September 08, 2007
Liberal Interventionists and Closet Imperialists

George Packer has another thoughtful and well-written article about Iraq. His discussion of the remaining options draws this comment from Josh Marshall:

If our options before ranged from bad to worse, they now range from worse to horrible.

Packer, of course, was originally a war supporter, and as far as I know has never repudiated that position. Thus he seems to me to be continually engaged in explaining his reasoning, to put it euphemistically.

To his credit he does not shy away from the responsibility of the US for the disaster we’ve created.

The inability of Iraq’s communities to reconcile doesn’t absolve the United States of responsibility. Instead, it raises a new set of moral and strategic questions that are, in their way, more painful than at any other phase of the war. Facing these questions requires American leaders to do what they have not yet done — to look beyond the next three or six months, to the next two or three years. When America prepares, inevitably, to leave, what can we do to limit the damage that will follow our departure, not just for Iraq’s sake but for our own?

In this article, in fact, he attempts to turn that responsibility in favor of his argument, which I take to be that a continued presence will be necessary for at least five years. But he doesn’t explicitly state that or any other position as his own, so I may be projecting.

He’s naturally quite willing to allocate blame to the Bush administration’s faith-based foreign policy, quoting one former official as saying “What happens if, at the eleventh hour, we’re witnessing one of the most remarkable feats in American history on the part of a general? … If that’s the case, why do you want to give up now?” Suppose some magical situation came along, then assume it’s currently true and act on that.

But Packer seems to me to be in the thrall of illusions that are just as destructive in the long term. His views are vastly more sophisticated, and they attempt to shoulder the obvious responsibility of the US to help the country we destroyed. Though it’s impossible to know for sure he thinks from the article, it’s telling that in his discussion of the proposal of Senators Reed and Levin (begin withdrawing troops within four months, leaving only a “limited presence”) he notes the agreement of Senators Clinton, Obama, Biden, and Warner, but the only person he quotes is Lamar Alexander: “You have the President being inflexible and the Democrats playing politics”. Certainly that’s a fair statement of an argument made by the moderate Republicans and the wimpy liberals, but why is that the only position worthy of a quote from a Senator?

The point I most agree with in the article is that Americans need to start thinking ahead, considering the results of our policies and actions. Fat chance, but an excellent recommendation. Our television-and-fast-food society is all about immediate gratification, an infantile approach but one we’re hooked on. We don’t want to think about the effects on others of our own actions, or indeed the effects on ourselves in the future. Packer’s article, above all, attempts to take on this task and contribute to this discussion. We need more people doing that, especially those like him who write well and think deeply.

Discussing our options is an unpleasant business, because they’re all bad. As far as I know, no one anywhere on the spectrum denies this. To me it seems that one’s view of what we should do arises in large part from what one thinks about the role of the United States in the world.

For example, Packer quotes Colin Kahl, a professor of security studies at Georgetown: “If Bush keeps the pedal on the surge until the end of his Presidency, we will rocket off the cliff, and it guarantees that the next President will get elected on a pledge to get us out of Iraq now.” The context seems to indicate that Packer and Kahl agree this would be a bad move.

One way in which Iraq and Vietnam — two wars doomed to be endlessly compared — are not the same is in the implications of America’s departure. Contrary to Bush’s recent claim, the American exit from Vietnam didn’t lead to the Cambodian genocide (U.S. actions during the war did), and, for all the bloodiness of the aftermath in Vietnam, it was not a strategic disaster. America’s prestige was damaged, but the dominoes did not fall, and the civil wars in Southeast Asia did not affect the larger history of the Cold War. But Iraq, sitting in the geographical heart of the Middle East, on top of all that oil and radicalism, is unlikely to become marginal. In 1966, Senator George Aiken gave Lyndon Johnson some memorable advice about what to do in Vietnam: Declare victory and get out. In contemplating a change in American policy on Iraq, one former Bush Administration official turned the advice around: “Declare defeat and stay in.”

In a nutshell, I take that to be Packer’s position. He talks about the necessity of engaging the rest of the world in the stabilization of Iraq, postulates that the world would be willing to help if we acknowleded our failure while remaining engaged, and reiterates the argument that a bloody civil war will be the result of a rapid American withdrawal.

The spectacle, televised around the world, would deepen the feeling that America is indifferent to human, especially Muslim, life. It would brand the U.S. as untrustworthy to potential allies and feckless to potential enemies. And it would destroy what’s left of American prestige. Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at Queen Mary College of the University of London, who also served on the strategic-assessment team, told me, “What has defeated America in Iraq, apart from the failure of the state and its own incompetence, are a bunch of radicals with nothing more sophisticated than reëngineered artillery shells and rocket-propelled grenades. That is a loss of cataclysmic proportions.”

My view is that the historical record strongly supports these contentions:

  1. The US is indifferent to human life unless it happens to be American, white, and middle-class or above.
  2. The US is untrustworthy as a potential ally.
  3. Another defeat of the American military by technologically unsophisticated radicals will merely reinforce the accurate perception that nationalist insurgencies nearly always win.

Packer does a great service by attempting to focus our attention on the implications of our actions.

David Kilcullen, an Australian counter-insurgency adviser who served on Petraeus’s staff in the first half of the year, said, “The real question is not withdrawal dates or troop numbers. The real question is: What do we want Iraq to look like once we don’t have a hundred and sixty thousand troops there? And is what we want achievable?”

My question is, why is it up to us to decide what Iraq should look like — isn’t that what got us into this situation to begin with?

I would argue that, once we follow Packer’s lead, transcend our short-term thinking, and assume our adult responsibilities, the central question is our role in the world. The assumption underlying the various positions that converge on maintaining an American military presence in Iraq for five to ten years is, I think, that it’s our responsibility to decide what the world should look like, to offer everyone a chance to be like us. A empire of soft power, backed up by the largest military in history.

In short, a kinder, gentler empire. The liberal interventionists seem to me to be as entranced by American military might as the neo-cons, and to entertain illusions that are less blithe but equally incorrect.

At the other of the question are those who maintain that the US cannot and should not attempt to determine the shape of the world, that we should stop trying to dominate and start leading by example. That means no bombing anywhere, unless we’re attacked first and we can prove who did it. That means no invasions. That means not selling arms to the worst actors in the world, indeed not basing our economy on arms sales; not supporting countries that engage in ethnic separation of populations, by arms or by fence; not refusing to talk to anyone who wants a dialog; not threatening people with force. We can change the world for the better by helping people around the world, by offering assistance rather than requiring coöperation. As long as we act through our military, while China negotiates contracts in Africa and Asia, and Cuba sends doctors to the poorest, we will appear to be what we are: a military empire, in it for ourselves, unable to provide even for our own because we’re so busy making money on war.


Posted by Chuck Dupree at September 08, 2007 02:50 AM
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