Keeping Our Bastards Straights

I’ve seen a lot of bloggers mine Jeffrey Goldberg’s Atlantic article on the future of Iraq for the hilarious section where he reports that Norm Podhoretz doesn’t know what a Kurd is, but I thought I might say something about a more serious issue Goldberg raises. In particular, this near the end:

It is true that the neoconservatives’ dream of Middle East democracy has proved to be a mirage. But it’s not as though the neocons’ principal foils, the foreign-policy realists, who view stability as a paramount virtue, have covered themselves in glory in the post-9/11 era. Brent Scowcroft, President George H. W. Bush’s national security adviser and Washington’s senior advocate of foreign-policy realism, told me not long ago of a conversation he had had with his onetime protégée Condoleezza Rice. “She says, ‘We’re going to democratize Iraq,’ and I said, ‘Condi, you’re not going to democratize Iraq,’ and she said, ‘You know, you’re just stuck in the old days,’ and she comes back to this thing, that we’ve tolerated an autocratic Middle East for 50 years, and so on and so forth. But we’ve had 50 years of peace.” Of course, what Scowcroft fails to note here is that al-Qaeda attacked us in part because America is the prime backer of its enemies, the autocratic rulers of Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

And indeed, both sides are right in this dispute between Rice and Scowcroft. But Scowcroft’s point of view at least reaches a minimal standard of coherence. The Bush administration’s strategy, by contrast, is a mess. You see that resentment over US support for the despotic governments in Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf is fueling anti-American terrorism and decide that the solution is to . . . keep supporting those governments and invade Iraq. After all, we support our clients for a reason so any modification to those policies would entail a cost. Iraq, by contrast, had been a regional adversary for quite some time. So why not support democracy by supporting it in Iraq? It’s about on a par with worrying about gangrene developing in your right hand, but also worrying that you’re right-handed and may not be able to write without it, so instead you decide to amputate the left hand and hope for the best.

Shockingly, it didn’t work out.


But the point still holds. The US faces two different kinds of problems in Iraq. On the one hand, there are the geopolitical aims of revisionist powers like Iran and Syria and (back in the day) Iraq. On the other hand, there’s the relationship between populist Arab anger at the United States and our dysfunctional relationships with sundry clients in the region. These are both thorny issues, but they don’t get less thorny if you mix them together and decide to go for a double bankshot the way the Bush administration did.