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Lesson 8. Genuine realism must avoid premature closure in its thinking about the possibilities of human agency in the world.
Grasping the inevitable irony, pathos, and tragedy of history; being alert to unintended consequences; maintaining a robust skepticism about schemes of human perfection; cherishing democracy without worshiping it – these elements of the Christian realist sensibility associated with Reinhold Niebuhr remain essential intellectual furnishing for anyone thinking seriously about U.S. foreign policy in the war against jihadism. Yet realism must always be complemented by a commitment to the possibility of human creativity in history.
As Dean Acheson said at another moment when history’s tectonic plates were shifting, the world which he and Harry Truman faced “only slowly revealed itself. As it did so, it began to appear as just a little bit less formidable than that described in the first chapter of Genesis. That was to create a world out of chaos...” Our task today is not dissimilar. In carrying it out, we would do well to remember the counsel of Charles Frankel: “The heart of the policy-making process...is not the finding of a national interest already perfectly known and understood. It is the determining of that interest: the reassessment of the nation’s resources, needs, commitments, traditions, and political and cultural horizons – in short, its calendar of values.”
The Bush Administration’s efforts to accelerate change in the Arab Islamic world were determined by a realistic assessment of the situation after 9/11. Mistakes in implementation notwithstanding, the attempt to accelerate the transition to responsible and responsive government in the Middle East was a realistic objective, given an unacceptable status quo that was inherently unstable; that was unstable because it was corrupt; and that was producing terrorists and jihadists determined to challenge those corruptions.
Lesson 9. The objective in the Middle East is the evolution of responsible and responsive government, which will take different forms given different historical and cultural circumstances.
Bernard Lewis is, as usual, a wise guide here. As he recently wrote, “There is a view sometimes expressed that ‘democracy’ means the system of government evolved by the English-speaking peoples...I beg to differ from that point of view. Different societies develop different ways of conducting their affairs, and they do not need to resemble ours...Democracy is not born like the Phoenix. It comes in stages, and the stages and processes of development will differ from country to country, from society to society.”
Professor Lewis’s cautions, as well as his convictions that “there are elements in Islamic society which could well be conducive to democracy” and that the “cause of developing free institutions – along their lines, not ours – is possible” in Islamic societies suggests several sub- lessons from the still-unfolding drama of Iraq and the miscalculations of American policy there:
- American policy-makers miscalculated the damage done to the fabric of Iraqi civil society by 25+ years of Baathist totalitarianism.
- American policy-makers miscalculated the degree to which post-Saddam Iraq would quickly become a battlefield in the wider war against jihadism. The exposure of the “false world” within which Arabs had been living was intolerable – to the remaining Baathists in Iraq and Syria, to the forces of the status quo among the Arab leadership, to the apocalyptics in Tehran, and to jihadists everywhere. And thus it now seems, in retrospect, almost inevitable that Iraq became a “devil’s playground:” its porous borders were a magnet for jihadists looking for a field of battle – Jordanians, Syrians, Lebanese, Saudis, Palestinians, Iranians, all of whom grasped the fact that, if America were to succeed in Iraq, and Iraq to succeed as a modern Islamic society, their various dreams would be dealt a major blow.
- This we seemingly did not understand, or at least did not grasp quickly enough – that major combat in Iraq had only “shaped the battlefield” for what was coming next. Since March 2003, in fact, America has found itself fighting four Iraqi wars: the war to depose Saddam Hussein and create the possibility of responsible Iraqi government; the war against the remaining Iraqi Baathists and their allies; the war against jihadists, in which the late, unlamented Abu Musab al-Zarqawi played a deadly role; and the war between Shia and Sunni that erupted after jihadists destroyed the Shia Golden Mosque at Samarra in February 2006.
- Inadequate resources were allocated for post-Saddam reconstruction in Iraq, a failure compounded by the American intelligence community’s failure to grasp just how much damage had been done to Iraq’s infrastructure and by a lack of bureaucratic coordination among American agencies involved in Iraqi reconstruction.
- American policy-makers failed to devise an effective “hearts-and-minds” strategy for post-Saddam Iraq. After dominating the information dimensions of the first of the four Iraq wars (the war against the Saddam Hussein regime), the U.S. too often left the information field to sources of misinformation and disinformation like Al-Jazeera, with serious strategic consequences – some of which are now, thankfully, being reversed, thanks to the Petraeus counterinsurgency strategy.
The difficulties of post-Baathist political transition in Iraq should not, however, blind us to the fact that the war against jihadism and the quest for freedom are linked, and neither can succeed without the other. Moreover, and without gainsaying the difficulties involved, Bernard Lewis nonetheless encourages us to think that there is enough in the traditional culture of Islam on the one hand and the modern experience of the Muslim peoples on the other to provide the basis for an advance toward freedom, rightly understood. Trying, through a variety of instrumentalities, to support, and perhaps even accelerate,that advance is the only realistic course of action.
Lesson 10. In the war against global jihadism, deterrence strategies are unlikely to be effective.
This is perhaps most evident in Iran, or at least among Iranians like President Ahmadinejad who believe that they can hasten the messianic age by unleashing nuclear holocaust in Jerusalem. As Adam Garfinkle asks, “How does one deter people who...are willing and even eager...to turn their country and their entire religious sect into a suicide bomb?”
It should be clear that any deterrence value or dampening of jihadist enthusiasms that we might have expected to gain from Iraq will be lost if the outcome there is widely believed to be an American defeat. Such an outcome would be little short of a catastrophe, a point one wishes were better grasped on Capitol Hill and among certain presidential candidates. It may be that the final outcome in Iraq is not, ultimately, of our determining – that the immediate future of Iraq will inevitably reduce itself to the question of whether Iraqis want a state (even a loosely federal state) more than they want to kill each other. But the premature abandonment of the effort to prevent that nightmare scenario from playing itself out would be read by global jihadists as a sign of fecklessness that will have untold, but surely awful, consequences.