From Rhetoric to Reality: Replacing Ideology with Policy in Iraq

Sarah Graham’s winning essay from the CollegeNet contest.

By Sarah Estes Graham (MFA, Creative Writing '06)

Sarah Estes Graham (MFA, Creative Writing ’06) won the 2005 CollegeNET Scholarship Award of $10,000 for her essay “From Rhetoric to Reality: Replacing Ideology with Policy in Iraq.” Read her poem,“Nagasaki,” on the back cover of this magazine.


I. Terror and Democracy, Cold War and Today

In the spring of 1950 the specter of worldwide Communism hung heavy in the air. After the victory of ’48, Truman faced a slew of agonizing decisions about German rearmament, a separate treaty with the Japanese, the reconstruction of war-torn Europe, Soviet containment, and an Arab world enflamed by the creation of the new Israeli state. Amidst this darkening international storm, he dealt with a fractious congress at home and accusations by McCarthy that Truman, Acheson and left-leaning liberals in the State Department had “lost China.” But with great crisis comes great opportunity: the Marshall Plan, and the successful occupations of Germany and Japan, transformed the role of the United States and left Truman with an enviable historical legacy. However, he remained reluctant about the U.S. role as burgeoning global hegemon. While he accepted Nitze’s prescriptions in the National Security Council Paper No. 68, this fiscal conservative surely bristled at the defense budget and the massive expenditures that the Marshall Plan would involve: “He still wondered whether the responsibilities and obligations entailed by hegemony ... might undermine our democratic system. Paradoxically, the steps required to contain Soviet Communist power and forestall a garrison state might themselves lead the United States toward becoming a garrison state.”(1)

Recent accusations by some administration officials that Bremer, Negroponte and members of the State Department sabotaged President Bush's policy and “lost Iraq”(2) make it difficult to resist drawing comparisons between the climates of the Truman administration and today. We should beware the dangers of historical analogy. Liberals endure the charge of being “soft on terrorism” from the right, “Munich Syndrome” thinking is faulted by critics on the left for contributing to our involvement in the current struggle, neo-conservatives fume at comparisons between the current situation in Iraq and the Vietnam “quagmire.” While the frequent use of terms like “imperialist” and “quagmire” can cloud the issues and evoke age-old emotive entanglements and bitter bipartisan divisions, we can ill afford to ignore the lessons of history. The idealism and rhetoric that fueled the Cold War are at work today in the polarizing language of good and evil characteristic of Bush’s orations. If we are to learn anything from the legacy of Wilson, Truman, and the Cold War presidents it is that there is an ever-present danger of conflating rhetoric with reality, overestimating our own power while underestimating or miscalculating the power and motives of others. Bush rejected the lessons of containment and deterrence as relics of the Cold War. While he is right that deterrence measures leveled against a state would not work against a band of terrorists with access to weapons of mass destruction, the aggressive Wilsonian jump to preventive war was nevertheless imprudent and unwarranted.

This essay will show the ways in which the historical lessons of the Just War tradition have been “one of the many casualties of September 11,”(3) overlooked along with the proper legal distinctions between pre-emption and prevention. While the recent democratic developments of elections and tort reform have taken hold in Iraq, thus far it seems the war has done more to spread terror than democracy. The Iraqi economy has not jumped to hoped-for levels of oil revenues, while infrastructure and capacity for self-rule are marred by violence and insurgency. The president faces mounting public disapproval and impatience with an overdrawn ground troop commitment, and we risk walking away too early and leaving Iraq a failed state and haven for terrorist activity. I will make several suggestions to increase the democratic development and potential of our policy in the Middle East. Much as the open-ended Truman Doctrine was transformed through the pragmatic incentive-based policies of the Marshall Plan, it is my contention that a policy initiative of pragmatic reform and incentives might transform the Bush Doctrine into a realistic plan that is more palatable to the international community and effective in cultivating democratic reform in the Middle East.

II. Preemptive War vs. Preventive War

The buildup to war in the spring of 2003 saw some of the most extensive world-wide protests in history. The voices of dissent at home and abroad were numerous and diverse, from liberal academics to conservatives who felt their roles as fiscal conservatives and prudent internationalists had been usurped by a radical fringe of the right wing. Central to the discussion was the critical distinction between the notions of preemptive and preventive war. The Bush team argued that their war was a preemptive one, justified by historical precedents for anticipatory self-defense, as well as authorizations of force from the first Gulf War. Many thinkers from across the political spectrum balked at these citations, insisting that the term was being misused; first and foremost, they argued, the threat must be imminent: “to justify a resort to preemptive war, a state needs to give reasonable evidence that ... the threat to be preempted is clear and imminent, direct, critical and unmanageable, that is unable to be dealt with by any other means.”(4) The Bush team worked hard to gain domestic and multilateral support for their definition of preemption. In his January 2003 State of the Union address, Bush told the American people that Saddam Hussein was “assembling the world’s most dangerous weapons {in order to} dominate, intimidate, or attack,” adding that Hussein had “already used them on whole villages — leaving thousands of his own citizens dead, blind or transfigured ... If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning.” Of course, the reference to Saddam’s turn on his own citizenry did not clearly qualify him as an imminent threat to the U.S., so Bush made the rhetorical and ideological turn of defining not imminence but “evil.” Such vague and polarizing language dodges crucial issues of international law and global polity, returning us to the rhetorical campaigns of the Cold War but failing to convince N.A.T.O. and the U.N. of the case for war.

With this failure to internationally demonstrate an imminent threat to the U.S., the Iraq War clearly falls in the more tenuous territory of a preventive war, waged in anticipation of a growing future threat. Problematically, preventive wars do not meet the moral test put forth by the historical tradition of a Just War. Relegated to theology departments in the past, the notion of justice reemerged in the Vietnam era and continues to play an ever more crucial role in international politics. As Just War scholar Michael Walzer points out, “in a war for hearts and minds ... justice turns out to be a key to victory.”(5) Without the backing of historical criteria for a Just War, we risk not only losing the war of hearts and minds but becoming precisely that which preemption is supposed to guard against: “pre-emption defined as prevention ... runs the risk that the United States will appear to much of the world as a clear and present danger.”(6) As we will see, the perceived illegitimacy of unilateral action and its attendant weakening of relations with European allies, crucial to effective implementation and enforcement of Middle East policy, was not a prescription for spreading democracy.

III. The Development Challenge

We cannot go back and rewrite history, or know what would have been if the Iraq War had not been waged. Whether for or against the war, our sense of national identity has been rocked by the domestic divide wars of choice inevitably bring, further compounded by ongoing casualties and scandals such as Abu Ghraib. In order to bring about peace and democratic reform in Iraq and the Middle East, the U.S. needs to move toward stronger alliances with traditional allies, revise the carrot and stick model in favor of stronger incentives, develop greater empathy and knowledge of the Arab world, and move towards pragmatic and programmatic statecraft driven by effective policy rather than ideology.

Markers of both success and failure are difficult to read amidst the fog of war. One of the most menacing and intangible blows has been our fractured alliance with traditional European Allies. It is easy to blame the U.S. alone for the run-up to war, but missteps over Iraq date back to its inception after World War I, and more recently with Europe’s failure to effectively back up sanctions with a willingness to use force in the early 1990s. Though many nations threatened Saddam with sanctions, few had the political will to carry them out. Given the stratospheric rise of terrorism as a top concern in U.S. and European foreign policy since the September 11 attacks, it would seem that the time is right for a true coalition of the willing to take on “rogue” nations with consolidated diplomatic measures. Why not take this historic opportunity of European readiness to enforce sanctions to work together to come up with clear objectives and benchmarks for success, as has been suggested for Tehran?(7) Given our unprecedented military strength, it is too easy to feel that we can safely go it alone. Working together effectively on Tehran may do much to restore our European ties, and provide an opportunity to reestablish the essential role of international governing bodies.

We need to strengthen relationships not only with our allies, but with our perceived enemies as well. While convincing the administration or the American public to empathize with a terrorist would be a hard sell, it is certain that maximizing our understanding of the Arab world will pay a high dividend in our ventures there. Another issue critical to our success is the readjustment of American expectations in Iraq and the Middle East. A foreign policy driven by a Neoconservative brand of American cultural hegemony that seeks to export and impose our culture and values on others, to some extent remaking them in our own image, will come across as transparently self-interested at best, and imperialistic at worst — leading to ongoing defensive posturings against U.S. involvement.

The Project for the New American Century’s “Statement of Principles,” signed by influential figures like Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, states that we must “increase defense spending significantly in order to carry out global responsibilities including ... a Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity.” This rhetoric should alert us once again to the Cold War dangers of polarizing ideology to increase military budgets. After a short post-Cold War peacetime dividend our military spending increased; and in order to remake the world in our own image, in order to pacify our fears about non-democratic states, we would have to devote an ever-increasing amount of our national budget to the military. There is a generalized understanding in political theory that democracies do not fight other democracies, and we reflexively tend to think that legitimately elected, democratically run regimes will support U.S. interests and values. As has been seen with the former Soviet Union and “Asian Tigers,” the issue of political and economic development is more complicated. The Ukraine’s recent Orange Revolution is a good example of a state where a burgeoning middle class and strong civic organizations conspired to block election fraud, but the Ukraine has had over 10 years exposure to democratic practices, and happened upon a historical window with strong leadership and an experienced political opposition group. There is no way of knowing when or if these windows of opportunity and stability will come about in Iraq and the Middle East, and what amount of exposure to Western ideals and rule of law will be necessary for a functioning democracy to take root.

There has to be a willingness on the part of the American people to sacrifice the necessary resources to “stay the course.” As the Soviet hothouse regimes in Eastern Europe during the Cold War demonstrated, unwilling satellites will drain budgets and revert to hostile or failed states as soon as military occupation ceases. Our desires to build not only stable democracies and profitable business partners, but states that reflect our moral values, foreign policy interests and aims, threaten to sabotage the end goal of stabilizing and promoting a truly independent Iraq. David Mack, Vice President of the Middle East Institute, writes that a successful U.S. policy in Iraq will need to adjust to more realistic goals. Having served two terms of service in Iraq, Mack sensed that supporters of Operation Iraqi Freedom were unfamiliar with the harsh realities of Iraq’s damaged social structure and troubled past, and had been infected by ideological zeal, fully expecting a quick invasion of Iraq to yield a quick turnaround into a profitable, functional state — the “Norway” of the Middle East.(8) Of course, this didn’t happen. But Mack suggests a program of red-lines and benchmarks to clearly define dangerous versus merely annoying Iraqi behavior, as well as more realistic outcomes for the political economy of Iraq. Clearly the elections were a step in the right directions, though some groups are still underrepresented. In addition, a recent trip of Iraqi judges to Prague to learn from the European judiciary highlights some of their achievements in judicial reform. Sometimes, it is the smaller achievements in infrastructure that build over time to achieve a societal tipping point toward greater stability and resistance to insurgency. However, Mack and others warn that Americans may have to be willing to make some compromises. We must avoid being seen as imperialists by trying to direct Iraqi foreign policy to side with us on Israel when they may be likely to vote within an Arab block on the side of Palestine, or have a stronger role for Islam in their government than many Americans would be comfortable with. Such measures, if developed now, could be a guidepost for our dealings with Tehran: greater willingness to compromise on matters non-essential to our national security would go a long way in demonstrating essential democratic principles such as effective multi-faction or bipartisan compromise to enable the legislative process.

Since we have established that policy should be pragmatic and driven by attainable benchmarks and uncrossable red-lines established with our European allies, let us look briefly at the traditional carrot and stick model which has been used in the past. Failed punitive measures, particularly when then are not enforced or backed by both European and American allies, have met with limited success and contribute to the spread of terror. Again, a successful U.S. policy must proceed with greater understanding of the Arab world. In a recent talk at the University of Virginia, Dennis Ross discussed his experiences presiding over the peace process between Palestine and Israel. His work emphasizes the critical role of “windows of opportunity,” and the reactionary and uncompromising style of Arab leaders who may feel that their leadership lacks legitimacy or are simply risk-averse because they preside in a political environment in which opposition parties may make use of violence and terror. In order to keep the peace and spread more democracy in Iraq, stabilizing the political situation and lending a sense of legitimacy to the elected government is of the utmost importance. Elections have already gone a long way in achieving this goal; restraint when it comes to pushing U.S. ideals may assist long term stability of the Iraqi leadership. Civic groups should also be able to assist in building consensus against the insurgency over time. Civil society and a reliance on the people to revolt against authoritarian regimes has long been a staple of U.S. statecraft, but in the case of the Arab world, civic groups are often easily co-opted by authoritarian regimes. Thus we should fund the development of democratically-minded civic groups. In regard to the current problematic view of the U.S. in the Arab world, Ross also notes that we need to be consistent with our values and utilization of democracy. There is a feeling in the Arab world that we are willing to use democracy as a tool against our enemies, but not against friends such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. Bush seems to be heading in the right direction in trying to be more exigent with friendlier states. Consistency with our values, restraint in attempting to create states in our own image, and greater incentives to help build infrastructure and eventually sponsor membership in international governance bodies should help prevent the ineffective punitive measures seen to spread terror, while fostering the spread of democracy instead.

The lessons of the Cold War and the more recent War on Terror teach us of the possibility of eventual compromise and reform, as well as the sad cycle of conflict that can morph from one conflict to the next, one generation to the next. While we won the Cold War, the knowledge that terrorist groups may have received U.S.-backed training during the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan can make it feel like a Pyrrhic victory. The United States stands, for the moment, as the undisputed global hegemon. It is sure that the United States’ global position will face many challenges in the decades to come. Hopefully, they will be the healthy, competitive challenges of growing economies, rather than the desperate terrorist acts of embittered zealots. In order to avoid the rhetorical and ideological mistakes of the Cold War, and a greater spread of terror, the U.S. should engage in careful and constant analysis of its role as global hegemon. A conscientious and truly growth-minded U.S. global polity would pursue sustainable long-term diplomatic relationships by focusing on matters essential to U.S. security while compromising in areas of less importance. Like Truman, today’s leaders preside over an epoch of tremendous U.S. power and influence, but they must also step back from the imperial overreach that can spread more terror than democracy, so that in the process of forestalling a garrison state, we do not become a garrison state ourselves.

(1) Leffler, 96.
(2) Mack, 28.
(3) Gaddis, 5.
(4) Schroeder, 37.
(5) Walzer, 929.
(6) Gaddis, 5.
(7) Pollack and Takeyh, 27-9.
(8) Mack, 34.

Chomsky, Noam. Hegemony or survival: America’s quest for global dominance. New York: Owl Books, 2004.

Gaddis, John Lewis. “Grand strategy in the second term,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2005.

Leffler, Melvyn P. The specter of communism: The United States and the origins of the cold war, 1917-1953. New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.

Mack, David L. “Reality check in Iraq,” Foreign Service Journal, March 2005.

Pollack, Kenneth and Ray Takeyh. “Taking on Tehran,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2005.

Schroeder, Paul. “Iraq: The case against preemptive war,” The American Conservative, March 30, 2005.

Walzer, Michael. “The triumph of just war theory,” Social Research, Winter 2002.

-------. Just and unjust wars. New York: Basic Books, 1977.