Thursday, May 27, 2004

Incompetence in Execution or Incompetence in Conception? 

Daniel Drezner has a new piece up at The New Republic, and it's worth your time to read. The basic contention of the article is that the Neocon vision of a democratized Iraq was neither crazy nor unachievable. Instead, Drezner argues, it has been the Bush administration's poor planning and policy implementation that has led to the current fiasco and unfairly discredited the best available Mideast policy option:
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.
I don't think Drezner is basically wrong: I completely agree that the most significant cause of our current woes in Iraq has been poor planning and policymaking. I am also unwilling to write off the notion that a democratic Iraq would have fundamentally altered the dynamics of Mideast politics and served as a counterweight to the appeal of radical Islamism. I even believe that there might have been a tiny chance that this end could have been achieved through force.

But it's utterly disingenuous for Drezner to claim that "Europeans and left-wingers" offered nothing but appeasement as alternatives to invasion. Look: I was living abroad during the run-up to the war, and I can't tell you how many stupid, knee-jerk anti-American, conspiracy-theory-based objections to the invasion I heard. I was ready to dismiss most of these claims as the result of Europeanness (or Kiwiness) and left-wingerhood. But the one policy alternative that I heard set forth over and over again, and that was at least as plausible as the options put forward by the neocons, was that the US could solve (or at least heavily mitigate) its Islamism problem by imposing some kind of solution on the Israel/Palestine conflict.

I'm not going to go into the arguments for and against this policy option, but it's amazing to me that Drezner totally disregarded it when drafting his piece. Drezner cites the truism that "the craft of foreign policy is choosing wisely from a set of imperfect options." Assuming that the administration's objective was to reduce the long-term threat to US national security stemming from violent Islamist movements, or to sow the seeds for a "democratic peace" including Mideast countries, or even merely to dispel the notion that America was the source of individual Muslims' problems, it's hard to understand why more resources weren't put into even symbolic efforts to resolve the Israel/Palestine problem. Chalk it up to incompetence: I'll let you decide whether it was incompetent policymaking or incompetent strategic thinking.

UPDATE: Kevin Drum weighs in. And Von agrees with my basic point.

UPDATE 2: Chris at Explananda has more.

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