Fighting for Other People’s Freedom
In the backlash against President Bush’s democracy agenda, conservatives are increasingly taking the lead. It is inherently difficult for liberals to argue against the expansion of social and political liberalism in oppressive parts of the world — though, in a fever of Bush hatred, they try their best. It is easier for traditional conservatives to be skeptical of this grand project, given their history of opposing all grand projects of radical change.
I’ve never met a liberal (or a conservative, for that matter) who opposed “expansion of social and political liberalism in oppressive parts of the world.” Many of both, however, doubt the wisdom and efficacy of using American military power to achieve it.
Traditional conservatism has taught the priority of culture — that societies are organic rather than mechanical and that attempts to change them through politics are like grafting machinery onto a flower. In this view, pushing for hasty reform is likely to upset some hidden balance and undermine the best of intentions. Wisdom is found in deference to tradition, not in bending the world to fit some religious or philosophic abstraction, even one as noble as the Declaration of Independence.
This is clever rhetoric but lousy history and philosophy. Yes, conservatives — and most rational students of history of whatever ideology — believe that there is such a thing as unintended consequences. There are countless examples, with the Iraq debacle only the most recent, where well-intentioned radical action to combat a problem created manifold other problems that were arguably worse than the one being addressed.
But who, exactly, is making the argument that the world should just be allowed to evolve on its own? Even the conservative “evolution, not revolution” view requires human action; it just emphasizes not biting off more than one can chew.
A conservatism that warns against utopianism and calls for cultural sensitivity is useful. When it begins to question the importance or existence of moral ideals in politics and foreign policy, it is far less attractive.
But who does this? Sure, the Realpolitik school that emphasizes national interest over morality. Thus, we weigh the power of a Soviet Union or a People’s Republic of China along with their bad deeds when considering our policy options. And we make common cause with bad actors in the Middle East in order to more effectively contain worse actors.
At the most basic level, the democracy agenda is not abstract at all. It is a determination to defend dissidents rotting in airless prisons, and people awaiting execution for adultery or homosexuality, and religious prisoners kept in shipping containers in the desert, and men and women abused and tortured in reeducation camps. It demands activism against sexual slavery, against honor killings, against genital mutilation and against the execution of children, out of the admittedly philosophic conviction that human beings are created in God’s image and should not be oppressed or mutilated.
The remainder of the piece is more of the same: slavery is bad, freedom is good, values matter. Nobody that matters opposes that agenda. The debate is over how to achieve those goals and which battles to pick.
Scott Lemieux agrees, at least on that point:
A lack of moral conviction on the trite question of whether liberal democracy is better than brutal dictatorship is not the issue. The problem Gerson is eliding by conflating normative and empirical skepticism is that our conviction that a social order is unjust is neither here nor there in terms of whether or not a half-baked military intervention is capable of replacing said unjust social order with something substantially better as a cost that wouldn’t be put to better humanitarian purposes elsewhere.
Ultimately, Lemieux believes “Gerson wants to be judged on intentions rather than results.” Brian Beutler echoes this, saying he’s “mistak[ing] moral certitude for the ability to actually accomplish anything.”
A disgusted Daniel Larison notes, too, that it’s not as if wars are without negative consequence:
What of the conviction that human beings should not be slain in wars of aggression, nor children ripped to shreds by cluster bombs (the “execution of children” is perhaps less abhorrent when the children are Lebanese or Iraqi), nor ancient communities uprooted and decimated by fanatics unleashed by ignorant meddlers?
Kim Zigfeld is much more favorably disposed to Gerson’s argument and wonders, “Who is more ‘conservative’ on democracy: Pat Buchanan or John McCain?” That, of course, is a matter of which definition one picks.
Kevin Sullivan fully embraces the “organic culture” criticism and points out that most of the Middle Eastern map was drawn by the West to begin with and therefore is far from a natural experiment.
Certainly, this must flow up from the people, and there must be the desire to have a democratic, civil society. But we mustn’t assume, for example, that this current regime ruling over the Iranian people stemmed from something organic. Their claim to power in Iran is really no better than that of the regimes and dynasties before them, and mustn’t be granted more legitimacy and respect than it deserves.
Sadly, you see this happening on both ends of the spectrum. As we’ve seen in the past, the progressives and the Ron Pauls of the world are working to push us further away from the world. Who knows if their voices will be heard in the next administration, but it’s something we should all be concerned about.
One could certainly argue, though, that the fact that a people aren’t in open revolt against a society grants the regime a de facto legitimacy. Or that, regardless of legitimacy, the internal affairs of other states are none of our business, not worth fighting for, unachievable by external military means, or some combination of those things. And, while “the Ron Pauls of the world” are decidedly unlikely to actually be put in charge — or even taken very seriously by the next administration — they would have a point in arguing that invading countries in order to foment democracy also tends to “push us further away from the world.”
Ultimately, it seems to me, traditional, hard-nosed Realism must be combined with a realization that political culture in faraway lands impacts us. Democracy and human rights promotion should be seen as a national security value-added rather than a justification for militarism. To the extent we can pressure rogue regimes to improve their human rights record through diplomatic pressure or economic carrots and sticks, preferably on a multi-lateral basis, it’s absolutely worth doing. Invading other countries as a grand experiment in social reform? Not so much.