Dagger in hand

A man of prodigious fortune, coming to add his opinion to some light discussion that was going on casually at his table, began precisely thus: "It can only be a liar or an ignoramus who will say otherwise than," and so on. Pursue that philosophical point, dagger in hand.

--Michel de Montaigne, Of the art of discussion.

Stab back: cmnewman99-at-yahoo.com


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Friday, March 07, 2003
Was I the only one who thought this question a little strange the other night?

Q Thank you, sir. Mr. President, millions of Americans can recall a time when leaders from both parties set this country on a mission of regime change in Vietnam. Fifty thousand Americans died. The regime is still there in Hanoi, and it hasn't harmed or threatened a single American in the 30 years since the war ended. What can you say tonight, sir, to the sons and the daughters of the Americans who served in Vietnam to assure them that you will not lead this country down a similar path in Iraq?

We went into Vietnam to effect regime change in Hanoi? Really? I always thought we were in there trying to prop up a regime in the South that Hanoi wanted to change. And that one of the main reasons the war was unwinnable was precisely that going for actual regime change in Hanoi was off the table politically. Nor, I think, was there ever any claim at the time that if Hanoi won it would directly harm or threaten Americans. Not in the way the present administration fears Iraq will do. The concern in Vietnam was about dominos and world communism. So what was the point of this analogy again? I forgot. Maybe what he meant was that if we get stuck having to defend a new Iraqi government against some VC-like form of Islamic insurrection, it could wind up looking like Vietnam. Only without the jungle. And probably without anyone willing to play the role of Hanoi, after seeing what happened to the Taliban and Saddam. Which could still be ugly, don't get me wrong. But it has precious little to do with Vietnam.

But here's what does bother me. Bush said the Iraqi people will choose their own form of government, and whatever they choose will be better than Saddam. That's probably true; it's a pretty low bar. But will whatever they choose be enough to provide the paradigm-changing beacon in the Middle East that the neocons are counting on? Suppose, for example, that the new democratic Iraqi electorate elects some hardcore Islamists to power. It's not impossible, is it? I'm not even talking Taliban here; let's imagine people genuinely committed to abiding by the rules of democracy, but just with a serious Islamist policy agenda. Sort of like if some Pat Robertson-type got elected here. And suppose this new government complies with all the UN disarmament resolutions, but passes democratically some laws restricting the rights of women? Or decides to continue providing "humanitarian assistance" to Palestine in the form of subsidies to families of suicide bombers? What do we do then? Or suppose they decide to start building their own WMD? Remember, this is a brand new government that we have legitimized, and they have no ties to the history of Baathist aggression. So what right do we have to tell a new sovereign regime that hasn't hurt anyone yet that they can't build defensive nukes just like we can?

The thing is, any way you look at it we're going to be more than disinterested bystanders when the Iraqi people "choose their own government." We will have invested quite a lot in giving them the ability to do so, and not all outcomes of that process will make our investment worthwhile. But if we have too heavy a hand in the process, the result will be perceived not as a real representative Iraqi state, but just a U.S. puppet. Ironically, the only sure way to prove to the world (or that part of it even willing to entertain proof that we are not bent on world conquest) that the new Iraq is not a puppet state is for the new Iraq to have policies we clearly don't like.

So what is the bare minimum we do insist on? Clearly, there has to be some constitution providing for a democratic process and protecting freedom of political speech. We'll want something in there guaranteeing equal treatment of religious and racial groups. But beyond that? What if they go socialist? Do we let them? I think we have to, though it would diminish our great hopes to see a prosperous Arab country. If we want to live up to our word as liberators and not imperialists, we have to give them enough liberty to do some really dumb things, and have faith that the democratic process will correct them through experience.

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