Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
August 2, 2006
WAR: Democratization, Conservatism, and the Iraq War
Is the Iraq War a conservative project? Certainly those supporting it have generally been conservatives, but some on the Right - see this column by George Will and this essay by Paul Cella at RedState - have argued that the war, and most specifically the use of U.S. military power to support democratization in Iraq, is not true to conservative principles. Now, part of the explanation for this disagreement is that there are different strains of thought within the larger conservative movement; I intend to come back to examine those differences another day, but for now, that's beyond the scope of this essay. Even in the context of the areas in which conservatives can agree, I dissent from the characterization of the war effort as somehow un-conservative. Let me explain why.
The Conservative Principles At Stake
First of all, there are a number of relevant things on which we conservatives agree. We agree on our fundamental view of human nature: that human beings are, as any economist will tell you, fundamentally self-interested; and are, as any Christian will tell you, fundamentally flawed and sinful; and that some subset of people are just evil. Thus, while all people share certain basic desires for personal and family freedom and material well-being, those desires will be manifested in very different ways accross cultures, and will often be offset by less charitable impulses - the drive to dominate, to interfere in a neghbor's business, to envy, hatred, and war. We also agree that human nature itself can not be changed by government, and that it is foolhardy to do so.
At the same time, conservatives recognize that human nature does not operate in a vacuum; that within the range of our natures, the behavior of individuals and peoples are affected by culture - including religion as well as national and tribal cultures - and that culture generally changes only slowly and organically, or at least that when governments try to change culture, the results are usually long on futility and unplanned consequences and short on projected benefits (see, for example, the Great Society's main cultural impact, the undermining of the family among the underclass, especially the urban African-American underclass). As a result, conservatives in general view governmental efforts to change society and culture as misguided folly. Men may change governments, but governments can not be trusted to change men.
At the same time, conservatives do not fetishize democracy. What conservatives want from government, by and large, is classical liberalism - respect for individual rights, including respect for the property rights without which all other rights fall into dependence upon the state, respect for the Rule of Law, and a wide scope for civil society outside of government control. As Jonah Goldberg often notes, conservatives should prefer these values to the governmental process that delivers them - conservatives would be perfectly happy to live under a monarchy that provided such government, and for the most part prefer democracy not for its own sake but because, as Churchill observed, it is the least-bad method of delivering such government of all that have been tried. A corollary to this is that, in our foreign policy, conservatives often argue for patience with states that are liberalizing property rights and other civil rights without granting more political rights, on the theory that a developed civil society will better support such rights (and, indeed, demand them) when the time comes. In execution, after all, democracy is, as Glenn Reynolds is fond of saying, a process, not an event, and one that can put deep roots into the soil only where the soil of a nation's culture and civil society can support the resolution of disputes through the democratic process rather than by Inquisition and blood feud.
What this has traditionally meant for conservative foreign policy is, among other things, a strong aversion to "nation-building" projects that seek to use soldiers to create democratic order out of the chaos of another nation's anarchy, instability or civil war. Perhaps the most notorious example of the failure of nation-building is Haiti, site of innumerable U.S. interventions by presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Bill Clinton and not doing visibily much better after two years under the current U.N. "peacekeeping" force. By contrast, even Ronald Reagan - the best-known proponent of marrying conservatism to a program of promoting democracy and human rights worldwide - almost always limited his support for such movements to arming and funding the enemies of Communist tryanny (even those who were not democrats themselves) rather than sending troops to guard their newly liberated states. George W. Bush famously scorned the idea of nation-building interventions during the 2000 campaign, and has resisted calls for them in places like Liberia. And with good reason: nation-building of this nature is all about changing the hearts and minds of men, to convince them to lay down arms and join the process of peaceful self-government. And governments can not change men.
Democratization in Iraq and Afghanistan
Given all of this wise skepticism about the limits of governmental power to shape societies, how is it that we now have 130,000 troops in Iraq, and many thousands in Afghanistan as well, engaged in a process that looks an awful lot like nation-building? Let us count the reasons:
1. First Victory, then Rebuilding: As I have argued repeatedly before, there is all the difference in the world between sending troops into a country to take sides against an enemy and fight to victory, as opposed to having the nebulous goal of "stabilizing the situation" or some such. In Iraq, as in Afghanistan, we first went in to remove an enemy - Saddam, the Taliban/al Qaeda. Having done so, and having wrecked the country's institutions of government (brutal and oppressive as they were), we naturally took on some responsibility for setting up a new government.
That doesn't explain why we went in, nor why we are still there. But it is the starting point from which all the other distinctions between Iraq/Afghanistan and prior "nation building" ventures flow.
2. Saddam's Regime Presented a Multifaceted Threat To U.S. National Security: I'm not going to re-argue this point here; you can read two of my short summaries here (from before the war) and here (from June 2004). In short, we had plenty of good reasons, not directly related to the goal of democratization, to remove the threat presented by Saddam's regime once and for all, and those reasons are entirely consistent with conservative principles of preserving the national self-interest.
3. Removing Tyranny is Not The Same As Changing The People: As I said: governments do not change men. But our main goal in Iraq is not to use government to change men, but - as conservatives everywhere do - to use men to change governments. All of the aspects of Saddam's threat derived from the nature of his government, and that - rather than the underlying culture of the Iraqi people - was what we sought and seek to change.
4. Democracy Does Have Value For Its Own Sake: Just because classical liberalism is more important for the people of a nation than is democracy does not mean that democracy, in and of itself, has no value. Much in the way that courts of law, when trusted by the people, present an opportunity to resolve disputes between individuals and businesses without resort to violence, democracy presents an opportunity to resolve struggles for power and influence between groups without resort to violence. Politics, to invert Clausewitz's dictum, is war by other means. Certainly a weak democracy will not preclude terrorist groups from operating against a state's neighbors - see Hezbollah's attack on Israel for a classic example - but even a semi-functional democracy creates opportunities for venting of political grievances that, under a tryanny, have no other immediate outlet but violence directed outside the state's borders. In the case of the Middle East in general, we have seen that dynamic repeated endlessly over the past 60 years. Any conservative can tell you that it's easier to change the governments than to change the people, and that's what we've set out to do, so that opportunities exist for the disaffected to use peaceful means to seek redress of grievances. Even if they don't always take those opportunities, those who do will reduce the pool of potential terrorists.
5. Power Politics Compelled Us To Stay After The Invasion: Having removed hostile regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, we could not well have them replaced by new regimes just as hostile or controlled by our enemies, or we would be ceding territory to the enemy. Yet, being Americans, we have a longstanding skepticism about simply reducing conquered states to permanent colonies. So we pursue the policy that comes most naturally, the one that worked in Japan and Germany and, however fitfully, has worked in less developed places like the Philippines: seek to create a government that will at least not be openly hostile because it is modeled on our institutions, as adapted to the local culture. Admittedly, this involves us more deeply in local civic life than we as conservatives would like, but the history of war teaches us that the expansion of government's role, uncongenial as it is to small-government conservatism and individual liberty, is preferable to half-measures that bring the Dane back to the door tomorrow. Having removed Saddam's regime, could we abandon the field to his henchmen, or to Zarqawi? No. So, we have stayed as long and will stay as long as needed to prevent the remnants of such forces from taking power.
That doesn't mean we stay until all Iraq's problems are solved. Sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi'ites truly is not our problem, so long as it represents merely the internal battle for control; as noted below, we have reasons for not wanting this to happen, but they are not reasons that will any longer justify asking American soldiers to lay down their lives once we have confidence that we have vanquished the enemy and left in place Iraqi forces that are at least capable of preventing their recurrence.
6. We Are Engaged In A Regional Battle Of Ideas: One of the great misconceptions in the War on Terror is the idea that we are at war only with certain organizations (e.g., al Qaeda), certain national regimes (e.g., Saddam), certain methods (e.g., terrorism), certain ethnicities (e.g., Arabs), or a certain religion (e.g., Islam). All these answers are incomplete, and our victories over the Taliban and Saddam are thus just two fronts in a multi-front regional war. Our goal in this war, yes, is to eliminate transnational, cross-border terrorism and the related threat of nuclear attack on the United States, and we recognize that threat as coming from certain types of regimes as well as certain types of transnational organizations.
But the true enemy is a collection of political ideas, at least insofar as those ideas animate either organizations or national governments. Just as with the battle against Communism, we need to take the fight to the enemy not only on the field of literal battle, but by demonstrating over time the superiority of our civilization and system of government. As with the regional power politics of the thing, I will admit that this requires us to expand our efforts and our amibitions beyond our comfort zone as conservatives. But it is not a matter of aimlessly and fecklessly risking the lives of our soldiers for the fuzzy cause of good government - what we are seeking to do is win, and our efforts must be tailored to that goal.
The ideas we are dealing with, I should add - as well as the methods and organizations they animate - are shared in common by pan-Islamic theocrats like the Sunni bin Laden and the Shi'ite Ahmadenijad and by secular pan-Arabists like Saddam, Arafat and the Assads (all of whom, like the Islamists, absorbed the core elements of their propaganda from the Nazis and/or the Soviets, although the Islamists in particular add their own distinctive religious patina). They support tyranny at home and direct blame at the West (especially the U.S., as the most successful and powerful Western nation) and Israel for their own failures. This problem could never have been solved solely within one country; as Steven den Beste has explained in his incisive "Strategic Overview of the War on Terror", we needed to break open the region's regimes to have any chance of changing the dynamics, even at the cost of having to dig more deeply into the culture than we as conservatives would like. But diminishing the attractiveness of this political ideology, while perhaps not sufficient to fix the region's problems, should be sufficient to restore an acceptable level of national security - just as eliminating Communism in all but a few corners has mainly removed the Communist threat to our security, even though it has not fixed all of the ills of the nations of the old Soviet empire or its satellites in Southeast Asia and Central America.
Thus, the concept of "Iraq the Model" in the aftermath of the removal of Saddam: demonstrating to the Arab and Muslim worlds that a different system of political organization could successfully operate in a country both Arab and Muslim and seated at the heart of the Arab world. An ambitious venture, yes, but not an aimless one like Somalia or Haiti. The stakes in Iraq are tied to the broader stakes in the war. Conservatives who value our security should recognize its importance, therefore - as a means to that end.