A few days ago

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A few days ago there was a small stir over an article in the Washington Post describing Paul Bremer’s efforts to start recruiting members of Saddam’s intelligence services (particularly his foreign intelligence service, the Mukhabarat) to bolster US intelligence capacities in Iraq in order to stem the rising tide of terrorism.

This development raises any number of very valid concerns. But what strikes me about it is less the immediate issue of whether we should be using Saddam’s ex-secret police to help control the country than another broader issue.

In the run-up to war, in the debate between neoconservatives and what’s left of the foreign policy establishment, the neocons’ primary argument was about the moral and strategic poverty of their opponents’ policy of supporting corrupt authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.

Not only was that policy obnoxious to our values, they argued. But it was also bad news in strategic terms since corrupt, illegitimate regimes like Saudi Arabia and Egypt were simply breeding grounds for al Qaida recruits who attacked us on our own territory.

Now we’re seeing the other side of the coin.

It’s awfully difficult to build a new state and society around the democratic opposition, when the democratic opposition really doesn’t exist. You can say it exists, but once you’re in the country it’s liable to become clear that the democratic opposition is really just a program at AEI. However that may be, it’s very hard not to fall back on at least some of the baddies from the old era because they end up being the people who have a lot of the skills you need. This is one of the reasons, after all, why we ended up working with a lot of Nazis during the occupation of Germany, the broadly successful program of de-Nazification notwithstanding.

My point is not to justify hiring Mukhabarat agents today or ex-SS officers half a century ago. I’m only trying to note how difficult these enterprises are and that it’s usually impossible to avoid making at least some deals with bad-actors from the old regime. The key is not making no deals but making them judiciously so that the structure of the old regime, as opposed to a few individuals, doesn’t return.

The broader point, however, is that this should have been friggin’ obvious from the start. In those earlier debates you can almost imagine (and frankly I’ve heard) grizzled CIA operators saying, “Wow, and all this time we were tossing Mossadeq, keeping Mubarak in power, and making nice with the Saudis, we could have just built western democracies instead. Why didn’t we think of that?”

I don’t want to give too much of a pass to the Agency types. We have seen a lot of boomerang effects (or ‘blowback’ as the term of art has it) from our coddling of dictators and foreign repression. But it’s not like the neos were the first ones to come up with the idea of exporting democracy. The history of US foreign interventions in the last century is filled with stories in which the US first tried to build liberal institutions in this or that country, saw it was going to be either really tough or unsustainable, and then settled for dictators or autocrats who were thought could secure our interests for the time being.

That’s not great. But it’s even worse to blunder into a situation blinded by an arrogance you mistook for idealism and then end up falling back on the same old bad-guy-empowering tactics anyway.

Of course, a lot of these guys never believed their own mumbo-jumbo to start with. But that’s another story for another post.

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