Friday, February 18, 2005

Realpolitik Hypocrisy?

In a Washington Post column, neocon Bob Kagan attacks liberals for hypocritically casting doubt on the newly elected Iraqi government. How, he asks, can liberals hold that the U.S. wrongly coddled politically convenient dictators during the Cold War, yet be critical of the democratically elected government that has replaced Saddam Hussein? Are liberals prejudiced against Shiites?

The response, I think, needs to address a number of points. First, is that criticism of the realpolitik approach that led the U.S. to overthrow democracies and train death squads comes with limits. Critics, as far as I know, never advocated that the U.S. should invade any country that doesn't meet Western democratic standards. The criticism was, and remains, that we should not allow short-term political convenience to overshadow our commitment to freedom and democracy. This is generally not a belligerent, hawkish group of people. They have advocated working within the international diplomatic and economic framework to advance our ideals and values.

The Bush administration stands as guilty as any Cold War administration in this regard. We invaded Afghanistan, not to promote democracy, but to take out Al Qaeda, and Iraq to secure Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. Meanwhile the U.S. has deepened its ties with numerous anti-democratic human rights violators all across the Middle East and Central, South, and South-East Asia. Bush's inaugural address notwithstanding, there has been no great commitment to democratic ideals by this administration.

Kagan's apparent response is that even if liberals would not have advocated invasion, shouldn't they celebrate the advances of democracy there? But, while the liberals we're talking about are critics of realpolitik, I think they are not critics of political realism. They don't advocate abandoning empirical analysis, but rather a shift in priorities and methods in pursuing American foreign policy objectives. As such they are rightly worried about the course of events in Iraq.

It requires no prejudice to be concerned about what will happen when the Shiite controlled government takes power. From my perspective, it is not any peculiar qualities of Shiites that worries me, but rather that they suffer from all of the usual weaknesses and frailties common to mankind. The Baathist purges of Shiites aside, the Sunni militants have consistently targeted Shiites in violent attacks since the occupation started (here are . a couple just from the past week). They have declined to retaliate largely due to the calls for restraint from the Ayatollah al Sistani, the same man who has driven the timetables both for the hand-over of sovereignty and the recent elections. Are we to think they harbor no animosity towards Sunnis, no desire for vengeance? Are these angels in the form of men? Or have they been playing hard-ball, waiting (and pushing the process foward) for their demographic advantage to inevitably deliver the power of government to them. What happens when they gain control of the machinery of state? How will a Shiite-controlled military respond to Sunni attacks against Shiite targets? Will the response be measured, moderate, and proportional? And when the Shiite-controlled military crosses the line, how will the Sunni population in the country respond? The threat of all-out civil war is very real and frightening. What then for democracy in the Middle East?

Neither does one have to view the Shiites as Iranian stooges to be concerned about Iraq's relationship with Iran, now more so than ever. While I don't share the loathing of Iran held by many in this country, the newly announced alliance between Iran and Syria, following shortly after the election of a pro-Iran government in Iraq could drastically change the balance of power in the Middle East. If the new Iraqi government throws in their lot with Iran and Syria, Iran will have taken a major step up as a regional power and the U.S. will be left scrambling to try and pick up the pieces. Again, rejecting realpolitik does not mean rejecting political reality. And the political reality here is that the occupation of Iraq seems to be producing many undesirable results. There is little cause for rejoicing here, for liberals or anyone else.

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