Last Tuesday President Bush went on television to explain to the nation why we must, and will, succeed in Iraq. In another shift of emphasis, he stressed the need to deny terrorists a major victory in the ongoing campaign against terror--which is, in fact, a campaign against Muslim political extremism. Victory, he said quite rightly, depends upon the development of Iraqi security forces that can deal with the terrorists themselves, and the emergence of a stable Iraqi government. The President's speech drew a good deal of criticism, as has the Iraqi effort in general, based upon the claim that his strategies have been ineffective. Nearly every critic, however, especially elected officials in Washington, continues to accept the premise that we have to succeed. Today, in my own small way, I would like to help begin what may be a critical task: to put together an intellectual framework, and a different view of our needs around the world, that will allow us to accept what is becoming a very possible defeat.
Promoting democracy has, of course, been a pillar of American foreign policy at least since 1917, even though our success rate has been quite erratic. Most of the new democracies created after the First World War gave way to one form or another of authoritarian rule within twenty years. The Second World War saved democracy in Western Europe and made it possible in a good deal of the Third World, but spread Communist rule over Eastern Europe and much of Asia. The Cold War induced the United States to tolerate or, often, promote authoritarian rule as an alternative to democracies that seemed vulnerable to communism. When Communism collapsed, promoting democracy officially became the cornerstone of our foreign policy under President Clinton. The current Administration, obviously, has taken a much more aggressive tack.
The premise of our policy, which is rarely articulated directly, has been developed by the Russian-Israeli politician Natan Sharansky in his book The Case for Democracy, which is a favorite of President Bush's. It holds that people--all people--yearn to live in democracies, and that democracies will never disturb the peace. War has, according to him, one main cause--it is how dictators distract their people from their oppressive rule. "Realism," in this view, actually increases the danger to peace by accepting authoritarian rule in other countries, rather than treating it as an aberration that must go. It is an astonishingly simple view of international relations and politics, and its divergence from reality is becoming clear in both Afghanistan and Iraq, where American-sponsored elected governments are contending with a host of warlords, ethnic and religious militias, and ideological revolutionaries as they try to establish real control.
An alternative view would suggest that democracy is an inspiring idea that has been put into practice in a variety of nations, generally with the help of armed struggle. It certainly has appealed to a wide variety of peoples around the globe, but it has also periodically fallen into disrepute--in Europe after the French Revolution and again after the First World War, and even among large numbers of Americans in the 1790s, the 1850s, and the 1930s. We have been fortunate that leaders like Lincoln and FDR managed to revive and re-establish it on slightly different principles. Today we are faced with the huge challenge of renewing our own democracy again. But meanwhile, we have launched ourselves on the extraordinary mission of determining the political future of hundreds of millions of Muslims.
That mission has now turned into a military one. Here the paradox of current American policies and strategies emerges. Our conventional arsenal could easily defeat any possible competitor in the air or at sea, and probably on land as well; but our conventional military edge is not much use in winning the political struggle in Iraq. A large and evidently growing insurgency has been able to maintain or increase the number of attacks it makes upon coalition soldiers and especially upon agents of the new Iraqi government which are trying to put together. Although hard data is difficult to come by (senior Pentagon officials, for instance, refused to tell the Senate how many of the new Iraqi troops are combat ready), individual stories suggest that the training of Iraqi forces is not going very well. A recent Washington Post article by a reporter who had seen it in action described a high level of mutual distrust and low morale and motivation among the Iraqis. Hundreds of recruits and new police have been killed in terrorist attacks. Few units have shown the ability to engage the enemy.
Why is this so? The insurgency includes dedicated fighters and a good many former leaders of Iraq. It draws on resentment against the occupation and economic privation, which it in turn manages to continue by disrupting reconstruction. The new American-assisted government, like the various governments of South Vietnam, is having trouble generating the same kind of loyalty, and it suffers from the huge disadvantage of having to operate in the open. While Kurds and many Shi'ites clearly oppose the insurgency (and the Kurds have militias that can apparently take care of themselves), no real political counterweight has emerged among the Sunnis.
And thus, it is possible that, with the military suffering more and more damage from the war, we may eventually be forced to announce, too soon (as we did in Vietnam) that the job is now up to the Iraqis, and withdraw. That could lead to an anti-American victory in much or all of Iraq. That in turn would enormously energize anti-American feeling all over the region, and we would have proven that we could not stop the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.
That does not mean that fundamentalism would inevitably take over the whole region, any more than Communism took over all Europe in the late 1940s or all Asia in the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s. As always, and contrary to the presumed "domino effect," political change in one country can have many different effects among its neighbors, ranging from imitation to heightened aversion and more effective defense. But it does mean that the United States would have to abandon the fantasy that resolute policy, including the use of force, can topple any hostile regime and spread democracy further. It means re-establishing national sovereignty as a value we have to respect; it means recognizing diplomacy as a means of moderating conflicts with enemies, as well as forcing friends to fall in line; it means being realistic about American power.
Leaving aside the issue of our economic vulnerability, it is time, I think, to understand that in some crucial respects our power is declining, not rising. The key here is population--the United States, while larger in absolute terms, is much smaller relative to the rest of the world today than it was 50 or 100 years ago. When the British took control of Iraq in the early 1920s it had less than 2 million people; it has about 25 million today. Iraq's population, in short, as increased tenfold while ours has perhaps doubled (and the major European countries have increased much less.) Numbers count when an army is trying to impose order over a whole population, rather than destroying an enemy army with superior technology. We have never had the requisite numbers in Iraq, and we still do not.
The realization that much of world will pass out of our sphere of influence will certainly come as a shock, just as it did in 1979 at the time of the Iranian revolution, but if we can escape our denial and accept it, it could lead to a healthier America. The idea of reducing our energy consumption (and, along with it, global warming) would become more attractive as an alternative to the idea of transforming the politics of the Middle East. We might begin once again to focus more realistically upon the defense of the United States, rather than finding new excuses to project power around the globe. We might, as Andrew Bacevich suggested in his book The New American Militarism, conclude that military power will not, and cannot, solve the biggest problems the United States faces today. None of this means the end of American democracy. It might, in fact, help re-invigorate it.
Two historical observations, it seems to me, may appropriately be made on this Fourth of July. The first relates to Athens, which in 431 B.C. became involved in a war with Sparta to preserve its large empire. After 10 years of war, in which both sides had suffered major setbacks, they concluded a truce that left Athens with almost all its empire. The Athenians would not stop there, however, and a few years later they launched a huge and disastrous expedition to Sicily. The destruction of their forces led to revolts throughout their empire, which they had to try to put down while fighting the Spartans. Even then, in the third decade of war, they had some successes, but they refused to make peace without having reconquered the whole empire. In 404 their fleet was destroyed at Aegespotami, and they lost everything. That is the scenario we must avoid--to exhaust ourselves and come to complete catastrophe because we will not settle for anything less than maximum objectives.
The second even more apposite incident comes from June 1826, when Thomas Jefferson was invited to Washington to participate in a 50th anniversary commemoration of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson, whose only remaining ambition (which he shared with John Adams) was to survive until that day, replied that his health, unfortunately, made it impossible to attend. "I should indeed, with particular delight," he wrote, "have met and exchanged there congratulations personally with the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission or the sword; and to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact, that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made." The Declaration, he believed, would "be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. . . The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God."
Rationalist that he was, Jefferson could not imagine that the triumph of reason was impermanent, and that the battles of his lifetime would have to be fought again, with uncertain results, every eighty years or so. Like Lincoln or John F. Kennedy, he would surely have been appalled to find from today's newspapers that something very near a religious test is being applied to new candidates for the Supreme Court, and that science is actually losing battles to religious superstition in much of the country today. But he understood that the spread of democracy, while perhaps, as he wrote, foreordained, was not automatic, and he never expressed the slightest faith in attempts to impose it by force of arms. A nation that will not rest until it has imposed its values on the world, one might argue, really has no faith in them, since it cannot bear subjecting them to the test of comparison. We have come dangerously near that point, and we must draw back to preserve the extraordinary contribution which our forefathers made to civilization almost 230 years ago.