Iraq Last Best Hope for Arab Modernity?

Ralph Peters, a stalwart supporter of the Iraq War effort as well as a consistent critic of the Bush administration’s handling of the war, is just about ready to declare defeat. He argues, though, that the real loser is not the United States but the Arab world:

Yet, for all our errors, we did give the Iraqis a unique chance to build a rule-of-law democracy. They preferred to indulge in old hatreds, confessional violence, ethnic bigotry and a culture of corruption. It appears that the cynics were right: Arab societies can’t support democracy as we know it. And people get the government they deserve.

For us, Iraq’s impending failure is an embarrassment. For the Iraqis — and other Arabs — it’s a disaster the dimensions of which they do not yet comprehend. They’re gleeful at the prospect of America’s humiliation. But it’s their tragedy, not ours.

Iraq was the Arab world’s last chance to board the train to modernity, to give the region a future, not just a bitter past. The violence staining Baghdad’s streets with gore isn’t only a symptom of the Iraqi government’s incompetence, but of the comprehensive inability of the Arab world to progress in any sphere of organized human endeavor. We are witnessing the collapse of a civilization. All those who rooted for Iraq to fail are going to be chastened by what follows.

Peters’ criticisms of the way the counterinsurgency has been fought are diametrically opposed to mine. He’s from the William Tecumseh Sherman-Harry Summers-Michael Scheuer school of overwhelming application of force to show the enemy the hard hand of war whereas I’m from the Mao Zedong-John Nagl-Robert Kaplan school of counter-insurgents as quiet professionals.

Still, he’s on to something here. Just as establishing a successful democratic state in Iraq would have spurred imitators in the region, failing to do so makes it much less likely that other tyrants will be toppled. Most obviously, because it would virtually assure that no Western coalition form any time soon to intervene in such a situation; indeed, that may be the case at this point even if things turn around. More importantly, it would it bolster the fear of many that democracy means bloody chaos will discourage indigenous movements.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Cernig says:

    Of course, three years of occupation incompetence had nothing to do with it, eh Ralph?

    It’s all those Arabs fault for not seeing what an opportunity was given them by having their infrastructure ground into dust and the bulk of what little reconstruction was done given to foreign companies.

    Iraqis, too, are surely to blame for a situation where the CPA could blithely announce in 2004 that militias were no longer a problem, or where those same militias were so wantonly encouraged by that same CPA to join the army and police wholesale.

    And to blame for the shameless way in which the occupation encouraged Shia discrimination against Sunni – through over-zealous de-Baathification all the way to a constitution which enabled sectarianism.

    Nor should we forget that democracy-loving Peters himself was crying for an American coup to install a strongman dictator just a few days ago – something that the neocons have wanted all along. Few on the right recall that the CPA had NO plans for a democratic Iraq up until Sistani forced their hands.

    John Cole is right – there is no lie too low for the uber-right in its desperation to hold on to power.

    Regards, Cernig

  2. M1EK says:

    The incompetence is stunning – it’s as if they could not divulge one iota from the ideological constraints of the PNAC’s list.

    Compare and contrast to what we did in Germany and Japan – building rule-of-law societies ruled by our own iron fist for years, only allowing democracy at the lowest levels first; gradually moving up to the top. Here, we decided a national election as PR stunt was more important than convincing people that laws meant something.

    This conflation of “rule of law” with “democracy” is the most damaging thing this crop of so-called Republicans have done to the Middle East.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Cernig: Peters gives plenty of criticism to the way the occupation was handled. Much of what you criticize, though, was as much an acquiescence to Arab culture than to bungling. The maddening willingness to pretend enemies are no longer enemies, followed by welcoming them into the camp, is an aspect of the Arab mind I’ve not been able to fathom.

    M1EK: That’s more along the lines of my disagreement as well. Unfortunately, we felt we needed to pretend the occupation was not an occupation. That was the most fundamental mistake of all.

  4. cian says:

    Ralph may very well have harboured great hopes for Iraq and the Arab world, but when those in the administration, supported by Mr Peters and charged with running the war, couldn’t even be bothered to find out the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims, you have to conclude they were only pretending to read from Ralph’s carefully written and fully annotated script.

    The truth is, some very serious thinkers threw their lot in with a bunch of incompetent jokers, and American soldiers and Iraq civilians are paying the price.

  5. Cernig says:

    James, I’m not following you. Which of my criticisms are an aquiesence to Arab culture rather than a litany of original failures by the CPA and the likes of Khalilzhad (the man who, beyond all others, gave the Taliban it’s start in life)?

    In any case, Peters is dead wrong. Change in the Middle east will not come from the barrel of a gun. An old rightwing colleague of mine wrote that true change in the ME will come when Moslem women decide they need a more moderate and egalitarian culture in sufficient numbers to make it happen. He was right, but it will take far longer than the gratification-now schemes favoured by the American right.

    Cian…I’ve been folowing the setting up of the neocon lines of defense. The first is that failure in Iraq is the Iraqis’ fault and Peters has taken that one to new levels of hackery now. The second is that it was the appeasing ways of those damn lib’ruls. The third is that they convinced an incompetent rightwing administration, rather than a competent one, to carry out their plans.

    Few of the neocons and hardline rightwing regime-change fans who are left want to admit that the whole debacle and its rose-petal incompetencies were their idea in the first place, ruthlessly foisted upon the rest of us by selective and judicious use of proxies like Chalabi and intelligence which (if not always outright cherry-picked) wasn’t discriminatory in its sources. They have lucrative punditing careers to protect.

    Regards, Cernig

  6. Perhaps the left would be happier if we just continually invaded different despots until we can kill them, then withdraw. We don’t have the problems of an occupation. We can just repeat until the message gets through that having someone in power who creates a problem for the US (e.g. supports terrorists) means a world of hurt comes down on the country. We will repeat as necessary.

  7. Tano says:

    Ralph Peters always struck me as a pretty narrow minded chap, and he remains so, even though he has finally begun to actually see the reality in front of his eyes.

    His argument seems to rest on the core foundational assumption that Western democracy is the only path to modernity and success. As a Western democrat, my allegience to our form of democracy and freedom is absolute – for me. The argument that what is right for me is necessary for others is not something I find very compelling.

    The hard truth is that many countries have different political systems and they make them work to some extent. China is rushing headlong into “modernity” and seems not to be moving at all toward Western democracy. Singapore is a pretty oppressive place, but a stellar economic performer, and very modernist. India is a democracy, but real political equality for all its people is still way over the horizen.

    I am certainly prone to the seduction of the idea that eventually, when all these different cultures have advanced sufficiently, they will end up not looking all that different from us, politically. But whether their end-games (or long-term-games) are or are not on that trajectory, the bottom line is that they will, of necessity, follow their own path, from where they have been, through where they are now, to where they want to go.

    To see the absurdity of trying to impose an end-game that closely resembles our current situation, by force no less, is not to necessarily take the view that progress in that direction is impossible for those societies. The bottom line is that people, and cultures, will find their own way, and resist, to the death, having that way defined for them by alien forces.

    I am not so pessimistic about Arab societies. No doubt they have had a few bad centuries. Western intervention has been both a symptom of that and a contributor to that. It does not strike me as unreasonable that they might conclude that being free from foreign influence is a precondition to any authentic progress that may lay before them. Sorry to bring up this analogy, but I think of the Vietnamese. They are now in the process of assimilating a version of our economic philosophy, and they might perhaps eventually move in a more democratic direction as well. But they absolutely had to fight the attempted imposition of these things by force.

    Real democracy must be an authentic evolution of a culture. Real freedom ultimately means the right to make ones own mistakes.

  8. Cernig says:

    Nice strawman, YAJ!

    (That’s all the response that deserved)

    Regards, C