Sunday, February 27, 2005

Good from evil?

There have been some positive developments in the Middle East recently: the Iraqi elections went much better than most supposed they would; Israel and the new leadership of the Palestinian authority are talking again; and Hosni Mubarak has proposed allowing contested elections in Egypt. All good things, I think most will agree. More contentious for those on the left is the question of how much credit the Bush administration and its invasion of Iraq deserve for these developments.

Pundits of the open-source and mainstream varieties have mulled this question lately, and the more general issue of how to a) oppose the Bush administration--especially the war in Iraq, and b) work for a progressive foreign policy that calls for the spread of freedom and democracy. See, for example, this recent Thomas Friedman article, this post from Ripple of Hope, and the March 2005 of the American Prospect magazine.

In essence, the question is 'Can good come from evil?' Or, to put it more in context, 'Can progressives embrace positive results from the invasion of Iraq without being hypocrites?'

One response to this is simply to deny that moral questions should play any part in the means of foreign policy. Those sympathetic to the administration's foreign policy, but who aren't big fans of the current situation in Iraq might speak thusly: Hey, you want a dictatorship to hold free elections? Well an invasion by US troops, or the threat thereof, is a great stimulus for that sort of thing. Sure, things in Iraq haven't gone very well for us. But things haven't gone so well for Saddam Hussein, either--and that is the lesson other strongmen in the region like fellow Baathist Bashar al-Assad will take to heart. So yes, the occupation of Iraq has been pretty ugly, but you don't spread freedom cheaply, and in the end, you can't argue with results.

In this view, Bush's foreign policy gets to be both idealistic--spreading freedom and democratic values around the globe--and realistic, capable of using US power, unilaterally if need be, in the service of a future greater good. This moral-ends-through-whatever-means to a degree also protects the administration from charges of hypocrisy in that while it pushes autocratic regimes to become more democratic, it also (to take only one example of the administration's hypocrisy) relies on many of those same autocracies to hold and torture terror suspects. The world is not pretty, the administration's supporters might say, and if you want to make it a better, safer place, you can't be afraid of breaking some international laws along the way, maybe invading a despotic country or two.

An opposing response would be to argue that immoral means lead to immoral ends. Full stop. The recent developments in the Middle East are positive, yes, but a) they can plausibly be described as happening in spite of rather than because of the Bush administration's policies; and b) it's far too early to talk about these developments as 'results' at all--they are small hopeful beginnings, but in the long term the unwarranted invasion of Iraq and the many other examples of Bush administration hypocrisy in the region will lead to greater danger, greater evil, down the road. Scenarios of what this future 'greater evil' might look like are not too difficult to imagine. Here's one: Iraq dissolves into civil war; US troops still in occupation are targeted by all sides of the conflict; the Kurds in northern Iraq declare themselves a country and Turkey invades; meanwhile, US relations with Europe continue to deteriorate and Iran develops its nuclear weapons program; Israel, which had been close to a peace deal w/ the Palestinian Authority, launches missile and air attacks aimed at destroying Iran's nuclear capability; Hezbollah and other radical groups riot and overthrow the moderate leadership of the PA and terrorist attacks against Israel are resumed w/ help from Syria; Mubarak has to impose even harsher restrictions on Egypt's radicals; & etc....

Granted, I'm not an expert when it comes to knowledge of the history and politics of the Middle East. But to this educated layperson, it does seem that while there are certainly some reasons for optimism about the Middle East recently, the invasion of Iraq has made the region less likely to end up peaceful and stable, rather than more likely. Evil does come from evil, and with almost 1,500 troops lost and billions spent in Iraq, the US has probably only begun to pay the price for this horrendously stupid adventure.

So, as a progressive, I'm very glad that the chances for a democratic and peaceful Middle East seem a little higher this week. And I'm glad that the Bush administration has placed the spread of democracy at the center of their foreign policy. Indeed, I wish it had been at the center of their policy from the beginning, rather than an attempt to give a gloss of idealism to their fear mongering, and to retroactively justify a senseless invasion. And I wish their pursuit of their policy was more consistent than convenient, applied wherever democracy was denied, not just in places they didn't like, anyhow. And perhaps they could limit their own use of the autocratic police powers they say they're dead set against.

Much of the 'Dems better get behind spreading democracy in Iraq' rhetoric from politicos and pundits who supported the invasion of Iraq--like the Friedman article linked above--is aimed, I think, at laying the groundwork for a 'stab in the back' argument once the situation in the Middle East completely falls apart on the Bush administration or its successor. If the idiotic invasion fails to be the beginning of the fall of the undemocratic dominoes in the region, neocons and their apologists can say 'well of course not--without bipartisan support at home, our fabulous foreign policy was doomed to failure!' Picture Richard Perle and Juan Cole a decade or so from now, stuck together at the bottom of a well (with apologies, Prof. Cole). Licking his comb to stick a some hair back in place, Perle sighs, 'If only you had dug with me when I asked you to.' The Bush administration screwed up big time in Iraq, and there's no denying it. I'm glad they're doing better lately, but time will tell if they truly have the skill and commitment necessary to avoid the traps they have dug for the US--traps that will not only be bad for us, but for peace and freedom in the Middle East.

I will be cheering all the good news I hear, and praying I hear far more of it. But this does not mean merely accepting the Bush foreign policy--it means holding it true to its rhetoric, and remembering what a vastly more difficult job is in store for advocates of freedom and democracy around the world since the first Bush administration.

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