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May 5, 2004 12:06 pm

The War of Ideas

Walter Shapiro offers an unusually revealing account of the disparity between the stated goals of the plan to"transform the Middle East" and the realities of postwar Iraq:

Few administration insiders rival Douglas Feith as a passionate believer in America's ability to transform Iraq into a beacon of democracy in the Middle East. Feith, the undersecretary of Defense for policy and a protégé of Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, has played a lead role in what has turned out to be overly optimistic postwar planning.

To describe Feith as a controversial figure veers close to understatement. Bob Woodward, in his authoritative new book Plan of Attack, recounts that Gen. Tommy Franks described Feith to colleagues as"the (big-time expletive deleted) stupidest guy on the face of the earth."

This context helps explain the anticipation that surrounded Feith's speech Tuesday morning at an American Enterprise Institute conference on Iraq, a year after President Bush declared the end of major combat. ...

In his speech, Feith described postwar civilian life in glowing terms, stressing that"economically, Iraq is recovering" and that"health care spending is 30 times greater than its prewar levels." He contended that"more than half the Iraqi people are active in civic affairs," a claim that would be hard to make about America.

Yet, several military experts had very different views:
Thomas Donnelly, a defense policy expert at AEI, faulted the Pentagon for not thinking broadly about the aftermath of ousting Saddam Hussein."President Bush asked for regime change," Donnelly said,"but what he got was a plan for regime removal."

Steven Metz, a faculty member at the U.S. Army War College, criticized the American commitment in Iraq for being predicated on untested theories. Despite the administration's assertions, Metz said, there is no guarantee that the United States can impose democracy on Iraq or that the geopolitical benefits from such a democracy would be worth the cost. Metz stressed that Iraqis are not necessarily beguiled by abstractions such as democracy. He said their outlook is based on the pragmatic question:"Who is likely to be here in five years and have a gun?"

Metz echoes the precise concern enunciated by Barbara Tuchman, with regard to Vietnam:
Americans were always talking about freedom from Communism, whereas the freedom that the mass of Vietnamese wanted was freedom from their exploiters, both French and indigenous. The assumption that humanity at large shared the democratic Western idea of freedom was an American delusion."The freedom we cherish and defend in Europe," stated President Eisenhower on taking office,"is no different than the freedom that is imperiled in Asia." He was mistaken. Humanity may have common ground, but needs and aspirations vary according to circumstances.
But perhaps the most intriguing comment Shapiro mentions is this one:
An hour after the AEI conference ended, Rumsfeld faced the cameras for his first protracted public discussion of the chilling film accounts of the sadistic abuse of Iraqi prisoners. No single event has more dramatically undermined U.S. postwar aims. And yet when asked at his news conference for his thoughts about how this savage imagery might affect the Iraqi people, Rumsfeld responded lamely,"I haven't been focused on the war of ideas, to be honest with you, with respect to this issue."
And, might I suggest, that is precisely the problem: no one in this administration has been"focused on the war of ideas" in any of the ways that matter.

As Shapiro points out,"nothing is more central to whether Americans in Iraq are perceived as liberators or conquerors." Shapiro here refers to the prisoner abuse story, and one has only to consult what Iraqis themselves are saying about this story to appreciate the truth of his statement. And this is where the administration's defenders make a profound mistake: it does not matter what they think about this and similar stories, and it does not matter how they seek to minimize its impact.

What matters is how Iraqis themselves view it -- and, therefore, how they view the United States. It is all very well for us to talk about how we are"liberating" Iraq, but when the actual, concrete reality of life in Iraq contains horrors such as those now being revealed, how likely is it that Iraqis will put much credit in such theories? This shows the problems in resting foreign policy on (and in justifying wars and occupations by)"untested theories" such as nation-building. (And once again, please don't make the usual appeal to Japan and Germany after World War II: they are not the same as Ken Jowitt explains, and if anything, only underscore why such a notion is not likely to succeed in the Middle East.)

In essence, it could accurately be said at this point that our current foreign policy rests on the error of rationalism: of purportedly interpreting complex social-political dynamics and making plans for future action on the basis of self-contained and self-referencing abstract theories divorced from the specifics of the reality which confronts us. When we disregard history, culture and all the other relevant factors, we should not be surprised when such theories do not work -- and when they lead to disaster, and to results which are exactly the opposite of what we had intended. In other words, when foreign policy (or policy in any area) is justified by recourse to theories which are purposely not tested by reference to specific facts and the details of any specific context, failure to one degree or another is the most likely result, and usually the only likely result, barring an unprecedented stream of miraculous lucky breaks.

We have been down this road before, and we failed to learn the appropriate lessons. All of us, and the Iraqis as well, are paying the price for those mistakes now. And we will all have to pay the price, in countless ways of which we are not even aware at this point, for decades to come.

(Cross-posted at The Light of Reason.)

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