Democracy or Stability in Postwar Iraq?

It has been a fundamental American premise to define war in Clausewitzian terms and to accept  Clausewitz’s Prussian dictum that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” War, in other words, is conducted to achieve political goals that cannot be attained in other ways, and the success or failure of a war effort is measured by whether those obejectives are achieved or not. Military success or failure may contribute to realizing the political objective, but they are not a substitute for political success. The real measure of success is what the target country looks like after the war and whether that condition resembles the reasons for going to war in the first place.

In that light, how is the United States doing in Iraq? Given the American military tradition, it is an unremarkable question, but it is not one often asked about Iraq. Instead, such discussions focus on the purely military dimension: is the surge succeeding, for instance? The answer to these questions tend to be framed in battlefield terms: the absence or reduction in casualties, and especially American deaths in measuring the surge.

But that is the wrong answer. The right answer is framed in terms of whether the United States is getting closer to achieving the postwar Iraq it wanted when fighting began. The neoconservatives said they wanted a democratic Iraq that would be a regional beacon and begin the stabilization of the region (and, not coincidentally, make the environment less hostile for Israel). No one talks about that goal much lately, because what democracy there is in Iraq turns out to be a lot more fractious than originally conceived. Now, the talk is about stabilizing the country, hopefully allowing democracy to take hold.

What if democracy and stability in Iraq is an either/or proposition: you can have one or the other, but not both? Given the divided nature of Iraqi society, this kind of dichotomy is not really unlikely. For instance, place the alternatives in terms of criteria for the war from an August 20, 2007 John McCain speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention and features in the Iraq section of his home page. “To concede defeat would srengthen al Qaeda, empower Iran and other hostile powers in the Middle East, unleash a large scale civil war in Iraq that could quite possible provoke genocide there, and destabilize the entire region as neighboring states come to the aid of their favored factions.” It should be pointed out that none of these conditions were problems before the U.S. invaded and conquered Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was not democratic, but neither was it unstable. At the same time, is it clear that a democratic outcome in Iraq would solve these problems? A new Iraqi dictatorship might serve the goal of pfreventing these destabilizing outcomes better than a democratic outcome. If so, which do you prefer, Senator McCain?

McCain does not seem interested in what Sir Basil Liddel-Hart called the “better state of the peace” after the war than in describing the consequences of leaving before our conituing military presence contributes to “a  measure of stability in the region” (from a speech to the California GOP convention on September 8, 2007). Rather, “our defeat in Iraq would constitute a defeat in the war against terrorism and extremism and would make the world a much more dangerous place” (speech at Virginia Military Institute (April 11, 2007).

Is avoiding a negative consequence the political objective in Iraq? If it is, it certainly is not a very lofty goal, or one that inspires one to sacrifice in its name. While McCain does suggest that “there must be a political agreement that allows all groups to participate in the building of their nation” in the VMI speech, he does not relate that to the military outcome in any direct way.

I cannot believe that John McCain did not have to read Clausewitz when he was at Annapolis, so he must know the Clausewitzian dictum and its entreaty. Why does he not relate the war to its objectives? Could it be that he realizes that democracy and stability are indeed mutually exclusive outcomes, that stability attached to a less than democratic Iraq is about the best that can be hoped for, and that he does not want the American public to realize this? Meanwhile, the Prussian strategist spins in his grave. 


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