Josh Marshall notes correctly the conversion of Lawrence Kaplan from neoconservatism to foreign-policy realism. Having supported the Iraqi adventure from the beginning — not out of concern that Saddam Hussein might be developing a nuclear weapon, but out of Wilsonian evangelical fervor for the liberal regime — Kaplan has now given up in disgust.
But note that for Kaplan, the alternative to Wilsonian evangelism-at-gunpoint is racism. In Kaplan’s view, the adventure didn’t fail because the Bushites were too intellectually lazy to understand the facts on the ground, too arrogant to listen to those who did, and too crooked to resist the urge to make Iraq a patronage feast for their buddies, but because the Iraqis, after all, were justa buncha ay-rabs, incapable of taking the gift of liberty when it was handed to them.
Thus Kaplan, as he leaves (on this issue, at least) the neocon fold, exemplifies the neocon charge that opposition to Wilsonian imperialism proceeds from contempt for those who live under illiberal regimes. If we really thought third-worlders were as important as we are, says the neocon, then we would be willing to fight and die to give them our way of life, which is demonstrably the one true way of life that every free human being, and every people, must aspire to.
I supported the Iraq war not as a favor to the Iraqis, but as a measure of national defense. I was wrong to do so, because the threat against which we were asked to defend ourselves turned out to be imaginary. (There was a second legitimate reason to support the war, one not entirely discredited by subsequent events: that the sanctions regime, without which SH would presumably have resumed the drive to join the nuclear club disrupted by the Israeli bombing of the Osirak reactor, was killing thousands of Iraqis, predominantly the children of the poor, every month.)
Arguably, we should have displaced the Ba’ath, made sure there weren’t any bomb factories around, and then exited, leaving the Iraqis to their own devices. (With luck, the Kurds might have figured out that they needed a working Iraq to keep the Turks off their backs; the Sunnis, without the spur of anti-Americanism and resistance to occupation would have decided to make the best deal they could with the Shi’a majority; and the Shi’a leadership, given the chance to be the dominant political force in a potentially rich country, would have decided not to stomp on the Sunnis.)
Or we could have tried, ideally with help from other countries, to try to cobble together there something that looked like a liberal republic, at least in a dim light. Perhaps doing so would have required more troops. Certainly it would have required not only more delicacy than we actually displayed but also more intelligence (in both senses of that word). But the fact that the actual effort failed says more about the competence and seriousness of BushCo than it does about any deficiency of Iraqi culture.
Nothing the Iraqis are doing to one another now is as bad as the things the Japanese did in China, or the Germans did to the Jews, in the period leading up to 1945. So, by Kaplan’s argument, it should have been futile to try to “reprogram” the “coarsened and brittle cultures” of the Japanese and the Germans.
The liberal regime isn’t a universal standard, but just about everyone does want honest civil servants, and courts that decide according to the law rather than the power of the litigants and whose decisions are obeyed. The mistake wasn’t in imagining that Iraq might move some distance in the liberal direction; the mistake was assuming that it would do so quickly, or that it would do so at all under the guidance of Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Bremer, and their hordes of patronage employees and crooked contractors.
To treat current intra-Iraqi atrocities as proof that the Iraqis are unfit to govern themselves embodies a great, and rather disgusting, fallacy. It may well be that the best thing we can do for Iraq right now is to get the hell out of there. But if so, that’s the fault of the Bush Administration, not the fault of the Iraqis. Isn’t it bad enough to have killed tens of thousands of them and wrecked their country, without insulting them to boot?