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The Road Not Taken

Reading back through the summary of The Washington Monthly's debate on Bush and Middle East democracy promotion, I think it's important to try and distinguish between a few different kinds of issues. What's happened here is that Bush has been the first American president to proclaim political reform in the Middle East to be an important policy priority. He's also done a whole bunch of stuff with regard to America's policy toward the region, including invading-and-occupying one of its most important countries. Lastly, he's said that democracy-promotion is the point of all this stuff he's done.

Clearly, the stuff is important stuff, in the sense that all Arabs no about it, have opinions about it, and it's impacted, directly or indirectly, the lives of millions of people. As a result, if democratic reform blossoms in the short term Bush will, as a matter of fact, receive a large portion of the credit for making it happen. On top of that, given the fact that the things Bush has done have had a lot of causal impact on a whole bunch of people in the region, Bush will deserve a large portion of the credit for things turning out the way they did. Obviously, without the invasion of Iraq, it's impossible to imagine a scenario where Iraq swiftly develops one of the most open political systems in the region. And so on and so forth. I don't think there's any sense in liberals denying any of this, because it's basically true and insofar as the truth is somewhat more nuanced it's not nuanced in a way that's going to be important to anyone. Quibbling with the rough story is just going to be a waste of time.

Now there are some different questions to be asked. One such question is: "Was democracy-promotion the real reason for fighting the war?" Well, I have no idea what Bush or whoever else in the administration was thinking deep down. Another such question is: "Was democracy-promotion the official public rationale for the war?" The answer to this is clearly "no." Bush mentioned democracy and human rights fairly frequently in the lead-up to war, but he always stated that war could be avoided if Saddam would disarm. The difference-maker was (nonexistent) WMD, not democracy. A further question is "would a pure democratization rationale have been a sufficient basis for fighting the war?" As a positive matter, I think the answer is obviously no. Neither the voters nor the public would have gone for it. As a normative matter, I think it depends on the answer to a further question.

This question -- which is really key to the whole puzzle -- is "was this the only method available of aiding political reform?" I'm pretty damn sure the answer to that is "no." As Marc Lynch put it:

For example: Bush could have declared back in 2002 that the United States would cut off the $2 billion in American finanical aid to Egypt unless Mubarak allowed multi-party Presidential elections under international supervision. That might have been a more efficient way to get those elections, no?
Now that's quite possibly a somewhat-too-crude policy idea. But you get the general idea. There are lots of ways the United States could have pressured the governments of Egypt, Jordan, the small Gulf monarchies, and several North African states to democratize that would have been much less costly in terms of dollars spent and lives lost than was the invasion of Iraq. These more direct methods, in addition to being less costly, would be more certain to work. There are many hopeful signs in the Middle East right about now, but nothing definitive. On top of all that, a direct campaign to democratize the America-aligned states of the Middle East likely would have helped bring Saddam Hussein down int he long term, just as bringing Saddam down may wind up helping to democratize the America-aligned states of the Middle East in the long term.

May 6, 2005 | Permalink

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yawn

Posted by: abb1 | May 6, 2005 12:54:43 PM

The difference-maker was (nonexistent) WMD, not democracy.

Why must the left always insist that there be a single cause? There were many reasons to go to war, none of which, alone, was sufficient or even perhaps necessary.

Why is this so difficult for ostensibly intelligent lefties to understand?

Posted by: Al | May 6, 2005 1:05:56 PM

I thought Republicans love cost-benefit analysis? Let's get the good folks at OIRA to tackle this question about the effectiveness of the Iraq War.

Posted by: praktike | May 6, 2005 1:13:28 PM

Great hindsight on Matt's part. Of course there was and still is more than one way to promote democracy in the ME. But the way The Bush administration chose to toss the old rules to the wind and really mess with the region's status quo was a logical one, and supported by hawks of liberal and conservative stripe.

Of course the Bush administration didn't hype democracy promotion until late in the game. Besides the fact that only neocons and liberal hawks (the kind that belonged to The Committee to Liberate Iraq, Bob Kerrey and company) cared much about things like genocide and the rule of law in a place like Iraq earlier on, that's because the WMD argument was the logical way to justify the war. There was, after all, a wide if not universal consensus in the West that Saddam had a viable WMD program and that he was intent on developing it further. That we now have reason to believe otherwise is beside the point.

Posted by: JohnFH | May 6, 2005 1:13:56 PM

"was this the only method available of aiding political reform?"

This is a horrible question -- a total loser, except with people, who already agree with you. It takes you off into counterfactual speculation, where people's prejudices hold sway.

The critical question to apply to Iraq today is, "Is the U.S. promoting the development of a stable, democratic Iraq?" It is fine for Bush to say that's what he is doing, but what is he, in fact, doing on the ground? This is a question that goes to the interpretation of actual facts. Addressing this factual question opens the possibility of persuading someone, whose opinion may be based on misinformation.

When Bush says that he wants to "save Social Security," no sensible person takes him at his word. We examine whether his ideas and proposals are designed to "save" SS or, rather, and more accurately, to "phase it out."

Democrats need to start analyzing the situation in Iraq, with the same skepticism.

Bush, imho, is trying to create opportunities for corporate business interests to profit from corruption and he is trying to create a need for a permanent American military presence. He has done nothing to strengthen Iraq; he has increase electrical production or the supply of clean water -- the money appropriated for those purposes and many others has been siponed away by corruption. The Iraqi government is kept militarily and economically weak and dependent on the U.S., while the insurgency is allowed to simmer.

The Iraq policy is not unlike the Republican policy of raising the unemployment rate to dampen wage increases. No Republican President will ever say, out loud, that that is his policy, but everyone has done it since WWII. Bush will never say, out loud what his policy objectives are, but he will nevertheless employ means, which are appropriate to his unstated objectives. If his policy fosters corruption, then it is fair to infer that he wants corruption, he wants Halliburton et alia to profit mightily, as they have. If his policy fosters a weak Iraqi government, then it is fair to infer that he wants a weak Iraqi government.

It may be that Bush's Iraq policies will prove to be ineffectual, and that things will go badly. I don't think Bush wants an Iraqi civil war, or to have an Iraqi government ask the U.S. to withdraw. Those things may happen. But, I do not think the sole, or even primary, critical approach, should be to predict disaster. The primary task of policy criticism, at this point, ought to be, to infer from the means being employed, the objectives of the Bush policy, and to make those objectives known.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | May 6, 2005 1:16:09 PM

There are lots of ways the United States could have pressured the governments of Egypt, Jordan, the small Gulf monarchies, and several North African states to democratize that would have been much less costly in terms of dollars spent and lives lost than was the invasion of Iraq.

This is, of course, extremely doubtful. Especially given that, absent the invasion of Iraq, we would have had 200,000 troops stationed in the Gulf region, and Saddam would have continued to be an incredible force counteracting our democracy-promotion. (And, let's remember that the lefties' preferred position was to continue to station all of our troops on Saddam's border indefinitately; alternatively, if we had removed our troops, the Duelfer Report proves that Saddam would have restarted his WMD programs.)

It is strange that lefties seem to block away all the problems inherent in our pre-2003 Middle East policies that stemmed from Saddam's presence in Iraq. We would have forced Saudi Arabia to democratize with our 200,000 troops there? Get real.

Posted by: Al | May 6, 2005 1:17:05 PM

This has to be Stalker Al.

Posted by: Drew | May 6, 2005 1:33:26 PM

"Bush mentioned democracy and human rights fairly frequently in the lead-up to war"

Huh? Whaaa? it was 'turn the country over to Chalabi.' Only Sistani's insistence on elections led to elections. It was only WMD (and 'tried to kill Daddy' in the background). I don't know what world you lived in.

"in the sense that all Arabs no about it,"

Self-parody, MY?

Posted by: Al Gore | May 6, 2005 1:33:30 PM

"democratize that would have been much less costly in terms of dollars spent and lives lost than was the invasion of Iraq."

But there are no costs for the U.S., MY. Only benefits.

Posted by: Al Gore | May 6, 2005 1:36:14 PM

Why must the left always insist that there be a single cause? There were many reasons to go to war, none of which, alone, was sufficient or even perhaps necessary.

Matt wasn't suggesting that there was a single reason. He said that Bush himself said there was only a single overwhelming reason for going to war, and that was the fear of Iraq's (non-existent) WMDs.

Matt could have also added that the fear of WMDs was the only reason that had enough resonance with the American public for Bush to build any kind of political support for the war. Democracy is lacking in lots of places in the world, and you don't see much appetite for war in those places among Americans of any political stripe.

Posted by: S.Anderson | May 6, 2005 1:38:53 PM

The Bush administration is criminally negligent in failing to apply as much pressure as possible on Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Pakistan, etc. Israel and Egypt both receive the more foreign aid than any other country right?

Having said that, removing Saddam was the right thing to do, even if the aftermath was botched horribly. Last Sunday's New York Times had a great Week in Review piece tilted "Bush, the Great Shiite Liberator." I think the following is one of the many reasons Saddam was taken out:

"The rise of the Shiites is normally ascribed to the American push to democratize the Middle East. But many Middle East experts and intelligence analysts, like George Friedman, author of "America's Secret War," say it is more directly the result of the Bush administration's strategic planning for its global campaign against terrorism. The idea, they say, is to use regional threats like the Shiites to gain leverage over some of America's Sunni allies, especially Saudi Arabia, and force them to crack down on home-grown Islamic radicals and preachers.
...
According to that analysis, Washington was encouraged and not at all surprised when Saudi Shiites, about 10 to 15 percent of the kingdom's population, were emboldened by events in Iraq to demand some rights.
...
Bahrain. Sunnis have long governed here, although the nation is estimated to be 75 percent Shiite. To date, some Shiite activists report, the government has disguised the demographic imbalance by giving citizenship to Saudis who have tribal affiliations with the Bahraini Sunni elite.

It is unlikely that the White House will push too hard in Bahrain, a strategic ally in the gulf, especially since the Saudis have a powerful interest in maintaining the status quo there and more than enough influence to enforce it.

Saudi Arabia. Shiites make up only 10 to 15 percent of the population, but most of them live in the Eastern Province, where the kingdom's major oil fields are located. To the House of Saud, which not unreasonably sees enemies everywhere, a rebellious Shiite minority near the kingdom's one strategic asset would be a potential fifth column.

Perhaps even more troubling for the Saudis, their official form of Islam, Wahhabism, regards Shiism as a heresy, so granting rights to the Shiites would be a de facto renunciation of Wahhabism. A Princeton history professor, Michael Scott Doran, wrote last year in Foreign Affairs that some Saudi hardliners "are now arguing that the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia is conspiring with the United States to destroy Islam."

Nonetheless, soon after the invasion of Iraq, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah received Shiite notables petitioning for religious freedom in a document called "Partners in the Homeland." The petition, Mr. Doran wrote, could be "as important for Saudi Arabia as Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I Have a Dream' speech was for the United States."
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/01/weekinreview/01smith.html?pagewanted=print&position=
--------------
After 911, Bush decided to clean house and I belive it was worth the gamble even if today things aren't going great in Iraq. I was slightly surprised by the (bad) poll numbers about Iraq and you have to wonder if the insurgents noticed the new numbers too.

They've seemed to have stepped up their attacks. See Juan Cole in today's Salon.

Posted by: Peter K. | May 6, 2005 1:39:06 PM

Al Gore,

we thought you had moved on to bigger and better things. As for your amnesia about what Bush talked about in the run-up to the war, is it really worth the effort to dig up quotes to prove you wrong?

You tell me.

Posted by: JohnFH | May 6, 2005 1:39:10 PM

Another question might be, "was Iraq the right target?" It seems arguable that applying pressure on SA, Egypt, Syria, etc., might have yielded better (or at least less costly) results. Given this, Al's point that we couldn't have democratized SA without the Iraq war because we had 200,000 troops in SA doesn't seem to make much sense: democratizing SA isn't our priority anyway; at the same time, we're democratizing Iraq with 130,000 of our troops stationed there, so where's the problem? A democratic SA can invite us to keep our troops there just as well as a democratic Iraq can. And if they don't want us anymore, is that a bad thing? In addition, we might have been able to recruit the grateful Kuwaitis to the cause, if the Sauds needed reassuring that a petrocratic arabic monarchy can partially "democratize" and still flourish. SA and Egypt appear to be the major cultural forces in the Arab world; democratizing either one would seem to go a longer way than doing so in Iraq. Perhaps we thought the "burst of latent jihadists" factor would be less in Iraq than the other two. Where's Monty Hall when you need him?

Posted by: Adam M | May 6, 2005 1:47:13 PM

Matt wasn't suggesting that there was a single reason. He said that Bush himself said there was only a single overwhelming reason for going to war, and that was the fear of Iraq's (non-existent) WMDs.

No, I think that Matthew was suggesting that there was one "real" reason, and a bunch of other unimportant reasons. Which is demonstrably false.

Moreover, this statement of Matt's is just plain wrong:

Bush mentioned democracy and human rights fairly frequently in the lead-up to war, but he always stated that war could be avoided if Saddam would disarm.

Would Bush have gone to war if Saddam had said: "We are keeping our WMD programs, but will have free and fair elections for a democratic Iraq"? Obviously not. Accordingly, it is just as easy to show that democracy was the "difference-maker" just as much as democracy.

Posted by: Al | May 6, 2005 1:51:57 PM

Just a point - we're not "democratizing" anyone. Its the Iraqis (Lebanese, Palestinians, Indonesians, etc.) who are democratizing themselves. What we can do is create the space for them to act and support local democratizers.

Posted by: Judah Ariel | May 6, 2005 1:58:20 PM

Right on, Judah: "Just a point - we're not "democratizing" anyone. Its the Iraqis (Lebanese, Palestinians, Indonesians, etc.) who are democratizing themselves."

But how does that change things? Please explain.

Posted by: JohnFH | May 6, 2005 2:02:09 PM

This is just foolishness.

No one sane (even in Russia, I'm fairly sure) would say that the Russians brought democracy to the Chechen's and the situations are far, far, more alike than similar.

Posted by: Ed Marshall | May 6, 2005 4:42:13 PM

JohnFH -- it was "disarm or we'll invade." Nothing else. And what quotes are you going to dig up to prove that Bush was planning on having elections all along (rather than turn the country over to his sky-box SOTU pal) until forced to by Sistani?

Posted by: Al Gore | May 6, 2005 4:50:30 PM

Nothing else.

*snicker* It's funny when lefties revel in their ignorance.

And what quotes are you going to dig up to prove that Bush was planning on having elections all along

"The safety of the American people depends on ending this direct and growing threat. Acting against the danger will also contribute greatly to the long-term safety and stability of our world. The current Iraqi regime has shown the power of tyranny to spread discord and violence in the Middle East. A liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region, by bringing hope and progress into the lives of millions. America's interests in security, and America's belief in liberty, both lead in the same direction: to a free and peaceful Iraq. (Applause.)

"The first to benefit from a free Iraq would be the Iraqi people, themselves. Today they live in scarcity and fear, under a dictator who has brought them nothing but war, and misery, and torture. Their lives and their freedom matter little to Saddam Hussein -- but Iraqi lives and freedom matter greatly to us. (Applause.)

"Bringing stability and unity to a free Iraq will not be easy. Yet that is no excuse to leave the Iraqi regime's torture chambers and poison labs in operation. Any future the Iraqi people choose for themselves will be better than the nightmare world that Saddam Hussein has chosen for them. (Applause.)"

-- President Bush, February 26, 2003
http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/02/20030226-11.html

Posted by: Al | May 6, 2005 5:56:01 PM

I feel that many of your questions regarding democracy promotion in the Middle East are well written and thought out. However, do you think the real "deep down" reason for invading was to secure American access to the world's third largest supply of oil? I think that was the main underlying reason for it all. I think if I was viewing the situation as a member of the Bush admin, I'd say that getting rid of the supposed WMDs would've been an added benefit, as would have Iraqi democracy promotion, which could have a spillover effect into the Greater Middle East. However, the first reason wasn't sellable to the general public, so reason two had to be used.

Posted by: David Beaudreau | May 6, 2005 7:21:51 PM

Matt's post has a few problems. First, we now have our 'smoking gun' memo describing how the war had been decided on by mid-2002. Imagining that this secret decision was reached on the basis of a love of democracy, instead of flowing from the secret energy plan meetings of Cheney and his henchmen, is simply naive.

Second, naturally, in the U.S., Bush will receive credit for bringing democracy. And this proves? Mainly that our media is a subsidiary of Republican agitprop, and the people who consume it will believe anything.

Could a radical and sudden transformation to democracy have occurred without invasion? A sociologist would point out that pre-invasion Iraq had more of the institutions of democracy- education, public ownership of waterworks and power plants, unions, etc- than are found in post-invasion Iraq. A historian would remind us that Iran seemed like a solid U.S. satrapy, until the Iranians took to the streets with a democratic revolution.

Matt gets closer to the core of the matter in asking if invasion is the only way to encourage democracy; the answer is obviously no. You can encourage democracy by a shining example, or by supporting the institutions of democracy. As long as the U.S. is doing neither, I'm not giving the Bushies any credit for spreading democracy.

Posted by: serial catowner | May 6, 2005 8:12:25 PM

“However, do you think the real "deep down" reason for invading was to secure American access to the world's third largest supply of oil?”

This is such a silly idea. It’s embarrassing that so many people believe it.

Don’t you think we would have simply lifted the sanctions on Iraq and bought the oil from Saddam if that’s what we wanted? It would have been MUCH cheaper than sending in the military. And if that was our goal, why are we allowing the Iraqi government to dig it up and sell it on the world market?

Sheesh!

Posted by: Robert Brown | May 6, 2005 8:55:10 PM

The people that believe we went into Iraq for the oil probably also think that we went into Kosovo for the oil.

Posted by: Al | May 6, 2005 9:15:02 PM

It's embarrassing that so many people believe that the argument that the war was for the oil was about the price of oil today. Removing sanctions and buying oil from Iraq might have made the price cheaper, and then again (depending on what OPEC did) it might not have, but it's irrelevant either way. What's important about the oil isn't whether it's cheaper or more expensive now, it's about who's going to have access to it in the long term. With Hussein in power, that's uncertain. With a couple of dozen permanent US bases in Iraq, not so uncertain. That's always been the real issue.

Posted by: Ted | May 6, 2005 10:02:08 PM

"it's about who's going to have access to it in the long term. With Hussein in power, that's uncertain. With a couple of dozen permanent US bases in Iraq, not so uncertain. That's always been the real issue."

Nonsense.

Saddam would sell his oil on the world market, increasing the supply of oil. There is no need for him to sell to the U.S. directly for us and the world to benefit. He olny needs to be willing to sell it in his interest of earning money for his country.

Posted by: Robert Brown | May 6, 2005 10:57:03 PM

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