No more crusades in the Middle East

DIMITRI K. SIMES is publisher of the National Interest magazine.

JUST 10 DAYS after Iraq’s government managed to transform Saddam Hussein’s execution from an act of justice into a sectarian revenge killing, the Bush administration is planning a troop “surge” to try to help a leadership that is simultaneously too brutal and too wimpy to bring stability and democracy to Iraq.

But sending more brigades to pursue the same crusade is unlikely to bring success -- at least not on an American political timetable. The problem is not just the incompetent management of the war’s aftermath. The problem is that the crusade to reshape the Middle East that led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq precludes anything that could be legitimately called victory.

The debacle that is Iraq reaffirms the lesson that there is no such thing as a good crusade. This was true a thousand years ago when European Christian knights tried to impose their faith and way of life on the Holy Land, pillaging the region in the process, and it is equally true today. Divine missions and sensible foreign policy just don’t mix.

For President Bush and his neoconservative supporters, the invasion of Iraq was from the outset about much more than dismantling (as we now know nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction, cutting Hussein’s (also nonexistent) ties to Al Qaeda and removing a murderous and unpredictable dictator from power. They also sought to depose an Iraqi regime hostile to the United States and Israel -- and to demonstrate to Arabs and others in the greater Middle East who was the real master of the region.


The dismantlement of the Iraqi army and government machinery, now conveniently blamed on L. Paul Bremer III, was a logical outcome of the crusading mind-set. Bush wanted an Iraqi government to catalyze his transformational plan for the region. That is why less radical approaches than “remaking” Iraq were contemptuously dismissed.

Instead, group-think buttressed the shaky propositions that democracy could easily take root, that a democratic Iraq could move to recognize Israel and continue to contain Iran, that a small force could get the job done. That Iraq’s neighbors -- which in 2003 were often and quite publicly warned that they were next in line for forcible regime change -- would accept American-style stabilization of Iraq defies belief.

Yet faith is once again demanded of the American people. Just as the Crusaders a millennium ago blamed their defeats in the Middle East on a lack of faith, we are told today that it is the realists -- those heretics with an insufficient faith in the ability of American values and power to rapidly transform the world -- who are poised to sabotage the entire project for spreading freedom throughout the region, that the realists and their false gods of stability and national interest will seduce Americans away from their true calling of spreading liberty throughout the world, even at the barrel of a gun.

The truth is that no surge and no amount of faith can rescue this crusade from failure. The alternative is not to “cut and run” or to withdraw troops but rather to seek a difficult solution that is the only plausible one: reshape U.S. policy in the Middle East to establish a manageable political context for the war. The Iraq Study Group was right on two counts: Sending more troops to Iraq and continuing to work with the current Iraqi government is a nonstarter. And Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran and Syria, need a stake in stabilizing Iraq and won’t help without U.S. assurances that they will not be next in line for regime change.


A new approach to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is also essential. The perception that the United States fully supports Israeli policies makes it more difficult for friendly neighbors of Iraq, such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, to provide much help. And we should accept that democracy in Iraq, to say nothing about a democratic Iraq as a role model for the region, might have to wait for better times.

Under current circumstances, the emergence of a tough but relatively benign leader who could establish law and order may not be the worst outcome. Of course, it is not appropriate for the United States to select a new strongman for Iraq. But many Iraqis are now tempted to put someone in charge who could quell the chaos. Washington might do well to ponder the limits of the U.S. responsibility to defend the corrupt and inept government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki -- a government heavily infiltrated by the very militias that the troop surge is supposed to destroy.

While not as murderous as Hussein, such a leader is unlikely to look like a knight in shining armor in the Bush administration’s pro-democracy crusade -- but he may just allow the United States to get out of the Iraqi quagmire without losing its prestige or leaving a sanctuary for Al Qaeda.