Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 27, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

DEMOCRACY IN IRAQ....Dan Drezner with attaboys from Matt Yglesias and Von asks today, "Was the very idea of bringing democracy to Iraq ill-conceived, or did the problem lie in our implementation?" He thinks the idea itself is still sound and it was only our implementation that was faulty:

As I argued repeatedly last year, the social science evidence suggests that democracy was not an unreasonable goal in Iraq. A necessary condition underlying that argument was that there was sufficient security; as James Dobbins and his co-authors pointed out in their RAND study last year on democracy-building in postwar situations: "What principally distinguishes [successes from failures] are not their levels of Western culture, economic development, or cultural homogeneity. Rather, it is the level of effort the United States and the international community have put into their democratic transformations."

According to Dobbins's calculations for peacekeeping in multiethnic states, 450,000 troops were needed in Iraq--a number that was, and is, anathema to the Pentagon's civilian leadership. Our failure to deploy sufficient numbers of troops probably goes a long way towards explaining the current situation.

I am very sympathetic to this idea, but unfortunately my sympathies have run smack into reality over the past year, and I'm just not sure the facts back up Dan's optimism. There are two big problems with this view one practical and one systemic that I think Dan (and I) simply haven't taken seriously enough:

  • The practical problem is that we don't have 450,000 troops. I don't mean this in the trivial sense that Donald Rumsfeld decided not to use that many troops, I mean that we don't have them. If we used every single active combat division of the Army and Marines denuding our forces everywhere in the world to do it and then filled up every possible National Guard and reserve division, we might scrape up a bit more than 500,000 troops. Furthermore, if the war had stronger support around the globe, we might reasonably manage to attract another 100,000 multinational troops. That's a total of 600,000 troops, and since we have to rotate them annually that means we could put a maximum of 300,000 troops in Iraq on a continuing basis.

    But that's it. Unless we're willing to make a World War II style commitment to doubling or tripling the size of the Army, we flatly can't provide 450,000 troops in Iraq (or anywhere else) over a period of several years. So even if our planning and implementation had been flawless, it still would have been a very dicey operation unless we were willing to treat it as a national emergency, reinstate the draft, and commit to building a 20 or 30-division Army.

  • The systemic problem might be even worse. Even if we had a 30-division Army, western public opinion requires us to portray our invasion of Iraq as a "liberation," which in turn means that our occupation has to be undertaken with a light hand. As I wrote previously regarding the siege of Fallujah, "In a war of liberation, you are expected to liberate. You are emphatically not expected to raze entire cities at the cost of thousands of civilian lives." The problem is fundamental:

    In a war like the one we're in, the tactics of conquest are the only ones that will work, but conquest itself is both unacceptable to us and conterproductive to our long-term goal of engaging moderate Muslims a goal accepted by both liberals and conservatives alike as key to long term victory.

    This is the paradox we are faced with in Iraq: as a Christian superpower occupying a Muslim country, there is inevitably going to be a substantial chunk of the population that views us as religious invaders and is willing to fight to the death to make us leave. Against such a force, the only tactics that will provide the level of security needed to make democracy possible are so brutal that they will turn the Iraqis against us and eventually force us out thus bringing an end to our experiment in forced democratization.

The conditions surrounding postwar Germany and Japan they were the losers of a long, all-out war; they had strong, advanced economies; and there was no serious postwar ethnic tension in either country make them useless as analogies to Iraq. And Dan's other examples of "successful" democratization via military occupation, namely the tiny regions of Bosnia and Kosovo, are hanging on by a thread despite lots of troops, lots of international support, and proximity to liberal democratic Europe.

I've come to this conclusion reluctantly too reluctantly, perhaps but I suspect that "adequate security," which everyone agrees is essential to democratization, is simply not possible for us to attain in Iraq for both practical and systemic reasons. It might be possible if we were willing to conduct a mass mobilization of American troops, but that's not in the cards and everyone knows it.

So if security is impossible, and democratization via military occupation depends on security, it means

Well, it means that democratization via military occupation is impossible in Iraq. I'd like to be talked out of this gloomy view, but it's going to take some mighty good arguments. Any takers?

Kevin Drum 2:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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