It’s more fun to read about subservient chickens or even watch ducks discuss Dick Cheney than to read about foreign policy.

But having begun the week with references to the Madeleine Albright memoir and Sandy Berger’s piece, I’m headed that way. My excuse is that hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake (among other things), which is ultimately your money, and your kids’. And it’s hard to imagine world events not affecting investment decisions.

Tomorrow, I will turn this space over to a conservative commentator who fears we are going down the wrong road.

But let’s start with this piece, by Joshua Micah Marshall. What gives it extra poignancy is that it was written more than a year ago, before we launched the war. (And published in the Washington Monthly shortly thereafter.)

I know we’re all busy, but this is really worth your taking the time to read and ponder. After all, we may be launching a much bigger war than you imagined.

I have abridged it heavily, and bolded some passages to draw your interest, but this will give you the idea:

April 2003
Practice to Deceive
Chaos in the Middle East is not the Bush hawks’ nightmare scenario–it’s their plan.
By Joshua Micah Marshall

Imagine it’s six months from now. The Iraq war is over. After an initial burst of joy and gratitude at being liberated from Saddam’s rule, the people of Iraq are watching, and waiting, and beginning to chafe under American occupation.

. . . [T]o the Bush administration hawks who are guiding American foreign policy, this isn’t the nightmare scenario. It’s everything going as anticipated.

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.

. . . [T]he administration is trying to . . . 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.

There is a startling amount of deception in all this–of hawks deceiving the American people, and perhaps in some cases even themselves. While it’s conceivable that bold American action could democratize the Middle East, so broad and radical an initiative could also bring chaos and bloodshed on a massive scale. That all too real possibility leads most establishment foreign policy hands, including many in the State Department, to view the Bush plan with alarm. Indeed, the hawks’ record so far does not inspire confidence. Prior to the invasion, for instance, they predicted that if the United States simply announced its intention to act against Saddam regardless of how the United Nations voted, most of our allies, eager to be on our good side, would support us. Almost none did. Yet despite such grave miscalculations, the hawks push on with their sweeping new agenda.

Like any group of permanent Washington revolutionaries fueled by visions of a righteous cause, the neocons long ago decided that criticism from the establishment isn’t a reason for self-doubt but the surest sign that they’re on the right track. But their confidence also comes from the curious fact that much of what could go awry with their plan will also serve to advance it. A full-scale confrontation between the United States and political Islam, they believe, is inevitable, so why not have it now, on our terms, rather than later, on theirs? Actually, there are plenty of good reasons not to purposely provoke a series of crises in the Middle East. But that’s what the hawks are setting in motion, partly on the theory that the worse things get, the more their approach becomes the only plausible solution.

. . . The pitch was this: 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. As Johns Hopkins University professor Fouad Ajami recently wrote in Foreign Affairs, “The great indulgence granted to the ways and phobias of Arabs has reaped a terrible harvest”–terrorism. Trying to “manage” this dysfunctional Islamic world, as Clinton attempted and Colin Powell counsels us to do, 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 audacious nature of the neocons’ plan makes it easy to criticize but strangely difficult to dismiss outright. Like a character in a bad made-for-TV thriller from the 1970s, you can hear yourself saying, “That plan’s just crazy enough to work.”

But like a TV plot, the hawks’ vision rests on a willing suspension of disbelief, in particular, on the premise that every close call will break in our favor: The guard will fall asleep next to the cell so our heroes can pluck the keys from his belt. The hail of enemy bullets will plink-plink-plink over our heroes’ heads. And the getaway car in the driveway will have the keys waiting in the ignition. Sure, the hawks’ vision could come to pass. But there are at least half a dozen equally plausible alternative scenarios that would be disastrous for us.

To begin with, this whole endeavor is supposed to be about reducing the long-term threat of terrorism, particularly terrorism that employs weapons of mass destruction. But, to date, every time a Western or non-Muslim country has put troops into Arab lands to stamp out violence and terror, it has awakened entire new terrorist organizations and a generation of recruits. Placing U.S. troops in Riyadh after the Gulf War (to protect Saudi Arabia and its oilfields from Saddam) gave Osama bin Laden a cause around which he built al Qaeda. Israel took the West Bank in a war of self-defense, but once there its occupation helped give rise to Hamas. Israel’s incursion into southern Lebanon (justified at the time, but transformed into a permanent occupation) led to the rise of Hezbollah. Why do we imagine that our invasion and occupation of Iraq, or whatever countries come next, will turn out any differently?

. . . The hawks’ whole plan rests on the assumption that we can turn [Iraq] into a self-governing democracy–that the very presence of that example will transform politics in the Middle East. But what if we can’t really create a democratic, self-governing Iraq, at least not very quickly? . . . To invoke the ugly but apt metaphor which Jefferson used to describe the American dilemma of slavery, we will have the wolf by the ears. You want to let go. But you dare not.

. . . Ultimately, the longer we stay as occupiers, the more Iraq becomes not an example for other Arabs to emulate, but one that helps Islamic fundamentalists make their case that America is just an old-fashioned imperium bent on conquering Arab lands. And that will make worse all the problems set forth above.

None of these problems are inevitable, of course. Luck, fortitude, deft management, and help from allies could bring about very different results. But we can probably only rely on the first three because we are starting this enterprise over the expressed objections of almost every other country in the world. And that’s yet another reason why overthrowing the Middle East won’t be the same as overthrowing communism. We did the latter, after all, within a tight formal alliance, NATO. Reagan’s most effective military move against Moscow, for instance, placing Pershing II missiles in Western Europe, could never have happened, given widespread public protests, except that NATO itself voted to let the weapons in. In the Middle East, however, we’re largely alone. If things go badly, what allies we might have left are liable to say to us: You broke it, you fix it.

. . . If the Bush administration has thought through these various negative scenarios–and we must presume, or at least pray, that it has–it certainly has not shared them with the American people. More to the point, the president has not even leveled with the public that such a clean-sweep approach to the Middle East is, in fact, their plan. This breaks new ground in the history of pre-war presidential deception. Franklin Roosevelt said he was trying to keep the United States out of World War II even as he–in some key ways–courted a confrontation with the Axis powers that he saw as both inevitable and necessary. History has judged him well for this. Far more brazenly, Lyndon Johnson’s administration greatly exaggerated the Gulf of Tonkin incident to gin up support for full-throttle engagement in Vietnam. The war proved to be Johnson’s undoing. When President Clinton used American troops to quell the fighting in Bosnia he said publicly that our troops would be there no longer than a year, even though it was widely understood that they would be there far longer. But in the case of these deceptions, the public was at least told what the goals of the wars were and whom and where we would be fighting.

Today, however, the great majority of the American people have no concept of what kind of conflict the president is leading them into. The White House has presented this as a war to depose Saddam Hussein in order to keep him from acquiring weapons of mass destruction–a goal that the majority of Americans support. But the White House really has in mind an enterprise of a scale, cost, and scope that would be almost impossible to sell to the American public. The White House knows that. So it hasn’t even tried. Instead, it’s focused on getting us into Iraq with the hope of setting off a sequence of events that will draw us inexorably towards the agenda they have in mind.

The brazenness of this approach would be hard to believe if it weren’t entirely in line with how the administration has pursued so many of its other policy goals. Its preferred method has been to use deceit to create faits accomplis, facts on the ground that then make the administration’s broader agenda almost impossible not to pursue. During and after the 2000 campaign, the president called for major education and prescription drug programs plus a huge tax cut, saying America could easily afford them all because of large budget surpluses. Critics said it wasn’t true, and the growing budget deficits have proven them right. But the administration now uses the existence of big budget deficits as a way to put the squeeze on social programs–part of its plan all along. Strip away the presidential seal and the fancy titles, and it’s just a straight-up con.

The same strategy seemed to guide the administration’s passive-aggressive attitude towards our allies. . . . [P]ush the alliance to the breaking point, and when it snaps, cite it as proof that the alliance was good for nothing anyway. It’s the definition of chutzpah, like the kid who kills his parents and begs the judge for sympathy because he’s an orphan.

Another president may be able to rebuild NATO or get the budget back in balance. But once America begins the process of remaking the Middle East in the way the hawks have in mind, it will be extremely difficult for any president to pull back. Vietnam analogies have long been overused, and used inappropriately, but this may be one case where the comparison is apt.

Ending Saddam Hussein’s regime and replacing it with something stable and democratic was always going to be a difficult task, even with the most able leadership and the broadest coalition. But doing it as the Bush administration now intends [remember, folks: he is writing this before the war – A.T.] is something like going outside and giving a few good whacks to a hornets’ nest because you want to get them out in the open and have it out with them once and for all. Ridding the world of Islamic terrorism by rooting out its ultimate sources–Muslim fundamentalism and the Arab world’s endemic despotism, corruption, and poverty–might work. But the costs will be immense. Whether the danger is sufficient and the costs worth incurring would make for an interesting public debate. The problem is that once it’s just us and the hornets, we really won’t have any choice.

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Washington Monthly contributing writer, is author of the Talking Points

Tomorrow: A Conservative Says We’re “Locked On Course To Wider War”

 

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