Friday, February 20, 2004

Middle East musings

Over at Peking Duck, there's a post about James Webb (former Secretary of the Navy under Reagan, according to Richard) blasting Bush's Middle East policy. Richard comments:

I don't necessarily agree with all that Webb says. But we know Bush is in deep trouble when those on the right blast him like this. How the landscape has changed in just a few short months.

My own thoughts on this (which I also pooped out in Richard's comments section):

Once we move beyond the complaints about what should have been done, the question remains: can we afford to pull out now or anytime soon?

I was against the war, but my answer to the above question is no. We have to stay this course. I'm still on the fence about whether the attack was "sound strategy." Given that Libya is showing signs of capitulation and Syria is talking to Israel again and Iran's authorities are sweating, I'd have to agree that there have been, from the US point of view, undeniably positive effects related to national self-interest.

This has to be balanced, though, with the questions that put me against the war to begin with: given the ancient and complex nature of the Middle East's conflicts (and factoring in the ME's interaction with Western powers during the 20th century), do we really think we can impose some sort of "solution" on it?

Our brightest hope in Iraq and the surrounding region is also the most tenuous: it's the attempt to nation-build, to establish democracy while also introducing stability. I'm not entirely convinced that people in the ME are ready for what we're trying to do, and if that sounds like a negative judgement of "primitive" culture, I'm afraid that's what it is. Beneath even the question of Islam is the issue of Arab (and Persian, etc.) tribalism. Cultural solutions that don't take this into account are bound to fail-- and further, as long as Islam, on the whole, preaches antisecularism in its public rhetoric (we can grant that many Muslims are perfectly secular in their private lives), this too will mean problems for a nation-building agenda.

When nation-building advocates bring up Germany, Japan, and South Korea as shining examples of what nation-building can do, I dismiss this as a disanalogy: from where I sit in Seoul, it's plainly obvious that Korea's heart remains unreconstructedly Korean, despite all the trappings of Western civilization. I suspect the same is true of Japan and the Japanese. Nation-building in Europe was successful because we were dealing with a culture similar to our own; the jury's still out on whether it works-- really works-- elsewhere.

[NB: I don't deny that democracy & other effects of nation-building have produced amazing results in South Korea, but when you consider that there's a debate going on about whether SK is still a true US ally, then you have to wonder whether nation-building did anything at the values-level. The same could obviously be said of France, whose position as ally is also being debated, and whose society is also democratic.]

So this leaves me in a bind. We're in Iraq, and the brute fact facing us is that we can't abandon the project without allowing the situation to dissolve into chaos. In the meantime, our management of the situation hasn't been adept, though I'm not willing to concede that it's been totally incompetent. I'm not sure that a President John Kerry would make things any better; he seems willing to give away the store to the UN, which as a body hasn't proven itself any more competent than we've been.

We're not faced with pretty choices this election year, which is why I'll probably be writing in Daffy Duck for president... though if John Edwards ended up the front runner (as he might), I might actually vote for him, since he'd be a defense hawk and would likely preach fiscal probity. Kerry doesn't seem serious about what's going on, and he's way too much of a waffler.

UPDATE: Richard's comments section contains his thoughtful reply and some other comments as well. Richard feels my fears about Kerry are "exaggerated," but I don't think so. I have a feeling that Kerry would be another in a long line of Democratic foreign policy wusses. And Kerry's record up to now is positively embarrassing-- a long line of inconsistencies. Perhaps he's doomed to repeat his personal history whenever there's a large-scale conflict: start off for it, then turn vociferously against it. Maybe I should dig up some links to some of the more egregious flip-flop material, all generated by Kerry himself, but recorded by his faithful detractors. Granted, none of this means that Kerry's the only one with inconsistencies, but it really does seem like 9/11 didn't impinge enough on his consciousness. Dean may have dropped out, but with Kerry, our choices remain as I described them: a foreign policy president versus an economy president. By the way, both of these issues are too large for one to be labeled a "single-issue voter." To vote for a president who's strong on foreign policy doesn't make one a single-issue voter because, let's face it, foreign policy is a huge and complex thing, involving many issues and many dimensions. The same is true of economics. Maybe it'd be better to call oneself a "single-supercategory" voter, but that sibiliant-alliterative neologism merely brings visions of Mary Poppins to mind.


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