Has a grand tradition of “military liberalism” come to a dead end in Iraq?
by Victor Davis Hanson
I. Distrusting the Military
The complex and somewhat ill-defined relationship between the military establishment and constitutional government is a subject that has made many Americans uncomfortable, especially in the modern era when the United States has assumed a leadership role in world affairs.American Cold War-era culture, after all, cautioned us about the intrinsic anti-democratic nature of top-ranking military officers, whether in cinematic portrayals like Seven Days in May orDoctor Strangelove or the very real inflammatory politicking of retired generals like Douglas MacArthur, Curtis LeMay, or Edwin Walker.
In reaction to these Cold War and Vietnam-era fears, scholars such as Samuel P. Huntington (The Soldier and the State) and, more recently, Eliot Cohen (Supreme Command) have written insightfully about the proper relationship between civilian and military authorities in a constitutional democracy like ours. These scholars generally agree that the delicate balance was sometimes upset in our past wars when politicians did not have much knowledge about military affairs. Sometimes, out of insecurity, they blustered and bullied officers, or at other times, in recognition of their own ignorance, civilian leaders ceded too much control to the Pentagon.
Under the Clinton administration it was felt that an increasingly alienated military exercised too much autonomy, whether in lecturing civilian authorities that gays simply would not work as fully accepted members of the armed forces or in voicing strong initial opposition to the prospect of humanitarian intervention in the Balkans. Militaries for their part understand that during “peace-keeping” exercises the rules of engagement change, the cameras intrude, and they are asked to assume civilian roles where their target profile increases, while their ability to fight back without restrictions is checked.
During the current Bush presidency, by contrast, the charge was often just the opposite: a compliant Pentagon had been bullied by its civilian overseers into keeping quiet about doubts over the feasibility of neoconservative nation-building. In fact, in 2006, we witnessed a “revolt of the generals” against civilian leadership of the Pentagon. Top brass came forward out of recent retirement to lambaste Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld over the entire civilian conduct of the war in Iraq. They complained that there had been too much micromanagement of the war, too many policy demands placed on a military that was stretched too thin to carry such burdens, and too much utopian ideology guiding the conduct of the war at the expense of realistic judgments of what in fact was possible.
This insurrection of top retired officers was not quite unprecedented, except in the left’s sudden muted silence in response to this rare emergence of like-minded critics of the policy in Iraq. Instead, it was more reminiscent of an earlier “revolt of the admirals” in 1949-50. At that time, in the early years of the Cold War, threatened postwar cutbacks in naval operations led to a similar expression of public outrage by admirals against their civilian overseers. The controversy brought down Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson and led to firings and resignations of top military officers.
Why do democratic societies perennially worry about their own military’s periodic objections to civilian oversight and larger liberal values? Why, often in response, do military leaders conclude that they are either misunderstood or manipulated by civilian authorities whom they regard as naive or ignorant about military affairs?
It is a fact worth remembering that the armed forces are inherently hierarchical organizations based on rank and the chain of command. There is no opportunity in military units for decision by majority vote when war begins. Once bullets fly, soldiers can ill afford to debate the wisdom of assaulting the next hill. They cannot worry about the “fairness” of a brilliant glib private having no influence in the decisions taken by an obtuse or blockheaded commanding officer.
Impatience, resolve, audacity — these necessary military traits are not necessarily those that democratic legislators and bureaucrats prize. Most politicians loathe a loud-mouthed George S. Patton in peacetime as much as they hunt out his swashbuckling style in time of war.
Sometimes the voting public suspects that professional soldiers like violence and killing, or at least far more than civilians do. And supposed sheep always worry about giving orders to hungry wolves. One needs only to read the sad letters of poor Cicero to see how in his arrogance he fatally misjudged entirely the military minds of an Augustus or Antony. Civilian overseers in France and later in Germany sought to solve emerging problems by dispatching Napoleon to Egypt or by throwing Hitler in jail but found that in the end these steps were but the beginning and not the end of their troubles. They had fatally misjudged these “troublemakers.”
Then there is the ever-present fear of militarism — that is, the fear of the cult of arms that transcends the battlefield and becomes an ideology that celebrates power, rigid discipline, fanatical devotion to a cause. Indeed, this exaggerated dimension of military life often draws the most zealous and dangerous of characters into its orbit. These can be truly scary folks, these Spartan krypteia, the Praetorian guards, or Hitler’s SS. Such groups in the past have often interfered with or intervened in politics under the posture of being models of rigorous asceticism for the nation.
Anti-constitutional military coups, and not the idealistic promotion of democracy and liberal values, thus seem the more logical vice of military figures when they intrude into politics. History in some sense is the record of supposedly sober soldiers intervening in times of perceived social chaos to bring society a needed dose of their own order and obedience.
That was the rationale in 44 B.C. when Caesar crossed the Rubicon and put a formal end to the Roman Republic, Napoleon dismissed the Directorate, Hitler ended the Weimar Republic, and the 20th-century Latin America caudillos, Greek colonels, and Middle Eastern Baathist and Nasserite officers staged their various coups. Communist dictators in the Soviet Union and China inserted their own commissars into their militaries to ensure that they were perpetual advocates for Communist ideology and indoctrination, at home and abroad.
II. Liberal Militaries?
But there is another and less known tradition of what we might call military liberalism under which militaries have often given birth to or facilitated the creation of free governments and have been used in turn to promote and extend them abroad. The challenge facing the United States in the 21st century is not so much a rebellious military establishment or an endless Pentagon desire for adventurism overseas.
Given our overwhelming military superiority in the world, it is surprising that our military leaders are somewhat loath to exercise that power in aggressive ways, no doubt fearing they will be called upon to lead an endless cavalcade of humanitarian missions. The more intriguing challenge concerns the degree to which political authorities will use our armed forces in ways that reflect American values and political aims and to what degree our officers will be willing to carry out those objectives. The challenge, in other words, is for civilian authorities to build upon this other tradition — the tradition of military liberalism.
In fact, democracy has always been nearly synonymous with wars of national expression. Fifth-century B.C. Athens fought three out of four years in its greatest age of cultural achievement — usually goaded on by a vote of the assembly, usually to fight some sort of oligarch state. America since World War II has seen its troops in combat in, or in the skies above, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Cambodia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Haiti, Iran, Iraq, Korea, Kosovo, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Panama, Serbia, Somalia, and Vietnam — all with the professed aim of restoring some sort of order by fighting oligarchs, dictators, and autocrats.
Consensual governments ratify wars, and thus rarely can the people successfully argue that they were forced into them by kings or dictators. The historian Herodotus — noting the propensity for democracies to be fickle and ready to fight for idealistic reasons — remarked that it was easier to persuade 30,000 Athenian citizens to send aid to the Ionia during the revolt from Persia than to convince a few Spartan oligarchs to do the same. It is hard to think of many democracies that were not born in some manner out of war, violence, or coercion — beginning with the first example of Cleisthenic Athens in 507 B.C., and including our own revolution in 1776. The best examples are the most recent of the 20th century, when many of the most successful present-day constitutional governments were epiphenomena of war, imposed by the victors or coalition partners, as we have seen in the cases of Germany, Japan, Italy, South Korea, and more recently Grenada, Haiti, Liberia, Panama, Serbia — and Afghanistan and Iraq.
Of course, democracy, as Aristotle outlined its various wide parameters in the Politics, is in some sense a relative term. Scholars still argue over its definition — and especially the weight that should be given to the criteria for voting, the degree of constitutional rights granted to the individual, and the relationship of political freedom with concurrent economic and social liberty.
But if we adopt the most expansive sense of the notion of constitutional government, parliamentary Britain of the 19th century was far more consensual than nearly all nations of its own time and even our own. And British officers sometimes used their overwhelming military superiority to promote a classical sense of liberalism, whether in ending suttee in India or shutting down African slave trade.
We sometimes forget that the existential global evils of the 19th and 20th centuries —chattel slavery, Nazism, Italian Fascism, Japanese militarism, and Soviet Stalinism — were not only eliminated by force or the threat of force, but exclusively by the might of democratically governed militaries. American armies or the threat of them ended the plantation system, the death camps, the Co-Prosperity Sphere, and the Gulag, and made possible the future of the new Atlanta, the new Tokyo, and the new Berlin alike. Even during Roman imperial times, when the first emperors succeeded in suppressing the autonomy of the Senate and central assemblies, there still functioned at the local level the concepts of Roman law that allowed all Roman citizens the same rights of habeas corpus, trial by a magistrate, and protections of private property. The armies of the late republic that swept the Mediterranean did not do so solely on the brilliant discipline, tactics, and technology of the legions. They also offered to the conquered the promise that Roman proconsuls and legates would use legionaries to enforce a sense of equality under the law for indigenous tribes from Gaul to North Africa — a reality that often undermined local nationalist resistance leaders.
It is not just governments per se that democratically inspired armies often protect and promote, but often the wider cultures that incubate and nurture them. And that allows them often to be more effective agents of change and custodians of more liberal values. The present-day Turkish armed forces, at last subject to elected officials and the products of military science and professional training, still adhere to the secular statutes that Kemal Ataturk established for the entire country. The military is thus paradoxically the essential guardian of liberal values in that country, the one institution that is most likely to resist the insidious imposition of Sharia law or the Islamization of Turkish culture.
Racial integration and gender equality were much easier achieved in the U.S. military than in civilian institutions, once reformist politicians discovered that the military’s chain of command and culture of obedience could be used much more efficiently to impose democratic agendas from on high.
The armed forces of the democracies like fifth-century B.C. Athens, fourth-century B.C. Thebes, or contemporary America all tried to promote abroad not just the values that they cherished at home, but often to replicate their own democratic structures abroad. Why should this be so?
III. Democracy and Military Self-Interest
The answer is complex but seems to involve both practical and ethical reasons in seeing as many democracies as possible spread beyond their own shores. The so-called ochlos at Athens — the voting mob empowered by the radical democracy — felt that its own privileged position hinged on having like-minded supporters in the subject states of the Aegean. The maritime Athenian empire was patrolled by 200 imperial triremes with names like “Free Speech” and “Demokratia,” and powered by poor landless thete rowers who were paid a generous wage as the muscles of democracy. The truism that democracies rarely attack each other is mostly valid in the modern era and perhaps for antiquity as well. Although democratic Athens attacked democratic Syracuse during the Peloponnesian War, such internecine warfare among democratic polities was not the norm. The historian Thucydides saw that the Peloponnesian War pitted the Athenians democratic allies and subjects mostly against the oligarchies aligned with Sparta. He also observed that Athenian forces did not fight so well against the Sicilians when it was thought that Sicily had something in common with Athenian political culture.
National security was also at least part of the catalyst for the great march of Epaminondas the Theban in 369 B.C. Then the general took a huge democratic army down into the Peloponnese to end the Spartan land empire, free the Messenian helot serfs, and found the democratic citadels at Mantineia, Megalopolis, and Messene in order to encircle Sparta. After all that, Sparta never again marched north of the Isthmus at Corinth — a routine occurrence before Epaminondas’ invasion.
The European Union apparently has achieved its promised anomaly of a continent of autonomous states that will not attack one another — a dream made feasible only by the institutionalization of democracy made possible by the allied victory and democratization after World War II and the collapse of the Soviet Union after its defeat in the Cold War.
Democratic militaries are also imbued with moral logic that there is an inherent ethical inconsistency in protecting democracy at home while undermining it abroad. One of the raging controversies of the Cold War was the criticism that the United States had somehow birthed, often armed, or occasionally supported a rogue’s gallery of dictators like Ferdinand Marcos, Georgios Papadopoulos, Augusto Pinochet, the Shah of Iran, and Anastasio Somoza — and that this cynicism was a betrayal of American values. The post-Cold War hope was that the realpolitik that marked U.S. policy during that era was an aberration of sorts, owing to the emergence of the Soviet Union as a nuclear power with expansionist ambitions. The collapse of the Soviet empire thus created the conditions for a new emphasis in U.S. foreign policy. Accordingly, the American intervention in Panama, the 1991 Gulf War, the bombing of Kosovo and Serbia, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (whatever the underlying wisdom or folly of those interventions) were aimed at dictators with the expectation that their removal would be followed by the imposition of democratic rule.
IV. Dreams and Realities after the Cold War
When George Bush Sr. did not push reform on Iraq or the region as a whole after the defeat of Saddam Hussein in 1991, critics at home alleged that such realism was no longer appropriate in the post-Cold War world. The public, it seemed, was appalled at Secretary of State James Baker’s declaration that the war in the oil-rich area was to be fought solely over “jobs, jobs, jobs” and, later, that a successful war had only led to years of no-fly zones to prevent continual butchery of the Shiites and Kurds.
Indeed, one of the ironies of the present round of attacks on George W. Bush’s Iraqi war — too much emphasis on democracy, not enough troops, too much confidence in Iraqi reformers, too little fear of Iran, an international coalition that was too small — is that it was advanced by authors and writers like Michael Gordon, Thomas Ricks, Bernard Trainor, Bob Woodward, and others who in the 1990s had critiqued the first Gulf War in books and articles on nearly opposite grounds: that it was not fought with sufficient idealism, that too many troops were deployed, that too little confidence was placed in Shiite and Kurdish reformers, that the fighting coalition was too large and unwieldy, that the strategists had excessive fear of Iran.
As Robert Kagan notes in his recent book, Dangerous Nation (a history of American intervention abroad), democracies that profess egalitarianism and the freedom of the individual are especially sensitive to charges of cynicism and hypocrisy when their foreign policies do not reflect their own values. At worst the United States fought its covert, dirty wars on the basis of economic or strategic pragmatism, which meant that it was quite willing to install compliant thugs whom it felt might be better than the alternative and might in time evolve into something more liberal. But in its more conventional conflicts that were closely covered by the press and followed by the public on a daily basis (World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, and the contemporary Middle East conflicts), U.S. administrations generally sought to implant constitutional governments in postwar landscapes without delay.
It would thus appear that, to the degree the military has an active consultative role in picking and choosing America’s fights, it would not oppose but might indeed support the concept of promoting democracy as an expression of the national interest. Nor does the broader public oppose such a role for our military. Even in controversial cases like Iraq and Afghanistan, the public is strongly supportive of military efforts to birth consensual government in the wake of the removal of dictators, notwithstanding the difficulties of doing so. Most Americans understand that the alternative — restoring order by imposing a friendly strongman — would only sharpen the charge of cynical colonialism, imperialism, and corporatism. If it is true that the spread of democracy around the world will make wars less likely and less frequent, then the military might see democratization as a means of reducing the likelihood of its own deployment in dangerous foreign wars to come.
As a consequence, for a full generation now the all-volunteer American military has trained an entire cadre of officers who have received advanced degrees in our finest academic institutions and thus possess proconsul skills that far exceed those necessary to command men in battle. “Winning hearts and minds” is now deemed just as important to the training of military officers as mastering GPS bombing techniques or the proper uses of the Abrams tank.
The theme of Robert Kaplan’s Imperial Grunts was that in far-off diverse areas such as Colombia, Mongolia, and the Philippines, the U.S. military is not only conducting counter-insurgency warfare in “Injun Country,” but training local troops to operate under constitutional government. Special Forces officers administer to the social and economic needs of local constituents for the purpose of stabilizing local governments so that they will not exploit discontent or use oil or drug revenues to destabilize the global order that has grown up since World War II. The United States, obviously, has a vital interest in defending and extending this order that promises to extend the sphere of prosperity and democracy.
In the furor over the war in Iraq, however, the entire notion of “nation-building” both in small backwaters and at the conclusion of major military interventions — relatively unquestioned after Panama, the Balkans, and Afghanistan — is now under intense scrutiny and re-examination. The post-Iraq foreign policy of the United States, to the extent it is not isolationist, will probably see calls for the return of a posture of cynical realism, meaning that we should accept the fact that we have to make arrangements with the world as it is rather than trying to change it in our own image. This might involve the acceptance of an attitude of “more rubble, less trouble” leading to a strategy of stand-off bombing to deal with trouble spots in the world. Or yet again, future administrations will accept de facto appeasement of those who threaten our security in the hope that they will go away or their anger will thereby be assuaged. This we have already seen in the policy that terrorism warrants only an occasional cruise missile or, as a criminal justice matter, a federal indictment. All of these approaches might be tried as alternatives to “nation-building” or “democratization.”
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, remarked in a recent interview, “We’re discovering that the conventional military power for which the United States is best known is most relevant to classic battlefields like the first Iraq war [in 1991], but the struggles we’re engaged in now and for the foreseeable future are anything but classic.” Haass adds that battling guerrilla insurgencies and salvaging failing states such as Iraq and Afghanistan with nation-building are not skills at which the U.S. government has excelled. “So we’re finding it very hard to translate classic military superiority into stability in these struggles.”
In summing up the pessimism that swept New York and Washington during 2007, Haass grandly concluded, “For a number of reasons, I believe we are entering an era where U.S. power and relative influence, in the Middle East especially, is reduced and the influence of others who have anything but a pro-American outlook is increasing, and that trend is likely to continue for decades to come. I predict this realignment will be enduring.”
This gloom is now shared by thinkers as diverse as Niall Ferguson and Francis Fukuyama who in the fumes of Iraq see only perils in promoting democratization. They understand that such idealism is best in tune with our own values. And they concede it has worked in the past after other victories. But their concern centers mostly on the practicality rather than the desirability of such a stance in today’s more chaotic and globalized world.
Freed from the distortions of the Cold War, and after a decade of using our military to promote democracy through the use of arms, has the idea of “military liberalism” run aground in Iraq? And if so, why?
V. What Went Wrong?
First, the United States put the cart of postwar reconstruction ahead of the proverbial horse of defeating — and humiliating — the enemy. In this regard, in present and future wars of the 21st century we are faced with two mutually exclusive propositions. In an era of globalized communications, and of a therapeutic rather than tragic mindset on the part of Western elites, it is very difficult to bring wars to their full conclusions — that is, to defeat the enemy and humiliate him to such a degree that he submits to the dictates of peace.
In an age of multiculturalism, moral equivalence, and utopian pacifism, the carnage necessary to disabuse the enemy of continuing in his present course is often seen as immoral, counterproductive, or unnecessary. Most strategic thinkers thought our pullback in Fallujah, Iraq, in the spring of 2004 was a costly mistake — a half-measure that necessitated a belated reentry by the post-election autumn. Then after renewed fighting to take the town, which was far bloodier than the initial conflict, our soldiers found torture cells, bomb factories, and a veritable terropolis that had been constructed after our withdrawal.
But almost the opposite reaction to that siege seems true in Western popular culture. Compare a play running in spring 2007 in London called Fallujah by Jonathan Holmes, highlighting American atrocities inflicted on the insurgents in 2004. Lest one think that the play’s criticism of the U.S. military is simply vintage far-left rhetoric, consider the review by the supposedly staid Economistof what it conceded was an “anti-war, anti-American” drama:
The audience shuffles about his landscape while the action takes place around them. Soldiers push their way through, swaggering and malevolent; a roving stage light suddenly picks out two women in the audience as Iraqi aid workers. They weave gracefully through the crowd, telling their story, placing a hand gently on someone’s shoulder.
Again, lest one thinks that this is a fair and descriptive, rather than an opinionated, view by a British status quo magazine, consider the Economist‘s final assessment that follows disclaimers of the play’s obvious bias: “Fallujahcan still be applauded for casting light on a shameful chapter in a disastrous war.”
“Shameful” and “disastrous”? This cheap sermonizing of Western elites reflects two unspoken truths: privately, no well-heeled British subject would prefer the world of beheading, gender apartheid, and Sharia law that flourished in lawless Fallujah to the legal system and audit that governs the American military. And yet most elites understand in the present age, that their own professional advancement, psychological well-being, and political acceptance come from criticizing the U.S. Armed Forces. Thus the war to establish democracy to replace Saddam Hussein’s genocidal rule must be reduced to “swaggering Americans” threatening female “Iraqi aid workers.”
In fear of televised collateral civilian damage, in worry over taking casualties, and sensitive to anti-war sentiment at home, no wonder that the American military is reluctant to annihilate its enemies. It did not do so in Gulf War I. The televised scenes alone on the so-called “Highway of Death” helped to call off that bombing of fleeing Iraqi soldiers who had committed outrages in Kuwait and were quite prepared to do even worse to the Kurds and Shiites when given a reprieve.
The dragging of naked American corpses in the streets of Mogadishu ended President Clinton’s humanitarian efforts in Somalia. And after 3,400 dead in Iraq, the narrative is the IED and suicide vest, not the purple finger of democratic participants. At home the rhetoric of Cindy Sheehan, Michael Moore, and former President Jimmy Carter has reduced George Bush to a demonic figure, and our efforts in Iraq to a war for oil, a proxy war for Israel, or a profit-making enterprise on behalf of Halliburton. Gone from the script is the remembrance that roughly the same number of Americans was killed on September 11 by Islamic terrorists, or that this country in its various wars of the past has on occasion suffered more casualties in a week than we have in four years in Iraq.
How odd that a war purportedly for oil saw the price of petroleum skyrocket. An extra half-trillion dollars in petro-dollars annually flowed into the Middle East, and Iraqi oil concessions for the first time in 30 years have become transparent and adjudicated by popular government. How odd also that in the six years following September 11, the United States attacked just two governments, the Middle East’s worst in the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, and yet was defamed for waging a unilateral and pre-emptive war as part of a neoconservative crusade to knock off one by one scores of unattractive dictatorships and implant democracy after democracy in their wake.
The point is that in the face of such criticism, the military apparently cannot inflict a level of hurt upon an enemy, or suffer a level of casualties, that in the past were deemed critical for victory and hence postwar stability and reconstruction. Saddam Hussein’s Baathist army might have evaporated in April 2003. Yet its shamed officers and conscripts soon learned that a good way to restore Arab pride after such televised humiliation was to go home, strip off their uniforms, and reinvent themselves as patriotic insurgents. Then the odds of safely killing, through remotely detonated IEDs, an American stringing telephone wires or painting a schoolhouse were far better than in the recent past when meeting him in a gun battle meant that outright war, not a CNN-televised “peace,” governed the rules of engagement.
What worked in the Balkans in 1998, contrary to popular consensus, was not “multilateralism.” The Clinton administration neither asked the U.S. Congress for approval nor even approached the United Nations. It had allowed NATO forces to languish on the sidelines watching a ten-year holocaust that took a quarter-million lives. Instead the key to eventual success was that a liberal American president was able to use the United States Air Force, in safety thousands of feet above in the skies over Serbia, to drop its new precision munitions on the very capital of a right-wing Christian European dictatorship without sacrificing a single American life.
But the stars seldom line up so perfectly. Our wars to come will often have to be waged by conservative administrations against enemies in the former Third World — sometimes of different religions and colors than our own — and on the ground in messy primordial failed states, far from Europe.
A second worry is not so much military, as the postbellum practicality of extending democracy to traditional, non-Western societies that have little or no experience with ideas like liberty, equal rights, the rule of law, or representative government. Volumes have been written on the prerequisites — economic, social, cultural, and psychological — necessary for democratization.
I once argued in The Other Greeks that Athenian democracy — the West’s first — was an epiphenomenon, impossible without two centuries of prior limited consensual government that first saw the establishment of rights of property-holding and inheritance and a solid middle class (the mesoi) of free-holding citizen-hoplite farmers. Then, and only then, was it possible to put into place the key attributes that we associate with Athenian democracy, such as the principle of one man, one vote and full political participation without regard to wealth.
The contemporary enigma in the Middle East, however, revolves around the question of what degree, if any, globalization — the intrusion into traditional tribal life by television, DVDs, the internet, and cell phones, along with the large numbers of contemporary democracies in the world at large — has collapsed the window of preparation necessary for reform. And while Islam, for example, seems not incompatible with democracy per se in countries like India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Turkey (where over half the world’s Muslims live), the Arab Islamic world may prove to be a different story altogether.
There the obstacles to democracy and Western ideals of liberty and equality seem more profound than elsewhere. These include a deeply entrenched tribal culture, endemic anger at modernity combined with a desire for the fruits of modernity, feelings of pan-Arabic chauvinism nursed on transnational solidarity, scapegoating of foreigners and foreign influences, intense feelings of grievance over a purportedly grand past juxtaposed to a miserable present, and dislocations brought about by the huge wealth of exporting a third of the world’s daily petroleum consumption. All have combined to produce the anti-liberal practices and attitudes that are prevalent in the region: fundamentalism, terrorism, and a kind of nihilistic violence against any foreign influence, however well meaning or constructive it might be.
In other words, it is redundant now to advocate democratization in the regions of the world where it is easiest to promote or is already under way — eastern Europe or a prosperous capitalistic Asia especially. When we talk of nation-building in the future, it will almost always be in the context of the Middle East where there is uniform autocracy, plenty of petroleum, radical Islamism, terrorism, promises to annihilate Israel, and soon nuclear-tipped missiles.
VI. A Future for Nation-Building?
So where does this all leave us? We need no more banal lectures about the truth we all know: mere plebiscites are not democracy; such desirable government emerges ideally in concert with some sort of institutionalization of human rights, transparency, a free press, and an independent judiciary; and war and democratization should not be preemptory, but the last resorts taken only when such idealism is first subservient to our national survival.
We all know that — and also know that such “wisdom” doesn’t offer much guidance in a world not of our own choosing. The future for the West at war is one of poor choices. The worst is to allow anti-Western dictators to murder at will; then there is the bad alternative of trying to thwart them by encouraging democratic reforms under nearly impossible conditions.
After the hysteria over Iraq begins to subside, we may all wish to be Jacksonians — muscular isolationists who are tired of past unappreciated sacrifice and thus willing to act unilaterally and punitively, but only when it is deemed directly necessary to our own immediate survival.
Yet it will not be so easy to quite close the book on neoconservatism and resurrect George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign promise not to use the American military for “nation building.” First, we must remember that realism — whether pampering the House of Saud or offering encouragement to Pakistani “President” Musharraf — has been tried before and did nothing to circumvent either the attacks of September 11 or nuclear proliferation. Both autocracies — Saudi and Pakistani — stealthily continue to either fund or offer sanctuary to al Qaeda terrorists. Nor did appeasement prove successful, as we are reminded by those often cited two-decade-long serial assaults from the Tehran hostage-taking of 1979 to the 2000 attack on the USS Cole.
Second, nation-building as a reaction to a foreign threat is both familiar to the American experience and reflects the values and aspirations of the United States. The postwar world as we know it exists only because the United States fostered democracy in Europe, Japan, and Korea. That has not changed, and will not change.
But what has evolved for the present is not so much our policies or goals, but in the cauldron of Iraq and Afghanistan, it is we ourselves who have changed to the point that we have lost the confidence to enact positive reform abroad at a price in blood and treasure deemed worth the effort.
It matters little that our present aspirations are far less grandiose in Iraq, and our losses far fewer, than were true in democratizing Germany, Italy, Japan, or Korea. The key, instead, is only our current perceptions of what constitutes a foreign endeavor that is too costly or painful to endure. In our postmodern, globalized present, the challenge is not so much to use the American military to thwart autocracies and help foster constitutional government in their place, as to convince the American people that we have little choice — and that we have done so in the past with success, and can do so again in the future.
In short, our present wars are harder to bring to their full completion. The nature of our defeated enemies makes it far more difficult to democratize them. Western democratic publics are far more reluctant to spend even a fraction of the blood and treasure that were needed to rebuild Europe and Japan into successful democratic societies. The future is not more of Afghanistan and Iraq, but more Rwandas and Darfurs, where the rhetoric of idealism increases even as our willingness to use our military to enact desirable reform erodes.
This article appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of The American Spectator. It is the tenth in a series being published in successive issues of The American Spectator under the general title, “The Pursuit of Liberty: Can the Ideals That Made America Great Provide a Model for the World?”
©2007 Victor Davis Hanson