When The Magic Bullet Backfires

War in Iraq has not brought stability or democracy to the region. The solution requires a mix of might and credibility,

AT THIS JUNCTURE it seems doubtful that history will judge the Iraq war kindly. By invading Iraq, the Bush Administration created a self-fulfilling prophecy: Iraq has now replaced Afghanistan as a magnet, training ground and operational base for jihadist terrorists, with plenty of American targets to shoot at. But the ability of the Administration to fix the problems it created for itself in its first four years will be limited. Repairing American credibility will not be a matter of better public relations; it will require a new team and new policies.

One of the consequences of a perceived failure in Iraq will be the discrediting of the entire neoconservative agenda and a restoration of the authority of foreign policy realists. What is needed is not a return to a narrow realism, but a recognition of the importance to world order of what goes on inside states and better matches the available tools to the achievement of democratic ends.

This means, in the first instance, a dramatic demilitarisation of American foreign policy and a new emphasis on other types of policy instruments. Preventive war and regime change through military intervention can never be taken off the table completely, but they have to be understood as very extreme measures.

The rhetoric about the global war on terrorism should cease. We are fighting hot counterinsurgency wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and against the international jihadist movement, that we need to win. But conceiving the larger struggle as a global war comparable to the world wars or the Cold War vastly overstates the scope of the problem. Before the Iraq war, we were probably at war with no more than a few thousand people around the world who would consider martyring themselves and causing nihilistic damage to the United States.

The scale of the problem has grown because we have unleashed a maelstrom; whatever the merits of the original intervention, walking away from Iraq now, without creating a strong and stable government there, will leave a festering terrorist sanctuary in the Sunni triangle.

The US should promote political and economic development, and it should care about what happens inside states around the world. We should do this by focusing primarily on good governance, political accountability, democracy and strong institutions. But the primary instruments by which we do this are mostly within the realm of soft power: our ability to set an example, to train and educate, to support with advice and often with money.

The secret to development, whether economic or political, is that outsiders are almost never the ones who drive the process forward. It is always people within societies – sometimes a small elite, sometimes the broader civil society – who must create a demand for reform and for institutions and who must exercise ultimate ownership of the results. This requires tremendous patience as institutions are built, organisations founded, coalitions formed, norms changed and conditions become ripe for democratic change.

By the beginning of its second term, the Bush Administration had already shifted its rhetorical stance towards democracy in the Middle East substantially, moving away from an emphasis on stability and towards gentle suggestions that allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia ought to pursue reform. Condoleezza Rice has clearly stated the Administration is willing to take the risk of having extremists come to power in open elections.

This is a welcome change, but it is important that we are clear in our own minds why we are making it. Democratising the Middle East is something that is desirable in its own right, and not because it will solve our problem with terrorism.

If French expert Olivier Roy’s analysis of the sources of jihadism is correct, an important part of the terrorist problem lies in western Europe, not the Middle East, and is a by-product of immigration, globalisation Continued Page 29From Page 28 and other characteristics of a part of the world that is already open and democratic. Even if Egypt and Saudi Arabia turned into stable democracies overnight, we would still have a deeply embedded terrorism problem for years to come.

Moreover, we should not kid ourselves about the likely short-term costs of Middle Eastern democracy. A Turkish-style transition to a secular democracy based on Western models is extremely unlikely in most parts of the Arab world. Greater democracy will come through political participation of Islamist groups in a pluralist political order. Many of these groups have an uncertain commitment to democracy. Although many will want to take part in elections, most are not liberal at all, and some, such as Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon, are terrorist organisations.

Although political reform in the Arab world is desirable, the US faces an immediate problem: it has virtually no credibility or moral authority in the region. The dominant image of the US is not the Statue of Liberty, but the photographs of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib; pro-Western liberal reformers feel they have to distance themselves from the US and are targeted for accepting grants from organisations such as the National Endowment for Democracy. It is to be hoped that this will not be a permanent situation.

What the Bush Administration failed to appreciate before the Iraq war was the fact that the kind of lopsidedly unipolar world that emerged after the Cold War had stoked broad new currents of anti-Americanism. Signs of this were clearly evident well before the 2000 election in the US. What recognition of this fact should have led the Administration to do was not to abjure the use of American power but to be more cautious in it, to use soft rather than hard power and to devise more subtle and indirect ways of shaping the world.

American power remains critical to world order; but American power is often most effective when it is not seen. American forces in East Asia and the American-Japanese alliance permit Japan to maintain a relatively weak military establishment, thereby avoiding remilitarisation that would be threatening to China, Korea and other states in Asia.

American power is often more useful when it is latent. Despite the fact that the US spends roughly as much on its military as the rest of the world put together, the Iraq war has demonstrated that there are clear limits to its military’s effectiveness.

The US cannot avoid provoking fear and resentment given its de facto power, but it can try to minimise the backlash by deliberately seeking ways to downplay its dominance. The Bush Administration did nearly the opposite: it launched not one but two wars in response to September 11 in the belief that it would somehow not be regarded as credible if it did not make a statement beyond the Afghan intervention; it announced an open-ended doctrine of regime change and preventive war; it withdrew from or criticised a series of international institutions; and it implicitly asserted a principle of American exceptionalism in its self-proclaimed benevolent ordering of the world.

The most important way that American power can be exercised now is through the ability of the US to shape international institutions. These institutions require two things that are often mutually inconsistent: power and legitimacy. Power is needed to deal with threats, not just from rogue states but from the new non-state actors that may employ weapons of mass destruction. It must be capable of being deployed quickly and decisively; its use will, in some cases, require the violation of national sovereignty and may, in some cases, require pre-emption.

International legitimacy, on the other hand, requires working through international institutions that are inherently slow, rigid and hobbled by cumbersome procedures. Legitimacy is ultimately based on consent, which is, in turn, a byproduct of a slow process of diplomacy and persuasion.

It is doubtful whether we will ever be able to create truly democratic global institutions, particularly if they aspire, like the United Nations, to be globally representative (for example, the European Union has run into massive obstacles). However, if true democracy seems hard to obtain internationally, a more modest goal of democratic accountability may be within reach. The reason for thinking so is that, after the end of the Cold War, a much larger number of countries are democratic than were previously.

One might ask why the US should want to bind itself unnecessarily when it is at the peak of its power relative to the rest of the international system. International institutions are for the Lilliputians of the world, who have no other way of tying down Gulliver. America is sovereign; why change?

One answer has to do with American beliefs. The French writer Pierre Hassner observed that in their domestic institutions, Americans believe in checks and balances because they distrust concentrated power, even if well-intentioned and democratically legitimated.

But in the post-Cold War world, he argues, they have uncritically promoted US hegemony and said to the rest of the world: “Trust me.” The fact that these errors were made by the world’s sole superpower exposes the fatal flaw lying at the heart of a world order based on American benevolent hegemony. The hegemony has to be not only well-intentioned but also prudent and smart in its exercise of power.

It was not Condoleezza Rice but Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, who once asserted that Americans deserve to lead because they can see further than other people. If this were consistently true, the world would still only grudgingly concede primacy to American judgement. If American judgement turns out to be more short-sighted than that of others, then our unipolar world is in for a rough ride.