It lied, that is, to itself.
I am referring to Iraq, but not to the hapless George W. Bush and the claim of WMDs’ existence, which wasn’t a lie at all. What is at issue here is more fundamental. It’s a lie that imbues Bushes, Clintons and Obamas, both the left and the right and most everyone in-between. It is the enlightened position of the modern man, a tenet of our times.
It’s the idea that all peoples are basically the same.
I wrote about this seven years ago in “The Folly of Deifying Democracy in Iraq,” in which I predicted that our “nation-building” would ultimately be fruitless:
While we often view democracy as the terminus of governmental evolution, the stable end of political pursuits, the truth is that civilizations have tended to transition not from tyranny to democracy, but democracy to tyranny (e.g., the ancient Romans). …Benjamin Franklin understood this gravitation toward tyranny well, for when asked what kind of government had been created when he emerged from the constitutional convention, he said, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”
This brings us to the crux of the matter: Even if we can successfully install democratic republics in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, what makes us think they can keep them?
…To average westerners, all groups are essentially the same, despite profound religious and cultural differences. If a civilization — be it Moslem or Christian, Occidental or Oriental — suffers under the yoke of tyranny, it is only due to a twist of fate that has bestowed the wrong system of government upon it. Change that system and “voila!” all live happily ever after. What eludes these Pollyannas is that politics doesn’t emerge in a vacuum but is a reflection of a far deeper realm, the spiritual/moral. Alluding to this, Ben Franklin observed,
“Only a moral and virtuous people are capable of freedom; the more corrupt and vicious a society becomes, the more it has need of masters.”
…[S]piritual [and moral] health must precede the political variety….
A good way to illustrate this point is with Lord of the Flies, William Golding’s story about a large group of young British schoolboys who are shipwrecked on an island and who, after an initial effort at democratic governance, quickly descend into brutal autocracy. Being children, they are raw pieces of humanity perfectly illustrative of the “wild man.” After all, one thing distinguishing children is that they aren’t yet morally and spiritually developed enough to govern themselves. This is why a young child must be watched and controlled, with his life micromanaged by his (usually benign) nanny state, the parents. As he grows and matures, however, the parents can gradually allow an increasing degree of self-governance until, it is hoped, a day comes when he’s capable of complete autonomy.
But as our bursting prisons prove, this process isn’t always successfully effected; more to the point, as greatly varying levels of criminality among groups evidence, not all of our nation’s sub-cultures effect this process with equal success.
If this is true of some sub-cultures in our nation, however, why would it surprise anyone that it would be true of some cultures outside our nation?
In fact, I’ve long described moral and spiritual growth as movement toward “authentic adulthood,” which, at its pinnacle, yields that ethereal combination of innocence (meaning, absence of sin) and wisdom, and the former is actually a prerequisite for the latter. Yet some cultural norms can produce just the opposite: a loss of innocence and lack of wisdom.
However you describe this growth, the fact is that peoples mature very differently. George W. Bush was famous for saying that everybody wanted freedom, but this is an imprecise statement. No nation has complete freedom (to kill, steal, etc.), so what freedoms do the people in question supposedly want? But even if a given people does want freedom in the sense of democratic self-determination, wanting isn’t enough. Virtually everyone wants money, but not everyone has the discipline and wherewithal to acquire it; everybody wants health, but some people still can’t resist smoking, eating or drinking themselves to death. Ours is a world full of people too wanting to get what they want, which is one reason why unfulfilled desire is man’s constant companion.
Ironically, the very modernists who stress how foreign Muslims are “just like us” can easily comprehend culture/system incompatibility when our own culture war is at issue. No small number of liberals have concluded that the last opposition to their agenda won’t evaporate until we traditionalists — who, ironically, liberals sometimes liken to the Taliban — die off. Oprah Winfrey said that the old “racists” were just going to have to die; Judge Judy Sheindlin said that those who oppose faux marriage were just going to have to die. What they’re really saying is that the culture on the other side of the culture war has to die (and, believe me, I consider their “culture’s” demise no less necessary). And they figure that it won’t be perpetuated because they’re forging a new culture via the media, academia and entertainment.
So why is it so hard to understand that the same principle applies to foreign intransigents?
If certain moderns can resign themselves to this with respect to Western Christian culture, why can’t they realize that it’s no different with Islamic culture? They don’t think for a moment that they can talk us traditionalists out of our deeply held principles, so why do they think they can talk Muslims out of theirs? And they have only succeeded in shaping the younger generations because they have seized control of the aforementioned culture shapers. So why would they think that Muslim civilization could be reshaped without the same Gramscian march through the madrassahs and other Islamic institutions? They act as if their own domestic political opponents are more foreign than foreigners. But I will explain the reason why.
Just as absence makes the heart grow fonder, distance makes dreams grow fanciful.
As with an irritating neighbor who, owing to continual petty annoyances, you despise more than a tyrant an ocean away, liberals are close enough to us for our behavior to have affected them viscerally so that they feel on an emotional level what they’re incapable of apprehending intellectually. But Muslims are far enough away — and I don’t just mean physically, but, more importantly, psychologically — so that it’s easy to ascribe to them whatever qualities one’s fantasies may prescribe. It’s as with the starry-eyed, naïve young lady who is smitten with an exotic but flawed man and who is just sure (as women so often are) that she’ll be able to change him: after 15 years she can be a cynical old jade who will bitterly lament, “He’ll never change!” The man, you see, made that transition from theoretical foreign naughty boy to up-close domestic nightmare.
So do you really want to know what it would truly take to transform the ‘stan du jour? Alright, but most of you either won’t like it or won’t believe it:
- Go in with massive force and brutality, Roman style.
- Execute anyone who offers resistance after dousing him in pig’s blood.
- Forcibly convert the population to Christianity, and thoroughly infuse their institutions with the faith.
- Garrison troops there for several generations, repeating steps one and two as necessary to complete the transformation.
And, by the way, there is precedent for this: It’s a version of what the Muslims did when they long ago conquered the old Christian lands of the Mideast and North Africa.
Having said this, I’m not currently recommending such a course. I’m just telling you what would be necessary to effect the kind of change in question. You see, everyone talked about Mideast nation-building when we really just engaged in government-building and what was actually needed was something far grander than both: civilization-building. The moderns thought that if they put sheep’s clothing on a wolf it wouldn’t bite, that they could put the leaves of liberty on a tree of tyranny and they wouldn’t wither and die. We thought we were remedying causes when we were just treating symptoms.
So yesterday’s moderns called WWI “the war to end all wars.” Then their grandchildren gave us the political system to end all wars — democracy — with George W. Bush once saying that democracies don’t go to war with one another. And this is true. After all, when democracy’s birthplace, ancient Athens, democratically decided to launch a disastrous imperialistic war that ultimately cost her people their whole empire, the target was autocratic Sparta; there were no other democracies to war against at the time, you see.
So all we can really say is that democracies haven’t yet gone to war with one another. Perhaps even more to the point, democracies don’t always remain democracies; they often, sometimes quickly and violently, descend into tyranny.
Then they may go to war.
So while some commentators are saying that the current crisis in Iraq vindicates the neo-cons, it only proves that they were better than the liberals at herding cats. A wiser policy was the one we pursued during Cold War days. Understanding that the island boys were going to need a firm hand, we both kept them on their island and tried to ensure a firm hand we could handle: a pro-American dictator, such as Augusto Pinochet or Hosni Mubarak. Oh, the viciously vacuous condemned this as the authoring of tyranny, but they forget that, as Thomas Sowell often points out, in life there often aren’t any solutions, only trade-offs. And accepting this can help prevent making the wrongs ones, such as trading off blood and treasure for that fruit of folderol and fantasy — nothing.