Read Slate's "Liberal Hawks Reconsider the War" dialogue this week, with posts from Jacob Weisberg, Fred Kaplan, George Packer, Christopher Hitchens and others, it's quite good. Writing about the big, tough questions posed by the Iraq invasion has generally declined since the period right before the invasion, when really fine critical thinking about democratization, Middle Eastern history, and American supremacy was appearing daily. The simplifications that inevitably come with presidential campaigns, the neverending backlog of Bush deceptions and improprieties to be explained, and the difficulty of simply figuring out what the hell is happening on the ground in Iraq have all drawn attention from questions of global ethics, defining terrorism, the new world order (?), and American hegemony.

I hope to respond to more of the posts in the future, but for now I'll respond to just one theme: the democratizing 'spillover' effect. The administration and supporters of the war have made a lot out of the concessions made by Syria and Lybia to open their doors to WMD inspectors since the end of the war. Some critics of the war have tried to downplay the connection between Iraq policy and these other successes, but I don't think that's necessary. Intimidating sketchy countries by smashing up countries next to them has proven, over time to be a pretty successful strategy. The drawback is that intimidation is an inconsistent tool, and it often requires a continued demonstration of force to hold everything in place.

But regardless. There's no reason to doubt that getting rid of Saddam will make other corrupt leaders in the Middle East check themselves. Most of the corrupt Middle Eastern states long ago lost their legitimacy as real ideological authoritarian regimes and have become mostly criminal corporatist type states, bent on their own survival and enrichment by any means necessary. Brazenly bucking the West and proving yourself a big Arab nationalist are not so essential to legitimacy anymore, and dictators know what it takes to stay in power. Reluctant war-supporters, with no love or confidence for the Bush administration, tend to see this intimidation spillover as a short-term necessary evil and an important symbolic gesture, even if they don't believe its the most sensible way to address WMD proliferation.

The democratizing spillover effect, on the other hand, is key to their support for the war. They understand the cold hard truth that without an invasion, Saddam wasn't going anywhere for a while. We could apply various polite and not-so-polite pressures to his broken state, and hope this kept him in check and maybe even loosened his reigns on the Iraqis, but Saddam was not the kind of leader that leaves unless its on the barrel of a gun. And most of these states have little hope of internal rebellion. Extrapolating from this fact, they posit that the process of dismantling the whole phenomenon of Middle Eastern authoritarianism, and its recent handmaiden the 'terror bubble' (in Friedman's words), can only be brought about by an action of unmitigated force. Would they have liked it better if Bush had gone about the whole enterprise without so much incompetence and arrogance, without inflicting so much unnecessary damage on the alliances and institutions which can only help the cause in the long run? Of course. But thinking the blunt instrument of war can be used under perfect circumstances, that the jolt required to shake Middle Eastern authoritarianism to its core can be dispensed in good faith is a foolish ideal. It is a bungling catastrophe only recommended by the fact that it is a better option than all the others. Hmmm. I think I have digressed.

The point is, the reluctant hawks think the destruction of the criminal Iraqi state, and its replacement with a long hard road of imperfect democratization looks pretty ugly, but it is necessary to create at least one large Arab state which can start to turn the tide of gangster paralysis in the region. But I have yet to see a good discussion of how this democratizing spillover is supposed to function alongside the intimidation spillover which should be paying immediate dividends. The goals of each policy are fundamentally different. The mechanism of democratization by example is usually vaguely described as "What will happen now, when Syrians can look across the border and see Iraqis enjoying democratic practices, freedom from authoritarian heavy-handedness, etc" The idea is that Syrians will then demand more concessions from their government, including the eventual dissolution of the corrupt dictatorship, since as we learned before, everything else is a sham democracy.

Simultaneously however, Bashar al-Assad (or at least the military pushing him around) is supposed to be scared into allowing weapons inspectors in, turning over terrorists they harbor, and abiding by U.S. demands. Which means the Syrian regime will be trying to make itself more palatable to the U.S. Giving in on the headlines the Americans demand about transparency and showing themselves cowed before the U.S.'s hardline against terrorism. Unfortunately, history has shown time and again in the Middle East that regimes know just how to play the Americans on security issues. Most of the Middle Eastern regimes are what they are now because of years of that sort of dealing. And it is decidedly contradictory to the democratization and opening of regional societies.

There should be no real doubt that our invasion means a better future for Iraq. The process of getting there will be far more painful than we will ever know or appreciate, and we will most likely leave long before that process is settled. But we do know the exceptional crimes of the Hussein regime will not be repeated anymore. But whether other countries in the region will be able to take this path without the extraordinary measure of regime change seems very unlikely, especially as we inaugurate a new period of wheeling and dealing with these regimes.

Now, I'm not saying the answer is to regime change all the other bad guys. This instability unleashed by another action like Iraq would be truly devastating and could send the region into a downward spiral which even American taxpayers could not buy away. For now, I'll just say we ought to explicitly address the different and contradictory pressures spilling over to other countries in the region, instead of considering each force in a vacuum.


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