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Jewish World Review Nov. 21, 2001 / 6 Kislev, 5762

Michael Kelly

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A reach too far -- NOW that at least short-term military victory in Afghanistan seems reasonably likely, the focus turns to the question of how to maximize the gains of victory. In some quarters, the thinking is suddenly rather grand.

Eliot A. Cohen, a professor of strategic studies at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, writes in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal that what we are engaged in here is nothing less than World War IV (the Cold War was III).

Cohen declares: "If one front in this war is the contest for free and moderate governance in the Muslim world, the U.S. should throw its weight behind pro-Western and anti-clerical forces there." Regarding Iran, he says that we Americans should "do everything in our power to support a civil society that loathes the mullahs and yearns to overturn their rule," adding: "The overthrow of the first theocratic revolutionary Muslim state . . . and its replacement by a moderate or secular government would be no less important a victory in this war than the annihilation of bin Laden." Also, we should finish off Iraq. (There, that should keep us busy through Ramadan.)

Thomas L. Friedman, writing the same day in the New York Times, is not nearly so keen for Armageddon as is Cohen, but he agrees that the great victory we are fighting for is, as he puts it, "democracy, stupid." He writes: "Those who argue that we needn't press for democracy in Arab-Muslim states, and can rely on repressive regimes, have it all wrong."

Is this true? Is this why we are in Afghanistan, to spread democracy throughout the Muslim world?

The immediate reason we are fighting is to destroy a terrorist organization and its host government, and the reason we must do that is because the terrorist organization represents an active and massive threat to us. Once that is achieved, it seems to me, the United States has a moral and practical obligation in Afghanistan to (1) see to it that there is established some regime, representative enough of the various local forces to escape a resumption of inter-tribal war, that is not hostile to the United States and that does not threaten our ally Pakistan; and (2) provide some material aid, particularly in the matters of refugees, food and war damage.

This may be achieved without recourse to a peacekeeping force; it was encouraging that the Northern Alliance reportedly agreed on Monday to share power with rival tribes in Kabul. But probably some outside force will be necessary.

It will not, however, be the job of that force to forge in Afghanistan a democracy -- any more than the peacekeeping forces in Bosnia and Kosovo are charged with forging democracy. The forced truces that the United States and NATO brought about in Bosnia and Kosovo are tremendously flawed; no one can pretend that we have achieved there anything like democracy or the rule of law. We have achieved, imperfectly in an imperfect world, the cessation of an immediate destabilizing violence. This cessation carries with it a very fragile (some would say a very fat) hope that, absent continuing slaughter, the warring ethnic enemies may, one day, advance at least a little bit toward the ideals of Western government. But this is all.

It is true that the goals in the war go beyond Afghanistan. There will need to be years of international security efforts to destroy the terror networks. There will need to be a conclusive reckoning with Saddam Hussein's regime, since it too represents a continuing and massive threat to American lives.

But beyond this? Let's concede that democracy is, in the long run, necessary for the establishment of free, tolerant and neighborly states. But three questions remain: Are we generally capable of overthrowing undemocratic Islamic regimes (there are a lot of them) and replacing them with free and moderate democracies? What would happen if we tried? If we succeeded?

By and large, we are not capable of overthrowing such regimes, most of which are much more entrenched than the Taliban. If we tried, we would probably get a jihad for real. If we succeeded, we would get a world of unintended consequences -- where, to give one example, the unfree and undemocratic regime of Saudi Arabia is replaced by a regime that greatly resembles the Taliban.

Once, the United States had an ally in the Middle East, a repressive regime, but pro-Western and anti-clerical. We threw a lot of weight behind this regime but it was overthrown by a movement that, at the time, seemed to genuinely represent the popular will. And that, Mr. Cohen, is how we ended up with today's Iran.

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Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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