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August 15, 2005

A Glum Prediction
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

I see a scenario unfolding in which progressives and moderates find ourselves calling for more troops while the Administration touts its troop withdrawals.  I see it coming fast, before the end of this year.  And I really don't like it.

If they salvage a constitution, there is a referendum this fall -- and it looks like a rather contentious one.  Otherwise, there are new elections.  So more votes -- and a more dramatic need for extra security -- no matter what.

But with perfect timing, Administration officials leaked like a sieve on plans to "settle for far less than originally envisioned during the transition due to end in four months" to the Washington Post over the weekend.

Sure sounds as if the Administration is serious about those drawdown balloons they've been floating, even if the uniformed military is not. 

Am I too paranoid to expect that those of us who try to balance our desire to extract the US from the mess we have made with a strong concern that we leave Iraq not less stable or even less democratic than we found it are likely to find ourselves calling for more troops?

And the American public, quite reasonably not understanding why we haven't gotten things in order by now, is telling every pollster in sight that they're having none of that.

Perhaps I'm wrong, and the Administration will step up and do what it needs to for relatively secure votes.  (I'm not even getting into whether those votes will accomplish anything.)  But I have this grim feeling that my principled desire to do right by Iraq resembles nothing so much as Charlie Brown running up to kick that ol' football.   

And here's a side question for you constitutional scholars out there:  why does an easily-amended constitution make it more like that Iraq can "grow into a democracy" than one like ours, which is quite difficult to change?  (Goodness knows we've done a bunch of "growing" since 1781.)   

Since the anonymous Administration officials chose the "growing into" metaphor, I'll continue it.  Is a constitution more analogous to my baby's shoes, which do need to be changed frequently, or to the household rules under which my family lives, which may be interpreted differently as babies, children and adults come and go, but shouldn't fundamentally change much? 

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"And the American public, quite reasonably not understanding why we haven't gotten things in order by now, is telling every pollster in sight that they're having none of that."

It's good to see someone from the "idealist" camp at least starting to come to grips with the political situation. The wheels are coming off, on both fronts:

1) The representatives of the Iraqi people have made it quite clear, through the representatives they elected in January 2005, that they want a system of government which reflects Islamic, not Western, values. The remaining disagreements on the constitution are mainly over the distribution of oil wealth among the different ethnic and sectarian communities in Iraq, not how "liberal" their legal system should be.

2) The American public, as you point out, is rapidly losing patience with this project, as they should. They bought into this as a response to a genuine threat to U.S. national security -- not "the Mother of All Nation-Building Projects" designed to implant democracy in the Middle East. The percentage of Americans who believe something we would consider "democracy" will succeed in Iraq is hovering in the low 30s, and is under 20% among registered Democrats.

The one silver lining to this is that it's likely to lead to a change in the conventional wisdom within the Democratic party on our role in the world -- rejecting grandiose visions for remaking the world in our own image. I know you wouldn't concede that yet; we'll have to wait and see who's right. Smart politicians listen to public opinion, and right now public opinion is telling them that we need to drop the naive idealism and accept the reality that no amount of American blood and treasure is going to transform Iraq into a democracy built on secular Western values.

I think it is a very good idea for Democrats and moderates to call for more troops while Bush calls for pullouts. Here's why: Americans love to feel like winners and they hate a loser. Most people don't understand this war on more than a superfcial level but they can tell winning from losing. No matter what kind of spin the Bush administratin puts on it, pull outs are a cut and run,a de facto admission of failure. As long as it's the adininstration calling for the pullouts while the Democrats say we should stay or pull out more slowly, then the failure is unquestionably Bush's. It will destroy him and hopefully take lots of other Republicans down, too.
Look, no matter what Bush says, military people will know that pullouts are an admission of failure. Those military people will say so to their friends and families. Word will spread. In the upper reachers of geovernment, throught the Defense, Intelligence, and other departments, everyone will know that the Republicans are the party of failure.
I'm talking raw politics here, not principle, honor , right and wrong. In raw real politics the worse thing a politican can do is lose a war.
Bush is a loser. We're just waiting for the message to sink in. The troops coming back leaving a mess behind them, will bring that message with them.
Now in terms, not of politics, but of right and wrong: what should we do in Itaq? Yes the Democrats need to reject all those crackpot neocon theories. Like Hilary Clinton and Wes Clark, they need to say the invasion was a mistake--Bush's mistake. But they also need to say that we are not a nation that cuts and runs when things get hard, that we honor our commitments and that we will stay to help the new government as long as that govenment is making steps toward defending itself. Then spell out a series of concrete mesauring posts for triggering pull backs and work like hell to get NATO, the UN or anyone else to help. Eat lots of crow. Not only is it the politically smart thing to do, it's the right thing as well.

Now that the majority of Americans are doomers and gloomers with respect to Iraq, politicians must adjust. But how?

It depends on what you believe in. If Heather is right the issue is no longer whether or not the Bush administration is prosecuting the war, the reconstruction, and the midwifing of a new democracy badly. As Greg Priddy notes, the logical conclusion is a rejection of Wilsonian idealism entirely.

But in my view, both Heather and Greg measure progress against completely unrealistic and counterproductive expectations.

The expectation that Iraq (or Afghanistan, or a Lebanon no longer "protected" by Syria, or Indonesia, the Philippines, and so on no longer ruled by an autocrat) will be more stable in our lifetimes than it was under totalitarian rule is, as I said, unrealistic and counterproductive.

As for Heather's suggestion that Iraq will be even less democratic than when we found it, she seems to be working with a very parochial definition of democracy. To me it's like saying that India is not a democracy because it allows doctors to identify the gender of a fetus at any point during a pregnancy and to abort the fetus if it is not male. However much I abhor that practice and what it says about Indian culture, and however much I abhor the restrictions that will be placed on women in Iraq as a result of the accomodation to predominant cultural norms that will take place with the introduction of majority rule in Iraq, I should not therefore be misled into being nostalgic for the good old days when the enlightened British or the secular Baathist party ruled the roost.

Greg's apparent belief that if we cannot foster a democracy built on secular Western values in Iraq, it would have been better to leave Iraq in the hands of the Baathists may, for all I know, be a shrewd estimate of how a "smart politician" (i.e., one who wants to get reelected at all costs) must think. Just don't tell me, please, that you care a wit about Iraqis. Because I won't believe you. You prefer your realism to them.

Given the fact that Wilsonian idealism is productive in the historical but not the political (i.e., election cycle) dimension, the general populace and politicians will always be tempted to pursue an isolationist foreign policy, or a policy that pursues national self-interest short sightedly defined. Now Greg is free to reject idealist foreign policy in favor of a politically smarter kind. Heather is not. Otherwise, we would have a case of false advertising.

Heather: "I see a scenario unfolding in which progressives and moderates find ourselves calling for more troops while the Administration touts its troop withdrawals. I see it coming fast, before the end of this year."

There simply aren't more US troops to send unless you restore the draft, and that would bring upheaval at home. The alternative to less troops is to deploy existing US troops and Iraqis (and eventually less US troops and more Iraqis) according to a different strategy. I have outlined this over on Belgravia Dispatch. The current US civilian leadership may not be capable of making this change before political support at home for any strategy runs out. But whether Iraqis embrace a different strategy should be clear over the next twelve months.

Greg: "it's likely to lead to a change...rejecting grandiose visions for remaking the world in our own image."

I think this has already happened. There are two longer-range questions that Democrats should give some thought.

The first is whether the likely outcome in Iraq (an Islamic state in which the three main groups share power) wouldn't still be better for Iraq and for the region. The test is not Islamic law but whether a free press and the possibility of peaceful constitutional change survive. These things will set Iraq qualitatively apart from all of its neighbors and may allow room for gradual cultural change to occur without foreign occupation. At any rate the intentions of the parties should be more clear in the next twelve months.

The second is whether terrorists will return to neighboring countries and launch or strengthen local insurgencies. Michael Kraig has noted this possibility in the thread below. Over the next fifteen years, nuclear proliferation to Iran and the pressure this will bring in the Arab world to obtain nuclear technology could add to this instability.

The longer-term direction of the Middle East is necessarily speculative. But if a less bad outcome in Iraq survives, it could have a positive influence on other countries that would otherwise see only the alternatives of more ferocious repression or radical revolution.

Ultimately, this comes down to a matter of judging the odds of limited success in Iraq (and the odds that such success might have a wider positive effect) vs. the odds of sinking into a deeper quagmire. I think the stakes justify giving our involvement more time, but not much more time, in the hope that Iraqis will begin to show that they can do a better job.

Heather: It depends on your view of a constitution, I think.

Recall that America is a fairly unique place for having the same Constitution (albeit amended) for 200+ years.

Most countries will never, ever break even 50 years with the same document.

I think it is more realistic to think of a Middle Eastern constitution like your baby's shoes, however unappealing that is to Americans.

This constitution may last, at best, only 20 to 30 years before being replaced.

Exactly. During the time our constitution has endured, the oh-so-sophisticated and Western France, for example, has gone through three monarchies, two empires, and is currently on its 5th republic.
And of course, we had to add 10 amendments onto our basic constitution at the get go.

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