If President Bush sounded as though he was of two minds when talking about Iraq last week, that’s because his administration is also of two minds—or three—about our aims there.
The president was trying, yet again, to finesse the well-known divisions within his administration between those content to disarm Saddam Hussein, those who seek his overthrow, and those who want to remake the entire Middle East, beginning in Baghdad. Should we go to war, whom the president sides with in this debate will determine how we fight and, especially, what we will do in a post-Saddam Iraq.
The debate between proponents of disarmament and regime change accounts for President Bush’s seemingly contradictory messages last Monday. On the one hand, Bush insisted on regime change “because for 11 years Saddam Hussein has ignored the United Nations and the free world.” On the other hand, Bush added that, “If he were to meet all the conditions of the United Nations . . . that in itself would signal the regime has changed.” Asked the next day to clarify whether or not the administration wanted to oust Hussein, Bush’s spokesman Ari Fleischer said, “The policy is regime change. Saddam Hussein is the heart of the regime.”
These different emphases reflect the first of the administration’s internal rifts. Secretary of State Colin Powell has argued that war is unnecessary if Baghdad disarms. In September, he told senators it was “unlikely that the president would use force if [Iraq] complied with the weapons of mass destruction conditions. . . . We all know that the major problem . . . the president is focused on and the danger to us and to the world are the weapons of mass destruction.”
Others in the administration disagree. Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld have said repeatedly that disarmament is impossible as long as Saddam remains in power. Cheney warned in August that a “return of inspectors would provide no assurance whatsoever of his compliance with U.N. resolutions. On the contrary, there is a great danger that it would provide false comfort that Saddam was somehow back in his box.”
Thus far, President Bush has avoided publicly choosing among his advisers. He may never need to. If Iraq rejects tough U.N. weapons inspections, all of Bush’s advisers will counsel war and, with it, regime change.
But if Bush succeeds in sidestepping this choice, he will immediately face the second—and lesser known—rift over what precisely regime change means. Will it be enough to put in power someone new who can keep Iraq stable and guarantee disarmament, as some of his advisers argue? Or should the United States seek to remake Iraq—and ultimately the entire Middle East—by establishing democracy, as others insist?
The fault line on these questions will not run between State and Defense, between those urging diplomacy and those urging war. Rather, it will divide the war hawks themselves, pitting those best described as democratic imperialists against those who might be called assertive nationalists.
Democratic imperialists marry the realism of Bismarck with the moral sensibilities of Woodrow Wilson. They believe the United States should use its overwhelming military, economic and political might to remake the world in its image—and that doing so will serve the interests of other countries as well as the United States. As Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, perhaps the leading democratic imperialist in the administration, said some months ago, “If people are really liberated to run their countries the way they want to, we’ll have a world that will be very congenial for American interests.”
For democratic imperialists, Saddam’s ouster presents an unrivaled chance to bring democracy to the Middle East. As Robert Kagan and William Kristol of the Weekly Standard, leading voices of this group, have argued, “A devastating knockout blow against Saddam Hussein, followed by an American-sponsored effort to rebuild Iraq and put it on a path toward democratic governance, would have a seismic impact on the Arab world—for the better. The Arab world may take a long time coming to terms with the West, but that process will be hastened by the defeat of the leading anti-western Arab tyrant.” This is an exceedingly ambitious proposition and would require an extraordinary commitment of resources, which, to their credit, democratic imperialists fully accept.
It is precisely on this point that assertive nationalists, who include Cheney and Rumsfeld, disagree. Their main concern is to flex American military power to defeat threats to U.S. security. They may occasionally indulge in Wilsonian rhetoric for political expediency, but they have little interest in remaking the world in America’s image. Deeply skeptical of nation-building, and convinced that world politics will always be a Hobbesian affair, they see spreading democracy as being beyond America’s obligations and unlikely to work. As Rumsfeld told Congress, once Saddam is gone, Iraq’s future should be up to the Iraqi people. His meaning is: Whether Iraq meets Wilsonian standards of democracy is not something the United States ought to be particularly worried about.
So far, a shared desire to oust Saddam Hussein has enabled democratic imperialists and assertive nationalists to put aside their differences on what to do once he is gone. But should war come, their differing views could profoundly shape how the war is fought and how the United States goes about winning the peace.
For example, how large will the U.S. military commitment have to be? Assertive nationalists like Rumsfeld will want to limit the number of troops to the absolute minimum needed to overthrow Saddam. They favor greater reliance on local forces on the ground, with U.S. forces providing the iron fist primarily from the air and from afar. Democratic imperialists, in contrast, will want to bring a larger American force to bear, both to enable the United States to establish a presence throughout the country and to provide the occupation forces needed to begin the nation-building effort that will be needed once Saddam’s regime has fallen.
And what if, as White House spokesman Ari Fleischer intimated at one briefing, a single bullet were to fell Saddam? Should Washington then stop the war? Rumsfeld has said that it is enough simply to oust Saddam and “the small number of associates who obviously have been involved with his repression,” provided the new government disarmed and respected international borders. Such an outcome would hardly fulfill the ambitions of democratic imperialists who believe a thorough purge of Saddam loyalists—akin to the “de-Nazification” of Germany after World War II—is required for democracy to succeed in Iraq.
Once the war ends, assertive nationalists will want to follow the Afghanistan model and limit U.S. military involvement to immediate security tasks, such as tracking down and destroying weapons of mass destruction and ensuring minimal stability. Democratic imperialists will argue for a much more ambitious undertaking, similar in scale to the German and Japanese occupations after World War II. What this means, as Kagan acknowledges, is “nation-building on a grand scale, and with no exit strategy.” And it would require a commander like Gen. Douglas MacArthur, not a low-profile adviser like Zalmay Khalilzad, the president’s special envoy in Kabul.
President Bush’s Wilsonian rhetoric since Sept. 11 suggests an affinity for democratic imperialists. But he has long opposed using U.S. troops in the nation-building activities critical to realizing their vision. The most likely outcome will be a repeat of Afghanistan—stirring rhetoric about America’s commitment to creating a free and open society that is not matched by equivalent actions on the ground.
This time, however, a gap between words and deeds could be disastrous. Raising expectations that the United States will “create a balance of power that favors human freedom” and then failing to do so will feed the cynicism about American motives that pervades the Middle East and much of the world. Worse yet, leaving behind a new Iraqi leadership that provides stability but no justice will only further fuel the resentment and anger that have attracted so many young men to Osama bin Laden’s cause. Given these risks, the president would do well to decide on his aims for Iraq before the fighting begins.