Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

A Long, Tough Road

Steven E. Meyer


February 2, 2007

In his State of the Union message last month, President Bush announced a deployment of more than 21,000 additional troops to Iraq, explaining that the "consequences of failure would be grievous and far-reaching."

At the beginning of the war in the spring of 2003, the administration anticipated that success in Iraq would mean the end to violence and ultimately the establishment of a functioning democracy with a free-market economy, leading ultimately to the spread of democracy throughout the Middle East. After four years of war, attaining those goals has gotten much more difficult than when the war was launched. And, additional troops aside, the administration has never offered a strategic plan to implement its goals. Any strategy would require three interrelated parts.

First, U.S. and Iraqi forces would have to put an end to both the Shiite-Sunni civil war and the externally driven terrorism. If the various Shiite and Sunni organizations could reconcile, there would be a chance that their religiously driven violence could be brought under control. But reconciliation depends on the financial and political incentives offered to the two sides and the ability of the Iraqi army to perform as a professional force, something it has thus far been unable to do. A broad spectrum of Shiite and Sunni organizations needs to be convinced that they have a stake in the system, but that, too, has not yet happened. As difficult as Shiite-Sunni reconciliation will be, stopping terrorism from outside will be even more difficult because it would almost certainly expand to fill any vacuum left by the internal reconciliation.

Second, a successful strategy must build the competence, scope, and depth of a democratic constitutional order that has not yet shown the ability to take root. The elections that have been held so far have been largely inconsequential because they have been held in the surreal world of denial and wishful thinking. The government in Baghdad controls almost nothing in Iraq because power, authority, and legitimacy—the three components of governance—lie with ethno-religious groups and external actors, including the United States. Moreover, new democracies often are fragile (witness the first 100 years of the American republic) and require time and nurturing to succeed. To accomplish this part of any strategy will be even more challenging than bringing violence under control. And the intent to replace the current weak, corrupt, crippled economy with a vibrant, functioning market economy at the same time as establishing a democratic system makes the job even more difficult.

Third, spreading democracy throughout the region is, arguably, the most difficult of the three parts of any strategy because, first, after nearly four years of failure, Washington is in an extremely weak position to push any major initiative in the region, and, second, conditions and circumstances vary so much throughout the region. Iran and Syria, Washington's most prominent antagonists, have been emboldened by American weakness and will not be easily intimidated. Turkey already is a democracy and Iran's electoral system, though flawed, has democratic attributes. Syria is clearly not a democracy, and Assad's authoritarian Baathist regime has become more deeply entrenched over the past four years. Pushing hard for democratic reform in Saudi Arabia and Jordan would undermine two governments that now are staunch U.S. allies. And finally, the Bush administration has backed away from earlier efforts to push democracy in Egypt.

The Herculean task the Bush administration set for itself in 2003 is now so far out of its grasp that it has no choice but to blame the Maliki government for its failures and leave the unenviable task of rescuing our position in the Middle East to the next administration.
—Steven E. Meyer, Professor of Political Science
    National Defense University
   (The views expressed here are those of the author alone.)


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”