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 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.