It used to be said that the best hope for an impoverished little country was to declare war on the United States, because the ILC would lose and then receive massive quantities of aid and assistance. Such bits of folk wisdom led to some great comic masterpieces, such as the memorable Peter Sellers movie, The Mouse that Roared, in which the ILC was unlucky enough to win…and then what?
Nowadays the process from war to aid and assistance has grown much shorter, because it’s no longer necessary to go through the unpleasant business of losing. And if you do have to lose, it’s made much easier than it used to be.
The two most recent examples are: the Iraqi Sunnis and the Iranian Shiite regime. As luck would have it, the same group of American leaders–our foreign service, and in both of these cases, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad–are driving the policy of preemptive embrace of our announced enemies.
The war in Iraq was waged against an evil regime run by (minority) Sunnis. The object of Operation Iraqi Freedom, oft stated by the president and his Cabinet secretaries, was the overthrow of Saddam and the liberation of the Iraqi people. We have repeatedly promised to create the first democracy in the Arab Middle East, in which a constitution will protect the rights of the people, and the people will elect their own leaders.
Most of the establishment in the Muslim Middle East hates this idea, because, if implemented regionally, it would remove every current leader. The royal families, Baathists, and mullahs vastly prefer the kind of dictatorship imposed on the Iraqi people by Saddam and his (Sunni) Tikritis. They have been the Sunnis’ biggest and boldest lobbyists, constantly issuing outrageously meddlesome statements from their own capitals and from meetings of the colossal failure known as the Arab League. They don’t want democracy. They want the big guys to call the shots, and they want the Iraqi Sunnis to have power far beyond their real political strength.
Incredibly, they have convinced the American government to do just that.
Throughout the constitutional negotiations, the Sunnis repeatedly found support from Khalilzad and his colleagues in the embassy, the State Department, and the National Security Council. They made a big deal out of the relatively high level of Sunni participation in the referendum, even though the Sunnis came within a whisker of defeating the Constitution itself. This, even though the Shiites and Kurds were routinely murdered and tortured during the Saddam years, and even though they constitute the overwhelming majority of Iraqis.
What the Sunnis need, really, is a lesson in minority democratic politics. They need to understand that they only way they are going to get meaningful national power (they are guaranteed considerable regional authority thanks to the federalist constitution) is by forming alliances and coalitions, by effective political advocacy, and by demonstrating the will and capacity to act on behalf of all Iraqis. Our little exercise in holding the losers’ clammy hands sends precisely the wrong lesson. We are telling them that they can get our largesse just by whining, they don’t have to prove their worthiness first. We should have asked for Sunni cooperation against the terrorists before we supported them in the constitutional debates. But that would have been the “old way” of doing things: insisting on surrender before trotting out the aid programs.
The same holds in our as-yet undefined policy towards Iran, which is arguably the most important single component of the war against terrorism (this follows logically from the uncontested fact that Iran is the world’s biggest supporter of international terrorism). While the president has made many statements about the evils of the mullahcracy in Tehran, he has not only failed to carry out any action against the Islamic republic, he has repeatedly authorized unannounced meetings with Iranian representatives, in a futile effort to work out some kind of deal by which Iran would promise to limit its support for terrorism, especially inside Iraq, and we would promise, or hint, or imply, that we wouldn’t attempt to support democratic revolution in Iran. These talks have been going on throughout the five years of Bush the Younger, many of them under the auspices of Ambassador Khalilzad, whose conversations with the mullahs have now been publicly acknowledged and formally approved.
It’s hard to imagine what President Bush expects to gain from this little announcement, or indeed from talks with the Iranians. The last time Ambassador Khalilzad went in for extended talks with the mullahs, he produced a triumph of unnecessary appeasement: the proclamation that Afghanistan would be called an “Islamic republic.” It seemed to me at the time that this was not at all what the president had had in mind, but it seems to me now that I was clearly wrong. For if W. really intended to take a stand against the Iranian regime, he would not have approved Khalilzad’s (shameful, in my view) preemptive surrender to Iran’s most important diplomatic goal, nor would he have rewarded Khalilzad by sending him to Baghdad, nor would he approve of the public announcement of a new round of talks with the mullahs.
But the Islamic republic will never do anything to help us, or our soldiers, or our allies. The Iranians themselves have no doubt of their role in the contemporary world: They see themselves as our gravediggers. “Following the downfall of Communism, today, only Islam stands against America’s imperialism,” says Yahya Safavi, the head of the Iranian national-security Council. And he means it.
All of this preemptive appeasement inevitably weakens the forces of democratic revolution in the Middle East and elsewhere, as it greatly cheers the tyrants who, just a few months ago, were seriously considering the best place to take early retirement. The president seems to have bought into all the worst slogans of the State Department and the CIA: Stability is more important than revolution, exit strategy trumps victory, and so on. It may get him love letters from Foggy Bottom, and maybe even benign treatment from the New York Times, but it will also get him new attacks, both in Iraq and elsewhere (most certainly including our own country), and it will fuel a new counterrevolution that will make our mission far more perilous.
Remember Churchill’s great judgment on Chamberlain at Munich: He had a choice between war and dishonor; he chose dishonor, and got war.
Bush should not want those terrible words to define his second term, but he is certainly moving in that direction right now.