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Podhoretz v. Codevilla: how to win the war on terror

I haven’t blogged much this summer because I’ve been busy with academic deadlines; apologies in advance if I make it all up in one posting.

This presidential campaign has taken some strange turns -- who’d have thunk we’d need to know about the design of 1970s-vintage typewriters to decide how to vote -- but when it’s all said and done the most important issue in the election is how well the Bush Administration is prosecuting the war on terror. From that perspective, I think the most useful document to read before the election is an article to which Peter directed everyone’s attention a few weeks ago -- this article by Norman Podhoretz. Podhoretz’s article, though long, is probably the best justification of and apology for the Bush approach available in article-length form.

As of now, it doesn’t seem as if the Democrats are going to propose a serious response to the "Bush doctrine." So, I want to ask here whether the Bush doctrine can be outflanked on the right. In my judgment, the most serious rival has been set forth in a series of articles by Angelo Codevilla in the Claremont Review of Books -- particularly the first in the series, "Victory: What It Will Take to Win." Let me spell out some of the differences.

Podhoretz and Codevilla diagnose the same symptoms. Tyrants in the Arab world started using terror against the West as a standard tool of policy in the 1970s. The West didn’t respond for 3 decades, in part because it was focused on the Soviet Union, and in part because foreign-policy elites in Western countries are ideologically blinded to the fact that Islamicists really do hate the West and want to kill Westerners. That said, Podhoretz & Codevilla differ about the cure. Podhoretz takes a more Wilsonian approach -- use the promise of liberal democracy as an ideological weapon to take the fight into the heart of Islamism. Codevilla takes a more Machiavellian approach -- the best way to win the war on terror is not to democratize, but rather to kill the tyrants and regimes that support anti-US terrorism and make it clear to their replacements that they will receive the same treatment if they resort to terror themselves.

I think it’s really worthwhile to read both articles and ask which is right. Too bad we’re not having a campaign in which the following questions are being asked: First, how much of America is opposed to prosecuting the war on terror vigorously? Podhoretz paints a really vivid picture showing that the radical left has mobilized against the Iraq war much faster than it mobilized against Vietnam. For Codevilla, though, the "left" --the segment of America that is unreliable -- is far broader. It includes CIA and State Department types and university talking heads who subscribe to Wilsonian internationalist commitments. Those commitments, Codevilla believes, virtually guarantee that the U.S. will bungle occupations like the Iraq occupation.

Second, how much is American warmaking tied down by domestic disagreements? Podhoretz seems to say that the Republicans must win in 2004 to guarantee that we will see Iraq through. Codevilla would probably say, however, that the Bush approach is bad military strategy. It is easy to maintain public support while fighting an army in battle, much harder to sustain support for an occupation. Better to follow a strategy that frees the military to hit and run -- to focus on tyrant killing and not nation building.

Finally, how much can the US do to create a liberal democracy in the Middle East by active intervention? Podhoretz thinks it likely enough to make the risks worth taking. Codevilla is more pessimistic. For instance, he wonders with what right and on what basis America would presume to remake Iraq as one single country. After all, the country is less than 80 years old. That’s as old as the US was as of the Civil War, and our differences then weren’t nearly as intractable as the Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites’ are now.

Discussions - 3 Comments

Admitting all the difficulties and risks involved in ’nation building’, the problem with having only ’hit and run’ in our toolbox is the risk that we would just leave new gang-dominated Chechnyas behind us, if not every time then much of the time.

Sooner or later we would find that we need to grapple with the challenge of nation building. It is to GWB’s credit that he has realized that the best thing for the US is to start on this now, and learn from experience, rather than try to put it off for another 10-20 years.

But nation-building and "democracy-building" can and should be distinguished from one and other. Trying to force our notions of republican government onto a people who are not able to accept it is foolish. While all men are entitled to freedom by virtue of their equality, not all men are able to exercise that freedom responsibly. It takes generations of proper thinking about human nature and the moral underpinnings of the law to shape a people who are able to govern themselves responsibly. Is it reasonable that America can do this in Iraq in a matter of years?

I only suggest that America’s focus should simply be on forming a government that will not seek to harm us and conforms to the customs of the people it is to rule over. In Iraq, I doubt that western-style democratic institutions are best suited to this purpose.

I think ZD’s framework of 10-20 years is more realistic than "generations." The successful models in Asia took about 40 years from strongman rule to mature democracy, and it seems reasonable that the Middle East could evolve a bit faster given greater globalization and the absence of the Soviet Union. Remember there were significant doubts too about whether democracy would ever work in an "Asian" culture.

What I worry about is the emphasis on "democratization" in the narrow sense of selecting leaders by votes. Contrasting post-colonial Africa with Asia, it seems that building non-corrupt institutions and developing rule of law are more important than voting in creating successful states.

I think it’s a fair point that successful nation-building in Iraq would take a lot longer than the next presidential term, no matter who is elected.

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