While it is clear that there are points of disagreement among us on the situation in Iraq, I think you will appreciate this longish article from The Economist. It does a nice job of synthesizing many arguments that each of us have made. Note that The Economist all along has been in favor of the war in Iraq, but critical of the way it and the peace following have been handled. I still disagree with the conclusion that it was a good idea, and believe there's no way that we would have gone in had the CIA done a good job of assessing the real threat from Saddam. I suspect, however, that they produced what was tacitly expected of them. In any case, I hope you find the analysis as insightful as I did. Sorry it's so long, but I thought it was worth it. (Unless you have a subscription, you wouldn't have been able to go to a link.)
America and the Middle East
Fumbling the moment
May 27th 2004
From The Economist print edition
How big a mess is America in, and how did it get there?
JUST over 40 years ago, Elizabeth Monroe, an historian (and Economist journalist), wrote a book called “Britain's Moment in the Middle East”. The work is out of print and hard to find, but it has been enjoying a revival. It explains how Britain tried between 1914 and 1956 to secure access to the Middle East's oil, reform the region's politics and reconcile the competing aspirations of Arabs and Jews in Palestine. Over the past year assorted pundits, from the Washington Post to London's Guardian, have leapt on Monroe's book to tease out the similarities between Britain's aims then and America's now.
The comparison is irresistible because it is full of ironies. Britain's “moment” ended in ignominy in 1956, when America forced Britain, France and Israel to withdraw from Egypt, which they had invaded in order to unseat an Arab dictator who seemed to threaten their vital interests. Dwight Eisenhower saw this as illegal aggression by an old Europe which refused to accept that the days of empire had passed. Britain itself was deeply divided by the Suez adventure. But those who supported it felt betrayed by an America which, they felt, should have known better than to appease a dictator such as Gamal Abdel Nasser. In just this way, many Americans felt betrayed last year by an old Europe apparently willing to appease Saddam Hussein.
Though just a “moment”, the British interlude in the Middle East lasted 40 years, from Britain's displacement of the Ottomans in the first world war until the ungainly exit from Suez. America's moment is arguably just beginning. Some might say that it started in the 1930s, when the United States laid the foundations for a lucrative alliance with the house of Saud and its Arabian oilfields. And, of course, America was deeply enmeshed in the region during the cold war. But it did not emerge as the single dominant power there until the collapse of the Soviet Union. A future Elizabeth Monroe might argue that the American moment did not really begin until 1991, when the Soviet Union let George Bush senior drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, and when Saudi Arabia broke a taboo by letting America's “infidel” forces into the land of the two holy places.
Round and round they go
After that first Gulf war, that first President Bush spoke of a fresh beginning in the Middle East, part of what his administration hoped would be a “new world order”. He made a start by breaking the logjam between Israel and the Arabs, forcing both to a peace conference in Madrid that was later to evolve into secret negotiations in Oslo between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. This was accompanied by much excitement in the Arab world at the prospect of political reform. The end in pretty short order of the Iran-Iraq war, the cold war and—it was hoped—the cycle of Arab-Israeli wars seemed to offer hope that the Arabs would swiftly join the global march of democracy.
It did not turn out that way. Four years ago the summit at Camp David, which Bill Clinton hoped would crown the Oslo process with a final peace in Palestine, collapsed in failure. The Palestinian intifada of the 1980s returned in a more lethal form. Saddam did not, as the first President Bush had expected, fall from power in Iraq. On the contrary, the sanctions tightened his grip on power at the same time as they pauperised his people. Instead of proving that he had dismantled his weapons of mass destruction (WMD), he forced the UN's inspectors to quit in 1998 with their mission unaccomplished. The Arabs enjoyed neither the democracy nor the prosperity that spread elsewhere in the 1990s. And, of course, George Bush senior never reaped the benefits of victory. Within months of celebrating his triumph in the desert, he was turfed out of office.
Now the circle is turning again. A new George Bush has fought a new war against Iraq, completing the job his father did not finish. Now again comes talk of a new era in the Middle East. There is a new peace plan for Palestine. America is once again explaining the virtues of democracy to the Arab regimes, which are once again pretending to agree with it. But, already, the new dawn is beginning to darken. The liberated Iraq is coming to resemble the quagmire opponents of the invasion said it would be. Many of the Shias whom Saddam oppressed have joined the resistance against their liberators. The Americans turn out to have been torturing Iraqis in Saddam's own jail. The killing continues in Palestine. And another American president is facing the possibility of being thrown out of office even as he finishes celebrating a military victory.
One disaster after another
So many reverses, in such short order: a skimmer of headlines can be forgiven for thinking that the American moment in the Middle East is ending, in failure, almost before it has begun. Though Mr Bush and Tony Blair, the war's chief architects, keep saying that they will not cut and run from Iraq, it is taken for granted by shrewd opinion that they are scrambling behind the scenes for an early exit. Among many aficionados of the Middle East, the interesting question is no longer whether the Americans will fail—of course they will, says the received wisdom—but whatever induced them to make such a monumental blunder in the first place.
Needless to say, many of those who pose this question have an answer to hand. Iraq was the wrong war: a distraction from the more urgent business of dealing with al-Qaeda and sorting out the conflict in Palestine. One of the most damaging critics has been Richard Clarke, who on September 11th was still America's counter-terrorism co-ordinator. He claims to have felt “almost a sharp physical pain” when he realised on that day that Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, and Paul Wolfowitz, his deputy, intended to “take advantage of this national tragedy to promote their agenda about Iraq”, even though Iraq had nothing to do with the twin towers.
The “wrong war” thesis has many components. Item one is the non-discovery of the famous weapons of mass destruction. A poll conducted on the invasion's anniversary in March by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that solid majorities of people in nine countries surveyed—including more than eight out of ten in France and seven out of ten in Germany—think that Mr Bush and Mr Blair lied about WMD to trump up a pretext for the invasion. Most, incidentally, do not think these leaders merely exaggerated or “sexed up” the intelligence. They think they knew for certain before the war that they would find no forbidden weapons.
Item two is the “resistance”: 660 Americans and perhaps 1,300 Iraqis killed since May 1st last year, when Mr Bush declared from the deck of USS Abraham Lincoln that major combat operations had ended. If the war was fought in part for humanitarian reasons, to free Iraqis from an odious dictatorship, why are so many Iraqis willing to take up arms against occupying powers that promise anyway to leave the moment the job of implanting a representative government is done?
Item three is the non-breakthrough in Palestine. Part of the pre-war sales pitch held that the removal of Saddam would make progress on Palestine easier. This made sense, of a sort. In a Saddamless Middle East the Israelis could no longer use the threat from the east as a pretext for holding on to the West Bank, and Palestinian rejectionists would be deprived of a cheerleader and paymaster. The road to Jerusalem, said many in Washington to doubting Arabs, led through Baghdad. But was all that just talk? Although Baghdad was conquered a year ago, peace in Palestine looks as remote as ever.
Item four is the sum of the first three: the Iraqi war has added to Muslim resentment of America and thus, it is argued, deepened the reservoir of recruits for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Though March's Pew survey of Muslim opinion showed a slight softening of anti-American opinion over the course of the year, that finding came before the images of female American soldiers dragging naked Iraqis around prison floors on leashes or grinning over the corpses of prisoners who had died in their custody.
There you have it, the case for the prosecution. America fought the wrong war, on false pretences, without thinking through how to put Iraq back together, and against the background of a continuing bias in favour of Israel that has already cost it dear in the Muslim world. It stands accused both of hypocrisy (in that the reasons it gave for going to war were not the true reasons) and of naivety (in that the superpower should have been able to foresee that an attempt to turn post-Saddam Iraq into an exemplary Arab democracy was doomed to fail). Wittingly or unwittingly, argues Rashid Khalidi of New York's Columbia University, the United States is stepping into the boots of earlier imperial powers. This, he says, cannot under any circumstances be a good thing, and cannot possibly be “done right”.
Knowing the unknown
It is a formidable indictment. But there is a case for the defence.
Right or wrong, was this war fought under false pretences? Despite what so many people tell the pollsters from Pew, there is no evidence that the war's architects knew beforehand that Iraq had no WMD: David Kay, the former UN inspector who led the post-war search, expected to find them and was amazed not to. “We were almost all wrong,” was his memorable confession to America's Congress when he returned empty-handed. In his own book after the war, Hans Blix, the inspector who pleaded vainly before it for a bit more time, accuses Mr Bush and Mr Blair of “a lack of critical thinking”, not of bad faith.
Still, was the question of WMD—the given reason for going to war—different from the true reasons? This part of the indictment demands a longer answer.
At different times Mr Bush and Mr Blair gave many reasons for going to war: enforcing UN resolutions, dealing with weapons of mass destruction, securing oil supplies, saving Iraqis from a dictator, promoting democracy and stopping terrorism. The war's critics see in this miscellany of reasons proof that its champions were casting around for any excuse. There is, however, another explanation, which is that the war was launched because September 11th made the Bush administration review America's fundamental interests in the Middle East.
What are those interests? Above all, access to energy. In 1991, George Bush senior would not necessarily have rescued Kuwait if the region did not happen to contain most of the world's reserves of oil. To ensure safe access to that oil, the United States has worked for decades to see off potential threats: from the Soviet Union during the cold war, from Ayatollah Khomeini after the Iranian revolution, from Saddam Hussein in the 1990s and, in the present, from al-Qaeda and other anti-western groups with the potential to disrupt supply or even seize control of the producer states.
A second longstanding American interest has been to resolve, or at least to dampen, the conflict between Israel and the Arabs. During the early decades of this conflict, America's ties to Israel were not close. France was Israel's chief armourer and protector. But Israel and America have grown steadily more intimate. During the cold war, some American administrations, especially Ronald Reagan's, came to think that a friendly democracy with a competent army might be a strategic asset. And even administrations that took a different view (such as Jimmy Carter's) saw the point of giving Israel the wherewithal to defend itself. A strong Israel, goes the theory, deters its neighbours; a weak one might one day be forced to turn to America to rescue it from invasion.
However, the events of September 11th gave the United States a third and quite new set of aims and interests in the Middle East. One was self-defence against a new kind of terrorism, the sort that could reach out to strike not only at America's energy interests but also at America itself, and at Americans wherever they might be. The felling of the twin towers suggested that it was no longer enough to ask friendly Arab regimes to snuff out terrorism on America's behalf. Most of the hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, a close Arab ally. September 11th also made Americans less willing to accept other potential threats to the homeland. One of these was the danger of a “rogue” regime such as North Korea, Iran or Iraq acquiring WMD which they might either use to threaten the United States or pass on to terrorists.
Enter the neo-cons
By chance, September 11th fell upon a new and impressionable administration that was already listening with interest to the group of journalists, intellectuals and policymakers known loosely as the neo-conservatives. This group—including Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton and Douglas Feith inside the administration, Richard Perle on its fringes, and influential journalists such as William Kristol of the Weekly Standard on the outside—share views on many subjects. Among these are a belief in the need and ability of America sometimes to use its overwhelming military power, even against the wishes of the UN, and in the exportability of American values.
On top of this, many of the neo-cons had a special interest in the Middle East (because so many are Jewish, say their detractors) and a particular view of why the new dawn of the 1990s had failed to materialise. Cultivating friendly Arab regimes, on their analysis, was no way to keep America safe. Since most of these regimes (including Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority) were corrupt dictatorships of one sort or another, America's habit of propping them up had turned the so-called “Arab system” into a factory for anti-American terrorism. In the long run, fighting terrorism would therefore require creating a democratic Arab world at peace with American values.
These notions may be simple-minded but, to return to the indictment, they are not “hypocritical”. They were discussed openly long before September 11th seemed to validate them. The neo-con prospectus also chimed neatly with the aims of the “realists” in the Bush administration who wanted after September 11th to attack Iraq. The realists were keen to remove whatever threat Saddam might pose with his putative WMD. They also, argues John Lewis Gaddis, a distinguished historian at Yale University, hoped to “scare the pants off of anybody—any tyrant anywhere who might in the future be harbouring terrorists, or thinking about harbouring terrorists.” If shock and awe in Iraq was followed by the emergence there of a secular democracy that other Arabs would be keen to copy, so much the better.
In his speech this week, Mr Bush stuck to the line that Iraqis wanted democracy and that, when they acquired it, their example would inspire and change the rest of the region. But the neo-cons themselves are growing queasy. On their view of the Arab world, the Iraqis were expected to greet America's army with flowers, not launch a guerrilla war against it. Perhaps Arabs are not, after all, ready to receive the gift of western values, especially when this is delivered by bayonet. Or perhaps—the opposite of Rashid Khalidi's opinion—the invasion of Iraq was like communism: a brilliant idea which its inventors say could have worked had it only been “done right”.
America's handling of this war has indeed been maladroit. The war itself was swift enough, but both the preparation for it and the handling of the aftermath could scarcely have been more incompetent. America went into the war with duff intelligence on WMD, few serious allies and a feud between the Defence and State Departments about how the post-war occupation should be handled. The occupation has seen endless confusing changes in the plans for political transition, an army too small to provide basic security and the shocking saga of Abu Ghraib. Yale's Mr Gaddis, who had considerable sympathy with the grand strategy, says the implementation of it has been so “wretched” that instead of scaring the pants off its enemies, America had ended up scaring the pants off itself.
Failed? Or just harder than expected?
Even brilliant pre-war planning would not have made it possible to turn Saddam's Iraq overnight into an Arab Camelot. Anthony Zinni, the former head of America's central command, predicted beforehand that a post-war transition in Iraq would be fraught with difficulty. “If we think there is a fast solution to changing the governance of Iraq, then we don't understand history, the nature of the country, the divisions, or the underneath passions that could rise up.” If Mr Bush thought otherwise, he is guilty as charged of naivety. But do all the difficulties prove that the war has “failed”?
As recently as March, Iraqis themselves were still reasonably optimistic. More than half said in polls that their lives had become better since the invasion, and seven out of ten thought things would be better still a year hence. The mood darkened in April, with the twin uprisings of Sunnis in Fallujah and some of the Shias in cities farther south. Since then, however, the Americans have calmed passions in Fallujah by co-opting former officers from Saddam's army. A similar deal may yet be possible with Muqtada al-Sadr, the youthful cleric who has put himself at the head of violent Shia opposition.
Not all the present violence is straightforward “resistance” to the Americans or the work of jihadis. Part of it is positioning for the power struggle to come when the Americans leave: standing up to America earns credibility for an aspiring politician in the new Iraq. Conceivably, Iraq could degenerate into the long-feared civil war between Sunnis and Shias or Arabs and Kurds. But there has been precious little such fighting so far.
Hearts and minds, far and wide
What if, in two years or so, Iraqis prove to be better off than they were under Saddam Hussein? Could this still have been “the wrong war”? That depends on how history will measure the collateral damage: not only in money and lives but also in the harm done strategically to relations between America and its allies and especially, given al-Qaeda's jihad, on relations between the western and the Muslim worlds.
The powerful way for America to restore its reputation in Muslim eyes would be to redeem Mr Bush's promise of an independent Palestine. In 2002, as the Iraq war loomed, he made a downpayment by agreeing to the creation of the “quartet”, a forum in which America would join the European Union, the UN and Russia in promoting a Palestinian peace. This produced the “road map”. After the Iraq war, Mr Bush rolled up his sleeves to deliver. He held a summit with Ariel Sharon and the (then) Palestinian prime minister, Abu Mazen, to urge progress.
A year on, there has been none, and the appearance of failure on both flanks of the Middle East has become self-reinforcing. In just the way that many Americans see no distinction between the terrorism of al-Qaeda and the terrorism of the Palestinian intifada, so many Arabs see no distinction between Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and America's occupation of Iraq. Both conflicts are portrayed on Arabic satellite channels as similar dramas of national or Islamic resistance. In April, Mr Bush made matters worse. When he endorsed Mr Sharon's plans for a unilateral Israeli exit from the Gaza strip, he said that in any broader peace the Palestinian refugees would have to “return” to the new Palestine rather than Israel proper, and that it would be “unrealistic” to expect Israel to return right to its pre-1967 borders.
This statement was construed far and wide as yet another gratuitous tilt in Israel's favour. Retired diplomats in America and Britain wrote enraged letters to Mr Bush and Mr Blair. The British ones urged Mr Blair to dissociate himself from a pro-Israeli stance “at a time when, rightly or wrongly, we are portrayed throughout the Arab and Muslim world as partners in an illegal and brutal occupation in Iraq.”
The world wants the Americans to push Israel along the road map. Why do they seem to demur? The usual answer is to blame the Jewish lobby, especially in an election year. Another explanation is the growing affinity between the superpower and the minnow, one that has grown stronger since, as Mr Bush put it in a recent speech about Israel, Americans too have “experienced the horror of being attacked in our homeland, on our streets, and in places of work.” Beyond the sentiment, however, lies some hard analysis. In Palestine, Mr Bush has worked much less hard than Mr Clinton because he inherited the violent aftermath of Mr Clinton's Camp David failure and did not relish the idea of repeating it.
In Washington in January 2001, Mr Clinton's top Middle East negotiator, Dennis Ross, implored Ahmed Qurei, now Palestine's prime minister, to accept the president's peace plan. If the incoming Bushites saw Mr Clinton being “stiffed” by Mr Arafat, he said, they would want nothing to do with the Palestinian leader and would disengage from the peacemaking.
And so it was. By the time Mr Bush took office, the Israelis and Palestinians were locked in a war of terror and counter-terror. All attempts to arrange a ceasefire have failed. The chief reason for this is a collapse of authority on the Palestinian side. The very first requirement of the road map is for the Palestinian Authority to impose a ceasefire and disarm the terrorists. But this is something Palestinians say they cannot do without provoking a civil war.
No trust, no ceasefire, no meeting of minds on a final agreement. In these circumstances, Mr Bush may well consider that his chances of securing a comprehensive peace in a conflict that confounded his father at the start of the 1990s and tripped up Mr Clinton at the end are negligible. By contrast, precisely because it is unilateral, Mr Sharon's plan for a withdrawal from Gaza might actually come to fruition. That pro-Israeli tilt on refugees and borders has hurt America's standing with the Arabs. America is pro-Israeli. But Mr Bush's encouragement of Mr Sharon was an attempt to help the Gaza withdrawal come about. Mr Clinton had already said that a two-state solution based on the ethnic division of Palestine is not consistent with the return to the Jewish half of millions of Palestinian refugees. The Palestinian leadership has long assumed—even if it has not had the courage to tell its people—that reaching a final deal might require a slight adjustment of the pre-1967 border.
Still the necessary superpower
America could do more in Palestine. After Iraq, it needs to more than ever. Note, though, how many of the people who believe that it is impotent in Iraq also assume that it is all-powerful when it comes to ending a conflict that has perplexed the great powers for a century. It is likelier that America's ability to influence events lies somewhere between these poles: it can shape the history of the Middle East, but it cannot do so just as it pleases.
After the shame of Suez, says Elizabeth Monroe in “Britain's Moment”, Britain's hold on events ceased, “and remained at zero while the free world gasped at so radical a departure from British principle and practice”. And though, later, a modicum of British influence was restored in the Middle East, the nature of that influence was altered “because the power behind it was permanently impaired”. This is the big difference. The world today is full of people willing to pass no less censorious a judgment on America's adventure in Iraq. They will argue about it for decades. But even if the setbacks in Iraq have crimped the style of its new imperialists, America's objective power is not yet waning. For good or ill, it will remain the dominant outsider for years to come.