An Open Letter to a Republican Friend
I wanted to expand on the point I should have made earlier. Liberals desire to be proactive in remedying the anti-American illiberalism in the Middle East that terror grows from. I can understand why you could want to divert resources from Afghanistan and the hunt for Bin Laden to radically remake Iraq. But your plan is founded on misconceptions about the origins of American power and the threat we face.
America real power is its moral power. It’s why we won the Cold war. It wasn’t just physically supporting countries struggling with democracy and freedom, but by supporting them in ways consistent with those moral standards. It means that war would only be a last resort (pre-emptive rather than preventative). It means that we support international human rights like democracy even where it’s inconvenient (Saudi Arabia, Guantanamo, most of South America). It means we are extra-skeptical of endeavors that force us to cozy up to illiberal anti-democratic regimes (Uzbekistan, Pakistan). And it means acting clearly, not changing our reasons for war after the fact.
The disease we face now is not the threat of rouge nation states that can be expected to act in their own self-interest. Al-Qaeda is not a subsidiary of Afghanistan. Al Ansar Islam is not amendable to logic. You call attention to Libya (a state that was already negotiating to halt sanctions) as proof that police actions will prove that it’s in a country’s best interest to capitulate. Maybe it is, although the recently awakened nuclear ambitions of Iran and N. Korea prove that there is a big downside to the bluff and bluster strategy if you can’t occupy the whole world. That’s not going to do anything to stop the kind of destruction that happened on 9/11. These illiberal anti-American groups we must dissolve are not going to see the error of their ways and come to the negotiating table. Nor is their system of command going to suffer if we just keep blowing them up in twos and threes. In short, we also need to drain their supply anti-American illiberals they recruit from.
You see Abu Grab as an unacceptable PR problem. (By the way, it involved prison guards [possibly accidentally] murdering inmates and the anal rape of children and women. You wouldn’t have heard that on FOX since unlike all other networks, their reporters were directed to underplay the story.) But, you say, it was worse under Saddam so we’ll get by. NO. That is exactly the wrong way to view it. This is not some kind of small detail in the effort to rehabilitate Iraq, this is the main show. When we removed the government of Iraq, we undertook a new moral responsibility: to make the sacrifices necessary to maintain order and to protect Iraqis.
How can we expect Iraqis to appreciate freedom if we don’t act morally? They see Iraqi companies passed over for crony contractors. They see an administration which fails to follow the plan to keep the peace because they were too expensive and required too many soldiers. They see a president threatening to veto $87 million for reconstruction because he didn’t want to ask the rich to invest in the future. They see the president failing to rally our allies because he refuses to share the responsibility of planning the economy and politics of Iraq. We might be able to fail in these things and still pacify the country. But it won’t cure the problem because the way we win this war is as important as how we win it.
Iran provides the perfect example of what can go wrong. We supported the undemocratic Shah because of his “liberal” (though anti-democratic) society. Result? He’s eventually overthrown and the most twisted form of democracy-in-name only is erected. We amorally support the terrorist-like Mujahideen because it is convenient. Result? Osama and his henchmen now have the know-how to attack us on Sept. 11. We support the anti-democratic Saudi Arabia to keep oil prices steady. Result? To maintain legitimacy, the king has to support the same twisted religious schools that turn out terrorist recruits. We support a secular strongman in Iraq to prevent theocracy. Result? Saddam Hussein.
It’s not that amoral actions always breed failure. But the hazard of taking the easy way out is undeniable. We were more successful where we acted morally.
During the cold war, Reagan’s push for human rights (despite all his other failures) was instrumental in inspiring thoughts of democracy in the countries behind the Iron Curtain. In Kosovo, where we went in with overwhelming force and enough allies to keep the peace the genocide stopped and peace is returning. In post-war Japan, Macarthur allowed even the Communists to participate in elections. Compare this to the Bremer’s ham-handed censorship of Sadr’s al-Hawza newspaper which turned a dissatisfied interest group into a rebel faction.
That’s why we liberals understood that democratizing Iraq by force was going to take a lot of resources we could have used elsewhere. To do the job right (i.e. morally) we would have had to mobilize all the troops Gen. Shinseki said we would. We had to invest the taxes Bush wasn’t willing to raise. It couldn’t be done on the cheap because it wasn’t about knocking Saddam out of the picture. It was about accepting a new moral responsibility to help the Iraqi people. That’s why we’re upset that Bush wouldn’t let the UN have a hand in the planning in return for some help. That’s why we get so upset at the rights violations in Guantanamo and the meaningless torture and killings in Abu Gareb. And that’s why we’re upset with the Bush administration. In short; that’s why we’re liberals.
I wish I could divorce the idea of the Iraq war from the way it has actually been administered. In principal, we could have had a good argument about whether the “ideal” Iraq war would have been the best way of bringing freedom to the Middle East. I am confident that a moral version of the Iraq war could be fought. It would have required so many resources though, possibly even a draft (which many liberals support), that it would be clear that our other goals (catching bin Laden, pushing heavy on Saudi Arabia to open up, restoring order to all of Afghanistan) would suffer. We didn’t get that moral war however; just the wrong war, wrong place, wrong time.
We support the current effort in Iraq, and will press for victory, but we should not pretend that it was a good idea to start it then just becuase it's a good idea to continue it now.