- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 22, 2007

That at least three four-star generals, according to The Washington Post, have rejected a White House offer to assume the new post of “war czar,” to coordinate the Iraq and Afghan wars, is an extraordinary and unprecedented vote of no confidence. One of them, Marine Gen. Jack Sheehan, summarized, “The very fundamental issue is, they don’t know where the hell they’re going,” adding that Vice President Dick Cheney’s hawkish views still dominated over the pragmatists looking for a way out of Iraq.

Gen. Sheehan’s remark underscores the debilitating dispute between “hawks,” who were once convinced that democracy was achievable in Iraq and would now settle for stability, and “realists” who believe the expanding civil war between Sunni and Shia insurgents demands a decisive change of course. The gulf in perceptions of the challenge before us could not be greater, nor could it portend greater consequences for American credibility and security.

The gap originated with the neoconservative belief that “regime-change” meant the United States could eliminate Saddam’s mass weapons and replace his strong-man government with some form of democracy. Conditions on the ground have tempered this early idealism: Now the view is if democracy cannot be achieved, simple stability will do. Today, two elections, a constitution, and four declared strategies later, we see that having provided the structure for democratic governance, we can not establish the security needed for it to function — a point underscored by the bombing of the Iraqi legislature inside the “Green Zone” when 30 were wounded and three killed earlier this month.

That there remain within the administration very different ideas on what American goals should be is frustrating but not surprising. Similar dichotomies — between those committed to a military rather than negotiated solution — were found in the Johnson administration during Vietnam and in France during the Fifth Republic’s war in Algeria as these conflicts matured and gained domestic political traction. What is remarkable is the ahistorical quality of the Bush administration which, like the Bourbons, “remembered everything but learned nothing” from these conflicts.

One asks why planners ignored the dismal 600-year record of Western attempts to impose their governing templates on the Middle East. There is no example of the West successfully imposing a democracy on any Middle Eastern country. While Turkey’s reforms arose from within, Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan provide solemn proof of that — a point made over and again by, among others, Bernard Lewis, a leading historian, scholar of the region and administration adviser.

Nor does the historical record offer any comfort on the matter of insurgencies. Since World War II, with hardly any exceptions, insurgencies have succeeded against occupying democratic powers. This is the case, without exception, in the television era when war was brought to family dinner tables. One asks why the administration believes this conflict will turn out differently.

The administration’s apparent belief that success (still undefined) can be achieved with better management or more troops not only fails to address its flawed assumptions regarding America’s capacity for changing the Middle East but the reality on the ground today. Despite the sea of “purple fingers” voting bravely for a better future, the vast majority of Iraqis, enveloped by spiraling chaos and life-threatening shortages, have lost confidence in the democratic promise and now reject the U.S. presence. Even if we were to better coordinate aid and community development programs with our military operations as the Bush proposal envisions, it defies logic to persist in the present effort, given the expanding sectarian violence and the security implications of an overstretched military, and the daily damage to American credibility — even among our allies. It also renders us unable to respond to security challenges in other parts of the world.

The cultural institutions that precondition democracy are not present in Iraq — and, as that nation was untouched by the Enlightenment, never have been. Yes, Western civilization was born in the Mesopotamian Valley, and the wheel and the week as a unit of time were invented there. But Iraq today is a cobbled-together nation created by British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and French Premier Georges Clemenceau in 1920, scrambling around the floor drawing boundaries with crayons: There was not then and isn’t now any coherent notion of Iraq as a nation.

Needed concepts like the “loyal opposition,” and “federalism,” and confidence in an independent police and interior ministry — are absent in Iraq’s tribal society which lacks even an Arabic word for democracy.

One asks why, as war was considered from summer 2002 until hostilities began in March 2003, those who had knowledge of the region — the academics, think tanks such as the Council of Foreign Relations, the major newspapers and the Congress — remained silent. In that “golden hour” when a full, public debate might have challenged the administration rationale for war, we heard little from the experts or from institutions we look to guidance and who should have forced the policy debate.

Today, though Messrs. Bush and Cheney have sketched the future in fear if U.S. efforts fail, a skeptical public sees the war differently.

Three four-star generals have made an unambiguous statement on the military prospects, and many others have expressed alarm at the military’s overextension and America’s now limited ability to respond to global security challenges. It is now up to Congress to confront Mr. Cheney’s democratic fantasy, accept the fact that stability is unachievable, limit our loss of young men, women and resources, and end the administration’s misadventure.

Stefan Halper, a former White House and State Department official, now teaches at Cambridge University in England. He is co-author of the recently published, “Silence of the Rational Center: Why American Foreign Policy Is Failing”(Basic Books).

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