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.

The statesmen of the Congress of Vienna sought to turn back history's tide, and their philosophical heirs on the Baker panel are trying to do the same. Democrat or Republican, superficially liberal or conservative, the Iraq Study Group is deeply reactionary. Its recommendations, which will be couched in terms of "sensible" Realpolitik, envision an impossible restoration of a peaceful Middle East that never existed. No matter the politically correct language in which it may be couched, the group's fundamental recommendation will be to return to a foreign policy in which the quest for stability trumps freedom, ignores human rights, frustrates the will of ordinary people, and violates elementary decency. By resisting change, the study group will only make the changes that do come to the Middle East even more explosive and anti-American.

The Middle East problem was difficult enough when the Bush administration stood for a benevolent revolution in possibilities against a range of reactionary enemies, from al Qaeda and Shia militias to various Baathist regimes and the apocalyptic nihilists ruling Iran. For all of the administration's practical ineptitude, its recognition that the Middle East could not continue in its current state was correct. Now we verge on a new clash of civilizations that will oppose our reactionaries to their reactionaries. It is a formula not for stability and peace, but for brutal conflict and spectacular terrorism.

The 19th century was far bloodier within Europe than historical glosses pretend, yet the political order the Congress of Vienna sought to preserve in amber did last, more or less, until 1914, when the inevitable explosion came on a massive scale. But history marches double time today, and any attempt to effect a restoration of rigid, top-down order in the Middle East will fail far more rapidly than did the Concert of Europe. Yesterday's solutions--Jim Baker's solutions--didn't work yesterday. They certainly won't work today.

Since the end of the Cold War, every one of our military engagements has come in response to failing states and flawed borders: Desert Storm, Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq . . . we send our men and women in uniform to defend a world designed in Berlin and Versailles according to the macabre political philosophy of Metternich. The greatest democracy in history has been conned by its own political elite into fighting for the carto graphic legacy of dead czars, kings, kaisers, and emperors.

The Iraq Study Group's members will assure each other of their conscientiousness, while carefully guarding their legacies for future biographers and historians. And the group's recommendations will suggest, in one form or another, a return to the ancien régime.

Of course, the salient difference between the Congress of Vienna and the Iraq Study Group is obvious: The diplomats of the former had just achieved a military victory, while the members of the latter seek to avert a strategic defeat. The freedom of action that the Baker commission might imagine for itself is illusory.

There are no good solutions to Iraq, but some "solutions" are markedly worse than others. Any formula that attempts to extend the lives of dictatorships and oligarchies at the expense of already restive populations will end in disaster--even should it promise us the illusion of a "decent interval."

Ralph Peters is a retired military officer, columnist, and the author of 21 books, including the recent Never Quit the Fight.