Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Thomas Sowell, arguing against "nation-building and Wilsonian grandiosity," has written one of the better conservative critiques of the war in Iraq that I have seen in awhile. Its main strength is that it emphasizes the difference between freedom and democracy, a distinction that seems lost on our President.
Natan Sharansky's book "The Case for Democracy" argues persuasively for the international, as well as internal, benefits of democracy, seeing it as the kind of government that reduces the dangers of war.As desperately as that point needs to be hammered home, Sowell's lack of appreciation for deeper philosophic ideas limits his effectiveness.
President Bush became an enthusiast for the idea and spent hours talking with Sharansky in the White House.
Perhaps he should have spent a little time talking with Amy Chua, whose book "World on Fire" points out that democracy -- in certain kinds of societies -- is a recipe for disaster, despite how valuable it has been in Western nations.
Democracy means voting. It does not mean freedom. When we lump the two ideas together, we confuse ourselves and others.
Britain was a free country long before it became democratic. In Germany, Hitler was elected democratically. In much of Africa, democracy in practice has meant, "One man, one vote -- one time," as elected leaders put an end to both elections and freedom.
It would be wonderful to have free and democratic nations throughout the world, and that would very likely reduce military conflicts, as Sharansky and others say. But we do not ensure freedom by holding elections. [bold added]
For example, Sowell can only imply that something about Britain predisposed it to freedom and something about Germany predisposed it to tyranny. But what? And yes, arbitrarily tossing disparate peoples together into one country can lead to conflict, as in the examples he cites, but what of America, populated as it is by peoples from around the world who have been killing each other for centuries?
That "what" is at least an implicit respect for individual rights among the citizens of free nations. Sowell grasps at this when he says that, "Real nations evolve over time out of the mutual accommodations of peoples, not by imposing the bright ideas of theorists from the top down."
Indeed Sowell even sounds a little like an Objectivist in that quote, given how we are constantly hammering home the need for cultural change (i.e., the intelligent grasp and adoption of better philosophical ideas by the people themselves) before its politics will move towards freedom. But if he saw this, his article would have been more explicit about this point, and I have noted in some detail before his failure to appreciate the importance of abstract ideas and of intellectuals.
His disdain for ideas comes to full flower as the weed that chokes off his column -- causing it to end weakly. He argues admirably against nation-building, but not at all for what we ought to be doing in this war. " It is the terrorists' war, regardless of where it is fought." Yes. And ... ? Setting aside for the moment whether we should be in Iraq, this piece may not be a call for withdrawal, but it ain't exactly gonna rally the troops, either. Or sustain home front morale.
This war transcends international borders and national interests among our enemies precisely because it is an ideologically-motivated war. And one must appreciate the role of ideas in motivating our enemies if one is to know how to fight the war, including such tactical details as which country we ought to be in. Had Sowell appreciated this, he would have argued for a devastating attack on Iran regardless of where he stands on whether to stay in Iraq.
But instead, his column ends short of ideas and sounding rather pessimistic. Those who think Objectivists, for all our dismay at the improper prosecution of this war, sound like pessimists should think about this.
We sounded the alarm sooner because we saw that the war was being fought the wrong way sooner. And we sound angrier because we know what should be done instead. Most importantly, though, we are speaking up because we know that ideas (and a war based on an understanding of how they affect history) are not futile.
Sowell sounds like he is giving up the ghost here, which is a shame, because there is no substitute for victory, no reason to think it is impossible, and no reason to quit fighting for it.