Matt Yglesias has been calling this line of thinking racist for some time, but I don’t think that’s right; rather, I think it reflects the poverty of the liberal imagination (Lockean liberalism, I mean, not Ted Kennedy liberalism), and specificially its inability to conceive of the possibility that anyone might prefer anything to the blessings of “universalism.” This has been one of the fatal flaws in the Iraq enterprise from the beginning - the notion that the superiority of a liberal, semi-secular multiethnic democracy to the various alternatives on offer (whether it’s an independent Kurdistan or a Moqtada-style Islamic Republic) was sufficiently self-evident to get the vast majority of Iraqis on board. ~Ross Douthat
This is a vital point, and one I’m glad to see Ross making. It isn’t a racist attitude as such (though I guess it could become one if allowed to run its course), but the bitter venom of the dejected hyper-optimist. It is like a father shouting abuse at his two-year old son for not being able to drive the family car: “What’s wrong with you, you ungrateful, lazy brat? Put this car in gear already! What do you mean you don’t know how to drive? I gave you the manual!” Excessively high expectations based in delusionally optimistic assessments of the real world will always come crashing down when they encounter that real world itself, and the angst and resentment will be deep and severe.
As Prof. Dienstag, author of Pessimism, noted in my interview with him published a couple weeks ago, optimism in this world always breeds disappointment, which leads to an ugly politics of resentment. It is possible that that politics of resentment on Iraq might eventually turn into more vicious prejudices, but right now it is limited mainly to war supporters excusing their own arrogance and delusions by pinning much of the failure on the Iraqis who failed to live up to an archetype of Universal Man that has never existed in the real world and never could exist. Inside of every Iraqi, pace Joker of Full Metal Jacket, there is not an American trying to get out, and even if none of the war’s supporters would ever put their original beliefs quite so bluntly many of them very much did believe that Man is everywhere the same in almost all respects (certainly in all important ones). In one sense, it is true that the Iraqis “failed” to hold up their end of the bargain, but then any people would fail when given a virtually impossible task with no preparation and limited resources. One might as well blame a hatchling for falling to its death after you throw it off the side of a building and say to it, “Fly! You’re free now!” Instead of saying, “I should never have thrown that hatchling off the roof,” these people say, ”Stupid bird!”
Observing the Iraqis’ lack of any history or habits suitable to the kind of government they were being called on to run is not condescension or chauvinism. It seems to me to be a blunt assessment of the unequal states of different cultures around the world with respect to having the necessary habits and history to cultivate a functioning representative government under a rule of law. There is nothing inherent in any particular people that makes them eternally incapable of such a political regime, should they for some reason actually want to create it, but there are a great many things in various peoples’ cultures or religions that will always take precedence (and, in some sense, absolutely should take precedence) over the question of how legislative bodies shall be selected or what kind of protections against the state will be enshrined in law. Sometimes this culture or religion will proscribe the attempt at having a representative government as we understand it all together, which would be rather normal and in keeping with most of human history. Perhaps it is regrettable, and perhaps it would be better in certain ways if that were not the case, but conservatives, at least, are supposed to be good at facing up to things as they are. Many have either become very bad at doing this, or they are revealing their lack of a conservative mind every day they continue to run away from a clear assessment of things as they are.
I have frequently commented on this (broadly-construed) liberal contempt for people with traditional loyalties and motivations that do not fall into the neat patterns of what constitute the ”rational motives” of good secular Western liberals, and on why it is a preposterous way to think about other peoples and cultures (especially if one is attempting to change those cultures in some significant way).
One of the more pathetic lines coming out the pro-war camp these days is the one put forward by Krauthammer, who holds that one of the main mistakes war supporters made was that they underestimated how much damage Hussein had done to Iraqi political culture, as if this entire project would have worked wonderfully well had it taken place in 1958 or 1978 instead. That isn’t to deny that Hussein did a lot of damage to Iraqi political culture, but to point out that the delusion remains among some of these people that beneath the carapace of totalitarianism lay the vital, gooey center of the potential for a democratic Iraq. It may have been badly damaged under Hussein, I will allow, but there remains among them the Krauthammerian illusion that it ever existed in the first place. That is so profoundly wrong that it isn’t funny–how do people such as these get to be taken seriously on matters of national importance?
The bitterness of a Ralph Peters is all the more powerful because he remained so delusionally committed to the project for so long when so many others had already jumped ship. Now that he is throwing in the towel, it’s only because the Iraqis have proven themselves unworthy of what he and his ilk have deigned to offer. None of these people ever seems to consider the possibility that the gift was not a worthy or fitting one for the people to whom it was offered. (Shocking heresy, I know–how can democracy be unsuitable for anyone?) In typical hard-headed ideological fashion, these war supporters are like the guy who can’t understand why his wife doesn’t appreciate getting a copy of Grand Theft Auto for her birthday–except that the stakes in Iraq are far greater and the inappropriateness of the gift is almost immeasurably worse.
The only reason why those who are still true believers in the war in Iraq (think Hugh Hewitt) haven’t gone into full-on anti-Iraqi mode is because they are still caught up in full-on liberal- and media-hating mode. These folks are too busy concocting elaborate theories of the “enemy within” betraying the country that they actually willfully overlook the event in which one of our own putative allies forces our soldiers to ditch one of their own men held in captivity to serve a local political agenda. When these people give up on Iraq, pity the Iraqis, who will not only have to suffer the hell Washington has helped create but will also be scorned and mocked by their erstwhile benefactors for their failure to be good, little subalterns and learn to imitate the masters. This contempt for the Iraqis is rarely explicitly racial or even religious. Its roots are ideological: these sorts of people have begun to hate the Iraqis because the Iraqis remind them that real people do not conform to the sterile dogmas of their think tanks and their sadly inadequate political theories. They are not playing by the same rules; they may not even be playing the same game, which is very bothersome for people who want everyone everywhere in the world to play the same game. If Iraqis do not conform to the model, perhaps other peoples will also fail to conform, which threatens to reveal that the model itself is bogus (which has, of course, been repeatedly revealed before, but each time it happens it makes it harder for the ideologue to talk his way out of it).
Obviously, I agree with Ross that this failure to understand the pull on Iraqis of other loyalties and motivations was a major flaw in so much of the ”debate” leading up to the invasion and much of what happened in the post-invasion occupation. The line was simply, “Everybody wants freedom,” as if that were a coherent or meaningful position in discussing political realities.
Back on 9 August, I wrote about the contemptuous liberal attitude towards people with other loyalties and motivations:
But there is something a little odd and more than a little condescending about this. It is as if the liberal universalist yuppie has taken his first steps out of his own, sheltered neighbourhood to meet with a brusque reception at the local bar full of people he has never seen before (except maybe on TV) and does not really understand. After an evening at the bar that sees him get into a nasty brawl with someone over an ill-chosen phrase about liberation, he is confident that ”those people” are simply savages who simply want to obey their lower desires. That must be what they want more than anything else. Nobody likes people like this yuppie, because he makes no effort to understand the motivations of his fellow man. “If they do not respond as I do, or as I would wish them to, they must be bent solely on evil or destruction or vengeance–that’s the only explanation!”
In the mind of this kind of liberal universalist, maintaining strong attachments to “tribe or religion or whatever” (in Krauthammer’s infamous phrase) is almost as bad as being bent on destruction and evil. Of this attitude, I wrote on 3 September:
What the Krauthammers of the world have never seemed to understand was that acknowledging a man’s loyalty to his tribe and religion is not an insult, but a recognition of the things that he finds meaningful and the things that will dictate his actions. Only someone who views those kinds of loyalties with contempt believe it is contemptuous to attribute such loyalties to others. For Krauthammer, saying that a man prefers tribal loyalty above indeterminate freedom is like saying he prefers misery to happiness; for normal people, it has almost exactly the opposite meaning.
When Ralph Peters scoffs from on high at these people, evincing every ounce of contempt that every colonialist propagandist has for the subaltern, he confirms this same kind of attitude. Again in the 9 August post, I also wrote about what drives sectarian rivalries in Iraq:
There is also the settling of scores with enemies old and new, the payment of blood-debts that they feel obliged to ”pay” out of obligation to their kin or their ancestors or to abstract honour, which is the inevitable form that seeking justice will take in a society where there is no general or effective law.
There is something sick and perverse in the idea that if every man does not desire “freedom,” he is therefore primarily be out to bludgeon in his neighbour’s skull or be bent on killing Jews, as if the range of human motivation was so limited and as if there were no diversity of human motives beyond these starkly opposed poles.
So the universalist yuppie says to his friends back at the villa: “I used to think that everyone was equal and desired the same things that I did, but now I realise that people who do not desire what I do are irrational savages.” How quickly a universalist can go from praising the universality of freedom and the general dignity of man to declaring entire groups of people to be motivated by nothing better than power-hunger and bloodlust. So much for the universal aspirations of Man!
Earlier, on 3 August, I noted how bizarre it was that many Americans assume that what we were offering to the Iraqis (assuming for the sake of argument the best of intentions on this score) was what all normal societies should want and which their societies failed to create because their societies were dysfunctional. (They may be dysfunctional in many important respects, but if so they are dysfunctional by our lights in ways that many societies have been dysfunctional.) Rather than see our own culture as an odd mutant strain that has since found footholds elsewhere, many of us view the Islamic world as being deeply abnormal when it is far more normal–if we judge by the bulk of human experience–than is our own kind of political culture and society:
The question we might ask instead is why anyone thinks that there is something aberrant about people who prefer traditional loyalties to religion, clan and family over the dubious benefits of the nation-state, “rational” legislation, social atomisation and secular democratic politics. We may find their religion deficient and see other problems in their political culture, but that is beside the point.
At bottom the democratists are puzzled by the peoples of the Near East not because the latter are an aberration, a glitch in the universal progression towards global liberal democracy, but because they are far closer to the normal human experience found throughout recorded history. It is an experience from which the democratists have been divorced for a fairly long time; it is a kind of experience they have grown up learning to look down on and ridicule as primitive or regressive. To find people for whom the usual god-words (democracy, equality, rights, etc.) have no real meaning in the final analysis is a bit like landing on an entirely foreign shore to encounter people almost beyond your understanding. How could they not want freedom more than anything, after all? But for such people, avenging slights to honour, protecting hearth and home and fighting your kin’s ancestral or new enemies are the stuff of life; they are things that endure regardless of the regime, regardless of the laws on the books, and they count for a lot more than what any new Iraqi government or “free society” has to offer them. Indeed, if they knew what “rational” legislation and “free society” entailed for their traditional loyalties and customs, they would probably stop killing their sectarian enemies and direct all their efforts to preventing these things from coming to their country.
All of this is by way of saying that the entire enterprise was doomed from the start, as some of us assumed and as a few said four years ago. Arguably, it does not necessarily tell us what Washington should do now. Nonetheless, partly because of the foregoing arguments and partly because of what I consider to be a fairly common sense view that our presence in Iraq achieves nothing, I maintain what I have been maintaining on this blog for the better part of two years and what I have believed since the war started: we should end the occupation and bring our soldiers home as soon as it is practicable. I assume that this could be done within a year, and I imagine that this is actually a fairly conservative estimate of how long a safe extraction of our soldiers would take.
Where would they go? Not to nearby staging areas, not to a new set of foreign bases that will irk the locals, but back home. Bring them back to this country. The Iraqis (and others) will compete in the funeral games of Iraq, and someone or other will win. If opponents of the war still believe, as I do, that Hussein’s Iraq was no serious threat to the United States, I defy anyone to explain how a fragmented, even weaker batch of sub-Iraqi statelets will threaten anyone except each other. We can keep meddling and prolong the intra-Iraqi conflict as we did in Yugoslavia, or we can step aside and avoid getting trapped in the middle of a conflict that we cannot now prevent. Simply put, if we do not leave Iraq in the near future, I am doubtful that we will leave for many, many more years, by which time our casualties will have risen still higher and the inevitable break-up of Iraq will still take place after the full depth of our impotence to stop it has been revealed. More Americans will have died for a bad cause that will not even have some redeeming quality of marginal success.
Leaving now will incur the recriminations of many nations that still believe, in spite of everything they have seen, that the American government can do anything if it sets its mind to it, but being forced to leave later will bring down the humiliation of revealing that the American government really did put its mind to saving Iraq and failed ignominiously. That said, withdrawal should obviously not be done pell-mell or in such a way that it endangers our soldiers as they are withdrawing. It should be done with the goal of preserving all members of our armed forces as much as possible, since that is part of the very rationale of withdrawal at this point, but should otherwise be done as quickly as possible.