Democracy Arsenal

« Words Matter | Main | Going it Alone In Iran »

August 25, 2006

Exemplarism in Iraq
Posted by Michael Signer

My good friend and tough critic (isn't it nice when they're the same thing?) David Adesnik has recently hammered me for not being sufficiently specific about what "American exemplarism" -- the doctrine I argued for in the recent inaugural issue of Democracy:  A Journal of Ideas -- would mean in Iraq.  David writes:

When America has the power to go it alone but the rest of the world refuses to go along, what should America do? That was the question Clinton and Albright could never answer. If exemplarism wants to succeed where they failed, that is the question it must answer.

Irving Kristol once wrote that neoconservatism was, above all else, a "persuasion" -- a way of approaching the world and a valence for one's own thinking and conclusions.  So exemplarism wouldn't necessarily be defined, inductively, as a product of certain policies.  Instead, it's a set of principles -- America is and should be exceptional; America is and should be strong; America should lead the world in moral accomplishments; America should seek to be willingly followed by the community of nations -- that generate policies.

But this doesn't mean that exemplarism wouldn't also be about policy.  As regards Iraq, it seems to me the correct exemplarist policy would be something along the lines of what's now being proposed by Joe Biden and Leslie Gelb, among others -- that progressives should dedicate themselves not just to redeployment, but additionally to solving the problem during and after the military redeployment by building a workable, long-term, constitutional solution that would resolve Iraq's current ethnic and geopolitical tensions.

My concern with the general progressive approach is it's tilted far, far more toward solving the short-term problem rather than building anything lasting.  True, Nancy Pelosi talks about the need for better local governance and constitutionalism, including "a broad-based and sustainable political settlement, including amending the constitution to achieve a fair sharing of power and resources." 

Her dedication -- and that of the mainstream Democratic leadership -- should not be underestimated.  But a commitment to ensuring that America's commitment to Iraq, to human rights in the region, to the growth of freedom, and to international stability too often comes across as an afterthought rather than as a pillar of the policy. 

And in this regard progressives, on Iraq, are departing from the tradition of exemplarism seen in the Marshall Plan, the Peace Corps, and the Dayton Accords to something more akin to Reagan's pull-out from Lebanon and our retreat from Somalia. 

In addition to the sole goal many progressives seem to be pursuing in Iraq -- (a) end the victimization of American troops there as quickly as possible -- we should have at least two additional goals for a progressive, post-Bush Iraq policy:  (a) end the victimization of our troops, (b) fulfill America's traditional ideals of liberty, human flourishing, and peace, and (c) stabilize the world order. 

Remind anyone of the Marshall Plan?

Redeployment and constitution-building are not mutually exclusive.  The personnel needed for building a loosely federal system would be entirely different from the task of policing a low-level civil war.  This will require thousands of security personnel, lawyers, civil society specialists, and others dedicated to building institutions, constitutions, and buy-in from stakeholders in the three regions. 

It's an effort that progressives would be distinctly good at, and that would have the considerable side benefit of being the right policy.

This would, however, be a nuanced and difficult task -- the constitutional equivalent of the Manhattan Project -- in part because of the difficulty presented by the need to manage the ethnic and geopolitical regions.  A Kurdish region would require careful cultivation of the Turks, who will oppose it if not assured it won't diminish Turkey's own sovereignty.  The Shi'a region obviously would require careful and formal military and financial separation from Iran.  The minority Sunnis would need oil revenue.  And so on.

These are difficult goals that will require intelligent, thoughtful, determined people committed to long-term success and to solutions that enhance America's security, stability, and that grow human freedom. 

And for that reason, the building of successful regional constitutionalism would be a perfect illustration of exemplarism.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Exemplarism in Iraq:


The Dayton Accords, ratifying a peace of exhaustion, are an example of exemplarism in the tradition of the Marshall Plan? If you say so.

That aside, it is hard not to notice that Signer's post contains a lot more consideration of what is good for Iraq than about what is good for the United States. No more than the Bush administration does he consider the costs of our continued adventure in Mesopotamia, whether we can afford them, or whether the future of one mid-sized Arab country is truly more important than every other foreign policy task we have. Instead it is all about being true to our values, which is in our interests because, well, because it just is.

No, this does not remind me of the Marshall Plan. It reminds me instead of the Bush administration's own Iraq policy, inasmuch as it embraces all the administration's ends while quibbling with the means employed to attain them.

I think you're missing the fundamental point here is that what's good for Iraq is good for us. If Iraq remains a basket-case/powder keg for the next 30 years, it's going to mean more problems for us, including more terrorism, more anti-Americanism, and a perpetual breeding ground for all kinds of national security threats. On the other hand, if Iraq becomes a stable, democratic country, that will have a profound effect on the democracy-autocracy balance in the Middle East. In other words, it's all connected.

I sense a false dichotomy Shadi. There are several possible outcomes for Iraq that fall somewhere on a very broad spectrum between "basket case/powder keg for the next 30 years" and "stable, democratic country". Granted the former would be very bad for both Iraq and the US. Yet if we recalibrate our aims and keep them practical, we might just manage to avoid it - although it's not looking good at the moment.

I'm a bit chagrined by Michael Signer's plans for Iraq: a "constitution-building" effort that "will require thousands of security personnel, lawyers, civil society specialists, and others dedicated to building institutions, constitutions, and buy-in from stakeholders in the three regions."

Talk about whisting past the graveyard. Lawyers and civil society specialists? I think the Noah Feldmans of the world have already had their crack at Iraq, thank you - and the results haven't been pretty. I trust that Democratic leaders won't be caught dead advancing this sort of hilarious nonsense, which would open the party up to blistering ridicule both at home and in Iraq.

How we ever got into this business of writing, amending and implementing constitutions for uncooperative and uninterested foreign peoples, I don't know. Iraq is not exactly like Germany and Japan - crushed and defeated countries that surrendered to us collectively and abjectly submitted themselves to our tutelege. This is no time for reliving old Marshall Plan glories. We have a violent and dangerous mess on our hands, and we're not going to clean it up by sending in more lawyers and NGOs.

I don't seem to agree with Shadi Hamid on very much, but I credit him with being smart enough to understand that his, and Signer's, "point" about what is good for Iraq being good for us is so clear a six-year-old could follow it.

My problem with his point is that it is wrong. It ignores the fact that most of the killing in Iraq is being done by Iraqis to Iraqis, something that is likely to remain true once the coalition forces leave. It ignores the cost of the war to this country, utterly and fecklessly. It posits an idea of victory -- a stable, liberal Iraqi democracy -- based entirely on faith, and not coincidentally identical to that of the Bush administration.

Lastly it reflects the grotesque lack of proportion shared by the Bush administration and most of its liberal critics. The truth is -- it is a truth not even disputed -- that Arabs as a whole, let alone Iraqis by themselves are far less numerous than Indians or Chinese, far less productive than Japanese or Europeans, far more distant than Latin Americans. The Bush administration has nonetheless poured more lives and resources into the sands of Iraq than it has devoted to any other foreign policy task, or indeed to all of the others put together.

Shadi Hamid, apparently, has no problem with this. He would simply pour out our resources out on the ground of this one, mid-sized Arab country in a somewhat different way, no doubt a more sincere and idealistic way. One of his reasons is that an Arab democracy is an attainable objective -- those who see no evidence for this in history or current events miss the point that it just is. Another reason is that a democracy in Iraq would transform the Middle East, relieving us of the burden of terrorism -- those who doubt that similarly miss the point that it must be true. Lastly an American withdrawal from Iraq would lead to millions of Arabs now intent on killing one another turning to plotting terrorist attacks in the United States -- it goes without saying that people who think this nightmare scenario is not the only one just miss the point that it is too.

Don't fight the problem, General Marshall often said, decide it. The problem we face today is a mistaken commitment in a country that has some oil but absolutely nothing else we have any reason to value. We are gaining nothing by this commitment, and we cannot afford it. There are people who think that our real problem is instead that we need to work harder to make Arabs like us, or that we need to inspire American voters with a vision so that they will be more likely to vote for Democrats. Or both. In wrestling with these problems they would have us continue to fight the real problem as well, for years into the future, all of our chances for success ultimately resting on what Iraqis do rather than what we do ourselves. Is that really going to be the Democratic program for foreign policy?

The fact is Michael's post is essentially a prayer that we can "work hard" to keep the Iranians from dominating the Shia south, and the Syrians from dominating the Sunnis.

How exactly? By making these tiny states dependent on us? That's not going to lessen the Iraqis' "sense of grievance," which Shadid claims is our ultimate goal.

Even if splitting the country up is the best idea, we don't have the political legitimacy necessary to make such an arrangement acceptable to all sides. The Iraqis are going to have to fight this out on their own. The best we can do right now is contain this blunder to Iraq, and even that's probably wishful thinking.

"There is no way a partition would work," said Army Reserve Lt. Col. Joe Rice, who recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq, expressing his personal opinion. Baghdad is a deeply mixed city, he noted: "The largest Kurdish city in Iraq? Baghdad. The largest Sunni city? Baghdad. The largest Shiite city? Yep, Baghdad."...

What's more, if partition actually happened, it probably would have several unintended consequences, such as creating a hard-line, anti-American Sunni mini-state, possibly giving al-Qaeda a new haven, said Michael Quigley, a former expert on terrorism at the Defense Intelligence Agency who has served in Iraq."

Well, there's a certain literary creativity involved in stringing together a set of inconsistent policies by labelling them something they're not and calling the result "exemplarism". It certainly will give some people the illusion that there's somsething to it.

But relabelling duty and martial honor "victimization of the troops" doesn't sound like much of an example to me, unless you intend to "lead in retreat". And something tells me that idea won't go over well with "the troops", although it's certainly an example the french might follow. (Except that they'd irritatingly claim to be, by example.)

And how does the principle of gaining leverage in defining a constitution synch with a pullout... er, "redeployment", or is your plan to lead by sucking?

You're a funny guy.

"In addition to the sole goal many progressives seem to be pursuing in Iraq -- (a) end the victimization of American troops there as quickly as possible -- we should have at least two additional goals for a progressive, post-Bush Iraq policy: (a) end the victimization of our troops, (b) fulfill America's traditional ideals of liberty, human flourishing, and peace, and (c) stabilize the world order.

Remind anyone of the Marshall Plan?

Redeployment and constitution-building are not mutually exclusive."

Applause and kudos for advocating goals beyond the mere avoidance of casualties. If war is the continuation of politics, then the cessation of war must be equally so. However, the idea of an effort on the scale of the Marshall Plan presents some issues. The first being that countries, including our own, are rather averse to aiding adversaries who have, essentially, defeated them. We were able to execute the Marshall Plan because Europe had been beaten flat and we had no meaningful opposition to any of our plans. Much of the Marshall plan was executed by the European governments themselves - aside from continued de-Nazification, we didn't need to create governments out of whole cloth. Other things to consider:

As always, the situation in Iraq is different. Bear in mind that the internecine killing (most of it can hardly be called fighting at this point) would continue while we undertook to do the Iraqis the favor of rearranging their country.

This also assumes, of course, that most Iraqis want their country rearranged. After all, they voted for the existing Iraqi government and constitution, which already contains many elements of federalism. What we are talking about is essentially partition, in the hope that we can somehow reslice the pie fairly enough to satisfy all players, however grudgingly. All this while ignoring the legitimacy of the existing Iraqi government. We could, naturally, force the Iraqis to accept it, but only while our army sat on all of them. But is that the exemplar we should be seeking?

Then too, where will all these thousands of nation-builders come from? It will be difficult to encourage unarmed volunteers in a still inchoate security situation, as would continue for some time. Our experience of recent interventions seems to show that the best source of nation-builders willing to go into harm's way is the one we have in place right now - the military. How do we on the one hand withdraw the military, whilst on the other, install a constabulary sufficiently strong to protect our army of progressive nation builders? Not coincidentally, the military also has the largest corps of civil action specialists, already familiar with the Iraqi people and their problems. We would be hard-pressed to find sufficient numbers of people equal their skills.

I believe in examplarism. But my examplarism is different from yours. I think that U.S. should lead the world by example, not by interfering in any country's affairs.

If you want Iraq to be a democracy, show them what a true democracy is like - right here in the U.S.

If you want peace in the world, do not preemptively invade another country.

If you want to show how countries can help each other, increase foreign aid.

If you want the world to be a community, work together with other countries for the common good of the world.

mr. signer,

taking off from shadi's piece in the prospect, here is a piece that includes a discussion on exemplarism on my blog:

"victimization of American troops"

Oddly enough, I don't think many of us considered ourselves "victims." Swell to see that our dedication to duty, courage and honor can be consigned to identity politics.

Perhaps a swift and irrevocable retreat to Kuwait or greater Kurdistan will be the salve to our "victimization."

Perhaps the irony everyone is forgetting is that it's within Tehran's interest to keep a Biden-less Iraq intact, too. In Qum, the mullahs will sleep better knowing that a nutty firebrand such as al-Sadr has some federal influence on the Kurds and Sunnis.

Some of the business about "progressive" bureaucrats flocking to the Green Zone to rebuild Iraqi society smacks of the same GOP has-been goofiness we witnessed in Baghdad in 2003-04.

If a "progressive" raj might somehow be less offensive to the Iraqis, perhaps you're on to something!

As a lifelong "progressive" (before branding, we just called ourselves "Democrats"), I seem to recollect finding very many articulate, saavy and grunt-tough Brookings fellows in my ranks, ready to switch from firefight to reconstruction. That was in the Marines and Army and not HuffingtonPost or DailyKos, but still.

Perhaps DoD just needs a better campus outreach programme to make your manifesto so.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Sign-up to receive a weekly digest of the latest posts from Democracy Arsenal.
Powered by TypePad


The opinions voiced on Democracy Arsenal are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views of any other organization or institution with which any author may be affiliated.
Read Terms of Use