John has been definitely refuted here by the events that followed not only the downfall of the Baathist Iraqi state, but also Syria and Libya. Deposing Middle Eastern tyrants has shown us there are indeed worse evils. I suppose the one consolation we have is that while President George W. Bush was a true believer in the American gospel, spreading peace and democracy everywhere we go, whereas President Obama seems rather indifferent. This hasn't really affected our involvement in the Middle East since foreign policy is conducted by the same people under both Presidents, other than they do seem to have learned that Americans really don't want boots on the ground in the Middle East.
All of this might be less objectionable if our Deep State hawks were a little better at what they do. Instead, we get what Jerry Pournelle calls Incompetent Empire. We are exceptionally good at the breaking things and killing people part of Empire, what we are less good at is the political maneuvering afterwards. One needn't look far to find examples of competent Empire. Both the British and the Romans were quite adept at this kind of thing. The Deep State seems largely to be populated with folks who share whiggish understandings of human nature: democracy and liberty are culturally neutral goods sought by everyone at all times and in all places.
Something in John's favor is that he did understand that forms of government are culturally dependent, and that not all things are possible in all times and all places. John correctly notes that Iran is not liable to same weaknesses as many other Middle Eastern states. Some sort of state has existed in Persia for a very long time, the people there identify with their history and their nation. The last time we interfered in their internal affairs to any great effect, the Iranians rose up and threw us out. On the other hand, John felt that Iraq was a fictional country [it is], with a widely despised government [it was], such that you ought to able to depose one government and put another in its place without too much fuss [possible?].
If we were better at the game of Empire, perhaps we could have done this. As it turned out, we did not succeed.
For the last week or two, we have been overwhelmed with plans for the war with Iraq. The invasion will happen next spring and involve a quarter-million regular Army troops, or it will happen almost immediately with just a few thousand members of the special forces. It will be a matter of all heavy armor or just air power, according to taste. The war will last some time between 72 hours and six months.
There really is a range of respectable opinions about strategy. Newspapers get an anonymous quote or two from someone associated with the military when they publish stories about these things, but I don't give special credence to these "leaks" from the Pentagon. In reality, the press has just been stating the obvious.
For me, at least, the obvious strategy has always been to shut down all intercity movement and communications in Iraq for a few days, install a provisional government based in the north and south, and then bring heavier forces to bear against the government's bunkers and other redoubts. From what I understand, the Iraqi military is largely irrelevant to the war it would have to fight. The heavy armor it favors simply cannot be used when the enemy has air supremacy. Small forces could defeat the large Iraqi military because that military would never be able to concentrate. The slow, massive, campaign favored by the US Army would obviate the advantages that Iraq offers.
A lightning campaign ought to foster or even create uprisings in the north and south of the country; the Iraqi government could be deprived of most of its territory at a blow. Additionally, the US should seek to eliminate the Iraqi government as a diplomatic actor within hours of beginning the assault. Ideally, that government should be unable even to communicate with its UN delegation. We might see not only most of Iraq's military quickly defecting, but also its diplomatic corps.
We have also recently seen another class of stories related to the war. These are assessments depicting the chaos that would follow the removal of the Baathist regime from Baghdad and the opprobrium in which the US would be held for doing such a thing. Unlike the matter of military strategy, such stories do not reflect a range of plausible opinions. They are uniformly tendentious. George Bernard Shaw, in his silly old age, opposed the British declaration of war against Germany in 1939. "What on earth would happen if we did defeat the Germans?" he would ask. "Is our policy to overthrow the governments of Germany and the Soviet Union, and replace them with the British constitution?" The difference between today's anti-war propaganda and that of 1939 is that Shaw was honestly stupid.
There is such a thing as overreaching, however. We see an example of this in Reuel Marc Gerecht's Weekly Standard article of August 5, "Regime Change in Iran?" The piece acutely points out that President Bush's approach to the war on terror is a species of "liberation theology." The article does not propose invading Iran while we are in the neighborhood, but simply that we should promote the overthrow of the Islamic Republic, not seek to engage it.
There are mysteries in this matter that do not apply to Iraq. One can plug and unplug the governments of most Middle Eastern countries because they are make-believe states to begin with. Their peoples barely tolerate them. This is particularly true of the Baathist government of Syria, the removal of which is the key to solving the Palestinian situation. Iran, in contrast, is a real country. It has a lively civil society and a notable cultural life, both rarities in the region. It even has an imperfect democracy. Gerecht's argument is that, with a little push, Iran could become a secular, democratic state like Turkey.
Maybe, but I have misgivings. For one thing, the Wilsonianism-with-teeth that the Weekly Standard promotes really is a "liberation theology," even if the people who favor it imagine that they are encouraging secular neutrality. Muslims often look on Western secular humanism as a kind of Protestant Christianity, and they have a point.
Islam is not a "medieval" civilization awaiting its Reformation. Mohammed was a sort of Luther, who brought simplicity and egalitarianism to the orthodoxies and heterodoxies of the Middle East. He even brought "sola scriptura," which would not enter Christianity for another 900 years. Islam is in fact a fossil Reformation. You can shatter a fossil, but you cannot get it to grow again.