The New Republic Online


Fail Proof

by Daniel W. Drezner

Only at TNR Online
Post date: 05.27.04

In early April, President Bush confessed that the United States had been going through a tough stretch in Iraq. That tough stretch looks better and better in retrospect every week. The deluge of bad news from that country--Muqtada al-Sadr's armed resistance, Ahmed Chalabi's alleged duplicity, Nicolas Berg's gruesome murder, and, oh yeah, a little problem at Abu Ghraib--raises the question of what, exactly, went wrong. Was the very idea of bringing democracy to Iraq ill-conceived, or did the problem lie in our implementation?

A growing chorus of thinkers across the political landscape are arguing the former--that the neoconservative vision of exporting liberal values into a society that has known nothing but tyranny for the past generation smacked of foolish idealism. Americans have been naive in the past about their ability to remake societies--remember Nebraska Senator Kenneth Wherry's 1940 statement that "with God's help, we will lift Shanghai up and up, ever up, until it is just like Kansas City." The neoconservatives, many are arguing, were wrong to believe that it was possible to turn Basra into Buffalo.

A competing view holds that the fault lies not with the idea of democratizing Iraq but with our execution of that idea. Adherents note that the near-total absence of proper contingency planning prior to the war has led to a rash of policy screw-ups. These errors range from the premature dissolution of the Baathist military to the excessive faith placed in Ahmed Chalabi to the stringent ideological litmus tests used to screen Coalition Provisional Authority personnel. Along these lines, it is telling that in President Bush's Monday speech, he spoke of Saddam loyalists melting into the civilian population as if this possibility was a complete surprise to the United States. With each of these mistakes or failures of foresight, the U.S. has made its task in Iraq--which was never an easy one--more and more of an uphill climb.

We can't rewind and rerun history, so it's impossible to say definitively which of these competing explanations is correct. But with that crucial caveat in mind, a strong case can be made that the bulk of the blame lies with the implementation. As I argued repeatedly last year, the social science evidence suggests that democracy was not an unreasonable goal in Iraq. A necessary condition underlying that argument was that there was sufficient security; as James Dobbins and his co-authors pointed out in their RAND study last year on democracy-building in postwar situations: "What principally distinguishes [successes from failures] are not their levels of Western culture, economic development, or cultural homogeneity. Rather, it is the level of effort the United States and the international community have put into their democratic transformations." According to Dobbins's calculations for peacekeeping in multiethnic states, 450,000 troops were needed in Iraq--a number that was, and is, anathema to the Pentagon's civilian leadership. Our failure to deploy sufficient numbers of troops probably goes a long way towards explaining the current situation.

But the political problem for those sympathetic to democratization is that even if fault does lie with the implementation--which may well be the case--Americans are likely to blame the strategy that got us involved in Iraq rather than the nuances of how we carried it out. Most voters don't have time to reach sophisticated conclusions about the competence of the government's post-war planning; they will therefore respond to our setbacks in Iraq by writing off the neocons' big idea altogether, concluding that democracy promotion in the Middle East was a pipe dream. Without public support, the grand strategy of reforming the Middle East will inevitably fall by the wayside, no matter who wins the upcoming election.

If this is how events play out, the Bush administration will have left an ignoble mark on the history of U.S. foreign policy. Say what you will about the neoconservatives' skills at manners or management; their big idea cannot be dismissed lightly. There is a compelling logic to the argument that the primary source of frustration among Arabs in the Middle East is a sense of powerlessness. Trapped in a region littered with authoritarian and corrupt regimes, they are encouraged by these regimes and their Islamic critics to blame their situation on Israel and the United States. This is an ideal environment for fomenting terrorism. Creating an open society in Iraq would put the lie to this kind of hate-mongering.

To be sure, democracy promotion is far from easy. Indeed, regime change in the Middle East looks like a lousy, rotten policy option for addressing the root causes of terrorism, until one considers the alternatives--appeasement or muddling through. The latter option was essentially the pre-9/11 position of the United States and its allies, and has been found wanting. Appeasement or isolation has the same benefits and costs that the strategy had in the 1930s: It buys short-term solace but raises the long-term costs of facing a stronger and potentially undeterrable adversary.

For all their criticism of Bush's grand strategy, Europeans and left-wingers have offered very little in the way of alternatives to his vision. Some say that American soft power could bring about change in the Middle East. But decades of alternately coddling, cajoling, and ostracizing Arab despots has not led to liberalization or democratization. We have showered Egypt with aid, but have succeeded only in propping up an authoritarian monster in Hosni Mubarak. We have tried to isolate Syria, but have only strengthened that country's anti-American credentials. Maybe U.S. soft power is part of the solution to the Middle East's woes, but soft power alone cannot accomplish our desired ends.

The craft of foreign policy is choosing wisely from a set of imperfect options. While flawed, the neoconservative plan of democracy promotion in the Middle East remains preferable to any known alternatives. Of course, such a risky strategy places great demands on execution, and so far this administration has executed poorly. It would be a cruel irony if, in the end, the biggest proponents of ambitious reform in the Middle East are responsible for unfairly discrediting their own idea.

Links to relevant documentation and further information can be found here.


Daniel W. Drezner is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Sanctions Paradox (Cambridge 1999). He writes regularly at


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