Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Why Bush (and Everyone Else) Needs Kerry To Win 

In this opinion piece in last Sunday's Washington Post, Robert Kagan offers a challenge to critics of the "democratizing Iraq" project:
All but the most blindly devoted Bush supporters can see that Bush administration officials have no clue about what to do in Iraq tomorrow, much less a month from now. Consider Fallujah: One week they're setting deadlines and threatening offensives; the next week they're pulling back. The latest plan, naming one of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard generals to lead the pacification of the city, is the kind of bizarre idea that only desperate people can conjure. The Bush administration is evidently in a panic, and this panic is being conveyed to the American people...

It is the sense that Bush officials don't know what they are doing that has fed all the new talk about "lowering our sights." No one will say, "Let's cut and run." Instead, people talk about installing a moderate but not democratic government. They talk about letting Iraq break up into three parts: Kurd, Shiite and Sunni. But at the core, this is happy talk, designed to help us avert our eyes from withdrawal's real consequences. The choice in Iraq is not between democracy and stability. It is between democratic stability, on the one hand, and civil conflict, chaos or brutal, totalitarian dictatorship and terrorism, on the other.

The next time someone suggests that the goal of democracy is too ambitious, let him explain in detail what alternative he has in mind. Even if we wanted to establish a non-democratic government in Iraq, how would we do it? Is there a benevolent dictator out there who could enjoy sufficient legitimacy or wield sufficient power to maintain stability in Iraq without continued U.S. military support? Even a reconstituted, Sunni-dominated Iraqi army -- if such a thing were even desirable or possible -- could not impose order without employing all of the Hussein regime's brutal tactics, including the inevitable massacre of probably thousands of rebellious Shiites. Is that what advocates of "lowering our sights" have in mind?

Nor would partition be any easier to engineer. Yes, there could be an independent Kurdistan (and an ensuing war with Turkey) in the north. But the Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq are neither geographically nor culturally separate. They are intermingled. So, does partition mean transfers of population? And who would carry out those transfers, and how? Again, people who call for partition as an alternative to Iraqi democracy should explain exactly what their plan would look like and how it would produce a more stable result.
I couldn't agree more with Kagan when he argues that sniping from the sidelines is not terribly useful unless there's a credible alternative underlying the criticism. And his points about the difficulties inherent in partitioning Iraq are well taken (as I've discussed here, here, here and most extensively here.

But it's not clear to me that "democratic stability" for Iraq is possible in anything approaching the short term. So how do we bridge the years (and it will take years) between now and the establishment of an occupation-free, democratic and stable Iraq?

There's one obvious and desperately-needed first step: elect Kerry. The US and the "international community" need a convenient scapegoat for the mess in Iraq, and need a narrative that justifies a massive, long-term UN or NATO military presence in that country. We aren't going to solve problems like Fallujah nor dissuade those, like Moktada al-Sadr, with ambitions for rejectionist leadership without a huge, internationally-sanctioned military presence to stabilize Iraq. We also aren't going to get other countries to devote large portions of their military to this problem: in all likelihood such a stabilization force would have to include more US soldiers than are currently deployed in Iraq, not fewer. Clearly there's a tension here. It's tough to imagine Congress or the American public accepting an enormous long-term US military presence without clear US command and control over American troops. And it's also tough to figure out how to sell what amounts to an expansion of the current US-run occupation to Security Council countries that opposed the war in the first place. The solution is a scapegoat: The problem is that the natural (and well-deserved) candidate for scapegoathood is also currently the President of the United States. So there's no clear policy tool that the Executive Branch can use to put in place the optimal strategy.

Why do I see such beauty in blaming a single person for all our troubles? Because it's a simple story which will actually make a lot of things suddently seem possible. Once the troublemaker has been removed from the picture, we can all convince ourselves that we're in an entirely new situation. The Gordian Knot will be cut once the Iraq situation can be presented at the UN and in other multilateral forums as Bush's mistake instead of America's. I am quite certain that the election of a non-Bush president will be received around the world as evidence that Americans aren't such terrible people after all, and will open up a thousand possibilities for restructuring international relations. This kind of political narrative has worked again and again in the past: think of the reception afforded to President Fox of Mexico once he broke the PRI's hold on that country's politics, or the worldwide embrace of President Clinton during the 1990s.

The one competing narrative that worries me is a Spanish-style scenario where Bush loses an election after a terrorist attack. Conceivably the "Americans were forced to dump Bush because they're cowards" story could dominate the "Americans chose to dump Bush because he didn't represent them" story that we need to resolve the situation in Iraq.

So I make this appeal to President Bush: you will be judged by history on the success or failure of your attempt to create a stable, democratic Iraq. That is the single element of your presidency that will be discussed in the years to come. Please consider your place in history, and put all your efforts into stopping terrorist plots against the US and throwing the election to your competitor. Your grateful nation will not forget this noble sacrifice.

NOTE: Other notable analysis of the Kagan piece can be found here and here.

UPDATE:Lots of commentary on Kagan's piece around the blogosphere.

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