Democratization supporters moving toward the exits

(An earlier article by Richard Lowry has turned up in which he said clearly that President Bush’s “everyone wants freedom” idea is false. See discussion below. If you want to jump to the evidence that exculpates Lowry from my suggestion that he was taking out of the blue a position he had never taken before, just at the moment that Bush supporters were abandoning Bush, click here. However, Lowry’s bottom line is still incoherent, as explained here.)

In the last week of July Ralph Peters wrote a stunning column in the New York Post saying the Iraq government would very likely not be able to stop the Shia-Sunni violence, in which case our Iraq democratization project was finished. Morever, added Peters, this would not necessarily be such a bad thing, since civil conflict between the two main branches of Islam in Iraq meant that our enemies would be attacking each other instead of us (which further implied that Islam as such is our enemy). I said that this column, coming from such a bellicose democratist as Peters, portended a fundamental shift among the Bush supporters. On August 5, Thomas Friedman, a liberal supporter of Iraqi democratization, wrote in the New York Times that in the wake of our top generals’ grim testimony to the Senate Armed Service Committee about the growing possibility and reality of civil war in Iraq we should be thinking of pulling out of that country. And today, writing on the same page of the New York Post, Bush supporters John Podhoretz (“Iraq War Three”) and Richard Lowry (the piece is online at NRO) are backing away from the nation-building effort.

Lowry writes that Bush’s “freedom is the desire of every human heart” idea, which is the basis of our policy, is false, period. For example, Hezbollah supporters desire Israel’s destruction more than they desire freedom. To my recollection these are things Lowry has never said before. (One wonders where has he been for the last three years. Did he just figure this out? Well, better late than never.) Meanwhile, Podhoretz argues that while we won the initial conflict to defeat the Hussein regime, and that we won the second conflict to defeat the terror insurgency (really?), the sectarian violence represents a third war that we cannot win, and that it is not our responsibility to win. If the Iraqis will not settle their own affairs, there is nothing we can do about it. Podhoretz’s clear implication is that it would be no dishonor for us to give up on Iraqi democratization in the face of Iraqi civil conflict, especially after our having supposedly won both of the first two wars.

These turnabouts by Bush supporters do not mean defeat for our real interests, but the abandonment of an unworkable policy that has never been in our interests. Now that mainstream conservatives are admitting, or at least realizing, that the simplistic notions they have followed and disseminated for the last several years are false, or at least inadequate in the Iraqi context, they may be open to the sort of serious and thoughtful discussion they have eschewed in the past about the nature of our enemy and what we can do to defend ourselves from him. Specifically, if the U.S. does not maintain its presence in Iraq (or at least in central Iraq), if we pull out and let events in Iraq take their course, what should we do beyond that? It is time for a searching debate on strategic options, a debate to be conducted by people who want America to prevail against our jihadist enemies, but who realize that President Bush’s policy, notwithstanding the passion and commitment that many good people have put into it, cannot succeed.

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Reader N. quotes the Lowry column, adding: “I do not recall Lowry writing ANYTHING like this, EVER.”

Lowry writes:

Bush’s belief in the desire for freedom has influenced the policy of his administration in crucial ways. One reason that the administration hadn’t more seriously considered worst-case scenarios prior to the fall of Baghdad was that its thinking was soaked in the notion that once Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship was removed, the true nature of the Iraqi people would be revealed as freedom-loving democrats. Don Rumsfeld infamously justified the post-liberation looting as the natural exuberance of a newly freed people.

In this, they had forgotten conservative wisdom about the importance of institutions and culture. Even if people desire to be free, it does them no good unless their desire can be channeled through appropriate governmental institutions, which are excruciatingly hard to build up once they have been torn down. We are still working on the Iraqi police, and will probably be doing so for years.

And while, all things being equal, people surely prefer to live in freedom than under a dictatorship, culture ensures that things are never equal. Someone living in a tribal or traditional culture will view the world differently, and have different values, than an atomized individual in the West. He might value sexual purity more than freedom, thus insisting on the repression of women. He might value his religious conviction that all of the Levant should be Muslim-controlled over freedom and life itself. He might hate the dishonor of foreign occupation more than he loves anything.

LA replies:

If, as N. suggests, Lowry has never said anything like this, it raises an interesting question. Has Lowry just figured out this important truth recently, or has he known it all along, but refrained from saying it because he did not want to be seen as undermining the Bush policy, but now that a new consensus is developing that the policy is failing, it is “safe” for him to say it? If the former, it doesn’t say much for his intelligence, if the latter, it doesn’t say much for his honesty.

Such reflections put us in a quandary: since we want the democratization supporters to come out and speak the critical truth about it, we should not attack them when they do so. What then should we do? Do we just give them a “pass” for their three years of folly, in order to encourage them to be more forthcoming now?

It seems to me that there are different cases to be dealt with differently. In Podhoretz’s and Peters’s cases, they are responding to new facts, namely the worsening sectarian violence, which suggest to them that our effort may fail, whereas before they thought that our efforts could succeed. This seems intellectually honorable. But in Lowry’s case, he is saying that the central premise of our policy has been false from the start. If he just figured this out recently, it seems to me that he would have said so in his column. But he does not say so, which suggests that he has known it all along. But if he has known it all along, and did not say it (or said it only sotto voce), then he is someone who has remained silent (or at least soft-spoken) about a crucial truth for three years in order to adhere to a party line that he knew was false.

It would be interesting if someone would write to Lowry and ask him when he first realized that Muslims want other things, such as Islamic purity, more than they want freedom, and why he never said this before, or at least never said it with such definitiveness.

Laurium writes:

Oh, man! Are you ever right. I read the Rich Lowry editorial (excerpts below) and realize that GWB is a Dead Man Walking. Lowry is incredible. It is a “Bush’s policy” and “Bush’s misunderstanding” and “Bush’s belief,” and “Bush’s evangelicalism,” and “Bush’s simplistic beliefs.” Holy smokes, you would figure Rich was a card-carrying Democrat. Not the slightest suggestion that Rich ever believed that crap. No hint that he was a major policy pimp for the invasion. Utter and complete silence on his complicity, just like The Podster. “Who, me?”

And if I know my George W. Bush, he isn’t going to forget this betrayal … and that is precisely how he is going to see it: a betrayal, big time. I wonder what Malkin and Vic are going to do now? They are some of the few remaining true believers out there. They had better get with the program or they might find themselves sacrificed to the Gods of Political Expediency in a month or so.

Here are excerpts of Rich Lowry on Bush (emphases added):

If there is one bedrock conviction underlying President Bush’s foreign policy, it is that freedom is the desire of every human heart. Bush repeats the phrase at every opportunity, and it is the premise of his push for democracy in the Middle East and elsewhere … It might be simplistic, but that is often an advantage in political communication. … The problem with Bush’s freedom rhetoric is that it appears to not be true. … An evangelical Christian, Bush couches his belief in the universal hunger for freedom in religious terms. He often says that freedom is God’s gift to humanity. But it sometimes seems that he neglects what, for a Christian, is a central event in understanding human motivation, the Fall. Pride and hatred and fear are as likely to drive human behavior as any hunger for freedom. Bush’s belief in the desire for freedom has influenced the policy of his administration in crucial ways. One reason that the administration hadn’t more seriously considered worst-case scenarios prior to the fall of Baghdad was that its thinking was soaked in the notion that once Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship was removed, the true nature of the Iraqi people would be revealed as freedom-loving democrats. Don Rumsfeld infamously justified the post-liberation looting as the natural exuberance of a newly freed people…. For all these reasons, Hezbollah seems to have a better understanding of human hearts, at least in its part of the world, than the president of the United States does. … It would be nice if James Madison were by default the world’s favorite political philosopher. He’s not, because the human heart is more complicated—and twisted—than President Bush acknowledges in his rhetoric.

A reader writes:

I didn’t like what you wrote about Lowry, much too harsh for someone who more than John P and others has been much more insightful about what’s gone wrong with Bush ideas. I don’t know why you have to call someone dishonest without even knowing what his previous articles have been like.

LA replies:

I was trying to answer a question that impressed itself on me as a legitimate question. Everything I said was speculative and couched in “Ifs.” Lowry’s argument about Bush’s freedom rhetoric not being true was strikingly unlike anything I had seen him say before. But he stated this new idea blandly, as though this insight had had no genesis in his thought. That made it appear that he had had this idea all along, which raised the question why he had never said it before. Or, maybe it was a new idea for him, but he didn’t want to admit that because he didn’t want to admit that he’s changed his ideas, so he acted as if he’s always known it. Either way it’s dishonest: either it’s a new idea that he’s pretending he always had, or it’s an idea he’s had for years but withheld publishing until the Bush policy was in shambles and so it became safe to attack the policy.

As for Lowry’s previous articles, I did a search of his pieces at NRO and found nothing remotely like this. I found various optimistic pieces about how the war was going, but not a single article in which he reflected on the fundamental soundness of the Bush policy. It was all on the functional level of, “How’s the war going? How is it going right now?” And most of it was quite optimistic. Yes, he wrote a good cover article in NR around October ‘03, “What went wrong,” which I have referred to several times, but after that he became more upbeat. In any case, there was nothing of a general nature in which he wondered whether Bush’s statements about human beings and freedom is true

If I’ve missed things and Lowry has been making this argument all along, I will retract what I said.

LA writes:

As indicated earlier, my criticisms of Lowry were tentative, pending the discovery of further quotes that showed him criticizing President Bush’s freedom rhetoric. A reader sent me additional comments on the war written by Lowry in recent months under his own by-line or as NR editor.

The first is a book review on the books about the war, published in National Review on April 24, 2006.

All these books are ultimately unsatisfying because they tell an incomplete story. We don’t know how Iraq is going to turn out, even if we can already draw lessons from it. A key one for conservatives should be a renewed appreciation of the importance of culture and institutions—the former is durable and the latter is fragile. The Bush administration had it backward going into Iraq, believing that Iraqi political culture was easily malleable and that its governing institutions would survive what, in effect, was a war of revolution.

Lowry’s remark about the importance of culture is a good comment, but it’s rather vague, and is light-years short of his definitive rejection of Bush’s central idea that the love of freedom resides in every human heart. It adds up to saying that culture is harder to change than Bush realized. Ok, it’s harder to change, but Lowry is not saying it can’t be changed. And he’s not saying that Islam can’t be changed. All he’s saying is that it may take more work than Bush initially believed. That does not add up to a refutation of Bush’s belief about human nature.

In another book review in NR dated January 29, 2006,

For all our might, there are limits to American power. The United States hasn’t proven adept at nation-building (or, more precisely, state-building), the task that inevitably follows either preventive war (Iraq) or humanitarian intervention (Somalia, Haiti and the Balkans), America’s two chief forms of post-Cold War intervention. Bending another country’s culture and institutions to our specifications is inherently difficult.

The drift of this passage is similar to the one I just commented on. Lowry is basically saying, “Things are harder than Bush thought.” That is a far cry from saying, “Muslims don’t love freedom, they love Islam.”

Next, an NR editorial from February 2006:

If Iraq ever descends into a real civil war, we won’t have to debate whether it has happened. It will be clear for all to see. The military will dissolve into ethnic factions, and the government will collapse. That hasn’t happened, and so declarations of defeat in Iraq—of the sort our founder and editor-at-large William F. Buckley Jr. made last week—are pre-mature. That view could ultimately be proven right, but there is no way to know with certainty at this point. Throughout the Iraq war, NR has tried to temper the rival fatalisms of the Iraq optimists and pessimists. Victory in Iraq has never been inevitable or impossible. The outcome depends, as is always the case, on the choices made by the players, including ourselves. Even if our influence in Iraq is waning, our commitment—and the specific forms it takes—still matters very much. Defeatism will be self-fulfilling.

This is your standard NR presentation—balanced, level-headed, self-consciously striking a responsible middle ground between the extremes of the conservative movement. “Victory in Iraq has never been inevitable or impossible.” In other words, it’s a matter of soldiering on, a matter of (dare I say it) staying the course. So this is essentially the same as Bush/Rice, but with additional cautionary sounds added. There is no fundamental critique of the premise of Bush’s policy.

Thus so far, there is no precedent for Lowry’s stunning remark this week.

However, here is a column written by Lowry at NRO, “The ‘To Hell with Them’ Hawks,” March 20, 2006, in which he does challenge Bush’s beliefs:

The Palestinian elections have undermined Bush’s contention that all people everywhere desire freedom in their hearts. If this statement is interpreted in such a way as to make it true, it becomes non-falsifiable—to wit, all people really do desire freedom although it might not be evinced in any practical way, e.g., election results. If Bush’s belief is interpreted thus, it’s not terribly comforting since it means the universal desire for freedom is limited by circumstances and buried under cultural and institutional obstacles. In other words, this supposed universal desire won’t do us much good when people hold all sorts of other competing desires, including a hunger for order, power, religious purity, ethnic solidarity, national prestige, and revenge. All of which have been on display in Iraq.

Thus five months before his column this week, Lowry clearly stated that people, Muslims in particular, love other things more than freedom. In my view it took Lowry way too long to realize this, but things like the election of Hamas and the ongoing disaster in Iraq drove this truth home to him. He does have a history on this idea and he was not, as it initially appeared to me, coming out for the first time with a definitive dismissal of the Bush ideology at the moment that everyone seemed to be heading for the exits. As I said I would on further evidence, I retract what I said earlier about Lowry’s seeming to be dishonest in the way he dealt with this issue.

* * *

As a further index of Lowry’s thinking, in March NR published a moderate Islam manifesto, written by two Muslims, which falsely treats the Meccan suras of the Koran as authoritative (in fact they were abrogated by the later Medinan suras), and so presents Islam as a religion of peace and tolerance. Lowry published this disgraceful whitewash of Islam the same month he wrote in a more realistic vein that Iraqis care about such things as religious purity and revenge more than freedom. However, that’s not necessarily a contradiction. He could have believed that “true” Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance but that many Muslims do not follow “true” Islam.

* * *

Here is the penultimate paragraph of Lowry’s August 8 column in NRO, “The F Word,” in which he said that Muslims desire other things, such as the destruction of Israel, more than freedom:

For all these reasons, Hezbollah seems to have a better understanding of human hearts, at least in its part of the world, than the president of the Unites States does. This doesn’t mean that Bush should abandon the liberalizing thrust of his foreign policy. A democratizing Middle East offers the best alternative to the violent, dictator-plagued region of today. But his administration would be well served to focus on the particular instead of the universal, and talk more of the messy compromises and disappointments that are inevitable on the path to a better Middle East, even if we eventually get there.

So what’s Lowry’s bottom line? Does he support or not support Bush’s policy of pacifying the Mideast via democratization? Remember, Bush’s idea is not just that democratization would be a nice fillip on a pacified Mideast, Bush’s idea is that democratization is the indispensable condition for a pacified Mideast. If Lowry believes that Muslim democracy is doubtful and very likely impossible, then he has rejected the foundation of the Bush policy. But Lowry avoids clarity on that point, so as to stay on board with the administration. He rejects the main premise of Bush’s policy, while continuing to support the policy. It’s incoherent.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at August 08, 2006 06:59 PM | Send

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