America's Middle East 'vision thing'

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently caused something of a stir in remarking that "not doing stupid stuff," which she characterized as the sum and substance of President Obama's foreign policy, scarcely amounts to a strategic vision. What Clinton did not say, however, is that going ahead and doing stupid stuff isn't strategically visionary either. Yet these two options appear to be the principal menu items on offer these days where American Middle East policy is concerned.

Consider the recent case of the "Islamic State" (IS), for example. The president's decision to relieve the threat posed by IS to Iraqi Kurds and Yazidis was sound if not indeed morally imperative, while his declaration of "mission accomplished" one week later as Yazidis continued to die on Mount Sinjar quickly converted sound policy to incoherent waffle (not to say dishonesty). Yet what the president's critics, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.,) increasingly now call for — namely, the complete destruction of IS from the air, ground or both — seems scarcely better. For although this seems feasible, it would in essence be to subsidize violent Shiite and al Qaeda theocrats nearly as ruthless as IS by eliminating their most serious rival in decades at American expense.

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What, then, should be the vision that guides U.S. policy on IS going forward? And what of the vision that guides Mideast policy more broadly? I propose the following: the U.S. should act, as cost-effectively as possible, to minimize the harms violent theocrat bigots are able to do to people who are not violent theocrat bigots. A policy thus framed would seem to capture most, if not all, that matters most to Americans where the Middle East is concerned.

Let us start once more with IS. This remarkably brutal — yet effective — group of violent Sunni theocrats has menaced not only pluralist Kurds and other non-bigoted Iraqis, and not only religious minorities like Iraqi Yazidis and Christians, but also equally bigoted Shiite and al Qaeda theocrats in or from Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Iran. Now last I checked, members of this latter class have murdered hundreds of innocent Americans and thousands of innocent non-Americans over the past several decades. Why, then, not act vis-a-vis IS in a manner that prevents their harming innocents while permitting their harming — and being harmed by — other murderous bigots? Wouldn't that simply make much of our own anti-terrorist work less expensive?

Broadening outward from IS to Mideast strategy more generally, the cost-effective bigot-neutralization policy would counsel a more thoughtful American attitude toward "democracy" in the region. Certainly during the heady days of the "Arab Spring" in 2011, the prospect of Middle Eastern nations' moving from dictatorial to more democratic rule was as inspiring as it was refreshing. But on reflection, it's clear that democracy simpliciter — i.e., simple majority rule — has never been an American, or even a civilized, ideal. Democracy simpliciter, after all, underwrote Jim Crow in the American South and Nazi rule in post-Weimar Germany. It also lies behind rule by violently theocratic groups in Gaza and southern Lebanon, and lay behind rule by the Muslim Brotherhood in post-Mubarak Egypt until recently.

No, what Americans and all civilized peoples for centuries have valued is not democracy simpliciter, but constitutionally constrained democracy, pursuant to which popular majorities determine most policies, but not all policies. In particular, constitutionally constrained democracies recognize and protect, often through "bills of rights," certain fundamental spheres of personal autonomy within which individuals, rather than majorities, are sovereigns, and in relation to which what counts as bigotry is defined. These spheres typically encompass deeply personal decisions concerning the nature, origins and destiny of the human person as well as the person's most intimate relations with other persons. They also delimit, as foregrounds delimit backgrounds, the contours of bigotry. For those we call bigots are just those who refuse to respect these spheres of individual autonomy.

Democracy simpliciter allows for rule by bigots so long as the bigots constitute popular majorities. As such, it is inconsistent with individual autonomy within any sphere of personal decision, no matter how small. This means in turn that it is in tension with human dignity and, therefore, civilization itself. The polities that we count as civilized today are those that are organized as constitutionally constrained democracies in the sense just articulated. It is this form of political organization — the form that prevents rule by bigots — that we value and aim to preserve and protect. It is a remarkable, but ever precarious, human achievement that is well worth protecting.

What does this mean for Middle East policy? It means that we shouldn't take it necessarily to constitute a problem when one group of terrorist bigots aims to attack another group of terrorist bigots or vice versa, so long as neither group of terrorist bigots is permitted to harm innocents — for this makes our own civilization-protective task that much easier. It means we consider it regrettable, but on balance better than available alternatives, if a non-sectarian, order-preserving military steps in to rule some country whose popular majority would otherwise lord over religious or ethnic minorities in bigoted fashion. And it means we do not regard ruling parties as "legitimate" just because "democratically" elected or favored, unless and until they recognize all religious groups' and ethnicities' rights to self-determination, not just their own.

I suggest, then, that President Obama, former Secretary Clinton, Sens. McCain and Graham and all other American policymakers work together to craft a unified strategic vision for American Middle East policy with this "no rule by bigots" ideal in mind. The aim should be to minimize the influence of bigots of all stripes, and to do so in as cost-effective a manner as possible. If cost-effectiveness in this sense involves keeping armed bigots out of Irbil and away from Mount Sinjar while allowing them to make trouble for other armed bigots in other localities, so be it. It is not our mission, nor is it in our interest or the interest of humanity, to protect those who hang non-theocrats from cranes any more than it is to protect those who crucify or behead them.

Hockett is a professor of law at Cornell University Law School.