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August 15, 2005

Foiled by Assumptions
Posted by Michael Kraig

I am writing in my capacity as a temporary replacement for Lorelei Kelly as she takes a much-needed vacation.   And as a new voice, I would like to comment on some assumptions about international security that centrists and progressives hold in common with the conservatives, which consequently undermines attempts to arrive a truly different security paradigm that can be held up as a strong, coherent alternative.

First, David Adesnik said in a post about Cindy Sheehan, "And what if the Ba'athists and their Al Qaeda allies prevail in that war and transform Iraq into a staging ground for international terrorists attacks, a la Afghanistan except with oil?"  This is a mischaracterization of what's happening in Iraq, and it is an error that points to larger US policy community assumptions in general about connections between groups, and between states and groups.  The fact is that there are multiple fights, battles, and mini-wars going on in Iraq, by myriad groups, and though the Ba'athists and Al-Qaeda fighters may indirectly benefit from the chaos and fear that each is creating, they are NOT creating this chaos and fear with an eye to helping each other (and, they are not the only ones doing it; representatives from nearly every group are involved).  Nor is there any compelling evidence that they are actively planning and coordinating their activities together.  The Ba'athists are fighting for their once Sunni-dominated homeland; the foreign insurgents are taking the opportunity created by Bush to cause as much chaos and pain as possible in the cause of overturning the globalizing status quo in the Middle East.  Rest assured, if the Ba'athists were to finally win (even if just over a slice of the original Iraq), they will ruthlessly root out the foreign insurgents -- of any kind, creed, ideology, religion, or national origin - and rest assured, the foreign insurgents will fight them to the death (or, go next door to Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, where they can cause more trouble for years to come for those governments).   For instance, at a recent Stanley Foundation dialogue in Dubai, it was made quite clear that the biggest fears of Iraq's neighbors is not an alliance of insurgents within Iraq, that then make a strong Iraqi state that supports terrorism, but rather, an eventual return of foreign insurgents to the lands from which they first originated.  In short: they fully expect the foreign fighters to be kicked out at some point in the foreseeable future, because they do not assume that these foreign fighters agree with any other group, or ally with any other group.  Rather, the assumption (which I believe is correct) is that these groups are opportunists, quite separate from the Ba'athists, who simply wish to wreak as much havoc as possible -- and when Iraq gets its act together, whether in Sunni or Shi'ite form, then these foreign terrorists will raise literal hell elsewhere.   

With this in mind, I'm not sure it really matters whether the centrists and leftists be seen as appeasers in 2008 elections, because the entire threat and entire problem is being defined incorrectly from the beginning, by both conservatives and liberals alike -- much as Vietnam and the infamous "domino theory of communist expansion" were ruled by misconceptions on each side of the DC spectrum throughout that entire war.   The question is not whether we stay or go, but whether we are willing to admit just how big a mess it really is, and recognize the true costs of cleaning it up, and admit what kind of transnational (not national) terrorist legacy it is going to leave behind.  Iraqi stability and unity should be a goal -- but this goal will not be reached if characterize the problem incorrectly.

Another example: I find on Democracy Arsenal (and other blogs) a certain amount of agreement with the status quo policy conception that the anger in the Middle East is due to internal, domestic repression/oppression/injustice under autocratic governments, and that the anger toward Israel, the West, the US, and the globalizing world order is a byproduct of this, or an escape valve for this.   Indeed, I've heard this from numerous US officials and non-officials throughout my work for the Stanley Foundation; you could almost call it a standing epistemic agreement in the US policy community. 

Unfortunately, it's wrong -- or at least, half-wrong.  There is of course an "escape valve" factor at work here.  But after traveling to the Near East and the Persian Gulf for a combined total of two months this year (in a cross-country outreach tour for a Stanley product translated into Arabic), what I found was nearly everyone saying that "democracy" is not just about internal practices -- there is also an international dimension to justice, development, and democracy.  And this is where anger toward perceived neo-colonialist aggression, not too different from the British mandate in Egypt and the French mandate in Lebanon and Syria, comes in.  The truth is that people feel oppressed at one in and the same time by their own governments (internally) AND by perceived anti-Islamic, anti-Arab forces at the international or global level (externally), and neither of these exists in a vacuum apart from the other.  There is a palpable feeling throughout the Middle East that their values and way of life are potentially or actually under assault by hostile attempts to subvert true Arabism and Islamism and turn it into a Western template.  Israel's actions fall under this umbrella, but by no means is it just Israel alone; Israel is just sort of the lead "indicator", if you will, of overall Western intentions, especially US intentions. 

Put another way, and a bit more broadly: a Chinese analyst complained to me some years ago that Americans talk about democracy all the time, but they subvert it all the time.  I asked what he meant.  And he sincerely said that international institutions, and international rule of law, were the international equivalent of domestic democracy within sovereign states.  He said that China had finally bought into the conception promulgated by the Clinton Administration in the 90s that the NPT, the CTBT, the ICC, etc. and so on, were legitimate institutions to join and adhere to -- and the internal Chinese debate had been won on this score in part because it was "sold" by analysts within China as "international democracy" -- with soveriegn states as the individuals comprising the electorate.  But, this analyst complained, now the US is abusing the UN, failing to ratify the CTBT, disregarding key obligations of the NPT, and is slowly but surely weaponizing outer space.   In this analyst's view, this was "undemocratic" behavior at the international level, even though it was all being done due to democratic decisions made by the US within its own domestic level of politics. 

Long story short: this is how many Arabs feel about Iraq, Palestine, and about globalization in general.    And this is why the assumption mentioned above is a very dangerous one to hold, particularly for progressives trying to lay out true alternatives to the current policy status quo.  Yes, it is necessary to support democracy internally within Middle East states; yes, if people were not repressed domestically (and were not as poor economically, for some countries) in the Middle East, they probably wouldn't hate Israel, Europe, or the US as much as they currently do.  But would this anger and hate disappear if the Middle East were democratized at the domestic level?  The answer is, simply, no.  Because the feelings about lack of justice, or lack of democracy, at the INTERNATIONAL level are just as acute and just as real for many citizens and officials alike throughout the Middle East, and only the US supporting the rule of law at the international level will appease this anger and truly bring about a sea-change in relations and perceptions.  We may not see ourselves this way, but many in the Middle East (including rigorous analysts) really don't make much of a distinction between colonial Britain in Egypt, colonial France in Syria, and now today, the US in Iraq and Israel in Palestine.   It's all pretty much the same to them: international repression against pan-Arab and pan-Islamic identity (and for many citizens in the Middle East, they still even today feel just as much allegiance to pan-Arab culture as they do to the culture of their own sovereign nation; hence, purely national-domestic efforts at democratization are not meeting the culture of the region as it actually exists, in a transnational/international as well as national context).  Unless the progressive community in the US comes to grips with this reality, we really aren't offering true alternatives to the accepted assumptions of US foreign policy today.   


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After yesterday's post, I should point out that Michael Kraig has a must-read post over at Democracy Arsenal on the Iraq War. He examines a couple of misguided assumptions about the war, including the notion that anti-Americanism is simple an [Read More]


Great post -- I agree with most of what you have to say here. A very large part of the problem is that most American observers who haven't lived or travelled extensively in the region don't have any idea how the bulk of Arab public opinion really approaches these issues -- hence the assumption that anger at perceived encroachments by the U.S. or Israel would somehow go away if Arab autocracies were replaced.

My own views on this stem largely from the six months I was at the American University in Cairo, where I had a chance to spend a lot of time talking politics with students from around the Arab world (generally drawn from the elites), as well as a lot of ordinary working-class folks in the coffeehouses of Cairo and Alexandria. (I've also been back to the region since then.) These sorts of discussions aren't always comfortable for an American to have, but they lead to a much better understanding of what "they" really think of "us."

Frankly, most of the people prattling on about how we're going to solve the problem of terrorism by "transforming the Middle East" don't have a clue about what Arabs really think of us, or how we might be able to promote change while reducing the level of friction between our world and theirs. It really pains me to see this happen -- because this lack of understanding (and I don't mean "empathy" here, I mean empirical knowledge) of the Arab world is doing a huge amount of damage to our national interests and security.

Write shorter paragraphs.

Use italics and bold.

And hyperlink the pieces that you're talking about, please!

There are many insights in what you write. But the real problem is not that we are a bad international citizen but that the international system doesn't demand enough of everyone. Arabs and everyone else would I think respond to a new concept of international order that demands equally distributed sacrifices.

Very insightful Michael piece - thanks for writing it.

The "idealistic" Bush vision of the world seems to be one in which households of fractious knights and rivalrous dukes, and the squalid hovels of serfs, are pacified and held in thrall by an all-powerful king. Yet, so long as each household, from the most stately and influential, down to the most filthy and impotent, in internally democratic, then America is pleased to call the whole system "democracy".

Now read this alternative vision of the 21st century, enunciated by no other than Hu Jintao and Valdimir Putin in a major joint statement from Moscow on July 1st - as far as I can tell, the release was barely covered in the US press, and one has to Google obscure sources to get the full text in English.

After reading it, is there any wonder that Hu is a much more popular politician than George Bush on the global scene?

Do I doubt that people like Hu and Putin are capable of cynically manipulating this idealistic appeal to global peace and security when reasons of state dictate it? Not at all. No more than I doubt that American politicians are capable of exploiting the war on terror, or the Bush global democratization agenda in order to secure sgtrategic control of oil reserves. But the point is that it is the Hu and Putin statement that more closely captures the political ideals and objectives of progressives around the world. That is the sort of statement American progressives should be putting forward and endorsing. And then they should begin working to hold global leaders to it.

Why is the US so far behind the curve? While so much of the world seems to be catching the spirit of an optimistic vision of peace, cooperation, global governance and shared prosperity, the US seems bogged down in an apocalyptic, backward-looking, nostalgic reverie, alternating between wistful pining for a New American Century that will be as heroically America-centered as the last, and gloomy dejection over the end of American supremacy (i.e. everything good). In this America, dark end-of-the-world fanatics actually get a respectful hearing in the halls of power, and Americans shudder when they look out into the world, simply because they do not find there a mirror reflecting back hunderds of little Americas.

One might almost say the US is collectively sullen, and would rather not play a role in the progressive pageant if it cannot play the starring role. Even liberals seem lost in recollections of some postwar Wonder Years, in which they enjoyed the comfortable assurance that they were the most special, most privileged, most golden children of the world.

It's very sad. America seems to have gone overnight from being a very young country to a very old country.

Because the feelings about lack of justice, or lack of democracy, at the INTERNATIONAL level are just as acute and just as real for many citizens and officials alike throughout the Middle East, and only the US supporting the rule of law at the international level will appease this anger and truly bring about a sea-change in relations and perceptions.

Why should I care what people in the middle east think of my government when it is quite clear that they don't care what I think of their government?

Besides that, we both know how much popular opinion counts for in Egyptian politics. Even if I accept (for the sake of debate) that appeasingtheir anger is expedient (your terminology*), what evidence is there that the people you were talking to in coffeshops matter?

Progressives have a disturbing tendency to present 'democracy at the international level' as meaning the US is morally obligated (or even legally obliged) to submit to the will of a majority of the planet's governments, while completely ignoring the inconvenient fact that a majority of the planet's governments are either autocracies of one kind or another, or democracies-in-name-only, and derive their authority from other sources than the consent of the governed.

*and I assume you are aware of the historical consequences of appeasing angry groups... or maybe you aren't, now that I think about it. I suggest reviewing the history of Europe in the first half of the 20th century.

What is going on here is that the US is being held to a far higher standard than any other nation as far as the coherence of talk and walk are concerned. This is a huge back-handed compliment and a measure of the degree to which we are the world’s sole ideological superpower. Rome was not greatly loved either, and everyone pointed out its faults, which were legion. But it still represented the most advanced civilization of its day. The nations it integrated within its system did better than those that competed with it and remained, insofar as they were able, on the outside.

Sorry Dan, no one much cares when Hu for China or Vladimir for Russia mouths progressive rhetoric. The expectation that it is purely opportunistic in nature is well nigh universal. Only those who hope to get something from China or Russia will, once again in purely opportunistic fashion, “take them at their word.”

Bottom line: the US should not back away even an inch from our support for a two state solution or for a democratic Iraq. Of course our support for both flies in the face of the pan-Islamic, pan Arabic metanarrative. It’s the utopian narrative indulged in by so many Arabs that must needs change, not our policy positions.

Sorry Dan, no one much cares when Hu for China or Vladimir for Russia mouths progressive rhetoric.

They should... it's entertaining reading. They renounce the use of force and economic sanctions in resolving disputes between governments, affirm their respect for universal human rights, and express a desire to strengthen the UN.

What relation the statement has to the actual conduct of the Chinese and Russian governments I will leave to others to determine.

I have to take you to task for your assertion that a newly reborn "Baathist state" in Iraq would kick out the jihadi terrorists. Why would they when Saddam himself was quite happy to entertain international terrorists in Iraq? Where's your proof for this bold assertion?

The argument that the Baathists will "ruthlessly root out foreign insurgents" is patently ridiculous- if the US military will the manpower, technology, intelligence gathering and sheer firepower cannot get the foreign insurgents out of Iraq, what hope will the Baathists have? Where are they going to get the sheer numbers of troops required to do this? The argument that Iraq might turn into another Afghanistan seems to be the most valid assumption if the US pulls out- because no one group in Iraq is powerful enough to take and keep power right now.

The "insurgents" were able to take control of the whole city of Fallujah, installing an extreme totalitarian form of Islamic control over the citizens there. What's to stop them doing the same in Baghdad once the troops are out?

Jay Mac,

Saddam's Baathist regime ruthlessly suppressed Islamist movements for most of his reign, before moving in his last decade to a policy of what might be described as cautious and selective tolerance of certain Sunni groups that could be controlled and co-opted. He did lend support to nationalist groups working outside Iraq, such as the Abu Nidal organization and the Mujahedeen-e Khalq, and he tried to stay on the good side of Hamas in the 90's by sending them money, but he generally kept a wary eye on the jihadists.

He never, as far as we can tell, supported those groups that posed a direct threat to his own regime. Al-Qaeda, for example, was openly hostile to Saddam's regime and Baathism, and there was no collaborative relationship between the two antagonists. Participation in the Salafist Islamist movements advocating the overthrow of the established governments of the region would, I suspect, earn you a quick trip to Abu Ghraib.

The other major Sunni states in the region: Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen etc. have followed a variety of different policies in dealing with their own internal Islamist radicals - sometimes relieving the pressure at home by encouraging their activity in other countries such as Palestine or Bosnia or Afghanistan, sometimes tolerating some wings of the movement and outlawing others. But I think one thing we can say for sure is that they have all been resolutely *intolerant* of any political threats to their own regimes, and have suppressed potential threats decisively, and often brutally.

I think we can be sure that whoever eventually seizes control of central Iraq, assuming they are people representing the homegrown neo-Baathist wing and the Sunni establishment, which by most accounts is by far the most significant factor in the insurgency, will then do what they have to do to put a lid on the most militant and revolutionary jihadists, particularly those from outside the region, who are a smaller factor. Of course if by some improbable twist of fate these foreign jihadists themselves, though a minority, seize power and set up a revolutionary Sunni Islamic republic of some kind in Baghdad or its environs, we will have a different problem on our hands.

You ask: "if the US military will the manpower, technology, intelligence gathering and sheer firepower cannot get the foreign insurgents out of Iraq, what hope will the Baathists have? Where are they going to get the sheer numbers of troops required to do this?"

But surely you recognize that local regimes have been much more effective in suppressing dissent and insurrection than foreign powers. This is not predominantly a military problem. Local regimes are able to work closely with the conservative clerical establishment to use religious persuasion - as is happening right now in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. They are able to exploit traditional networks of loyalty and patronage. They are able to use intelligence much more effectively to infiltrate and disrupt dissident and militant groups. And they are fairly ruthless in the use physical persuasion. They also enjoy *much* greater popular support for whatever they do. You may find it hypocritical, but if Americans lock up young jihadist militants in Abu Ghraib and torture them, the near-universal response is likely to be "We must expel these foreign infidel soldiers!" If a local regime does the same thing, the response of many will be "It's about time someone exerted a strong hand around here and restored some order!"

The insurgency appears to be little more than a temporary marriage of diverse groups united only by the common aim of expelling US forces and undermining the new government. I'm sure they are happy to exploit crazed young jihadists who come to their region willing to blow themselves up for the cause. But once the US is out of the picture, I suspect they will turn on the crazies pretty quickly.

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