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The Case Against Incrementalism
A Deal With the Devil
In "What Went Wrong in Iraq" (September/October 2004), Larry Diamond criticizes the Bush administration's conduct of Iraq policy in a highly selective way. Diamond takes issue only with the means used to prosecute the conquest, but not with the undertaking itself, making it seem that the reason for failure lies in Washington's execution-and not with the misplaced ambitions behind an ill-fated imperialist aggression.
Diamond is a leading theorist of democratization and an outstanding proponent of putting human rights and democracy promotion high on the U.S. foreign policy agenda. He also helped the Bush administration in its attempt at "regime change" in Iraq. He is therefore in a privileged position to explain why many liberals backed this invasion and what can now be done to save their agenda after this terrible mistake. If he wants to tell us "what went wrong in Iraq," he might start closer to home.
Iraq lacks any of the preconditions academics generally accept as being necessary for democratization to succeed. It has no middle class to speak of independent from the state; oil revenues, the life-line of any Iraqi regime, are notorious for their ability to centralize rather than democratize power; the country has no tradition of limited or responsible government; national identity is weak in the face of rival religious or ethnic loyalties; regional neighbors will do what they can to undermine whatever democratizing movements exist; and the democrats themselves lack a figure such as Nelson Mandela or Kim Dae Jung who could give them leadership.
How could someone of Diamond's theoretical sophistication not have seen such shortcomings? The answer, I suspect, lies in the Faustian bargain many liberals made: they would support U.S. imperialism for the sake of fulfilling their self-appointed democratizing mission.
But it was apparent all along that the call for democratic regime change was an integral part of a power play by Washington to control the entire Middle East-for the sake of the "war on terror," to dominate the international oil market, and to reassure Israel. In these circumstances, the democratizing effort could easily be interpreted not as liberating but as subjugating the region to self-interested outsiders. A deep-set psychological reaction based on far more than religious fundamentalism was sure to develop within Iraq and the region against this forced political conversion.
The liberal nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and individuals eager to supply their services alongside those of the U.S. military in Iraq since the spring of 2003 are reminiscent of those priests who accompanied the Spanish takeover of Latin America in the sixteenth century. To be sure, these padres sincerely desired to save the natives' souls by spreading the Word of the Lord, but in the process they knowingly served the domineering interests of the Spanish state as well.
Those interested in promoting democracy and human rights who collaborated in Washington's imperial grab made a pact with the devil that will come to haunt them. In the failure of America's power projection in Iraq lies the failure of liberal ambitions, now likely set back for a generation, exposed as little more than a fig leaf for U.S. national security concerns here brutally expressed.
TONY SMITH is Jackson Professor of Political Science at Tufts University.
It may surprise Tony Smith to know that I opposed going to war in Iraq last year. Indeed, I publicly warned (in the January 2003 Hoover Digest) that the greatest danger facing the United States was not Saddam Hussein's weapons programs but "imperial overreach and the global wave of anti-Americanism that it is already provoking." I worried that the United States would be perceived throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds as invading Iraq only because it wanted to control its oil and dominate the region. I felt that Americans would pay a heavy price for going to war without "compelling evidence that Saddam's regime has flouted its obligations to disarm" and without broad international support. And I counseled against an "extended, unilateral American military occupation of Iraq" that would "turn American soldiers from liberators to occupiers."
Still, I reject the characterization of the war as "imperialist aggression." The Bush administration was convinced that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and that if it did not take military action soon, Saddam would break out of the international sanctions box and once again threaten the region and the United States. I think the administration was wrong in its rush to war. The error is even more starkly apparent today, as Iran races to develop nuclear weapons while the United States remains bogged down in Iraq, with no evidence of Saddam's WMD. But there is a difference between strategic error and "imperialist aggression" in order "to control the entire Middle East" and "to dominate the international oil market." A scholar of Smith's stature should provide evidence for such a grave and provocative allegation. That these wild charges are pervasively believed in the Middle East should sober us, but it does not make them true.
When I agreed late in 2003 to go to Iraq to advise on the transition, some friends and colleagues complained that my presence would only help legitimize the war or bail out the Bush administration. Others wondered why I, as an opponent of the war and of the administration's unilateralism, would get involved. I was taken aback by the partisan tone of these objections, and by the failure of some (but not most) liberals to distinguish between the war and the postwar.
If the war was a strategic mistake, it still opened the possibility for historic political progress in Iraq. And if the Bush administration bungled the postwar planning and management, as I believe it did, this did not preclude significant improvements and a more positive outcome down the road. I therefore do not regard my service in Iraq as a "fool's errand." Nor do I believe that the thousands of brave and dedicated individuals working for the United States, other coalition allies, the UN, and a myriad of democracy-and development-promoting NGOs are tools or fools, tilting at windmills.
Smith's intellectual error-a common one in writing about democracy these days-is to dismiss the possibility for democracy in countries that do not meet the standard economic, social, and cultural preconditions. After 25 years of weighing the evidence and studying democratic development in more than two dozen countries, I have concluded that there in fact are no preconditions for democracy other than a commitment by political elites to implement it (and, one hopes, broad popular support as well). Yes, richer countries fare better. But today, almost a third of the countries with "low human development" (according to the UN Development Program) are democracies. Yes, oil dependence is a curse, and deep ethnic divisions make democracy even more difficult to sustain. But Nigeria and Indonesia both have this volatile mix, and with all their problems and corruption, they are sustaining democracy in the popular belief that it is better than any other form of government. In the past 30 years, some 88 countries have made transitions to democracy. Many of them had "no tradition of limited or responsible government," "no middle class to speak of independent from the state," no strong unifying national identity, and no Nelson Mandela. Yet only about a dozen of the democracies that emerged during this period have broken down, even temporarily, and in many countries lacking Smith's prerequisites, democracy is gaining in viability and popularity.
Most intellectuals and commentators who dismiss Iraq as a hopeless prospect for democracy have failed to consult the Iraqi people. They did not see what many of us in the Coalition Provisional Authority, the UN, and other international groups saw: a people fed up with tyranny, who strongly aspire to live in freedom and to choose their own leaders. True, this aspiration is not shared by all Iraqis. And neighboring states such as Syria and Iran are determined to thwart it. The quest for democracy in Iraq faces long odds, but these do not predetermine failure. If large numbers of people in a country are willing to risk their lives and fortunes to build a democracy, don't we all have some obligation to help them? Even if the outcome is not an instant Costa Rica but a struggling and conflicted semidemocracy, that is still better for the Iraqi people than some new form of tyranny, or the anarchy that would result if the world simply threw up its hands and withdrew.
Smith condemns "liberal NGOs and individuals" who are helping to build democracy in Iraq as having "made a pact with the devil." We should never invade and conquer a country merely because we want to see it become a democracy. That kind of imperial mission is likely to fail, and it will discredit democracy promotion worldwide. But Iraq was invaded and its dictatorship toppled in a preemptive war driven mainly by security concerns, however misjudged. The challenge after the war was to build a more decent, lawful, and democratic political order-something the Iraqi people desperately want.
Despite all its mistakes, I do not regard that postwar endeavor as a "pact with the devil." Let Smith and other critics visit Iraq and talk to Iraqis who are organizing for democracy, development, and human rights. Let them talk to the families that lived in constant, humiliating fear under Baathist rule. Let them see some of the roughly 300 mass graves of opponents of the regime who were brutally slaughtered in the hundreds of thousands. Then they will find out who the devil really was.