October 17, 2007

Iraq: The Post Mortem

British troops are slowly leaving Iraq, and in the States the American Presidential election will offer voters a choice between a Republican probably offering a new strategy and a Democrat offering some kind of withdrawel. In both countries and throughout the West, the popularity of the war is lower now than it ever was before- a considerable acheivement given the divisive nature of the invasion in the first place. Much attention has therefore focused on the ideas and judgements that took the UK and United States into war in the first place. Amongst the major culprits the school of thought known as neo-conservatism has come in for the most resolute attack from all sides- from traditional conservatives angry that we attempted to impose a democracy on Iraq and from liberals angry about the abandonment of the due process of international law and international consensus as expressed in the United Nations.

In Commentary, the neo conservative thinker, Joshua Muravchik, offers a rousing and well written defence of the doctrine against all comers. He argues that neo-conservatism consists of four principles, which he defines as

(1) Our struggle is moral, against an evil enemy who revels in the destruction of innocents. Knowing this can help us assess our adversaries correctly and make appropriate strategic choices. Saying it convincingly will strengthen our side and weaken theirs. (2) The conflict is global, and outcomes in one theater will affect those in others. (3) While we should always prefer nonviolent methods, the use of force will continue to be part of the struggle. (4) The spread of democracy offers an important, peaceful way to weaken our foe and reduce the need for force.

He argues that these principles are equally applicable to the cold war, the context in which he suggests the doctrine as a foreign policy theory originated, and to the war on terror. He suggests that they victored in the Cold War- there are legitimate questions about whether they did or whether the Soviet Union collapsed out of its own domestic problems- but leave that aside and that they will victor in the war on terror. He suggests that the 'Iraq' case demonstrates a combination of a tactical misjudgement (particularly on the part of Donald Rumsfeld) and over exaggeration by the media of the downside to Iraq- a civil war is not equivalent to an unstable country for Mr Muravchik.

Some of those judgements are sound. I agree with him that there are dangers in assuming, as many conservatives do, that it would have been easy to impose a successor to Saddam- a strong man- in 2003. American force would still have been needed to back any such strong man up- especially had the Baathist army been unwilling to assist. The picture in Iraq is a dark shade of grey and not completely black. Other things that he says I think he is wrong on. The events in Libya during 2003, when the Libyan regime gave up the Weapons of Mass Destruction program that they were advancing on, they did it partly as a result of the kinds of astute diplomatic footwork that the neo-conservatives disdain. Similarly in Afghanistan, the stupendous victory in the war there was the product of tribal leaders changing sides at the right time, and even now as the BBC has reported there are people in government who have human rights atrocities on their hands and links to the Taliban.

Muravchik overestimates the ability to reshape a region through force. He also overestimates the role that force plays in a conflict against terrorism. He is right that terrorism is an unambiguous evil when prosecuted for Islamist ends but wrong to presume that military tactics will root it out. Furthermore linking say Hamas and Hezbollah to Osama Bin Laden is a mistake- the first two have ties to what is a national struggle against Israeli forces- the second is the leader of an existentialist struggle against moderate Islam and its Western allies. Hamas and Hezbollah are horrible organisations and both commit terrible atrocities but misunderstanding their nature doesn't help us explain what is happening in the Middle East- they have other motivations. Muravchik ridicules those who describe the terrorist threat as a policing matter- but in truth to a large extent that is what it is. Many of the terrorists come from the West or allies of ours in the Middle East and are affected by a more general malaise- what Olivier Roy calls an expression of globalised Islam. The solutions to the problem of terrorism are not obvious and Mr Muravchik risks being blinded by a particular interpretation of history into providing un-nuanced solutions.

Lastly Mr Muravchik mentions and does not dwell on another major weakness in neo-conservatism which is its obsession with the Middle East. Mr Muravchik argues that the neo-conservatives have spoken about other issues- if so they haven't spoken very loudly. There are crucial issues out there which neo-conservatism seems relatively quiet about- China and Russia are two major issues. But there are others. Neo-Conservatives should talk more about central Asia- they haven't, however it is noticable that the diagnosis of problems in the Middle East would lead to a pessimistic view of Central Asia. We can see the same conjunction of oil reserves, angry populations, dictatorships and strategical importance.

Mr Muravchik, despite his impressive prose, has less impressive arguments. Some of what he says is right- but much of us is too simplistic and needs nuance and more analysis. Neo-conservatism as an ideological school is fairly nebulous and difficult to define, Mr Muravchik's attempt to define and defend it is an interesting one but ultimately it is a failure.


Lord Nazh© said...

None of the Republicans have offered a change in tactics (not counting RuPaul of course) and the Democrat front runners (Hillary & Obama) have stated they would stay in Iraq for ... (answer changes, but basically no withdrawel)