Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Monday, March 24, 2003
I'm afraid I'm still in pessimism mode. Not because of how the war is going. I think the war is going about as well as anyone who has any idea what war means could possibly expect. Yes, we're taking casualties. Yes, the enemy is behaving treacherously. You signed up for this war because you thought all wars were casualty-free cakewalks? Feel free to get off the bandwagon. The men leading this war are not under your illusions. If we get out of this with allied casualties in the hundreds, Iraqi casualties in the thousands, no WMD used, no major terrorism in Western cities, and Saddam Hussein and his henchmen certifiably dead or in the dock, we'll have had a huge, massive win.

No, I'm pessimistic about the post-war situation. And I'm getting increasingly annoyed at the tone of the supposedly conservative press stumping for this war, and their expectations for post-war Iraq.

Let me tell you what sorts of things are worrying me. There was a very good piece in The New Republic's latest newstand issue by John Judis. (It's only available to subscribers online.) Most of the time, the stuff Judis writes could have been ghost-written by the AFL-CIO. But every now and again, he writes an astonishingly important piece. The last one I can remember was about conservative think-tanks who take money from what Seth Lipsky touchingly continues to call Red China. The latest is about how oil states make lousy democracies, and what that portends for post-war Iraq.

The argument is not a cultural one; it's purely economic (or political-economic, if that's a word). Here's the gist. Democracy depends on the existence of civil society, sources of power independent of the state. Basic to civil society is an independent merchant class. Their wealth underwrites other kinds of independence of the state, and the state's dependence on them for tax revenues moderates the state's natural desire to subsume all power under its wings. But oil wealth subverts this relationship and progressively undermines the emergence of an independent capitalist class. Because the state can subsist on nothing but oil revenues, it can avoid depending on the independent merchants for revenue. And because the state is flush, it can afford to buy off other segments of society with a generous welfare state. Further, oil is sold on world markets for hard currency. This currency has to be recycled by either purchasing imports or investing abroad. The ultimate impact of oil exports, then, is to raise the value of the oil exporter's currency, reduce the competitiveness of its domestic manufacturers, and export capital. With the state growing, and the private sector squeezed out of competition, it makes progressively more and more sense for the incipient middle class to join the state bureaucracy rather than trying to compete with the state in the private sector. In the end, you have an economic monoculture and a politically super-centralized system, quite the opposite of what you'd want if you were trying to build a healthy democracy.

Now, this picture makes a lot of sense to me. It's one piece of the explanation why some of the wealthiest countries in the world in raw material terms - Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria - have also been colossal failures economically and politically. It also happens to dovetail perfectly with the 17th century Spanish explanation for their own decline relative to the French and the English. (Digression: in the 16th century, Spain was the most powerful country on earth, with a huge navy, a vast overseas empire, and European possessions in the Netherlands and Habsburg Austria. By the mid-17th century, it was plain to all that Spain had been totally eclipsed, and that the new competition for global mastery was between France and England. How had this happened? The Spanish were not unlearned, were not unmartial, and had very substantial resources. One diagnosis that became quite common was that Spain had been poisoned by cheap silver from the mines of Peru. It was more sensible economically for Spain to mine silver, then spend it on manufactures produced abroad - not only consumer goods like expensive textiles, but ships and other military goods. The end result was a hollowed-out Spain, unable to develop technologically or economically, but subsidizing the development of their already more-advanced neighbors.)

The point of this digression is: here's yet another reason to be pessimistic about post-war Iraq. Not only is Iraq ridden by religious and ethnic division (I'm sorry, diversity); not only is there no democratic tradition; not only is there no patriotic elite with a sense of Iraq as a nation to which they have a duty of honor; not only is it surrounded by vultures eager to dismember it - not only all these problems, but in addition what was supposed to be a major source of strength for the new Iraq, its oil wealth, is now revealed as potentially a major obstacle to healthy development!

So there's plenty of reason to worry. And then I open up my conservative periodicals and read a piece like this by Amir Taheri about what we must and mustn't do in post-war Iraq. Some things we have to do include preventing the Turks from invading the North, the Iranians from invading the South, and the Kurds from invading from the inside. We're supposed to prevent any revenge-taking but provide an amnesty for all but the most senior members of the regime. We're supposed to provide $200 billion in assistance for rebuilding the country (after taking great care and costing allied lives to avoid breaking it in the first place). We're supposed to invite France, Germany, Russia and the U.N. to be intimately involved in the post-war reconstruction, letting by-gones be by-gones. But we're not supposed to talk about a military governor. We're not supposed to impose a political choice on the Iraqis. In fact, we're supposed to take all of the responsibility for preventing anything bad from happening, and pay for the same, while holding no actual power and imposing no political conditions on the Iraqis.

Where is this guy coming from? Just consider the domestic analogy. Supposed somebody said that before the cops are allowed to bust a particularly violent crack-dealing gang, they should invest in an empowerment zone for the community, promise an amnesty (heck, promise government jobs!) for lower-level gang members, and put a community-elected board in charge of second-guessing the decisions the cops make. Would anyone call someone who said such a thing a conservative?

I'm not arguing that Taheri's objectives are bad. I mean, I might argue with some of them (give France a big role in reconstruction? why?) but in general he's arguing in favor of all good things. But what on earth is the reason for setting the bar so high? Is there no room for realism, for compromise, for unfortunate necessity? Have we become such idealists that anything less than perfection is a betrayal?

There will be real political consequences to this kind of utopianism. If it is shared by the Iraqi exiles of the INC (and I suspect it is), the necessary compromises we make to protect our security and ensure the viability of post-war Iraq will likely be denounced as "interference." We have already heard numerous veiled threats from Iraqi exiles and other anti-Saddam types that if America does not do this or that according to their requests then our occupation will be deemed illegitimate and will be met with terrorism. If these people are just mouthing off, can someone tell them that what they are saying sounds like a threat, and will be treated as such by the American armed forces? And if they are not just mouthing off, but are indeed making threats, can we take note of that?

And then I open the Weekly Standard and come across this piece by Stephen Schwartz. Schwartz has done the whole world a service by shining a bright light on Wahhabi extremism, its connections to terrorism, and Saudi involvement in financing it. But he is also determined to argue - against all evidence - that Wahhabism is a uniquely dangerous, even evil, branch of Islam. This is unfair to Wahhabism and is dangerously blind towards the rest of the Islamic world. Among the Sunnis, the fundamentalists of the Deobandi school and the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt developed independently of Saudi Wahhabism (though they have cross-fertilized since then). And among them as well we find the tolerant regimes of Tunisia and Morocco. Meanwhile, among the supposedly all-peaceful Shia we find the worthies of Hezbollah and Hamas, the free and open democracy of Yemen, and the extremely tolerant mullahs of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Stephen Schwartz would have us prosecute not a war against Islam but a war against Sunni Islam on behalf of Shia Islam. This would be like responding to IRA terrorism by providing arms to Ian Paisley.

Mind you, I'm not denying that the Shia of Iraq have suffered terribly. I think the Shia of Iran could be a valuable ally after they throw off their government. But I expect that, when and if they do that, a great many will throw Islam out with the bathwater. (Certainly a number of Iranian clerics worry that's precisely what will happen, and are turning against the regime for just that reason.) I see no reason to demonize the Shia the way we did back when Hezbollah was blowing up American marines. But by the same token, I can't see how starry-eyed idealism about them - or, for that matter, about the Kurds, or the Kosovar Albanians, or whoever - can serve our interests, or make it any more likely we'll be successful in our current war. And I certainly don't see what's conservative about such blindness.

I know I'm not being fair. There's plenty of conservative commentary, including much pro-war commentary, that is more realistic about what we're facing. And I share these conservatives' baseline optimism. I'm a Whig, too, you know. I believe in human potential, the universal attraction of liberal democracy and freedom, and all that. I want to see American arms serve as a force for good in the world, and I don't think we are well-served by cynicism. But I don't see how we're well-served by an ideologically blinkered optimism either.

We are engaged in a very difficult campaign. The struggle against German imperial ambition lasted 30 years. The consequences of the first war of that struggle included the rise of Soviet Communism, and of the second included Soviet domination of half of Europe. The struggle to defeat Soviet Communism lasted 40 years. The consequences of that struggle included a number of nasty wars, American involvement in supporting several odious dictatorships, the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation and, not incidentally, the growth of radical Islam, our current enemy. We will be very lucky if the war we are now engaged in is over in as little as a decade. We are fighting in, and fighting to change, a very badly broken part of the world. If it was an easy fix, someone would have fixed it by now. That we have little choice in the matter should not blind us to the difficulties we will face.