The Corner

More “War and Decision”

From a friend:

Thanks for running Larry DiRita’s review of War and Decision. I’m reading the book now, and one great thing about it is how it focuses on the questions facing the government as they presented themselves, and the process by which the administration tried to answer them.  Douglas Feith is often accused of being ideological, but the ideas he and his colleagues advanced often took the form of exhortations to self-styled “realists” to be more careful in the claims they were making–precisely because they were being too ideological. 

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One example is the CIA’s almost sophomoric presumption that Saddam and Islamist extremists would not cooperate because of basic ideological differences; Feith properly objected that evidence of such cooperation should not be discounted on the basis of this unprovable theory, and events eventually proved him right.  Another example is the role of democracy promotion in the administration’s thinking—Feith is accused of being ideological simply for warning the “realists” not to be so hasty in deciding that the nature of a regime doesn’t matter in strategic analysis nearly as much as its interests.  In this passage of War and Decision, Feith explains the connection between self-defense and democracy-promotion as it actually came up in the administration’s internal deliberations.  Like so much else in this book, it shows that the reality of how the administration made its decisions was more complicated than the myth—and much more interesting:

“The self-styled “realists” have a theory that U.S. interests are unaffected by whether other countries in the world have totalitarian governments and hostile philosophies.  That theory is hard to square with recent history.  When communist ideology collapsed in the Soviet empire in the late 1980s, almost all the Warsaw Pact states shed that ideology—and instantly ceased to be enemies of the United States.  Within a few years, they became our NATO allies.  The notion that the national interests of those countries were somehow “objectively” determined—unrelated to whether their leaders were communists or democrats—is unrealistic, in my view.  To assume, on the basis of “realist” theory, that the United States had no interest in whether Saddam’s regime would be replaced by democratic government or a Baathist dictatorship would have been ideological closed-mindedness rather than pragmatic policy making. 

“Critics have accused the Administration of going to war in Iraq for the sake of a political experiment in Arab democratization.  But the primary decision the President faced was not whether democracy could or should flourish in Iraq, but whether the United States could live with the risk that Saddam Hussein might one day threaten to attack us, directly or through terrorists, with biological or other catastrophic weapons.  If we decided we had to remove Saddam from power, the next decision was whether the United States should try to help the Iraqis build democratic institutions—or accept the possibility that Saddam might be replaced by another military dictator.  Given the options, President Bush decided that the interests and principles of the United States required us to try to promote democracy.

“Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz assessed the circumstances in Iraq similarly.  We often discussed the importance of balancing U.S. interests in promoting democracy abroad with our other interests.  We sometimes disagreed on how much weight to give the various interests, but none of us insisted that democracy promotion necessarily took precedence over all other U.S. interests.  Commentators from the “realist” school accused the neocons of being ideological rather than pragmatic on this issue.  But the weighing process I have described was the pragmatic and realistic approach.”

There was a good reason to focus on the nature of Saddam’s regime.  It was in its essential criminality and opacity–and not in the possibility of an imminent attack—that the real danger lurked.  If the witch’s brew of state terrorism, Islamist terrorism, and possible WMD were allowed to simmer for too long under Saddam’s rule, a catastrophic attack would be a constant worry and would quickly have become inevitable.  If Saddam were replaced by a Sunni military dictatorship that allied itself with the U.S., but continued to operate an unreformed mukhabarat, continued to suppress Shiites and Kurds, etc., etc., it would hardly solve our real problems–and indeed might only have added new problems to the existing ones.  To disarm Iraq verifiably required not only an occupation, but also a degree of regime transparency that only democracies can reliably provide.  For this and other reasons besides, our most sober and selfish strategic interests require a functioning democracy in Iraq. 

Rich Lowry — Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: 

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