The Chomsky-Wolfowitz Theory of Root Causes

2005 03 09
Just when you thought it was safe to wack off to the front page of the NYT . . .

. . . the narrative gets a bit less gratifying.

I haven’t commented on recent developments in Lebanon and Egypt, partly because I’m really busy, partly because I knew even less about the situation there than Iraq, and partly because I’m still mulling things over. My initial impression is that a lot of commentators have completely lost their minds.

I think it’s fair to say that on the plus side of the invasion of Iraq is the possibility of some better future for Iraqis, along with other goods like the restoration of the Iraqi marshes (which I’m always going on about). I don’t buy the silly Chomsky line that Iraqis could have managed this themselves. Sometimes dictators are too brutal, and their grip on a country too firm, to realistically hope for much in the short, or medium term. The choice was between Saddam Hussein for the long haul or an American invasion. I think the costs of the latter outweighed, and will outweigh over the longer haul, the costs of the former. But at least the possibility of hope for Iraqis is a real gain of the invasion.

As for the other effects of the invasion, it seems a real stretch to say that the spectacle of a country being forcibly occupied on a trumped up pretext and then getting, eventually, a deeply flawed election (much of the blame for the flaws resting, of course, with the insurgency) against the desires of the occupiers who have a transparent agenda of using that country to extend and consolidate their control of the entire region . . . well, as much as I admire the Iraqis who voted, and wish them well, it seems a stretch to say that this is the great democratic catalyst that the region was waiting for.

But suppose that the invasion of Iraq was a democratic catalyst for the region. I’m still haunted by the crazy idea that the Bush administration could have figured out how to pressure the Mubarak regime into promising fairer elections or the Syrians to claim that they would pull out from Lebanon without killing so many goddamn people. It is very nice to see the Bush administration aligned with progressive forces in the region, however temporarily and opportunistically. But it is not nice – not nice at all – to hear people crowing about how an invasion of Iraq was necessary in order for the Bush administration to get off its silly ass and bring its rhetoric ever so slightly more into alignment with its practice. Because it wasn’t, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying or suffers from a terrible lack of imagination.

What is even worse than the idea that recent developments vindicate the plan to invade Iraq is the idea that they vindicate the particular war and occupation we actually got. Reading some of the stupider voices in the media and the blogosphere, I really get the impression that some people think the last few weeks has permanently vindicated, say, the war planning of Donald Rumsfeld, or the judgment and integrity of the men and women behind the torture scandals in Iraq and elsewhere. It hasn’t. It couldn’t.

Howls of outrage (2)

2005 01 03
Ripple effects

Gregory Djerejian writes:

Look, I don’t want to sound silly over here so that, every time some street protest or call for constitutional reforms occurs in the greater Middle East, we dutifully describe it in this space as another wondrous result of [the] Iraq [War] . . .

But with all due respect, if he doesn’t want to sound silly, then he should stop doing it:

(the possibility of some arranged Gamal Mubarak succession seems to be the immediate catalyst spurring Egyptian discontent–but would protesters be quite so brazen in the absence of U.S. spearheaded democratization initiatives in the region?).
[. . .]
It seems clear to me that pressure to liberalize societies in the region is being materially spurred on by things like the historic elections in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine and the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative. And that’s, all told, a net positive–unless radical Islamists were likely to get voted in through free elections. Which I think is unlikely.

American influence works in all kinds of ways, some productive and some much less so, but on balance, this really is silly as a general theory of the influence that the U.S. is currently exercising on the Middle East.

The more important point, though, is that even if it were a non-silly theory about the actual influence that the U.S. is current exerting on the Middle East, we would still be a long way from a decent assessment of the basic wisdom of recent American policies (especially including the decision to try to democratize the Middle East by making war on Iraq on the bogus pretext that it was in possession of WMDs). In order to assess the prudence of these policies we need to apply a counterfactual test, and not just to look at actual results. We need to ask not just how much things have actually changed for the better and worse, but how much they would have been likely to change on various different alternative courses of action.

Or to put it differently: Was there a more efficient path to the stirrings of protest in Cairo than the path the U.S. actually took – assuming for the sake of argument that the U.S. had anything significant to do with it? The path I favoured would have involved the consistent application of diplomatic pressure, more support for grassroots organizations in Cairo, rigorous avoidance of complicity in Egyptian torture practises, generous trade incentives, and the very serious threat of deep cuts in military aid in the absence of genuine reforms. The record Djerejian is championing involved inconsistent diplomatic pressure, complicity in Egyptian torture practises, no real threat of cuts to military aid, and the invasion of another country on false pretences against the judgement of the better part of the world – a war which involved a torture scandal and all the awful, sordid mess and loss of life that a dirty war against an insurgency involves. Here are two different paths to (some of) the conditions for reform in Egypt. Take your pick, dear reader.

(And it’s important to see that, American self-congratulation aside, the diplomatic pressure on Egypt has been deeply inconsistent partly because the U.S. wanted its support (or at least acquiescence) for the war. And so we had, for example, the very positive American pressure to release Saad Ibrahim from prison before the war, but at the same time, the Bush administration turning a blind eye to the Mubarak regime’s crackdown on protests against the war. It is the latter which turns the former into a token gesture rather than one step in a consistent policy. And so it goes.)

I’m a big fan of what I like to call the Chomsky-Wolfowitz Theory of Root Causes, the theory that says that long-standing U.S. support for authoritarian regimes in the Middle East has been one cause of the threat from radical Islamic groups. For that reason, and also because it is intrinsically good, I have long thought it would be wonderful for the U.S. to get serious about promoting democracy in the region. But there were other ways – much, much better ways – to bring democracy to the region than by invading Iraq. If Djerejian wants to stop sounding silly, he ought to recognize that it is against these alternatives that we ought to measure the actual outcomes of the policies that he supports. If he did that, I doubt he would say that the policies have resulted in a net positive.

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2004 05 29

Contra Atrios, this is not a clever bit of rhetorical judo. (I should say that Atrios doesn’t actually endorse the content of Kerry’s message or think that Kerry necessarily does.) If the reporter interviewing Kerry is representing him properly, then it’s a disgrace:

Sen. John F. Kerry indicated that as president he would play down the promotion of democracy as a leading goal in dealing with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, China and Russia, instead focusing on other objectives that he said are more central to the United States’ security.
. . .
In many ways, Kerry laid out a foreign-policy agenda that appeared less idealistic about U.S. aims than President Bush or even fellow Democrat former president Bill Clinton. While Kerry said it was important to sell democracy and “market it” around the world, he demurred when questioned about a number of important countries that suppress human rights and freedoms. He said securing all nuclear materials in Russia, integrating China in the world economy, achieving greater controls over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons or winning greater cooperation on terrorist financing in Saudi Arabia trumped human rights concerns in those nations.

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Howls of outrage (2)

2004 05 27
Geffen, Drezner, Iraq and Egypt

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.

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