June 22, 2008

Conservatives historically have taken pride in their hard-headedness.  It is supposed to be a manly persuasion with a long view, rooted in concepts like deferred gratification, the proper appreciation of applied violence, skepticism of fads and fashions, and a dour view of human nature.  In lean economic times, conservatives counsel austerity and sound money, even if this means very painful effects of liquidation. In foreign policy, conservatives emphasize the anarchic nature of international relations and the need for a strong defense.  Hard-headeness, however, always runs the risk of pig-headedness. There is also a time hard-headedly to cease doing something that has proven to be a mistake. 

Conservatives should remember that just because many anti-American liberals oppose something, doesn”€™t make it right. The Iraq War is wrong for reasons pacifists and unpatriotic globalists don”€™t appreciate. As army veteran Andrew Bacevich observes, “The costs to the United States of sustaining this dependency are difficult to calculate with precision, but figures such as $3 billion per week and 30 to 40 American lives per month provide a good approximation.  What can we expect to gain in return for this investment? The Bush administration was counting on the Iraq War to demonstrate the viability of its Freedom Agenda and to affirm the efficacy of the Bush Doctrine of preventive war. Measured in those terms, the war has long since failed.”

The absolute worst reason to stay in this war is for some emotional notion of national honor and commitment to the troops, impulses that undergird the very unstrategic thinking of John McCain and numerous buck sergeants. War opponents and war proponents are both stuck in the sane sentimental humanitarianism that justifies or criticizes war with Wilsonian rhetoric of liberation.  Both forget that even in the most just wars, war is at best a necessary evil.  We don”€™t go to war to do the conquered a favor. We don”€™t stay to avenge the deaths or our men like some armed camp of Zulus. A nation sends its military to war to accomplish foreign policy goals. This same nation can and should withdraw these troops when it’s in our interests to do so, when those goals are out of reach, no longer important, or too costly. It is not as if Iraq is sacred American soil with which our nation has any historical connection.  This is a foreign land half way around the world in a very bad neighborhood, populated mostly by uncivilized people, whom we do not understand and who do not appreciate our attempts to impose American-style government upon them.

We will suffer (but not unbearably) if we spend $20 or $30 trillion and a few thousand American lives pursuing the goal of nation-building in Iraq over the next decade. But even if everything turns out for the best, this will accomplish a strategic benefit worth some fraction of that. And then what? We”€™ll still have al Qaeda to worry about.  North Korea will still remain an unpredictable, nuclear power. Our borders will be too porous. Our ranks of third world immigrants will remain too numerous. The Middle East will still produce large numbers of pissed-off young men who receive moral support to vent their anger at the western world in the dictates of their religion.  The deterrent value of staying or leaving Iraq is a wash. Iran knows we won”€™t easily commit to a similar campaign on its territory. Russia and China will still be ascendant in their spheres of influence. Oil will still be scarce and in the hands of unstable autocrats and their resentful subjects.

The modest strategic benefits promised in Iraq to the U.S. and the Iraqis are very unrealistic.  Vast swaths of people all around the world will not appreciate Iraq as a model of good government.  At best, it will end up as stable and prosperous as Pakistan or Indonesia. Instead of seeing idealistic U.S. sacrifices for democracy, most Arabs and Muslims will perceive a marginally successful U.S. bid for power. Most of the world’s peoples will continue to be more passionate about religion, nationalism, ideology, wealth, prosperity, and tribalism than democracy and the rule of law. Not only that, they”€™ll treat these tangible goods as far higher priorities than democracy. 

A democratic Iraq will remain contested by sectarian parties, and, for this same reason, uncompromising religious fanatics will not accept deviation from the pure regime dictated by Islamic Sharia law.  Democracy will be seen as a decadent insult.  No traditions of loyal opposition and the peaceful transfer of power will develop in Iraq for these reasons.  Worse, the U.S., instead of being seen merely as a self-interested or incompetent party in the Middle East, will be seen as the prime mover of politically-empowered heresy.

Instead of taking the wind out of the sails of Islamic fundamentalism, a “successful” Iraqi democracy will be an irritant to either the United States or Islam.  To the United States, it will show that democracy is not the same as constitutionalism, and that the U.S. has brought to power a regime that has a democratic imprimatur for the worst abuses of its ethnic and religious minorities, including Iraqi Christians.  If the laws somehow resemble our own, the Iraqi state will be unstable and contested, a heretical insult to Islam, which demands Sharia.  It will prove—as Britain and Spain have proven to themselves—that Islam and western freedoms and the rule of law are incompatible.  Either way, “success” in Iraq would lead to a mountain of lies and denial.  If the facts were looked at fairly, liberalism itself would be discredited, and the associated principles of open borders and multiculturalism would be dragged down in the reckoning. 

Populist conservatism has been enlisted to support “sticking it out” in Iraq as a testament that we are indefatigable and serious in the face of liberal weakness.  But the ring-leaders of this fiasco have more self-interested reasons for stoking this sentiment:  our elites themselves would be discredited in the process of any withdrawal from Iraq.  For them, better a long-term U.S. presence in a simmering war than a palpable expose of their wrong-headedness in the disastrous, illiberal Iraqi state that would exist without U.S. supervision and control.


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