Democrats’ Dilemma
Josh Marshall's unconvincing conspiracy theory.


Stanley Kurtz

Joshua Micah Marshall is a smart, subtle, and generally fair-minded liberal who once supported the proposed invasion of Iraq. Marshall even offered pro-invasion tract, The Threatening Storm, for sale on his weblog, and posted some excellent interviews with Storm’s author, Kenneth Pollack.

Yet, just before the war, Marshall changed his mind. The Bush administration had so botched its diplomacy, said Marshall, that the war was no longer worth the damage it was doing to the international system. When our soldiers ran into unexpected resistance at the start of the war, Marshall posted a series of overheated entries, all of which tended to paint the brief setback as a disaster in the making. Now Marshall has published a lengthy and thoughtful, yet also intemperate and unpersuasive, attack on the Bush administration, and on its hawkish supporters. That article, “Practice to Deceive,” is the cover story in the April, 2003 issue of The Washington Monthly.

It’s too early to tell whether Marshall’s turnaround is an isolated event, or part of an emerging split between the Bush administration and liberal hawks who once expressed qualified support for the administration’s conduct of the war. But certainly, Marshall’s prewar reversal was widely noted, and treated as part of a wider trend. I think Josh Marshall’s turnaround tells us something important about the current dilemma of the Democrats.

Marshall’s fundamental charge in “Practice to Deceive,” is that the White House and its neocon supporters have been dishonest with the American people about the true purpose of the war in Iraq. The White House has presented the war as an effort to prevent Saddam Hussein from developing weapons of mass destruction and passing those weapons to terrorists. That much, Marshall acknowledges, the American people support.

But the real purpose of the war, says Marshall, is a sort of secret neocon plan to democratize the entire Middle East. Since the administration knows that the public would never embrace the dangers and sacrifices entailed in that sort of de facto imperialism, the Bush administration has hidden the real purpose of the war. According to Marshall, the administration’s secret plan is to take control of Iraq, thus setting in motion a series of hostile reactions throughout the Middle East. Those reactions, in turn, will force America into an extended imperial role, whether the public favors this or not.

Marshall’s charge is unfair — and frankly, a bit paranoid. Since President Bush’s famous “axis of evil” speech, it has been clear that the war on terror could spread beyond Afghanistan and encompass Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. Clearly, these countries were placed in the axis because each of them has the will and capacity to develop nuclear weapons and sell them to terrorists. And of course, the administration’s decision to openly announce a strategy of preemption has set off a furious worldwide debate. If the administration had wanted to deceive the American people into thinking that the attack on Iraq would be the definitive end of the war, why would it have been so foolish as to issue these intensely controversial and ambitious proclamations?

Marshall’s piece has very little to say about nuclear proliferation. His basic claim is that, while the administration would like to put a stop to nuclear proliferation, it is really using proliferation as a smokescreen for its democratizing plans. That misses the fundamental point. The main reason to democratize the Middle East is to prevent it from developing weapons of mass destruction, or the terrorists who would use them. Marshall acts as though it’s merely some mad lust to transform, say, Iran that would make us push for regime change there. He neglects to mention that Iran is now frighteningly close to building a nuclear bomb. I don’t want the United States to provoke a democratic revolution in Iran right now, since it could lead to civil war and U.S. military intervention. We’ve got enough on our plate. Still, if the Iranians keep rushing ahead with their plans for a bomb, I suppose down the road at some point, I could be persuaded. It depends on many unfolding events — but above all, on Iran’s nuclear progress.

It is certainly true that in Iraq, Iran, or any other rogue nation where nuclear proliferation threatens, we might be able to get by with regime change (not necessarily achieved by invasion). At that point, we could simply wash our hands of the situation and let these countries govern themselves as they will, democratically or not. The threat of yet another American invasion may (or may not) suffice to prevent any new regime from developing nuclear weapons, or from coddling terrorists. But it certainly seems plausible to argue that the risks of systematic democratization are worth taking if they prevent us from having to mount periodic, exhausting, and controversial invasions on into the indefinite future. Then again, Marshall might believe (against all evidence) that we can rely on the United Nations to put a halt to nuclear proliferation and rogue regimes.

As far as I can tell, Marshall’s writing lately has been long on conspiracy theories and short on analysis of the actual world situation. As noted, Marshall has little to say in “Practice to Deceive” about the continued and very real dangers of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East and North Korea. Nor does he seem to realize that prewar diplomacy failed, not from the administration’s incompetence, but because the real interest situation of America and its erstwhile allies are being pulled in different directions. Ultimately, we and our allies would be best advised to hang together. But the belief of many in Europe and Canada that they can prevent themselves from becoming targets of terror by distancing themselves from America has everything to do with the fiasco at the United Nations. The emergence of large and relatively unassimilated Muslim populations in France and Germany is also a key factor (among others).

Marshall hasn’t let any of these actual changes in our security situation interfere with his condemnations of the administration and its neocon supporters. Marshall can’t seem to see any difference between conservative suspicions of detente with the Soviet Union and conservative skepticism about our ability to manage rogue regimes with nuclear weapons. But this misses the fact that the relatively cautious and rational Soviets were a very different kettle of fish than are a nuclear armed Saddam or Kim Jong Il. (And this is Kenneth Pollack’s core point.) Above all, Marshall misses the fact that traditional deterrence will not suffice to stop, say, a nuclear armed Korea from selling plutonium to al Qaeda. It’s really this unprecedented danger of nuclear proliferation, combined with suicide terrorism, that explains the Bush administration’s ambitious plans. As I see it, all current liberal objections to the war involve an attempt to skirt or minimize the fundamentally new danger posed by terrorism combined with WMD proliferation to rogue regimes. In that respect (and despite his earlier endorsement of Kenneth Pollack), Marshall is no different from his fellow antiwar liberals.

Has the administration hidden its democratizing plans from the American people? I don’t think so. The president’s well-reported speech to the American Enterprise Institute (home of the sort of neocons Marshall excoriates) was rightly read as indicating qualified sympathy with the ambitions of, say, a Paul Wolfowitz. But there are many contending influences within the administration. Defense and State are already battling over how aggressively to democratize in Iraq and beyond. The president is keeping his options open. And that, I think, is exactly the right policy. Marshall treats the most hawkish and ambitious of the neocon democratizers as essentially identical with the administration itself. That is unfair.

After publishing “Practice to Deceive,” Marshall ran into my own recent Policy Review piece, “Democratic Imperialism: A Blueprint.” After that, and after receiving other reactions to his piece, Marshall began nuancing his portrait of neocon extremism, and backtracking on his claims that neoconservatives are deceiving the public.

Let me acknowledge, however, that I do indeed mean my “Democratic Imperialism” piece to be deceptive. It’s just that, contrary to Marshall’s suspicions about neocons, “Democratic Imperialism,” is not meant to deceive the American people. No, the targets of my deception, if anyone, are my fellow hawkish neoconservatives. I’m hoping that the pugnacious title of my piece might lull these hawks into believing that I am a fellow traveler. Because if you read what I actually say in “Democratic Imperialism,” you may notice that I am actually doing my best to disabuse my fellow hawks of some of their more questionable ambitions. (See my “Troop Dearth,” for a discussion of the difference between “hopeful hawks” and “prudent hawks.”)

I agree with Marshall that some of the more ambitious democratizing hawks may be pushing things too far too fast. I am not anxious to overturn any more governments in the Middle East than we absolutely have to. It may be that the invasion of Iraq will set off a chain reaction that forces us to sponsor more regime change in the Middle East, but I would far prefer for things to evolve slowly. I do fear, however, that the very real dangers of nuclear proliferation may shortly force us into some sort of action against Iran and/or North Korea. If there is no other way to stop proliferation to rogue nations, regime change must remain an option.

I also agree with Marshall that holding democratic elections in a fundamentally illiberal environment can be counterproductive. That is exactly what I argue in my “Democratic Imperialism” piece. In that piece, and even more explicitly in my earlier piece, “After the War,” I acknowledge that the obstacles to U.S. sponsored democratization might become prohibitive. I am not wedded to the idea of “democratic imperialism.” I am more concerned to point how democratization ought to be done, if it is going to be done.

But the ardent fans of democratic imperialism have not been dishonest or deceptive. They have put forward their plans and arguments quite openly in The Weekly Standard, National Review Online, and elsewhere. As noted, the administration has expressed sympathy for these views, yet also (and wisely) kept its options open. So it seems to me that Marshall’s charge of deception fails.

I may share some of Marshall’s concerns about the more ambitious plans of neocon democratizers. But I think I accomplish a great deal more by supporting this war, and trying to steer the peace in what I think is the right direction, than I would by simply carping from the sidelines. Like so many antiwar liberals, Marshall seems more interested in his neocon enemies than in the real sources of proliferation, terrorism, or our newly shaky alliances. These new phenomena emerge out of advancing technology, demographic and social changes in the Middle East, and the collapse of the Cold War. They cannot be laid at the door of the administration’s allegedly failed diplomacy.

The administration and its supporters may be split between realists and neocons of varying stripes, but their differences are as nothing in comparison to the split within the Democrats over the war and foreign policy. Actually, even the Democrats have their democratizers, although, like Kenneth Pollack, they tend to be more restrained in their plans (wisely so) than some of the more gung ho neocons. But the real split among the Democrats is between the antiwar Left and pro-war moderates.

When you take a good hard look at the reality of the Democratic party’s position on the war, it is exceedingly difficult to imagine entrusting the safety of this country to the opposition. I have immense respect for Democrats like Kenneth Pollack. And the Progressive Policy Institute, along with The Washington Monthly, have put forward some important and responsible proposals to broaden and strengthen recruitment to our military. (See my piece on this in the latest issue of National Review.) But all things considered, if you accept the logic of the current conflict, it is difficult to see how the Democrats can be trusted with power. Even a bellicose and overly optimistic democratizing neocon is reformable (or at least controllable). Nancy Pelosi and her constituents are not.

That, I suspect, may have something to do with Josh Marshall’s turnaround on the war, his overheated criticisms of the war-plan, and his recent conspiracy theories. In general, Democrats tend to explain the ongoing war on terror as a political conspiracy, instead of squarely facing the new realities of our world, and shaping a party that can take them on. For a time, Josh Marshall was a thoughtful exception to that trend. But the sad fact is, to support this war — to acknowledge and confront the reality of our current security dilemma — is to turn away from the Democratic party. That may be too strong a statement. But it is being tested right now. And the signs are not good.

Stanley Kurtz is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.