The National Insecurity State | The Nation


The National Insecurity State

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This line of argument is morally inspiring, in a way. Unfortunately, it shipwrecks on a minor detail. No one in the US government has any idea how to create democracy in Iraq. Moreover, our behavior strongly suggests that the real decision-makers, namely Cheney and Rumsfeld, were never fully committed to this farfetched undertaking. Strong evidence that the architects of the Iraq war were nonchalant about the goal of postwar democratization is provided by the paucity of troops they arranged to have in Baghdad after victory. There were very few soldiers, and none trained as a constabulary force, and as a result postwar looting and worse could not be brought under control. The predictable consequence of such a power vacuum was the rise of private militias, based on clan, ethnicity and sect, engaged in predatory behavior and offering protection services in the absence of an effective controlling authority. Rumsfeld famously commented on this explosion of physical insecurity, from which the occupation has still not recovered, by quipping cavalierly that "stuff happens."

About the Author

Stephen Holmes
Stephen Holmes teaches at the New York University School of Law. His most recent book is The Matador's Cape: America's...

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This tasteless jest may signal that the civilian leadership in the Pentagon entertained no more interest in the fate of Iraq after Saddam's fall than in the fate of Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. Or it may reveal that specialists in military affairs do not know the first thing about democracy, its preconditions, its history or its inherent fragilities and disorders. Perhaps ignorance and bad theory explain how otherwise benevolent men could have confused the toppling of a dictator with the establishment of democracy, as if replacing Saddam with Chalabi was going to be as easy as replacing Clinton with Bush. Or then again, Cheney and Rumsfeld may simply have thought that the Iraqi democracy fantasized by Wolfowitz would be fine, in principle, but that a failed state in Iraq, if it came to that, would present no serious security threat to the United States or its main regional ally. So the political costs of unsuccessful democratization would be relatively low, while the propaganda benefits of flying the democratic flag might be substantial. All told, that may be the most plausible reconstruction of their prewar view.

A final observation completes the case against those who continue to assure us that the United States invaded Iraq with democratization seriously in mind. As mentioned, the White House's zealous devotion to secrecy reveals its weak grasp of the danger that false certainty poses to intelligent decision-making and the timely readjustment of political initiatives gone awry. This misapprehension, combined with a coarse identification of the national interest with a highly partisan agenda, bespeaks a profoundly antidemocratic turn of mind. While in Congress in 1988, as Mann tells us, Cheney helped defeat a law to notify Congress forty-eight hours after the beginning of any covert operation. The same Iran/contra-style impatience with Congressional and judicial and public oversight pervades the executive branch today.

But how can an Administration that expects blind trust at home be serious about creating democracy abroad? Indeed, the most glaring evidence of the Administration's nondemocratic instincts is the dependence of its foreign policy on high-tech weaponry and a volunteer army. Vietnam taught hawks of Rumsfeld and Cheney's generation that the US government cannot sustain a bloody confrontation with an "evil" enemy in the teeth of public opposition. But they also realized how to blunt public hostility to unexplained military adventures. This would be possible if precision weaponry could reduce casualties substantially and if the soldiers who were eventually killed or wounded were "volunteers" unable to find equivalent economic opportunities in the civilian economy and who were drawn disproportionately from minority groups with little political clout. To avoid the burden of explaining its irrationally targeted bellicosity, in other words, the Administration must assiduously avoid a draft, which could cause white middle-class America to start asking embarrassing questions. Its firm opposition to reinstating conscription, in other words, is rooted in a Vietnam-era aversion to democratic accountability. That men hostile to public oversight in their own country would go to war on the remote chance of bringing democratic accountability to Iraq defies belief. The only reasonable conclusion is that they continue to talk this talk because they can conjure up no better public justification for their irresponsible gamble, and they still hope to prevent a deniable fiasco from turning into an undeniable fiasco.

Mann seems to think that Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz have introduced "broad, enduring changes in the underlying principles guiding American foreign policy." But the bulk of his book makes the opposite point, namely, that this Administration has managed foreign affairs so ineptly because it has been reflexively implementing out-of-date formulas in a changed security environment. During the cold war even the most extreme hawks were chastened in their aggressive impulses by fear of escalation into a full-blown conflict with the USSR. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, the fear and inhibitions mostly disappeared, but the psychological need to confront "evil" states remained. In the areas of the world today where the possibility of deadly escalation cannot be excluded, such as North Korea and the Taiwan Strait, the Administration still treads fairly cautiously. But in Iraq, alas, the lack of a major military rival excited some aging hard-liners into toppling a regime that they have no clue how to replace. They did so even though the invasion and occupation were bound to have exorbitant costs, diverting the country's scarce national security resources away from newer and graver threats. Unfortunately for us, we have only begun to witness the consequences of this ghastly misuse of unaccountable power.

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