Thursday, April 03, 2003

Now that the war in Iraq seems to be moving rapidly towards its foregone conclusion, commentators are focusing their attention on the anticipated aftermath. Pessimists like Joshua Micah Marshall and Robert Wright envision an out-of-control neoconservative-ridden Bush administration attempting replays of the Iraq war throughout the Middle East, trying and failing to establish region-wide democracy, and instead merely ratcheting up anti-American hatred and, ultimately, terrorism. Optimists like Daniel Drezner are more sanguine about democracy's prospects in Iraq, although, as Mickey Kaus points out (and Drezner agrees), the prospects for the neoconservative "grand regional plan" outlined by Marshall look bleak.

But these terms of debate massively overstate the appropriate success criteria for the Iraq campaign. Consider the case of Afghanistan: it's not likely to be a democracy anytime soon, but while some might argue that the US is not doing enough to resuscitate that country, few would consider the campaign to liberate it from the Taliban a failure. There's no reason why similar criteria can't apply to Iraq: if it's cleansed of non-conventional weapons, and left with a government that's less anti-American, less threatening to its neighbors, and less cruel to its own people than the previous regime--surely not a hopelessly ambitious set of goals, given the baseline set by Saddam Hussein--then there would be no reason not to congratulate the US (and allied) Armed Forces on a successful mission.

As for the popular argument that the war will only inflame anti-Americanism in the "Arab street", leading to more Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, there are good reasons to doubt this prognosis:

  • There is no shortage of terrorist recruits today; millions are already ready to fight and die to kill Americans for Islam. Yet since 9/11, al Qaida has been seriously weakened, and no comparable terrorist organization has arisen to replace it. Clearly, the existence of multitudes of zealous volunteers is not the limiting factor in determining the success of Islamist terrorism overall. To the extent that other factors--such as the willingness of regional governments to suppress terrorist activity within their borders--are decisive, it makes sense to concentrate on those.

  • There is no necessary correlation between the hostility of Arab/Muslim governments towards America and the feelings of their people. Jordan, for example, is chock-full of bitter Anti-American fanatics, whereas Iran actually sees large pro-American demonstrations from time to time. There's no question, though, which government is more friendly to America, and which is more threatening.

  • To the extent that public opinion matters in the Middle East, there is simply no reason to believe that such actions as the war in Iraq turn more people against America than any of the alternatives. Lest we forget, America spent the decade following the Gulf War making nice with Islamic countries, defending Muslims in Kosovo and devoting all its energies to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During that period, anti-Americanism in the Middle East flourished as never before, culminating in the atrocity of 9/11--which was widely celebrated throughout the Muslim world.

  • Now, I don't deny that the Bush administration could conceivably botch the aftermath of the Iraq war completely, provoking Iraqi and broader Arab and Muslim hostility. (My best advice to the US would be to install an indigineous government with the aforementioned desirable properties as soon as possible, and then get the hell out before foreign soldier rage kicks in.) But lest anybody forget, exactly the same predictions of doom were made following the war in Afghanistan. Yet far from inflaming anti-Americanism, the ouster of the Taliban seemed--for a while at least--to have had a remarkable damping effect on it. The ouster of Saddam Hussein may well end up doing the same.

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