Neo-Cons Their Own Worst Enemy

Dan Drezner has an interesting piece in TNR in which he argues that, while it has been much derided, the neoconservative vision of a democratic Iraq was quite achievable, but was undermined by poor execution by Team Bush. He fears that most people will come away thinking it was the goal, rather than its execution, that was at fault.

If this is how events play out, the Bush administration will have left an ignoble mark on the history of U.S. foreign policy. Say what you will about the neoconservatives’ skills at manners or management; their big idea cannot be dismissed lightly. There is a compelling logic to the argument that the primary source of frustration among Arabs in the Middle East is a sense of powerlessness. Trapped in a region littered with authoritarian and corrupt regimes, they are encouraged by these regimes and their Islamic critics to blame their situation on Israel and the United States. This is an ideal environment for fomenting terrorism. Creating an open society in Iraq would put the lie to this kind of hate-mongering.

To be sure, democracy promotion is far from easy. Indeed, regime change in the Middle East looks like a lousy, rotten policy option for addressing the root causes of terrorism, until one considers the alternatives–appeasement or muddling through. The latter option was essentially the pre-9/11 position of the United States and its allies, and has been found wanting. Appeasement or isolation has the same benefits and costs that the strategy had in the 1930s: It buys short-term solace but raises the long-term costs of facing a stronger and potentially undeterrable adversary.

For all their criticism of Bush’s grand strategy, Europeans and left-wingers have offered very little in the way of alternatives to his vision. Some say that American soft power could bring about change in the Middle East. But decades of alternately coddling, cajoling, and ostracizing Arab despots has not led to liberalization or democratization. We have showered Egypt with aid, but have succeeded only in propping up an authoritarian monster in Hosni Mubarak. We have tried to isolate Syria, but have only strengthened that country’s anti-American credentials. Maybe U.S. soft power is part of the solution to the Middle East’s woes, but soft power alone cannot accomplish our desired ends.

The craft of foreign policy is choosing wisely from a set of imperfect options. While flawed, the neoconservative plan of democracy promotion in the Middle East remains preferable to any known alternatives. Of course, such a risky strategy places great demands on execution, and so far this administration has executed poorly. It would be a cruel irony if, in the end, the biggest proponents of ambitious reform in the Middle East are responsible for unfairly discrediting their own idea.

The goal was certainly worthwhile and its by no means clear that we’re going to fail. Further, I’m still not convinced that having twice the “boots on the ground” was a magic bullet that would have prevented the insurgency, although I do grant that several mistakes were made that are apparent with the advantage of hindsight.

Dan cites a July 2003 RAND study which argues that most nation building efforts that fail do so because of insufficient commitment by the U.S. Certainly, lack of political will on the part of a foreign intervener will virtually ensure failure. It’s far from clear that the reverse is true.

Barbara Conry’s 1994 piece The Futility of U.S. Intervention in Regional Conflicts notes several other problems:

As tragic as many of the regional wars are, most cannot be resolved by American military intervention. In fact, military involvement often aggravates the situation. Furthermore, intervention can create a number of problems for the United States, including a rise in anti-American sentiment, diminished American credibility if the mission fails, domestic skepticism about future military operations even when legitimate U.S. interests might be involved, and threats to vital interests where none previously existed.

While she was writing about a somewhat different mission–an ongoing ethnic conflict such as Somalia or Rwanda–most of the same issues plague foreign powers fighting insurgents and terrorists.

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.