David Priestland: The cold warrior strategy lies in tatters

There are signs that the intellectual tide is turning in American think-tanks
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The Independent Online

Why was the US occupation of such a disaster? Supporters of the invasion insist that all would have been well had it not been for poor planning and penny-pinching. But the real causes are more deep-seated. The Americans have failed because they are in thrall to a militant cold warrior ideology. And as long as it retains its influence in the White House, the US will stumble from failure to failure.

Why was the US occupation of such a disaster? Supporters of the invasion insist that all would have been well had it not been for poor planning and penny-pinching. But the real causes are more deep-seated. The Americans have failed because they are in thrall to a militant cold warrior ideology. And as long as it retains its influence in the White House, the US will stumble from failure to failure.

At the root of the cold warrior world-view is the belief that everybody everywhere wants free markets and liberal democracy. The only obstacles standing in the way of this ideal society are evil "totalitarian" states - whether communist or nationalist. Once the state is rolled back and market forces unleashed, freedom and harmony will spontaneously emerge.

But this argument is deeply flawed. In developing societies where the rule of law is weak, militant assaults on state power will create disorder and corruption. Dismantling the state leads to chaos, which in turn only increases support for authoritarianism. Democracy and markets are more likely to work if states are reformed gradually, not attacked aggressively.

The Iraqi fiasco has shown the folly of radical anti-statism. The US governor, Paul Bremer, followed the cold warrior script to the letter. His trademark combination of Washington suit and desert boots led some to believe that he would reconcile American ambitions with Iraqi realities. But instead he set about implementing his ideological project with zeal. He purged not only political leaders, but tens of thousands of ordinary Baath party members, including many qualified officials. He then went on to disband the Iraqi army.

The results were predictable. Over 400,000 soldiers swelled the ranks of Iraq's unemployed, depriving the US of the forces needed to maintain security, and creating a pool of resentful and well-trained recruits for the resistance. The sacking of expert administrators was even more damaging at a time when the US was struggling to rebuild Iraq's shattered infrastructure.

Bremer combined this "de-Baathification" with a thoroughgoing assault on the state's place in the economy. The Americans cut taxes, opened up the economy to foreigners, and planned a massive privatisation programme.

These doctrinaire free-market policies naturally fuelled Iraqi suspicions that the US was plotting to sell their assets off to American capitalists. They also led to allegations of corruption and cronyism. The central role of Halliburton, a company linked with Vice-President Dick Cheney, seemed to confirm their worst fears.

Now Bremer has left Baghdad, and the cold warrior strategy is in tatters. The new prime minister, Iyad Allawi, presents himself as a defender of the true Baath faith against the "deviation" led by Saddam Hussein. He is reversing de-Baathification and has dropped all talk of privatisation. He also believes that Iraq needs a strong-man, and is demanding emergency powers. And a crack-down may well have some support among ordinary Iraqis, who are increasingly willing to sacrifice freedom for security. While a representative government may be elected at the end of 2005 as planned, it is possible that elections will be postponed. The prospects for democracy do not look good.

The Americans should have known that the cold warrior strategy wouldn't work, because they tried it before - in Russia. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the US urged a hugely ambitious privatisation programme on the Russian government. These policies resulted in a catastrophic collapse in production, the disintegration of the state, massive corruption and criminality.

It is not surprising that President Putin's policy of rebuilding the state, even at the expense of individual freedom and democracy, has a great deal of support among the Russian public. His persecution of the oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and the harassment of other "oligarchs" who benefited from the insider privatisations of the 1990s, is also hugely popular. The Americans' aggressive support for doctrinaire "market Bolshevism" ironically encouraged the authoritarianism they were so eager to destroy. But far from learning from the Russian experience, the Bush administration has committed the same old mistakes. And the recent orgy of praise for that arch cold-warrior Ronald Reagan suggests that nothing much has changed.

Yet there are signs that the intellectual tide may be turning in American think-tanks, even if not in the corridors of power. In 1992 Francis Fukuyama, in The End of History, smugly hailed the end of the Cold War as the final victory of the "worldwide liberal revolution". He did not explore the problems of establishing liberal democracy in developing societies. But now, chastened by the experience of the 1990s, his new book, State Building, sees weak and failed states as the main challenge of our time.

The West's victory in the Cold War encouraged a crude anti-statism that needs to be challenged if the US is to avoid further disaster. It is the de-Reaganisation of Washington, not the de-Baathification of Baghdad, that will do most to improve the condition of global politics.

david.priestland@history.oxford.ac.uk

David Priestland is a lecturer in Modern History at Oxford University

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