September 12, 2003
Armchair Generals R Us
Long post coming. Hold on to your hats. Apologies for repeating some of the things Ive 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 Wrights 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 dont say enough about what it takes to win the war on terror, or even
why I think were 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, Im also not real clear on why a patriotic shitstorm doesnt descend on people who are basically arguing that US soldiers should serve as human targets. As Ive said here before, its hard for me to leave room for legitimate , complex argument with pundits and writers who dont recognize a responsibility to track the shifting sands of their own claims and logics and acknowledge when theyre 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 doesnt really matter which Islamic authoritarian
state we attacked as long as we attacked one, thats up to him, but its
definitely moving the goalposts. If he wants to claim its still about
building a liberal democracy that will then spread inexorably, thats 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 were losing
it? And what do I think needs to be done instead? Whats my game plan?
Why do I think were losing?
There have been
some undeniable successes. Im 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
Administrations 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 doesnt
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 Wahabist 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 Husseins regime to Islamacist terrorism were in fact strikingly tenuous and in some cases actively antagonisticand 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 its going to cost a boatload of money, far more than $87 billion, because were going to need to build the infrastructure of economic and technical prosperity on our own dime. Thats what being an enlightened occupier is all about. Its also going to cost American lives. Far more of them, in fact. Not because in some macho fashion, as flypaper, were 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, theyre all going to have to be available, public, accessible and vulnerable. You cant do any of that work inside a bunker.
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?
power, moral power, persuasive power, diplomatic power, are vastly more important
than military power. Military power isnt 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
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 Husseins 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).
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.
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 Administrationor
any Administrationhas 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, Id 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 theyll do the work of transforming
the world for youbut you cant 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 warwhich will even in the best case stretch across decadeshas
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. Thats 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
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, Ive already laid out how we ought to go about the business of aiding Iraq towards liberal democracy. Now that were committed there, its 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.