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Krauthammer on Iraq


In “Past the apogee: America under pressure,” Charles Krauthammer takes the long view of what’s gone wrong in Iraq.  Like all of Krauthammer’s work, this piece is chock full of incisive observations.  The historical survey is particularly useful.  Even so, I was dissatisfied by Krauthammer’s conclusions.

Krauthammer agrees that we made mistakes in Iraq: not shooting looters, not installing a government of exiles, not going after Sadr’s Mahdi army.  Yet for Krauthammer, the failure of democracy in Iraq is ultimately not our fault.  American mistakes aside, we gave the Iraqis a republic, and they couldn’t keep it.  With Iraq’s political culture ripped to shreds by Saddam’s dictatorship, says Krauthammer, we were left to implant democracy in a social and political desert.  Tinker with American tactics and troop levels all you want, Krauthammer argues, but if Iraqis themselves lack the will to create a government of national unity, there is nothing we can do.

I’m the first to agree that underlying cultural barriers account for the failure of democratization in Iraq.  Still, I think Krauthammer’s formulations are too exculpatory.  Yes, Iraq’s political culture isn’t yet up to democracy.  The point is, we didn’t understand that.  All of America’s limited and particular errors (which collectively add up to a big mistake) are explained by our assumption that democracy would evolve relatively easily, even in the absence of strong cultural underpinnings.  We had too few troops (given our decision to disband the Iraqi army), didn’t deal harshly with looters, didn’t make use of Westernized exiles, and didn’t take on the militias, all because we failed see that order and the rule of law would be tough to impose on a culture built around tribal/sectarian feuds–and years of dictatorship to boot.  We thought mere calculations of self-interest would drive sectarian foes to act like democratic citizens.  We were wrong.

So while Iraqi culture is indeed the underlying barrier, our own refusal to take the cultural issue seriously in the first place got us into trouble.  We could have either scaled down our democratizing goals, or put in troops and other resources commensurate with an ambitious program of cultural transformation.  Instead we believed we could get quick, fundamental cultural change on the cheap.

So it isn’t clear that what we’ve been doing in the Middle East is giving a republic to societies that just can’t keep one.  We have in fact been cutting corners on the republics we’ve claimed to create.  We granted Hamas the legitimacy of participation in the electoral process, without insisting that they first renounce terror.  We endorsed Hezbollah’s participation in the government in Lebanon, although they hadn’t disarmed.  This was of a piece with trying to bring about a government of national unity in Iraq without disarming the militias.  Krauthammer’s (still quite useful) history holds that we injected democracy into Gaza, Lebanon, and Iraq, after which the people of these countries, and our scheming enemies in Iran, destroyed America’s democratic accomplishments.  Well, our enemies in Iran are indeed stage-managing America’s troubles in the Middle East.  But we set ourselves up for a fall by taking an illegitimate short-cut to democracy: treating armed terrorist militias as if they were authentic political parties.

It’s necessary to own up to such fundamental errors.  More important, recognizing these mistakes is the only way to get past them.  Krauthammer is understandably concerned that if we altogether give up on democratization, we are left with no long-term strategy for the war on terror.  Smart hawks have long understood that military force is by no means the entire solution to our problems in the Middle East.  Democratization was meant to pick up where military force left off, changing the underlying conditions that generate terrorism to begin with.  I agree that cultural change in the Middle East is the only long-term answer.  Unfortunately, genuine cultural change comes slowly.

More important, the cultural problems in the Middle East are not in fact rooted in the lack of democracy.  Middle Eastern authoritarianism is itself a symptom of deeper cultural problems.  So to truly change the culture of the Middle East (and the culture of Middle Eastern immigrants in the West) we need a new approach.  With luck, in the weeks ahead I’ll have more to say about the sort of approach we might adopt.  The point here is that, unless we recognize and acknowledge the flaws in our democratization policy to date, we won’t be able to salvage the kernel of truth in a long-term strategy built around promoting cultural change.


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