Foreign policy for Republicans and others: Part II

Into the Fray: The GOP should focus on deterring – and if need be, deposing – dictators, rather than promoting democracy.

'Hard Line' by Colin Dueck (photo credit: Courtesy)
'Hard Line' by Colin Dueck
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A period out of power has given conservatives and Republicans a golden opportunity to reassess their approach toward American foreign policy. Such periods in opposition are often fruitful for political parties, which can reformulate creative and winning ideas.... It is time to rethink the Republican Party’s foreign policy approach, keep that which was admirable about Bush, and reject that which was not.
– Prof. Colin Dueck “Regaining a Realistic Foreign Policy” – Policy Review, August 2010
The is the second of a two-part essay on foreign policy for the US Republican Party, assessing its rationale and implementation, and exploring paradigms for the future.
A brief reminder
Over the better part of the past decade the intellectual underpinning of Republican foreign policy was one of the most widely accepted tenets of international relations – the Democratic Peace Theorem (DPT) which holds that genuine democracies do not go to war against each other.
In Perpetual Peace (1795), Emmanuel Kant expounded a rationale for why states governed by representative constitutions “would be very cautious in commencing such a poor game [war],” while dictatorial regimes “may resolve on war... for the most trivial reasons.”
Since then, both political philosophers and practitioners have embraced the notion of democracy as a war-retardant form of governance.
Moreover, despite some unpersuasive attempts to challenge its validity, the DPT is generally acknowledged by scholars of international politics to have overwhelming support in the historical record.
Since World War I, leaders on both sides of the Atlantic – from Winston Churchill through Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton – have alluded to democracies’ propensity for peace as a relevant element of foreign policy. However, it was with the Bush II administration that it was most explicitly formulated and attained pivotal doctrinal status in the formulation and implementation of US foreign policy.
Its declared centrality in the pursuit of US interests was enthusiastically endorsed by an impressive list of neo-con intellectuals, who saw in this development a new dawn for their influence on policy.
In the words of Charles Krauthammer: “The Bush Doctrine is, essentially, a synonym for neoconservative foreign policy [and] marks neoconservatism’s own transition from a position of dissidence... during the first Bush administration and the Clinton years, to governance.”
Realty and theory
The manifest peace-inducing nature of democracy led to the belief that international stability and security were best achieved by promoting it beyond US borders.
This belief gave rise to the “Forward Strategy for Freedom” and the “Broader Middle East Initiative” which, to a large degree, was the center piece of the Bush/neo-con foreign policy. The promotion of democracy became the proclaimed rational for titanic efforts and expenditure in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Over a trillion dollars were spent, and thousands of lives lost, in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraq Freedom, names indicative of the objectives invoked for their being undertaken.
Less than 10 percent of these costs and casualties were incurred to achieve the initial punitive goals – dislodging the Taliban and apprehending Saddam Hussein. The rest of the blood and treasure was expended on an endeavor to effect regime-change (i.e. promoting democracy).
In this respect, US achievements have been depressingly meager, and even these may be ephemeral. Iraq appears to be descending into sectarian violence, reverting to coercive authoritarianism, while in Afghanistan there are growing fears that after US withdrawal, the country will again fall under the control of a Taliban theocracy.
A footprint in the sand?
It is becoming increasing likely that the legacy of this massive mobilization of money and military might may be no more permanent than a footprint in the sand, erased by the inclement winds of cultural mores, religious rivalries and societal practices that have blown through these regions for ages.
Why did a policy that had such a theoretically sound, empirically corroborated point of departure, and the sweeping endorsement of prominent intellectuals, culminate in what is emerging as a debacle? It was Kurt Lewin, considered by many as the father of social psychology, who coined the phrase: “There is nothing so practical as a good theory.” So perhaps the converse is true as well: “Nothing is so impractical as a bad theory.”
And indeed, faulty theory is the key to deciphering why things went awry.
Defective deduction
To understand this, one must first grasp what the DPT (as the doctrinal source for the Bush foreign policy) says, and what it doesn’t, but is wrongly attributed to it as an alleged corollary.
The DPT holds that genuine liberal democracies do not fight each other.
It does NOT say two things: • That democracies do not fight at all – as they clearly do fight other regimes; and • How – or even, if – nondemocratic regimes can be transformed into democratic ones.
The latter point comprises the intellectual trap into which the neo-cons (and the Bush Doctrine) fell.
They indulged in a seemingly plausible deduction, which expanded a valid observation regarding the conduct of one regimetype (democratic) into an actionable policy prescription for the transformation of other regime-types (autocracies).
This deceptive deduction can be condensed thusly: “There are no wars between democracies: ergo, democracy is good; ergo, democracy should be promoted.”
This error is aptly described by John M. Owen IV in his 2005 Foreign Affairs essay: “By itself, the argument that democracies do not fight one another does not have any practical implications for the foreign policy maker. It needs an additional or minor premise, such as “the United States can make Iraq into a democracy at an acceptable cost.... No scholarly consensus exists on how countries become democratic.”
That then is the fatal non sequitur in the neo-con/Bush doctrine, the assumption that the nonbelligerent nature of democracy can be propagated by transforming nondemocratic regimes into democratic ones, without any clear formula for how this is to be accomplished.
Although it is probably pushing the analogy too far (since several tyrannies have indeed become democracies), some might suggest that this is a bit like trying to make the jungle safer by converting carnivores to herbivores.
Policy implications
But Owen is wrong about one thing.
The “argument that democracies do not fight one another” DOES have practical implications for the foreign policy maker – it is just that these implications are not that the conversion of despotism to democracies should be the primary focus of endeavor.
Indeed, it has at least two policy implications – both of which diverge from the policy paradigms of Bush’s alleged “idealism” and Obama alleged “realism.”
The major policy implication of DPT is that democracies and dictatorships are distinctly different political entities (different political animals so to speak) with different codes of conduct in the international system. After all, democracies refrain from war against fellow democracies, while dictatorships do wage war against other dictatorships.
In this respect, the DPT differs sharply from the realist approach to international relations, endorsed by the likes of Walt and Mearsheimer, which essentially holds that a country’s foreign policy should not be influenced by other states’ regime-type.
Clearly, the DPT implies this is not so and that a “regime-sensitive” foreign policy is called for, at least with regard to democracies.
In broad brush strokes, this would involve greater emphasis on coercion (deterrence/intervention) in engagements with potentially belligerent dictatorships, and greater emphasis on constructive engagement with perennially peaceable democracies.
By embracing/sustaining/supporting democratic allies rather than cajoling dictatorial adversaries, the US will not only increase its credibility but put a premium on alliances with it and make the adoption of US values more advantageous.
Dislodging dictators
In the particularly crucial area for US military intervention, an accurate interpretation of the DTP would result in a policy significantly different from that of proactive promotion of democracy undertaken by the Bush administration, in many ways the defining feature of its foreign policy endeavors.
To a large extent, it was the looming specter of failure and futility, which, as Dueck observes, “undermined the credibility of his presidency and his party with a majority of Americans,” that even the achievements of the 2006-7 surge in Iraq could not erase. Dueck, a professor of international relations at George Mason University, expressed surprise at “what little emphasis most... Republicans place on the Iraq war for their party’s comprehensive loss of power.”
Suppose then that a situation arises which is judged to warrant US military intervention to safeguard American interests. (Note that I purposely skirt the question of what would comprise such a situation and whether the conditions in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraqi in 2003 justified military intervention.)
Given that “no scholarly consensus exists on how countries become democratic,” and the largely fruitless endeavor to promote democracy through martial might, what should be the doable goals of such DPT-compliant intervention?
Over the last decade and half, the US (with some assistance from its Western allies) has proved its ability to depose recalcitrant dictatorial adversaries with relative ease, at minimal cost and with very low casualties, employing largely airpower (and other standoff weapons) and special forces.
The US did this in the Balkans in 1999 (a decision it may well yet regret); it dislodged the Taliban from power within weeks, for a minute fraction of the total outlay of the ensuing war, incurring about 50 fatalities. In Iraq (where admittedly ground forces were deployed on a larger scale), Saddam Hussein was apprehended within a few months of the start of the war – again for a small fraction of the subsequent expenditure and with fewer than 500 fatalities.
In Libya, too, NATO nations, with US assistance, precipitated the downfall of an entrenched dictator for bearable costs and almost no casualties.
Developing deterrence
Plausible questions can be raised as to whether military intervention in each of these cases was wise (in terms of furthering US interests) or appropriate (in terms of their moral imperative).
Equally one might suggest that, say, both in the Balkans and in Libya, those who succeed to power could be even more harmful to Western interests.
Both such claims miss the point. First, even with the huge democracy-promotion efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the reins of power might soon be in the hands of elements just as inimical to the US as their predecessors.
Second, the proposed paradigm must be seen in a comprehensive policy-wide context and not in context of a single campaign.
Irrespective of who a deposed dictator’s successor might be, a credible caveat must be conveyed to him: The fate of your predecessor could well be yours.
The fact that the US has proved itself able to accomplish this at eminently bearable costs will make the threat both more effective and, if need be, executable.
Far-reaching implications
One cannot expound an exhaustive treatise on a topic so complex as US foreign policy in a framework such as this, and many important components have gone unaddressed. However, the far-reaching impact of the proposed paradigm shift set out in this essay should not be underestimated. Imagine how different – how much more powerful – the US position would be today if it had left Afghanistan and Iraq victorious after routing the Taliban and toppling Saddam in short order, issuing a stern warning that a similar fate awaits any regime that dare undermine its interests or challenge its resolve.
Imagine if the US was not burdened with the need to mollify Pakistan because of ongoing Afghan operations, how this might be accelerate the strengthening of its bonds with democratic India and what impact this might have for containing Chinese hegemonic aspirations in the Indian Ocean region. Imagine how more menacing the US would appear to Iran, which today, emboldened by the perception of American trauma and fatigue following a decade of military attrition, dares – almost incredibly – to defy a nation nearly six times its size, with quadruple its population, and 40 times its GDP.
IN CLOSING, we should bear in mind Dueck’s opening citation: “It is time to rethink the Republican Party’s foreign policy approach, keep that which was admirable about Bush, and reject that which was not.”
The Bush Doctrine was valid at the megaphilosophical level in embracing the DPT; it was faulty in its interpretation at the macrostrategic level and fatally flawed in its operational application at the micro-tactical level. Democracy must indeed be learned, but it is doubtful if it can be taught – especially the Islamic world.
The false parallels to post-World War II Japan and Germany must be resisted. These are some of the lessons Republicans must take with them in formulating US foreign policy.