If the threat of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction was considerably less imminent than many were led to believe, and if Saddam's ties to Al Qaeda remain to be substantiated, was there another, more ambitious rationale for the invasion of Iraq? One based on a grand strategy of planting pro-Western democracy in Iraq, the region's second-largest oil-producing nation, and reshaping the Middle East?
FRONTLINE put this question to some experienced and influential players in U.S. foreign policy, including Richard Perle, former chairman of the Defense Policy Board; Richard Haass, director of policy planning at the State Department until this past June, when he left to become president of the Council on Foreign Relations; Kanan Makiya, a leading Iraqi intellectual and close advisor to the Iraqi National Congress; and Joseph Wilson, retired ambassador and former director of Africa policy for the National Security Council.
A rationale emerges for why we need to go to war. And weapons of mass destruction becomes the leading reason. There were other reasons as well. ... There was a larger, more ambitious plan, too, to remake the Middle East. [The idea] that establishing a democracy in Iraq would be an important change in the world order.
There's no question that liberating Iraq from this vicious tyrannical regime was thought by many of us to be a good thing in itself. And the added benefits, if one could bring democratic political process to Iraq, of shaping opinion in the Arab world, which is woefully devoid of democratic political institutions, would also be a good thing.
If you say would we have taken this action in Iraq if the only purpose had been to try to bring democracy to Iraq, I think the answer is no. We didn't even consider using force to bring democracy to any other Arab country. But the combination of Saddam Hussein, who had made war in the past, who had weapons of mass destruction, who was an avowed enemy of the United States, when you put all of that together, that was a very powerful case for the action we took.
There's another a rationale that's often given for the war, and that is to reshape the Middle East. It's a grand plan to plant a democracy, and to -- it's called sometimes -- "reverse domino."
I've heard that; indeed, I've spoken out a lot about the desirability of bringing greater democratization to the Middle East, bringing greater economic openness, and so forth. I don't really see this as necessarily a way to do that. It's not clear to me that this will necessarily lead to that sort of a situation. That said, if an Iraq does end up looking like a functioning democracy, it will contribute to the momentum in this part of the world. I think that momentum is beginning to be seen. ...
I think there's a debate beginning to go on in the Arab world, and I think a lot of Arabs are asking themselves, "Why is it we don't have the freedom that virtually every other part of the world does?" I think there's a sense almost of a degree of shame there, in parts of the Arab world, when they look at themselves and they say, "Why is it we're still ruled by these top-heavy governments, where individuals don't have freedoms?"
I think there's something there. I think if Iraq goes well, I think it can reinforce those trends. That said, I'm not sure yet exactly how complete will be the democratic transformation in Iraq. Secondly, even if it is fairly complete, we shouldn't think that it automatically leads to these trends elsewhere. I think each society is likely to have its own debate.
So even if things go fairly well in Iraq, say, I think Egyptians are going to have to have their debate. Saudis are going to have to have their debate. Iraq will simply be one more piece of evidence, one more argument that'll be used in their debates. I don't think it will be defining. I don't think it will determine the outcome, but I think it will have an influence. …
But what is this argument, what am I hearing? Help me understand. When you hear constantly in some circles in Washington, "The State Department doesn't believe in democracy," they're talking about diplomats with wide experience in that region who have a kind of realpolitik about what can happen and what can't happen. Can you explain that school of thought?
... I think the argument that there's people in the State Department or elsewhere in the U.S. government who somehow oppose democracy is nonsense. It simply doesn't exist. What you do have, though, are different ideas of how to go about encouraging it. We can't simply do elsewhere in the Middle East what we've done in Iraq. We're not going to occupy this entire part of world. That's obviously nonsense and a non-starter.
Also, we've learned historically that you've got to be careful with how you go about promoting political change in other countries. You have to be careful you don't put in too much too soon [so] that you destabilize a situation, because you can make a bad situation worse. So it wouldn't surprise me that there are people in the State Department who are saying, "Sure we want to see democracy, but let's do it gradually, let's do it carefully, let's be a bit modest here. Let's not make it somehow something we try to accomplish overnight in some Made-in-America way and we foist it upon others."
If that's the reaction, I think that's a smart reaction. This is a difficult thing. There's probably no harder foreign policy task than to get inside another society and try to help shape its politics and its economics. That's an intrusive ambitious foreign policy undertaking, and we had better be careful about how we go about it. ...
Democracy is not some widget or some automobile that you can put in your port, put it on a ship and bring it into another country and export it. Doesn't work that way. Democracy has to largely be homegrown. I think what we can do as an outsider is help make sure certain ideas are put in circulation. We can help certain institutions be launched. We can help ensure that democracy has a chance to take root. But ultimately, it's going to really depend upon the society in question, the political leadership of that society, the business leadership of that society. ...
A year and a half ago, when [Paul Wolfowitz] got back in touch with you ... was it obvious at that time that Sept. 11 had changed the thinking about Saddam and Iraq?
It was obvious to me that a sea change in America foreign policy had begun to occur, and that it was now going to focus on Iraq as the place or the arena where this sea change was going to be effectively realized. ...
What was that sea change?
It was a realization, as I see it, that a policy of supporting dictatorships, autocratic regimes and so on, was perhaps no longer in America's interest. ... [And that] regimes like that in Saudi Arabia ... bred monsters in the midst of the United States. All of a sudden, the problems were coming from the very allies of the United States. ... So that meant that there was now an argument for dramatically changing the terms of American engagement with that part of the world, in the direction of promoting other ideals that benefit large numbers of people, not the existing autocrats in power.
A transformation of the Middle East?
How was it that transforming Iraq -- or regime change in Iraq -- would affect Saudi Arabia or the region?
If you have a successful American -- let's call it enterprise -- here in Iraq, that actually succeeds in not only overthrowing a dictatorship, which is easy, but in building a society that is beginning to move towards stable institutions, to rule of law -- proper constitutional political system and representative democracy -- then you would have transformed the rules of the game in the Middle East. ...
I know these ideas of Mr. Wolfowitz and Cheney and others are very often dismissed and discredited by people ... usually from a position of ignorance, on the basis that they're sort of dreamy ... the dreamy fairy-tale idea of transforming the Middle East, or [transforming] a country like Saudi Arabia into a democracy. "Ha ha ha -- isn't that a funny thing? How funny, how unreasonable can you get?"
That kind of thinking is very, very prevalent, by the way, in the State Department. I've had State Department officials actually say to me in so many words--
It's a pipe dream?
We're talking about beginning something in Iraq which eventually changes the perception of the United States in that part of the world, which will then have repercussions which cannot be predicted in advance. We're not talking about military adventures all over the world ... one after the other. No sensible person should be talking that way.
We're talking about an alternative to the autocracies -- Iraq being another oil-producing country -- an alternative to Saudi Arabia. That itself opens up fissures ... in set political agendas of the Middle East. It transforms the Middle East simply by the fact that now there is a growing oil-producing country which is on a par, in the same league as Saudi Arabia.
All of a sudden, the dynamics of politics as a whole in the region are shifting, from the ground level up. You also have a shift in direction of the Arab-Israeli peace process. Democrats are strengthened, radical democrats, people like myself. My Palestinian equivalents, my Syrian equivalents, et cetera, are strengthened up and down the Arab world by the success of this.
All of this has a ripple effect which will have consequences down the line. It is in that sense that one is changing a policy, a long-term, strategic way of thinking about things. Perfectly in line with a thinking about the war against terror laid by the president earlier -- that this is not short-term, this is not just about Afghanistan, it's not just about one group, and so on and so forth. ...
Of course any such departure from the norm is going to bring up criticism from establishments that are set in their ways, that are used to doing policy in certain ways. Any such radical departure [such as] I'm talking about is going to look fantastical to people with no political imagination -- of whom, of course, the United States has its fair share in the policy establishment.
Well, you're saying that it is ambitious. It is idealistic, perhaps.
Of course it's ambitious. ... It is thinking on the big scale. It is not thinking like a clerk, or a bureaucrat, pushing one piece of paper, another piece of paper. ... It's a difference between a guy who's running for election and thinking about the polls, and somebody who's got a real strategic agenda down the line, and is fighting for big ideas and big values. ...
Do you think the American public understands ... that the war in Iraq is about Saudi Arabia and autocratic regimes across the Middle East?
We could do with a lot more talking about that, but of course for reasons that are -- let's call it typically realpolitik -- people don't talk about these things.
They talk about weapons of mass destruction ... and imminent threats?
Exactly. You don't go around with an ally you're still working with, who's still an ally, who you want to convince to help you on the war against [terrorism], you don't around saying things like that. But certainly that's how any half-intelligent person would be thinking.
That the war in Iraq is about Saudi Arabia or Egypt as much as it is about anything?
It's about the entire strategic relationship of the United States to this part of the world, to the Arab-Muslim world. Hence, within that framework, down the line, it includes and embraces the Arab-Israeli conflict. But it's not -- there's not a direct one-to-one relationship. It is trying to change, it is understanding that terrorism is not just ... it's not really economic or poverty-stricken circumstances, which is what you get from all kinds of irresponsible critics in Europe. ... I mean, that contributes, of course. But it is about a relationship, a political degradation ... that we have arrived at in the Arab-Muslim world, that we desperately need to get out of. ...
It is incomprehensible to most people, to understand, to believe that the State Department doesn't favor democracy.
It's not about favoring or not favoring. It believes in democracy for themselves, but it simply thinks -- I mean, people like myself get the impression from talking to State Department people that they don't think this part of the world is ready for it, or is up to it. They are in a sense too cynical; they're too embedded. They have diplomats who are too used to hobnobbing with sheiks and rulers of Saudi Arabia, and so on, to even imagine that something dramatically different is possible.
But there is no tradition of democracy ...
That is true, that is true. That is why you need imagination and you need a deep inner conviction that people, just because they are Muslims and Arabs, are not somehow obstructed from bringing about democratic societies. You need to be very firm, as people like Paul Wolfowitz are. As Arabs and Muslims, you need to believe in your heart of hearts that fundamentally it's both important and necessary to break the stereotype that just because somebody's Muslim or an Arab there is somehow an antithetical relationship to democratic values and culture, that somehow the religion or the culture is against that.
You make it sound like a form of racism.
That's how I would feel. It's certainly how I felt with many officials that I had to deal with in the U.S. government. By the way, it's even worse in Europe. It's condescension, and they treat you in the most condescending possible ways.
There are those especially among the conservative supporters of the war, who criticize the State Department for believing that somehow Arabs weren't quite up to democracy.
I never heard that point of view stated at the State Department.
But you've heard that criticism.
I've heard lots of criticisms. I would just simply say that I think Arabs can handle democracy. Indeed, I've given speeches about how Arabs and Muslims can handle democracy, and there's examples in the Muslim world where they handle democracy just fine, thank you very much. I think that we as outsiders have to go about promoting this reform in a fairly careful way. To observe the Hippocratic oath of first doing no harm. So I think we ought to do it smart. We can't jam it down people's throats, we can't do it overnight, we can't insist on any one model, or any one form of it.
But do I think the Arab world can be much more open? For sure. Do I think Iraq can be a far more open, quasi-democratic place? For sure. If that happens, will it help? Yes. I think to the extent Iraq is seen in the Arab world as a success, to the extent it's seen as a place that is largely democratic, I think it'll reinforce those trends. ...
So you've mentioned that there was a larger argument, or another argument being made for why this war should be fought. What was that?
If you talk to the neo-conservatives, and the argument I like the best is the one that's been put forward by Max Boot in an article that he wrote, that the United States should not shy away from a jodhpurs and pith helmet imperial policy. So it is essentially illiberal imperialism. It's the idea that we can go in, and by virtue of our moral might and our moral right, we can reshape the Middle East so that it will in fact be flourishing pro-Western, pro-Israeli democracies. …
And while the Arab world may in fact have been on a long-term losing streak, that doesn't necessarily give us the right to send Jessica Lynch off to square things through military action. The [bombing] of Baghdad, the killing of Iraqi civilians, the occupation of Iraq, is not necessarily the best way to ensure that you have a democracy that sprouts out of the ruins.
In fact, I think that there are many, many examples where we have seen that out of the ruins of failed regimes come things other than democracy. In order for us to really effect the democratic reform that we want to effect, we're going to have to be there for a long time. It's going to cost us a lot of money, and we run the risk of being seen, as we are being seen right now, as occupiers as opposed to liberators. ...
There was ample opportunity to help forces of freedom in Iraq. We had had the sanctions regime in place for 12 years, which, as we found out, had enfeebled the regime enormously. We were providing aid and succor to the Kurdish movement, to the tune of providing their defense umbrella that enabled them to be essentially autonomous for the past 12 years. There were all sorts of other steps that we could take, short of putting 150,000 troops in downtown Baghdad.
But why isn't this policy of transformation of the Middle East through establishment of a democracy a good idea?
It's not a bad idea to want to transform the Middle East into flourishing democracies. The question really is, how confident are you that you can do it at the point of a gun? Those of us who have done democracy for a long time will argue that democracy, in the best of circumstances, is difficult. It is made all the more difficult when the democratizing power is also seen to be an occupying power that doesn't necessarily have in mind the best for the citizens of the country that it's attempting to democratize.
Does it mean that we shouldn't try?
No, it doesn't mean that we shouldn't try. It does mean that the use of our military forces ought to be judicious at best, and ought to be reserved essentially to defending the United States. That's what we have our U.S. military for. We have all sorts of other services, including diplomacy, including tradecraft, and sort of commercial relations, including economic and other sorts of political tools in our belt to assist democratizing forces in the Middle East -- and elsewhere, for that matter. …
The use of military force is a very blunt instrument, and it always yields enormous unintended consequences. In the case of the Middle East, what I fear most is that the fear or really the resentment and the jealousy and the envy of American power and American relations with the region will now become a real loathing for the United States. That will manifest itself in relations and attitudes towards Americans for the foreseeable future. …
The administration would say we dallied around long enough, and that if you're going to have a credible threat of force, you have to use it once in a while.
But you know, you lose credibility as soon as you begin to use that force. Now, I agree that you needed to have that credible threat of force. I agree that there would be a time that you might have to use it. But the credible threat of force and the use of that force should have been clearly directed at the national security objectives that we had established. That national security objective was not redrawing the political map of the Middle East. It was terrorism, and it was weapons of mass destruction.
I don't know. Maybe it was redrawing the map of the Middle East, and maybe it was oil, and, you know, "reverse dominoes."
If it was oil, or even if it was redrawing of the political map of the Middle East, we did not have that debate. That was not put forward to the U.S. Congress when the president asked for the blank check in October to do what he had to do. …
There is no more solemn decision that a society can make than sending its soldiers off to die and to kill for our country. It is the one time where you really have to get it right. People's lives, Americans' lives and foreigners' lives depend on your getting that decision right. It is worthy of having the facts, the best facts available upon which to make that decision. It is not worthy of a great democracy such as ours to go off and fight the right war for the wrong reasons. It is only worthy for the United States to fight the right war for the right reasons.
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posted october 9, 2003
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