Thursday, December 28, 2006

Never Trust A Jacobin

Folks should go on over to American Future and read Marc's Christmas day post on the legacy of Iraq. (Actually, if you are not reading American Future daily already you are missing one of the best.)

In the U.S., then, the mismanagement of the war resulted in a crisis of confidence in the spread of democracy as the antidote to the disease of terrorism and in the claims of the Bush Administration regarding the war's progress. The repercussions haven't been limited to the U.S.

By late 2003, had the war gone as planned, the American troop level would have been roughly half of its level at the time of the invasion and the lives of the Iraqi people would have been at least reasonably secure. Instead, the American footprint was—and has remained to this day—essentially unchanged, and security has worsened. Most importantly from the perspective of both European and Muslim opinion, the elongation of the war allowed Abu Ghraib to happen. With the publication of pictures of American soldiers humiliating Muslims, whatever chance there was to stop the growth of anti-Americanism vanished. The Bush Administration was trashed throughout the world for betraying American values. The mismanagement of the war intensified the crisis of confidence in America that had been rising since the second half of 2002, when it started to be apparent that the U.S. was intent on toppling Saddam.

Earlier, I noted that elections held prior to 2006 provided a facade of progress, keeping the mistakes of Bush Administration at least partially hidden from view. The least violent days in Iraq have been days when voters were casting their ballots. If I were an Iraqi, this would make me wonder: if American and Iraqi forces can provide for my security on voting days, why can't they do so on all other days? I would lack the knowledge that there are too few soldiers to provide security on a sustained basis. Because of the war's mismanagement, the political (elections) and military (security) tracks have been out of synch. In the absence of a military footprint large enough to provide security, Washington hoped that elections revealing the Iraqis' desire for and commitment to democracy would reduce the level of violence. Exactly the opposite has happened, creating a crisis of confidence among the Iraqis—in both their and our government, and in democracy.

I agree with Marc here in the broadest sense. However, I wonder if the failures of Bush and Co. have less to do with the sort of things that could be corrected by Monday Morning Quarter-backing (e.g. we should have had more troops, etc.) and more to do with the ideological fervor employed.

For example, the thirst for "democratic purity" has been a handicap ever since Saddam's forces were routed. The disastrous "de-Baathization" campaign denuded the Iraqi army of exactly the people most needed to remain effective for any new regime. But, for the purity police, all of those linked to the old order were suspect and must be excluded. Similarly, we have avoided working with local sheiks and clan leaders because that wouldn't be democratic enough.

Indeed, it has become clear in the last three years that our Iraq policy follows a line of "democracy" that has little in common with the American experience. In its demand for centralization and "purity" this approach seems more at home with revolutionary Jacobinism than anything else. (If you doubt this at all ask yourself if you have ever felt that we were engaged in a Rouseauean attempt to "force them (i.e. the Iraqis) to be free.) If Bush had been more wedded to real conservative thought, which would have advocated we integrate existing and historically relevant power structures into any new Iraqi government, we might be in a much better place today.

As I was thinking these thoughts over the last couple of days something struck me as very familiar about the terrain I was crossing over. Then it came to me, I have heard exactly the same argument from one of my old professors ten years ago. Back when I was in grad school at Catholic University I took multiple classes with Prof. Claes Ryn. Dr. Ryn would classify himself (proudly) as a decidedly paleo-conservative, and he took as much pride in mauling the neo-conservative movement as he did any liberal machinations. To that end he published a little polemic back in 1991 entitled, The New Jacobinism: Can Democracy Survive?, that can only be described as a "ho holds barred" assault on neo-con ideas.

To be honest, I do not remember being impressed at the time, but I can look back now and see how in many ways Dr. Ryn was prescient.

(From The New Jacobinsm, National Humanities Institute, 1991, pg. 71-72:)

The belief that political virtue is summed up in specific "principles" or "rights" and that these are also best known by an intellectual elite with special powers of discernment breeds not only arrogance in those who consider themselves in the know but intolerance of those who deviate from the presumed moral prescriptions. Why, indeed, should the complexity and messiness of society not yield to the direction of the virtuous?

The potential for tyranny in this moral abstractionism is apparent, for example, in the attacks on historical thinking by many of its intellectual exponents. The belief that human life is inescapably historical and that the pursuit of good must be adjusted to time and place is rejected as a threat to moral universality and rectitude. To think of moral universality as affected by historical circumstance is, so it is asserted, to dissolve moral universality; a rel moral standard must exist apart from the historical phenomena for which it is to be the standard. Besides revealing philosophically rather amateurish habits, this advocacy of a historically pure moral vantage point discloses the grounds for denying to individuality, particularity, and diversity as such any moral legitimacy. Let pure virtue rule!

(Pg. 74)

Speaking of the United States and its principles as models for all peoples is today a recurring theme in some American intellectual and political circles. Sometimes the will to power behind this refrain is barely able to keep up ideological appearances. Writes Ben Wattenberg, "It's pretty clear what the global community need: probably a top cop, but surely a powerful global organizer. Somebody's got to do it. We're the only ones who can." Advocating a "visionary" American foreign policy, Wattenberg proclaims: "The idea of spreading democratic and American values around the world is visionary." With moralistic righteousness he adds, "It's the right thing to do."

Now, I have little patience with the claims made by many that Iraqis (or maybe Arabs in general) are inherently incapable of living in some sort of democratic society because of their history. Such a belief dooms folks to forever living under tyranny, since you cannot develop a democratic history until you actually give it a try. However, Ryn is correct in saying we cannot export the American experience. Any democracy in Iraq worthy of the name would of necessity have to incorporate the elements of society that have played cohesive roles within it. If that means acknowledging the historical reality of sheiks, clan leaders, mullahs, other ethnic divisions, etc., than it does. Going up to these folks and saying "Ideological purity insists that you Mr. Sheik can no longer have political influence here," is a prescription for failure. So what if the political system that evolves doesn't look like that of New Jersey or Wisconsin?

If Edmund Burke were brought back and asked about this situation I get the feeling his first question would be, "So what are the traditional 'rights of Iraqimen?'" Has anyone in the Bush administration asked that question? I tend to doubt it.

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