March 24, 2004

Wrestling with Democratization
Posted by Jon Henke

Yesterday, I criticized Matthew Yglesias for writing that democratization of Iraq and then the Middle East was "not the argument the president actually presented for war". My argument consisted of quotes from Bush, members of his administration, the National Security Strategy, and the Congressional Authorization for War....all of which made the "democratization" argument.

Clearly, I think, the argument was made.

Matt responded in an email, explaining his position a bit more clearly. He makes good points, and I think it's worth a response. With his permission, I excerpt his comments:

As you say, Bush certainly did speak from time to time before the war about the desirability of a democratic Iraq. The question is, however, whether or not that was the reason he gave for wanting to go to war. To take an example. The United States fought against Japan in world war two. The Japanese government of the time was not a democratic one. As part of efforts to rally the public around the war, Roosevelt made mention of Japan's inferior political system. After the war, the United States sought, successfully, to build a democratic state in Japan. Nevertheless, we didn't fight that war in order to turn Japan into a democracy. We fought the war because Japan attacked the United States.
Matt and I agree that Bush primarily pushed the "WMD's, terrorism, and the nexus thereof" argument. He also worked in the "human rights" angle, though I'd argue that was not central.

However, while he didn't make the "democratization" argument front and center, he did make it.

Unfortunately, in Iraq, we had no single "casus belli". No single act to which we could point for justification. Instead, the war was a marginal and strategic decision; an asymmetrical shot in an asymmetrical war. It was justified not by a single act, but by a complex combination of factors.

But I digress.

My disagreement with Matt is this: he describes the justification for war as a single "casus belli", and he's right to some extent.

During the debate that I witnessed, the president argued that the United States had to go to war with Iraq because Saddam Hussein's government was likely at some point in the near future to provide weapons of mass destruction to terrorists. The badness of Saddam's regime was brought up, but it was never presented as the important casus belli. Note, for instance, that our position before the war was that if Saddam disarmed, war could be averted. We never said that if Saddam agreed to start liberalizing his regime, he could hang on to his WMDs.
I agree. The WMD argument was front and center. But, as Paul Wolfowitz famously said, WMDs were settled on for "bureaucratic reasons", but there were "many other important factors as well". The fact that WMDs were presented as the important factor was a result of the complexity of the argument for war, rather than the lack of another reason.

And yet, the Administration still presented the "democratization" argument. Not front and center, but I don't think I need to describe the difficulties of making that argument before the United Nations Security Council, do I? (hint: China, Syria, etc) Somehow, I don't think it would have been good policy to make the "we need to start getting rid of dictators" argument in front of the United Nations of Dictators.

But the argument was still made. And beyond that, I'd argue that it was fairly central. As evidence, I cite the underlying philosophy of many in the administration - "Neo-Conservativism" (or, "enlightened self-interest"; or "Democratic globalism"; or, my preference, "Rooseveltian Realism").

Neoconservativism is often described as "never-ending war", but that is a gross misinterpretation of the philosophy. Many Realists, on both sides of the aisle, regard the avoidance of war as a central goal of foreign policy, and that has short term merits. "NeoCons", on the other hand, regard our security as more of a long-term project. One which, at times, will require strategic wars and not just "reactions".

As evidence, I cite the oft-reviled New American Century which argued for the spread of democracy, via a wedge State in the Middle East. Iraq was named. For example, in a statement by the Directors of PNAC....

It's time to start talking not only about what we need to do to win the war on terrorism but also about how to shape a world where terrorists find no haven and where democratic peoples can flourish. The president should declare a renewed commitment to American global leadership, a new internationalism based on democratic purpose, active engagement and military strength.
[Our challenge] is to promote democracy in the Arab world as an antidote to radical Islam. Illegitimate anti-Western governments inch closer every day to acquiring weapons of mass destruction, posing a threat to millions. Must we wait for another attack, perhaps involving these awful weapons, before we use our power and influence to compel change?
When Osama bin Laden is in his grave, we'll still have a duty to ourselves and to the world to use our power to spread democratic principles and deter and defeat the opponents of our civilization. This is not a crusade. It's a foreign policy of enlightened self-interest.
It seems fairly clear....the spread of democracy is central to the philosophy of the NeoConservatives. Matt actually agrees with that, writing...
I agree with you about the PNAC documents which certainly did tend to make the democratization case front-and-central. When I called the "democratic domino theory" the "unofficial case for war" I meant that seriously. Lots of people did make the argument, and anyone who was paying attention -- me, for example -- was familiar with the argument. Nevertheless, it wasn't the official argument actually presented by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, or Powell.
Did this philosophy of PNAC directors make its way up to the President? Based on this speech from February 2003, I'd say so.....
The current Iraqi regime has shown the power of tyranny to spread discord and violence in the Middle East. A liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region, by bringing hope and progress into the lives of millions. America's interests in security, and America's belief in liberty, both lead in the same direction: to a free and peaceful Iraq.
The world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values, because stable and free nations do not breed the ideologies of murder. They encourage the peaceful pursuit of a better life. And there are hopeful signs of a desire for freedom in the Middle East. Arab intellectuals have called on Arab governments to address the "freedom gap" so their peoples can fully share in the progress of our times. Leaders in the region speak of a new Arab charter that champions internal reform, greater politics participation, economic openness, and free trade. And from Morocco to Bahrain and beyond, nations are taking genuine steps toward politics reform. A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region.
But, Matt says, it wasn't the "official argument". Again, I would point to the Joint Resolution to Authorize the Use of United States Armed Forces Against Iraq, which did make that argument. No, it wasn't front and center for the reasons already described, but it was there.

In that vein, Matthew doesn't like the "political" reasons for not making the democratization argument more prominently....

Part of what's disturbing about the official/unofficial split to me is that it raises the possibility that key players in the government thought the unofficial argument was the best argument, but chose to present a different one that they thought would be more politically palatable.
Here, I cannot argue with Matt on principle. I agree...the Bush administration did a pretty terrible job in making the case for war. From a rhetorical standpoint, they lost the debate. That's a shame, too, because I think the strategic argument for war was strong. Very strong.

On a pragmatic level, though, I have to disagree with Matt. Do you really believe we could have successfully made the "democratization" argument to the world? As Wolfowitz said, there was dissent among various parties about what was the best rationale for war, but they focused on one for "bureaucratic reasons". It's not a's diplomacy and politics. It's pragmatism.

Matt wraps up his response with this....

I think the "well that's not what Bush said at the time" counterargument is less important than the issue of whether or not the policies we have in place actually are well-suited to bringing democracy to Iraq (or Afghanistan) and, by extension, the rest of the Middle East. It seems to me that they are not.
I'd be interested to learn in what ways Matt thinks they are ill-suited, and what policies would be more effective. I'd say we are making slow, dirty, steady progress. The protests in Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia are testament to that. Democracy in Iraq won't be perfect, but it doesn't have to be.

He may have a point, that our policies are ill-suited for spreading democracy. But, in my opinion, the blunt weapon being used by the administration is far superior to the sharpest rhetorical good intentions being wielded by virtually everybody else.

In short: while we wait for the "Perfect Plan for Mideast Peace", I'm fine with using the "Less Perfect Plan for Mideast Peace".

The argument between Matt and I breaks down to these main facts:
- Bush didn't cite "democratization" as a casus belli.
- Bush did cite "democratization" as one rationale for the Iraq war.
- The prominent foreign policy philosophy in the administration cites democratization as a central aspect of US foreign policy.
- The casus belli the administration did cite - WMD/terrorism - was cited for "bureaucratic reasons".

We may continue to disagree, but I'd say it's clear that democratization was both cited and central. It simply wasn't centrally cited....for pragmatic reasons.

UPDATE: Reader Shanerod points me to this.....

Saddam Hussein, we believe the Iraqi people are deserving and capable of human liberty. And when the dictator has departed, they can set an example to all the Middle East of a vital and peaceful and self-governing nation.

The United States, with other countries, will work to advance liberty and peace in that region. Our goal will not be achieved overnight, but it can come over time. The power and appeal of human liberty is felt in every life and every land. And the greatest power of freedom is to overcome hatred and violence, and turn the creative gifts of men and women to the pursuits of peace.

That speech was made 48 hours prior to attack, broadcast nationally, and widely viewed. It was a high-profile explanation of the war.

And Bush made the democratization argument.

Upon thinking on this more, I think Matt and I part ways on the explanation for war. He sees it as a strictly defensive war, based on a casus belli. I see it as more of a strategic war, motivated by a combination of factors.



My additional arguement to Matt would include our living through one of the "alternative policies", 8 years of those policies. In those 8 years al Queda was borne, nurtured, and declared war on the US.

Morally and echically our war in Iraq was correct, it's not very often that politics and etchics line up, we should applaud when it does happen.

Posted by: Jim G. at March 24, 2004 12:16 PM

Matt's quoted statement that the president based the Iraq war on the judgement that Iraq "was likely at some point in the near future to provide weapons of mass destruction to terrorists" is, I believe, mistaken.

It was absolutely the case that such a convergence of Iraqi WMD and terrorist actors, at some point, was the principal rationale for removing the Iraq regime and its uncontainable WMD capacity permanently, and pre-emptively.

But it was not knowable, nor was it asserted, that such a calamitous transfer of WMD would occur in "the near future." The administration discussions of the threat -- which, notwithstanding the constant, unsubstantiated, and rather outrageous claims of distortion or manipulation, have not been shown to do other than closely track the consensus intel as reflected in the Iraq NIE -- did not include a timeline. The "urgency" (as opposed to "imminence," famously absent from the arguments despite relentless error/distortion on this point subsequently) of the issue stemmed precisely from our inability to anticipate the details and timing of such threats, not from any identified near-term threat.

This is why 9/11 "changed everything" in this regard. Prior to the realization that apocalyptic threats to the homeland had become a reality, the inherent uncertainty of intel assessments of the WMD/terrorist threat was a cause for delay, or hedging, or low-risk marginal action. Post-9/11, the same uncertainty is an overwhelming driver of prudential, aggressive, even pre-emptive action. The President's SOTU explanation that "imminence" was not a practical criterion for judging apocalyptic terror threats removes any doubt that this logical framework underlay the Iraq war.

As a logical exercise, if one wanted to identify the "chief" rationale for the Iraq operation, one can isolate each discrete justification and judge whether it, alone, would have impelled action. Of all the rationales provided by the administration, only the WMD/terror nexus (prospective, not near term) comes close to meeting the standard. As desirable in itself, or as useful as it will be as a strategic move against both terror groups and state sponsors, promoting democracy by itself would never have moved the US to what was essentially pre-emptive war against Iraq.

Matt's use of the Japan example parallels one I've often used in the past year to help folks distinguish between the complementary but quite separate benefits derived from removing the Iraqi regime. I usually point out that we didn't nuke two Japanese cities to give Japanese women the vote, but this among many other things was a direct consequence of that dramatic action.

Posted by: IceCold at March 24, 2004 12:46 PM

Ah, yes. The old "how many angels can dance of the head of a pin" arguement.

Posted by: George at March 24, 2004 03:04 PM

Am I the only one to remember anti-war types giving Bush three kinds of Hell for not providing _just_ a single rationale? While Bush was providing several justifications, not all equally strong, his opposition was demanding a single reason, mostly so they could concentrate on refuting it. _If_ the President truly believed war with Iraq was necessary, then he should not allow opponents to restrict his arguments for it.

Posted by: JorgXMcKie at March 24, 2004 04:22 PM

That actually casus belli for the war was iraqi violation of the cease fire agreement, an agreement which required Iraq's full co-operation in disarming (which was never given).


Posted by: Derek at March 24, 2004 10:25 PM