Fighting for Other People’s Freedom

Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson defends the neo-conservative agenda — and trashes liberals and traditional conservatives — in a WaPo column entitled “Why Fight For Anyone’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.

Please follow and like us:
FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Christopher says:

    James,

    Who said that we invaded Iraq “as a grand experiment in social reform”? We invaded Iraq to combat terrorism. We have been very successful, and continue to kill terrorists EVERYday there! We have stayed in Iraq to create a democracy to show people in the middle-east that it is a better way. And it is! Yes, it costs a lot of money and some lives, but if we succeed, it could save countless American lives and others around the globe.

    Libs only care about their political party like it’s a football team. They could care less about the millions of Iraqis who lived in an oppressive regime. They don’t care about the millions who live or have lived under communism. Heck they don’t even care about Mexicans. Sure! Let them in to vote dem and pick lettuce. But to drive trucks? Heck no!

    Libs want to stick our heads in the sand about the threat of terrorism. All they are after is votes and power. THAT is terrifying!

  2. The Democracy Agenda…

    Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson has an interesting piece in today’s edition entitled: “Why Fight for Anyone’s Freedom?” It contains a neat discussion of the issues that animate this blog and might provide a good jumping-off point for discu…

  3. John Burgess says:

    Sometimes, kicking over the ant hill is the only reasonable-looking response. Chaos is ensured, for some period of time. What comes after is a gamble, but not necessarily a long-term loss.

  4. Cernig says:

    Gerson’s problem – indeed the whole neocon mindset’s problem – is that they cannot conceive of American outreach that doesn’t have a mailed fist on the end. That mindset isn’t limited to the neocons by any means, but it has reached it’s zenith (nadir?) there. Unfortunately, the foreign policy plans proposed by every main Republican candidate advocate more of the same.

    Regards, C

    P.S. James, that new job of yours is the best thing that could have happened for your blogging. There’s not a thing in this or the last two posts you have written that I, a Brit-style democratic socialist, would seriously disagree with. You’re in danger of following John and Andrew out of the once-was-big Republican tent 🙂

  5. Thanks for the link!

    I am really leery of progressives who hide behind so-called realism. Their version of “getting things done” is often really bad policy, and not very well thought out (see any number of posts on how we should deal with Iran).

    I think shaking up the status quo policy in the Middle East is a good idea, and I agree with the administration on that much (in theory, not so much in their application).

    It’s as if the critics seem to believe land for peace will fix the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, that “just talking” to Tehran will show true statesmanship.

    We’ve talked to these regimes for decades. We talked to Iran throughout the 90’s, when they were beginning to go nuclear. We sanctioned Saddam, while he routed oil-for-food in order to benefit his own coffers. We attempted reconciliation with thugs like Arafat and Abu Mazen. We dump far too many weapons and blank checks on the Saudis, who continue to be the Scholastic book club of Islamic extremism.

    Our pproach is flawed. Realism has failed in my mind, and it’s time to be more aggressive and firm. I think we need to talk with these regimes, but no more trucks for hostage chats at th fireside between Bill Richardson and (insert dictator). No more coddling of regimes with poor economies, poor human rights records and intolerant legal structures.

    Every government is not created equal. Our policy in the past was to play off of the petty, sectarian and violent world outlooked shared by leaders in that region. It didn’t matter that Arabs hated Jews, because Arabs would fight Ottomans. It didn’t matter if Saddam oppressed his own people, because he would kill Iranians. It didn’t matter that the Pahlavis were a hated and brutal dynasty, because they were better than a Soviet-friendly regime there.

    This needs to stop. This may involve some soul searching on our end, but as Gerson notes, I think it’s time to start declaring what is right and what is wrong, and work to supportthe former.

  6. anjin-san says:

    I think it’s time to start declaring what is right and what is wrong, and work to supportthe former.

    The implication is that we actually have the wisdom and the moral right to do so. Highly debateable…

  7. Anderson says:

    Realism has failed in my mind, and it’s time to be more aggressive and firm.

    As G’Kar at ObWi points out, “where, exactly, is the evidence that the United States’ troubles stem from a lack of toughness?”

    I agree with JJ’s post. Judicious *aid* to promising insurgencies is one thing. Spreading virtue at gunpoint is … well, it’s mindbogglingly stupid.

    N.b. the lessons of Afghanistan. We aided the insurgents as part of our Great Game against the Soviets, and when we’d “won the game,” we got out of Dodge. Had we followed through with aid and support, lord knows how different the world would look today … to say nothing of the Manhattan skyline.

  8. Christopher says:

    “followed through with aid and support”?!? Are you serious? We give TONS of it! Billions & billions!! Over and over and over! But hey, great armchair call though. If we had only listened to you 9/11 wouldn’t of happened.

    Fact is, Iraq is very important. Freedom and democracy will win the day. Always has, always will. Soldiers in Iraq kill terrorists everyday, while building schools and churches and helping children. No attacks on America since 9/11. Libs think we are lucky. Bush supporters know otherwise. Soon I’ll see all of you in the back of the line on the bandwagon. I’ll be the one yelling, “welcome!”

  9. Freedom and democracy will win the day. Always has, always will.

    That is a nice platitude, and I wish it were so, but if that is case please explain Viet Nam? Or, for that matter, the current direction Russia is headed ?Or the collapse of the Weimar Republic? Or any number of other cases?

  10. Anderson says:

    “followed through with aid and support”?!? Are you serious? We give TONS of it! Billions & billions!! Over and over and over!

    Ah, I’m sorry; I didn’t realize one could simply resort to making things up. I guess you win, then.

    Those preferring to argue from reality, however, would note that aid to Afghanistan dropped drastically after the Soviets were routed, and that America was largely indifferent to the country’s fate until well after the Taliban took over, by which time of course American aid was not a possibility.

  11. Anderson says:

    That is a nice platitude, and I wish it were so, but if that is case please explain Viet Nam?

    He left out “in the long run.” Works every time. (But see Keynes, J. M.)

  12. Anderson,

    Are you suggesting that Viet Nam is now a liberal democracy?

  13. Bandit says:

    The implication is that we actually have the wisdom and the moral right to do so. Highly debateable…

    Speak for yourself – most others are pretty clear on right from wrong

  14. Anderson says:

    Are you suggesting that Viet Nam is now a liberal democracy?

    No, no — that it *will* be 50 years from now, or 100, or 1,000! (Or, rather, I was suggesting that Christopher meant to do so, as that makes it impossible to say that the Vietnam War wasn’t a success for democracy.)

    My allusion to Keynes was supposed to point out the snark: “in the long run, we are all dead.”

  15. […] to Outside the Beltway, Perri Nelson’s Website, The Virtuous Republic, The Random Yak, DeMediacratic Nation, Big […]

  16. Bithead says:

    James,
    I share Christopher’s unease with your line:

    Invading other countries as a grand experiment in social reform? Not so much.

    like him, I would urge you to remember that the reason we invaded Iraq, and Afghanistan was not for reasons of some grand social experiment, but rather to control terrorism by removing several soemones who supported it, and removing iraq as a resource to terrorists who, with or without Iraqi governmental support…. I think with… …..were moving against us using terrorism.

    the grand social experiment to which you refer, came afterward, in terms of an answer to that question” “OK, Saddam’s gone, what now?” it would seem to make sense to put in place of the destruction caused both by Saddam and by our removal of Saddam with a society that was as free democratically speaking as possible. Can you imagine the reaction had we attempted anything less?

    ANd Stephen Taylor”

    That is a nice platitude, and I wish it were so, but if that is case please explain Viet Nam?

    Why, that’s easy.

  17. Empire State Building To be Lit for Muslim Holiday…

    Grotesque dhimmitude from NYC.New York’s iconic Empire State Building is to be lit up green from Friday in honor of the Muslim holiday of Eid, the biggest festival in the Muslim calendar marking the end of Ramadan, officials said. This…

  18. Cernig says:

    James,

    Bithead writes: “I share Christopher’s unease with your line.”

    See? Told you that you were swimming in shark* infested waters 🙂

    Regards, C

  19. Flag Burning Charges Seem Troubling…

    I guess that the Mexican flag gets more protection than the American flag some places here in the formerly United States. It caused some controversy, but it was supposed to. Now, one man is headed to municipal court for burning……

  20. IsnÂ’t This An Over-Reaction?…

    I donÂ’t know about you, but I find this shirt sort of funny – in a sick sort of way, of course. What I don’t find at all amusing is the over-reaction of the universities involved, and the chilling of……

  21. Bithead says:

    Gerson’s problem – indeed the whole neocon mindset’s problem – is that they cannot conceive of American outreach that doesn’t have a mailed fist on the end.

    As for you, You seem to have neglected to learn a very basic premise:

    Any bastion of freedom, including our own country, requires military strength to maintain itself. We know, for example, that both Iran and Syria have been playing their little tricks in trying to overturn this victory. We know with some reasonable assurance , that they’ve attempted on at least one occasion, recently, to deploy chemical weaponry to that end. Thankfully, that attack backfired. We know that Iran is busy chasing nuclear weaponry. It seems likely that the reports of 10,000 centrifuges to create such weapons is pure nonsense, and on that basis it seems more likely that they are obtaining their weaponry from elsewhere. Recent reports would seem to suggest that the PRK is supplying Iran. Frankly, that wouldn’t surprise me at all… the timing of the revelation is spot on with what one would expect were the PRK lying to the world about their own nuclear intentions.

    Does anyone really think that these two are going to behave themselves absent a strong U.S. presence in the region?

    Here’s the bottom line:

    Negotiation and capitulation do not bring peace. What brings peace is judicious use of high explosives pointed at those who would claim power over others.

  22. Tano says:

    “What brings peace is judicious use of high explosives pointed at those who would claim power over others.”

    I expect that that is exactly the sentiments of the insurgents and terrorists.

  23. Bithead says:

    Tano;
    Of course. Welcome to earth. Do you really consider that these terrorists would be peaceful, absent our being armed and willing to respond to threats?

    Consider, please; They could have started this nonsense many times in the past. Why now?
    The answer is because of a demonstrated weakness on our part.

    Look again at the link I put in my response to Stephen. Given that history, they knew all they needed to do was to get our own left… our weakness… going… and sit back and await victory which would be handed them.

  24. Hmm..Do we need God?…

    You won’t find many atheists feeding the hungry and ministering to the sick in places like Africa or Mother Teresa’s Calcutta.
    ……

  25. […] to Outside the Beltway, The Virtuous Republic, , The Random Yak, Stuck On Stupid, The Amboy Times, The Bullwinkle Blog, […]

  26. […] to Outside The Beltway, MoreWhat, Perri Nelson’s Website, The Virtuous Republic, Rosemary’s Thoughts, The […]

  27. Put on your (prayer) armor for Chris Muir & Family…

    It has come to my attention that our cartoonist, Chris Muir, is going through a family crisis (emergency) at this moment. I encourage everyone of you to post a prayer request or a request for encouragement through these difficult times. After all, he…..

  28. Ann Coulter misses the mark RE: Fred Thompson…

    Those who read here often know I like Ann Coulter.  She is frank and harsh but more often then not, right on the mark when she goes after the liberals in America.

    But not infallible, as this piece shows.  In this article she at…

  29. T-13, 1.45: 13 Things I Don’t Have Time for Today…

    Make that “13 Things I Don’t Have Time _or Energy_ for Today”
    ……

  30. How to ‘pretend’ you are serious…

    Considering the fact that this administration has never wanted to enforce our immigration laws, it comes as no surprise that the “linchpin” of their enforcement is being decided in one of the most liberal cities in the U.S. to assure its de…

  31. Right Truth says:

    ICE makes it to Memphis — finally!…

    A new fugitive operations team in Memphis: Illegal immigrants have historically faced little chance of being caught and deported if they make it to non-border areas like Memphis. But new immigration enforcement initiatives in the Mid-South likely mean …

  32. Jimmuh Chavez and Human Rights…

    What constitutes torture is subjective, which is one of the problems with defining what is allowed and what is not in U.S. interrogations……

  33. Christopher says:

    Why would I suggest Vietnam is a democracy? Or Russia?

    I am saying that when a country has a democracy, things work. It’s been proven time and again. But when the people give over to a dictator, thugs, mob rule or communism, you cannot have democracy.

    Steven, I’m surprised you can write without a brain. But…you are a liberal.

  34. […] to Outside the Beltway, The Virtuous Republic, , The Random Yak, Stuck On Stupid, The Amboy Times, The Bullwinkle Blog, […]