Politics & Policy

Not So Fast

A response to Andy McCarthy on the democracy project.

It is quite a challenge to disagree with my brother Andy McCarthy. Both the substance and length of his arguments are compelling. But let me address a few of the points in his excellent piece today.

The decision to invade Iraq was not motivated exclusively or even primarily by the democracy project. Indeed, the Bush administration’s case to the international community, presented over a period of months, was mostly based on national- and international-security arguments. The arguments made to the United Nations focused on Saddam Hussein’s threat to the region (given his past invasions), his funding of terrorism (e.g., supporting suicide bombers in Israel), his giving safe harbor to al-Qaeda elements in Iraq, and his attempt to secure weapons of mass destruction (let’s put aside, for now, the issue of the extent of his WMD arsenal). Saddam had also attempted to assassinate Pres. George H. W. Bush, which is an act of war in and of itself.

While Pres. George W. Bush and several of his supporters made the case for democracy, as I believe presidents have in virtually every major war in which we’ve been involved, I don’t believe it can credibly be asserted that democracy was the primary factor that drove us to war in Iraq. However, there is the practical issue of what you do with a nation once you’ve attacked it and destroyed the regime that once ruled it. Do you just pick up and leave and hope the regime that replaces it is less dangerous to our national-security interests and the larger region? Or do you attempt to influence what becomes of the country whose government you attacked and destroyed?

#ad#In our history, we have done both: We have stayed and built up nations after defeating them, and we have left nations after defeating them. The proper strategy depends on the best interests of American national security under the circumstances. That is the only coherent and morally justifiable doctrine. Support for or opposition to the democracy project as a general doctrinal matter seems misplaced. As I have written before, the Marshall Plan was framed at the time as a democracy project. But it was pursued to prevent the Soviet Union from conquering the rest of Europe. Pres. Harry Truman rightly concluded that the United States needed to pour billions of dollars into these defeated countries to build up their governments and economies. We did the same in Japan and, after the Korean War, in what is now South Korea. It cannot be said that those “democracy projects” were failures. Indeed, they were huge successes. And they did not happen overnight.

In Afghanistan, the Reagan administration’s policy of forcing the Soviet Union out of that country without formally engaging in war with either the Soviets or the Afghan regime was extremely effective. The aftermath was not. Yet the Reagan administration’s decision not to get “bogged down,” as it were, in Afghanistan after the Soviets were defeated was perfectly sound given what it knew at the time. However, there is no disputing today that the vacuum was filled by the Taliban, which gave safe haven to al-Qaeda, which in turn launched a brutal attack on American soil on 9/11 (and numerous other terrorist attacks against Americans before 9/11). Now, after the U.S. has defeated the Taliban and forced al-Qaeda to other parts of the world (no small achievement), the argument is made that there is no reason to keep our military in Afghanistan, let alone increase our military presence there, as the Afghan government is weak, ineffectual, and corrupt, and we cannot prop it up forever. Essentially the same argument is made about Iraq. In short, the democracy project is a failure, or at least these new governments should be left on their own to either survive or crumble.

Is that in America’s best national-security interests? Brother Andy argues that we need to be more honest with ourselves about Islam. He is absolutely right, in my view. There is no question, as a matter of historical fact, that Arab and Islamic culture and societies are less hospitable to democracy than others. But there are exceptions. Turkey, although an imperfect example, is a functioning democracy — not a Western democracy, but a democracy nonetheless. Jordan is less of a democracy but not a genocidal dictatorship. There are other examples, but Andy’s point is well taken. Unlike in the West, where it is the rule, democracy is the exception in the region where we are fighting two wars. Still, it cannot be said that the attempt to build democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan was irrational or utterly unworkable. And the effort is a proper one if its purpose is to secure our nation’s security interests.

My objection to the democracy project is that it is irrational as a general doctrine. The Shah of Iran was a crucial American ally. However, as a result of Jimmy Carter’s human-rights project (not altogether different from the democracy project in some ways), his government was toppled and replaced with the current Iranian regime, whose lust for terror, expansion, and weapons of mass destruction poses an enormous threat to the United States and the rest of the world. Clearly many of those associated with the democracy project reject Carter’s foreign policy and previously opposed his refusal to support the Shah, who sat on a very elaborate throne but was a steadfast ally. There are many more examples of such regimes.

#page#Although democracy-project adherents have their own irreconcilable arguments and objectives, so do those who insist that all is lost, Iraq was a bad idea from the start, we’ve done all we can in Afghanistan, and it is time to pull back. Pull back to where? Regarding Iraq, I see no political support for staying there much longer. Even President Bush set a timetable for pulling out most of our troops. I don’t know if this was wise or not. It seems to me that if staying for a few more years would make a big difference, we should commit to it. If Iraq collapses, what then? This is the question that George Will and others leave unanswered. I don’t blame them. It’s a tough question. But it is one that must be considered, particularly by those who are responsible for our country’s national security. Andy writes of Iraq’s coziness with Iran. But Iraq is by no means an appendage of Iran. It is not a terrorist base from which the United States or its allies can be effectively attacked. Can we insist that those who argue for departure now, or soon, at least present some coherent case for the possible consequences of their position?

Regarding Afghanistan, the argument (as best I understand it) for leaving now is very weak. The bottom line seems to be that the Taliban would defeat the corrupt, inept Afghan government but for our support. Therefore, since the government cannot stand on its own, we should leave. Say what you will about Iraq, the war in Afghanistan was certainly never launched as part of a democracy project. It was launched, as Andy argues, to rid the country of al-Qaeda. But the purpose of ridding the country of al-Qaeda was to punish and destroy, as best we could, the perpetrators of 9/11. Those perpetrators included the Taliban. (By the way, if we are going to cite President Bush, he was quite clear about dealing with regimes that give safe harbor to al-Qaeda.) Both al-Qaeda and the Taliban remain a dire threat to our country. They have now taken over large rural parts of Pakistan, an imperfect American ally with nukes and a weak democratic government. They are active and growing in another dangerous region of the world. The fact that the Obama administration doesn’t seem to have a coherent policy for addressing the threat argues in favor of developing such a policy, not our departure from Afghanistan. Again, the consequences of leaving now or soon, given the situation there, must be addressed by those who urge it. In his column, George Will makes a couple of rather silly suggestions for positioning special forces on the border, thus acknowledging that we should do something about Afghanistan (just not enough to be meaningful).

Andy makes several additional excellent points about U.S. foreign policy, including the idiocy coming out of our State Department. But these points do not address the real and serious problems associated with the steps urged by Will et al. I do wish to emphasize, for what it’s worth, my concurrence with Andy’s criticism of a doctrinal democracy project. While the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are God-given (as the Founders believed and asserted in the Declaration of Independence), we are not obliged to promote or defend those rights everywhere in the world to the detriment (if not destruction) of our own society.

– Mark R. Levin is the author of the New York Times bestseller Liberty and Tyranny and a nationally syndicated talk-show host.

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