Monday, April 23, 2007

ROBERT WRIGHT: The Neocon Paradox

Guest Columnist

Neoconservatives have been airing an explanation for the failure of the Iraq war that’s so obvious you’ll wonder why you didn’t think of it yourself: the war wasn’t neoconservative enough.

Last week Richard Perle, on “The Charlie Rose Show,” echoed what his fellow neocon John Bolton told the BBC last month: We should have turned Iraq over to the Iraqis much sooner. Then, presumably, the power of democracy to blossom pronto in even nutrient-depleted soil — the neocon élan vital — would have kicked in.

Nice try, but they’re just digging themselves in deeper. They’re highlighting a paradox within the neocon game plan that would have doomed this war even if it had been run competently (enough troops, a dollop of postwar planning, etc.).

On the one hand, we were going to bring democracy to Iraq. On the other hand, we were going to use Iraq as a platform for exercising military power. (Days after Baghdad fell, the neocon Weekly Standard festively titled an article “There’s No Place Like Iraq ... for U.S. Military Bases.”)

But wait. What if the Iraqi people, once empowered by democracy, decided they didn’t want their country to be a U.S. aircraft carrier? And isn’t that pretty likely? After all, America is bound to use bases on behalf of itself and key allies, and one key ally is Israel. What were the chances this would sit well with an Arab Muslim nation — not with the small ruling class of an authoritarian state like Saudi Arabia (our previous aircraft carrier) but with a whole electorate?

Maybe if we had resolved with miraculous speed the tensions besetting Israel — from Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iran — U.S. troops could have stayed in the Iraqis’ good graces. But neocons weren’t exactly pushing for dialogue on those fronts. They were going to let their new aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Iraq, do the talking. And surely Iraq’s majority Shiites would applaud the use of their soil to threaten Shiite Iran, right?

Meanwhile, neocons, and the Bush administration broadly, were endorsing the policies of Ariel Sharon, whose assertive policing of the occupied territories was proving counterproductive, helping to radicalize both Palestinian opinion and, via Al Jazeera, Muslim opinion globally.

You can empower people through democracy if you want. You can systematically antagonize them if you want. Doing both at once is ill advised.

Critics murmur that neoconservatism is “all about Israel.” I wish! Then the damage might be confined to one region. Alas, the neocon paradox — empower people and enrage them — is global. Neocons want to make China democratic ASAP; meanwhile, they pass the time arousing anti-American Chinese nationalism with vestigial cold war rants. Fortunately, they won fewer intra-administration battles over China than over the Middle East.

Even if neocons weren’t bent on spreading democracy, their chronic inflammation of world opinion would be unhealthy, because much of the world is already democratic and more of it will probably become that way.

But leave democracy aside. There’s another reason grass-roots opinion matters crucially.

A confluence of technologies, from the Internet to biotechnology, is making it easier and easier for far-flung hatred to assume organized form, intersect with weapons technology and constitute unprecedently potent terrorism. This growing lethality of hatred may be the biggest long-term problem we face.

Here’s a response favored by many left-of-center and right-of-center thinkers. Address the “demand side” — the desire to obtain and use nuclear and biological weapons — by reducing the number of people who hate the U.S. and the West. Address the “supply side” by improving arms control.

Neocons take the opposite tack: degrade the arms control infrastructure (the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Biological Weapons Convention, etc.) and antagonize the masses.

You can even do both at once! President Bush undermined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty by agreeing to give nuclear technology to India, a nonsignatory. This ratcheted up anti-Americanism in Pakistan — a Muslim nation with nukes, jihadist recruiters and an unstable government.

Neocons have their own formula for controlling arms: invade countries you think may have them. Of course, this approach will have to grow more cost-effective on repeated application if America is to warm up to it. But — who knows? — maybe we just need to make the next few wars more neoconservative.

Robert Wright, author of “Nonzero,” is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and runs the Web site

No comments: