Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Iraq, and Thoughts on Intervention

The American military has left Iraqi cities as of yesterday (June 30th), and so we get another discussion on the future of the country, America’s role in it, and the entire justification behind the war and interventionism as a philosophy. Surely, I can tackle all of these subjects in a single post? ...Or perhaps not. Nevertheless, I will share some of my recent thoughts on these issues.

Is Iraq any closer to being a safe and free country?

Things have improved from the hell that the country was trapped within back in 2005-2006. The State Department has documented the security and political changes that have occurred since the surge strategy was implemented. I have also talked about positive changes in the country in the past.

However, we should not fall under the illusion that the conflict in Iraq is over, both for its people or for Americans. Fighting may have subdued, but the animosities and disputes between the various communities in Iraq (both of the social and material nature) have not vanished. Fighting may return between groups that are currently content to work within the political system. Terrorist organizations can still blow up Iraq civilians to get headlines across the globe and force division in Iraqi society. There is a long road ahead, and its path will not always be affirmative.

I also can’t say the war was “worth it.” Iraq may still turn to totalitarianism in the near future, and liberals and socialists in Iraq may be treated to yet another dictatorial thug bent on controlling the country’s people at all cost. I do not believe that the only alternatives in Iraq’s future are sectarian division or dictatorship like some, and from where the country stands presently, I believe there are reasons to be optimistic. I would agree with Robert Kaplan’s general assessment, which he makes in the new issue of the National Interest.

For four decades in the twentieth century, Iraq made an “uneven march” toward democracy and away from primordial loyalties. Parliamentary government would endure “extended period[s] of harassment” and then suddenly be allowed to function, only to be harassed again. Tyrants like Qasim and Saddam were the eventual result. But Qasim and Saddam did not have to happen, and now—in much different historical circumstances than in the 1950s and 1960s—neither do their equivalents have to happen again. The more drawn-out and deliberative our withdrawal, the higher the degree to which we can quietly embed military and civilian advisers in Iraqi ministries, and the more that we can improve bilateral relations with Iraq’s neighbors Syria and Iran, the better the chance Iraq will have.

Maybe this time Iraq will finally escape the vicious cycle of its past
I also can not declare the war was “worth” it, since I have not suffered the conflict. I will let Iraqis speak for themselves on this front, but at the moment, it would seem more than half of the country thinks it was not. I only hope that Iraq continues on its current progress, and allows for a system to exist that allows its citizens to articulate their view to the world, and not have it filtered and distorted through another tyrant.

Have my feelings on interventionism changed?

I did not support the war from the start. I protested against it, but my position in the political spectrum has changed a bit since March of 03. I only came to vocally support the coalition presence in Iraq following the 2005 elections. Obviously, that democratic achievement did not end violence and usher in an era of peace, but it did demonstrate that this mission was different from some of America’s less than reputable interventions into world affairs. Even before the election, I believed liberals, leftists, and all free people should stand up and support those in Iraq struggling to make the country a better place, regardless of their views on Bush or the justifications for war. But this is something I have covered here a great deal, so we need not return to that debate.

I am still a proponent of interventionism, and can accurately be described as an interventionist, even after the failures in Iraq. Obviously, those who believe the west should intervene in the affairs of a foreign state do not believe every conflict and humanitarian misdeed requires a military invasion or regime change. The “realists” and isolationists who peddle this twaddle are building a rather easy straw man to lay waste to. Korea, Bosnia, Japan, and Germany are all testaments to the role intervention can make in both stopping murderous regimes from ruling, and creating the necessary environment to further liberalism and democracy. I have little time for those who gaze at those historical examples of interventionism and not draw the rational conclusion that “meddling” in the affairs of a foreign people can be positive and are sporadically obligatory.

But I do believe America and the west must also recognize that when we intervene in a foreign conflict with the hope that we can stop ethnic violence or foster democracy and liberty, that the success of the venture will be produced by the local population, and not the western presence. If the people we are hoping to "save" from conflict are not ready to accept their foes and work towards peaceful and permissible reconciliation, we can not force them to do so. As the surge demonstrated in Iraq, we can help produce a security environment that can further political settlement, but a military presence does not guarantee said outcome will come to be. The United States must take a serious look at the people and culture of those we are looking to help before we leap into future humanitarian and nation building exercises. Sam Rosenfeld and Mathew Yglesias penned a strong piece back in 2005 that concerned interventionism and the Iraq war, and made my point better than I could. They wrote:
The liberal hawks' view of interventionism -- and ours -- was formed by the experiences of the 1990s, when greater rather than lesser American engagement in the world and a frank recognition that American power could serve humanitarian ends seemed to be the basic moral imperatives of the age. As Max Boot put it in The Weekly Standard's 10th anniversary issue, “The Bosnia and Kosovo missions … showed how much good ‘humanitarian' interventions could do, while the slaughter in Rwanda laid bare America's shame for not intervening.” Kosovo, in particular, stood as a deeply flawed but undeniable benchmark -- a war waged centrally on humanitarian grounds, revealing the potential for armed intervention to halt atrocities and for international administrators to maintain a tentative peace through indefinite occupation. For liberal interventionists, the great inhibitor to fulfilling such moral imperatives was always, inevitably, the disingenuous notes of caution sounded by Kissingerian realists. “We don't have a dog in that fight,” then–Secretary of State James Baker famously said of the Bosnian mess. Liberal hawks were appalled at such sentiments, and properly so.

But the American experience in Iraq over the past two and a half years casts a retrospective light on the '90s interventions, bringing into relief an important lesson about U.S. limitations that had been too easily overlooked -- and that the dodgers refuse to face even now: Military power can force parties to the table, but it cannot secure an enduring peace or a social transformation. The U.S. military is good at exactly what one would expect an exemplary military to be good at: destroying enemy forces while keeping collateral damage to historic lows.

Consequently, we have the ability to eject hostile forces from areas where they lack a strong base of popular support. This power allowed us to create the conditions for negotiation between the parties to the Bosnian war, and to keep the local Serb, Croat, and Muslim communities from killing one another in large numbers once the peace was signed. They also allowed us to eject Serbian forces from Kosovo and bring autonomy to that province, plus provided a large measure of security and autonomy for Kurdistan for more than a decade. These are no mean achievements, and they were accomplished largely from the air, at little risk to American soldiers. But in none of those places have we yet been able to achieve what we are likewise failing to accomplish in Iraq: the sudden transformation of a society
Furthermore, while we should make no apologies for our defense of democracy and liberalism, we can not fail to see the conflict through the eyes of those we aim to support. Zachary Iscol, writing of his experience sin Iraq, argues:
In 2004, as a young Marine lieutenant, I gave a poster of George Washington crossing the Delaware River to a local tribal leader named Sheik Jabbar. I was 25 years old and he was a foot taller than me, regal, wise, and twice my age. As I handed him the poster, I explained that he had the opportunity to be his nation’s Thomas Jefferson. He graciously accepted the poster and then asked me if I meant he would write his country’s declaration of independence, be its ambassador to France, or serve as its president. He then listed the names of his family’s patriarchs going back 1,200 years. He wanted to be like his forefathers, not mine.”
Nor should we believe that culture is static; every nation and culture has a set of obstacles it must overcome before it can exist in a modern liberal society. Some cultures have a larger set of hurdles it must leap, and a history that makes these changes more difficult. But it was not long ago that many held the view that predominantly Catholic nations could not sustain liberal democracy. The same was said of people with a history rooted in Confucism, as well as poor and developing nations with an ethnically diverse populace. History has shown that democracy and liberalism have developed in nations across the globe that did not fit the naysayer’s preconceived notions of a people capable of living in such a system.

I never believed the war in Iraq would be quick or easy; we may have “victory” now, but our commitment to Iraq is far form over and anyone telling you otherwise is naive or lying. The Bush administration did a terrible disservice to the American people when they claimed the war would be relatively brisk, with a quick turnover of sovereignty to the freshly minted Iraqi government. Nation building is a long and difficult process, especially in a nation as divided as Iraq. I don’t know how popular the war would have been among the electorate if President Bush had told the world that the U.S. would be willing to entrust twenty to thirty years, trillions of dollars, and thousands or its men and women to helping Iraqi’s remake their country once Saddam was removed. But he should have said it, even if they assumed those things would not be necessary.

For those of us who believe America has an obligation to use its power to help build and maintain liberty and democracy around the world, these facts must not be avoided. Learning from these pressing lessons in Iraq, and recognizing when our argument is wrong or misguided, is the only way to build a smarter and more effective interventionism for the future.


E.D. Kain said...

Really good piece, Roland.

Caitlin said...

One of the key problems in Iraq is the unemployment rate is as high as 60-80% in many of the major Iraq cities. The iraq civilians will join armed forces to push out US troops just to be able to provide for their family. In a quote from a US troop commander he said, "he only way you have to provide for your family is to get paid 50 dollars to throw a hand grenade. That’s what you’re going to do." http://www.newsy.com/videos/u_s_troops_in_iraq_gone_for_good

Dandy has a posse said...

Very nice work Roland. Precisely how I feel about interventionist policies after the war in Iraq.

kellie said...

Hi Roland, I liked this post and have just re-read it again. One aspect that I think is important which isn't really covered here is the enlightened self-interest argument for pro-democracy intervention. 9-11 and Afghanistan provided the most extreme demonstration that an unstable tyranny is a threat not just because of the potential hostility of the tyranny itself, but also because of the space that such instability provides for other hostile organisations, whether political terrorists or mercenary criminals.

One could argue that for a realist instability is the problem rather than tyranny, but while democracy is a form of managed instability, tyranny is a recipe for much more extreme and violent instability, as tyrannies are not designed for smooth transitions of power. It follows that there is a lack of realism in the realist strategy of supporting friendly tyrannies in the hope of maintaining stability.