Thursday, February 03, 2005

The Worst of the Worse Case Scenarios

I have to admit that I’m surprised (pleased but surprised none the less) at how quickly some of the anti-war crowd have, if not changed their tune, then become self-critical in the face of the Iraqi elections. I have tried not to gloat (too much) since I know the risks we still face. Now I find myself raining on everyone’s parade, offering a vision more pessimistic than either the anti-war crowd, whose biggest concern seems to be that Bush may be proved correct, or the pro-invasion crowd, who range from self-congratulatory to cautiously optimistic.

Sure, civil war is still a risk but civil war was always a risk even without the invasion. Civil wars break out in unstable regimes all the time without the catalyst of an invasion. Saddam is an old man who would have died eventually, leaving two loathsome sons to struggle for power between each other and among any number of generals and Ba’athist toadies. The death of the Great Leader would have been an opportunity for Kurdish separatists and a Shi’ite power play, or even a jihadist coup. Don’t kid yourself. There would not have been a smooth transfer of power when Hussein died. The risk of civil war is a specter haunting much of the “developing” world.

More than the integrity of Iraq as nation is at stake. If Iraq splits apart into three or five countries but they are, by some measure, democratic and open, then this has succeeded beyond anyone’s hopes. Ever if the majority of the successor states are democratic and open then this has been a success.

What is at risk in Iraq today is an idea, the idea that an Arab Muslim country can become democratic and free and join the modern world. We not talking about making Iraq into Canada. More like Turkey or even better, India.

Look what happens when an idea fails. Remember the summer of 2000. Clinton dragged Barak and Arafat to Camp David. Peace was one signature away. Six months later a low-level war broke out that continues today. What failed at Camp David was an idea: Land for Peace, the idea that Arafat and the PA would compromise some of the goals, even a little, in exchange for peace; that they would settle for something less than their maximum demands. It was a very long fall from that ambitious height.

The test of democracy in Iraq is not one election or even several elections that keep one group in office. The test comes when the group in power loses an election and peacefully transfers power to the winning group. The test comes when a majority coalition allows itself to become a minority coalition, when the independent judiciary can punish the executive, when the top general is fired for mismanagement and goes home, or to jail, without violence.

Let’s imagine that the occupation succeeds. Iraq chooses a legitimate and workable constitution. A widely respected democratic process elects a new national government. Everything goes as smoothly as anyone could hope. The terrorists are crushed or reduced to something like the ETA in Spain. The American troops celebrate their return home. What’s not to love?

The worst of the worse case scenarios is still possible.

The moment of greatest defeat and greatest triumph are bound together. The higher one reaches, the greater the ambitions, the farther one has to fall, all the more abject and dismal the failure. The second or fifth Iraqi election removes the ruling party from power but they won’t go. Or a disputed election ends with a coup. Or, after successive loses at the ballot box ,one group takes up arms. Or a charismatic cleric wins office and declares the nation a theocracy and cancels, or greatly restricts, future elections, the old “One Man, One Vote, One Time” scenario. After all, Lebanon was once the bright spot of the Mid-East, with a constitution and elections. Beirut was “Paris on the Mediterranean.” Now Lebanon is Syrian puppet and Hizbullah is one of the largest political parties.

The worst of the worse case scenarios is that the idea fails, the idea that an Arab Muslim nation can become democratic and free and join the modern world. The restrictions of conservative Islam, the dynamics of Arab tribal culture, the corruption of oil wealth, the backlash of a tradition society against a "decadent" modernity – any one of these presents a challenge, together they are enough to smother an infant democracy and give birth to something else entirely.

After all the American deaths and American money, after the Ba’athists and the jihadists have been crushed, after foreign troops and companies have rebuilt the infrastructure, after the UN and NGOs have supervised the creation of new political systems and institutions, if, after all that and more, democracy does in fact not take hold in Iraq, what then? What ideas are we left with? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

This is a bleak vision, even for me. Because if the idea of a democratic Arab Muslim nation fails then we will be fresh out of ideas. We’ll be in the clash of civilizations. We won’t be in a generational battle against jihadism, against a fascist mutation of political Islam. We will be in a millennial struggle with an entire cultural. No one wants to think about that. It is the worst of the worse case scenarios. Unfortunately, it will remain a possibility for some time to come.

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