Muravchik’s memo

I want to pause once again and turn from Asian matters to a memo by my friend and mentor Joshua Muravchik in the November/December 2006 issue of Foreign Policy titled “Operation Comeback,” addressed to “My Fellow Neoconservatives.”

His piece reflects on the mistakes made in recent years by neoconservatives, and attempts to restore some meaning to a phrase that’s been warped and distorted out of all recognition in recent years. I think he does an admirable job, in particular by calling for an end to the neoconservative obsession with the revolution in military affairs that began in the late 1990s as neoconservatives came to see high-tech power projection capabilities as efficient and bloodless (for us) tools with which to punish tyrannical regimes.

That illusion has been punctured. If American power is going to be used to promote liberalization abroad, it will have to be with boots on the ground; thus he argues, “We may have seized on a technological fix to spare ourselves the hard slog of fighting for higher defense budgets. Let’s now take up the burden of campaigning for a military force that is large enough and sufficiently well provisioned however ‘redundant’ to assure that we will never again get stretched so thin. Let the wonder weapons be the icing on the cake.”

But he also acknowledges that neoconservatives must once again emphasize the deployment of ideas, because ultimately it is by ideas that the world will be liberalized. This means more public diplomacy, but it also means that the US government should step out of the way and let organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and a host of other organizations will similar purposes provide assistance to struggling democracies, providing technical support and education to parties, journalists, activists, and citizens.

Many of the world’s governments are already ostensibly democratic: the task now is to help consolidate their democracies. This is particularly necessary in Asia, where countries like Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand (which, of course, recently experienced a major setback) are struggling to construct transparent, representative institutions supported by open societies that enable citizens to participate in making decisions about how their countries are run.

Where I disagree with Josh is on what to do about Iran.

He writes:

Make no mistake, President Bush will need to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities before leaving office. It is all but inconceivable that Iran will accept any peaceful inducements to abandon its drive for the bomb. Its rulers are religio-ideological fanatics who will not trade what they believe is their birthright to great power status for a mess of pottage. Even if things in Iraq get better, a nuclear-armed Iran will negate any progress there. Nothing will embolden terrorists and jihadists more than a nuclear-armed Iran.

The global thunder against Bush when he pulls the trigger will be deafening, and it will have many echoes at home. It will be an injection of steroids for organizations such as We need to pave the way intellectually now and be prepared to defend the action when it comes. In particular, we need to help people envision what the world would look like with a nuclear-armed Iran. Apart from the dangers of a direct attack on Israel or a suitcase bomb in Washington, it would mean the end of the global nonproliferation regime and the beginning of Iranian dominance in the Middle East.

This defense should be global in scope. There is a crying need in today’s ideological wars for something akin to the Congress for Cultural Freedom of the Cold War, a global circle of intellectuals and public figures who share a devotion to democracy. The leaders of this movement might include Tony Blair, Vaclav Havel, and Anwar Ibrahim.

Now, I agree that Iran won’t be dissuaded from pursuing nuclear weapons by peaceful inducements offered in diplomatic talks, just as North Korea will not be induced to abandon its nuclear weapons in the six-party talks. Where I disagree is on the likelihood of a bombing campaign against Iran’s nuclear facilities. It may be technologically possible — especially if it only involved air assets coupled with special forces. But I wonder if it would stop Iran’s drive to regional predominance, which the US campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq have made easier (reconfirming the idea that unintended consequences govern society, a notion emphasized by the early neoconservatives).

In short, with or without nuclear weapons Iran is now in a commanding position in the Middle East, and it may require more than a bombing campaign to reverse that trend, if it is in fact reversible. What this means is that aside from relying on containment to prevent a nuclear Iran from using its nukes itself or handing them over to terrorists, the battlefields will remain in the hearts and minds of Muslims throughout the region and the world — with perhaps the occasional battle against Iran’s terrorist proxies — in which case it remains imperative that the US and its allies equip themselves to fight a protracted war of ideas.

In any case, Muravchik’s memo is important because it is a reminder that although the Iraq war has gone disastrously wrong, the ideas that inspired it remain essential to the foreign policies of the US and other liberal democracies, namely the idea that the world’s liberal democracies should use their power to aid the spread of liberalism and democracy. Neoconservatives are not alone in believing in this idea. It is therefore time for its defenders to stop brooding over Iraq and to begin devising a strategy to strengthen the advance of democracy, one that does not necessarily privilege the use of force over the other tools at our disposal.

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