10 January 2007

Bush’s dilemma

The following piece appears as my monthly column in the 8 January issue of Christian Courier:

President George W. Bush appears to have painted himself into a corner with respect to his middle eastern and central Asian policies. In 2001, within weeks of the 9/11 attacks, he sent American troops to Afghanistan to capture Osama bin Laden, who has nevertheless successfully eluded his would-be captors for half a decade. The US, with the help of Canadians and others, easily toppled the Taliban régime in Kabul, thus bolstering American confidence in its own ability to transform countries in the grip of tyrannical governments.

On an apparent roll, the US and its “coalition of the willing” attacked Iraq – once again quickly toppling Saddam Hussein’s oppressive Baath régime, and this time without overt Canadian assistance. From the outset this venture was fraught with risk, with a strong probability of it going wrong. Though Bush and his advisors may have had the best of intentions – with which, the old cliché assures us, the road to perdition is paved – they were gambling on a policy predicated on the successful confluence of at least five factors: (1) the presence or development of a cohesive sense of Iraqi identity, (2) the general applicability of democratic principles and institutions across cultural boundaries, (3) the willingness of Shiite and Sunni Muslims and Kurds to co-operate for political purposes, (4) the willingness of the American people to stay the course over the long term, and (5) the willingness of Bush’s successor to continue his policies.

Though Bush is often accused by his critics of being “too conservative,” he has in fact taken actions that many professed conservatives would judge entirely too incautious. There may be no such thing as a coherent conservative political philosophy, yet most conservatives share at least three things: the awareness (1) that well-meaning efforts at abrupt change are likely to make matters worse, (2) that institutions working well in one cultural context may not work in another, and (3) that policies lacking clear and feasible goals will almost certainly go awry. These principles were better understood by the elder Bush, who calmly presided over the end of the Cold War and skilfully cultivated a broad international consensus for the limited goal of expelling Hussein’s Iraq from Kuwait.

However, with the US bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is painfully obvious that toppling a régime does not guarantee that a just and workable government will replace it, especially if the country lacks a mature sense of common citizenship in a shared political enterprise. Like it or not, the US now has responsibility for these countries’ welfare. Quitting too precipitously will leave them to civil war and, in Iraq’s case, to a possible partition of its territory among Turkey, Syria and Iran, a disastrous development for an already unstable region of the world.

Bush is correct, of course, to argue that setting a date for American withdrawal would only strengthen the hands of the terrorists. Yet this is precisely what made his policy so risky to begin with. No democracy, in which government is necessarily responsive to its citizens, is in a position to fight a hundred-years war, whatever the apparent justice of the cause.

What now? None of the alternatives is obviously better than the others. One possible short-term option would be to bring in a larger multinational force to replace the Americans, providing that other nations, who after all opposed the initial attack in the first place, are willing to take on this responsibility. Over the longer term the US will have to abandon its current unilateral approach and return to acting in concert, where possible, with its historic allies.

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