People are mostly skeptical of social engineering efforts and jaundiced about revolutionaries who promise to herald a new dawn. Iraq has revealed what human beings do without a strong order-imposing state. ~David Brooks

Well, if by “people” Brooks means “people who didn’t buy into the crazy revolutionary rhetoric of the Second Inaugural,” this is true.  If by “people” he means “everybody, especially including me, David Brooks,” I will have to disagree, and not for the first time.  As we were reminded just the other day, those who were jaundiced about a promise of a new dawn in Iraq (or was that the ”birth pangs of a new Middle East”?) were accused more or less openly of various horrible moral and political evils, including racism, treason and support for despotism.  How could we doubt that Iraqis could pick up in a matter of a few years political institutions and habits that took us centuries to develop?  We were accused of a lack of confidence in the universality of “freedom and democracy” and were mocked for doubting the equality of man–as if we should be embarrassed for lacking confidence in something that wasn’t real and doubting something that didn’t exist.  Why?  Well, we were under the funny impression that abiding cultural and religious identities would trump vague appeals to “freedom and democracy” every time and that a people’s particular history was far more relevant to its political constitution than vacuous bromides about how freedom is God’s gift to mankind.  Brooks and company took the other view.  Now they would like to rush back and claim the mantle of traditional conservative wisdom that they threw into the gutter and spat upon.  I, for one, am sick of this. 

Not too many neocons, New York Times columnists and other supporters of the “freedom agenda” were very actively contemplating what evolutionary theory might have to tell us about human biodiversity or political diversity back then.  They were not concerned to plumb the depths of man’s capacity for violently contesting for power, meaning and identity, nor were they going to sully their pure ideals with any acquaintance with anything so pedestrian as knowledge of history.  We were told to stop giving the Iraqis such short shrift–I mean, it’s not as if these people would prefer “tribe or religion or whatever” to glorious freedom!  That would be crazy!  What an insulting and low opinion to have of these people, they lectured us.  Of course, only effete coastal urbanites automatically regard other peoples with tribal and religious loyalties as somehow low and despicable, much as they regard their own allies in domestic politics with more than a little contempt.  They assume, like some of the old philosophes, that these loyalties are burdens imposed on people, who will be only too glad to cast them off and live “freely” when given half the chance, and that the progress of a nation is measured by the extent to which a people has abandoned these attachments.   

Well, okay, so the glorious freedom didn’t take exactly as planned–but who could have ever seen that one coming?  Oh, these folks.  You mean to say that they learned this from history and a traditional understanding of human nature?  Some of it was even informed by sociobiology?  Who would have guessed? 

Meanwhile, where was David Brooks in all of this?  By his own account, he was still traipsing over the rolling hills of globalised humanity.  What lessons did Brooks draw from his rude awakening to the “jagged” and rough nature of the world?  Oh, right, more democracy for everybody!  Or, as I put it back then:

But here Brooks has made a curious maneuver, wrapping up the effort to spread universalist propositions in supposed loyalty to his “group,” his tribe, which he has defined in the most non-specific and un-tribal way possible.  It is as if he has declared a blood debt against Iraq on behalf of the proposition nation: “Hello, my name is David Brooks.  You killed my proposition, prepare to die.”   

“People” who used to be, or were supposed to be, skeptical of social engineering–those pesky neocons and their fellow travellers–undertook one of the greatest social engineering projects in recent history and declared anyone who doubted this project to be a regressive, hidebound villain who was, to top it off, an anti-Semite or perhaps something worse (an isolationist!).  Those of us who said, “Iraq will fragment and self-destruct in the absence of strong central government!” or “You can’t build a modern democracy in a sectarian, tribal Islamic society!” were dismissed as (horror of horrors!) pessimists, and when some of us said that widespread insecurity and violence might not be all together the best cement of a new civil society we were told that “freedom is untidy.”  Yes, well sectarian massacres are also untidy.  They can be downright messy.  Those of us who questioned the wisdom of the grand project were told, “We did it in Japan and Germany, and we can do it again!”  Except that Iraq was nothing like those other places. 

Then there was the small problem that this keen grasp of the power of culture and an awareness of the enduring passions and instincts of human nature that Brooks has enjoyed showing off in the last year or so were entirely absent from the thinking of the proponents of the global democratic revolution, including Brooks himself, because had they paid any attention to these things they would have had to acknowledge that their entire project was doomed from the beginning.  

Consider, by way of comparison, the still basically unrepentant David Brooks from a little over two and half years ago:

This time, unlike 1920, say, Iraqis can see a panoply of new and thriving democracies. They have witnessed Iran’s horrible experience with theocracy. Once the political process moves ahead, nationalism will work in our favor, as Iraqis seek to become the leading reformers in the Arab world.

We hawks were wrong about many things. But in opening up the possibility for a slow trudge toward democracy, we were still right about the big thing.

Again in May 2004:

Bush is putting this tenet of our national creed to a fearsome test in the worst possible circumstances. For the past year Americans have committed horrible blunders. And if this gamble fails, it won’t be only the competence of our officials that will be called into question — it will be the American creed itself. Since before the nation’s founding, Americans have thought of themselves as the great democratic champions of the globe.

If this gamble fails to come off, then that mission will seem, to many, false. Perhaps democracy and freedom are not really universal values, some will say. Perhaps they are just the outgrowths of a specific culture. People on the left and right will race to withdraw from the world. It will become difficult to take on the tyrants who will menace the world.

On the other hand, if we muddle through in Iraq and some semidemocratic nation slowly emerges, it won’t be because of American skill. It will be because the democratic creed is so strong it can withstand the highest incompetence. Then there really will be hope for a democratic Middle East. The war on terror will really look winnable.

Of course, the mission of democratising the world has not been the national mission, much less has it been at the heart of the “American creed,” but this column from 2004 helps remind us just how blinkered Brooks continued to be even at that late stage in the game as the earliest phases of the sectarian war we now see before us were taking shape.  It is nearly impossible to take a single word Brooks says now seriously because he still thought in May 2004 that there was a reasonable prospect of success at vindicating the “democratic creed” in Iraq.  He was not alone–a  lot of “serious” people thought this and are still for some reason regarded as informed observers.