Did Wolfowitz really just say that?!

In a WSJ op-ed, Paul Wolfowitz wrote, that when Obama speaks in Cairo, “the president should make clear that the U.S. does not believe that democracy can be imposed by force.”

I find this stunning. Wolfowitz is the primary intellectual architect of George Bush’s endorsement of “regime change” through “pre-emption.” He has argued since a famous leaked memo in 1992 that the US should actively try to maintain unipolar dominance as a foreign policy goal.

This is a remarkable turnabout, and once again Wolfowitz reminds us of SecDef McNamara. After the Vietnam War, McNamara sought penance through the presidency of the World Bank, and lately now by advocating the total abolition of nuclear weapons. And Wolfowitz seems to sliding along the same way. He too was prez of the Bank, and now seems to also be be turning against the use of state power. Post-Iraq, he seems chastened – abandoning tough-minded neo-conservatism to say we should not impose democracy by force after all.

Is this a real conversion? Has he really drawn the lesson, presumably from Iraq, that democracy cannot be imposed by force? He would not be the first neoconservative or hawkish liberal internationalist (basically the same thing) to turn away from the war. Fukuyama’s apologia is the most eloquent of these so far.

Beyond astonishment at Wolfowitz’ volte face, I must say I am little disappointed. Wolfowitz was the best thinker, within the government, behind the neoconservative critique of the Middle East that, despite Iraq, I continue to find persuasive. The intellectual architecture behind the Iraq war was not an oil grab, US imperialism, or the workings of the military-industrial complex. Instead, the neo-con idea was that politics in the Middle East was frozen in time (1967), locked into a toxic, self-reinforcing cycle of easy, corrupting oil money, islamist and arabist ideology, predatory elites, corporatist economic stagnation, and dictatorship. This is essentially correct. Hence the Iraq war was necessary to break this immobilism. Only an external lightning or hammer strike could crack this terrorism- and jihadism-spawning stasis.

The disastrous course of the Iraq war does not invalidate this logic. Yes, the Bushies clearly underestimated how much work regime change would require. But that is a process argument. We badly prosecuted the necessary external strike. But process failure does not undermine the logic of the neo-con argument. To this day, I still find it persuasive, hence my deep ambivalence about the Iraq war, even as it was flying off the rails. That Wolfowitz would surrender this persuasive argument is disappointing; I would like to see a coherent, contrasting ‘liberal realist’ analysis of the Middle East’s problems. We are all chastened by Iraq, but the toxic, interlocking pathologies that brought the ME to this point were well analyzed by the neo-cons. We have to give them that.

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