Blame America Last

17 November 2006, 1753 EST

We have all heard the charge before that some in the public sphere always “Blame America First” whenever there is a negative outcome in world politics. Critics charge that these folks are quick to find some connection, however remote or irrational, between American action (or inaction) and the ills of the world. To be fair this characterization is obviously a stereotype, however it isn’t entirely inaccurate. There are certainly some voices that consistently (though not always) go to great lengths to assign blame to American policies.

However, we rarely see the flip-side of the “Blame America First” argument mentioned: “Blame America Last”. Those who subscribe to this view go to great lengths to deny any responsibility when it comes to American action or inaction. American policy makers are seen as consistently noble and capable, doing what they can in a selfless attempt to make the world a better place—any negative outcomes cannot be assigned to our policy makers since a) their motives were noble and who, after all, can blame a noble man for trying, and b) the outcome was destined to be bad; the situation was determined by forces outside the control of American capabilities.

In this morning’s Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer puts forth just such a “Blame American Last” argument in his attempt to explain why Iraq is crumbling. Does he blame the Republican administration for its flawed strategy and handling of the war? No. Does he blame Democrats for creating dissention and doubt at home by their mere mention of troop redeployments and pull-outs? Oddly, no. Does he blame the Iraqis themselves for their inability to create a stable ruling coalition that can govern for the greater good and establish national stability? Yes. Krauthammer states that:

“…unless the Iraqis can put together a government of unitary purpose and resolute action, the simple objective of this war — to leave behind a self-sustaining democratic government — is not attainable.”

I have to somewhat agree with Krauthammer on this point. Where we would diverge–and diverge sharply–is the imlpication that this failure does not lie with the current administration.

To absolve the Bush administration is to ignore that many of the reasons Krauthammer puts forth for why establishing a stable government that acts in the national, not sectarian, interest were known to policy makers well before March of 2003. Krauthammer’s foundational claim is that “the root problem lies with Iraqis and their political culture”. To underscore that claim he provides a number of observations and examples of this defective political culture. Here are just a few:

  • The problem is the allegiance of the Iraqi troops. Some serve the abstraction called Iraq. But many swear fealty to political parties, religious sects or militia leaders.
  • [T]he problem here is Iraq’s particular political culture, raped and ruined by 30 years of Hussein’s totalitarianism.
  • What was left in its wake was a social desert, a dearth of the trust and good will and sheer human capital required for democratic governance. All that was left for the individual Iraqi to attach himself to was the mosque or clan or militia.
  • At this earliest stage of democratic development, Iraqi national consciousness is as yet too weak and the culture of compromise too undeveloped to produce an effective government enjoying broad allegiance.
  • It was never certain whether the long-oppressed Shiites would have enough sense of nation and sense of compromise to govern rather than rule

I find it hard to argue with Krauthammer on many of these points. However, all these points do, in the end, is undermine the overall point of the article–that the Iraqis themselves are to blame for their lot and there is little the administration could have or can do to bring about a different outcome.

Many who thought that the Iraqi operation was both unecessary and unwise repeatedly warned that the probability of establishing a stable Iraqi democracy in the short term by US intervention was neglible mostly due to preexisting conditions on the ground. We were well aware of these preexisting conditions–sectarian animosity, lack of experience with democratic institutions and political culture, Stalin-like dictatorship that cultivated a culture of distrust and violence amongst Iraqis (particularly different religous and ethnic sects)–and the difficulties they can pose to the establishment of democracy. Combine that with the shoddy record of establishing democracy through military intervention as well as the existence of a skilled transnational group able to stoke the fires of sectarian distrust and violence and the probability of success nosedives.

Krauthammer might be right–that going forward only the Iraqis themselves can alter the current course of the country. But the idea that the administration has no role to play in the current status quo is absurd and myopic (just the sort of essay I have come to expect from Mr. Krauthammer). No doubt that the region, the world, and US interests will be damaged if the country continues on its present path, drawing in its numerous neighbors in a bloody, prolonged civil conflict. But the responsibility for creating the conditions under which such a scenario could develop rests with the current administration. It is their failure of vision to honestly asses the chances for establishing a stable regime in the wake of Saddam’s fall.