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Iraq and the crisis of American ideals

James Matthew Wilson | Thursday, February 8, 2007

Hegel observed, in his most oft quoted metaphor, that wisdom comes to us only when it is past the prime of its use. A philosopher would think such a thing, because a philosopher constantly faces the disappointment of realizing the ideas in his head do not spring forth from it intact and vital. The wisdom of speculation therefore seems sealed off from the life of practice, and practical wisdom seems always to come to life too late.

The truth is more painful. Ideas have consequences, but most of the time human beings carry out their lives cheerily numb to the best ideas and in unconscious thrall to the worst ones. Moments of violent historical crisis, however, tend to provoke changes one would not have thought possible a few years, sometimes a few days, earlier. Though one hopes otherwise, for instance, it is presumable that significant change to environmental policy will only come after some further, unmistakable natural disaster. World War I unleashed radical intellectual energies across the world that manifested themselves in national and Marxist revolutions. The conclusion of World War II, in contrast, snuffed out those energies almost entirely, so that the globe could settle into a cold hypostasis of two powerful ideologies for nearly five decades.

These are crude examples, but I think the premise holds: the routine crises of our history are the birth pangs of beautiful ideas becoming actualized and, at least as often, the birth pangs of teratomas to make the hopeful humanist shudder.

September 11th was such a crisis, where the opportunity for high ideals to globe the full-strung sails of history presented itself. Inevitably, much of the American response to that moment was shaped by fear, but some bold vision of the future was also held forth. President Bush declared that the United States’ sorry legacy of manipulating weak and semi-sovereign states for benefit of its power and business interests would end. The deaths and coups his father had either overseen or ignored while head of the CIA would cease. America’s gift to the world would not be merely its own robust market, Bush declared; it would be the freedom that stems from democracy.

Half a decade later, we find ourselves mired in Iraq, the promise of a democratic Middle East occasionally – only occasionally – still dangled before us as an excuse for an invasion completed and justification for an occupation prolonged. If one watches Fox News, one hears that serious reflection on how we got to this moment should wait until the mission is accomplished. If one listens to the most prominent Democratic voices in Congress, one learns that, however unfortunate the war, slow and small steps must be taken to achieve some kind of victory. Right and Left alike appear mired not only in Iraq but in a kind of thinking that cannot move beyond the framework of realpolitik.

I sympathize with both these positions. One must appreciate how attuned to the media are many of the insurgents in Iraq, and how devastating it can be to question one’s country’s beliefs at home when they are threatened abroad. And one must commend the gradualism of the political process to the extent that it arises from prudent policy rather than prurient party interest. But to allow this moment of crisis – this intractable conflict in Iraq – to pass without the voicing of some few bold ideals would be a great opportunity missed.

First, and above all, let us drop the charade of spreading democracy in the Middle East or around the globe. Democracy is not America’s gift to the world. Baseball is, followed closely by the poetry of T.S. Eliot. Political institutions are relative and malleable, intended to fit the contingent historical conditions of a community in its efforts to sustain and promote the common good – which is in a sense absolute and transhistorical. We cannot lend others the institutional forms necessary to attain their own common good unless we can also offer them our particular history. More importantly, we ought not to pretend that the lending of those forms – a few scraps of procedural democracy – in itself constitutes bequeathing a just society.

Second, as President Bush has acknowledged, our past is filled with educational chapters in the use of foreign policy for bloodily acquisitive ends. This is something neither recent Democrats nor Republicans have shown much imagination in changing. The chief difference between this second Bush administration and the Kerry administration that was not to be is that the former is unapologetic about using military power in support of American corporate interests. Aside from ceasing to manipulate foreign regimes by clandestine and public coercion, we might reluctantly concede that America and the rest of the world would all be better off if we learned to shift for ourselves. The difficulties of economic autarky seem lest costly than those of an ever-expanding appetite for foreign products and natural resources. And, of course, autarky need not be confused with isolationism.

These are intended as bold ideas suggested rather than easy solutions commanded; and so, third, we might consider how appalling it is that the U.S. military has permanent bases located across the globe. I understand the strategic practicality of those bases. What I do not understand is how we can accept them as a permanent feature of our foreign policy. If we believe in our state sovereignty as a virtue, we should station our troops at home to guarantee the integrity of our borders. If we believe in the sovereignty of other states as a virtue as well, we should do what is necessary to admire it from afar.

Presuming these three proposals were followed, we might also suggest that, fourth, satisfied with its own national borders the federal government might also give state lines some integrity once more by returning the United States to its birthright of federalism. And, fifth, as a bizarre technological fulfillment of the American tradition of valuing life and liberty, we might prudently match the advances in our missile defense systems with the destruction of our stockpiles of nuclear weapons.

These propositions will no doubt frighten some with their extremity and others with their provincialism. My own conviction remains, however, that the paradox of America’s present crisis is that the path of cowardice and authoritarianism lies in continuing military adventures abroad and that of courage and charity lies in a turning inward, a return home, an acceptance of the bounty Providence has given.

James Matthew Wilson is a Sorin Research Fellow. He proudly admits that the only revolution in which he is truly interested is that of his daughter, Livia, who rolled over for the first time while he was writing this column. He can be harangued at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.