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Sincere?

Today I found myself, not for the first time, arguing with a friend about whether the U.S. under Bush was “sincere” in its desire to bring democracy to the Middle East. My position has always been that many of the people around Bush (people like Paul Wolfowitz), as well as Bush himself, were sincere. However crazy their reasoning may have seemed to us, and however full of hubris it may have been (believing that the U.S. could reshape the world merely by wishing it so) there was a plan to turn the Middle East into a series of democratic states (not just take their oil) in the belief that only free Arabs in control of their destiny could help us to fight Al Qaeda-style terrorism. My friend wasn’t buying any of this, so for documentary proof, I went back to this April 2003 article by Josh Marshall, creator of the political news site TPM, in which he lays out the grand vision neoconservatives had at the time (improbable as it was), in the first days of the war in Iraq. The article made an impression on me then that I never forgot, and I still feel it’s the best piece of political analysis of that decade.

    “In their view, invasion of Iraq was not merely, or even primarily, about getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Nor was it really about weapons of mass destruction…. Rather, the administration sees the invasion as only the first move in a wider effort to reorder the power structure of the entire Middle East. Prior to the war, the president himself never quite said this openly. But hawkish neoconservatives within his administration gave strong hints. … Late last month, The Weekly Standard‘s Jeffrey Bell reported that the administration has in mind a ‘world war between the United States and a political wing of Islamic fundamentalism…a war of such reach and magnitude [that] the invasion of Iraq, or the capture of top al Qaeda commanders, should be seen as tactical events in a series of moves and countermoves stretching well into the future.’ In short, the administration is trying to roll the table — to use U.S. military force, or the threat of it, to reform or topple virtually every regime in the region, from foes like Syria to friends like Egypt, on the theory that it is the undemocratic nature of these regimes that ultimately breeds terrorism. … Each crisis will draw U.S. forces further into the region and each countermove in turn will create problems that can only be fixed by still further American involvement, until democratic governments — or, failing that, U.S. troops — rule the entire Middle East. …
    “[According to neoconservatives] the Middle East today is like the Soviet Union 30 years ago. Politically warped fundamentalism is the contemporary equivalent of communism or fascism. Terrorists with potential access to weapons of mass destruction are like an arsenal pointed at the United States. The primary cause of all this danger is the Arab world’s endemic despotism, corruption, poverty, and economic stagnation. Repressive regimes channel dissent into the mosques, where the hopeless and disenfranchised are taught a brand of Islam that combines anti-modernism, anti-Americanism, and a worship of violence that borders on nihilism. Unable to overthrow their own authoritarian rulers, the citizenry turns its fury against the foreign power that funds and supports these corrupt regimes to maintain stability and access to oil: the United States. … Trying to ‘manage’ this dysfunctional Islamic world…is as foolish, unproductive, and dangerous as détente was with the Soviets, the hawks believe. Nor is it necessary, given the unparalleled power of the American military. Using that power to confront Soviet communism led to the demise of that totalitarianism and the establishment of democratic (or at least non-threatening) regimes from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea to the Bering Strait. Why not use that same power to upend the entire corrupt Middle East edifice and bring liberty, democracy, and the rule of law to the Arab world?
    “The hawks’ grand plan differs depending on whom you speak to, but the basic outline runs like this: The United States establishes a reasonably democratic, pro-Western government in Iraq — assume it falls somewhere between Turkey and Jordan on the spectrum of democracy and the rule of law. Not perfect, representative democracy, certainly, but a system infinitely preferable to Saddam’s. The example of a democratic Iraq will radically change the political dynamics of the Middle East. When Palestinians see average Iraqis beginning to enjoy real freedom and economic opportunity, they’ll want the same themselves. With that happy prospect on one hand and implacable United States will on the other, they’ll demand that the Palestinian Authority reform politically and negotiate with Israel. That in turn will lead to a real peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians. A democratic Iraq will also hasten the fall of the fundamentalist Shi’a mullahs in Iran, whose citizens are gradually adopting anti-fanatic, pro-Western sympathies. A democratized Iran would create a string of democratic, pro-Western governments (Turkey, Iraq, and Iran) stretching across the historical heartland of Islam. … Syria would be no more than a pale reminder of the bad old days. (If they made trouble, a U.S. invasion would take care of them, too.) And to the tiny Gulf emirates making hesitant steps toward democratization, the corrupt regimes of Saudi Arabia and Egypt would no longer look like examples of stability and strength in a benighted region, but holdouts against the democratic tide. Once the dust settles, we could decide whether to ignore them as harmless throwbacks to the bad old days or deal with them, too. We’d be in a much stronger position to do so since we’d no longer require their friendship to help us manage ugly regimes in Iraq, Iran, and Syria.
    “The audacious nature of the neocons’ plan makes it easy to criticize but strangely difficult to dismiss outright. … You can hear yourself saying, ‘That plan’s just crazy enough to work.’”

I should note that the article is titled “Practice to Deceive,” so doesn’t that undermine my claim that the Bush administration was sincere? But the article doesn’t claim that their desire to democratize the Middle East was insincere. To the contrary, the duplicity referred to is of the opposite variety — they were claiming to the American people that their plan was far narrower in scope, dedicated only to ensuring that Iraq was free of chemical and biological weapons. Only after American troops were engaged would the full dimensions of the plan become clear, and the American people realize that we were committed to a region-wide project of twenty years’ duration. By then we would have no other choice but to swallow our doubts about democratization and nation-building, and see things through.

Of course, none of this turned out quite as the neoconservatives imagined it then. The Palestinians, for example, saw nothing worth imitating in the fate of their Iraqi brothers. And where democratic elections did occur, the people stubbornly refused to vote for the sort of people the Bush administration had in mind (like Ahmed Chelabi), choosing instead pro-Iranian Shi’a conservatives in Iraq, the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egyptian parliamentary elections of 2005, and Hamas in Palestine in 2006. Eventually, the Bush administration grew considerably less sincere in its desire for democracy in the Middle East, and backed away almost entirely from the original plan. A few neoconservatives (not many) even apologized to us for their naive and deceptive advice. But still, it helps from time to time to go back to this original snapshot of Josh Marshall’s, and remind ourselves of the kind of imperial hubris that was in the air then.