Democratization Efforts

"Coming to a Theatre Near You"

Former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill in his recent book “The Price of Loyalty” contends that the United States began laying the groundwork for an invasion of Iraq just days after President Bush took office in January 2001 – more than two years prior to the start of the US-led war that ousted Saddam Hussein.

O’Neill missed the mark… some thirty years.


The concepts that would later find their way into the Bush Doctrine were actually formulated in the mid-1970’s by a scholar who never held political office, but who came to influence those who, in time, did. If you ask most people on the Hill, they would tell you that Saddam Hussein was a marked man under the Clinton administration, and that would be true so far as it goes. Clinton (and his National Security Advisor Sandy Berger) saw Saddam Hussein as a predator and an aggressor; a man who achieved through brute force total dominance at home, and through force and the threat of force, dominance in his region. They saw him as harmful to stability and an impediment to positive change in the Middle East (although if they had a more ambitious plan beyond regime change in Iraq, it was never formulated as an actual “doctrine”). Clinton asked Congress to pass the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998. It was done because of numerous provocations from the Iraqi dictator that included the 1980 invasion of Iran; the 1988 relocation and murder of between 50,000 and 180,000 Kurdish civilians; the 1988 use of chemical weapons against another 5,000 Kurds; the 1990 invasion of Kuwait; the broken 1991 armistice agreements; the 1993 attempted assassination of former President George Bush in the Sudan; the 1994 posting of 80,000 troops near Kuwait, posing the threat of renewed invasion or attack; and the 1996 beginning of a trend to deny weapons inspectors access to facilities and documents as required by the United Nations.

But, as it happens, regime change in Iraq was already part of a much more elaborate strategy that had been incubating silently for a generation and surfaced only in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedies. The philosophical foundations of what came to be known as the Bush Doctrine really find their origins in the person of Bernard Lewis, professor emeritus at Princeton University and a world-renowned author and scholar on Islamic history and the Middle East.

Privy to kings, king makers and presidents, Lewis’s works would eventually come to influence a small but significant group of individuals who would later become the architects of a new American foreign policy – one that would call upon America to undertake a democratic crusade in the most unstable and volatile region in the world.

Lewis understood Islam, its history, its frustrations, its excuses, its humiliation at being superceded by Western progress and technology, and, most of all, he understood the region from which Islam sprang. In his many books, he wrote that regional stability in the Arab world could not be achieved by propping up Middle East dictators who ruled failed states and who used Islamic law or fascist repression (or both) as a means of controlling their citizenry. He wrote of casting aside such tyrannies and sowing the seeds for democratic change. For over a generation, he described the conflict between Western and Islamic culture as a “clash of civilizations” and emphasized the necessity of confronting and defeating regimes that supported terror. In a foreshadowing of the events of 9/11, he told American leaders (and soon-to-be-leaders) that anti-Americanism stemmed from the Arabs’ own inadequacies and wounded pride, and warned them that the perception of American weakness by the Arab Muslim world would be an invitation to disaster at home. He told them that it was safer for the enemies of democracy to fear and respect the West, than it was for the democracies of the world to try to convince the tyrants (through education) that the West was neither decadent nor godless. That, he said, would be a futile task. But most of all, he wrote of the dangers of appeasement and how nations that undertook such approaches would be consumed by those whom they sought to appease.

Lewis’s contribution to the Bush Doctrine came from those whom he influenced, and who would, over the years, assume the leadership of American foreign policy – the late Senators Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Elliott Abrams (National Security Council Middle East Advisor), Karl Rove (a major Bush political strategist), Frank Gaffney Jr. (a former Reagan aide), Dick Cheney (Vice President of the United States), Condolezza Rice (National Security Advisor), Paul Wolfowitz (Deputy Secretary of Defense), Harold Rhode (Islamic Affairs Advisor to Paul Wolfowitz), Fouad Ajami (Director of Middle East Studies, Johns Hopkins University) and most significantly, Richard Perle (Senator Jackson’s prot?g? and a former Assistant Secretary of Defense). Immediately after the 9/11 tragedies, Lewis addressed the US Defense Policy Board (then chaired by Richard Perle) and recommended a regime change in Iraq in order to avert even worse terrorist disasters in future.

But by then, Perle, a long time admirer of Lewis’s theories, had already formulated the groundwork for a much broader, almost messianic plan to democratize the Middle East.

As Chairman of the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies (a Jerusalem-based think tank with an affiliated office in Washington, D.C.) five years earlier (1996), Perle, together with Doug Feith (who would later become Undersecretary of Defense for Policy in the Bush administration), David Wurmser and others issued a Report titled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm.”

The Report was designed as a political policy blueprint for the incoming government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (1996-1999). It recommended that Netanyahu abandon the Oslo Accords (1993) and reject the idea of trading land for peace. Rather, it suggested that the Israeli government should insist on Arab recognition of “biblical Israel” and recommended that Israel should “focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq as a first step to democratizing the entire Arab Middle East and restoring peace to the region through a new balance of power.” Iraq was to become the focal point for a democratic Middle East crusade.

Netanyahu alone was unable to accomplish the task. However, with George W. Bush in the White House, the 9/11 tragedies opened the door for a sea change in how American would, henceforth, view the Islamic world. The “Securing the Realm” Report, a restatement and elaboration of Lewis’s central theme, became the blueprint for a new approach to American foreign policy in the Middle East.

The Report is fascinating when viewed from the perspective of how Washington think-tank reports (and the people who write them) drive American foreign policy. Consider this: The 1996 Report envisioned a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq – secular, middle-class, urbanized, rich with oil – a stable Iraq with a more representative government that would be willing to address the aspirations of the majority Shi’ite population in the south and those of the Kurds in the north. As democracies rarely make war upon one another, the theory was that a democratic Iraq would replace the autocracy of Saudi Arabia as the key American ally in the Persian Gulf, allowing the withdrawal of United States troops from the kingdom (which has now taken place). The presence of a democratic, functioning government in Iraq would serve as a powerful boost to moderate elements in neighboring Iran, hastening that country’s evolution away from the mullahs and toward a more moderate course. Such an evolution in Tehran, combined with a redistribution of regional power based on a new Jordanian, Israeli and Turkish alliance (which is taking place today) would lead to a withdrawal of Iranian support for Hezbollah and other radical groups, effectively isolating Syria and reducing pressure on Israel.

With Syria surrounded by Turkey, a democratic Iraq, Jordan (with its current strategic orientation), Israel, and a restive population in Lebanon, Syria’s support of terrorism would be expected to change very quickly. Undercutting Hezbollah on Israel’s northern borders and within the West Bank and Gaza would spell the definitive end of Yasser Arafat and lead eventually to a favorable resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In other words, according to the “Securing the Realm” Report, resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be the “end product” of the democratization of the Middle East and not the “starting point” as maintained by many in the State Department, the Arab world and the European Union.

The Plan carried with it echoes of the earlier Wilsonian philosophy of “making the world safe for democracy.” When Bush took over the White House, Richard Perle, Doug Feith, David Wurmser (together with Dick Cheney, Condolezza Rice, Elliott Abrams and others who firmly believed in the Lewis thesis of stabilizing the Arab world by democratizing it) became Bush’s new foreign policy architects. Following the tragedies (and shock) of 9/11, Bush officially declared his Doctrine to the world in a series of addresses to a joint session of Congress (September 20, 2001), the State of the Union address (January 29, 2002), his speech to the graduating class of the US Military Academy at West Point (June 1, 2002); and his remarks on the Middle East that he delivered three weeks later in the Rose Garden of the White House (June 24, 2002).

Collectively, these policies proclaimed an end to moral ambiguity (“you are either with us or with the terrorists”) and in so doing did away with any and all excuses, explanations and justifications for terror (including the concepts of “root causes” and “one man’s terrorist is another man freedom fighter”); defined terrorism as a free floating malignancy; held states accountable for the terrorists they sheltered, funded and sponsored; asserted a right of preemptive action (if necessary) to prevent rogue states from acquiring weapons of mass destruction (Condolezza Rice wrote in September, 2002: “if there is a rattlesnake in the yard, you don’t wait for it to strike before you take action in self-defense”); incorporated Israel’s war on terrorism into America’s war (seeing the Israeli-Palestinian dispute as ideological not territorial); and (above all) confirmed that promoting stability in the Arab Middle East through democratic change, economic reform and trade and security incentives (at best) or sanctions and regime change (at worst) were now to be fundamental principles of American foreign policy.

Although political and economic realities would prevent the blanket application of these principles in every case (as in North Korea), the Doctrine nevertheless represented a paradigm shift in America’s foreign policy posture. Unlike previous administrations, the Bush Doctrine spoke of “terrorists and enemy combatants” not “criminals and courtrooms.” Its architects proclaimed that acts of terrorism would no longer be considered separate from the ideology of the terrorists. In doing so, they saw a coordinated, ideological assault on American and Western values as opposed to a series of unrelated terrorist actions (as previous administrations had done). America, they argued, was now involved in a “clash of civilizations” with Islamic fundamentalism and there was no option other than its defeat. As a result, America would track down not just the foot soldiers of violence, but the financiers, planners, organizers and commanders who planned, funded and supported the terror campaigns. And wherever it was discovered that a state sponsored terrorism, America would put such states on notice that there would be a terrible reckoning. If it was true that perceptions of weakness had led to the 9/11 tragedies, there would be no further confusion on the part of America’s enemies.

For an America unaccustomed to such an aggressive foreign policy as the Bush Doctrine, it shook the establishment to its core. In the past, Washington’s view was that, as long as it pumped oil, the United States had little interest in trying to change the region’s ways. Now America was betting its security on its ability to overhaul Arab political culture. It was condemned by the liberal Left as being reckless and economically unfeasible and praised by the conservative Right as being critical to the survival of Western civilization. Conservative strategists added that, with the except of World War II and the Cold War, preemptive action in defense of American security (as opposed to a multilateralist approach) had historical precedent dating back to August 24, 1814 when the White House was burned by the British and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams enunciated a national security policy that depended on preemption, unilateralism and hegemony – a policy that held sway until the rise of Nazism and Japanese militarism.

The Bush Doctrine would now reactivate that policy. George W. Bush announced to the world that he intended to return to that strategy and to drain the swamp from which terrorism sprang. He announced to the despots, dictators and tyrants of the Middle East that democracy and reform would be coming to a theater near them and that they had better be ready for the show.

In the end, history will judge who was right.

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