The past few weeks have brought us dire news from Iraq, as a large terrorist organization has swept through northern Iraq. They call themselves ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). Currently, they are pushing towards Baghdad, although it seems likely that the capital itself will fall, at least quickly anyways, because of the strong shia presence in the city.
At work I came across a veteran of the war in Iraq, and his words really hit me hard. His thoughts were brief, but to paraphrase what he said, “what a waste.” What he said couldn’t be more accurate in my view. We went in to Iraq, initially to overthrow Saddam Hussein because he supposedly had weapons of mass destruction. When that came up short, it morphed into a war for democracy and freedom. Somehow, by force of arms, we would turn Iraq from an authoritarian society into a liberal democratic one. Looking back on this metamorphosis, I think we can deduce two things. A) the switch of emphasis from weapons of mass destruction to nation building was both an attempt to recover from the failure to find those weapons, as well as an effort to recover from the short-sightedness of the initial effort that does not seem to how taken a long-term view into account. We created a vacuum with no wmd’s so where do we go from here? B) The change in thought was in a very important sense, not conservative, but rather a very progressive notion, albeit one carried through by force. I do not mean that liberals or progressives supported it, but that it is consistent with the progressive, liberal view of history. Part of the progressive view is that leaving behind military force is part of that, where this was trying to move history forward through force. On B we must further elaborate.
The essential liberal, or progressive notion, at least going back as far as Thomas Paine, or Rousseau, if not further, is that we can apply human reason to anything and start from scratch, building a new society from the ground up, through complex processes of social engineering. It has been the conservative view since at least Edmund Burke, if not further back, that society and culture is an almost biological construct that has been slowly evolving and developing for hundreds and thousands of years. Societies arise and change through the development of new ideas and institutions that slowly work their way through. Sometimes those instances are dramatic, other times it is a very gradual process. About the time of the European (Continental, rather than British, Scottish, or American) Enlightenment, came the idea that took hold in the French Revolution that we could overthrow all the traditions and strappings that have come before us and we can start society from scratch through the application of first principles, abstractions, guided by the pure reasoning of experts alone. Although the effort in Iraq did not involve wholesale reshaping of society, it did involve trying to put in place a liberal democracy in a society that had been shaped by an authoritarian culture for thousands of years. To really take hold in that kind of culture, we would need to be there guiding the process for well over a hundred years, and even then it might not be a complete success. But the idea that we could bring about a liberal democracy in Iraq in seven years was, and is, preposterous.
The other side of the progressive coin, is that progress in history is inevitable. History is marching on (it’s the 21st century after all), and those who are in the way will get either rolled over, or left behind. Soon all the world will be awash in a glorious liberal democracy!!! (Most recently you could here this from Chancellor Angela Merkel referring to Putin’s taking of the Ukraine as nineteenth century politics in the 21st century, and that he is thus on the wrong side of history. In Iraq, we are supposed to believe that they were yearning for democracy and as soon as democracy caught on there it would spread like wildfire. This is exactly what many thought was happening during the so-called Arab Spring, but it has been shown to be in error as we have observed that it is next to impossible to overcome hundreds of years of culture (particularly authoritarian culture). Iraq is showing right now that this is true. It is looking very likely that Iraq will be split apart along certain factions. Prime Minister Maliki himself has been more of an autocrat than anything else, and norther Iraq is quickly acquiescing to the rule of ISIS.
A quote from Robert Persig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance rings true now more than ever. “If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There is so much talk about the system, and so little understanding.”
This also brings to mind a particularly pertinent though from F.A. Hayek, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”
It troubles me greatly to think that the sacrifices of over 5,000 men and women has been in vain. But imagining that we can fix this problem by sending 300 military advisors,maybe dropping a few bombs here and there, and telling Maliki how he needs to govern is a fools dream into Never Land.