Foreign Policy

The General in Our Labyrinth

David Petraeus and grandiose failure in the Middle East

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Credit Gen. David Petraeus with trying to apply two essential rules of politics in his testimony before Congress last Monday: always sell high what you don't have, and buy cheap. Petraeus sold a significant drawdown of America forces by next summer, though he couldn't do otherwise since the rotation cycle of U.S. forces makes a longer deployment almost impossible. And thanks to that phony concession, he is trying to buy a much more extended deployment for American soldiers in Iraq.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was not wrong when she responded, "sounds to me like a 10-year, at least, commitment to an open-ended presence and war." But Petraeus just might succeed in having his way, for now at least, because he made clear that there is so much more to Iraq than domestic American politics. In a speech this evening, President Bush is expected to endorse the general's recommendation for only gradual troop reductions.

The gist of Petraeus' written testimony, alongside that of the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, was expected, given recent media leaks. The general intends to gradually reduce forces to pre-surge levels by next summer, with subsequent reductions to follow, though Petraeus added for good measure, "it would be premature to make recommendations on the pace of such reductions at this time." American forces will continue to train Iraqi security units, but for the moment it would again be "premature" to abandon the defense of the Iraqi population, he added. Progress was clearly discernible, Petraeus insisted, but he exhibited no overconfidence, observing: "I should note again that, like Ambassador Crocker, I believe Iraq's problems will require a long-term effort. There are no easy answers or quick solutions. And though we both believe this effort can succeed, it will take time. Our assessments underscore, in fact, the importance of recognizing that a premature drawdown of our forces would likely have devastating consequences."

However, two words—one very present in Petraeus' presentation, the other completely absent—neatly defined the American predicament in Iraq. The general mentioned "Iran" in one way or another 10 times in his opening statement, but not once did he utter the word "democracy." Petraeus declared that "none of us earlier this year appreciated the extent of Iranian involvement in Iraq, something about which we and Iraq's leaders all now have greater concern." This he listed as a reason why the United States might have to remain longer in Iraq, placing the American presence there in the context of regional containment of Iranian power. It will not be easy for Congress to push for a rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces if the net result is that Iraq falls into the lap of its eastern neighbor.

However, the fact that Petraeus did not refer to democracy was more revealing, confirming the extent to which the Middle East is a graveyard for grand projects. The general's testimony was all about power and its limitations, not in the least about an American desire to democratize the Arabs. For Petraeus, what happens in Iraq will be defined by what is possible, by a correlation of political and military forces that might favor one side or the other. There was little abstraction in his testimony; Petraeus didn't deploy extravagant ideas—reasonable from a man called in mainly to avert a complete American debacle in Iraq.

Where the general displayed inevitable modesty, he might have been fortified in knowing that the U.S. democratization effort is not the only grandiose project the Iraqi conflict will help scuttle. Iran's attempt to expand its influence regionally, namely through advances in Iraq that will give it more sway over the Persian Gulf as a whole, is already hitting up against the existential fears of the mainly Sunni Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. Flaccid and increasingly illegitimate, Arab leaders will nevertheless show fierce single-mindedness in mobilizing against Iran, mostly through sectarian means, if that becomes necessary to save their regimes. The notion of a new Persian imperium in the region also seems fanciful with the U.S. almost certain to stay put on Iran's borders. But if we are to believe Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, both the U.S. and Israel are destined to soon disappear.

Maybe it's the fate of present and former empires to reject stasis, but Ahmadinejad's impudence, if transformed into policy, is likely to lead Iran precisely nowhere. But the Arab states as well, agents of stasis for over four decades, have paid a heavy price for peddling grand projects. Arab nationalism, instead of uniting Arabs in a single state, mainly dissolved into brutal authoritarianism and factionalism, with the Syrian and Iraqi branches of the Baath Party having fought most bitterly against each other between the late 1970s and early 1990s. Similarly, the Saudi ambition of spreading Wahhabism through the funding of mosques and educational institutions backfired, so that the most dangerous threats to the monarchy today are the violent Islamist groups it fostered and sustained for so long.

For a brief moment, during the allegedly golden age of President Gamal Abdul Nasser, Egypt looked like it would become a cornerstone of Arab progress, and many in the Middle East bought into this. Yet the optimism died following the Egyptian military fiasco in Yemen during the 1960s, the breakup of Egypt's union with Syria in 1961, and the devastating loss to Israel in the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war. At the end, Abdul Nasser personified what he had wrought: dying at the relatively young age of 52 of a heart attack, his legacy one of successive premature burials.

In that sense, Petraeus may be the defining figure of a typical Middle Eastern moment: someone brought in to limit the damage brought about by hubris. But there is hubris and there is hubris: uniting the Arab world under the rubric of a totalistic national-cultural ideology such as Arab nationalism, usually by coercion; forcing the Arabs of the Middle East to accept Persian hegemony; using one's vast funds to disseminate a peculiar, acutely bigoted brand of Islam such as Saudi Arabia has done for decades, are not really comparable to installing representative government in a country that was until 2003 ruled by a mass murderer.

The Bush administration has abandoned the democratization goal, showing perhaps that it never seriously cared about it in the first place. But that shouldn't undermine a deeper truth. The only grand project that can ever really work in the Middle East is democratization, because only democracy won't leave behind bitter losers. But the Arab world may yet be a long way away from that enlightened step, despite what the optimists—present company included—believe. That Petraeus never mentioned democracy shows that he's integrating into the region.

Reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon

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  1. Ahhhh, got the first post. This is so sweet.

  2. So wait, Michael. You don’t believe in the “freedom agenda” anymore?

  3. The only grand project that can ever really work in the Middle East is democratization, because only democracy won’t leave behind bitter losers.

    Michael, Michael, Michael. The sooner you come to realize that when it comes to the Middle East there’s nothing but bitter losers (and the more involved you are the bigger loser you are) and that no project, grand or otherwise, can ever work, the better off we’ll all be.

  4. Yeah, what democracy doesn’t have bitter losers? I dare say a democracy often has 49% bitter losers. If you want to apply that to a republic such as ours, then I point you to the 2000 election.

    Some people know or learn to get over it and move on.

  5. I’ve been critical of Michael Young’s posting for the past year or so, but I agree with about 90% of what he has to say here. I wish the Middle East were democratic, but democracy is far from a cure-all. Democracy did not solve slavery in the U.S., nor did it solve segregation. Similarly, democracy was not the “cure” for German nationalism following WWI, despite Woodrow Wilson’s fond hopes. And surely most of our problems in Iraq are due to the fact that population isn’t “ready” for democracy–the Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis all believe they can’t “afford” to lose an election, just as the southern states felt they could not “afford” to have Lincoln as their president.

    And now we suffer as the Bush-Cheney junto, having invaded one country that did not attack us, at a cost of tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars, strive to maneuver us to attacking another nation that did not attack us. Back in WWI, Randolph Borne, an anti-war radical, said “war is the health of the state.” Bush and Cheney certainly believe so.

  6. “The Bush administration has abandoned the democratization goal, showing perhaps that it never seriously cared about it in the first place.”

    this is geat to hear you say Michael…As amazed as I am that any educated person would have believed the propaganda(obvious lies) that bush was spouting, when for a brief period his favorite excuse for the war was “spreading democracy”, I’m glad you finally understand that this was a less than genuine desire of the administration.

    so now do you feel a bit complicit in cheerleading this fraudulent,murderous war for 6 years when others told you it was bs the whole time

    “But that shouldn’t undermine a deeper truth. The only grand project that can ever really work in the Middle East is democratization, because only democracy won’t leave behind bitter losers.”

    I think the sunnis that have been ethnically clensed by shites might disagree with your rosy belief in “there are no losers in a democracy”.

    I also think that the youth in america today who pay about 20% of their income into a ponzi scheme retirement system might disagree about the “no losers” belief of yours.

  7. I dare say a democracy often has 49% bitter losers. If you want to apply that to a republic such as ours, then I point you to the 2000 election.

    The big and very important difference is that while many among those 49% bellyached a lot, they did not take up arms against the other 51%.

    That said, Iraq already had an election. How many do they need before the losers (and subsequently the winners, too!) stop making bombs?

  8. One observation that I have, is that General Petraeus is a General, so he has more interest in directing the military involvement in contrast to the construction of governement. To do otherwise would lead, well, to a military government.

    Democracy just isn’t *his* business, his job is simply to make it possible by giving the people the infrastructure needed for it to flourish. The Iraqis have to create the governemnt in the space we give them.

  9. “””That said, Iraq already had an election. How many do they need before the losers (and subsequently the winners, too!) stop making bombs?”””

    An important question. Too bad we are spending Billions in treasure, and Thousands in life without anything that remotely looks like an answer. I doubt we’ll see an answer for years.

  10. The whole ‘democracy’ push has been probably the biggest problem with Iraq. Democracy is what Chavez and Mugabe and Stalin and Hitler use to rise to power. It’s what led ancient civilizations falling.
    Bush et al are thankfully removing themselves from this phrase, but have yet to embrace what they should have said from the beginning, freedom and liberty. That is a long and difficult battle there, as well. Iraqis are not used to the freedoms our ‘democracy’ gave them, they were proud of the purple thumbs but didn’t understand the new paradigm yet.
    We should be encouraging the new Iraqi leaders to create a constitution similar to ours (of their own making for sure, but ours is the best example to base it off) that will encourage property rights, and a chain of authority (which is what they can’t agree on), among other things.
    I’m surprised a place like reason wouldn’t be able to make the distinction between democracy and liberty, and fault bush et al for harping on democracy as long as they did.

  11. The Iraqis have to create the governemnt in the space we give them.

    They will create a government whether we’re there or not. It’ll be authoritarian at best. To those that think a stable democratic republic is going to come out of Iraq in the next decade, I advise removing the rose tinting fron your spectacles.

  12. Chad, Iraq already has a Constitution, and a democratic style of government, albeit the European version. As for freedom and liberty, you can’t have that with a standing army and curfews out the wazoo.

    “””I advise removing the rose tinting fron your spectacles.”””

    Yeah… I won’t even remove my beer goggles at 4am.

  13. I really wish people would stop saying “democracy” when they should be saying “capitalism”. Capitalism is what we should be promoting to the rest of the world. As we all know “capitalism is the only politico-economic system in which the liberty of the individual is the paramount goal”. The Iraqi Arabs were some of the great traders of history. We should be reminding them of that and telling them they can be great again.

  14. In that sense, Petraeus may be the defining figure of a typical Middle Eastern moment: someone brought in to limit the damage brought about by hubris. But there is hubris and there is hubris…

    Our hubris is better than their hubris! Go Team!

  15. Nothing more inspiring that taking pride in the quality of one’s hubris.

  16. Young can be counted to repeat the talking points.

    Right now, war supporters are trying to make the continuation of the war and the rejection of any major change in course seem inevitable.

    And Young shows up to tell us that Patraeus alreaddy “won” an agreement not to compel such a change.

    Just like clockwork.

  17. The only grand project that can ever really work in the Middle East is democratization, because only democracy won’t leave behind bitter losers. But the Arab world may yet be a long way away from that enlightened step, despite what the optimists-present company included-believe.

    What kind of an optimist thinks you need to stick a gun in a man’s face to get him to see reason?

    But let’s put that aside. The Arab world is even farther away from that enlightend step than it was five years ago, specifically because of what you “optimists” believed, and did.

    Before Bush and his idiotic war, there were millions of Iranians pouring into the street to demand democratic, liberal reforms. This movement was so powerful, and so frightened the regime, that they were forced to prosecute and imprison their own security personnel for killing and assaulting protesters, because the protests threatened to spiral out of control. All gone now.

    All over the Middle East, people advocating for democracy are hearing the rebuttal, “Why? So we can be like Iraq?” and thus losing the argument.

    Thanks for dragging our good name, and that of democracy, through the mud, Michael. But hey, if you concentrate hard enough on how pure your intentions were, you might be able to forget about all the bodies.

  18. BTW, there is an indigineous democracy in the Middle East, one that the locals developed all by themselves.

    It’s called Kurdistan. (No, no, it’s not! It’s not called that! It’s called the northern provinces of Iraq! Everyone put down the rifles and suicide vests! It’s totally not called Kurdistan.)

    We didn’t impose it. We didn’t patrol the streets. We didn’t build the government. All we did was stop outsiders from snuffing it out.

    There’s a Great Democratic Crusade outfit that calls itself the Institute for the Defense of Democracies. You know how you defend democracies?

    You

    DEFEND

    Democracies.

  19. All we did was stop outsiders from snuffing it out.

    bush would argue that this is exactly what he’s trying to do in the rest of iraq, keeping outsiders (and specifically iran) from snuffing out the democratically elected iraqi government.

    if you want to make a case against the war, and i think such a case is easy to make, it’s better not to use bush’s argument for it.

  20. What ever keeps journalist from being patriots?
    Men and women who live in a country that permits them to tell their “personal feelings” rather than mature analysis.
    Where have all the adults gone?

  21. “Come to beautiful Kurdistan, were 19 year old girls are stoned to death in the streets for being seen talking to a boy not from her sect!”

  22. One question: Who is a bigger fool? The Fool that leads or the fool that follows?

    Bush is an idiot for thinking we could go to iraq and do anyhting; however, the rest of the Govt is EVEN DUMBER for allowing it. Only thing worse than an idiot president is the idiot congress/senate…

    Try blaming them for a change….

  23. Alan Vanneman,

    I agree with your comments on Iraqis not “being ready” for democracy as I have first hand experience with attempting to teach democracy to Iraqis. Yet your statement:

    “And now we suffer as the Bush-Cheney junto…. strive to maneuver us to attacking another nation that did not attack us.”

    I can only assume you mean Iran. I agree that we’re maneuvering to attack the Revolutionary Guard, but by calling Iran a “nation that did not attack us” you weaken the argument AGAINST attacking Iran. Do you really think they haven’t attacked us? What kind of attack do they need to conduct in order for you to feel that they have attacked us? Don’t forget that Iran is an Asian country in many respects, especially when it comes to waging war. In the western way of war we believe we’re attacked only when someone “shoots” at us. In the east attacks can utilize whichever methodology (economic, political, social, military, etc.) that is most expedient. Traditionally such attacks have not been military attacks since, historically, eastern armies have a poor track record against the west. But we should not allow ourselves to think that such actions are anything other than malicious. It’s about intentions not methodology. If Iran could attack us militarily they would and since they can’t, they use other means including proxies. Of course there’s also that whole embassy thing and the holding of diplomats as hostage, which constitutes an overt act of war. But that was soooo long ago….

  24. I’m amazed at the number of comments that use “democracy” as part of a bigoted sneer.

    Broadly defined, democracy IS the only thing that can work long term.

    You think building democracy is easy?

    You think it’s not worth it?

    You’re morons.

  25. Nothing is more delusional in the Bush world-view than the notion that Arabs are capable of democracy. They are not. What do we need in Iraq? Saddam, minus the WMD delusions and the sadistic homicidal sons.

  26. Napoleon made the initial mistake in believing that the Rights of Man could be exported from the barrel of a gun. We seem to have made the same mistake in Iraq: Adopting ‘freedom’ as an ideology, when it is actually a philosophy.

    That said, a free Kurdistan might just be the seed which flowers in the Middle East, unless we Americans abandon it, AGAIN, to the region’s thugs.

  27. Is it possible that this has always been more of a war against Iran than bringing democracy to Iraq? I’ve never been in the military but it seems that placing multiple divisions of troops next door to an adversary like Iran gives some advantages in terms of logistics and intelligence.

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