Iraq: A Repudiation of Liberalism
Ramadi has fallen to ISIS. Recalling events of last year, Islamic State fighters stormed the last remaining holdouts of the Iraqi government control in the provincial capital of Sunni-dominated Anbar province, and Iraqi government troops simply melted away before them. To the west, the ancient historical site of Palmyra has similarly fallen (unsurprisingly the #SavePalmyra twitter campaign proved to be as ineffective at stalling the advance of ISIS as #BringBackOurGirls proved to be at influencing the actions of Boko Haram in Nigeria). Iran inches closer to a nuclear weapon. Egypt battles Islamist rebels in the Sinai. The Gulf monarchies, led by Saudi Arabia, are engaged in a proxy war by another name against Iran in Yemen. Everywhere one looks chaos reigns in the Middle East.
Where did it start? Any honest answer has to be with the ill-fated decision in 2003 to invade Iraq. The toppling of Saddam Hussein proved to not so much be “Mission Accomplished” as the Pandora’s Box that unleashed the forces of chaos that have bedevilled the region for the last decade. Look to any of the numerous centers of conflict, from the increasingly bold and empowered Iran to rise of Islamic State, and the origins at least in part can be traced back to the coming apart of the Iraqi state. The Republican Party must hold up its hands and acknowledge that this mess is very much their own creation.
But is it a creation of the Right as a whole? There I would strongly disagree, at least if we are talking about the true Right in purely ideological terms. The disaster of Iraq, I contend, is a repudiation not of conservatism but Neoconservatism, which in truth can trace its roots back to liberalism.
I can already sense of the snorts of absurdity. “Neoconservatism is liberal? Tell me another one.” It is true however. Words have sadly lost their meaning in the modern era. Neoconservative has joined the ranks of other such terms as fascist, communist, socialist, and Tea-Partier that have come to mean “person of opposing political views I dislike” with no regard to the actual nuances of ideology. So what does the term Neoconservative really refer to? The term comes from a group of leftish, and in some cases outright Marxist, intellectuals who in the latter half of the twentieth century migrated to the Republican Party over what they saw as the Democratic Party’s wishy-washy approach to combatting the Soviet Union.
While Neoconservatives may have rejected the processes of the left, they kept with them many of the principles and concepts of their former ideological home: values such as internationalism, and idealism, and trust in the true goodness of man. The effect of this thinking can be scene clearly on the thought-process that was behind the war in Iraq. Toppling Saddam and creating a democracy there would create a chain reaction, as other dictators throughout the region fell one by one like dominos to be replaced by democracy, removing the root conditions from which terrorist movements came. One could hardly describe this as Bismarckian realpolitik at its finest.
This plan was clearly flawed in both its premises and the perceived course of events. Islamist movements certainly were disdainful of the secular strongmen of various kinds that ruled much of the Middle East, but the idea that they aspired to replace them democracy is laughable. Al Qaeda, ISIS and all their ilk want a global Islamic theocracy governed by their own interpretation of Islamic religious law. Replacing Saddam Hussein with an electoral college and Big Macs is hardly going to appease them. Similarly, the idea that a flourishing democracy in Iraq would inspire the masses of the Arab world to rise up against their rulers and establish ones of their own positively reeks of the old Marxist nostalgia for the coming revolution of workers’ of the world. The reality is there has been only one genuinely successful revolution in history, the American Revolution, and the success of that one owes a tremendous amount to the good fortune that it was led by one of the few examples throughout history of a truly incorruptible man. Far more often the result has been what we saw play out throughout the Middle East in the fallout of the Arab Spring, with chaos and violence running rampant for a time before an eventual Thermadorian reversion to some form of authoritarian rule (often more bloody and despotic than the one that came before).
Democracy does not spring up out of the universal goodness of man and his noble intentions towards others. The reality is that man is a truly awful creature who looks first and foremost to his own interests. Democracy came about in the West largely due to the fluke of having the right combination of philosophical, social and economic events coincidentally converge on one another at the perfect moment. It has spread elsewhere in the world via both the insistence on its virtues by Pax Americana and the very understandable human instinct of both individuals and societies to ape the attitudes and actions of those they perceive as being superior (which the West certainly was for the last few centuries though that is arguably in doubt at present). Change things ever so slightly and it is not inconceivable that today we might be living in vastly different circumstances.
So what lesson is there to be learned? I would argue that it is time to remove both idealistic internationalism and liberalism as a whole from the realm of foreign policy. For so long as democracy lingers, some version of mass-consumer jingoism must of course be made available to the public. Buzzwords such as “liberty”, “freedom” and “democracy” will always be necessary because generating the massive popular opinion necessary to move democratic societies to any course of action is unlikely to be doable by making a coldly logical pitch based on the merits of self-interest. What is important, however, is that those who in fact rule keep that principle in mind. What is needed is a rejection of liberalism and an embrace of the pragmatic, rational defense of national interests and objectives carried out by such statesmen as Metternich, Bismarck, and Richelieu.
That is the true lesson of the Iraqi war, that if you try to shape the world according to how you view it instead of viewing the world as how it is shaped you will inevitably fail. Executing a course of action based on predetermined opinions cannot work. There is no universal set of values, and no top down approach to diplomacy that can be inserted into any scenario. The only thing that can be done, is to work within the paradigm one finds oneself in with the tools at ones disposal to the fullest ability possible.