Editor’s Page

Editor’s Page

Sometime this summer, if all goes well, the United States will disengage its combat troops from Iraq—and next summer from Afghanistan. In the Dissent/Penn Press book Getting Out, a number of our writers look at historical examples of imperial and postwar exits and discuss the moral criteria for a successful disengagement. One of these is making a best-possible effort to leave behind a decent and effective state. Is the effort we are making in Iraq and Afghanistan the best we could possibly make? There have been so many misjudgments and mistakes in both places, leaving aside the initial decisions to go in (which I would judge differently in the two cases). So, what would a best possible effort look like now?

State-building turns out to be enormously difficult. The Bush administration’s ideologues who talked of regime change in Iraq were misled by the German example (and by their own hubris). If Nazi Germany could be reconstructed as a liberal democracy, they thought, why not Saddam Hussein’s Iraq? But the Nazis had ruled for only twelve years, and had been preceded by the precarious but genuinely democratic Weimar Republic. The political parties that the Nazis suppressed were quickly revived. The exiled opposition was democratically committed. The country’s population was homogeneous, and religious differences played no political role.

Iraq was and is nothing like that; nor is Afghanistan. It doesn’t follow that the United States in Iraq or NATO in Afghanistan shouldn’t try to promote liberalism and democracy, but something considerably less would be enough to justify a military disengagement. “Decent and effective” means, first, a non-murderous regime (in contrast to Saddam’s and the Taliban’s), and, second, a regime capable of delivering basic services to all its citizens: physical security, public health, welfare, and education. That’s what states are for, and we have to do our best to leave behind a state of that sort—investing our resources, deploying our people, with that end in view. Whether we should have been there or not, making government effective at local as well as national levels should have been (but wasn’t) our primary objective from day one.

Democracy promotion is still a good idea, and after the disengagement, it would be nice if American and European officials befriended Iraqi and Afghan democrats. But that can’t be their work only, and we can’t be sure they will make it their work, or do it well if they do it at all; so it must also be the work of democrats around the world. It is the work required by socialist “internationalism.” NGOs of different sorts, trade unions, and liberal and left political parties should be engaged with parallel groups in Iraqi and Afghan civil society. And since the ideological front is crucially important in democracy promotion, even magazines should be engaged. Debates about the role of the Left in this most precarious of ven...