Why the left shouldn't hope for U.S. failure in Iraq

To suggest that liberals ought to be careful what they wish for may amount to locking the door of a stable that never contained a horse. Let me nevertheless try to explain to them the concept of "unintended consequences" with regard to Iraq. A lot of people on the left seem to desire an American defeat there for a variety of reasons. One, like Mick Jagger, they find George Bush insufferable. Two, they are frightened of American hegemony -- both military and cultural. Three, they consider western civilization arrogant and want to see it taught a lesson.

Each proposition can be attacked on its supposed merits. But for now I want instead to attack them on the basis of their consequences.

If the U.S. does withdraw from Iraq in what a neutral observer would call defeat, one very probable result will be great American aversion to further foreign adventures. Given the sentiments outlined earlier, this might seem desirable. But there is unfortunately more to the picture. I don't want to dwell on the danger that the terrorists would be emboldened, not appeased, except to cite Australian Prime Minister John Howard's comment that, as Sept. 11, 2001, happened before the invasion of Iraq, it probably wasn't caused by it.

Instead, I want to suggest that whatever hopes liberals had for a better world if the Iraq war had been avoided are unlikely to be achieved if it now ends badly. And not only because the coalition ruined everything by going in. Remember, the alternative was meant to be multilateral action that secured peace with honour. But the United Nations oil-for-food program has been revealed to be not only ineffective but scandalous. Its sanctions were supposed to make Saddam Hussein repent of his ways because his people were suffering and he wasn't causing it. Instead it went crooked. However little one thinks of President George W. Bush's approach, Woodrow Wilson's alternative of an international organization to bring about peace gently sure looks like a busted flush here. And also regarding Iran.

Perhaps nothing can be done about Tehran's atomic ambitions; certainly a vigorous approach would present grave difficulties given that Iran is farther away, bigger and stronger than Iraq even if the U.S. weren't already busy there. But instead the West followed the Franco-German model of empty grovelling words ("I plead for the leaders to take the time to examine the proposals with care," snivelled the French foreign minister to no avail) with British and American backing, possibly sardonic. The Iranians responded with phrases like a "clear violation of international law" and others that, translated out of diplomatese, would not be printable in this newspaper. In short, it didn't work.

So the alternative to unilateral American action looks less like effective multilateralism than the 1936 League of Nations. And it gets worse.

I was not among those who hailed the wave of democracy sweeping the world last year or whenever it was. As American commentator John Roche wisely observed, the world is not made of Play-Doh. Other cultures exist, with various qualities that, good or bad, are largely intractable. We cannot, like naive Victorians, expect foreigners to adopt our ways as soon as we explain them.

The left considers such naivete a bad habit of the right but it is at least as much a habit on their side, often compounded by a delusion that the Third World is already multicultural, pacifist, gender-sensitive and various other things not conspicuous in Iran or Saddam Hussein's Iraq. And a chronic danger of inflated hopes is crushing disappointment followed by bitterness.

Thus defeat in Iraq risks not only a period of American isolation and, based on 20th-century history, consequent global upheaval. Should democracy fail in Iraq even with U.S. military backing it risks engendering, in large segments of western public opinion, the contemptuous vision of the Third World embodied in Evelyn Waugh's caustically sardonic novel Scoop as culturally allergic to honest and reasonable compromise. Such an attitude will not be conducive to further foreign engagement, multilateral or otherwise, of the sort liberals favour.

It would be unpleasant for members of the left to accept that they'll end up even further from the world they want if the American venture in Iraq fails than if it succeeds. Especially if it leads to the perhaps even less welcome realization that there is little they can do to influence the matter either way (see "not Play-Doh" above.)

On the bright side, any subsequent suggestions suitably chastened liberals make about international relations would finally show a little horse sense.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson