SITKA, Alaska - It's a small paradox of the war in Iraq. As support for the war inches up (according to a New York Times poll that so shocked the editors they demanded it be retaken), as the surge proves ever more encouraging and as Gen. David Petraeus's confidence grows, enthusiasm for the democracy project in Iraq wanes.
If you canvass conservative supporters of the war, you'll find a level of creeping sobriety when it comes to the possibilities for Iraq. There's no more talk about "draining the swamp" and bringing freedom to the Middle East.
On a recent panel hosted by National Review on a cruise to Alaska (yes, I'm writing this column from said cruise; what're ya gonna do?), the near total consensus among the invited foreign policy intellectuals was that Western-style democracy in Iraq is a pipe dream. "We could do it," one panelist said. "It would take about 100 years, but we could do it."
Instead, explained a former administration official, America needs to set its sights lower. We need to keep Iraq from becoming a terror sponsor or safe haven for al-Qaida. The best we can hope for, the consensus seemed to be, is a "Jordan-style" Iraq with a moderate, somewhat reliably pro-American regime that will, on occasion, vote with us in the United Nations. What we need in Iraq is a "strong state" that can assert its will domestically. A Jeffersonian democracy on the Euphrates isn't in the cards, most agreed.
In one sense, the idea that the Bush administration ever promised a Jeffersonian democracy is a straw man. For those who cared to listen, the White House always said that its vision for Iraq would have Muslim and Iraqi characteristics. On the other hand, even if you give the administration the benefit of the doubt, its hopes for Iraqi democracy were severely unrealistic. As I've argued before, the administration put the cart before the horse by pushing for democracy first, and law and order second. So I'm sympathetic to a more realistic vision. And, let's be clear, even this toned-down nation-building project is wildly optimistic. The surge could fail or the Democrats could dismantle it.
But there's another problem. If all we need in Iraq is a strong state with a moderately pro-American government, we should all be delighted with the behavior of, say, Saudi Arabia over the last few decades. Saudi Arabia has one of the most pro-American regimes in the region. It largely controls its borders and society, and at least technically, it is not a safe haven for terrorists. Indeed, al-Qaida is chomping at the bit to behead the royal family.
And yet, you'd have to be crazier than a Jewish deli owner in Riyadh to think what America needs most is another Saudi Arabia. If you recall, the 9/11 hijackers were overwhelmingly Saudi. Osama bin Laden is a Saudi. Al-Qaida's bankrollers are often Saudi. The Saudi government funds the exportation of Saudi-style Wahhabism, which is serving to radicalize Muslims around the world, particularly in places like Pakistan.
Of course, Iraqi culture is very different from Saudi culture, and a pious Sunni theocracy isn't in the offing in Iraq. But that misses the point. Even Jordan - which is a far cry better than Saudi Arabia in virtually every respect - suffers from high levels of anti-Americanism and support for terrorism. The man who ran al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Masab al-Zarqawi, was famously a Jordanian militant.
American "realists" tend to speak fondly of Saudi Arabia in part because they think the internal nature of regimes doesn't matter. All that matters is how states operate on the international stage. Unfortunately, this isn't true.
Liberals are right when they say "root causes" are a problem. Where they're wrong is where they emphasize poverty. Princeton's Alan Krueger and countless others have shown that the relationship between poverty and terrorism - at least among actual terrorists - is mythological.
The real root causes lie in the nature of the regimes themselves. Poor countries do not create terrorists, bad societies do. And while government alone can't make a good society out of a bad one, a bad government is unlikely to create a good society. Indeed, the denial of civil liberties within the context of a free political system is a bigger problem than poverty when it comes to terrorism. "When nonviolent means of protest are curtailed," Krueger told the Wall Street Journal, "malcontents appear to be more likely to turn to terrorist tactics."
At this point I'm in favor of whatever modest success we can eke out of Iraq. But we should keep in mind that "strong states" alone do not a drained swamp make.