Thursday, January 10, 2013

A Neoconservative Laments Trying To Create A Democracy In Iraq And Transform The Middle East

In recent years, several supporters of the war in Iraq have changed their tune. One is neoconservative John Agresto. In 2003, he put his words into action when he went to work for the Pentagon as the senior adviser to Iraq’s Higher Education Ministry. He would then go on to help found the American University of Iraq in Kurdistan. In 2007, he wrote Mugged By Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions where he aired some of his misgivings about how the United States handled Iraq. Then in December 2012, he authored an article for Commentary magazine, “Was Promoting Democracy a Mistake?” It dealt with democratization as a philosophical matter, not the nuts and bolts of what the Bush administration did right or wrong in Iraq. Agresto came to the conclusion that Muslim culture is a major impediment to the creation of free and democratic societies not only in Iraq, but the Middle East in general. This is an argument that has been made before, and overlooks the changes that have happened in democratic theory over the last several decades. That means while Iraq may look grim today, it still has many possibilities for its future.

The neoconservative movement in the United States started in the 1930s as a rejection of leftist thought. Then, a group of socialist and communist intellectuals became disillusioned with those ideologies, because of Joseph Stalin’s brutal dictatorship in the Soviet Union. They took a turn to the right as a result, and supported World War II as a struggle against fascism and the Cold War as a fight against communism. Eventually, they forged a platform for U.S. foreign policy that opposed the two major belief systems prevalent in the country, realism and idealism. The former believes that countries should follow their national interests, while the latter holds that international bodies like the United Nations and international law can help bring about a sense of order in the world. Neoconservatives came to promote four major ideas as alternatives. One was that the internal politics of countries matter, because they can determine their actions on the international scene. Two was the need to promote America’s morals, namely democracy and human rights around the world, because those beliefs make wars less likely. Three neoconservatives distrusted international law and organizations to solve anything. Four they believed that social engineering in other countries does not work. These beliefs were synthesized into a 1996 Foreign Affairs article “Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy” and a 2000 book Present Dangers both by William Kristol and Robert Kagan. Those two authors called for “benevolent hegemony” where America would promote democracy around the world and deter its opponents through overwhelming military force. By the 1990s, many neoconservatives also shared a belief that Iraq was a country that needed to be dealt with. While there are many that have argued that neoconservatives were the main reason why the United States invaded in 2003, that role has been overblown. There were plenty of members of the Bush administration, namely the president himself that were not neoconservatives, but were equally troubled by Saddam Hussein. Still, many in the White House came to believe in the neoconservative belief that the U.S. could create a democracy in Iraq, and that could help transform the entire Middle East.

John Agresto came from that school of thought. He believed that freedom and democracy were natural rights, and that democratic nations were less likely to wage war. Out of these beliefs, flowed the idea that establishing a democracy in Iraq would therefore be relatively easy, because Iraqis would want freedom more than most after years of brutal dictatorship, and that would help change the whole Middle East. Iraq did take steps towards becoming a democratic society with three elections in 2005, and a new constitution that same year. The problem for Agresto was that Iraq has not developed into the peaceful and free society that democracy is supposed to foster since then.

Agresto tried to explain this anomaly by arguing that not all democracies are alike. Some are good and some are bad. He used the examples of the American versus the French Revolutions. One led to a peaceful transition once the British were thrown out, while the other led to bloody purges and executions once the French monarchy was deposed. Agresto wrote that Americans overlook these differences through ahistorical thinking. They tend to believe that the world works and acts like the United States. It ignores messy affairs like the French Revolution, and universalizes the American experience. As a result, the U.S. often fails to understand how hard it is to create a democracy in another country, which was what Agresto and others were guilty of with regards to Iraq.

Agresto then looked at the example of the Middle East, which he argued was not open to democratic principles due to its culture. There, some people wanted to be religious rather than free. Some wanted safety rather than freedom. Some wanted strong leadership rather than liberty. The issue of freedom is not just about the individual, but whether they also believe in freedom for others as well. In the Middle East, women, secularists, and Christians are discriminated against, which to Agresto meant they did not believe in minority rights. He postulated that while everyone deserves freedom that doesn’t mean everyone wants it. To him, that was especially true in the Middle East, and places like Iraq. In that part of the world, elections could bring about governments that oppressed others. Countries going through transitions like Iraq, and those that went through the Arab Spring also have deep fissures between the old regime, the military, secularists, liberals, and religious and tribal groups. The competition between them could bring instability and repression, and even give rise to the return of autocrats.

There were three major problems with Agresto’s article. First, neoconservatives like him ignored part of their own ideology when advocating the transformation of Iraq. Francis Fukuyama, a former neoconservative himself, pointed out that while neoconservatives want to promote democracy in other countries, that ran counter to their beliefs that social engineering does not work. Neoconservatives don’t seem to understand that problem. They think freedom and democracy are universal wants, therefore all that needs to be done is for the U.S. to throw off the yoke of oppression, and people would naturally move towards a democratic system. Agresto at least figured out that making a democracy actually takes a lot of time and work, and was not easy like he originally thought. Second, Agresto’s belief that Muslim culture runs counter to democratic ideas was ironically an argument made by some for why the United States should have invaded Iraq in the first place. Middle East scholars such as Bernard Lewis of Princeton and Fouad Ajami of John Hopkins hypothesized that the Arab world was a backward one full of dictatorships, repression, and extremists. The U.S. therefore needed to step in to drag that part of the world into the modern era, and that could be achieved by deposing Saddam Hussein. What people see as the problems with Arab culture therefore can be used in many different ways, not just to say that the area is stagnant politically, and is thus immune to change. Finally, Agresto has not kept up with theories about democracy. It was not that long ago that political scientists thought that only countries that were like the United States or Western Europe with large middle classes, market economies, etc. could become democracies. There used to be those that argued that culture and religion like in Catholic countries with their reverence for the hierarchical church were not open to democratic ways. That all changed in the 1980s-1990s when large swaths of the globe became democracies. Agresto wrote that the Middle East could change, but through his writing basically said that the door was closed. If Catholic nations, African countries, and others could transform their systems, and become democracies, why couldn’t the Arab world? Agresto, overlooked part of his own ideology, the arguments of his fellow war supporters, and how the world and democratic theory has changed over the last few decades.

Iraq is a deeply divided country that still suffers from violence. It has been called a semi-democracy where it has regular elections, political parties, and a variety of media outlets, but at the same time has weak rule of law, corruption, and ignores human rights. Agresto looked at that nation, and decided that the attempt to build a free and liberal society there was mistaken, and that it was the Muslim culture of the region that was the culprit. The future of Iraq has not yet been determined however. Its society can struggle for years before its new ruling elite decides which direction it ultimately wants to go. They could eventually come to some grand compromises that will open the door to further participation and greater democratization. They could also decide to turn towards autocracy if they believe that is what’s necessary to overcome all the country’s problems. The point is there are still many paths Iraq can follow. Ultimately, it will be Iraqis who make that history, not Americans who believe that things did not go their way and want to write off the country and region as a result.


Agresto, John, “Was Promoting Democracy a Mistake?” Commentary, December 2012

Diamond, Larry, Squandered Victory, The American Occupation And The Bungled Effort To Bring Democracy To Iraq, New York: Times Books, 2005

Fukuyama, Francis, America at the Crossroads, Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy, Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 2006

Packer, George, The Assassin’s Gate, American in Iraq; New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005

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