November 14, 2007

State of Delusion

Max Boot's op-ed piece today in the Times utterly misses the point. We are not at war in Iraq because of the failure of our diplomatic corp. The diplomatic crisis, such as it became, was manufactured by the Executive branch over the objections of State. A beefed-up State would have changed nothing. A beefed-up CIA might have, but when the Executive is determined to get its war, and determined to bend the resources of State, CIA, and the Pentagon to its purposes, war will be got. Nor can the failures of Phase IV be laid at State's doorstep. State had a plan for Phase IV; it needed work, but it was a starting point, and it drew on exactly the kind of experience Boot champions. Rather than refined, the plan was ignored. Rather than polished, it was discarded. Neither State nor CIA nor Congress nor anything else could hinder a determined, and demented, Executive team. Unfortunately, Boot has no advice on how to handle that.

As to the effect of increased State presence in Iraq, we don't need to do much more than refer to Boot's own example: Vietnam. State's presence in Vietnam neither prevented the fall of the south nor mitigated the effects of its collapse. In the end they were just that many more bodies needing seats on evacuation flights.

Worse still is the underlying presumption of Boot's piece: that projects of the sort the US has undertaken in Iraq — nation disassembly followed by nation reassembly — are to be a burgeoning franchise in the future of US foreign policy. Heaven save us from such a fate. As if this one exercise has not already been enough to nearly bankrupt our country, pointlessly and maybe terminally destabilize the most volatile region on earth, steal lives and resources, devastate our domestic politics, and cripple our international relations for at least a generation to come.

Boot's vision is indeed an imperialist one, regardless of his glib dismissals. It imagines the US as a new British empire, straddling the globe, casting the candy of civilization (presidential speechwriters call it "freedom" and/or "democracy" now) in great handfuls drawn from our bottomless pockets. It won't happen. It can't happen. For one thing, the globe has lost its sweet tooth. For another, the pockets aren't bottomless. The US is a declining economic force. Mismanagement over the last eight years has accelerated that decline, and the likely mismanagement of the next four, or eight, or twelve, regardless of which party takes office, is likely to speed it further. Even if we wanted to, we couldn't afford an empire. We can't afford a constant state of war. Do we really need to review the examples of empire in modern history? Do we really need to trundle out the Soviet Union, Germany, Britain for a fresh look? Is ther verdict of history on the course of empire really not yet in?

Of course it's in. Boot's piece is not quite as misleading as former Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation to the UN in early 2003, but it's nearly so. His argument amounts to saying that with a better tank the war would be won. The underlying presumptions — that the war can ever be won, regardless of manpower, regardless of weaponry; or that the war is worth fighting at all — go unvoiced and untested. If Boot had his way, they'd stay so. Much easier to focus on changing the tires than to ask where the hell we're driving, and why.

Let's be clear: we could send half a million Americans to Iraq tomorrow and we would still have an Iraq problem. We could turn Iraq into Texas and we'd still have an Iraq problem. We might be able to suppress it for months, even years; but sooner or later it would be back. As would our Pakistan problem, our Saudi Arabia problem, our Afghanistan problem, our Iran problem, our Syria problem. And it would not be the State Department's fault.

Surely an improved diplomatic corp would be a helpful thing. But to the extent that having a tool tempts one to use it, a ready cadre of "nation building experts" could itch at the trigger finger of future messianic presidents, giving them the kind of false sense of security the CIA gave Bush before Iraq: that this will be an easy one, that we'll be greeted with flowers.

Please, no more flowers.

The answer seems easy: before beefing up the foreign service, reign in the Presidency. Place restraints on Executive power. Reinforce and energize Congressional oversight, and spur the kind of friction between branches of government that results in true checks and balances. Devise safeguards against the hijacking of the machinery of state by a small, determined, unbalanced cadre.

But I don't hear Boot or anyone else in his camp arguing for that.