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May 17, 2005

Question 1: Mideast Transformation
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

Many thanks to Heather and Derek for intrepidly helping answer the 10 toughies I posed a couple of nights ago. I will try to gradually work through thoughts on several of the others. I also urge everyone to read through the thoughtful comments appended to the original post.

The Middle East

: Isn’t it the case that had a progressive been in the White House, Saddam Hussein would still be in power, with the Middle East as stagnant as ever? Do you now admit that the only way to get the region moving was to dislodge a major dictator and launch at least one important country on the route to transformation? How else would you have gotten change afoot?

Before getting to answers, there are three things that – while highly relevant to an evaluation of the Bush Administration’s Mideast policy – are tangential to the question posed here: 1) the grave mistakes made en route to, and in the occupation of, Iraq; 2) the anti-American backlash triggered by those policies; and 3) the legitimate misgivings over whether the apparent progress in the region is sustainable and significant. 

These points are all important subjects of continuing debate, but they don’t answer the question of how progressives would have gotten the Arab world’s head out of the desert sand. They illustrate the wrong way to go about transformation of the region, but don’t illuminate the right way.

This is in a sense beside the point, but I doubt I am the only one who was in government at the end of the Clinton Administration and distinctly remembers believing that had he become President, Al Gore had every intention of ratcheting up the pressure against Saddam through a series of UN resolutions aimed at reinstating weapons inspectors and using non-compliance as grounds to oust Saddam. This 2000 joint statement issued by Gore and the INC refers to a policy of “regime change” and “Saddam’s removal.” 

The view was that by the time Saddam turned the screws on the UN weapons inspectors in Fall of 1998, Clinton was too far into his second term to launch an ambitious long-term strategy to go after Saddam. So the task would fall to Gore. I am curious whether others remember the way I do.

We don’t know what would have happened had Gore gone the UN route in the first place, rather than as an afterthought once the U.S.’s designs for war were so transparent. Our chances of building a solid coalition would have been significantly greater had we given it more time, and had we not seemed hell-bent on a military resolution. An Iraq operation with UN backing would have led to a much smoother occupation and transition, sparking progress in the region without many of the pitfalls of unilateral U.S intervention and its aftermath.

While its quite possible Gore too would have ended up with war, its clear he would have tried hard to avoid it. A scenario with Saddam effectively quarantined, his weapons program verifiably dismantled, is not impossible to imagine. The question then is whether means short of war could have stimulated transformation in the Mideast, and how.

Like many of the commentators, I believe a breakthrough on Israeli-Palestinian peace would have done the trick. Bush deserves credit for freezing Arafat out and paving the way for Palestinians to realize that the only hope lay with more moderate and trustworthy leadership. But when it comes to doing the spade work of helping promote detailed settlement talks between the parties, the Administration has never applied the level of focus needed. A sustained, successful push for Israeli-Palestinian peace - - something Bill Clinton had tried for and would likely have obtained had he been in office after Arafat’s death - is another way progressives could have jump-started the region.

Some commentators have pointed to lessening oil dependence as another approach. The logic goes that once we no longer relied on their oil, we could have distanced ourselves from repressive Arab regimes and worked to empower dissidents. This is theoretically true, but is such a long-term proposition that, in practice, it would have meant leaving Arab authoritarianism intact for years to come.

Is there another silver bullet that would have worked in the near-term? I doubt it. 


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I would certainly like to believe that Gore, if he had become president, would have vigorously pursued the goal of Saddam's removal. In the wake of 9/11, sure, it's a possible scenario.

The absolutely ferocious opposition the Salafist jihadists are mounting against the spectre of a democratic and, from their point of view, godless and heretical, Iraq, is proof that we have truly called them out on the carpet. It's a bloody mess, but better now than later, better there than here or in Saudi Arabia or Jordan.

It's just not plausible that these wannabee martyrs for their cause can be defeated by other than military means. Military means are not sufficient, but they are the necessary context for then pursuing all other means to bring about transformation in the Middle East.

The comments to the original post with respect to this question are not encouraging. Progressives have to reach a far greater comfort level in using military power, or the American people, myself included (and I am a self-identifying liberal), will not entrust one of their number with the role of commander in chief of the Armed Forces.

At the emotional level, progressives will have to learn again, from FDR perhaps, to call evil by name, rather than see no more than ten thousand shades of grey. At the rhetorical level, there must be no pussyfooting around a self-declared enemy of the United States.

When the enemy opposes everything we hold dear, as do the Salafist jihadists, we must oppose them implacably. If progressives poured even the half the rhetorical scorn they reserve for Bush onto our self-declared enemies, those who are not progressives or not liberals might begin taking them seriously. Not before.

An Iraq operation with UN backing would have led to a much smoother occupation and transition,



Do you think the jihadis care if the UN approves? Do you think the UN's blessing would somehow prevent Baathists from trying to regain power by any means? Why would a UN-approved democratic government be any less of a threat to the neighboring despots than a non-UN-approved democracy?

Please answer these questions, or concede that your assertion is utter nonsense.

'Progressives' really need to realize that the UN approval is not a panacea.

Have to agree with rosignol. While more support from the intern'l community would have been helpful to some degree, there was no way to make this transition "smooth" or even successful. If the Shiites want to de-Baathize every Sunni who disagrees with them, then the whole world can only stand impotently by. If the Sunnis and Kurds are upset about their minority status and effectively want to break away from Iraq -- well, again, there's not much anyone can do.

Before the war, there were many studies done -- by private risk assessment companies like Kroll, as well as the CIA and State Dep't -- that said the chances for democracy were slim to none in a post-war Iraq. You can disagree with those studies, but at least there was some thought put into them. Was there a similar study done by the neocons that said why these groups were wrong and there was a good probability that a post-Saddam Iraq would become something resembling a democracy? The most I heard was a quote by an anonymous official saying "maybe we do stir the pot and see what comes up." It's difficult to imagine a more irresponsible approach.

BTW, JonFH, if the majority of Americans truly agreed with you, the Army would have no trouble finding recruits. So it appears the Republicans will continue to win elections, even as they break the Army, and make these foreign policy debates about the use of force irrelevant.

What about Afghanistan as the first domino?

We'd be further along with Iran, Arafat would be just as dead, Iraq's WMD issue could have been kept on hold indefinitely by UN inspectors, and democratic activists in the region would be less tainted.

“Progressives have to reach a far greater comfort level in using military power, or the American people, myself included (and I am a self-identifying liberal), will not entrust one of their number with the role of commander in chief of the Armed Forces.“

I have no problem with using military power where it is clearly warranted. I do have a problem with a WH that lies to its people in order to use military power to do whatever it wants – in this case, taking out a leader of a sovereign state for purely personal reasons (especially when the viper that truly struck us is still slithering around).

More, the self regarding justification and pseudo absolution for those lies that has floated around
in the mainstream media in aftermath of the Iraqi invasion/occupation is highly offensive, not to mention dangerous.

Finally, while it is an intriguing game to posit what a progressive might have done to ‘transform’ the middle east, that is all it is – a game: 30 years of Arafat checking every move made against him was the reality, regardless of who was in the WH. Arafat’s death, and his death alone, has made transformation possible in the middle east.

Cal and Rosignol: the myth that an insurgency of this scale was unavoidable is Bush revisionism.

Bush was warned by military professionals and Republican war-supporters that a much larger force would be needed to maintain security. Rumsfeld pretended that lawlessness was not a problem for months after it was clear to everyone else.

To pretend that a larger international force, facilitated by a UN resolution, would not have provided greater security is nonsense.

--"Bush was warned by military professionals and Republican war-supporters that a much larger force would be needed to maintain security"-- Jeff Owen

I do not support Bush, and no one disagrees with you on this point (tho it's unclear where the 3-500,000 troops would come from).

More importantly, if the Kurds want their own state (which they do), and if the Shias want a unified Iraq with them dominating the gov't (which they do), there's really not much anybody can do to avoid civil war. Every study predicted that this could very well be the case.

That is what made invading Iraq such a stupid idea -- even if you had a Democratic president and a competent organization to run it. The costs are potentially catastrophic and the benefits are unclear and probably ephemeral.

Cal and Rosignol: the myth that an insurgency of this scale was unavoidable is Bush revisionism.


...and the notion that UN approval would have reduced the insurgency significantly is wishful thinking.

Invade a country, and there's going to be an insurgency of some kind- that much is guaranteed. The scale of the insurgency is basically unknowable until you do it.

In such a situation, the invader's options are to either pile in with so much manpower that you can put a soldier on every corner, or to get local auxiliaries to do the job for you. The Pentagon is doing the latter, because we don't have the manpower to do the former.

If an Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough was your only hope of stimulating transformation in the region, you've just admitted that you're screwed and had no alternative to offer.

"Spadework" wasn't the problem - Arafat, Hamas/Hezbollah, a carefully-taugh culture of hate and genocide, and a Palestinian "Authority" that can't or won't keep any of its promises, were.

There is no peace that can be built on that foundation. Bush accordingly insisted on PA embrace of both real elections and anti-terrorism as conditions of future concessions and eventual statehood, and marginalized Arafat in doing so. Review: what was the "progressives" position on that?

If you're serious about issues like Mideast transformation, you're going to have to grapple with root cause analysis of the problems there. Given that those root causes go back several hundred years, it's a bit much to think they all revolve around Israel.

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