The Magazine

From Metternich
to Jim Baker

The high price of restoring the ancien régime.

Dec 11, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 13 • By RALPH PETERS
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THE SUPERANNUATED membership of the Iraq Study Group shepherded by former secretary of state James Baker conjures a line from the film The Sixth Sense: "I see dead people." Two centuries ago, Europeans dreaming of reform and freedom must have felt just as crestfallen as they watched their continent's ghoulish elder statesmen gather for the Congress of Vienna. Both assemblies symbolize a victory for the ancien régime, the bloody-minded refusal to accept that the world has changed profoundly and will continue to change.

If the Baker commission is the K-Mart version of the Congress of Vienna, its influence may prove no less pernicious. Baker is the dean emeritus of a reactionary school of diplomats--inaccurately labeled "realists"--whose support of the shah of Iran, the Saudi royal family, Anwar Sadat, then Hosni Mubarak, and, not least, Saddam Hussein delivered short-term stability that proved illusory in the long run. It was the "realist" elevation of stability above all other strategic factors--echoing Prince Metternich--that gave us not only the radical regime in Iran, but, ultimately, al Qaeda and 9/11.

The leading modern practitioner of this profoundly reactionary approach to international relations was, of course, Henry Kissinger, whose doctoral thesis championed the diplomats and heads of state who redivided Europe into reform-school states after Napoleon's defeat. A classic revisionist, Kissinger ignored the wisdom of 19th century observers who recognized that the oppression sponsored by the Congress of Vienna created only a mockery of peace. The century of Biedermeier sensibilities and Victorian manners was, in fact, punctuated by a long series of failed--and often grisly--revolutions that radicalized those who found the status quo unbearable. The Staats ordnung of the day created the cult of political assassinations that haunts us still. Metternich and his peers induced the social forced labor that gave birth to Marx and all the utopian extremists who came afterward. From the lesser figures, such as Kropotkin or Bakunin, down to Lenin and Hitler, the political distortions of the "orderly" 19th century led to the unprecedented bloodbaths of the 20th century.

The Kissinger school amplified our Cold War support for authoritarian and even dictatorial regimes, deforming the Middle East as Metternich, Talleyrand, Nesselrode, Castlereagh, Wellington, and their lesser contemporaries crippled Europe. For his part, Baker argued--wrongly--that Saddam Hussein should be spared in the wake of Desert Storm; tried to persuade the Soviet Union to remain whole after its comprehensive collapse; and pretended against the increasingly gory evidence that Yugoslavia could be preserved as a unified state. He tolerated Saddam's savage suppression of a Shia revolt we incited, and only grudgingly--and belatedly--acquiesced in our protection of Kurdish refugees.

One of the many tragedies of our experience in Iraq is that the incompetence of the Bush administration's occupation policy has obscured the necessity of igniting change in the Middle East. Removing Saddam Hussein from power was both an intelligent act and a moral one. But the aftermath was so badly botched that many in Washington now long--as did those powdered cynics in Vienna--for the status quo antebellum. They would renew our commitment to Saudi Arabia and other autocracies, while quietly selling out the Lebanese, the Kurds, and the region's moderates in order to get us out of Iraq. We would return to a version of the old order and might gain a brief respite from our troubles in the region. But the greater effects of a renewed stability-über-alles doctrine would play into the recruitment schemes of the most radical Islamist elements in the region, while instigating human rights violations on a breathtaking scale. We would throw away any hope of a better future for a brief timeout today.

Stability at any price isn't the answer. Stability imposed from above empowered Khomeini and bin Laden as surely as it did the 19th century revolutionaries and nihilists who became the 20th century's nationalists, demagogues, and mass murderers. Terror is an inevitable by-product of all grand clampdowns.