Sunday, November 02, 2003

What Iraq needs: A Marshall Plan

Fareed Zakaria warns of the danger of prematurely decreasing the American military presence in Iraq while turning over more responsibility for domestic security to native Iraqi forces. If the U.S. military can’t effectively suppress terror in Iraq, how can a hastily trained and organized Iraqi military be expected to do so?

Zakaria compares the process of "Iraqification" to Vietnamization – the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam accompanied by White House lip service to the effect that South Vietnam would become increasingly responsible for its own collapse (er, defense).

There’s been a lot written lately about comparisons between the Iraqi and Vietnamese wars – the more sober of it emphasizing the crucial (and obvious) differences. Iraq is no Vietnam, but now as then American soldiers are coming home in body bags, and that’s a burden no one likes to bear. Voter dissatisfaction with the situation in Iraq will only increase if the number of American casualties continues to mount, and so politicians and policy makers face intense pressure to reduce American casualties. The simplest way to do that: take the troops (or at least substantial numbers of them) out of harm’s way and let the Iraqis handle things. After all, regime change has been effected, and the Iraqi people liberated from a brutal tyranny; let them be masters of their own fate.

But the current situation in Iraq, as greatly improved for the average Iraqi as it may be, is of America’s making, and to abandon the country now – even only partially – in this moment of violence and upheaval would be an abdication of clear moral responsibility and a message to our enemies that, despite the lethality of our weapons and general military prowess, the United States is a paper tiger after all.

Accusations to the contrary not withstanding, the United States is a commercial republic, not a militaristic empire. A long-term, high-volume military presence in Iraq will be costly – certainly economically and possibly in worse ways. How will a nation of people whose preference is to go about their own business handle the load?

Secretary Rumsfeld has recently lamented our relative lack of success in the "war of ideas" component of the war on terror, and proposed the establishment of some kind of "21st century information agency" to battle the propaganda efforts of Al Jazeera, et al.

Has Rumsfeld forgotten how the U.S. won the last great ideological struggle? Propaganda didn’t win the Cold War – it was the clearly demonstrated superiority of liberal capitalism over command-market socialism that led to the downfall of the Soviet Union and its satellite regimes. The complete collapse took nearly half a century following WW II, but in the early post-war years a devastated Western Europe was the ideological battle ground and it was the economic and political effects of the Marshall Plan that formed the hard western edge of the Iron Curtain through which Soviet influence could never effectively penetrate.

It’s time for a Marshall Plan for Iraq. The $87.5 billion reconstruction package is a start, but less than $19 billion is actually for reconstruction, the bulk of the rest going for military expenses. The United States – the West – needs to take on radical Islam and the other hatred-evoking cultural artifacts of the Middle East on precisely the grounds Rumsfeld is talking about, the war of ideas. But the way to do that is not through some anti-Al Jazeera propaganda organ, but through the creation of opportunities for Iraqis and other Arabs that by comparison reveal the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of a belief system that would keep them poor and stupid.

A plan like this would be expensive, but for how long can the United States keep a substantial military presence in Iraq? Without radical change in the economic/political environment in Iraq, the necessity for such a presence will not disappear. Meanwhile, the U.S. may have other battles to fight. And if a lot of money is going to be spent in Iraq anyway, wouldn’t it be better to spend it in such a way that may lead to a self-sustaining, secure Iraq? Furthermore, the U.S. could leverage its current position in Iraq to bring in other contributors. E.g., if France wants major contracts in Iraq, the French government will have to pony up some significant participation in this Iraqi Marshall Plan for that kind of access. The Europeans are no strangers to industrial subsidization anyway, and if the Plan works out, early participation could pan out to be a great long-term investment.

A full-bore economic approach to Iraq won’t bring greater stability in the near-term. In fact an obvious downside is that it would present the terrorists with irresistible targets. This would be a long-term investment with no guarantee of eventual payoff, but the advantage of this approach is simply this: Iraq is now ground zero in the war against terror, and this is the most powerful weapon in our arsenal.


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