March 30, 2011

Who Is the Real Cowboy? Who Is the Real Utopian?

Less than two-and-a-half years after Barack Obama was elected to the presidency, this “anti-war” candidate is now leading his financially burdened country into a third war in the Middle East. It is to be expected that he should receive some share of criticism for this move from his fellow partisans; it is puzzling, however, that the very same Republicans who enthusiastically supported his predecessor’s military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan would be as critical of President Obama as they now are. The confusion thickens when we consider that just last week these Republicans were seizing upon his inaction vis-à-vis Libya as proof of his abdication of “leadership.”

Thus far, I am aware of two principle complaints that Republicans have leveled against Obama’s decision to interject America into Libya. The first pertains to the fact that the U.S. military is already significantly burdened; the second is that Obama has failed to specify the objectives he hopes to achieve by militarily intervening in but another Islamic land.

Not only do I share both concerns, I am staunchly opposed to this latest exhibition of government activism. Still, it is hard to escape the impression that these objections are smokescreens designed to conceal what amounts to nothing more or less than an exercise in Republican partisanship. My skepticism is no great mystery to solve: the very same conditions that now leave Republicans less than enthusiastic about Obama’s decision to bomb Libya did nothing to impede their support of President Bush’s decisions to bomb Afghanistan and Iraq.

And this is the point: although things aren’t exactly the same as they were in the past, they aren’t so appreciably different as to account for the difference in reaction to events then and now. America’s military had been stretched thinly even before we entered Afghanistan, and while waging war there, George W. Bush then turned around and deployed it to wage another war in Iraq. In neither place were objectives specified with the exactness that Republicans now (rightly) seek from Obama. Upon expending much in blood, treasure, and time in the Middle East, the situation in Iraq remains precarious. And in Afghanistan, matters are considerably worse, for confusion concerning our reasons for being there is coupled with a growing pessimism regarding our prospects for success.

But, I will be told, we entered Afghanistan because that is the place where, upon slaughtering 3,000 Americans, the terrorist organization Al Qaeda sought refuge courtesy of the country’s ruling class, the Taliban. Furthermore, the invasion of Iraq was no less in our nation’s interest than the invasion of Afghanistan, for it would have been just a matter of time before Saddam Hussein used his “weapons of mass destruction” against us.

While these reasons for our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq are sensible enough, they have long ago receded into history. If ever there was a time when this could said to have become abundantly clear, it was during President Bush’s second inaugural address. It may be recalled that it was during this speech that he famously (or infamously, depending on your view) declared his intentions to rid the world of evil so that the longing for freedom with which every human heart supposedly ached could at last be satisfied.

In other words, the objective in Afghanistan and that in Iraq were one and the same and could be summed up in one word: democracy. The United States was going to see to it that both of these ancient Islamic countries would become democratic.

Conservative critics – including myself – have typically objected to this plan on the grounds that it was utopian. Political institutions aren’t like pieces of machinery that can be rearranged at will, we said; rather, they are an expression of a people’s sensibilities, dispositions, and, in short, beliefs regarding themselves. Hence, it is positively foolish to think that something called “democracy” can be imposed upon a people who have never known it.

While Bush’s vision for the Middle East is indeed utopian, and while the nature of political institutions are as I describe them, this argument can no longer stand without qualification. The champions at home of Bush’s Freedom Agenda for the Islamic world (and beyond?) equate this “freedom” with “democracy.” What they suppose is that democratically constituted governments will pursue liberty for their citizens and peace abroad. But it is precisely this supposition that rests in an erroneous reading, not of human nature, but of political philosophy.

First of all, societies are not democratic; governments are.

Second, governments are democratic by reason, not of the ends that they pursue or the conditions that they encourage, but the manner in which their authority is constituted. Yet what a government does and how it has been authorized to do it are two entirely distinct issues. In other words, oppression and liberty are alike compatible with democracy, aristocracy, monarchy, or some combination of the three. That a government is democratically constituted, then, most certainly does not mean that it won’t be ruthlessly oppressive.

Since it is Obama, not Bush, who decided to launch a war without so much as a nod in the direction of Congress, it is he who is the real “unilateralist,” the real “cowboy.” However, to the extent that Obama hasn’t (as of yet, at any rate) indicated any plan to impose upon Libya his predecessor’s dream of Western-style freedom, it is Bush who is the true utopian.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D., blogs at Contact him at [email protected]

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