Wednesday, September 27, 2006

John Judis and Me

I happened to discover a "letter to the editor" that I wrote way back in response to an article by John Judis entitled "Imperial Amnesia". I read through it and thought that its reasoning was still sound. (If I can't toot my horn in my own blog, where can I do it?) So herewith is my response:
Dear Sir or Madam:

I bring to this letter no special expertise in either Political Science or International Relations. I will accept at face value Judis’ account of our intervention in the Philippines and Mexico, and I share his skepticism of our ability to export democracy by force—or by any other method, for that matter. But Judis earnestly seeks to tag President Bush and the hated “neoconservatives” with the imperialist label and compare them unfavorably with Bush the Elder and Bill Clinton. I am fairly well acquainted with the historical events of my own lifetime, and I observe that he glosses over any number of facts inconvenient to his thesis. For instance:

1. “. . . the challenge concerned how the United States could actively exercise leadership—and further America's goals of a peaceful, democratic world—without reviving the perilous dialectic of imperialism and nationalism.” Fair enough: everybody in America wants peace and democracy. But, contra Judis, Gulf War I advanced neither of those objectives. Gulf War I accomplished only its narrow purpose of evicting Iraqi troops from Kuwait. It is easy to see how this purpose advanced the interests of so many key players: the Kuwaiti Emir could return and resume his more-or-less benevolent despotism where he left off; the Saudi royal family no longer worried about having to relocate to Switzerland; both could continue their lucrative oil business with the West; the credibility of the United Nations as a collective security apparatus was maintained. But the interest of democracy was hardly advanced, and neither was peace: the United States bought itself a 12-year police action patrolling the borders of Saudi Arabia and the “no-fly zones” as Saddam Hussein played cat-and-mouse with U.N. weapons inspectors.

2. This is not to condemn Gulf War I or even to argue that the first President Bush and his advisers, given the information available at the time, made poor decisions in its prosecution. But it must be pointed out that the extended presence of American troops on “Saudi sacred soil” figures prominently among the grievances of such as Osama bin Laden. In an effort to applaud Bush the Elder’s statecraft, Judis neatly glides over this grievance by referring only generically to “Western imperialism.” Judis would have us believe that the “galvanizing effect [of] the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” is primarily responsible for our difficulties. In this he is half right: it was, in fact, the establishment of the state of Israel that galvanized the Arab world against the West, first under the banner of pan-Arabic National Socialism, then under the banner of Islam. By reducing this conflict to one between Israel and the Arab residents of the occupied territories, Judis neglects the cost, justified or no, of the West’s assistance at Israel’s birth and avoids admitting that our difficulties antedate Bush II and the neocons.

3. Moving forward to 2002 and the build-up to the invasion of Iraq: the alignment of interests is now radically different than what they were in 1990. The intervening twelve years saw much ink-stained hand-wringing about a “unipolar” world and the growth of the envy and resentment such a world excited. France was profiting from the “oil-for-food” scam and had no wish to lose its cash cow. The Saudi despots, meanwhile, had no desire to create a democracy in Iraq that would inspire democracy in Arabia. So Bush II faced a very different diplomatic challenge than did Bush I. Judis seems to argue that Bush pursued a course of “unilateralism” in a vacuum. But in fact, unilateralism was thrust upon him by a recalcitrant international community with interests very different from our own. Judis suggests a set of options—unilateralism or multilateralism—that did not exist; our actual options were to either invade with the allies we had or to leave the Baathists in power. Judis also seems to believe that Iraqi “nationalism” would have been neutralized by U.N. backing. It would be as if a Mexican invasion of the United States would be resisted, but an entire Latin American coalition would not. Why this should be so, Judis does not explain, but it seems to me unlikely.

4. Judis devotes the rest of his article to creating a parallel universe in which, for instance, Wilsonian internationalism “earned the support not only of Americans but of peoples around the world,” instead of collapsing in abject failure. Where the U.S. “rain[s] bombs and artillery shells on heavily populated cites” instead of engaging in the most discriminating use of armed force in the history of warfare. Where Iraq’s only reason for rejecting peace and democracy is because we offer it. Where nationalism, rather than religiously motivated fanaticism, is the primary source of the hostility we face.

Lest this seem like an apologia for the administration, let me reiterate my skepticism that the Islamic world is capable of humane and consensual government. I fear that the feelings of helplessness and resentment engendered by the bankruptcy of their civilization make Muslims all too ready to embrace the call to Jihad against “Zionists,” “Crusaders,” and modernity itself. Bernard Lewis, of all people, should understand this better than he evidently does. However, far from taking us “back to the dark days at the turn of the last century,” President Bush singularly broke with the West’s practice of supporting all manner of vile despots in the name of “stability.” He instead has given the Iraqis the opportunity to live under democracy. Time will tell whether or not they will succeed. Paul Bremer has left Iraq, and our troops will soon follow [sic]. But if Iraqi democracy fails, it will be in spite of, not because of, Bush’s efforts to effect it.

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