Dan Drezner thinks that the Iraq War was worthwhile in conception, but flawed in execution. The conception, Drezner assumes rather charitably, was the neo-Conservative idea that democracy promotion was essential to the War on Terror. And that, we are told, necessitated the Iraq War. I would dispute a genuine concern for democracy as a real animating motive for most conservatives, but I am myself very big on the idea in general. Curiously, Drezner has kinder things to say about the neo-Conservative flavour of democracy promotion than my own. He writes:
For all their criticism of Bush’s grand strategy, Europeans and left-wingers have offered very little in the way of alternatives to his vision. Some say that American soft power could bring about change in the Middle East. But decades of alternately coddling, cajoling, and ostracizing Arab despots has not led to liberalization or democratization. We have showered Egypt with aid, but have succeeded only in propping up an authoritarian monster in Hosni Mubarak. We have tried to isolate Syria, but have only strengthened that country’s anti-American credentials. Maybe U.S. soft power is part of the solution to the Middle East’s woes, but soft power alone cannot accomplish our desired ends.
Daniel Geffen responds:
But it’s utterly disingenuous for Drezner to claim that “Europeans and left-wingers” offered nothing but appeasement as alternatives to invasion. Look: I was living abroad during the run-up to the war, and I can’t tell you how many stupid, knee-jerk anti-American, conspiracy-theory-based objections to the invasion I heard. I was ready to dismiss most of these claims as the result of Europeanness (or Kiwiness) and left-wingerhood. But the one policy alternative that I heard set forth over and over again, and that was at least as plausible as the options put forward by the neocons, was that the US could solve (or at least heavily mitigate) its Islamism problem by imposing some kind of solution on the Israel/Palestine conflict.
I’m not going to go into the arguments for and against this policy option, but it’s amazing to me that Drezner totally disregarded it when drafting his piece. Drezner cites the truism that “the craft of foreign policy is choosing wisely from a set of imperfect options.” Assuming that the administration’s objective was to reduce the long-term threat to US national security stemming from violent Islamist movements, or to sow the seeds for a “demoocratic peace” including Mideast countries, or even merely to dispel the notion that America was the source of individual Muslims’ problems, it’s hard to understand why more resources weren’t put into even symbolic efforts to resolve the Israel/Palestine problem. Chalk it up to incompetence: I’ll let you decide whether it was incompetent policymaking or incompetent strategic thinking.
Indeed. I would also add that Drezner’s description of U.S.-Eygptian policy doesn’t sit terribly well with me. Look, I’m not saying that the U.S. is the root of all evil in the world. But the idea that the U.S. was just trying and trying and – gosh – Egypt just kept sliding towards authoritarianism – well, give me a break. A better description seems to me: The U.S. has long wished that Egypt was a stable democracy which respected human rights and gave the U.S. everything it wanted in its foreign relations. But Egypt wasn’t a stable democracy which respected human rights and so the U.S. was often forced to choose between pushing it on human rights and settling for an authoritarian leader who would give the U.S. most of what it wanted in foreign affairs. And just about every time a conflict arose between these priorities, human rights lost. To confound “showering Egypt with aid” with genuine democracy promotion seems the slickest sort of nonsense. No wonder the neo-Conservatives come off looking good (though wounded, sadly) in comparison on Drezner’s telling.
Now Hosni Mubarak knows perfectly well what the score is, and so he is able to milk the U.S. government for billions of dollars in aid while driving his country into the ground. This has serious negative long-term consequences for both Egypt and for the U.S., since the U.S. is not unreasonably associated with the client regime. And so U.S. priorities in dealing with Egypt represent not just the triumph of other priorities over human rights issues, but of short-term over long-term prudential considerations.
A real human rights policy – one with teeth – would actually make human rights a genuine priority. That means that once in a while, human rights concerns would be allowed to trump other priorities, even ones we care about. If the U.S. had tried that with Egypt, it might well have made genuine progress. But if I’m wrong, then it seems that Drezner’s case is even weaker than it looks: For if the U.S. really was unable to do much about Egypt, then why in the world does Drezner think that it was only the execution of the Iraq War plan to spread democracy that was flawed? Can he really think that an invasion of a brutalized, fragmented country in order to set up democracy is an easier job than constructively pushing a country like Egypt to democratize after having made a commitment to prioritize human rights in relations with it?
I am weary with annoyance and frustration. That is all.