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Rage, Hubris, and Regime Change

Tuesday, April 1, 2003
The globe in slices
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Anton Balazh, Shutterstock

Throughout the 1990s, intellectuals and journalists, partly in response to the proliferation of prefixes — post-Cold War, post-communist, even postmodern — engaged in a competitive and seemingly imperative quest to name an era. The results of this effort at authoritative naming were phrases like the “end of history,” the “clash of civilizations,” an “age of anarchy,” and, of course, “globalization” — none of which, to the authors’ undoubted frustration, swept the field. I saw the 1990s as a “Genesis age,” a period of history when the world was not biblically “void” but was most assuredly beginning to see its “form,” i.e. its shaping institutions (the nuclear family, nuclear deterrence, the nation-state), begin to lose their unchallenged status. Lacking the parsimonious elegance and dogmatism of many others, I also saw the 90s as a “Toga period,” a decade when the world responded to the unique reality of American global dominance by imitating — not assimilating — everything from legislative democracy to golf (the American “toga”).1

With al Qaeda’s attack on the U.S. in September 2001, the competitive scholastic exercise over naming was replaced by a more momentous political effort by the Bush administration to identify the threatening, and to author the defining, features of our age. The result is novel to the point of being radical and, unlike academic exercises, consequential.

According to the administration, the essential element of our era is the threat emanating from a combination of tyrannical states and what I have called “movements of rage,” a malignant political coalition that relentlessly pursues and may succeed in possessing and using weapons of mass destruction (wmd) against the United States and its allies.2 The Bush national security doctrine is a response to the likely proliferation of horrendous “wildcat violence” when state disintegration and/or the covert actions of tyrannical regimes offer movements of rage access to insidious weapons whose advanced technology demands only global reach, not global power. Largely in response to this possibility, the Bush doctrine stresses American military predominance, military preemption, and political transformation. From an historical point of view, these are extraordinary ambitions. More, they represent the practical (not necessarily successful) integration of international relations with non-Western political development in the form of an American foreign policy based on the ideological concept, and political-military pursuit, of democratic regime change.



The first “person” in the new Bush “trinitarian” doctrine is military predominance — or, if you like, dominance. In the administration’s words, “our [military] forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build up in hopes of surpassing or equaling the power of the United States.”3 This tenet has no immediate bearing on the international issues facing the United States because it will most likely take at least a decade for any imaginable nation to be taken seriously as a military competitor (unless, of course, Japan undergoes radical regime change on its own nationalistic terms).

But if the administration is looking at the long term, so will I. Suppose, for example, the European Union becomes a stable, effective, legitimate political entity in world affairs. As such, its expanding population would be greater than ours, its economic power nearly equal, and its military potential the same. Is it at all reasonable to assume that the United States would politically veto, economically prevent, or militarily challenge the further and future integration and military development of a Western, democratic, capitalist Europe? Or, if an economically successful China and an increasingly stable Russia form a political-military alliance, would the United States attack these two nuclear powers to prevent them from “equaling” the United States? And what would America do should Brazil, Argentina, or Mexico decide in the next decade or so to “go nuclear”? It is one thing for a great power’s grand strategy to successfully intimidate the world; it is quite another to gratuitously irritate it. And when, as is the case now, a completely cornered Stalinist regime — North Korea — openly defies the United States by pursuing a policy with the genuine potential for nuclear arms development, it might be wise for the Bush administration not to humiliate itself by making pronouncements it doesn’t and, at least in current circumstances, can’t back up. The North Korean response to the Bush national security doctrine is instructive in other ways as well. Insofar as a defining feature of the doctrine is the elimination of terrorism by means of imposed democratic regime change, one might ask whether or not war against North Korea — which might be fully warranted from an international relations perspective — will further, lessen, or have no substantial impact on democracy and market capitalism in China, Japan, and South (or a united) Korea. The Bush doctrine may posit that war against rogue states, the end of terrorism, and democratic development go together by way of regime change; the strategic reality might be quite different.

Currently, there is a great deal of perplexity surrounding North Korea’s defiant acknowledgement and assertion that it has reneged on the 1994 agreement with the United States by continuing work on a nuclear weapons program. True, North Korea was caught cheating. Equally true, North Korea could not expect the Bush administration to accept, a la Clinton, another apology for bad behavior and offer a promise of increased aid, with an optional visit by Jimmy Carter. But that still leaves us with the question, why is North Korea acting in such a defiantly risky manner?

Recently, North Korea announced a series of economic reforms. The reforms were tentative and ambivalent, however, and many members of the North Korean leadership undoubtedly feared they would lead, as with Gorbachev, to regime extinction. Add to this fear the Bush administration’s absolute commitment to regime change in Iraq — a country that, like North Korea, has been (correctly) designated part of an “axis of evil.” From the North Korean perspective, the only possible deterrent against the American demand for regime change, and presumed willingness to adopt a preemptive attack strategy, is for North Korea to develop an operational, if initially limited, nuclear capacity that will allow it to destroy Tokyo — or Beijing. If the Bush administration’s foreign policy towards countries in the “axis of evil” is “either you become capitalist democracies or we will do it for you,” then for both ideological and material reasons, the leaders of those regimes have every incentive to do exactly what the United States doesn’t want them to do: develop a nuclear capacity. The Bush administration’s fundamental solution to the danger of terrorism, regime change, has a decidedly Jekyll-and-Hyde quality — to wit, in trying to create democratic Dr. Jekyll regimes, it is likely to create enraged Mr. Hyde regimes.



Preemption, the second “person” in the trinitarian doctrine, is indeed a radical departure from deterrence as a strategy against hostile regimes. The difference between preemption and deterrence is simple: In the former case, you attack first. You don’t wait for an attack and then counter-attack. However, both deterrence and preemption rely on evidence of a hostile power’s weapons capacity, not simply its desire or search for such. The Bush doctrine rests on something much more radical (though, if Thucydides is correct, not historically unprecedented) than preemption: anticipation. The logic behind an anticipatory attack against a country like Iraq is that its leader will never cease in his search for military weapons of unprecedented destructiveness, and that once he possesses them, he will certainly use them against us in the form of blackmail, veto, or aggression. As I see it, the dangers of wmd in the hands of such a regime are threefold. First, the United States would suffer very high casualties trying to destroy a hostile regime that develops both wmd and the means to deploy and whose only restraint against using them is self-imposed. Second, a hostile regime with wmd would be more willing to harbor and sponsor stateless “movements of rage” and add to the latter’s global reach insidious types of violent and traumatizing weapons. Third, the success of any single regime of rage would encourage the emergence of replica regimes of rage in other parts of the world — exactly the role Mussolini played for Hitler.

So the logic behind an anticipatory strategy is powerful. However, its strategic application demands the combined wisdom of Pericles and Solomon. To begin with, the premise for an anticipatory attack posits a hostile leader and regime platonically impervious to any environmental changes whether domestic or international. This is not always a mistaken premise — Hitler and Pol Pot are cases in point — but it is almost always mistaken. Over time, most regimes do change substantially if not essentially. One has only to look at the Soviet Union after 1956 and China after 1978.

An anticipatory strategy also relies on American presidential administrations with an unerring ability to identify which leaders and regimes are impervious to environmental changes. Any mistake in identification would result not in preemption or anticipation, but in a war that could have been avoided.

Finally, adoption by the United States of an anticipatory strategy creates the possibility that other nations will justify military action against their existing or potential enemies on the same hard-to-prove assumption that their adversaries, when and if they possess wmd, will use these weapons against them. When Australia declares its right to preempt, it is only a bit more serious than Peter Sellers’s Duchy of Grand Fenwick in The Mouse that Roared. China, however, might very well use the Bush security doctrine’s logic to launch an anticipatory attack on Japan and/or a united Korea before they too “go nuclear.”


Regime change

Political transformation is the third part of the Bush administration’s national security trinity. If global military domination sounds somewhat un-American, not to mention impractical, and if a strategy based on anticipation carries the extraordinary risk that international politics will become more a matter of arbitrary intuition than sober threat estimation, then regime change — that is, the forceful transformation of tyrannical regimes and non-modern societies like Iraq (and North Korea and Iran) into democracies — signifies a radical change in our idea of democratization. By making regime change the central feature of American foreign policy, the Bush administration appears to favor the “imposition of democracy” over the “transition to democracy.” During the 1990s, the fetish phrase “transition to democracy” was the political logos that promised to bring about the “end of history.” Proceeding both from the immediate absence of any international political, economic, or ideological alternative to liberal capitalist democracy and from a mistaken belief in the latent universality of American values, ideas, and practices, the bold conclusion was that sooner or later the world would look like California — a democratic universe where everyone from Bedford Stuyvesant to the Bedouins would drive a Lexus and have one’s own ethnically specific “Olive Tree.”4 Persisting with, even insisting on, the mistaken belief that American culture, ideology, institutions, and psychology are universal, the Bush administration has replaced Clinton’s “Mother Teresa” foreign policy with a “Mother Superior” foreign policy designed to release the presumably natural and global impulses favoring market capitalism, procedural justice, liberal republicanism, and individualism.

Still, the differences between Bush’s and Clinton’s foreign policies are significant. Initially, if implicitly, the Bush administration subscribed to the “end of history” thesis that the “rest” of the world would more or less naturally become like the West in general and the United States in particular. September 11 changed that. In its aftermath, the Bush administration has concluded that Fukuyama’s historical timetable is too laissez-faire and not nearly attentive enough to the levers of historical change. History, the Bush administration has concluded, needs deliberate organization, leadership, and direction. In this irony of ironies, the Bush administration’s identification of regime change as critical to its anti-terrorist policy and integral to its desire for a democratic capitalist world has led to an active “Leninist” foreign policy in place of Fukuyama’s passive “Marxist” social teleology. Prior to 9-11, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice articulated the new administration’s “Marx-Fukuyama” policy quite clearly when she said Iraq was “living on borrowed time . . . [and] there need be no sense of panic.” Rather, “the first line of defense should be a clear and classical statement of deterrence.” The 9-11 attacks made it clear to the Bush administration that a belief in the inexorable unfolding of History favoring the West was both unfounded and dangerous. In a quite remarkable about-face, the Bush administration has devised a radically new American global posture.

Its rationale is sophisticated and begins with the proposition that the United States cannot simply wait and hope for internal transitions to democracy, particularly in countries whose leadership is dogmatically and hysterically intent on preventing such. Regimes of this type might acquire or develop wmd and use them to end our history. (Point well taken.)

Second, internal transitions to democracy such as in Meiji Japan or Imperial Germany in the nineteenth century are often “arrested.” They stop short of creating a “constitution of liberty” and remain dangerously unstable political, military, and economic hybrids. One has only to look at Russia, China, India, South Africa, Mexico, and perhaps even Japan, as current candidates for “arrested development.”

Finally, the external imposition of democracy presumably takes less time and does a more thorough job than do democratic transitions even in countries with little in the way of democratic, liberal, capitalist, or republican experiences. In this regard, the reconstruction experiences of Germany and Japan (as well as Korea and even the Philippines) are considered pertinent or exemplary. They are not. No envisaged invasion of Iraq will produce the psychological trauma, institutional disintegration, socio-cultural dislocation, or economic destruction brought about by our successful invasions of Japan and Germany.


Magic bullet or poison dart?

The remarkably successful reconstruction of Germany took place in the context of a Germany that, prior to Nazism, had constitutional, juridical, and even political elements consistent with liberal capitalist democracy. Furthermore, as Ralf Dahrendorf has argued, the perverse Nazi revolution did have one very positive unintended effect: It destroyed or dislocated many of the anti-liberal capitalist democratic values, institutions, and practices that prevented Germany during its Imperial and Weimar period from creating a “constitution of liberty.”5 Additionally, the Nazi revolution was accompanied and followed by six years of war that ended with a completely devastated German society, economy, and psychology. Finally, the consequent long-term American occupational commitment to the success of a Western liberal capitalist democratic revolution in the most politically, socially, and economically developed part of Germany was inspired and sustained by an immediate, urgent, and unique sense of mission in the face of a newly expanded and powerful Soviet Union.

As for Japan, it took four years of war, two nuclear devices, a thoroughly devastated Japanese economy and society, the consequent discrediting of the emperor-centered militaristic polity, a Japanese culture built on hierarchical organization and obedience, and, as John W. Dower notes in his magisterial work on the Occupation, a country accustomed to the imposition of foreign models — the Meiji experience being a major example, one that occurred within the lifetime of some Japanese — to offer itself as a candidate for democratic transformation.6 As in the German case, moreover, there were the historically unique circumstances surrounding the Cold War, particularly communism’s success in China and the Korean War, which made America’s commitment to democratic imposition in Japan extraordinarily urgent.

In stark contrast, look at Iraq. It completely lacks what pre-Nazi Germany had in the way of values, institutions, and practices congruent or even proximate with liberal capitalist democracy. And unlike both Germany and Japan, Iraqi social organization, far from being hierarchical, is basically segmental, much like a ringworm. In Japan, MacArthur could manipulate and dictate to a hierarchically obedient society. In Germany, it’s difficult to find even one jaywalker in the entire country. It is impossible to see how a liberal capitalist democracy can discipline a segmented Iraqi society with none of the social, cultural, or psychological qualities required for even an unstable democracy.

World War ii severely dislocated, traumatized, and mobilized Japan and Germany, thereby providing the United States substantial room for political maneuvering and institutional-cultural innovation. With the onset of the Cold War, Japan and Germany became integral parts of a Western Castle: the Western side of the moat (or “Iron Curtain”) separating the West from the Soviet Empire. In contrast, an American-occupied Iraq, far from being an integral part of a Western Castle, will resemble an exposed American fort, surrounded by intimidated, frustrated, and enraged enemies.

The Bush image of postwar Iraq is quite different. Here, in contrast to the Clinton policy of hesitation and genuflection, one sees genuine evidence of the Bush administration’s ingenuity and imagination. But how disciplined is this imagination? Consider the following “magic bullet” scenario, one that, to mix metaphors, envisages a “democratic domino effect.” In this account, instead of a democratically transformed Iraq being isolated and exposed to surrounding enemies, the successful invasion and American-sponsored democratic reconstruction of Iraq leads to the collapse of all the surrounding dictatorial regimes: A liberated Iraq acts as a democratic stimulus for the majority of Iranians fed up with theocracy, prompting a Polish-style Solidarity mass rebellion against the ayatollahs followed by the creation of a constitutional order separating Islam from government. “Democratic” regime change in Iraq and Iran then isolates Syria. Its weak dictator, Bashar al Assad, being an ophthalmologist, sees the regional writing on the wall, reinvigorates the Baath Party, and takes genuine steps towards liberalization. This places enormous pressure on Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and King Abdullah in Jordan to do the same. At this point, even the Saudis realize that their family-run gas station must liberalize if they are to preempt internal Muslim dissidence and maintain the fiction that they are America’s friends. As a bonus, with no tyrannical regimes left in the Middle East, North Korea’s only source of hard currency — namely, the rogue regime market for missile technology — disappears: the straw the breaks North Korea’s Stalinist back. In this “democratic domino” scenario, the only glitch is that Iraq doesn’t produce sugar and nickel. Otherwise we could also eliminate Castro.

What can be said about the magic bullet scenario? For one thing, it demonstrates the near-genetic quality of the missionary impulse in American political culture, an impulse that partially informed our origins and manifests itself regularly throughout our history as an ideological belief that America’s way of life in particular and the Western way of life in general constitute the natural, and potentially the universal, way of life. From this perspective — one that either denies or is simply ignorant of the decisive role cultural and social institutions play in mediating the practical organization of universal desires for security, affluence, and status — any suggestion that “freedom” as understood in the West requires a “calamitously improbable set of circumstances” is seen as ethnocentric. The reality is that, as a way of life, individualism is a uniquely Western and particularly American phenomenon, one that provides the most consistent internal base for liberal capitalist democracy.

The magic bullet scenario also strikingly expresses America’s heroic disposition and character, our willingness to identify and undertake great world-shaping endeavors. The scenario effectively transforms and elevates a local, dangerous-but-mundane effort to remove a pathological killer, Saddam Hussein, into a successful democratic crusade that transforms the “last” anti-modern, anti-democratic capitalist region of the world: the Muslim Middle East. One might at least consider the fate of earlier Western crusades.

Third, and most important, the attempt to impose democracy in Iraq and the Middle East has all the unreality of Don Quixote. The truth is that an invasion and occupation of Iraq with the pronounced intent of imposing democracy will more likely be a “poison dart” with a “boomerang effect” than a “magic bullet” with a “democratic domino effect” in the region. For decades, the Iraqi middle classes have been forced to act like supplicants towards those who rule them with arbitrary power. Their servility has undoubtedly produced a psychology and culture that emphasize avoidance and distrust of political life. In no way do the Iraqi middle classes resemble the proto-liberal capitalist classes of seventeenth-century Western Europe with their preferences for, and understanding of, a legally framed market economy and individual autonomy. As for Iraqi society in general, it is fragmented into hostile tribes and clans based on kinship, religion, and ethnicity. In such an environment, creating civility will require Promethean effort. Creating a civil society and democratic government will take a miracle.

As for the regional effect of our dominant presence in Iraq, it is more likely that the dogmatic theocratic elite in Iran that believes in — not simply benefits from — its rule will do everything possible to continue ruling, not graciously retreat to Qom and fatalistically sacrifice theocracy in favor of secular democracy. On the other hand, it is true that a more democratically inclined Iranian middle class exists. The problem? Most of it lives in Los Angeles. As for the part remaining in Iran, unlike the Polish middle class at the time of Solidarity’s revolution against the Communist Party, the Iranian middle classes have no experience organizing against or fighting the regime. Even Iranian students who have a much more favorable base for organizing have been singularly ineffectual in their demands for a more moderate mode of rule.

In Syria, efforts at liberalization will immediately threaten the rule of Bashar al Assad, his family, the group of generals that support him, the merchants that depend on him, and most of all the minority group that rules Syria, the Alawis, a quasi-Muslim sect that the Sunni majority regard as heretics and unbelievers. Should the Assad regime fall, his family and fellow Alawis would be exposed to widespread murderous violence.

The majority of Jordan’s population is Palestinian, not Hashemite, Bedouin, and Circassian. How will democracy square with the direct electoral threat it poses to the Hashemite dynasty in general and to King Abdullah’s family rule in particular? In a similar fashion, democratization, even liberalization, directly threatens Mubarak’s determined efforts to groom his son Gamal as successor and guarantor of his authoritarian family rule in Egypt.

And Saudi Arabia, far from becoming an isolated Arab “North Korea” in the allegedly democratic Middle East that will follow regime change in Iraq, the al-Saud family will maintain enormous economic leverage, even after “democratic” oil flows from Iraq and the Caspian. And if, as I am suggesting, authoritarian family rule is the defining feature of the Middle East, how likely is it that a family like the al-Saud will look to Great Britain or Norway as a model for their family and kingdom?

One must also ask how, in the context of American military rule in Iraq, a Sharon-led Israel will deal with the Palestinians. Most likely, Sharon will use the opportunity to try to decimate the terrorist organizations Hamas and Islamic Jihad (possibly Hezbollah in Lebanon as well). Fine. But, unfortunately, Hamas is the most popular political group in Palestinian society. Should Sharon wipe out its organization and install a cooperative Palestinian government, the result will be an even more enraged Palestinian population — ruled under Israeli supervision by leaders most Palestinians would understandably see as quislings. As for Pakistan, civil war in a country with nuclear weapons will make the long civil wars in Angola, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Sudan, and now in Congo and Ivory Coast look like bar brawls.

The process of invasion, occupation, and attempted construction of a democratic nation in Iraq is likely to lead either to heightened authoritarian rule or civil violence in the rest of the Middle East — or both. A poison dart indeed.

With all this said, if Iraq refuses to account for known and new stocks of weapons of mass destruction, the United States must invade, as Eisenhower said about our invasion of Germany, as conquerors not oppressors — to which I will add not as imposers of a form of (democratic) rule that is unintelligible, unacceptable, and unworkable in Iraq.

Given enough power, a conquering authority can impose any kind of rule it wishes on a defeated society. More often than not, however, military-political imposition produces social dissimulation, not cultural assimilation of the conqueror’s way of life. As Aristotle and Durkheim knew, the types of political innovation most likely to be accepted by a defeated society must closely resemble previous, familiar forms of political life. In the case of a defeated Iraq that requires, at a minimum, the Bush administration’s recognition of and respect for the reality of ruling families as the central feature of Arab political life. Surely an easy task for what the Financial Times7 considers the most successful political family in American history.

1 See Ken Jowitt, New World Disorder: The Leninist Extinction (University of California Press, 1992), Chapter 7, and “Communism, Democracy, and Golf,” Hoover Digest (2001: 1).

2 I first referred to “movements of rage” in my 1987 article “Moscow Centre,” and expanded on the concept in my “The Leninist Extinction” piece in 1990. Both can be found in New World Disorder. The best current work on tyranny is Daniel Chirot, Modern Tyrants: The Power and Prevalence of Evil in Our Age (Free Press, 1994).

3 The National Security Strategy of the United States of America (September 2002), 30.

4 The reference is, of course, to Thomas L. Friedman’s popular version of Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis, with the additional twist that history ends with the whole world becoming California. See Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999).

5 Ralf Dahrendorf, Society and Democracy in Germany (Doubleday & Company, 1969), 402–419.

6 John W. Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (W.W. Norton & Company/Free Press, 1999).

7 James Harding, “Dynasty that is Set to Oust the Royal Kennedys,” Financial Times (December 28, 2002).