Dissing the Dissenters
By David Ignatius
Friday, August 23, 2002; Page A27
Have "prudence" and "foresight" become dirty words in conservative foreign policy circles? You begin to wonder, watching the debate taking place on the right about what policies the United States should adopt toward Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
I share the Bush administration's enthusiasm for bringing more democracy to the Middle East, including regime change in Iraq and political reform in Saudi Arabia. But these are high-risk options for the United States -- ones that could result in many thousands of lost lives and severe economic pain. For that reason, they deserve the most sober and searching national debate -- which is precisely what the go-for-broke conservatives seem determined to suppress.
How else can one interpret the recent diktats from the thought police of the right, the Wall Street Journal editorial page? Apparently worried that rising GOP criticism of the administration's Iraq policy might cool the war fever, the Journal this week ran an editorial dissing the dissenters. Rep. Dick Armey was dismissed as a mere "libertarian," Sen. Chuck Hagel was denounced as an opportunist seeking "a fast headline," and former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft was chided as an honorable but plodding "realist" whose team's "track record doesn't inspire confidence."
The right's special bÍte noire at the moment seems to be the New York Times and its new editor, Howell Raines. The Journal accused the Times of waging a "tendentious" campaign against a war in Iraq by its prominent play of stories questioning the looming war. Perhaps Raines should be flattered at this notion of his power, but the criticism is bizarre. The Times is aggressively covering the story of whether America should go to war. Since when is that a crime in this Jeffersonian republic?
The current hawk-o-mania reminds me of the mood among conservatives on domestic policy issues during the brief heyday of Newt Gingrich after the Republican triumph in the 1994 congressional elections. Gingrich espoused a go-for-broke philosophy that treated compromise and moderation with scorn. Conservatives cheered, but their program quickly collapsed -- because its extremism and intolerance were out of step with the country's mood.
There's a similar cockiness in the right's discussion of the Middle East today. That tone certainly permeated a briefing given to the Defense Policy Board last month by Laurent Murawiec of the Rand Corp. According to a transcript of the briefing obtained by the online magazine Slate, Murawiec proposed regime change in Saudi Arabia and, indeed, in most of the Arab world.
"Since independence, wars have been the principal output of the Arab world," sneered one of Murawiec's slides. "Saudi Arabia is central to the self-destruction of the Arab world and the chief vector of the Arab crisis," said another.
Murawiec told the Defense Policy Board that the U.S. strategy should be "an ultimatum to the House of Saud. . . . Or else." He defined the "or else" as targeting Saudi oil, money and the holy places.
Now, the Saudis surely need to reform their government -- for their sake more than ours. But for all their faults, the Saudis don't deserve the sort of sneering, slapdash insults in Murawiec's briefing.
And lest the Saudis imagine that the Pentagon briefing was just the raving of some kook, a lawsuit was filed recently on behalf of families of Sept. 11 victims against about 100 Saudi companies and individuals seeking several trillion dollars in damages. No wonder Saudi investors are reportedly pulling their money out of the United States. They're afraid that after Iraq, they're next.
A final example of this new mood of omnidirectional belligerence was the rebuke reportedly delivered to German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder a week ago by the American ambassador to Berlin, Daniel Coats, for daring to criticize U.S. policy toward Iraq as "an adventure." The message to Schroeder, a senior American official told the New York Times, was that Washington "is not happy with the accusation that it is not consulting with its allies" or that Bush is "a trigger-happy Texan."
Let's be honest: Going for broke in the Middle East -- pushing for regime change in Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia -- is a gambler's choice. That doesn't mean that it's wrong but that it's risky -- and for that reason it deserves an especially careful debate. The fact that America is fighting an ill-defined "war against terrorism" doesn't diminish the need for such a debate; it makes it all the more important.
Critics argue that such a "total war" strategy exposes the United States to significant economic and military risk, without obvious benefits -- least of all to America's ally Israel, which would be the first target for retaliation. Indeed, the most coherent rationale for such a policy is a modern version of Wilsonian idealism. Liberating the Middle East would advance the frontiers of democracy and human rights, albeit at great cost to our national interests, as traditionally defined.
Personally, I have always been a sucker for this sort of "bear any burden, pay any price" idealism. But I would feel much more comfortable if Arabs were pleading for our intervention rather than opposing it. A war to remake the face of the Arab world is worth a careful debate for one final reason: When the big guys in Washington dream of transforming the world, it's the little guys who come home in body bags.