Burke on Iraq

May 07, 2004

Timothy Burke has a crie de coeur looking at all the ways in which the Bush administration has taken steps in Iraq and the war on terror that undermine and destroy its stated goals. He is a far more eloquent writer than I am, and he blogs more rarely but with more effort on each piece - the overall effect powerful.

Burke opens his piece by replying to the people who argued that anyone who opposed the invasion of Iraq was in favor of Saddam Hussein's petit-Stalinism.

There is a struggle against terror, injustice, illiberalism. It is real. It will be with us all our lives. We must fight it as best we can. The people who backed the war in Iraq, especially the people who backed it uncritically, unskeptically, ideologically, who still refuse to be skeptical, who refuse to exact a political price for it, who refuse to learn the lessons it has taught, sabotaged that struggle. Some of them like to accuse their critics of giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Right back at you, then. You bungled, and you donít even have the grace or authentic commitment to your alleged aims to confess your error.
Everyone believes in the need to defend liberty, but Burke argues that the Bushies' policies have weakened liberty around the world while claiming to protect it, and that they have done so not just by misrepresenting the purpose of the war, not just by going in with a plan for a fast victory and no plan for a transition, but by the very nature of their attempt.
Liberalism and democracy do not come from formalisms slapped down on top of social landscape: they come from the small covenants of everyday life, and rise from those towards formalisms which guarantee and extend their benefits rigorously and predictably. Constitutions, laws, procedures: these are important. But they cannot be unpacked from a box alongside a shipment of MREs and dispensed by soldiers. They do not make a liberal society by themselves.
Instead, Burke argues, the process of teaching how to become a liberal society requires that the teachers expose themselves to the locals, showing by example what an open society means. And, by the very nature of this activity, this makes the teachers vulnerable to any opposition within the society. He identifies a paradox - you must open the door in order to teach democracy, close it in order to survive your stint as instructor.

I had a slightly different take on the humanitarian argument about the Iraq invasion - I argue that for a major American international intervention to be politically successful it must meet two distinct criteria: it must be a plausible humanitarian or just war action, and it must clearly serve America's realpolitik interests. One only, and that dog won't hunt.

So, Iraq can be explained as a humanitarian effort to rid the world of a brutal petty Stalinist. That is a good deed - he is not the worst leader in the world but he certainly makes the top twenty and anything that overthrows anyone in the top twenty and replaces them with something better is a good thing.

Iraq was also explained as a crucial step in the global war against terror, by a number of different justifications. Unfortunately, the war plan was focused on getting to Baghdad, not on achieving post-war policy goals, and the whole process is in danger of collapsing on realpolitik grounds.

What next? Unfortunately credibility is like groundwater - it accumulates slowly over time but can be drawn down and spent very quickly. I don't want to just wring my hands and say this is terrible, but I also want to have a day and will stop writing at this point. More later, next time I want to do some blogging to jump start my writing day.

Posted by Red Ted at May 7, 2004 09:06 AM | TrackBack

I'll have to go read that piece, but my initial thought is that we show by example what an open society is each and every day in America. If we've accomplished that step just by being, then the war was necessary to cause the regime change so that we could begin to install the foundations into a society where it wasn't possible before.

Posted by: Ted at May 7, 2004 01:51 AM

I agree with both thoughts. First, that you can't justify a "humanitarian" intervention without a pressing--we're not talking speculative, or based on thin intelligence--realpolitik security interest. Otherwise, there is absolutely none, zero, zilch way to distinguish Hussein's Iraq from about ten other regimes around the world in terms of humanitarian crisis.

Second, that the best way to teach liberalism is to live it. Which we were doing a reasonable job of until the current Administration came into power.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at May 7, 2004 09:38 AM

Well, the second to last thing I would want to do is teach another country liberalism; the last is actually live it myself. So I don't really have a problem there.

As for Iraq, I think we're done. Oh, the shooting and shouting will go on for some time -- decades, perhaps -- but any hope we had of stabilizing the region was murdered at Abu Ghraib.

Posted by: DFH at May 10, 2004 05:46 AM

I don't agree that we're done for in Iraq. Yep, a few (relatively few) soldiers screwed up, but once again the whole world is seeing how we're dealing with the problem - openly and fairly. All the spinning in the world (from any side) falls short of the reality: the bad guys are being punished. Again. And this time the bad guys were our soldiers, and they're *still* being punished.

Posted by: Ted at May 11, 2004 02:20 AM
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