The problem is that the Bush Administration talks that talk but does not walk that walk. They do not understand that the battlefield lies on that crossroads and the weapons are mostly not guns and bombs. They do not understand that you actually gotta believe in democracy to create democracy, to believe in pluralism to spread pluralism, to hold yourself to a higher standard to spread higher standards.

How do you win the war on terror?

Soft power—economic power, moral power, persuasive power, diplomatic power, are vastly more important than military power. Military power isn’t quite the tool of last resort, but it is a tool whose place in an overall strategic assault on terror is quite particular and whose misuse or misapplication carries enormous peril for the overall plan. The Bush Administration has more or less flushed some important tools of soft power down the toilet for a generation: our moral authority, our persuasive reach and our diplomatic capacity have all been horribly reduced. This is like trying to fight a major conventional war without air or naval power: we have given up real resources of enormous strategic value and gained very little in return.

How to restore those sources of soft power and get back on track against terror (and to be gloomy, their restoration is going to take much longer than it took to piss them away)?

First, refine the so-called “Bush Doctrine” of preemptive attack. Yes, we should still reserve the right to do so, but the circumstances in which we do so and the magnitude of our response should be carefully limited. When we announce our right to do anything by any means necessary, we rightfully terrify even our potential allies. Specifically, we should make it clear that one of the main rationales for pre-emptive attacks and regime change will be aimed at nations which actively encourage and solicit the operations of multiple terrorist groups within their borders. Which, I note, did not include Hussein’s Iraq. Along these lines, we should actually harken to one of the few good ideas that Donald Rumsfeld has had, which is to invest heavily in precision military forces capable of rapid, targeted responses all around the world.

Second, focus on the problem of failed states, and do not wait for them to become havens for terrorism. Failed states threaten everyone with more than terrorism, and inflict intolerable suffering on the people trapped within their borders. Recognize, also, that a coordinated global response to such societies is going to require immense resources and huge multilateral networks (UN-sponsored or otherwise).

Third, recognize that we can hardly build democracies abroad if we do not demonstrate a rigorous, unyielding respect for democracy at home, even if that respect exposes us to the inevitable risks that an open society must be willing to incur. In other words, ditch John Ashcroft and anything resembling John Ashcroft posthaste. Nothing is more corrosive to advocacy for liberal democracy in other societies than an unwillingness to abide by its obligations at home. We cannot possibly succeed in promoting an enlightened, expansive, democratic conception of the rights and obligations of civilized human beings if we keep prisoners in perpetual limbo in Guantanamo Bay or reserve the right to deprive our own citizens of their rights by federal fiat.

Fourth, urgently renounce the kind of protectionist hypocrisy that the Bush Adminstration displayed with steel tariffs or that the US government has long displayed with agricultural tariffs. Part of giving elites in other parts of the world a greater stake in a globally interdependent society is ensuring that they do not have to endlessly submit to neoliberal policies established by global instutitons while wealthy nations flout those same policies. Whatever the political price the Bush Administration—or any Administration—has to pay, those tariffs and any other kind of asymmetrical international policies have to fall. Nothing provokes a revolt against a monarch faster than the sense that the monarch is above the law that he imposes tyrannically on everyone else. If I had to bet on what might lead to a greater flowering of democratic governance in China over the long run, I’d say that sooner or later economic growth and the power of a large, globally engaged bourgeoisie is going to eat away at and possibly active confront an enfeebled totalitarianism. Give people a stake in global prosperity and they’ll do the work of transforming the world for you—but you can’t give them that stake if you draw up the drawbridge and make the American economy a fortress.

Fifth, take the rhetoric of a nonpartisan approach to the war on terror seriously, rather than a bit of transparent rhetorical bullshit stuck at the beginning of a State of the Union Address. Meaning that at all costs and in all circumstances, the conduct of the war—which will even in the best case stretch across decades—has to be sealed off by an impermeable firewall from party politics. You cannot expect the Democratic Party to sign on to a nonpartisan covenant when it has so far been utterly clear that the Republican Party intends to exploit the war on terror for political gain at every single opportunity. By all means we should have a partisan debate about the war and all aspects of it, but the Bush Administration (and any successors) needs to go the extra mile to demonstrate in the best possible faith that the objectives of the war on terror are subscribed to by virtually everyone within American politics. That’s something that has to begin with the Bush Administration and its allies on Capitol Hill, for they have more trespassed than been trespassed against in this regard. This is important not just for the integrity of the war within the American political scene, but as a strategy in prosecuting it abroad. The more that there is a perception that the Bush Administration is merely bolstering its own narrow political fortunes, the harder it is to build a long-term, deep-seated interest by other nations in combatting terrorism.

Sixth, pursue flexible and redundant strategies for securing vulnerable targets against terrorist attack rather than the rigid, expensive and often draconian strategies that have so far mostly carried the day.

Seventh, I’ve already laid out how we ought to go about the business of aiding Iraq towards liberal democracy. Now that we’re committed there, it’s important that we try to meaningfully follow through on that objective rather than flail around impotently waiting for the magic democratic fairy to sprinkle Baghdad with pixie dust.