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Monday, December 11, 2006

If the mantle of imperialism is thrust upon us

I've not written anything recently about Iraq. I've read a fair amount of commentary about the just-released report of the so-called "Iraq Study Group," but I want to actually read the report myself before commenting directly on it — and even then, I may well conclude that I don't have anything particularly profound to add to the zillion or so words either panning or praising the report that are already bouncing around the blogosphere.

But of all the current commentary I've read so far, I was most struck — which is to say, surprised by, impressed with, and left wondering about — Bing West's essay last week in The Atlantic Online entitled "Blind to Choice." (Hat-tip to Mickey Kaus.)

Mr. West was a Marine infantry officer in Vietnam and an Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration, and you may have seen him as a "former-military talking-head" on Fox or PBS. I always take such figures' commentary with a grain of salt: Ex- and even current-military pundits may or may not know whereof they speak, and they may indeed have agendas (cough-cough) that don't precisely dovetail with those held by the occupants of the actual "boots on the ground" in Iraq or elsewhere. But I pay attention to Mr. West when I see him on TV, and I very much enjoyed his and Maj. Gen. Ray L. Smith's book The March Up: Taking Baghdad with the United States Marines as a "view from inside an M1A1"-version of the toppling of Saddam's regime. And Mr. West has a Marine's tendency to get to his point briskly — which he certainly does in last week's essay, and perhaps with a subtlety that Marine officers aren't often credited as having.

Mr. West begins the essay with some observations about how a few particular suggestions of the ISG's report are playing among the various military sources whose pulse he takes regularly — among them the suggestion that more American soldiers and Marines be embedded as advisers among Iraqi troops as part of the Iraqis' training. But then he makes a point that I hadn't ever considered (italics and bracketed portions mine):

... General John P. Abizaid, who has commanded the Central Command throughout the insurgency, has assured the Congress that Prime Minister Maliki will move against the Shiite militias by February, and will emerge as a real leader, backing his army. Currently, the [Iraqi] army has more allegiance to their [American] advisers than to their government. The advisers are the ones who drive to Baghdad and wrest pay and food provisions from recalcitrant government ministries.

So where are we headed? Down two tracks: the one is the development under American advisers of the Iraqi security forces; the other is the emergence of a responsible Iraqi government. It may be that Abizaid is correct that Maliki is on the verge of a character-altering epiphany. But if Maliki is incapable of moving against the militias or offering reasonable terms for reconciliation, President Bush will face the choice of sticking with a failed democracy the U.S. created, or tolerating a behind-the-scenes power play by a fed-up Iraqi military.


We must be prepared to let Maliki fail and not fail with him. We are training Iraqi troops to be the cement holding Iraq together in place of Americans. We should not be blind to the choice that opens.

That is scary stuff to contemplate. Our enemies already ridicule Iraq's fledgling government as being a creature of American making. Without "purple-finger legitimacy," a successor government led by colonels is certainly going to be even more vulnerable to that charge — and that's true whether we've merely stood by passively and allowed a coup to happen, or encouraged it softly, or facilitated it actively. Mr. West seems only to be urging us to start thinking about what our reaction should be if the Iraqi military were to mount a coup on its own. But then there's that final sentence: Is the real choice whether to support or not support the government-by-coup once it takes over? Or is the real choice just how passive we ought to be beforehand?

What we do or don't do now is obviously likely to have current consequences, but also consequences across decades. From everything I read or watch, in next-door Iran, the "revolutionary government" continues to be able to play on deep popular resentment of the 1953 CIA-planned and -facilitated takeover that put Mohammad Reza Pahlavi on the Peacock Throne as Shah more than a half-century ago. Similarly, no matter what good we did in South Vietnam over the following dozen years, the 1963 Diem coup gave the Communists there a propaganda weapon of enormous value. "Imperialism," "economic hegemony," "manipulation of American puppet/proxy states" — we've heard those themes  from our critics, both internal and external, about virtually every foreign policy action or inaction of the United States government since the American Revolution.

Of course, there's the possibility that the Bush administration could simply use suggestions like Mr. West's as an implied stick in its continuing dealings with the Maliki government. "Your colonels are muttering, and our colonels are pretty sympathetic. Are you sure you don't want to take on those militias more forcefully?"

Implied threats aside, however, there are strong, principled, perhaps even compelling arguments to be made that if push did indeed come to shove, even standing by idly during a military coup would be a rank betrayal of everything that's been said about America and its coalition allies bringing democracy to Iraq. Ironically, in this scenario, the so-called "realists" like Jim Baker might be the ones urging support for, or at least acquiescence in, a coup, while the "neo-cons" might be the ones to stand on principle (even if that means chaos).

The Hoover Institution's Shelby Steele, as someone unafraid to give the word "hegemony" a positive spin, made a related observation in last Friday's Wall Street Journal (italics mine):

Only reluctant superpowers go to war with a commitment to fight until they can escape. So today the talk is of "draw-downs," "redeployments," etc. But all these options are undermined by the fact that we simply have not won the war. We have not achieved hegemony in Iraq, so there is no umbrella of American power under which a new nation might find its own democratic personality, or learn to defend itself. We have failed to give "peace in the streets" to the people we are asking to embrace the moderations of democracy. Without American hegemony, these "draw-downs" and "redeployments" are acts of outrageous moral irresponsibility, because they cede hegemony to the forces of menace — the Sunni insurgency, the Shiite militia, the Islamic extremists, the wolfish ambitions of Iran. It was America's weak application of power that made space for these forces to begin with. To now shrink the American footprint further would likely offer the country up as a killing field and embolden Islamic radicals everywhere.

For every reason, from the humanitarian to the geopolitical to the military, Iraq is a war that America must win in the hegemonic, even colonial, sense. It is a test of our civilization's commitment to the good against the alluring notion of menace-as-power that has gripped so much of the Muslim world. Today America is a danger to the world in its own right, not because we are a powerful bully but because we don't fully accept who we are. We rush to war as a superpower protecting the world from menace, then leave the battle before winning as a show of what, humility? ...

If there's a coup in Iraq, the "No Blood for Oil!" hounds will redouble their baying domestically and abroad, no matter whether America has encouraged it, facilitated it, planned it, or merely failed to prevent it. "Bus**tler and Cheney" will get the blame among that crowd — and that's the only thing of which I'm absolutely certain.

So if the Maliki government fails, and if America is absolutely, positively going to take the blame for that no matter what we do or don't do — well, then, taking into account Mr. Steele's arguments, it may make sense to read Mr. West's essay as suggesting a broader choice than between acceptance or non-acceptance of a government change after the fact.

If the mantle of the imperialist and king-maker is thrust upon us no matter what, and if every alternative to refusing it is impossibly grim, then can we refuse it in good conscience?

I'm not quite prepared yet to argue that we should. But neither am I completely convinced that we shouldn't. So for putting me into active and thoughtful puzzlement, I'm grateful to Mr. West and Mr. Steele for their essays. And preparing to answer that question seems to me a tougher task than anything the ISG attempted, much less succeeded in doing.

Posted by Beldar at 12:20 PM in Global War on Terror | Permalink


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(1) El Jefe Maximo made the following comment | Dec 11, 2006 4:28:22 PM | Permalink

A lot to think about in your post, and I've got something more to work on today. Hopefully, I can go thru the print out later and come up with something intelligent to say.

On the first pass, though, I would say that I think we're a tad too hard on ourselves over the pro-Shah coup in 1953. The coup was widely popular at the time, and the regime that was restored lasted well over 20 years. Looks like it was errors after that point which did in the Shah.

Your point about the real question, as to a coup, being how passive we ought to be beforehand...is spot on at identifying the real point we need to look at -- and also pretty accurately sums up where we were in Vietnam as to the coup that threw out (and killed) Diem in Nov. 1963, and the coup that threw out (and killed) Allende in 1973 -- we passively allowed things to happen.

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