Power Precedes Politics

Column: What liberal internationalists don’t understand

An ISIL image shows the country’s largest oil refinery under ISIL control / AP
June 27, 2014

The situation on the ground: Iraq in flames. The black flag of al Qaeda over Sunni-majority cities, Shiite militias cleansing Baghdad neighborhoods of other sects and ethnicities, car and suicide bombs exploding daily, the government of Nouri al-Maliki looking insolent and ineffective, the Kurds hinting at independence. Civil war. Iranian meddling. American defeat.

I’m not talking about today. I’m talking about 2006. Then, too, liberal internationalists had the following prescription: America can’t solve Iraq’s problems. A major diplomatic initiative, involving the entire region, might persuade Maliki to be inclusive. There is no military solution in Iraq—just a political one.

"We cannot save the Iraqis from themselves," Carl Levin said in November 2006. "We’ve been told repeatedly by our top uniformed military leaders that there is no purely military solution in Iraq; there is only a political solution in Iraq." The Baker-Hamilton Commission, in its December 2006 report, agreed. As America withdrew, it said, "The United States should immediately launch a new diplomatic offensive to build an international consensus for stability in Iraq and the region."

But President Bush dissented. He understood that the advocates for American withdrawal had reversed the equation. Political settlements are not the cause of peace. They are the result of peace brought about by military means. So Bush ordered a surge of troops, and a shift to counterinsurgency, to defeat al Qaeda in Iraq and bring security to Baghdad.

After a year of tough fighting, al Qaeda was on the run, the Iraqi capital was pacified, and American and Iraqi casualties began a long decline, giving Maliki the freedom to take on Shiite militias in the battle of Basra in the spring of 2008, and allowing U.S. forces to draw down from post-surge highs.

It is one of the oldest tenets of modernity: The state must establish a monopoly on violence before civil society can develop and politics can thrive. Read your Hobbes: "And covenants, without the sword, are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all." Or read the Founders, who, in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, argued that rights had to be secured before they could be exercised. Power precedes politics.

Something liberals too easily forget. Raised in material abundance, groomed in institutions of higher education, living and working in safe city precincts, liberals are susceptible to the mirror-image fallacy: the belief that, at the end of the day, all human beings are basically alike, basically good, and basically want the same things liberals want—autonomy, diversity, peace, H&M, inexpensive yoga classes, outdoor brunch.

Which leads them to suppose that international politics operates in the same way as domestic politics, through consultation, debate, negotiation, pleading, trading, log-rolling, and compromise.

If only it were so. The affluent societies of the West may be at peace, but the rest of the world remains a Hobbesian environment where there is no monopoly on violence, no global Leviathan. And where there is no overwhelming and dominant power, where there is no deterring balance among equals, there is war.


‣     Colonel Muammar Qaddafi ruled Libya for 42 years. NATO and the United States removed him from power in 2011, and played no role in the reconstitution of the Libyan government or the reconstruction of Libyan society. The result: Libya became a state of nature, a war of all against all between clashing militias, Islamic armies, and rogue generals.

‣     For decades, the Assad family used repression, terror, fear, and Iranian financial and military aid to govern Syria. When peaceful protests against the regime began in the spring of 2011, Bashar al-Assad turned to violence. The protestors responded in kind, with Sunni states funding an insurgency, and jihadists swarming into Syria from the Greater Middle East, from Asia, and from the West.

Syria ceased to be a nation. It became a gallows. Assad, backed by Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia, fought rebels backed by Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Turkey, and (nominally) the United States. Hundreds of thousands dead and more than a million refugees later, the conflict is a stalemate because no one side can totally defeat the other. The monopoly on violence has not been reestablished.

Our response? "We’re constantly searching how to be smarter in how we do this," Chuck Hagel said in February of this year. "It’s going to have to be some kind of political solution some way. And that’s—that’s what we’re about." He was echoing his boss, who told the nation last September, "We cannot solve someone else’s civil war through force." Tell that to Assad.

President Obama supports the Geneva II peace process. The process is happening, but there is no peace. And there won’t be, until someone wins the war.

‣     Earlier this year, when Russia annexed Crimea, fomented secessionist movements in eastern Ukraine, and built up its forces along the Ukrainian border, the Obama administration was caught by surprise. But its response was not surprising at all. Sanctioning members of the Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, the president said, "There’s still a path to resolve this situation diplomatically in a way that addresses the interest of both Russia and Ukraine."

Last month, in his speech at West Point, Obama bragged that the "mobilization of world opinion and international institutions served as a counterweight to Russian propaganda and Russian troops on the border and armed militias in ski masks."

A counterweight? Please. While America has been mobilizing "world opinion," Russia has been mobilizing military, financial, and intelligence assets in support of the Ukrainian separatists, while the Kremlin’s global propaganda machine delegitimizes the central government and liberal democracy in general. Putin may not have invaded eastern Ukraine outright—he doesn’t need to. He sends his support to the rebels. We send MREs to Kiev.

And the insurgency continues, and will continue. Until one side is victorious.

‣      Iraq was at peace—a peace maintained by America’s presence—when U.S. forces completed their withdrawal in December 2011. The monopoly on violence broken, Iraq reverted to its pre-surge state: the Sunni minority in a violent revolt against the Shiite majority, and the Kurds angling for the exits. With America gone, and Maliki’s government increasingly authoritarian, al Qaeda—already strengthened and operating from a base in neighboring Syria—returned to the Sunni Triangle.

Iraq is disintegrating. Aided by Iran, the Maliki government should be able to keep al Qaeda from marching on Shiite-dominated Baghdad. But the weakness of the Iraqi military, and the effectiveness of the Qaeda forces, suggests that there is nothing to stop this war, like the adjacent conflict in Syria, from raging indefinitely. Neither side has an overwhelming advantage over the other. That won’t change unless the United States reenters the conflict.

Which is unlikely to happen. Not because it’s in our interest to watch Iran suffer from the "imperial overstretch" said to afflict the United States. Not because we have no interest in partnering with Iran and Syria to uphold Maliki’s rule. No, America won’t intervene because the Obama administration is committed, yet again, to a political solution.

"Iraqi leaders must rise above their differences and come together around a political plan for Iraq’s future," Obama said last week. "Shia, Sunni, Kurds—all Iraqis—must have confidence that they can advance their interests and aspirations through the political process rather than through violence."

Rising above, coming together, earning confidence, making plans, aligning interests, voicing aspirations, participating in processes—this isn’t an off-site team-building exercise. It’s the Middle East. Next to oil, violence is their biggest export. Why should the Iraqis listen to Obama, when he has no soldiers in Baghdad to put the fear of Allah into Maliki? Why should anyone?

To have successful politics, you need to secure the peace. You need to monopolize violence through the application of power, the deployment of force. The world today is replete with spaces where power is in retreat, leaving violence in its wake, and the liberal internationalists who run our foreign policy are committed to covenants without the sword. They think politics precedes power, and the result is weakness and war.