We suffer most not when the White House is a peaceful dormitory, but when it is a jitney Mars Hill, with a tin-pot Paul bawling from the roof. Discounting Harding as a cipher, Coolidge was preceded by one World Saver and followed by two more. What enlightened American, having to choose between any of them and another Coolidge, would hesitate for an instant?
— from H.L. Mencken’s obituary for Calvin Coolidge.
There is something I want to say to my NR/NRO colleagues. Also, come to think of it, to the President of the United States and his cabinet.
Have you all taken leave of your senses?
Sorry, sorry. Let me back up a little and calm down.
For nearly two years my paleocon friends have been asking, with varying degrees of sarcasm: “So, Derb — have you changed your mind about the Iraq War yet?”
They’re still doing so; but now my regular conservative friends (the term “neocon” has been loaded with so many silly and obnoxious connotations, I try to avoid using it) have joined in the chorus. When I say “now,” I mean, of course, after the January 30 elections in Iraq. So I’m getting it from both sides.
I supported the Iraq war as a punitive exercise. After 9/11 it seemed to me that we were in great danger from terrorists getting a nuclear weapon and deleting a couple of our cities. There were, I figured, two things to do about this.
The first was of course to chase down and kill as many terrorists as we could find. This, however, would be like trying to get rid of roaches in a New York City apartment. No matter how many you kill, there are always more; but at least you can keep them on the run, their numbers down at a decent level.
The second thing was to act against terrorist-friendly states. Making nuclear weapons is hi-tech work, needing a large industrial infrastructure. Barring some horrible breakthrough in physics, no terrorist group is going to be able to do it in caves and rooming-house basements. They need help from substantial nations with suitable infrastructure, nations that are inclined to help them. The appropriate action is therefore to either trash those nations’ infrastructure, or make them no longer inclined to give help to terrorists. The trashing requires military action, either overt, covert, or delegated; the attitude adjustment might be accomplished by intimidation through example — “killing a chicken to scare the monkey.” The Iraq war filled the bill, and I thought it was beautifully done.
At what point it turned into an exercise in saving the world, I am not sure. I don’t see the point in saving the world if the world doesn’t want to be saved, and I can’t see that world-saving is anyway essential for our national security. Would we, the U.S. of A., be more secure if all the countries of the world were like Denmark? Surely. Do we actually have a clue how to bring this happy state of affairs about? I doubt it. Can we enhance our security without performing world-wide miracles of cultural transformation? Certainly.
But don’t all people, everywhere, want to live in freedom? No, they don’t. I once spent a year living and working in communist China. I met many people who yearned for freedom. My rather strong impression, though, was that the majority couldn’t have cared less. Their main aspiration was to be materially better off. That aspiration has now been fulfilled, and China is as far away from freedom as it was 20 years ago.
But didn’t the people of Iraq show us all, in the face of fearsome intimidation, that they long to be free? Well, some of them showed that they were very glad indeed to be able to elect the representatives of their choice. Seems to me, though, that those representatives look uncannily like the mullahs who have been making such a nuisance of themselves in Iran, and who might be the death of us yet. Wise men tell me that though these characters may look, and on occasion sound, the same as the mullahs of Tehran, they are, in point of fact, a totally different species of mullah. Uh-huh.
All right, I’m cynical, and a sourpuss. I am not impressed by Iraq’s elections, and am baffled by the reactions of some commentators — not the lefty hate-America fruitcakes, who, like the scorpion in Æsop, are just what they are, but sane and sensible people like John O’Sullivan (“greatest event since the fall of the Berlin Wall”) and Ralph Peters (“epoch-making” — followed by a suggestion that when we are through with the northern hemisphere, we really ought to tackle the other one).
Elections, I will grant you, are not nothing; but they are next to nothing. I once lived in a place that was as free as could be — considerably freer, in many respects, than the present-day U.S.A.; yet that place had never had an election at all. (It was British-ruled Hong Kong.) Contrariwise, take a trip to any one of the world’s most corrupt, most destructive despotisms. Chances are you will find an election in its recent past. Zimbabwe’s long, slow slide from breadbasket of southern Africa into a barbarous sinkhole of misery, hunger, and cruelty has been punctuated by regular elections.
All right, all right, be as cynical as you like, Derb; but isn’t it the case, as the President has said, that our national sentiment for liberty coincides with our national interest? That we can only really be secure if all these dictatorships are overthrown and replaced by European-style democracies?
Is it? Leaving aside the current and likely future state of democracy in Europe — I only have one pair of hands — suppose we were to quit Iraq next week, and the place were then to collapse into chaos. How would that harm us? How is chaos in Iraq bad for us? A nation in chaos, under a road-warrior culture, isn’t going to be able to make nukes. Somalia can’t make nukes. Haiti can’t make nukes. So what’s the problem? Because “chaos breeds terror”? Then Hamburg, London, Paris, Riyadh, and Marin County must be very chaotic places.
Ah, but didn’t the chaos in Afghanistan allow Osama bin Laden to hatch his evil plots? Yes, it did — but only in combination with our inattention. We have to keep our eye on these places, and go in and blow up a training camp now and again, or chase some Mujahedeen round the block; but chaos per se is not our enemy. To the contrary. Plenty of countries — at least half a dozen just in Africa — are more chaotic than Iraq is ever likely to be, yet they are no threat to us, and will not be able to make nukes. That is all we require. The less charitable of us might even offer up a prayer now and again to the effect that, if these places cannot get themselves rational government, they should remain in a condition of chaos, rather than turning into little North Koreas. (Nothing chaotic about the Norks!)
I am — just bite down hard and say it, man — with Senator Edward Kennedy on this. I want US forces to leave Iraq ASAP. If the place then descends into chaos, I’m fine with it. What’s that you say? It would be awful hard on the Iraqis? Probably so. It would certainly be hard on those brave, civic-minded Iraqis — there are plenty of them — who would like to see constitutional government in their nation. However, there are people like that all over the world — there are scads of them in China, including some personal friends of mine. (To be a bit more precise, there are scads of them who are Chinese, though many now live in the West.) We can only do so much. God knows, we have done enough for Iraq, with blood and treasure. The rest is up to the Iraqis. If they make a pig’s ear of it, that’s a shame, but I can’t see why it’s our problem. There are lots of messed-up countries in the world. Iraq will be another one.
Trying out these arguments on a friend, he smiled indulgently and said: “John, this is good old English Toryism. You really don’t understand America yet. We can’t behave like that. This is an intensely idealistic nation, and the President is tapping into that.”
It’s possible this friend is right. Indeed, I still sometimes feel like a foreigner in this country.
But then consider: After having grown up awash in American culture from early childhood — movies (one of the first I ever saw was Davy Crockett), TV shows, pop music, comic books — and then having subsequently lived in this country for 25 years, traveling to most parts of it at one time or another, there are, according to my friend, still key things I don’t grasp about America. This is, I’ll allow, entirely possible. I wouldn’t discount it. But then … are you quite sure you understand Iraq?
American or not, we are conservatives. We are the ones who believe in human nature, in the Old Adam. You don’t like Mencken? Try Prince Kropotkin:
The powerful currents of thought and action that collided and clashed in the French Revolution … are so intimately linked to the very essence of human nature that they will inevitably [do so] again in the future.
— The Great French Revolution (1909).