Friday, November 19, 2004

Race Against Time

One of the key lines of demarcation between Iraq war supporters and foes is what impact it will have on the war on terrorism as a whole. Republicans argue that it serves as a warning to terror-harboring states, and cite Libya as proof (Libya abandoned its nuclear program shortly after the Iraq war began). Liberals claim its a distraction or worse, and cite Osama bin Laden's continued--well, existance--as proof. Both sides have some truth to them, but there are two more issues that I think are relevant.

The first is my usual chorus about how promoting democracy and giving Iraqis a stake in their own future makes America seem like a less threatening presence. By showing we care about the world's problems, we're no longer an oppressive force illegitimatly sucking up the world's wealth and resources. Its the difference between evil titan and jolly green giant. Except that the US green giant is willing to stand up for right and justice. David Adnesik notes there is a historical link between promoting democracy and crushing illiberal insurgencies, which would suggest that a) it will be hard, but it is still possible, to defeat the insurgency and b) that the Bush administration's abysmal policy failures in this area are directly linked to the dire situation we find ourselves in. On the other hand, it is a powerful argument against leftist relativists who think that any sort of military intervention to promote democracy is doomed to failure, or that democracy is culturally alien to the middle east. Daniel Drezner noted in the Auguest 6th 2003 edition of The New Republic that:
"There evidence to support the claim that poor or non-Western democracies will revert to authoritarianism over time. To quote [Hoover Institute Fellow Larry] Diamond at greater length:

"[T]he overwhelming bulk of the states that have become democratic during the third wave [of democratization, from 1974-1991] have remained so, even in countries lacking virtually all of the supposed "conditions" for democracy. ... [O]nly 14 of the 125 democracies that have existed during the third wave have become authoritarian, and in nine of these, democracy has since been restored.

One of Diamond's favorite examples is Mali--a poor, landlocked, predominantly Muslim country that suffers from an adult literacy rate of less than 50 percent and an average life expectancy of less than 45 years. By Zakaria's logic, Mali is the last place in the world you'd expect democracy to take root. Yet the country has enjoyed a relatively stable, democratic government for over a decade. At a minimum, this suggests that [skeptics] may overstate the difficulty with which liberal values can be exported to the developing world.

But what of governments imposed via military occupation? Surely they're the exception to this optimistic rule. Actually, the empirical evidence of the last 50 years is rather evenly split on the question. Postwar Germany, Japan, Bosnia, and Kosovo are all, to varying degrees, democratic success stories; Somalia and Haiti are probably safely considered failures. (Let's be generous and say the jury is still out on Afghanistan.) Still, the more relevant point is that the key difference between the democratic haves and have-nots is not the conditions that prevailed prior to war; it's the occupiers' commitment to the democratization process once the fighting ends. In the words of a compelling new RAND Corporation study, America's Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq...:

'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. In Germany and Japan, for example, substantial American aid reduced social, political, and other obstacles to the reconstitution of parliamentary politics and facilitated a transition to democracy. Nation-building, as this study illustrates, is a time- and resource-consuming effort.'"

In the September/October 2004 edition of Foreign Affairs, Joseph T. Siegle, Michael M. Weinstein, and Morton H. Halperin have a superb article entitled "Why Democracies Excel" that also explores this issue.

The second is an issue of time. When rogue nations are contemplating what they should do with their WMD programs post-Iraq, they can take two tactics. The first is the Libya model, IE, giving it up. This was the intended consequence, that the risk of maintaining WMD programs or terrorist sympathizes would be seen as too high, and thus we'd motivate proper behavior. The second response, however, is to accelerate these programs. North Korea serves as a model for this reaction. Despite posing a far greater threat to the US than Iraq ever did (by virtue of the Taepo-Dong missiles which can possibly hit the US with nuclear warheads), there was never any serious plan to invade the hermit state. Indeed, the US has barely managed to put together even a coherent policy towards NK. Other nations on the US hit list have undoubtedly noted that becoming a nuclear power is the fastest way to get the US to negotiate with butter, as opposed to guns.

"But David," my conservative readers are saying, "the US thought IRAQ had WMDs as well. And that didn't stop us from invading it!" True, but that overlooks some key issues. First of all, even though we did think Iraq had nuclear weapons, we knew that they had no method of delivering them to us. That minimizes the threat that the WMDs posed in the short-term, and makes the possibility of WMD use a relatively minimal argument on the ledger against intervention.

But beyond that lurks a deeper issue. Again, having fully functional nuclear weapons programs is a reasonably strong deterrant, certainly far stronger than what most rogue states could muster without them. And not having active WMD programs doesn't immunize a state from intervention (as Slobodan Milosevic can attest to). So the incentive for rogue states is to accelerate nuclear programs while the US is distracted in Iraq and thus can't do anything to stop it. By playing for time to forstall sanctions or other hostile action by the rest of the world, while simultanously putting weapons programs on "rush delivery," rogue states might hope to be able to construct a viable deterrent to the US before America can recover enough to stop it. Iran appears to be following this very model, taking advantage of US overstretch and delaying international action while continuing to pursue its weapons programs. The risk of inaction or delaying the programs far outweighs any risk to a full-speed ahead approach.

Once the genie of proliferation has been released from the lamp, its very difficult to stuff it back in. The clock has been set for WMD programs in states hostile to America. Now we must figure out how to beat them to the finish line.

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