November 15, 2005

The Sorrows of Empire

Justin Logan points out that most of our current problems in the Middle East started way back with the first Gulf War in 1991, a war that looks unwise in retrospect. Back then, many Democrats rightly opposed Bush senior's "needless foreign intervention" in the Middle East, something they apparently couldn't bring themselves to do in 2002.

That seems worth noting. The ongoing debate over whether the Bush administration distorted the intelligence on Iraq's WMDs is important, but misses the larger point, I think. Even if Saddam Hussein had "reconstituted nuclear weapons," as Dick Cheney once claimed, it still wasn't worth going to war. A nuclear-armed Soviet Union was never able to control the oil supply in the Middle East, there's no reason to think a nuclear Iraq could have, if that's what we were fretting about. And Saddam Hussein may have had connections with terrorists before 2002, but nothing worth invading over; he was never so stupid as to risk annihilation over unprovoked attacks against the United States. (And, at any rate, things certainly seem to have worsened on that score since the invasion.)

At best, smart sanctions by the UN would have kept Saddam from doing anything nasty; at worst, deterrence and coercive diplomacy could have been deployed if necessary. Force if absolutely crucial. It's hard work, juggling all that, but that's why we pay our leaders the big bucks. The current Democratic criticism of the Bush administration, however—that the dude lied about the WMDs—is apt, but seems to imply that if only he hadn't been lying, the war would have been a good idea after all. Wrong.

Once the security aspects are dismissed, all one can say is that deposing Saddam's regime and democratizing Iraq, if properly done, would have made the Middle East a "nicer place," no doubt. But what of it? The question of why it was ever our responsibility to make the region "a nicer place" deserves a closer look. It certainly harkens back to the first Gulf War, which, as Justin Logan says, "set a precedent that the United States would be the guarantor of global security, [so] that other regions didn't need to concern themselves with mundane and archaic problems like the balance of power." (If that precedent hadn't already been set.) So how did we get to that point? And why, apparently, are both political parties in Washington still stuck on that notion?

The thinking that led to the first Gulf War seems looks in retrospect. After the Soviet Union fell, minor threats that once looked perfectly manageable suddenly appeared intolerable. Goals that once appeared ridiculous and out of reach—like trying to bring democracy to a region at gunpoint, or projecting military force in order to secure a resource base halfway around the world—suddenly appeared entirely doable. But both ideas are illogical. Threats that were manageable once upon a time are still manageable. Goals that were ridiculous once upon a time are still ridiculous. Nothing should have changed.

I'm almost tempted to cite prospect theory—the behavioral theory that people will take greater risks to avoid losses than they would to win something—to explain U.S. behavior. After 1990, the United States was at the peak of its global power, and in that situation, prospect theory suggests that American presidents will, more often than not, take great risks to avoid losing that status—intervening in the Middle East, say—whereas they wouldn't have taken such risks to gain that status. The September 11 attacks, it seems, only heightened this sense. Al-Qaeda, an organization that honestly poses a relatively small risk to American security, from a historical point of view, was suddenly worth taking very large geopolitical risks to curtail. Needless to say, this is a bit irrational.

It wouldn't be wrong to say that deeper structural forces prevent the United States from ever reverting to a more modest foreign policy. The 1991 Gulf War was probably a mistake, but something like it was probably inevitable. Historically, a state's "interests" tend to grow and expand as its power does, as Robert Jervis once pointed out. The historian John S. Galbraith argued that the British kept getting drawn deeper into Asia and Africa by the "turbulent frontier": once you occupy a certain region, suddenly the unpacified borders of that area become a pressing concern, so you move to pacify those areas, and so on. Or, as Chalmers Johnson likes to say, imperialism drives war rather than the other way around.

Perhaps this is unavoidable. Perhaps it's even what the U.S. should be doing. Someday, when the current political climate has cooled, liberals can honestly debate the merits and dangers of Clinton-era imperalism. Already we have strategists like Thomas Barnett arguing that the proper for the Pentagon is to go all the way, to pacify all of those borders—with the siren song of globalization—until there is no "turbulent frontier" left. But it's hard to say whether doing so is truly in the national interest or just seems like it, for all of the reasons listed above.

Continue reading "Revisionist History"
-- Brad Plumer 5:38 PM || ||