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.