Just Above Sunset
Volume 5, Number 10
March 11, 2007

Gross Amateurism

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

"Notes on how things seem from out here in Hollywood..."

Gross Amateurism

There's a reason one doesn't go to class reunions. Unless you've out-trumped Donald Trump or have your Oscar, the whole thing can quickly become and exercise in major defensiveness - it's a "king of the hill" thing, or maybe it's like dodgeball. You don't want to get hit with the humiliation ball. It stings. And when it comes your way you can choose to throw it hard at others, if you wish - or you can use the condescending pity ball, and hit Fred, being so sorry about his seventh divorce and the kid in jail and losing his job and all. It's America - we thrive on competition, and on lying about our successes.

Some of course, have no reason to be defensive. Those of us who knew Steve Holmes back in the late sixties at Denison University - a small liberal arts college in the middle of rural Ohio - knew Holmes would do just fine. Rail-thin and hyper-intellectual, he seemed somewhere else already. And now - more power to him - he's actually there.

On a lazy Sunday afternoon, just glancing at what Gregory Djerejian had to say at Belgravia Dispatch, Holmes popped up. Now Gregory Djerejian is based in New York City as Senior Vice-President and General Counsel of a financial services company, and helps manage a philanthropic organization which has supported a number of projects in Armenia, and before that was a corporate lawyer, and before that worked, in conjunction with the State Department, on the "train and equip" program for the Bosnian Federation military and with the International Rescue Committee in the former Yugoslavia from 1994-1996. And before that he had worked at our Mission to the United Nations and with Congress. To top it off, he's fluent in French and conversant in Spanish and Russian, and a member to the Council on Foreign Relations. He's a Holmes kind of guy. (He previously lived in the Belgravia district in London - where all the embassies are, as noted even in the Sherlock Holmes stories - so that explains the name of his site.)

We're not talking minor musings from the back end of Hollywood here. This is the land of the big boys.

Djerejian is impressed with Holmes - not Sherlock, but Stephen - given what Holmes recently published in the London Review of Books, a review of the new Francis Fukuyama book America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy (the UK title is After the Neocons: America at the Crossroads, Profile, not Yale University Press, and 12.99). The review is titled Neo-Con Futurology, and it provides an analysis of how these guys were just, basically, full of crap (not a term the big boys use).

The idea here is, that when you look at it, the neoconservatives were, and are, absolute amateurs at foreign policy, and dreadfully shallow and silly. Yes, many had that niggling suspicion, but who would or could say that? This was the "serious policy thinking" that would change everything after the attacks of September 11, 2001. We needed to approach things differently - all those dead people, you see - and this was certainly different.

Holmes carefully points out, in this extended excerpt (emphases added), that this was also nonsense -

    The neo-con argument goes roughly as follows. The US had to deploy its military might because American national security was (and is) threatened by the lack of democracy in the Arab Middle East. The premise behind this allegation is not the much debated notion that democracies seldom go to war with one another and, therefore, that democratisation makes an important contribution to the pacification of the globe. The neo-con argument is concerned not with relations among potentially warring states, but with class or group dynamics within a single state that may spill over and affect other countries adversely.

    The thesis is that democracy is the most effective antidote to the kind of Islamic radicalism that hit the US on 9/11. Its exponents begin with the premise that tyranny cannot tolerate the public expression of social resentment that its abuses naturally produce. To preserve its grip, tyranny must therefore crush even modest stirrings of opposition, repressing dissidents and critics, with unstinting ferocity if need be. In the age of globalisation, however, repressed rebellions do not simply die out. They splash uncontrollably across international borders and have violent repercussions abroad. Middle Eastern rebellions have been so savagely and effectively repressed that rebels have been driven to experiment with an indirect strategy to overthrow local tyrannies and seize power. They have traveled abroad and targeted those they see as the global sponsors of their local autocrats.

    On 9/11, this argument implies, the US woke up in the middle of someone else's savage civil war. The World Trade Center was destroyed by foreign insurgents whose original targets lay in the Middle East. The explosive energy behind the attack came from Saudi and Egyptian rebels unable to oust local autocrats and lashing out in anger at those autocrats' global protectors. Thus, the rationale for reaching 'inside states' is not the traditional need to replace hostile or un-cooperative rulers with more compliant successors (of the type Ahmed Chalabi was apparently slated to become), but rather to 'create political conditions that would prevent terrorism'. The political condition most likely to prevent anti-American terrorism from arising, so the neo-cons allege, is democracy.

    Their reasoning at this point becomes exasperatingly obscure and confused, but their guiding assumption is clear enough: democratic government channels social frustrations inside the system instead of allowing discontent and anger to fester outside. Autocratic governments in the Arab world have shown themselves capable of retaining power by sheer coercive force, but their counter-revolutionary efforts, under contemporary conditions, have serious 'externalities', especially the export of murderous jihad to the West. America's security challenge is to shut down this export industry. To do so, the US must find a way to democratise the Middle East.

    This convoluted and debatable argument played only a marginal role in the administration's decision to invade Iraq. It plays a more substantial role in the current presentation of its 'mission' in Iraq, however. It is also a central focus of Fukuyama's book. So how should we evaluate the idea? Is a democratic deficit in the Middle East the principal cause of anti-Western jihadism? And is democratisation a plausible strategy for preventing the export of political violence?

    The first thing to say is that fighting terror by promoting democracy makes little sense as a justification of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. Although the lack of democracy in Saudi Arabia and Egypt may indirectly fuel anti-Western jihad, in Iraq it has never done so. In non-democratic countries with which the US is allied (such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt), anti-regime violence naturally escalates or swerves into anti-American violence. The idea that a lack of democracy in countries overtly hostile to the US (such as Saddam's Iraq or contemporary Iran) will have such an effect is logically implausible and unsupported by historical evidence.

    To argue that creating democracy in Iraq will help defeat Islamic terrorism is to bank on a multi-stage process by which democracy, once established in Iraq, will spread to Egypt, Saudi Arabia etc by force of its inspiring example. Only then, after neighbouring dominoes (including governments allied with the US) begin to fall, would the democratisation of Iraq contribute seriously to draining the terrorists' proverbial recruitment pool. Of course, such political revolutions, in the unlikely event that they actually erupted, would be wholly impossible to control or steer. That is reason enough to doubt that Cheney or Rumsfeld, for example, ever took seriously this frivolous bit of neo-con futurology.

    The idea of a democratic cure for terrorism assumes that there are two separate causes of anti-American jihad: Middle Eastern autocracy, and unprincipled or opportunistic American backing for it. Anti-American jihad would subside, the theory implies, if either condition could be eliminated. Thus, the neo-con rationale for regime change in the Middle East seemingly justifies something much less radical, and presumably less difficult, than creating stable multiparty democracy in Mesopotamia: the gradual withdrawal of American support from the region's corrupt oligarchies and oppressive autocracies. Putting daylight between the US and abusive Middle Eastern regimes should be enough to insulate America from the violent backlash such tyrannies produce.

    Unfortunately, this pathway is blocked. The US cannot simply disengage from a region in which so many of its vital interests, including the steady flow of oil and the tracking down of terrorists, are at stake. Yet the paradox remains. From the impossibility of disengaging and the perils of engaging with autocrats, the neo-cons conclude that American interests require engagement with a democratic Middle East. The logic sounds impeccable at first. But it is based on the unfounded assumption that periodically elected governments in the region will necessarily be stable, moderate and legitimate, not to mention pro-American.

    An even more fundamental argument against fighting terrorism by promoting democracy, however, is that no one in the US government has any idea how to promote democracy. Fukuyama accuses the neo-cons of chatting offhandedly about democratisation while failing to study or even leaf through the 'huge academic and practitioner-based literature on democratic transitions'. Their lack of serious attention to the subject had an astonishing justification: 'There was a tendency among promoters of the war to believe that democracy was a default condition to which societies would revert once liberated from dictators.' Democracy obviously has many social, economic, cultural and psychological preconditions, but those who thought America had a mission to democratise Iraq gave no thought to them, much less to helping create them. For their delicate task of social engineering, the only instrument they thought to bring along was a wrecking ball.

    One might have thought that this 'remove the lid and out leaps democracy' approach was too preposterous ever to have been taken seriously. But it is the position that Fukuyama, with some evidence, attributes to neo-cons in and around the administration. They assumed, he writes, that the only necessary precondition for the emergence and consolidation of democracy is the 'amorphous longing for freedom' which President Bush, that penetrating student of human nature, detects in 'every mind and every soul'. Their sociology of democracy boils down to the universal and eternal human desire not to be oppressed. If this were democracy's only precondition, then Iraq would have no trouble making a speedy transition from clan-based savagery and untrammelled despotism to civilised self-restraint and collective self-rule: sceptics who harped on the difficulty of creating a government that would be both coherent and representative in a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian and tribally fragmented country, simply failed to appreciate the love of freedom in every human heart.

    Neo-cons, Fukuyama implies, seldom do the hard work required to learn about the evolving political and social dynamics of specific societies. Instead, they over-personalise any 'regime' that they dream of destabilising, identifying it with a single reprehensible ruler who can, in principle, be taken out with a single airstrike. But here again they walk into a serious self-contradiction. One of their principal claims is that a bad regime will have long-lasting negative effects on the society it abuses. A cruel autocracy puts down 'social roots' and reshapes 'informal habits'. Thus, 'Saddam Hussein's tyranny bred passivity and fatalism - not to mention vices of cruelty and violence.' It is very likely, in other words, that Saddam unfitted the Iraqi people for democracy, for a time at least. This is a logical implication of the neo-cons' theory of 'regimes', but not one they considered, presumably because it would have knocked the legs from under their idealistic case for war...

    ... The proposal to pull Mesopotamia into the modern world, he says, is based on a facile optimism reminiscent of 1960s liberalism and publicly rebutted by the original neo-cons. Progressive dreams are bound to be dashed on the hard realities of social habit. One of the fundamental goals of neo-conservatism, in its formative period, was to show that 'efforts to seek social justice' invariably leave societies 'worse off than before'. They were especially 'focused on the corroding effects of welfare on the character of the poor'. All distribution from the rich to the poor and from whites to blacks is inevitably counterproductive. Progressive attempts to reduce poverty and inequality, although well-intentioned, have 'disrupted organic social relations', such as residential segregation, triggering a violent backlash and failing to lift up the downtrodden. According to the neo-cons, it is wiser to concentrate on the symptoms, using police power and incarceration to discourage violent behaviour and protect civilised values.

    The neo-cons, according to Fukuyama, never explored the relevance of such warnings to US foreign policy. Proponents of the Iraq war, very much like old-style liberal advocates of welfare, 'sought worthy ends but undermined themselves by failing to recognise the limits of political voluntarism'. Their failure in Iraq was just as predictable as the failure of American liberals to improve the lives of poor American blacks. In short, the plans of today's idealistic hawks for creating Iraqi democracy show how utterly they have betrayed the neo-con legacy. Perhaps the deepest irony is that their enthusiasm for destroying the status quo and overthrowing the powers that be (without giving much thought to how to replace them) recalls the institution-bashing antics of 1960s student radicals more than the counter-revolutionary posture of the founding fathers of neo-conservatism.

So in the end, they come off just like the long-haired smash-everything "down with the establishment" types Holmes probably remembers from the sixties (even though there weren't many of those in central rural Ohio in the winter of 1966). Holmes had no use for them then - there just weren't serious and shouldn't be taken seriously. He doesn't much care for them now.

Sorry for the long quote (and for the British spelling and punctuation), but if this were a class reunion, some of us would give Holmes the floor and cheer him on. In this matter he wins "king of the hill."

Gregory Djerejian adds that he came across this "on a day when Dick Cheney, more or less hat in hand, is in Saudi Arabia looking for any assistance the Kingdom can render to stabilize Iraq and counter Iranian and Syrian influence in Lebanon (still foolishly without engaging in direct dialogue with them)." He is also not pleased with this "more rubble, less trouble" crowd, those who want to "end all evil." This isn't the sixties. And he adds - "Would that this only constitutes but burlesque farce and cheap entertainment, save that some of these personages still (amazingly) wield not insignificant influence in the Beltway."

No such luck - no cheap comedy here. These guys run the show, for now.

And people listen to them, for some odd reason. They have ideas on how to make the Iraq business all better - fifty thousand more troops and whatnot.

Glenn Greenwald has the final word on that -

    Seeking input from the neocons on how to solve the Iraq disaster would be like consulting the serial arsonist who started a deadly, raging fire on how to extinguish it. That actually might make sense if the arsonist were repentant and wanted to help reverse what he unleashed. But if the arsonist were proud of the fire he started and actually wanted to see it rage forever, even more strongly - and, worse, if he were intent on starting whole new fires just like the one destroying everything and everyone in its path-- it would be the height of irrationality for those wanting to extinguish the fire to listen to what he has to say.

Gregory Djerejian - "What he said." Hollywood - "What Holmes said too."

Now back to watching the helicopters outside the window, covering the annual Christmas parade on Hollywood Boulevard. It'll be something to talk about at the next class reunion.

This item posted December 3, 2006

[Gross Amateurism]

Last updated Saturday, March 10, 2007, 10:30 pm Pacific Time

All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 - Alan M. Pavlik