America Must Carry the Load


Apr 27, 2003

This commentary originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune on April 27, 2003.

With victory in Iraq, the United States now assumes principal responsibility for the future of the Middle East — virtually all of it. America must lead — and bear most of the burdens — in finally removing that critical region from the category of near-constant threat to Western interests.

Until 9/11 and, more directly, the war in Iraq, the region was "managed," with greater or lesser success, through instruments like the "dual containment" of Iraq and Iran and a seemingly unending "process" of peacemaking between Israel and its neighbors. But "management" has run its course in the Middle East; now the region must be transformed: in its politics, economies, societies and security. How well the United States does at helping to complete this awesome and unprecedented task will be a critical test of its post-Cold War role throughout the world.

This ambitious agenda derives in major part from a prediction made two centuries ago by the Prussian strategist, Carl von Clausewitz: that the political goals for which a conflict is being fought tend to rise in order to justify costs already incurred. In this case, the relevant costs of war in Iraq are being measured not militarily — thankfully, with relatively few coalition casualties — but politically, in terms of frayed alliances (NATO) and other institutions (the United Nations), the alienation (so far) of much of the Islamic world, and widespread concern abroad that the United States has not been true to its principles and best instincts of the past half-century.

The Bush administration originally argued that war on Iraq should be the last resort in disarming it of weapons of mass destruction and the means of making them — even though, it is now clear, "regime change" was a central motive. Nor were either of these motives ends in themselves.

Many administration strategists have believed, at least since the early 1990s, that it was critical to reduce Iraq's power and position, not just under Saddam Hussein's violent and threatening leadership, but also under any other government with pretensions to major regional influence — unless subservient to U.S. and Western aims in the Persian Gulf and contiguous regions. Keeping WMD out of Iraqi hands was only one element. The reduction of Iraqi power and pretension is useful — if not also necessary — to secure oil supplies and export routes for the long-term; reduce threats to America's protectorate, Israel; show other regional states (and perhaps terrorist groups) the risks of challenging American power, and begin laying the basis for forestalling the rise of potentially hostile or even seriously competitive "regional hegemons" or, farther afield, any "peer competitor" to U.S. military power (meaning China).

From the point of view of long-term U.S. security and prosperity, there is much to be said for this geopolitical perspective. Primarily at issue is less the goals than 1) the relative emphasis to be put on different methods and instruments (military versus economic and political), and 2) whether the United States should make most of the decisions and bear most of the burdens (unilateralism) or seek both political and tangible support from others (multilateralism). The Bush administration has generally chosen the former course in both areas; many of its critics prefer the latter. Partisans of each view confidently assert that they are right, but the truth can be proved only much later.

Clausewitz' prediction — his warning — comes into play because of the diplomatic and political costs that the administration has incurred in adopting its vision of Middle East geopolitics and so far employing military-heavy means to achieve it. To a degree, the war in Iraq was a replay of the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War. The first Bush administration went to war for a principle (the inadmissibility of aggression) and — with much stronger reason — for a geopolitical interest: oil. That was sound policy and a serious objective: It was not acceptable, either to us or rest of the world, to leave Saddam Hussein in control of Kuwait's oil fields, a threat to Saudi Arabia's energy resources, and a testament to U.S. impotence.

But opinion polls indicated that Americans were not prepared to fight for oil, or jobs, or the balance of power, or even the "American way of life." It was only when President George H.W. Bush drew a comparison between Saddam and Adolf Hitler that U.S. popular support crystallized for war.

The reason for this phenomenon is both clear to Americans and confusing to others: As a nation, we are prepared to risk blood and treasure in war when we, the American people, believe our interests and our values are both engaged — as they were in World Wars I and II. One without the other is a sure route to popular disillusionment. Somalia was "values without interests," and the United States retreated. So were Bosnia and Kosovo — at least neither conflict related to U.S. national interests that could easily be understood; and thus it was critical to keep U.S. combat casualties as low as possible (in fact, no Americans were killed by hostile action in either conflict).

In Iraq, the "value" latterly advanced by the administration to validate the "interests" that moved it to war has become the democratization of Iraq — and potentially the whole region. A strong argument can be made that this is in the American, Western, and regional interest. Even so, it has not been clear that a war was necessary to jump-start the process.

Even less clear, now that the United States has embraced the goal, is whether even a reasonable approximation of democracy can be achieved quickly (two to three years), as opposed to requiring a generation or more; whether American troops can be withdrawn before the process has put down deep roots; and whether the United States has the needed knowledge, long-term political commitment and willingness to commit major resources, at least without the wholehearted cooperation and resources of those allies and others that have been estranged from U.S. war policy.

Doubts abound about the ease of achieving democracy in Iraq, especially since, while it has a largely literate population and substantial middle class, it has no experience with that form of government. Its internal religious disputes are deep and pervasive — and even in the United States, it has only been four decades since American voters were first prepared to choose a Roman Catholic for president, and only two years ago was a Jew nominated on a major-party ticket.

Iraq's ethnic and other divisions also run deep. For sake of comparison, more than a decade after the end of the Soviet empire, democracy is still shallow-rooted in much of Central Europe and noted more for its absence than its success in most of the former Soviet Union.

After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, most of the world rapidly forgot the U.S. characterization of Saddam as Hitler; there was little support at home or abroad — then or since — for prosecuting war to the end implied by that "values" statement. But this time, the United States has given more hostages to fortune. Its pledge to foster democracy cannot prove to have been just about finding a device to secure popular support for a war fought to achieve geopolitical ends, however worthy; it also has become necessary to validate, in retrospect, the recourse to war among nations and peoples upon whom the United States must rely in rebuilding Iraq or accomplishing broader purposes in the Middle East.

Indeed, the "rightness" of the war in Iraq will be judged by much of the world in terms of what the United States does now that the war is over, not by the military victory itself or even the future discovery of weapons of mass destruction. For many countries, redeeming President Bush's pledge to prosecute Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to a rapid, "two-state" conclusion is a crucial requirement. Demonstrating that Iraq is not a prelude to other military ventures, decided by the United States virtually alone, is another. And being serious about restructuring Iraq and keeping it whole — including democracy building — is a third.

At the same time, these same nations, which are necessary to the success of U.S. policy in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, will find unacceptable the use of "democracy" as a weapon to achieve geopolitical purposes. Indeed, for some strategists in and out of the Bush administration, that campaign has already begun. Just as reducing Iraq as a contender for power and influence in the Persian Gulf is important, whoever rules in Baghdad, by this logic Iran (and, for some, also Syria and Saudi Arabia) also must be brought to heel to the same end. But to give this aspiration a values basis, "democracy" is already being cited as a motive, with "regime change" the means.

For virtually all European countries, however, this will simply be a bridge too far, both in terms of the costs of acting militarily against Iran and of the opportunities that could thereby be missed for applying a mixture of "carrots" and "sticks" instead of just the latter. There is deep cynicism that promoting democracy is a U.S. moral commitment or concern for the people of Iran as opposed to a verbal tool to justify making it the next U.S. target. Denying to Iran any right of defense, which has been U.S. policy for more than a decade — reinforced a year ago by declaring it to be "evil" and now by U.S. military occupation of Iraq — may be a sound way of limiting Iran's influence in the Persian Gulf and beyond; but it is also directly at variance with the goal of inhibiting Teheran from seeking nuclear weapons.

And, the Europeans argue further, Iran is already well on the way to a workable, constitutional government, unless it is thwarted from outside.

In the weeks before the start of the war in Iraq, the United States finally began conducting a debate on ends and means — though it was highly circumscribed. But as a nation we have hardly begun to discuss and debate both next steps and — especially — the decades-long commitment to sorting out the future of the Middle East that we have now assumed. Such discussion and debate are crucial if we are to discharge effectively, in our own and others' interests and values, the new responsibilities that have become inescapably ours.

Hunter is a senior adviser at RAND and served as U.S. ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998.

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