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The Iraq War and the Violent State

May 12, 2003

The War Over Iraq: Saddam's Tyranny and America's Mission by Lawrence F. Kaplan and William Kristol  (Encounter Books, 2003, x + 153 pgs.)

This book frightens me. The authors do not confine themselves to a justification of the American invasion of Iraq, which began shortly after their book was published. They offer a plan by which this war is but the first of many that the United States is to undertake. For Messrs. Kaplan and Kristol, "perpetual war for perpetual peace" is not a mocking comment but rather a slogan to be embraced with fervor.

But why be frightened? If these authors have objectionable ideas, let us endeavor to respond: but why go beyond that? Unfortunately, what we have here is not simply the ravings of two armchair generals. The authors speak for an influential group within the government, and the war with Iraq has begun to put their sinister designs into practice.

The group in question assumed a dominant influence over American foreign policy during the current administration. Kaplan and Kristol view with disdain the foreign policies of the elder George Bush and Bill Clinton, for reasons that will soon become apparent. At first, the younger Bush seemed no more promising: "Indeed, for all his evocations of Reagan, it appeared that Bush's approach would amount to nothing more than a variation of old-world realpolitik. . . . Bush's choice of senior foreign policy aides only bolstered that impression" (pp. 68–69). Bush's secretary of state, Colin Powell, particularly upsets our authors: for them, he is a veritable pacifist. He initially, horrible dictu, opposed the first Gulf War. Condoleezza Rice "espoused an unsentimental brand of realpolitik" (p. 69);  she too does not fit in with the New Order.

Fortunately, "Bush . . . also appointed several American internationalists to prominent posts in his administration" (p. 69). The authors single out for praise Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz; I strongly suspect that they are personally close to Wolfowitz and faithfully reflect his views. I propose to examine these views, but in a different order from that adopted in the book. First, the general principles that the authors believe should govern American foreign policy will be presented, with appropriate expressions of horror. After this, I shall look at their views on Iraq. (Readers who cannot wait will get a good preview of what is in store if they read Washington's Farewell Address, negating every prescription of policy it contains.)  

Kaplan and Kristol's views can best be considered by first having a look at the doctrine they are most anxious to reject. By the end of the cold war, a realist theory of foreign affairs, whose principal theorist was Hans Morgenthau, had largely replaced the global crusading beloved of our authors. The realists favored working within the balance-of-power tradition of European diplomacy. "This in turn led to the realists' key recommendation: A state must limit itself to the protection of its 'vital interests,' lest it disrupt the balance of power" (p. 46).

In my own view, and I hope that of my readers, Washington was right: we should avoid altogether meddling in power politics. But if one insists on an interventionist foreign policy, the realist position seems mandated by common sense. Should not any intervention be assessed with care, weighing costs against benefits? In particular, should not policymakers beware of ideologies that require remaking the world according to a utopian plan? "Morgenthau condemned the effort to apply a nation's principles abroad as itself evidence of 'immorality,' neatly exemplified 'in the contemporary phenomenon of the moral crusade'" (p. 46).

This sentiment almost induces apoplexy in our authors. A foreign policy realist will not hesitate to ally, if need be, with an undemocratic state, but this strikes at the heart of Kaplan and Kristol's ideas. The key to their approach is that America should embark on a worldwide crusade for democracy. To do so, they claim, will result in a world at peace.

They contend that the "strategic value of democracy is reflected in a truth of international politics: Democracies rarely, if ever, wage war against one another" (p. 104). Given this premise, is not the conclusion obvious? We have only to establish democracy everywhere and the millennium is at hand.

But why accept the premise? Our authors appeal to Kant: "[When] the consent of citizens is required to decide whether or not war should be declared, it is very natural that they will have a great hesitation in embarking on so dangerous an enterprise" (p. 105, quoting Kant).

Kant's point gives our authors no help. In modern "democracies," the executive usually decides unilaterally on military action: I do not recall, e.g., that a declaration of war from Congress, much less a popular referendum, preceded our crusade against Hitler redivivus, Saddam Hussein. Further, Kant here says nothing about our author's claim, viz., that democracies are unlikely to do battle with other democracies. He is making a general claim that democracies are less bellicose than other regimes: one has only to glance at a list of modern wars to see that the claim is false.

But perhaps our authors can do better than Kant. Is it not simply a well-confirmed fact that democracies do not fight one another but settle disputes peacefully? Our authors do not cite the Yale political scientist Bruce Russett, but he, among others, has published data that purport to establish this "fact" as ironclad. 1 (By "democracy" in the following I mean, roughly, "a representative government with some civil liberties.")

I do not think it wise to use this alleged fact as a basis for policy. Until the twentieth century, very few democracies existed, and generalizations about their behavior seem unlikely to prove robust. If the few democracies that have so far existed have not gone to war with each other, why does it follow that a world transformed into democratic states would be likewise pacific? Would, e.g., the conflicts between Israel and the Arab states go away if all the regimes in question became democratic?

I have not chosen this example at random. Kaplan and Kristol find lacking all of the political systems of the Arab world, and they propose to replace them: "There is today not a single Arab state that qualifies as a democracy. . . . But promoting democracy in the Middle East is not a matter of national egoism. It has become a matter of national well-being, even survival" (p. 101).

In particular, the royalist government of Saudi Arabia must go. Why not replace it as American ally with a democratic Iraq? "Iraq's experience of liberal democratic rule in turn could increase the pressure already being felt by Teheran's mullahs. . . . Iraq could even replace Saudi Arabia as the key American ally and source of oil in the region" (p. 99). What a wonderful confirmation of the authors' thesis we have had since their book was published! Even the most cynical isolationist can see with his own eyes how gladly the Iraqi people have welcomed the armies of democratic liberation.

Let us, though, grant our authors their thesis: a world of democracies would be a world at peace. Does it then follow that we ought to endeavor to topple authoritarian governments, in order to secure peace? What happens if the attempts to impose democracy fail? Kaplan and Kristol have the nerve to cite Woodrow Wilson on the need for a world of democratic states. Evidently they do not know, or choose to ignore, the fact that Wilson's demand that the German monarchy be abolished as a condition for negotiating an armistice in November, 1918, led to political chaos. The result of Wilson's meddling was not a stable democratic system, but rather, in a mere 15 years, the onset of the Nazi regime and its Führer.

The Kaplan-Kristol thesis is vulnerable at yet another point, and this a very obvious one. The world contains many nondemocratic governments, few of which are likely to depart the scene voluntarily. The proposal to fill the world with democratic states is a recipe for a long series of wars. Our authors are fully aware of this, and welcome the consequence; but I cannot think those who do not share their bloodthirsty proclivities will agree.

Pending the arrival of a democratic world, America faces immediate problems, and our authors have suggestions, of a quality similar to their long-term plans, to deal with them. Several nations somehow fail to see the United States as the source of enlightened guidance and cast hostile glances at us. What is worse, they possess nuclear weapons or other dangerous devices that could harm us. (Or at least, as with Iraq, they may, for all we know, have weapons fit only for our friends and us.)

What is to be done? To our authors, the answer is obvious: we should launch preemptive attacks on these countries. Do we not have a moral right to defend ourselves against those who menace us? Must we wait until they strike an initial, and possibly fatal, blow against us? "In international law, in international practice and in American history, there is ample precedent for the doctrine of preemption. . . . The origins of this concept date back to the father of international law, Hugo Grotius, who in the seventeenth century wrote, 'It be lawful to kill him who is preparing to kill'" (p. 85).

Our authors here confuse two very different situations. To strike at someone who is about to strike you is one thing: to attack him on the ground that he has—or might have—weapons that in the future might be used against you is another matter altogether. Once more, our authors have advanced a policy that leads to perpetual war.

Further, suppose the United States did follow the doctrine of preemption. Would not a nuclear power on bad terms with the United States have strong reason to think the United States would attempt a preemptive strike against it? If so, would it not have good reason to strike at us first? Our authors must be rubbing their hands with delight at the incendiary potential of their policy.

Is there not a further danger in our authors' plans? They would have us preemptively strike various powers, as we attempted to build a world of democracies under our hegemony. Would not other states, assuming they escaped our nuclear wrath, come to resent us? The plans of our authors seem likely to provoke a worldwide coalition against us.

Kaplan and Kristol dissent. Other nations, they think, will be quick to fall in line behind America's leadership. They had better: otherwise, we will zap them. "To be sure, those regimes that find an American-led world order menacing to their existence will seek to cut away at American power. . . . None of this, however adds up to a convincing argument against American preeminence . . . it is doubtful that any effective grouping of nations is likely to emerge to challenge American power. Much of the current international attack against American 'hegemonism' is posturing" (pp. 121–22).

But a doubt remains. Even if one is of the devil's party and thinks their scheme for American empire desirable, would not these plans impose a crushing burden on us? How can we possibly afford to subdue country after country in war? Spoilsport that I am, I have conjured up an imaginary difficulty. "Still, the task of . . . creating a force that can shape the international environment today, tomorrow and twenty years from now is manageable. It would probably require spending about $100 billion per year above current defense budgets. This price tag may seem daunting, but in historical terms it represents only a modest commitment of America's wealth" (p. 123). If this requires a socialized and militarized economy, who cares? We will make the world safe for democracy, just as Woodrow Wilson did before us.

It only remains for us to see how the authors apply their ambitious plans to Iraq. By now, you will have no trouble guessing what they have in mind: we must blast Saddam Hussein and all his works to smithereens and then create an Iraqi democracy out of whatever fragments of the country remain.

In making their case for an invasion of Iraq, the authors ply us with atrocity stories, lest we think mistakenly that Saddam is Father Christmas. Did they ever pause to reflect that wars and blockades kill a great many people also? These facts, one gathers, must not enter into our deliberations. To think of them, or to ask how we know that a benevolent democracy would replace Saddam, is to engage in the supreme sin: realism. Away with questions! We shall bomb Iraq into liberal democracy, as true reason and humanity demand of us.

  • 1. See his Grasping the Democratic Peace: Principles for a Post-Cold War World (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995). Oddly, Russett's earlier study, No Clear and Present Danger: A Skeptical View of the U.S. Entry into World War II (New York: Harper and Row, 1972) is an excellent defense of American isolationism.


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