Monday 7th August, 2005

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Iraq war and the neo-cons

It was a little more than three years ago, on March 20, 2003, that President Bush ordered the coalition to launch “an attack of opportunity” against specified targets in Iraq. Today, it seems less and less likely that history will regard that moment of decision kindly. The invasion turned Iraq into a fertile operational base for terrorism, with multiple targets, local and foreign. A Shiite-dominated, democratic Iraq remains a possibility, but the new government will be weak for quite some time to come.

Will the US leave, as many Americans wish? Will Iraq’s more fundamentalist neighbours fill the vacuum? Removing Saddam Hussein was a considerable benefit to the Iraqi people, but Saddam’s removal and its sequel hardly seems to justify all the blood and money spent so far on this venture.

The decision to invade Iraq was premised on Bush’s doctrine of pre-emption, spelled out in a special declaration of policy during his first term, entitled “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America.”

The declaration stressed America’s unparalleled military dominance and said it would launch pre-emptive strikes to defend itself against rogue states and terrorists with weapons of destruction.

Bringing democracy to the greater Middle East was part of the long-term solution to the problem of terrorism, but this was not as front-and-centre in the declaration as the other two features.

Pre-emption, however, depends on the ability to predict the future accurately and on good intelligence.

Neither was forthcoming at the outset of this war. Bush’s talk of unilateralism also left the US more isolated and resented as never before in the world. Small wonder that talk of pre-emption has disappeared from policy discourse in the administration’s second term. Today, for instance, in dealing with the nuclear threat from North Korea, Condoleezza Rice speaks of “transformational diplomacy.”

The use of American power to promote democracy and human rights abroad became the centrepiece of foreign policy after Bush’s second inaugural. “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one,” he stated. But the results of the activist foray abroad have, if anything, pushed Americans more insistently towards isolationism.

There is a tradition that a president is never abandoned in the middle of a war, but the prevailing situation reminds many of the end of the Vietnam war, with the country wondering once again what were the troops doing there in the first place.

The war and the identification of foreign policy with the spread of democracy and human rights are attributed to the influence of “neo-cons,” a group of neo-conservative thinkers and strategists in the administration.

As is often the case with all such labels, neo-cons are not all alike. Scholars like Daniel Bell and statesmen like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, hardly regarded as neo-cons, nonetheless shared some key conservative beliefs, notably a strong anti-communism and a conviction about the limits of all social engineering. Their anti-communism did not exclude sympathy with the social and economic aims of communism. It was the communist state that they regarded with horror.

They had no love either for large-scale engineering to achieve social justice. Such schemes only left society worse off than before, either because they required enormous state intervention, which disrupted pre-existing social relations, eg busing to achieving racial balance, or they ended up with a host of unintended consequences, eg more single parent families as a result of welfare.

Their form of neo-conservatism does not easily, if at all, square with a foreign policy that would sanction the invasion of Iraq to promote democracy. That came from another wing of the movement, the neo-con Reaganites, who were emboldened by the collapse of evil empires, not only the USSR, but also East Germany and Romania.

Other totalitarian regimes, they felt, all similarly riven by internal contradictions and hollow at the core, would collapse at a push. This made regime change realistic, and American power to bring it about eminently reasonable.

Thence came the belief that once Saddam was toppled, Iraq would greet the invaders as liberators. It is now known that the Pentagon had planned to reduce forces in Iraq to some 25,000 troops the summer after the invasion. A longer involvement and greater commitment to civil stability were not envisaged at the outset. Democracy was something that would have occurred almost by default.

There’s yet a third strand to neo-conservatism. Concerns here range from relativism to the crisis of modernity to the belief that neither the claims of religion nor convictions of the nature of the good life can (or should) be banished from public life, as the (European) Enlightenment hoped, and as its progeny still thinks.

It’s the second strand that’s in crisis at the moment. The difficulty of promoting democracy in a problematic context like Iraq seems to have been completely underestimated.

“It is one matter,” John Deutsch, a former deputy secretary of defence, observes, “to adopt a foreign policy that encourages democratic values; it is quite another to believe it just or practical to achieve such results on the ground with military forces.”

But the notion of intervening in foreign nations to build some preferred form of society is not uniquely a Republican failing. The failing on the Democratic side is intervening to stop egregious violations of human rights, and to move from such “peacekeeping” to “peacemaking” and “nation-building.”

Thus, in the mid-1990s under Clinton, the US moved from halting the “ethnic cleansing” or Bosnians by Serbs to creating with indifferent results a multi-ethnic society among three groups—Bosnians, Croats, and Serbs—who had had an ancient history of enmity.

On yet another hand, where intervention could have been more completely successful, with considerably less deployment of force, as in ending the genocide in Rwanda, not a single finger was lifted.

Diplomacy and economic clout are far better instruments for achieving peacemaking than the ill-suited efforts of military forces. Even North Korea for a while saw the advantages of curbing its nuclear ambitions for the sake of economic benefit.

The demise of apartheid in South Africa also showed what could result from collective economic action. Libya is yet another instance. It too backed off from its commitment to weapons of mass destruction at the prospect of economic benefit.

Less militarism costs less financially. It also costs less in terms of human tragedy and the loss of countless numbers of lives.

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