Anybody remember Eurocommunism? It was a fad of the 1970s, in which the Communist Parties of Italy, Spain, and (though with much internal dissent) France sought to overhaul their images to appeal to a middle-class electorate. There were breaks with the USSR, reconciliations with the Catholic Church, and much talk of partnerships and coalitions.
It all came to nothing in the end, but while it lasted the Eurocommunism phenomenon illustrated an irresistible tendency in the political life of democracies: the endless search for a middle path between perceived extremes, for a Third Way. Capitalism? Communism? No, no, we don’t whole-heartedly endorse either. We have a Third Way, you see. A typical pronouncement from an apostle of Eurocommunism was the remark by the lefty British historian E.P. Thompson, circa 1980, that he was “bored with totalitarians and anti-totalitarians both.” (Which, I commented at the time, reminded me of that newly-elected mayor of an American city who, in his inauguration speech, promised to tread the fine line between honesty and corruption.)
Now of course there is a case to be made for seeking a middle way in worldly matters. A large part of civilized politics consists of cutting deals and striking compromises. Middle-way-ism can get out of hand, though. It is particularly likely to get out of hand when one party to a political arrangement suffers from failure of imagination, or wishful thinking about human nature. The Eurocommunists suffered from both. Their failure of imagination would not let them believe that the horrors of Leninism and Stalinism in Russia had really happened, and flowed logically from the premises of Marxism. Their wishful thinking whispered to them that a human society in which the acquisitive instinct plays no part can actually be built, that the degraded proletariat can be transformed into selfless New Soviet Man, if not, or not necessarily, by Soviet methods.
My worry about Iraq is that we have fallen into a Third Way delusion. Let me try to explain what I mean.
You are a great power, your people free and prosperous under rational and constitutional government. A small nation, under a brutal and obnoxious dictatorship, has insulted or vexed you, or given aid and comfort to those who hate you and wish to harm you, or else it presents, you honestly believe, some dire threat to you or your interests. What do you do?
• First Way: Punishment Smash up their country. Kill as many of their troops as you can identify. Lay waste their barracks, ports, airfields. Wreck their infrastructure: Destroy their power stations, refineries, waterworks, bridges, tunnels, railroads, canals. Mine the waters around their shores. Insult their nationhood: Bring down their treasured national monuments, the dictator’s palaces, the luxury apartment buildings of their elites, their grand sports stadiums and other prestige projects. Include a small number of religious shrines in your swathe of annihilation — not to show contempt for their faith, but to make the point that your general commitment to religious tolerance will not be a major restraint on your present or future actions. Make the rubble bounce. Avoid killing civilians when you can, but don’t lose sleep over it. (Remember them dancing in the streets at the killing of our civilians.) Then pack up and go home, leaving behind only these words: “Behave yourselves, please. Next time it’ll be worse.”
• Second Way: Empire Go in there in major force. Defeat their armies in swift precision campaigns. Kill or arrest the dictator and his clique. Announce to the world that from this day on, for the indefinite future, this territory will be run by us, as a colony. Willing locals will be encouraged to participate, but no-one will be expected to, and all the big decisions will be ours. Set up an administration charged with maintaining public security, getting infrastructure working, reforming the civil service, the legal and education systems, and so on. Ruthlessly suppress all opposition in First Way style, but make it know that you are determined to get the place up and running as a viable economy under colonial administration. Show respect for the culture, defer to religious leaders (so long as they do not incite violence), leave ordinary non-violent citizens alone as much as possible. Give every possible encouragement to commerce. Make it clear that you regard the locals as, from the political point of view, children, who need to be raised up into political maturity, with a firm hand to guide them. Plan to stay for 50-100 years.
• Third Way: “Nation-Building” Go in there in major force. Defeat their armies in precision campaigns. Kill or arrest the dictator and his clique. Announce to the world that you are going to administer the place temporarily — for a year or so — while local constitutional democrats get their act together. While running the place, you will spend a ton of your taxpayers’ money repairing the infrastructure and training civil servants, and will be exquisitely sensitive to local cultural and religious sensibilities. Of course (you will make plain) you know that the age of empire is long gone. You would never be so unspeakably patronizing — colonialist! imperialist! RACIST! — as to think that the inhabitants of this place are political infants in need of tutelage. They can run a democracy as well as anyone else, given a little encouragement and support. To clarify matters, set a date certain at which you will hand over the reins of government to locals and withdraw to leased military facilities.
I do not need to tell you which path our country has chosen in Iraq. The question is: Did we choose correctly?
You can make up your own mind. The following thing needs saying, though.
I am not sure that, given the present state of our national culture, we could have chosen differently. Opinion journalism on outlets like NRO tends to split into the “political” and the “cultural.” This writer can be depended on for penetrating insights into the large affairs of the nation or the world; that writer can be depended on for incisive analysis of current educational, artistic, or “lifestyle” fads. I suppose (well, I don’t just suppose — people tell me) that my own forte is in the cultural zone. Frankly, I find much of politics boring, at the detail level anyway. I’m not a political ignoramus, though. I’ve been observing what the Chinese call “great matters under Heaven” for forty years, and am not often taken by surprise. The following thing seems to me to be indisputable: The domestic culture of one’s nation is a key determinant of one’s actions abroad, in war or diplomacy. Our conduct in Iraq is premised on certain things we, or most of us, have come to believe about ourselves, and about human nature. If our conduct in Iraq is mistaken, it is probably because those beliefs are mistaken.
Now and then I hear someone talk about a “1945 solution” for the Middle East. That is, we should wreak utter devastation on those places that have declared themselves our enemies. Then, as in Germany and Japan in 1945, we should move in an occupation administration and set the survivors on the path to civilized government.
Well, perhaps we should do this. It is certain, however, that we are not going to, unless our collective mentality undergoes some dramatic change. A “1945 solution” is not possible because, for better or worse, we are not who we were in 1945.
Consider, for example, those news photographs we see every couple of days, of streets thronged with fired-up young men — in Fallujah, or Gaza, or Tehran — waving their fists, or sometimes automatic weapons, carrying pictures of some Imam, or bearing the coffin of some tribal panjandrum we have killed. When I see one of those pictures, my thoughts run along the following lines. These young men hate us. Nothing we do will make them stop hating us, and pretty much any action we take in our own rational self-interest will end with them hating us more. The right thing to do is to kill them, while they are all conveniently gathered together like this. These demos go on for hours. We have spy satellites, remote-controlled drones, and so on. Why don’t we take these people out? What are daisy-cutters for? What’s napalm for?
These are not, I admit, very charitable thoughts. I can’t see anything wrong with them, though. War consists mainly in one bunch of fired-up young men setting out to kill another bunch of fired-up young men. Wars are won when one side runs out of young men, or out of fire-up. They don’t end until then. Our problem in Iraq, basically, it seems to me, is that we have not killed enough fired-up young male Iraqis.
But that goes back to my main point. Why have we not done this? Why is it (apparently) so unthinkable to drop a couple canisters of napalm on a frenzied mob of America-haters celebrating Imam Kar-Bomba or mourning Sheikh Kalashnikov? The question answers itself tautologically: It is so unthinkable because we don’t think like that. Well, some of us do — I do — but we don’t collectively, as a nation, think like that.
Similarly, why is the Second Way impossible for us? It won’t do to say that we are just not an imperialistically-inclined nation. Rome in 100 b.c. did not show much signs of being inclined towards world domination; nor did Britain in a.d.1700. Nations, like people, change their minds and react to events. Imperialism is impossible for us not because of our historical experience, but because we have convinced ourselves that it is wicked. We might, in response to some future events, change our minds about this and become imperialists; but this has not happened yet, and may never.
Thus we are unwilling to take either the First Way or the Second, to play either the Angel of Vengeance or the Great White Father Over the Sea. There is nothing for it but to seek a Third Way. Will the Third Way work? Personally, I doubt it. Given what we are, though — what we have become — I don’t see that we have any choice.