Paul Berman Response

Paul Berman Response

The question seems to me wrongly put in one aspect. To hurl curses and insults at the Bush administration is a worthy, right, and just thing to do; and yet there is no reason to trip all over ourselves in acknowledging that Bush and his administration did sincerely desire to achieve a democratic outcome in Iraq. For some sixty years before the Iraq War, American policy in the Middle East had nothing to do with democracy. American policy was based on a principle of malign stability, conducted in the belief that stable dictatorships would guarantee American interests.

The pursuit of malign stability governed America’s Iraq policy over the decades, and the results were unusually hideous, given that Baathism is a kind of fascism, and Baathist Iraq was an exceptionally murderous totalitarian state. The pursuit of stability led the United States to abandon the Iraqi Kurds in the mid-1970s; to support Saddam against the Iranians in the 1980s; to follow a policy of hands-off, see-no-evil serenity, even in 1988, when Saddam was once again massacring Kurds, this time at a more gigantic level than before, sometimes by means of poison gas, no less. And, in keeping with this same malign policy, the United States decided to leave Saddam in power after the 1991 war, even while applying sanctions and conducting a permanent mini-war, in order to prevent the dictatorship from starting up yet another war. The policy of malign stability grew, in short, ever more malign, until, in the years after 1991, we ourselves were inflicting damage on the Iraqi people with our sanctions. Iraqi society fell into a dreadful downward spiral, and the results were ghastly.

Sixty years of this policy produced no stability at all in the larger Arab world, as we eventually discovered. And so, like it or not, the Bush administration announced a change. A measure of skepticism in observing government policies is always a good idea, but, by now, a great deal of first-rate journalism has been written on the American war policy and its implementation, and nothing in any of that journalism, to my knowledge, indicates that Bush and the administration rushed into war with the intention of establishing a new dictatorship, which is what the traditional policy would have required. The refusal to allow the Iraqi exiles to form a government-in-exile and to impose it upon the rest of Iraq after the invasion, the decision to dissolve the Baathist army and thereby remove the only possible basis for a new Iraqi dictatorship—these may well have been foolish moves, tactically speaking. But these were measures that, in the administration’s imagination, conformed with the larger goal of encouraging a democratic development—something new, not dictatorial.

What brought about the thousand idiotic blunders that wrecked the hopes for a democratic alternative, then? Let us not assume that just because an American administration harbors a wistful hope, the administration will act e...

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